Prison for a Peacemaker

The war in Iraq is the longest war in US history, even longer than Vietnam when one considers the first Gulf War extending through the sanctions (with interruptions for bombing, such as Clinton’s “Desert Fox”), to the illegal 2003 invasion and current occupation. So from 1991 through 2007 we have continuous war in one form or another for sixteen years.

Through it all, Kathy Kelly has promoted peace for the Iraqi people and attempted to counter the brutal sanctions that, according to UN reports, directly contributed towards the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children. She has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times, and spent time in prison for her actions. In this interview she tells the story of her struggle for peace, human rights, and social justice together with resulting experiences in jails and prisons in the Land of the Free.

She is interviewed by JACK BALKWILL, a Vietnam Vet.

JACK BALKWILL: When did you first go to Iraq, and what was your purpose?

Kathy Kelly: In January 1991, I joined the Gulf Peace Team, an international group of peace activists encamped on the Iraq side of the Iraq-Saudi border. I landed in Baghdad on the last plane allowed into the country prior to the war. Traveling by bus to the desert camp, we passed through Kerbala, in southern Iraq. Our team was mesmerized by the city’s beauty. Students, gowned and graceful, sauntered along palm-tree lined University streets. Mosques shimmered in the sunlight. All of us voiced a hope that we could one day return to Kerbala.

The Gulf Peace Team camp was already humming by the time I got there. Latrines had been dug, tents were set up, food preparation and clean up tasks were assigned, and in spite of language and cultural differences people were learning about each other.

During the night, on January 16th, 1991, the U.S. began bombing Iraq. 72 of us, from 18 different countries, crawled out of our tents and huddled together, watching planes fly overhead almost once every five minutes.

As the ground war approached, there was more of a chance that we actually would be in the way of invading U.S. forces. On January 28, Iraqi authorities evacuated us to a hotel in Baghdad.

In Baghdad, there was very little electricity available. However, in the women’s restroom there was a light. I went there to write and read, from time to time, and there met mothers and children.

The mothers were very friendly to me, and the children, after initial shyness, were glad to play. Sometimes I’d see them again, in the hotel’s basement bomb shelter, late at night, when the bombing was more intense. Fathers held children in their arms and reassured them. But the men’s faces showed unmistakable anxiety and fear.

We found an old typewriter, abandoned by journalists. It lacked a typewriter ribbon, but I had learned, in Nicaragua and in prison, that if you place a sheet of carbon paper in front of a clean sheet of paper, it will function like a typewriter ribbon. We melted a candle onto the typewriter and soon I was able to produce our team’s statement about why we were in Baghdad.

An Iraqi official spotted me managing to type something and soon returned with a document he needed typed in English. We were reluctant, at first –was it right for a team claiming neutrality to assist an Iraqi government official? We asked to read the letter. It was a letter to then Secretary General of the United Nations Javier Perez de Cuellar, asking him to seek an end to bombardment of the Iraqi highway between Baghdad and the Jordanian border.

This road was the only way out for refugees and the only way in for humanitarian relief supplies. Our team had traveled on this road for some distance, en route to Baghdad, and had seen charred and smoking vehicles. Our bus drivers would swerve to miss craters in the road. It was a very dangerous route.

We agreed to type the letter, knowing that according to Geneva conventions warring parties must provide a way out for refugees to exit and a way in for humanitarian relief. The official returned with crumpled stationery, signed by a cabinet level official, and carbon paper that had been used five times over.

Imagine cabinet level correspondence being typed by an extranational from the country bombarding you, on wrinkled stationery, using an abandoned typewriter”working by candlelight.this is what Iraq’s government was relying onthen imagine the support available to the Pentagon.

On January 31st, in Baghdad, a bomb hit the servant’s quarters of the hotel where we were housed. Iraqi authorities again loaded us onto buses, after stamping visas into passports of 33 members who had asked to stay with families in Baghdad. They told us we would be welcome to visit Iraq some other time. We traveled by bus along a major Iraqi highway leading to the border crossing between Iraq and Jordan.

