The victims of violence and aggression know the secret: the attackers are never more dangerous, more deadly, than when enthralled by their own juvenile fantasies.
David Obey, hoarse and choked with emotion, told his fellows on the floor of the House yesterday that their vote for the next hundred billion dollars for war would send the Iraqis a clear message that "we are going to end the permanent, long-term babysitting service."
Jack Murtha, angered by the disproportionate burden American troops have had to bear in this war, said passage of the supplemental funding bill was necessary because "we want to force the Iraqis to fight their own war."
Rahm Emanuel said that we must "demand that Iraqis stand up for Iraq’s future and stop leaning on the United States."
Democrats spoke of our brave young men and women, "America’s heroes." Iraqis were warned that "Americans do not have unlimited patience."
Last spring I sat one evening for several hours across the table from a young Marine, Stephen Webber. He was finishing up his final semester at Saint Louis University. He’s a bright guy, reads voraciously, was studying Arabic. He had joined the military after September 11th out of a conviction that the country’s defense should not fall to the poor and poorly educated. He had already been to Iraq, first guarding the perimeter of Abu Ghraib prison and then in Fallujah. He’s a sniper.
Over dinner Stephen cited Juan Cole, talked of our disastrous policies in the Middle East. He had spent the previous couple of months trying to drink himself to death after receiving notice that his unit had been called back. "It’s OK, though, I’ll be fine." Later, standing outside on the curb, he asked me if I wanted to hear some of the rap poems he had been working on. As café goers sidled by, making their way to nearby sidewalk tables, the emotion poured out in a white-hot voice, just above a whisper. I listened. In the car on the way home I asked about "the empty bottle and the gun to the head." "Oh, that’s just poetic imagery."
He had spoken in several of my classes. "Nothing good happened in Iraq," he told his curious peers, as he pointed to projected images of himself in a sniper’s nest. "Oh, and this is what you see through the scope," as we viewed the target superimposed on the back of a head. "You’ve all studied philosophy. What do you think about this situation? Sometimes Marines will offer a kid some candy or money to walk down the road ahead of them to check for IEDs. An IED can do an awful lot of damage to a little kid."
Stephen Webber is a war criminal. He knows it. "How many people do you think I’ve killed?" he would ask his friends during drunken forays. On that spring evening last year, his personal fantasy was the belief that his path to salvation lay through yet more war. "When I get back I am going to be so anti-military, but I can’t abandon my buddies."
Stephen Webber left for Iraq last summer and is in Fallujah now. ("What was he thinking?" a friend asked.) In December his mother sent mini Christmas trees for everyone in Stephen’s unit and keeps us connected through regular email updates. She signs them "Semper Fi." That’s her fantasy, a talisman against her own worst nightmare.
David Obey, Jack Murtha, Rahm Emanuel. They are all war criminals. Do they know it?
They trade in nursery tales, crafted by and for the deadliest kids on the planet. Plans to end a war by setting a "date certain" that is eighteen months hence and hundreds of billions of dollars later. And after how many sniper’s triggers pulled? "The language we have in the resolution ends the authority for the war," Obey said a couple of weeks ago. "You don’t have to defund something if the war doesn’t exist." War is peace by fiat. The deadliest of childish fantasies.
For the past eight weeks nearly a hundred of us here in Saint Louis have taken direct action against the war as participants in the Occupation Project. Day after day we’ve sent delegations into the offices of Russ Carnahan and Claire McCaskill to ask them to vote against any new funding for the war. We told them that we were prepared to wait for their answer, and dozens of us ended up in jail as a result.
Within minutes of yesterday’s vote in the House, George Bush laid down the smack. "Democrats have sent their message. Now it’s time to send their money."
Until the votes were cast yesterday, I was taking some small comfort in the fact that I lived in one of the few districts in the country with a Democratic representative who was voting against new war funds. Ultimately, though, Lacy Clay (D-MO) succumbed to the party’s pressure.
Now new challenges lie before us. Hard ones. The Occupation Project helped many of us shed some naiveté, but each of us still struggles inside fantasies every bit as powerful as those that yank Stephen Webber back to Iraq and cause David Obey to rant on about what’s doable. We are the good guys.
So, the question we’ve been asking each of our elected representatives-"will you oppose any new funds for this war?"-we must now put to ourselves. Will everyone who participated in the Occupation Project or who worked to block new war funding now make a public commitment to withhold our war taxes this year? We have begun that conversation here in Saint Louis. (You’ve had your symbolic protest, says Bush, now hand over the cash.)
And, what about the troops? What are the next steps? Many have been working in critical counter-recruitment efforts. The collaboration between Veterans for Peace, Military Families Speak Out, and local peace groups in the Occupation Project has heightened our awareness. Fellow Missourian Tina Richards has made the halls of the Rayburn building her home for the past two months, talking to every Congressperson she can corner about the effect two tours of duty in Iraq has had on her son Cloy. Russian mothers began boarding trains and traveling to Chechnya where they physically snatched their sons from the middle of battle and bundled them home. Why not us?
We are all war criminals. The peace movement will become a formidable force if we continue in the struggle to name that brutal reality, take responsibility for it, and make reparation. It’s our only salvation.
ANDREW WIMMER is a member of the Center for Theology and Social Analysis and teaches courses in peacemaking and social justice at Saint Louis University. Most recently he has been involved in the Occupation Project in Saint Louis (www.occupationstl.net). He can be reached at email@example.com.