Archive for category Children and war
One of my projects this year is a series of lectures as part of the “World in Your Library” series sponsored by the Maine Humanities Council. Saturday I traveled to beautiful Southwest Harbor, Maine, a delightful community on Mt. Desert Island. The island, home to Acadia National Park and the tourist destination Bar Harbor, is stunningly gorgeous and I never knew what a gem Southwest Harbor was. In the next two months I have talks in Bangor and two in Kennebunk.
The topic of today’s talk was “Children and War.” The topic is important to me thanks to a course I co-teach with Dr. Mellisa Clawson, a professor of Early Childhood Education. She and I started teaching that course in 2004, and over the years thinking about how war affects children world wide has changed my view on how we in political science think about conflict. “Children and War” is a subject that elicits emotion and pain. One woman said after the talk that her stomach hurt, and she had a hard time taking in the information, even though she was glad she came. She gave me a hug and thanked me. After the talk the Q and A ran almost an hour, perhaps the most flattering response one can receive!
I ended the talk with the video above – “Vagina” by Emmanual Jal. Jal is a former child soldier from the Sudan, whose musical ability and creativity helped him escape and recover from the trauma of being a child soldier witness to and participant in atrocities and horrors. The video is crude in some ways – “stop treating Mama Africa like a vagina, she’s not your whore, not any more….” One woman, a feminist, was at first put off by what she saw as the derogatory use of the term “vagina.” But others pointed out that the video was saying the beauty of Africa – and the vagina – was being misplaced by violence and rape; in this case, rape of Africa’s natural resources, leaving the people poor and subject to horrific violence.
And Jal is, sadly, correct. Our lust for diamonds, oil and gold have lead us in the industrialized West to be complicit in horrific crimes in Africa. We provide the demand for demands, gold and of course oil, and big corporations in collusion with African governments (read: organized criminal gangs aka mafia) provide it. The people who live and work there are left poor, and wars to try to control the resources leave thousands dead and provide the fodder for the recruitment and use of child soldiers.
There are many organizations now that try to “rescue” and rehabilitate former child soldiers — children who have perpetrated atrocities that here would yield the death penalty. Former child soldiers recall how they would feel proud of the terror they’d instill going into a community and killing indiscriminately. Sometimes their leaders would scratch their skin open and rub cocaine into their blood to create a sense of power. They’d tell them they were invincible; the LRA in Uganda would have the children rub palm oil over their body, saying it would protect them, if they believed the Lord was true. If comrades died, they lacked belief.
Up to 40% of child soldiers were girls, all of whom were raped and used as sex slaves, home keepers, and soldiers. If they have children from the rapes, those children would be raised to fight. They often avoid rehabilitation in order to avoid the stigma of having been part of the militias – the stigma of having been raped and used, making them “undesirable” by men in that culture.
But as Jal’s video shows, we are complicit. Our big corporations work with their corrupt governments to cheaply mine diamonds, gold, oil and other minerals. We don’t know or care of the social impact. We pretend it’s just “the market,” and that any problems in Africa are endemic to those countries. We are blameless.
Yet we are not – we make those atrocities possible, and our forefathers through colonialism and greed destroyed the old functioning culture on the African continent to bring them “civilization” – Christianity, government and science. Thus they went from being self-sustaining and balanced to impoverished, unstable and dependent. Crudely, we (in the West overall) raped the continent saying “it’s good for them and they like it.” Yeah, Jal’s metaphor is discomforting, but accurate.
To solve these problems it’s not enough just to try to help former child soldiers. We need to work to build communities with a sense of purpose and identity. Military intervention can’t work without a lot of effort to help rebuild social structures, providing education, basic necessities, and stability to allow community building. But those efforts work against the desire of big corporations of the West – joined now by groups from China also wanting cheap resources – to maximize profit, while keeping Africans poor and divided.
If the people of Africa are kept down, treated as worthless as powerful states and corporations use “the market” to rationalize the plunder their wealth, the people may strike back. In an era of terrorism, new media and easy to obtain WMD, that anger could be given substance. The anger implicit in this video could magnify. It’s in our interests to work together now, rather than close our eyes and simply enjoy the lifestyle we receive by tolerating the violence and abuse by corporations and governments worried more about the bottom line than humanity.
The descriptions are heart wrenching. Young boys and girls taken from their homes, forced to become killers and/or sex slaves. Boys having their skin scrapped so cocaine can be rubbed right into their blood stream before a battle, told that if they have faith they’ll be invincible. Even when rescued, they often find themselves unable to fit into normal life. How can you kill, maim, and brutalize at age 13, feeling powerful and in control, and then suddenly blend into village life?
How can you go from having people cower in fear at the sight of you to begging for food or doing a menial job for people who you know you could terrorize and kill?
I admit, I had tears in my eyes much of Friday as I read about the heinous school shooting in Connecticut. Having two children (ages 9 and 6) I imagined myself in the shoes of their parents. I visualized what it would be like to have my six year old screaming as someone pointed a gun to his head and blew it away. I let myself imagine those images in order to not let my mind abstract the suffering that this act brought about.
Yet, as debate turns to gun control, school security and other such “solutions,” I think about other children. Dr. Mellisa Clawson and I co-teach a course on Children and War. It includes child soldiers, families in war zones, the children of deployed American troops, and children growing up in gang ridden ghettos.
Back when my oldest son was three I got a book called Shake Hands with the Devil by Romeo Dallaire. Dallaire was the Commander of UNAMIR, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda, from 1993 to 1994. Pleading for support and more soldiers he watched the Rwandan genocide unfold as the Hutu majority tried to exterminate the Tutsi minority. Instead of stopping the killing, the UN pulled thousands out of his mission leaving him with just 250 soldiers to protect groups of Tutsis who happened to get to a UN zone.
Dallaire’s ordeal itself is worth learning about – he went from suffering PTSD and attempting suicide to now being a true humanitarian fighting against the use of child soldiers. But I still remember the day I got his book. I had just brought the kids home from day care and the three year old wanted to play in the driveway. His younger brother was still an infant asleep in the car seat. So I took a chair and started reading while my son was playing.