Desert Storm continued. We called it Desert Slaughter.

Many of the Gulf Peace Team members returned to their home countries to campaign for an end to the relentless bombing and destruction. Those of us who had visas for a return trip to Iraq organized, as best we could, medical relief convoys to bring desperately needed medicines into Iraq.

We hoped that we might safeguard the road between the Jordan-Iraq border and Baghdad, thinking that if authorities from the U.S. and the UK knew that ordinary citizens from their own countries were traveling along that road, delivering medical relief, they might be less inclined to consider every moving vehicle a military target. Announcing the convoy project would give us a chance to remind the U.S. war planners about the Geneva conventions.

A few of us began calling Jordanian pharmacists and charity organizations to learn more about procuring medicines for delivery to Iraq. A Jordanian businessman, Mr. Nidal Sukhtian, heard of our project and decided to donate a semi-truck full of powdered milk. He also volunteered to pay for petrol, hire a driver, and help us out with an interpreter.

Suddenly our project became much more manageable. I took responsibility to contact the media. An NBC TV correspondent decided to cover our departure. I don’t remember her name, but I do remember a steady exchange of phone calls setting up the time and date for the convoy to film us loading up trucks with food and medicine and then driving back into the war zone.

The day before our planned departure, someone from the United Nations finally managed to get through to us that our convoy wasn’t going to enter Iraq unless we were prepared to ram our way through a UN checkpoint. Sanctions prohibited delivery of almost all goods to Iraq, save for a short list of medical supplies and medicines.

Realizing that our powdered milk shipment could never pass the checkpoint, we divvied up a long list of tasks: offload the semi-truck and return it to the owner, find two small trucks to carry whatever we could find that was on the list, call pharmacies, find a new source for fuel, new drivers, change the press release, change the departure time, in the frenzy of activity, I completely forgot to call the NBC correspondent. She was out in the field waiting to film us, with a full camera crew, and it was raining.

I saw her that night, at the Red Crescent office, where we both had turned up to get documents that would allow us to enter Iraq. She was livid. “I will assure that you and your team never again get coverage from NBC,” she said. I murmured how sorry I was. She turned, walked away, and then paused, looking over her shoulder, to add, “I shouldn’t even tell you this, but offloading the truck WAS the story.” My heart sank.

Had NBC covered the Scottish doctor on our team, tearful as she hauled cartons of powdered milk off of the semi-truck, had this image been beamed into living rooms across the United States, it might have “jump-started awareness about the most comprehensive sanctions ever imposed in modern history.

I still feel ashamed, even now, recalling that story. I feel shame and sorrow because throughout all the years of the long war against Iraq, offloading the truck never stopped being the story.

Just days ago, a UN report stated that one out of three children in Iraq suffers from malnutrition. A combination of sanctions, war and occupation has brought to Iraq the world’s worst deterioration in child mortality rate. According to a report ‘The State of the World’s Children’ released by UNICEF in 2007, Iraq’s mortality rate for children under five was 50 per 1000 live births in 1990, and 125 in 2005, an annual average deterioration of 6.1 percent.

When the U.S.-led invasion was launched in 2003, the Bush administration pledged to cut Iraq’s child mortality rate in half by 2005. Instead, the rate has worsened, now to 130 in 2006, according to Iraqi Health Ministry figures. In February, 2007, Iraq,s Ministry of Water Resources stated that only 32 percent of the Iraqi population had access to clean drinking water, and only 19 percent had access to a good sewage system.

Massive convoys should be going into Iraq, bearing all manner of humanitarian relief. They should be, but they’re not, and in December 2006 donor nations cut in half the money they would commit to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

But let me return to 1991, because eventually in late March of that year, our team did return to Kerbala, the city that had so impressed us when we first traveled into Iraq. We stared in awe as we drove along streets devoid of palm trees, lined by wreckage and smoking ruins.

