To End the War, Listen to Soldiers

As the second anniversary of the war on Iraq approaches and the death toll of U.S troops tops 1500, many soldiers return to our communities. To end the war, we must listen to their war stories rather then rely solely on peace marches. This challenge requires that we step outside of our comfort zone and talk to people whose political views may differ from ours. We ought to expose ourselves to the reality of war as experienced by our friends, neighbors and coworkers. Those of us who have organized and participated in countless peace demonstrations over the years are well aware that these public displays of discontent and conviction rarely attract people who are not already sympathetic to our plight.

Yet, around the country, peace and justice organizers are busy organizing marches, demonstrations, and community gatherings for March 19, 2005, which has been declared an international day of action against the war. Invoking the massive demonstrations of millions around the world on February 15, 2003, organizers insist that it is crucial for the peace movement to wake up and send a strong message to the Bush administration and to the American public that the war must end now!

Taking to the streets in a country where too many people care more about so-called reality TV than about the reality of war, is important. People need to be reminded that we are at war and that we, individually and collectively, are responsible for the killing of as many as 198,000 Iraqi civilians, according to a recent issue of the medical journal The Lancet. But peace demonstrations and public gatherings are not enough to illustrate that reality, let alone to question the militarization of our foreign policy.

In fact, most peace activists would admit that they harbor no illusions that administration officials are going to listen, let alone end the war and bring the troops home. At best, anti-war demonstrations may re-energize the peace movement. But to avoid the paralysis that struck the movement when the Bush administration ignored the 2003 massive peace demonstrations around the globe, we must use any event marking this sad anniversary to expose the realities of war.

Rather then appealing to the deaf ear of this callous administration, we should listen to those most affected by the war in our society: soldiers who fought in Iraq and have been returning in large groups to our communities these days. We should not compete with the military or with groups in our communities that are celebrating the return of the troops home with medals, honors, and fanfare but often fail to listen to the battle tales of individual soldiers. Instead, we ought to reach out as individuals to family members, friends, neighbors and coworkers who witnessed and participated in this war. We need to listen to their first-hand horrific experiences. We should ask them to describe in as much detail as possible, what they witnessed and did in the war and what the war did to them, recognizing that for most, this was the most intense, and probably traumatic, experience of their lives.

It is not the time, nor our role, to judge or educate these soldiers. They do not need us to tell them that they participated in a futile war, nor to lecture them about the real reasons behind it. Most of them know experienced the futility of this war on their bodies, pondered the lies behind it in their minds and had to fight with anguish, frustration and fear in their hearts, whether they admit it publicly or not. Listening to these stories as difficult as they may be, will enable us to better reach out to and to communicate with those who don’t yet share our sense of urgency to end this war. Further, these personal accounts, shared in private settings, are invaluable because it is such uncensored stories that the mainstream corporate media, which has been embedded with (or rather in-bed-with) military units has failed to share with the public.

The public debate that took place in this country at the height of the War in Vietnam and eventually contributed to its end was ignited as much by the soldiers who returned from the battlefield and shared their hellish stories as by the anti-war movement. By listening to the stories of soldiers who have fought in Iraq, we do not condone the inhuman actions they may have participated in, nor the war. Instead, we expose the reality of war and its devastating effects not only on its victims but on its perpetrators as well.

One of soldiers interviewed in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 states: “When you kill someone, you also kill a part of yourself.” This is not a message that military recruiters share with the vulnerable youth they are trying to desperately recruit. Unfortunately there is very little we can do to undo the massive death, destruction, and human suffering caused by this war. Listening to soldiers’ accounts may help us mobilize a larger segments of American society to end the war in Iraq and stop the senseless loss of life. In this dark moment in our history, soldiers’ war stories have more of a chance to offset the beat of the Bush Adminstration’s war drums then the anti-war slogans we have been chanting at peace demonstrations.

SIMONA SHARONI is the 2004-2005 Savage Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Oregon, where she has been conducting research on and teaching about the relationship between race, gender and militarization. A veteran of the Israeli army and a leading peace activist, she is the author of Gender and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The Politics of Women’s Resistance.