In the introduction Dallaire describes a time when his convoy was stopped and he saw a three year old boy nibbling on a UN biscuit. The boy looked lost. Dallaire had warned his troops not to get emotionally connected to the children they saw – they couldn’t bring them all into the compound. But he broke his own rule. He followed the boy to a hut, where the child stepped over his dead father and went over and snuggled against his dead mom, still trying to eat the biscuit.
Dallaire lost his capacity to close off the pain. He said he decided then and there to adopt the boy. He picked him up and started carrying him back to his vehicle, but before he got there Tutsi boys came and demanded the boy. “He has to be raised by his own people,” they curtly told Dallaire. These boys were 12 or 13 and well armed. They snatched the boy and disappeared.
I put the book down and looked at my son and imagined that happening to him. I sat in the garage with tears running down my cheeks thinking about him in such a situation. I vowed to inject the human side of world politics into my courses — we Americans get used to abstracting the violence and suffering into concepts and terms we can discuss with apparent intelligence but no feeling. But if we lose the sentiment, we lose the humanity.
These things cross my mind in the wake of the shooting. 20 dead children is a tragedy, horrific and vile. Yet these children aren’t more valuable than children being manipulated and brutalized in war zones or young girls being turned into sex slaves.
These things are on going. Every day there are lives in the balance. So I feel a bit put off by the Facebook posts of people sharing a “prayer chain,” listing the names of the children or getting into emotional debates about gun control. I felt the national pain on Friday, I had tears just like the President did as I thought about it. But what do we do next?
We spend a lot of money on weapons systems, corporate welfare, and ways to support huge financial institutions because they drive the economy. With a fraction of that money and a fraction of the energy there could be a global focus on bringing stability to sub-Saharan Africa, creating conditions where communities there could be self-sustaining, and do immense good.
The same groups that hate any kind of gun control here don’t want the US to participate in the UN Small Arms Treaty being negotiated. They claim it will circumvent the constitution. They’re wrong – no treaty can do that, by law any treaty that violates the constitution is invalid. What they don’t want anything that might suggest guns are bad. Yet those flows of small arms into these war zones is one reason we have so many child soldiers and war lords operating in areas of anarchy.
So yes, let’s debate gun control and domestic issues. But I wish that we’d expand our vision a bit and think about children suffering violence and despair elsewhere, especially since our weapons and policies helped create conditions where these problems could fester. Wouldn’t it be nice if the emotion people feel after a tragedy could yield long term action on a variety of fronts to protect children rather than either fading away after the media cycle or getting gobbled up by partisan fights over guns and schools?
Because tragedies like the Connecticut school shooting happen every day. We just don’t notice them.
Paranoia on the right about the United Nations is nearing the point of clinical insanity. For some reason the far right sees the United Nations as a dangerous evil organization bent on implementing some kind of internationalist/socialist world order. This gives rise to delusional fantasies.
This week the US Senate sought to ratify the UN Treaty on Disabilities, a treaty modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. It failed by a vote of 61-38. 61 voted “yes,” but in the Senate you need 2/3 of the vote to ratify. Former Presidential candidate Rick Santorum praised the vote, stating that the treaty would have given the UN power to intervene in the choices parents make about their handicapped children.
The same kind of hysteria made the Senate unable to ratify the Rights of the Child Convention. The US is joined by only Somalia and South Sudan in rejecting this effort to support children. The US refused because a right wing group called “Focus on the Family” said that the convention would prevent parents from using corporal punishment (spanking) on their misbehaving kids. That’s absurd, but somehow they convinced the Senate not to act.
Imagine a scene. The UN pulls up with some jeeps and a black helicopter sweeping down to a suburban house. Across the street a neighbor looks out the window, “looks like Ralph spanked his boy again.” This is a level of paranoia so bizarrely irrational that it defies explanation!
The UN can’t do any of that. These treaties have no enforcement except through the UN Security Council. The US has a veto on the Security Council. And earth to self-centered American nationalists: the treaties aren’t aimed at us! The treaties are aimed at trying to counter problems in third world states where children and disabled people don’t have the benefits they receive here. UN bureaucrats don’t care how you are going to deal with your disabled child or whether or not you spank your kids!
When work was done to create an International Criminal Court (ICC) in order to make it easier to go after brutal war lords who get away with atrocities in third world conflicts, the US actively sought to fight that court’s very existence. Rather than recognizing its use in dealing with groups like the brutal LRA in Uganda or the Janjaweed in Darfur, they were scared that the ICC might arrest Americans and accuse them of atrocities. They even passed a law in 2002 saying the US could invade the Netherlands to rescue any Americans arrested by the ICC!
Of course, there is no such danger. Not only is the scope of the ICC limited, but it only gets involved if a state can’t or won’t prosecute its own war criminals. The US military justice system is one of the most advanced in the world, and it recognizes as crimes the same ones that the ICC deals with.
The insanity continues.
After his experience in Rwanda and his struggle with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Romeo Dallaire has become involved in effort to end the practice of using children as soldiers in war. Dallaire had been UN force commander in Rwanda as the 1994 genocide took place. He had only 240 troops and pleaded with the UN to at least send supplies so he could feed the people he was protecting. He was ignored. He has since become an activist against the ravages of conflict in Africa.
One problem he notes is the ease in which small arms flow into combat zones from elsewhere, allowing war lords and other nefarious figures to easily get the means to create child armies. He called on the UN to work to limit small arms trade, and now they are working on a UN Small Arms Treaty, designed specifically to make it harder to arm combatants in places like sub-Saharan Africa.
Alas in the US the reaction is predictable. The UN is going to come for our guns! The treaty will make it illegal to sell small arms, the treaty will undermine the Second Amendment!
*Eyes rolling* Sigh. No, the UN won’t come for your guns — remember, the UN has no army and can only enforce international law through a Security Council Resolution. The US can veto those. The Supreme Court has ruled that any treaty that violates the constitution is invalid. No treaty can undermine the constitution.
So while the US claims to want to do what it can to prevent children being used as soldiers, support individual rights in the third world, and bring war criminals to justice, an insane paranoia about an organization utterly impotent to do anything against the US prevents the Senate from ratifying needed treaties.