We entered the main hospital and our feet stuck to the floor because the blood was so thick. Beds were smashed; equipment was torn out of the walls. We saw clusters of badly frightened doctors. Henry Selz, who had lived in Lebanon during the civil war there, spotted bullet holes near the rooftops of buildings as we walked along a side street. One elderly woman pulled us aside and began whispering about mass graves. What had happened?

I learned in fits and starts, fitting together pieces of the horror story that still isn’t completed.

Margaret Thatcher remarked once on television that after the ceasefire had been declared, Saddam Hussein’s generals asked if they could keep their helicopters and the U.S. generals said, “Yes,” then they asked if they could keep their attack helicopters– again the answer was, “Yes.” Those attack helicopters swiftly took off in pursuit of insurgents who were rebelling in cities all through southern Iraq: Amarah, Qut, Najaf, Nassiriyeh, Basra, Kerbala.

Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, U.S. allies in the 1991 war against Iraq who were helping fund the war, had told President George Bush Sr. to keep Saddam Hussein in power because otherwise uprisings of Shi’ite people in the south could give rise to a dominant Shi’a governance in Iraq that would be sympathetic to coreligionists “next door” in Iran.

Hence the long regime of economic sanctions which kept Saddam crippled externally but strengthened internally –punitive sanctions which were always evaluated only on the basis of whether or not they prevented Saddam from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, and never with regard to how the sanctions affected innocent and vulnerable Iraqis, particularly children.

Jack: Did you know that what you were doing by going to Iraq was illegal?

Kathy: My first illegal travel to Iraq was in March of 1996. Companions and I deliberately planned the trip to violate U.S. laws which imposed economic sanctions on Iraq.

Jack: What did you think when you heard about Madeleine Albright’s comment in answer to the UN charge that 500,000 Iraqi children had died as a result of the sanctions: “We thought it was worth it.”

Kathy: My first thought was to hope that Iraqi friends hadn’t heard this. It was too harsh, and, surely, she couldn’t mean it. I felt sorry for her because she was so compromised.

I expected to see op-ed pieces in major papers lamenting her unfortunate statement. There were no such op-eds in any of the major papers in the U.S.

Instead she was elevated to the highest position a woman in this country had ever held.

Jack: Can you tell us a bit about your trial? What were the charges against you?

Kathy: In 1988, charged with five counts of criminal trespass to a military installation and several additional counts of damaging government property, I appeared before Judge Calvin Hamilton, a federal magistrate in Kansas City, MO.

Beginning August 15, 1988, I and 13 companions had regularly entered Whiteman Air Force Base nuclear missile silo sites. These sites are inconspicuous. You only spot them after growing familiar with the “telltale” white pole arising from the ground, surrounded by a chain link fence topped with barbed wire, enclosing an area about the size of an average back yard garage.

“Missouri Peace Planting ’88” involved people from several Midwestern cities in a year of planning for a fairly simple action: to plant corn on top of nuclear missile silo sites.

We distributed information, before our action, about the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) buried beneath what were formerly farmers’ fields. The Midwest, regarded as a breadbasket for much of the world, was also a nuclear heartland. One hundred fifty ICBM silos surrounded Kansas City, MO. In the Midwest, there were a total of 1,000 ICBMs.

Beginning August 15th, after notifying Whiteman Air Force Base that nonviolent civil disobedience actions would be occurring, we began entering the sites, sometimes climbing the fences, sometimes breaking the locks”and always planting corn.

We claimed that land was meant to grow corn and wheat and never to harbor weapons of mass destruction. We politely told arresting officers that we believed the U.S. Air Force had usurped its authority over the land by using it for criminal purposes.

As soon as we were released, we issued new press releases and repeated the action. Many people in Kansas City, MO and other smaller cities hadn’t known that hundreds of nuclear weapon sites rendered them a target for the USSR, whose ICBMs would likely hit Midwestern areas in a nuclear exchange.

By the time we were all locked away, numerous churchgoers, high schoolers, University students, community groups, and media people were well aware of the nuclear missiles which we claimed were seeded in the “breadbasket” like razors in a loaf of bread.

