Earlier this week, the American Friends Service Committee asked me to speak about finding hope in hard times as part of an interfaith service to conclude their “Eyes Wide Open” display in Chicago’s Grant Park. The display arranged 3,438 soldiers’ boots to commemorate U.S. military people killed in Iraq, along with life sized pictures of Iraqi civilians and a collection of numerous civilian shoes to remember hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have been killed in Iraq since 2003. I asked the audience to join me in recalling experiences I had while imprisoned at the Pekin Federal prison for “crossing the line” at Fort Benning, Georgia.
May 1, 2004, marked the first anniversary of President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier. I was in a prison library trying to write an article about that boastful declaration when several women prisoners urged me to hurry over to a TV room for the breaking news on CNN. “Kathy, you gotta come and see this,” they said, their eyes widened with alarm. “It’s awful, what’s going on over there in Iraq.” CNN was showing the first pictures that emerged from Abu Ghraib, images now indelibly embedded in peoples’ memories all over the world: the hooded man; the pyramid; the man on a leash; the man and the dog.
The women I knew in prison could readily identify with shame and fear felt by prisoners in Abu Ghraib. They understood all too well what it meant to feel humiliated, isolated and out of control. But the tears they shed that morning were fueled by their fundamental patriotism. “What’s happening to our country?” they asked.
In response, several women told the warden that they wanted to gather together on the oval track, each day, at sunrise and at sunset, for a special time of prayer. The warden agreed to this, and so began an extraordinary prayer circle.
Here are some of the prayers I recall: “I want to pray for my kids. I ask God to please look after them. And I just want to hold up the children in Iraq, because I know they’re suffering a lot.”
“I want to pray for my children and also for the children of the guards working in this prison.”
“Lord, I pray for all of the children of all of us here, and I pray for all of the U.S. military people in Iraq who are separated from their children.
“It’s so hard for parents and children to be far apart. I just want to pray for every family separated by this war and especially for the kids whose parents won’t ever come home.”
“I pray for parents who’ve lost their kids.”
Over the days and weeks, the prayer circle steadily grew. By the time I left the prison, close to one hundred women were regularly gathering to pray for peace, for freedom, and for an end to war.
I’ve done time in maximum security and minimum security prisons in the United States, and I still don’t know where they keep “the bad sisters,” but I surely know something about criminality. The most dangerous criminals in the United States today are those who profit from and prolong the war in Iraq.
Nobel economist Dr. Joseph Stiglitz calculates that the war in Iraq, if it continues another eight years, will ultimately cost the U.S. economy 2.2 trillion dollars. It’s shocking to think of what we’ve lost in dedicating this expenditure to war, rather than to domestic and foreign aid which could save millions of lives lost to hunger and illness, or, say, to renewable energy development which might save hundreds of millions from economic and environmental disasters now clearly on the horizon. Who are the criminals?
Many people argue that the troops are stabilizing conditions in Iraq. When I hear earnest concerns for Iraqi civilians, I can’t help but wonder why these concerns were so absent when economic sanctions against Iraq directly contributed towards the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children under age five. Have we now a new slogan? “No Iraqi child left behind!”
A May 8th, 2007 “Save the Children” report stated that in 2005, in Iraq, 122,000 children didn’t reach their fifth birthdays. Conditions can’t have improved in 2007 as we learn from the World Health Organization that 80 percent of Iraqi families have home sewage facilities that contaminate their water sources, and 70 percent of families don’t have regular access to clean water; as a result diarrhea and respiratory infections now account for two thirds of the deaths of children under age five. Twenty one percent of Iraqi children are now chronically malnourished. (New York Times, April 18, 2007). The report also notes that 70 percent of Iraqis who die in hospitals after violent injuries would have survived if the hospitals were adequately equipped.
From 1996 through 2003, Voices in the Wilderness delegations delivered duffel bags filled with medicines and medical supplies to Iraqi hospitals during the years when the US and the UK insisted on maintaining brutal economic sanctions against Iraq. The U.S. Treasury Department accused us of acting criminally. Recently, the New York Times noted that Chevron, the second largest U.S. oil company, paid $20 million dollars “under the table” to Saddam Hussein’s government in return for obtaining lucrative contracts, all in violation of the economic sanctions. (May 8, 2007) Condoleeza Rice, then a member of Chevron’s Board of Directors, chaired the corporation’s Public Policy committee when Chevron initially began paying the illegal surcharges. This was the committee charged with oversight of international contracts.
During a period when the Treasury Department hauled Voices in the Wilderness into court several times and ultimately fined us $20,000 dollars, (a sum we have refused to pay), they never went after Chevron.
We don’t want to see a single executive that has profited from economic and military war against Iraq go to jail. But we do want to see them rehabilitated.
The women in prison did what they could in response to feeling overwhelmed by the war in Iraq. They prayed for a kinder and saner world and in the very act of uttering prayers they helped build a more sane perspective on the horrific harms and risks incurred by ongoing war in Iraq.
When I left the Pekin prison, Sherrie, a prisoner trusted and esteemed by prisoners and guards alike, drove me to the bus station. As we passed the high security prison for men, where the median sentence length is 27 years, she placed her hand on mine. “I know you care a lot about those people over there in Iraq. At least our boys aren’t over there,” said Sherrie, an African American woman. “Our boys are all in there.” I don’t know if Sherrie’s words can be backed up demographically. But over the past few years I’ve puzzled over her words and I think I finally understand what she meant. I think she meant that even the darkness of spending decades in a prison is preferable to the risk of killing or being killed in a foreign war to protect criminal interests of an empire.
This summer, the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate will be asked to appropriate another $145 billion dollars to pay for ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Analysis of the Department of Defense Budget Materials shows that tens of billions of dollars will be spent on Humvees, Armored Security Vehicles, Bradley vehicles, Stryker vehicles, and Abrams tanks. The earliest expected date for delivery of these items is in 2009, by which time the U.S. people are becoming quite determined that U.S. troops should be home. (see www.vcnv.org for analysis of Iraq and Afghanistan Supplemental Spending, Fiscal year 2008).
We “free” people face an urgent challenge to end U.S. government spending that will prolong the war in Iraq. Refusing to collaborate, we can and must use our freedoms; we can insist that elected representatives draw the purse strings shut and oppose any further funding for war. And along with taking a cue from the women who did what they could on the oval track at Pekin prison, we can heed Eduardo Galeano’s observation of a graffiti message he once saw painted on a wall: “Let’s save our pessimism for better times.”