The world is in transformation and only by recognizing our interdependence and need to cooperate across borders can we solve the problems ahead. A paranoid inward looking irrational nationalism hurts both us and the rest of the world. The fantasized conspiracies aren’t there, but the problems we need to solve are real.
My mantra: You cannot be pro-Israel without being pro-Palestinian. You can not be pro-Palestinian without being pro-Israel. The two peoples’ destinies are linked, they’ll either keep killing each other or find a way to live together. There is one feasible solution: a viable Palestine alongside a secure Israel.
The frustrating thing about violence like this is that observers tend to join the combatants in forming two camps. The pro-Israeli side condemns the Palestinians for engaging in terrorism, and dismisses concern about innocents by simply blaming Hamas. In the US sympathy for the Palestinians in Gaza is dismissed by pro-Israel hawks as “anti-Semitic,” or akin to support of the Nazis. Never mind that a large number of Jews in Israel form the backbone of an Israeli peace movement even more radical, the pro-Israel side often paints the world in stark good vs. evil tones.
On the other side are the defenders of the Palestinians, pointing at the big bad Israeli military hurling massive weapons into Gaza, killing women, children and other defenseless folk. They rationalize Hamas’ missile attacks into Israel by pointing out the horrid conditions in the occupied territories and how Israel’s grip limits economic opportunity and leaves millions with no real political and economic rights. For them it’s good vs. evil as well, but the Palestinians are the victims, fighting out desperation for a better future against a ruthless foe.
Go on line and follow blogs and news sites for each side and you’ll find two self-contained narratives wherein it is absolutely clear that one side is right and the other wrong, with little ambiguity or uncertainty. Of course, which one is right depends on the side you’re following.
The reality is that ambiguity and misunderstanding define this conflict, while the capacity to paint it in stark black and white terms makes it harder for each side to truly understand the other. In turn, that makes it more difficult to solve the conflict. But the Arabs won’t drive the Jews into the sea and the Jews won’t drive the Arabs into the desert.
Consider this case. Border clashes leave a Palestinian youth dead. Mad at that and other IDF (Israeli Defense Force) actions Hamas shoots missiles into Israel. In Hamas’ mind it’s a tit for tat, they’re retaliating. For Israelis shooting missiles into residential areas is an escalation – the IDF was engaged simply in protecting Israel’s security. So they retaliate hard against Gaza. Hamas then retaliates back, upping the ante.
Emotions are ignited on both sides, the conflicts grows in intensity, and soon we have a full blown crisis that apparently neither side planned or wanted. Protests world wide show sympathy to the residents of Gaza, while supporters of Israel grumble that the media is unfair and doesn’t understand that no country could tolerate missiles being launched across the border into residential areas. Two legs good, four legs evil. Or was it four legs good, two legs evil?
The reality is far more complex. The Palestinians have suffered and often have been treated unfairly and denied dignity by the Israelis. Hamas did send missiles into Israel in an action no state could ignore or just accept. Hamas is a terror organization which could end this by renouncing its terror tactics and stopping the bombardment. Israel does keep the Palestinians on the leash that naturally breed resentment and anger. That’s why each side is so adept at seeing themselves as the good guys – each side has evidence to that effect.
At this point its foolish to try to say one side is “more to blame.” That falls victim to that same capacity to choose evidence and make interpretations that will see one side as essentially good and the other as the cause of the violence. The first step out of this is to see it as a problem to be solved, rather than enemies to be defeated. Neither side can win unless they both win. That can only happen if they solve the fundamental problems they face.
There is a reason why war maker Yitzak Rabin became a peacemaker, reaching agreements with the PLO in 1993. There is a reason why ultra-hawk Ariel Sharon ultimately proposed unilateral withdrawal from the occupied territories after running a much a different platform. An objective look at Israel’s security interests makes clear that on going conflict is harmful to Israel, especially with the rise of non-state actors like Hamas and Hezbollah. The Arab states never really could pose an existential threat to Israel. The non-state actors? That’s a different story.
So how to solve the problem? First, the two sides need to agree to a cease fire. Israel should not try for a ‘military solution.’ Invading Gaza will be no more effective than invading Lebanon in 2006. Even if they damage Hamas, the conflict will be intensified and Israel will be no more secure.
However, Israel should work to split the Palestinians. There are two groups, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Israel should turn to the PA and work with it, trying to get Arabs around the region to throw their support to the PA as the voice of the Palestinian people. As this is happening, the US needs to pressure Arab states to emphasize the role of the PA as opposed to Hamas, with Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad as the primary Palestinian negotiators.
This will create dilemmas for both the PA and Hamas. The Palestinian Authority doesn’t want to be seen as abandoning Gaza. The only way they can possibly break from Hamas is if Israeli military action in Gaza has ceased. Israel would also have to renounce some of the new policies they have for settlements in the West Bank, as well taking a softer line on the Palestinian Authority’s efforts at the UN.
Some would see that as Israel giving into pressure, but it’s a clever “giving in.” If done in a way that undercuts Hamas it would be a victory for Israel. Hamas might respond by upping the ante with more attacks. But a more likely response would be to communicate to the PA the need to be on the same page and try to influence the negotiations.
Much conspires against such a solution. Can Israel really pivot to a political effort to isolate Hamas rather than a military effort to defeat it? Will Israel and the Palestinian Authority be able to make enough progress on past roadblocks to negotiation to make real communication between the two feasible? Will the PA be willing to risk “selling out” its rival Hamas, and will the Arab world side with the PA over Hamas? Still, despite the mess, this could open up the chance for a real move forward.
The phrase may be over used but it’s true – in every crisis there is an opportunity.
A soldier goes on a rampage and kills 16 Afghan civilians, causing outrage and anger among the Afghani people. How would we like it if a foreign soldier killed innocent Americans? Shocked, we are quick to point out that the entire military can’t be judged by looking at a ‘bad apple,’ and that Bales doesn’t reflect the attitude of most American soldiers.