Some months after our actions, the Pentagon turned town a bid from Whiteman Air Force base to house the MX shuttle system, (a plan for constantly moving nuclear weapons, via train systems, so that an enemy couldn’t pinpoint the location). Their bid was refused “due to negative public opinion.” I think we had done our best to help create that negative public opinion.

In January of 2004, I was again tried for criminal trespass to a military installation. G. Mallon Faircloth, a federal judge, sentenced me to three months in prison after I pled no contest to the government’s charge.

I had entered Fort Benning knowing full well that, inside this base, at a place called the School of the Americas, graduates of the school had been convicted of assassinations, murders, disappearances, torture and massacres.

Jack: How did you plead?

Kathy: I pled not guilty in 1988 and “no contest” in 2004.

Jack: What was your sentence and how long did you serve?

Kathy: In 1988-89, I served nine months of a one year sentence. “Missiles, (I was playfully dubbed with this nickname), you ain’t nothin’ but a minute!” said one of the women in the Cass county jail when she learned of my sentence. One year was an enviably brief sentence amongst the women with whom I was imprisoned, several of whom were sentenced to five year mandatory minimum sentences. At that time, a ten year sentence would be considered extremely long.

But in 2004, when I was imprisoned in Pekin minimum security federal prison camp, 82% of the 300 or so women incarcerated at Pekin had committed nonviolent crimes, and yet had sentences of 8 years or more. I grew to know women who had already been “down” for seven years, with three more to go.

Jack: Will you describe experiences in prison?

Kathy: Once the door slams shut behind you, you’ve entered another world. For most of the women whom I’ve met in prison, it’s extremely difficult to stay in touch with the world beyond.

I never met “the bad sisters” in prison. I met women who could have been my co-workers, next door neighbors, and sisters-in-law. Most regretted ever getting caught up with drug use or drug sales.

When I entered the Lexington prison, in 1988, a sixth grade literacy test was administered to 58 of us during our first week at the prison. 12 of us passed the test.

Many of the women in prison have been poorly educated. Unable to find decent jobs in the regular economy, they turn to the underground economy. Distant relatives of mine knew plenty about such an economy several generations ago, in Boston. They couldn’t get work, as Irish immigrants, and so they got into the bootlegging business when alcohol was prohibited. But no one sent them to prison for 10 years if they were caught.

When a woman is raising several children and reaches a point where expenses far exceed her means, when the children want sneakers and jackets that they see on TV, when transportation is expensive and food costs are rising, when one child needs glasses and another suffers a broken leg and needs physical therapy, when rent is increasing and fixtures are broken, and when she sees other family members getting ahead by getting into the drug trade, she might very well volunteer to be “the lookout” or eventually, be a sales person, or become a user herselfit’s a sordid and horrible world to enter, and often people’s lives are out of control by the time they’re arrested and land in a county jail, –then begins the long process of detoxifying, coming to grips with consequences she and her children will face.

Women may feel waves of guilt, remorse, defiance, and despair. In spite of facing extremely harsh punishment, harsh emotions, and traumatic isolation, most of the women I,ve met in prison have shown extraordinary strength of character. I marvel at the dignity and grace of the women I grew to know in Lexington Federal Correctional Institute and again in Pekin Federal Prison Camp.

Prosecutors can advance their careers by threatening women that if they don’t plead guilty to a charge, they’ll end up with a longer sentence because the courts don’t like the expense of conducting trials. Statistically this is true, and so many women plead guilty and take whatever sentence is meted out.

Architects can find work building prisons; food service companies get contracts sending food to the prisons; in areas where people once farmed the land, many people pray that a prison will be built, so that they’ll have jobs –every year, almost every University in the U.S. graduates a new crop of lawyers, and, in order to keep the legal industry going, part of the “raw material” is a rising prison population.

In the Pekin Federal Prison Camp, in Illinois, I listened to many mothers speak about how painful it was for them to be separated from their children.

