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When Ann Wright’s letter of resignation from the Foreign Service was posted on the Internet the day the Bush Administration commenced Operation Iraqi Freedom, it served as an eloquent refutation of the case for war. For the past three years, the former U.S. Army colonel and diplomat has been active in the peace movement, working closely with Cindy Sheehan at last summer’s Camp Casey. On Valentine’s Day, she spoke with Counterpunch by cell phone from New Orleans, where she and Sheehan were lobbying local, state and federal officials to relocate displaced residents in existing public housing.
TH: Tell us about your current activities.
AW: Right now I’m with Cindy Sheehan. For the last couple of days we’ve been speaking on the need to end the war, tying together the double tragedies of the U.S. going into Iraq as an act of aggression and the waste of U.S. monies in that illegal, immoral war and the lack of resources, the lack of leadership and management when we have a national tragedy here in our own country.
The people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are suffering incredible problems trying to regain their lives. We’ve got a whole section of our country that’s on its knees, that has no housing, no schools and no health clinics because of the ineptitude of the federal government. Of course, the state and city haven’t done a heck of a lot better. But we’ve got tremendous resources that should be available from the federal level through FEMA. We had such plain gross negligence in preparing for the hurricane, and then the post-disaster scenario, and now the President is proposing a budget that asks for $128 billion for the war in Iraq and only $18 billion for Gulf Coast reconstruction and cuts $49 billion in social programs.
We need to end the war in Iraq and bring the troops home to be available to take care of our own people if we have natural disasters here. It’s just a tragedy on all levels that the reorganization of the federal government after 9/11 has crippled us rather than made us stronger.
TH: After 9/11 you were part of the first State Department team to return to Kabul to reopen the U.S. Embassy there. Are reports accurate that suggest the civilian population suffered the most from U.S. military action in poor, beleaguered Afghanistan?
AW: Well, yeah. Anytime the U.S. government goes to war the precursor of ground troops is always aerial bombardments, and as much as the Air Force likes to say that these are precision-guided munitions that cause minimal collateral damage to civilian populations, it ain’t true. Any time you drop a bomb you’re going to kill anything that’s around it. And they cannot control what types of people are around there.
Look at the Shock and Awe in Baghdad and the gratuitous destruction of buildings and infrastructure. There was no need for it. After 10 years of a “no fly zone” over Iraq–including Baghdad–the U.S. had taken out by Air Force missions everything that could possibly have harmed us. Shock and Awe was like a Blitzkrieg. It was unnecessary destruction of civilians and civilian property, in my opinion.
TH: What’s your take on the use of weaponry that includes depleted uranium?
AW: Well, most of the bombs that the U.S. uses have DU in them. It’s a way that the U.S. has decided to get rid of uranium byproducts. We give it away to the munitions industry and they use it because it’s a dense material that heightens the impact of shells. We use it in virtually every type of bomb that the Air Force has and in most of the artillery shells that the Army and Marine Corps use. So we are polluting all of the areas we go to. And if you look at the unexplained Gulf War sickness, 10 to one it’s probably DU that’s causing it.
The Pentagon is slow to undertake any substantive studies on the effects of DU but uses the lack of studies to justify withholding compensation for the healthcare costs of returning veterans suffering the effects of exposure to DU.
Yeah, the U.S. military ought to go on strike! And I say that as a 29-year veteran of the military. The military ought to go on strike and demand that until appropriate studies are done we stop using that stuff. The people being injured are not only the civilians in the countries we go into but our own military.
When you’re in the military you shut up, you don’t question the orders that you’re given. But I tell you right now, if I were still in the military I’d be marching outside with a placard saying, “Test every person that comes back from Iraq and Afghanistan.” It is uranium, it is radioactive and there are effects. It boggles my mind that after all the years we’ve been using it the U.S. military says we’re studying the problem. Well, that’s unacceptable.
TH: You bring up an interesting point. You’ve written that as a career military person you “held your nose” on a couple of occasions and followed the orders you were given. At some point, though, doesn’t a soldier have the right–and the ethical obligation–to question orders that contravene international law?
AW: They certainly do, although the reason you see them not standing up is because they get the hell slapped out of them when they do. You can disobey an illegal order and of course the sergeant or colonel that gives it to you says it’s legal and then you as a private have to say you can’t do it. Then you risk everything. We do have some people who are willing to do that but the system is set up so that it’s very seldom that they do.
TH: What’s your take about the state of our union?
AW: I’m very concerned about it. I think we are in serious trouble. We have a president and an administration that think that bullets and bombs, not words and peaceful actions, are what make America safer. I think we are faced with a critical budget crisis. This administration is mortgaging the future of at least one if not two generations by its incredible stupidity–cutting taxes for the rich and spending it all on corporate greed associated with the great war machine. We have outsourced the jobs of America. I don’t know what future high school and college graduates have now. We’ve got to bring back jobs to America, start taxing people who can afford to pay so we can have services for the people of America. I am distraught about our image in the world because we are known as warmongers. We’re known as arrogant, rude killers who don’t care about the rest of the world. Environmentally, we are in the biggest doghouse in the world. I am not pleased at all with the state of the union.
TH: What about the culture of corruption that seems to be part of the Bush Administration?
AW: Oh, it’s horrendous. It is one of the hallmarks of this administration and it is just so over the top that you couldn’t write a novel that would have any crazier things happen than what these guys are trying to get away with, and unfortunately getting away with.
TH: This March marks the third anniversary of not only the invasion of Iraq but also your resignation from the Foreign Service. Re-reading your resignation letter now, it seems prescient.
AW: It’s so sad. It wasn’t just me who knew what was going to happen. Anyone who’d been around the Middle East knew exactly what was going to happen.
TH: What’s your exit strategy for Iraq?
AW: What the U.S. needs to do is to tell the Iraqi government that we will be leaving in two months, four months–pick the date–but in the meantime please, you, the Iraqi government, contact any of the international community that you want to have work with you. Let them work out who’s going to come in and who’s going to provide whatever level of security they feel they need.
The U.S. says OK, we’re going to put in escrow a certain number of billions of dollars that will repair what we broke. And you all figure out who you want to contract to rebuild. If you want Iraqis to rebuild the stuff–which they certainly are capable of doing–hire Iraqis. Let’s get all these construction firms and everybody that was in business before–let them work on their own country. And we back out. It’s a hard thing for the Bush Administration to do–they’re loath to do it–and that’s where we come in. People need to put pressure on Congress to stop funding the war and, in my opinion, to impeach the President of the United States. I think that’s the only way you can get rid of him and his ideas. There’s certainly plenty of evidence that he has broken international law. He has committed crimes against humanity and war crimes.
TH: Is the peace movement effective?
AW: Yes. There are eight or 10 veterans of the Iraq war running for Congress and virtually all of them oppose the war. In the meantime we’re putting pressure on the sitting Congressmen and women to get some backbone and vote against the defense budget and vote to bring the troops home. Slowly but surely we’re making progress on that.
It’s been a real groundswell since August. It’s still not big enough, but if you look at where we were in August before we started Camp Casey and then look at where we are now, there’s a glimmer of hope that we may be able to effect change and end this war. I personally think we have to close down Washington. [Laughing] I think we gotta get in there, block all the roads, trap them and tell them they can’t leave until they change their policy.
THOMAS P. HEALY is a journalist in Indianapolis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org