True. Bales is 38, the father of two (ages 3 and 4), and on his fourth tour of duty, two of them in Iraq. His family said he was not a mean, aggressive or angry man. He hadn’t wanted to go to Afghanistan this time; the constant tours interrupted his life. Apparently he was in a strong marriage that showed tension due to his absences. He was injured more than once, one concussion that could have possibly caused brain damage. The day before the rampage, he saw the leg blown off a friend of his. Before the rampage, he had been drinking heavily.
This makes me immensely sad for both him and his family. I write that without meaning to show any insensitivity to the Afghan victims; their deaths are tragic. Families have been torn asunder by these killings – children had their lives cut short, the pain to those remaining is immense.
However, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is extremely common amongst soldiers who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, as we in Farmington learned last year when a local man apparently confronted police with a desire to be killed. When soldiers are sent back over and over, facing immense pressure and hardship, even a strong, ethical person can crack. Add alcohol, perhaps a brain injurty (and PTSD is itself a kind of brain injury), and a man who could have had a life as a successful family man with a career in the military faces a very uncertain future. He probably will only know his children indirectly as they grow. Although he must accept responsibility for his actions, his mental health was a victim of war, stress and government policy. Think of all those who suffer and don’t get and often don’t seek help.
On Wednesday in the nearby town of Jay, Frank Smith took a man hostage at the Verso paper mill, holding him most of the day. He released the hostage at about 3:30 and gave himself up a couple hours later. I stopped at the Hannaford grocery store in Jay that day and saw about 20 logging trucks parked in the parking lot as they couldn’t make their deliveries to the locked down mill.
I don’t know the details of Frank Smith’s case. Comments left by readers in the article I just linked give a clue. Despite working there almost 25 years he was apparently fired for a minor infraction, spraying a co-worker who had sprayed him with a hose. Moreover, there are a few comments that the mill treats employees like disposable tools — after all, with high unemployment, there is an excess of people wanting to work.
If so, that’s appalling. You don’t fire a 50 year old in this economy — especially not in central Maine — unless you have to. To look at this as hard discipline would be perverse. Discipline him, but recognize that firing a man in his position is may destroy his finances and cause severe disruption to his life. Now, most fifty somethings who lose their jobs can handle it, just like most in the military can handle PTSD without going on a killing spree or wanting death. But if you have the right mix of circumstances, such things can cause a downward spiral. And don’t forget – it only takes a moment of bad decision making to change life completely. You can do good things for years and one mistake can destroy all that.
The last case is that of Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell, who was detained by police because of strange behavior, charges of public masturbation and vandalism. However, the police did not arrest him, they decided that what he needed was medical care and sent him to the hospital. The Invisible Children network put out this statement:
“Jason Russell was unfortunately hospitalized yesterday suffering from exhaustion, dehydration, and malnutrition. He is now receiving medical care and is focused on getting better. The past two weeks have taken a severe emotional toll on all of us, Jason especially, and that toll manifested itself in an unfortunate incident yesterday. Jason’s passion and his work have done so much to help so many, and we are devastated to see him dealing with this personal health issue. We will always love and support Jason, and we ask that you give his entire family privacy during this difficult time.”
In this case it’s clear that a man’s passion and effort to help the victims of children and war will find his personal reputation and even his cause harmed by an incident that seems out of place with who he is. While some conspiracy theorists have suggested powerful people wanted to destroy him, it’s likely given the statements that he had a mental health issue (from the description it could be bipolar disorder).
Are these three men victims too? Victim is perhaps the wrong word. They are symptoms of something wrong in our culture, a kind of human expression of the danger of pushing people to the edge in a society that has become so individualistic that people are left to fend for themselves emotionally. When mental health is the issue — as it is in all three of these cases, apparently — we don’t forgive or understand, at least not in society at large. .
But whether it’s the soldier pushed over the edge, the fired worker whose life now seems hopeless, or the activist whose mental illness threatens to derail his work and reputation, I can’t help but think that all of us could end up in a similar place given the wrong circumstances. As a society we need to learn to be more understanding and less judgmental.
In our Children and War class Thursday we watched the 2003 film Invisible Children about a group of young Americans who travel to Uganda and become shocked by the horrid conditions suffered by especially the children of northern Uganda. At that time Uganda had been enmeshed in a war for over 17 years as a pseudo-religious group called the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) fought the government.
The roots of the LRA started with a woman named Alice Lakwena, who was supposedly was possessed by a spirit that gave her messages. Uganda is a very spiritual society, and the idea of a person with a connection to the spirit world can be very powerful. From that group arose Joseph Kony who claimed to be related to her. In essence the uprising started as a revolt by the Acholi people against the government. Kony’s forces were beaten back and he shifted towards harsh tactics of using children to fight.
Children would be kidnapped, trained to become brutal killing machines (starting often under age 10) and used to terrorize anyone not supporting the LRA. Estimates vary on the number of children abducted, but it certainly has been over 30,000. Children were told that if they covered their bodies with oil they could not be harmed by bullets (if someone was shot, that person had obviously disobeyed the spirit) and that God was on their side.
The film Invisible Children follows a group of children who come into the city to sleep, walking miles each way from home because they fear being abducted at night. They’re also in danger en route, and conditions in the city are horrific – they sleep crammed together wherever they can find shelter. The film became a hit – the film makers founded the Invisible children campaign with a website to raise money to help these children.
The publicity seems to have worked. The US Senate unanimously approved condemnation of the LRA, and aid to help Uganda recover from the war. In 2011 President Obama sent American forces to Uganda to advise the Ugandan military in how to destroy the LRA completely and capture Joseph Kony, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court.
The Invisible Children organization now have a new film, focused on Kony, to try to get people to know what’s been going on and the importance of capturing a man who destroyed the lives (and psychological well being) of so many people, including tens of thousands of children.
It starts with the factoid that more people are now on Facebook than were on the planet 200 years ago. It’s an overt effort to create a social media phenomenon – to show how individuals sharing ideas can change the world. For them, the goal is to make it impossible for Joseph Kony to be able to avoid punishment, and to create global consensus about the evil of the LRA and Joseph Kony the man.