One woman I knew quite well was serving a 15 year sentence. One of her sons was working hard to earn a scholarship so that he could attend college near to where she was imprisoned. But one night, tearful and utterly weary, she slumped in a chair and said that she thought the best thing, for her two sons, would be for them to go ahead and live their lives and forget about her.

In the medium high security men’s prison next door, the median sentence length was 27 years. Young men, shackled and handcuffed, would shuffle off of a bus to enter the prison. They will be old men, many of them grandfathers, by the time they leave.

Imagine a young mother, separated from her children for eight or more years. Imagine that she tries to conserve money on her commissary account so that she can manage weekly phone calls to stay in touch with her children. She calls at a certain time, hoping to reach her children, but learns that the children aren’t home, that they were invited to a birthday party. She tries to conceal how disappointed she is, talking with the children’s grandmother, her mother.

She tells her mother that she wants to finish knitting the afghan she started, as a gift for her grandmother, and to make caps and scarves for the children, but she ran out of yarn and can’t keep borrowing from other women. Her mother lets her know that money is tight, that the lawyer is still spending bills.

“Oh, mama, I know, you’re doing all you can,” says the prisoner, “but, mama, is there any chance to get some money here to me so I can at least put a little more on my commissary card because that’s the only way I can call outand is there a chance someone can bring the kids to see me, maybe at Christmas, or later? I haven’t seen the kids for a year and a half. I’m afraid they’ll forget me, and” time runs out on the call.

Then imagine the woman making a hairpin turn, into a shower stall or a toilet stall. When she comes out, her face is puffy, her eyes are red, but she has summoned up courage to face the remains of the day, the week, the month, the years ahead.

The most onerous punishment afflicting U.S. federal prisoners is the length of sentences.

“We’re our own babysitters,” women told me when I arrived at Pekin Federal Prison Camp. “This place is run by a loudspeaker!” It was true. The only fence was around the visitor’s yard. Anyone could have walked off the compound. But women knew they’d very likely be caught and then face even longer sentences.

“Why can’t we be home, taking care of our own children? women would ask. “What’s the point of keeping us cooped up here when we could be on home confinement?” In the minimum security prison camp, women with long sentences worked to maintain the camp where we were incarcerated and also the medium to high security prison for men, next door.

Women learned how to handle electrical systems, heating and air conditioning, plumbing, landscaping, food serviceit seemed that the camp was maintained to service the larger prison where medium to high security male prisoners wouldn’t be allowed to go near the perimeter of the compound since they were considered higher escape risks.

In November of 2005, I joined about a dozen people to cross the line at an airstrip in North Carolina which was used by the Aero company, an air transportation company which the CIA employed for rendition flights, transporting U.S. prisoners to other countries for interrogation, –other countries that don’t have laws prohibiting torture of detainees.

We were arrested and taken to the Smithfield county jail. The jailers treated us graciously, handling us with kid gloves, during several hours of processing. Then we were taken to the actual jail section. Two tiers of cells surrounded a noisy, chaotic common room where many women sat almost shoulder to shoulder on benches and tables.

Suddenly a fight broke out. A very large woman, whom other women prisoners told us was suffering from serious mental illness, had loudly threatened another woman. Within minutes, five or six guards stormed into the room, dressed in protective gear.

They wore helmets and protective face masks. They carried large shields and taser guns. They tasered the woman who was mentally ill, stripped her and forced her into a cell. Somehow, the woman broke out of the cell almost immediately after the guards withdrew. At the same time, one of the guards realized she was missing a pencil, that the prisoner must have the pencil. The guards rushed in, surrounded the prisoner, and managed to extract the pencil from inside her mouth. Then they tied her in restraints, again using the taser gun several times. This time, when she was forced inside the cell, she couldn’t escape.

My friends and I were released several hours later. We had been imprisoned because we were protesting torture in a far away country. But what had we just witnessed? If a person is mentally ill, a crowded and chaotic prison is one of the worst options for housing and care.