The message is zooming across Facebook, blogs and social media. Students are informed, asking questions, and planning events. The Youtube video has 43 million hits as of March 8th. The goal isn’t just to bring Joseph Kony to justice, but to demonstrate the power of new media to change the world. Thanks to social media and the information revolution it’s possible to get more people than ever to see African children as just as human and important as American children. This could start a kind of revolution wherein problems once ignored or deemed intractable get solved because people demand they get solved.
Posters are popping up everywhere, students are educating themselves about Uganda, African politics, and child soldiers. Young Americans who thought that too much homework was a human rights violation now confront the reality of how horrible conditions are for children living in places with war and conflict. Boys forced to kill parents, young girls turned into sex slaves, all base on his own ambitions. Because of his atrocities he was the first person indicted by the International Criminal Court.
Nobody can defend Kony…will, almost nobody. That’s right – Rush Limbaugh defends Joseph Kony. According to Limbaugh, President Obama is siding with the Muslim government in Uganda against Christians – Obama wants to target Christians, according to Limbaugh. Wow. Compared to this, the Fluke comment is small potatoes. Rush Limbaugh defends one of the most heinous criminals in recent history — far worse than Osama Bin Laden — and labels the LRA “Christian”? (Note: I got that from Huffington Post – apparently Rush defended Kony in 2010, I thought he was doing it now.)
Republicans have been quick to condemn Limbaugh on this latest gaffe, it’s so over the top it is indefensible. But if it wasn’t for the power of social media, people wouldn’t even be talking about this.
Where will it go? Will Kony get arrested in 2012? Will the youth discover the power of social media and use it not just to tweet about celebrities but to be able to create momentum to start social movements that will change the world?
The first test will be April 20th, when they want to “cover the world” with Kony posters and signs, getting his name out and noticed. It could well be that Kony 2012 will be remembered as a symbolic first step into a new world where news of atrocities and evils no longer stays hidden, pushed aside by celebrity gossip and media organizations that ignore anything in the third world. Maybe we’re seeing not just a ‘game change’ in the case of the LRA and Joseph Kony, but in the very form of global politics and activism. We live in interesting but also exciting times! Or as the video says:
“We have reached a crucial time in history, where what we do or don’t do right now will affect every generation to come. Arresting Joseph Kony will prove that the world we live in has new rules. That the technology that has brought our planet together is allowing us to respond to the problems of our friends…we are not just studying human history, we are shaping it.”
President Obama’s announcement that all US forces would be out of Iraq by the end of the year, thereby ending the longest and one of the most divisive foreign policy actions in US history.
I still remember the spring of 2003. I was finishing up my book on German foreign policy. Gerhard Schroeder had won re-election as German Chancellor by actively opposing the US decision to go to war in Iraq. I was adding the final pieces to my last edit when the war started on March 20 (19th if you count the attempt to take out Saddam the night before), and on April 3rd I finished for good, sending back the last changes.
I know it was April 3, 2003 because as I was making my final edits my wife came to let me know that it was time to go to the hospital. “Five more minutes,” I said, finishing up. We left at about 5:00 PM, and at 11:47 PM that same day our first son Ryan was born. In that sense, I’ve always had a measure of how long the war dragged on by the growth of my son. He’s now in third grade; the US has been in Iraq his whole life.
I was also teaching American Foreign Policy with a delightfully talkative class which debated and argued with each other in a way that never got mean or nasty. Lance Harvell, now a GOP representative for my state district and neighbor was there, a non-traditional student who’d been in the military. There was Sam Marzenell, Joonseob Park, Christine Rice, Sev Slaymaker and others, debating current events as they unfolded.
I opposed the war, arguing that Iraq’s political culture was not conducive to democracy and rather than be a quick, easy victory enhancing the US role in the region it could turn into a disaster dragging out over years and helping al qaeda recruit. At least one student from that class who disagreed with me has since contacted me to tell me that they had to admit I was right. I think most people who study comparative politics were skeptical of the idea of making Iraq into a model democracy, you don’t just remake societies. This wasn’t like Japan and Germany after WWII, this was a divided pre-modern society with an Ottoman heritage.
Yet what I really remember from that class is how I felt like a good professor in that students were willing and able to debate me using real foreign policy arguments about policy, not fearing that I would somehow punish them for disagreeing (as one told me, some students suspected I gave higher grades to those who disagreed), and making really excellent points. Why can’t all political disagreements be so heated in substance but friendly in form? The day Saddam’s government fell I remember coming to class, tired because of our newborn son, and asked by delighted conservatives what I thought now that Iraq fell so quickly. “Now comes the hard part,” I said, admitting that the war itself had been faster and more effectively than I had expected.
At that point support for the war was high. It was just two years after 9-11, and Afghanistan was seen as a done war, with troops staying just to help the new government get off and running. The next year, in 2004 when Dr. Mellisa Clawson from Early Childhood Education and I taught the course “Children and War” for the first time (we’re teaching it again, for the fourth time next semester) many students were nationalistic and reacted negatively sometimes to our clear skepticism about US policy.
In 2005 for me the tone changed after Vice President Cheney’s “last throes” quote describing the Iraqi insurgency on June 20, 2005. On June 24, 2005 I wrote:
Cheney claimed (still believing his propaganda, perhaps) that the insurgency was in its ‘last throes’ (he defended that by talking about the dictionary meaning of ‘throes’) and — most absurdly — tried to compare this to the Battle of the Bulge and Okinawa. That is the point where the propaganda becomes so absurd that it really had morphed into comedy. This is not a battle against another military superpower where there can be a turning point or where they throw all they have at one battle hoping to turn things around. This is a battle against an insurgency that is building, and which can choose targets, play the time game, and score political victories despite successes in the American/Iraqi military offensives. If they are comparing this to Germany and Japan, they are grasping at whatever they can to try to convince themselves that things will get better. They are out of touch with reality.
By 2006 Iraq slipped into civil war, public opinion shifted against the war, the Democrats took the House, and President Bush’s approval ratings began an inexorable slide to some of the lowest in history. Yet, in 2007 he made the right call. He dumped the original goal of defeating the insurgency and setting up a pro-American government with whom we would be allies and have permanent bases, and embraced a realist notion of making deals with the insurgents, focusing instead only on al qaeda and trying to create enough stability so we could declare victory and leave. It was a retreat from the grandiose vision of the neo-cons, but for me it increased my respect for President Bush. He did something that LBJ couldn’t do in Vietnam: he changed course.