The two U.S. prisons which have drawn great attention in the U.S. media are Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, both located outside of the U.S. Inside the U.S., a “throw away the key” mentality seems to dominate in the media, amongst elected representatives, and amid numerous communities where people look the other way as the prison-industrial complex steadily grows.

Jason de Parles, writing in the New York Review of Books, recently reviewed a book entitled Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy.

“By election day 2004,” De Parles notes, “the number of disenfranchised felons had grown to 5.3 million, with another 600,000 effectively stripped of the vote because they were in jail awaiting trial.

He shows that liberal candidates would most likely have been elected if people in prison were given the right to vote. Nationally, they made up less than 3 percent of the population, but 9 percent in Florida, 8 percent in Delaware, and 7 percent in Alabama, Mississippi, and Virginia.”

De Parle further notes that by denying the vote to felons, the average state disenfranchises 2.4 percent of its voting-age population but 8.4 percent of its voting-age blacks. The more African-Americans a state contains, the more likely it has been to ban felons from voting. “In fourteen states,” writes De Parle, “the share of blacks stripped of the vote exceeds 10 percent, and in five states, it exceeds 20 percent.

Focusing on black men, Marc Mauer has estimated that felony laws keep nearly one in seven from voting nationwide. This is a kind of double jeopardy for those people who have already served their sentences but will, for the rest of their lives, be punished by disenfranchisement.

If felons were allowed to vote, De Parle believes that the United States would have a different president.

The crimes that most threaten safety and livelihood of average people are committed by people who manufacture acid rain which pollutes our environs, who manufacture nuclear and conventional weapons and then sell them all over the globe, and who manufacture firearms and tobacco and alcohol products.

Chief Executive Officers of major corporations that produce products inimical to human survival on the planet won’t very likely become convicted felons. I don’t want to see them jailed. I do want to see them rehabilitated.

Each time I’ve left a U.S. prison, I’ve felt as though I’m leaving the scene of a crime. Emerging back into the regular world seems tantamount to accepting a contract, pledging to forget about the people still trapped inside. I know I’ll slip all too quickly into silence.

Jack: Would you describe general conditions for the people of Iraq before the 2003 invasion and compare them to today?

Kathy: Many families whom I grew to know in Iraq had been, for many years, eking out a living under economic sanctions. When I stayed with them, I spent more money for one day’s worth of bottled water for our five person team than they spent on their families for an entire month.

In Basra, I grew close to the family of Abu Mohammed. In the summer of 2002, when I visited his family, he shook his head and said, “Kathy, you know that we see you like a sister to ourselves and like a mother to our children. But, please, can you tell me, after all of these visits, what difference does it make?”

I looked at his daughters, still wearing the thin cotton dresses they had worn when I first met them. They slept in those dresses. They had no shoes. I looked at his wife, still suffering from arthritis and unable to obtain pain relievers. The TV still didn’t work. The roof was still damaged. Abu Mohammed still could barely feed his family. Our visits had made no difference whatsoever.

Small wonder, then, that some people would approach me, in secret, and whisper, “Believe me, Kathy, we want this war.” Poor people in impoverished areas of Iraq harbored hopes that somehow the war would release them from a dictator over whom they had no control and then they would be welcomed back into the family of nations, they would be able to earn a decent income and experience something like normalcy.

The longed for normalcy never occurred.

Over one million Iraqis are internally displaced, having fled violence in their neighborhoods. 750,000 Iraqis who fled violence in their country now live in Jordan, with another 850,000 in Syria. Hundreds of thousands of these people live in wretched conditions, unable to find employment, health care, education for their children or access to basic human rights.

The U.N. estimates that one out of every 10 Iraqis will try to flee their country in 2007.

Television coverage regularly shows blood-spattered streets and charred vehicles at the intersections where suicide bombers detonate their murderous cargo. Gruesome carnage and desperate bereavement are part of everyday footage filmed in Iraq. A growing humanitarian catastrophe is more difficult to portray.

Every family in Baghdad struggles with fuel and energy crises. They get one hour of electricity every 12 hours; only the more well-to-do families can afford a back-up generator. Fuel for transportation is extremely expensive. In a society that has 50% -75% unemployment, many find themselves scrounging for basic necessities.