President Obama has taken that policy to it’s logical conclusion. By the end of the year the US will be out completely, and efforts to leave Afghanistan are growing as well. There will be time to reflect on the lessons learned from this war, and how it changed both the US and the Mideast. The challenge of counter-terrorism remains. The Arab world is at the start of a long transition which will no doubt have peaks and valleys, Pakistan and Afghanistan still represent uncertainty, but at least we’re not caught in a quagmire.
For now, it’s a time for a sigh of relief that this traumatic and costly conflict is now truly entering its last phase. President Obama disappointed the anti-war crowd by a cautious winding down of the war rather than a quick exit, but combined with Gaddafi’s death in Libya yesterday, he’s piling up foreign policy success after foreign policy success. And as bad as the economy is, I’d rather the economy be the main issue on the minds of voters than a foreign war.
My second on line course is “War and Peace,” looking at theories of why people go to war, and how peace can be built. I am by principle opposed to military action and war in most cases. The costs of war in human lives, social stability, and the psychological state of both soldiers and the populations involved is immense. Most of the time wars could be avoided through better communication, diplomacy and clear signals of intent. I’m not foolish enough to think humanity is at a point where war can simply be abolished — but I also don’t think war is natural.
My eight year old son is right now fascinated by war. He draws detailed pictures of various weapons and scenes, including a soldier with some kind of missile launcher destroying the Eiffel tower saying “USA Rocks!” While drawing it he asked me what the German word for their army was, so I told him “Bundeswehr.” He wrote that in front of guys defending the Eiffel tower. (The Eurocorps, perhaps?) He later had the same kind of seen with Big Ben, with the clock falling on the defending forces below.
I have friends who would be shocked if their children drew those kinds of pictures, but he’s eight — and he does know the difference between imagination and reality. One time when Ryan showed me a picture of some dead soldiers I said, “gee, I bet their dads and moms aren’t happy.” He stopped a second and said, “Dad, it’s just a picture, it’s imaginary, not real.” Anyway, I’m not going to stifle his creativity because of adult ideas of political correctness. And it was nice that both the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben were in Cars 2 that we saw this weekend.
So, besides the fact that I’m not an overly protective or controlling father, what does it mean that my son gets enamored with the idea of war and weapons? I think culturally it shows how we learn to see war, weaponry and conflict. It is cool, exciting, and one can have victory! The bad guys are defeated. Death is sanitary. “It’s imaginary, not real.” The ideals of honor, heroism and strength become part of who we are. It infiltrates video games, television shows and movies.
First, an aside to those who think I should try to protect my son from that culture: I understand the concern, but disagree with trying to shield children too much. Parents who think they can control the cultural inputs and produce a child that has their own exact values are naive. The more a child is protected and forced to follow paths that parents think are politically/socially/religiously correct, the more likely it is that a child will rebel or be unable to cope with the cultural forces that he or she will inevitably face. Better to let the child learn the culture, but reinforce lessons along the way. For me that means talking a bit about the drawings — acknowledging how cool it looks, how “awesome” the missile launcher is, and how gross the pool of red blood looks. But then at other times talking about the difference between real and imaginary. I actually have surprisingly “grown up” conversations with Ryan about war, religion, and life. In order not to be hypnotized by the culture, one has to be able to navigate it.
Yet the danger is that the glorification of war will desensitize children as they grow, and war will be seen as a big video game, covered by CNN, abstracted to the point that the spectators have no clue of what the participants in war endure — either the civilians caught in the cross fire “over there,” or the soldiers who have to deal with the reality of death and destruction around them. In such a case, the cultural messages of war as honorable, cool, a way of showing strength, and an abstract struggle of good vs. evil will overwhelm that part of war we don’t see — the grotesque, sickening, revolting and tragically sad destruction of families, lives and even cultures.
Is war natural? I think not. Conflict is natural. Self-defense is natural. Anger is natural. Aggression is natural. Sometimes these things turn into actual fights, but rarely does a participant die.
War is different. War is a social process, and in fact a social construct. A collective group (tribe, state, nation) chooses war against another group as an abstraction. Consider: the most poignant and successful anti-war book ever was All Quiet on the Western Front. It had no overt anti-war message, it simply described WWI as it was for German soldiers on the front. War was not glorious or heroic, but mundane, ugly and sickening. The British hated the book because it portrayed Germans as being as just as human and likable as the British. War requires you imagine the other as having evil traits, they are different from you — they don’t value life, they hate freedom. In order to justify killing them, we latch all sorts of absurdities onto the collective “other.” The Nazis and German militarists hated the book because it portrayed the soldiers as being normal, flawed and confused often afraid humans — not the noble heroes the military was supposed to be. War requires myth to be embraced; the reality of war revolts the senses.
War as we might define it (two collective groups fighting) probably began about the time people started farming, and created the notion of private property. The idea of private property is non-existent in many hunter-gather cultures — but once you farm you have to protect the land in order to get the benefit of your efforts. That means you protect the property.
Still, the formation of collective units is natural. Humans are social creatures, and throughout most of our history we have defined ourselves more as part of a group than as distinct individuals. Individualism is a western construct — one that is more myth than reality. So in that sense protection of and competition for resources by groups can be seen as a natural result of human progress in a world of scarcity.
So in regions where people truly lack, and there is a stiff competition for scarce resources, war may indeed be a natural manifestation of the human struggle to survive. Yet in places where people have enough to survive, that doesn’t cut it. In cases where war is about religion, ethnicity, ideology, conquest for the sake of glory, expansion, social darwinism or even to ‘spread democracy,’ war is human construct made possible by how we abstract it into something most people define and understand as something far different than its reality entails. Calling it ‘natural’ and ‘omnipresent in human history’ rationalizes that kind of approach. How can one condemn the inevitable?
But war is rare. Most states settle all their disputes peacefully; only 2% of the population actually fights in a war. Wars make the news because they are an anomaly from most of what’s happening in the world. Moreover, calling it a social construct does not mean we can easily choose to make it go away. All traditions, cultures, and rituals are social constructs. Yet once constructed people tend to reproduce them, and social reality becomes resilient. It’s difficult to, say, end slavery, racism or gain equal rights for women. Those changes required changing culturally shared beliefs, and people usually hold on to their beliefs, change thus can take generations.
So most war may not be natural, but that doesn’t make it easy to overcome or something we don’t have to try to understand, learn about, deal with and at times experience. My hope in this class is that by learning about war and peace, students are able to see international conflict in a realistic light. That means both seeing through the myths of glory, honor and heroism, and also understanding that naive chants of “no more war” are unrealistic. War may be necessary at times, but if one supports any given war, one should do so understanding what war really is, with a cold sober appreciation of the immense costs and uncertainties it creates.
We all know what war is. It’s armies taking on other armies, conflict involving Generals, soldiers in uniforms, and states battling for land or perhaps some kind of ideal. Such is the war of movies — the Nazis vs. the allies, or the US and the Soviet Union in a Cold War, with fears of a Soviet move through the Fulda Gap, and danger of nuclear annhiliation.
Such a view of warfare is increasingly misguided and anachronistic. Back in WWI about 90% of the war casualties were soldiers (though, to be sure, the flu epidemic caused in large part by the war led to mass civilian death), in Iraq 90% of those killed are civilian. Wars blanket sections of Africa, usually not with national armies fighting against each other, but with militias and movements in conflict with governments (which are often corrupt, fragmented units). Though these movements spout ideological principles, usually they are more like organized crime. The Tamil Tigers (LTTE) are not really about a Tamil state, and they certainly do not represent the Tamil people on Sri Lanka. Rather, they traffic in people, drugs and weapons, and are willing to train would be terrorists. Peace in Sri Lanka — which now appears achievable — means that the leaders will lose a lot of income.
In Sierra Leone Foday Sankoh was not about some kind of socialist alternative to the pro-western governments of the eighties. He and Charles Taylor of Liberia wanted money from the diamond trade. Under the guise of a civil war they could use the anarchy and lack of law enforcement to profit handsomely without being accountable in the form of taxes or regulation. In southern Sudan a 2005 peace agreement is endangered by government and rebel posturing, in part because there is dispute over who will get the profits from the oil fields in the region.
In most of these wars the violence is cover for crime. As long as the violence is intense, there will be no enforcment of law, and thus anything goes. They sell women into slavery, put children on the black market, make drug or weapons deals — the dirty underside of the world economy can operate without watchful eyes. The outside world, still seeing war as a dispute between groups with different goals, believes that somehow mediation or conflict resolution can end the fighting. But usually it can’t, since the people involved count on the fighting to continue.
If the fighting were to stop they’d lose their anarchy, there would be more attention to their actions, and they might find themselves in legal jeopardy. To prevent that, they try to assure that the fighting is as brutal as possible in order to make it very difficult for reconciliation. Children are turned to soldiers at young ages, young girls are forced to become sex slaves to the soldiers, and bodies are mutiliated as child soldiers 12 to 14 years old learn to commit mass murder and horrific atrocities. Often the young boys have cocaine smeared into open wounds and are given other drugs to keep their minds in a daze as they kill and terrorize.
Even in places where it isn’t that extreme, civilians suffer. Somalia should be a breadbasket for northern Africa, but instead people suffer famine and starvation due to war lords fighting for power and wealth, using Cold War era weaponry and engaging in crimes such as piracy — something that definitely reflects lack of rule of law!
So war today is less rule bound, more likely to hit civilians, often less about ideology or state interests than criminal acts and money making, and most often found in the third world. Terrorism can be seen as a tactic of this new kind of war. It focuses on civilians, does not usually involve states (though states can support or ‘sponsor’ terror acts) and often is as much about money as ideology. The Basque movement, for instance, has become more overtly like an organized criminal gang, while the Taliban and Afghan war lords focus on opium production. Terrorism is the one tactic that can project this kind of violence into the “civilized West,” potentially subjecting us to the horrors suffered in distant parts of the planet.
Yet most analysts still fixate on states and militaries. Will Iran get a nuclear warhead, will Israel attack Iran, will the Koreas go to war, what about China and Taiwan? These are theoretical wars, all very unlikely to occur (even if Iran gets the bomb, they know they’d be obliterated if they attacked Israel), but yet they get the most ‘play’ in the world of punditry. The Pakistan-India conflict, combining a bit of both the old and new in Kashmir, has even seen all out war become less likely each time they avoid allowing a crisis to go out of control.
Simply, among powerful states the risk of nuclear war is too great to allow a real war to start. Among wealthy states and stable states aspiring to wealth, globalization and interdependence makes war fundamentally irrational. We have created a world where war of the sort we’ve known is literally disappearing. All out European war is certainly a thing of the past, a weakened Russia is more concerned about oil and gas influence than conquest (let alone ‘spreading communism’), and China is so involved in the US economy that it fears too deep a US recession. We are closer to world peace than ever!
Yet, there remains a few pesky problem areas, with the brunt of the real wars involving third world failed states and organized criminal behavior. We should be able to deal with these. In most of these conflicts, small bands of criminals (and often as a counter part a small band of criminal government leaders) fight, with most of the population opposed to the fighting and fearful. It’s usually not major movements fighting each other, more like mafia families in a brutal gang war. And the only true military threat to the West — terrorism — comes from the prospect of these gang wars projecting themselves outward.
But our pundits remain ‘fighting the last war.’ We’re wedded to the notion of war as a military venture involving states and armies. While we’ve learned how to use terms like “asymmetrical conflict,” we haven’t really come to grips with what it means when the major form of warfare is now of a sort very different than that which our military was designed to confront — and our inability to really understand how to confront it has been on display in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Rather than focus on weapon systems, technology, military preparedness, and strength, we need to recognize that the solution to the problems driving 21st century war requires a multi-dimensional approach to building stability in regions with poverty, corruption and instability. It will require states working with NGOs and IGOs (Non-governmental organizations and Inter-governmental organizations) to build transnational civil society and develop local efficacy. This has started, and in places like Sierra Leone and Rwanda there has been progress. But while military actions may at various points be necessary, they will more likely be stopping pirates off the coast of Somalia than engaging in an all out war.