Families that receive the dreaded knock on the door giving them 24 hours notice, – leave or you will be killed must swiftly relocate to other areas where they often face problems gaining access to food, potable water and health care.

Jack: Many Iraq experts say the biggest cause of violence in Iraq is the presence of western troops. Do you agree, and do you favor withdrawing troops?

Kathy: In Jordan, in January of 2007, I met with Rafiq Tschannen, a Swiss national who is the Chief of Mission for the International Organization for Migration, a well-respected Non-Governmental Organization (NGO). I asked him if he favored a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

“Kathy, do the math,” he told me. “The amount of money which the U.S. gives to humanitarian relief, in Iraq, amounts to 0.01% of the amount of money directed, each day, to U.S. military spending in Iraq. If your country were to increase spending for humanitarian concerns up to just 1% of what is spent on the military, this could improve security in Iraq and even improve security for U.S. troops.”

Who are the “foot soldiers” for militias that attack U.S. troops and engage in inter-sectarian violence? Mr. Tschannen believes that men who cannot feed or shelter their families, men who bear the consequences of a 60 % – 80 % unemployment rate, decide in desperation to join militias in search of income and some measure of security.

On February 5, 2007, President Bush submitted a request for 100 billion dollars of emergency supplemental funding for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to continue the global war against terrorism. This summer, we can expect another request for 142 billion dollars.

These funds will help protect the potential for major weapon making companies to stuff their stock portfolios with soaring profits. I don’t believe that funds for ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will improve security for Iraqis. Nor will U.S. people “support the troops” by directing U.S. wealth and productivity toward ongoing war in Iraq.

President Bush called for a 15% surge in the number of U.S. troops deployed to Iraq. Newly arriving troops will be stationed in nine different areas of Baghdad and in hotly contested areas of Iraq ‘s Anbar province.

Most of the U.S. troops don’t speak Arabic. Their mandate is to train and monitor Iraqi troops, and to equip them with firepower. But this is difficult to accomplish when you don’t speak the same language as the troops you are training.

I’m from Chicago. Law enforcers and politicians in Chicago face problems with gang rivalry. Suppose the mayor of Chicago were to invite a group of soldiers from a foreign country, let’s say Romania, to train one armed group in Chicago, to monitor this group, and to equip them with firepower.

But suppose that the Romanian soldiers didn’t speak English, didn’t understand Chicago’s neighborhoods, and knew nothing about the history of gang warfare in Chicago. Would Chicagoans object to the idea of asking the Romanians to distribute weapons to one group, train and monitor this group, and yet be unable to communicate with them?

It’s absurd to say that people who don’t support ongoing funding for war in Iraq don’t support the troops. How is it supportive to send U.S. troops into immensely dangerous situations where over 70% of the population claims they want the U.S. troops to leave and where the U.S. troops are handicapped by inability to speak the language or understand their environs?

Jack: What are you hearing from people in Iraq these days?

I hear, often, from Iraqi families who face aching losses, agonizing choices, seemingly insoluble problems, and some sliver of hope that Voices might be able to help them. In Amman, I met with two friends who had arrived in Jordan because their lives were threatened, in Iraq. Both decided to risk returning to Baghdad, in part because this was the only way they could get necessary documents if they were ever to resettle their families in another country. But both had also wanted very badly to reconnect with family members in Iraq.

A father separated from his wife and his four children couldn’t bear, any longer, the frustration of hearing his wife, over a cell phone, describe her nightmare fears as he also heard rifle and mortar fire in the distance. A mother bundled up her three children and took them with her on her return trip to Iraq. Just following these two families has yielded a litany of disaster and tragedy.

Ahmed’s younger brother was killed as he returned home from the University. His wife’s father was kidnapped and the captors wanted a ransom well beyond all of Ahmed’s savings. His cousin was a pedestrian in an area where a roadside explosive device was detonated. A frightened U.S. soldier began shooting randomly. The cousin was badly wounded by shrapnel that cut into his pancreas.