It’s hard for Americans to get our heads around this new kind of war. It’s not what we’re used to, it defies old military stereotypes and threatens the kind of military spending that has become addictive to so many states and districts. But unless we really grapple with the fact that war in the 21st century is fundamentally different than in the past, we could be setting ourselves up for disaster by commiting the age old mistake of ‘fighting (or preparing for) the last war.’
In 2002 Omar Khadr, then 15, was accused of killing an American soldier. He was sent to Guantanamo Bay where he’s been imprisoned ever since, not receiving a trial or any help moving from his early teen years to manhood. He’s now 22, and there is talk of trying him for murder, or sending him back to Canada where he’d be released. He is a Canadian citizen, though his parents were devoted to al qaeda and Osama Bin Laden.
He barely survived a special forces assault, and is accused of having killed an American soldier, though the direct evidence is unclear and probably would not stand up in a court of law. There is a confession, but the defense claims that it was forced. Given that he was a confused teen being kept in confinement in extremely difficult situations, it would be hard to accept that confession. This whole debate, frankly, causes me to be ashamed of the way my country has acted.
First, the argument that these people are ‘hard core terrorists’ and thus must not be released, even if the evidence is murky or won’t stand up in court, is dubious at best, un-American at worst. There are thousands of hard core terrorists in Afghanistan and the Mideast. A percentage of those in Guantanamo may be as well, and might join others to plot some kind of nefarious deed against Americans or others in their homelands. But we don’t know all the facts, and there may be many who either were swept up by false suspicion, or as in this case, had been abused by their parents to want to kill and die for a cause they were brainwashed to believe in.
I am convinced that we should stick to our principles — rule of law, and a belief in our values. If we surrender those to paranoia, then we might be a bit more secure, but at what cost? And we may not even be more secure, if how we treat the enemy or those we suspect of being the enemy helps terror organizations recruit and maintain hatred of US actions.
However, there are other troubling aspects of all this. Afghanistan has been a war zone since 2001. American soldiers have gone in there and killed a number of enemy combatants, and many civilians have died as well. If an American soldier were to be caught by al qaeda, would they have a right to try him or her for murder for doing what they considered their duty? Wouldn’t we be up in arms with anger if it were announced that there was a secret al qaeda prison camp with US soldiers being held indefinitely? And why is it that when their side kills it is murder, but when our side kills it’s simply war? Since we’re powerful, can we hold ourselves to a different moral standard?
Some might say that this is different because it’s terrorism and not war. But where do you draw the line? What is the ‘war on terror’ if it is not a war? What is meant by “the war in Afghanistan” if you want to call all the enemy fighters terrorists? And isn’t there a difference between flying airplanes into the World Trade Center on the one hand, or fighting against what you perceive as an invading army on the other? The argument, of course, is that in 2002 Afghanistan had already developed a post-Taliban government and therefore the war was officially over. But that then works against the claim that they are ‘enemy combatants’ and would require some charge against them to be filed.
Then, of course, is the age of Omar. In my class on War and Peace we’re going to read a book Long Way Home: Memoirs of a Child Soldier by Ishmael Baeh. I’ve co-taught courses on children and war with a Child Development expert. The fact is that just as Baeh could be rehabilitated and go on to live a relatively normal life, the same could happen with Omar Khadr. He was young and a victim of intense propaganda. Treated correctly, he could have been helped. Now, who knows. He was stuffed in this camp with a bunch of hard core terrorists for seven years, it’s uncertain how that affects some one. In much of the world we try to convince children who were forced or manipulated to become soldiers that it is not their fault, and help them overcome their experience. But apparently we only care about the humanity of those fighting wars against other people, not us.
I can understand the fear and paranoia that lead to the use of Guantanamo Bay as a prison camp. It was shortly after 9-11-01, and people feared that terrorism was going to continue and that Islamic extremism and Bin Laden were an existential threat. But fear can overtake rationality. It turns out that Bin Laden had a group of hard core followers, but wasn’t the well connected global matermind people made him out to be shortly after the terror strikes. People took what they could imagine as possible — nuclear terror strikes, biological warfare, etc. — and treated it as probable. Fear does that to you.
Yet now, we have perspective. A good counter-terrorism strategy is tough to design and implement. It’s as much about winning hearts and minds as killing foes. It deals with terrorism on multiple levels, sometimes requring military action, often focusing on undercutting the root causes for youth joining such a movement. Most importantly it requires consistency instead of fear-based reactions. Terrorists can get lucky and have a successful attack. To over-react is usually to play into their hands; counter-terrorism has to be consistent and not dependent on wild fits of fear every time they manage to pull something off.
All of it is meaningless, however, if we sacrifice our values. If people are guilty until proven innocent, or if we hold ourselves to different standards than we hold others, we hurt ourselves. Much like the discussion on torture (which rarely works anyway), we can’t let fear cause us to deny the very moral and ethical foundation upon which the country was built. That includes a belief in individualism (not to collectivize the enemy, but focus on people as individuals), rule of law, and human rights.
So let me offer a bold suggestion. The US should offer the lawyers of Omar Khadr a deal. If he works with US psychologists and therapists to help him cope with recent years, he will be released back to his native Canada. Moreover, if it appears that Khadr has turned a corner, is no longer a threat, and regrets the time in Afghanistan, then Barack Obama should invite Omar Khadr to the White House. The right wing will be aghast, Obama mingling with a killer of an American soldier! Yet Khadr could be a symbol of how the US can, instead of turning a generation of Muslims into enemies through actions that contradict our values, win them over as friends by treating them with respect for their humanity.
That would be a risk. If Khadr plays nice until his release, but then goes back into the field and kills Americans in Afghanistan, Obama would be savagely ridiculed as a naive idealist. If, however, it works, we can build on this and the unraveling of the “culture of Guantanamo” to demonstrate to the world that we are not sacrificing our values out of fear. Yeah, we went overboard after 9-11, much like we did in the McCarthy era. But our values ultimately win, because that is the only way for our country to win.