Ahmed’s father suffered from asthma; the dad is in his fifties and could normally survive an asthma attack. But he experienced an asthma attack in the middle of the night, during a curfew, when roads are closed. The family could not get medical help for him, and he died.

Now, Ahmed must care for his younger brothers and sisters, for his mother, and for his own family.

Days after Amal returned to the Karadda district of Baghdad, the apartment where her sister-in-law had welcomed her and her three children was damaged by a suicide car bomb blast and became unlivable. All of the family members moved in with one of the recently married daughters. Seventeen people crowded into a tiny one bedroom apartment.

Amal’s youngest son, Anoush, lost several teeth and suffered facial wounds when a mortar round hit a bus he was about to board. Amal is trying desperately to arrange passage for her and her family across the Iraq-Jordan border. She has been turned away twice. She has run out of money.

BBC Middle East marked the fourth year since the Shock and Awe bombing began by featuring 16 year old Ali Abbas, an Iraqi youngster living in London who has personally borne terrible consequences of the U.S./UK “war of choice.” I first saw Ali at the Al Kindi hospital in Baghdad.

He was unconscious, following surgery in which doctors removed both of his arms. A U.S. missile hit the home where he and his family were eating their lunch, outside, on the patio. I sat next to his aunt, as she waited for him to regain consciousness. The woman began to sob. “How I tell him?” she asked, repeatedly. “What I say?” She searched for words to tell Ali that he had not only lost both arms, but that she was now his only surviving relative. All of his family members died.

Doctors reported that when they told Ali that they had amputated both of his arms, his first question was, “Will I always be this way?”

Hearing that, I dissolved into tears, fury mixed with dismay, asking myself over and over, “Will we always be this way?”

Ali has shown great courage in the past few years. He has learned to feed himself with his feet. He has become an accomplished artist, painting with his toes. The BBC interviewer asked him what he would like to do in his future. “I don’t know,” Ali replied, in perfect English, “but maybe I want to do something for peace.”

Jack: Can you name an internet web site you would recommend?


Kathy: To stay in touch with “the Occupation Project,” a campaign to end funding for U.S. military and economic warfare against Iraq, I recommend visiting

Since the campaign was launched on February 5, 2007, over 300 people have committed civil disobedience by occupying the offices of their elected representatives, urging them to end funding for ongoing war in Iraq.

I recommend that people stay in touch with Jeff Guntzel and Noah Merrill maintain this site. They offer news updates, diary entries from correspondents in Iraq, opinion and analysis items, visuals and plenty of background information.

Jack: What is a good charity you would recommend for helping people in Iraq, something where there are no six-figure executives and the dollars go to really helping people? (We have readers who are activists and every dollar counts!).

Kathy: I,m deeply impressed by the work of No More Victims, , a non-profit, non-sectarian, humanitarian organization which works to find medical sponsorships for war-injured Iraqi children and to forge ties between the children, their families and communities in the United States. “No More Victims believes one of the most effective means of combating militarism is to focus on direct relief to its victims.

Jack: Do you agree with those who say the Iraq War is racist?

Kathy: Who benefits from the war in Iraq? Major U.S. corporations, — General Dynamics, Lockheed, Boeing, Raytheon, Halliburton, Blackwater…the companies that constitute the number one lobby on Capitol Hill, the defense lobby, benefit from the war. Major oil companies will eventually derive enormous profit from the control and pricing of Iraq’s oil flow.

If Iraq grew asparagus, would we be there?

The beneficiaries of these corporations constitute a group of people who enjoy immense power and privilege in western societies.

Americans who enjoy a relatively cushy lifestyle also benefit from an economy predicated on endless war and the capacity to be overly consumptive and wasteful. Yes, this war is racist.

Kathy Kelly is co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence and author of Other Lands Have Dreams. She can be reached at:


Jack Balkwill is an activist journalist in Virginia. He wrote this article exclusively for ThisCantBeHappening! Jack can be reached at