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Veterans for Peace: From Warriors to

IN NOVEMBER OF THIS YEAR, one could have believed that the forces for peace in America had been successfully silenced. According to the media and the polls, almost no one thought slapping Iraq down again with missiles was a bad idea, and most of us were hoping for the bonus torching of Saddam Hussein. But, outside the mainstream consciousness, fed by corporate media and political spinmasters, lay a collection of veterans who knew first-hand the terrible price of war, and who now spend their lives as witnesses for the process of peace. Members of Veterans for Peace (VFP), men and women who have served honorably in the Armed Forces of the United States, act out of conviction that comes from personal experience and the knowledge that, too often, we do not hear the truth.

Some of the things these veterans and other peace workers know is the connection between imperialism and materialism, that the disproportionate use of the world?s raw materials by the west is driving the violence required to maintain control over those resources. They know from recent UNICEF reports, for instance, that 8,000 Iraqi children are now dying each month as a direct result of the U.N. sanctions that prohibit the importation of chlorine to clean their polluted water supply, or enough medicine to treat the sick. They know, as former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark has pointed out, that U.N. inspection teams over a period of seven years claim to have destroyed 90 percent of the remaining Iraqi missile capacity and designated military material. Iraq is not capable of a serious threat against anyone. And they also know, as did our diplomats in the Sudan, that the El Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum destroyed by U.S. bombs in August produced, not chemical weapons, but 90 percent of the antibiotics used for malaria, the leading cause of death there.

As this century begins to close, more than 100 million people have died in its wars, including women, children and the elderly. Soldiers do not escape, either, after war. Fully 40 percent of all homeless men in America are veterans. A number of veterans organizations do important work on behalf of veterans medical health and benefits issues, landmine abolition, and conflict resolution education. VFP, in addition to increasing public awareness of the costs of war, ending the arms race and restraining the U.S. government from intervening in the internal affairs of other nations, claims as its mandate "to abolish war as an instrument of international policy." War, they agree, is simply not an effective way to solve problems.

What can be effective? Instead of relying on news reports, every year members of VFP, such as 79-year-old board member and World War II Naval officer, Edilith Eckart, travel around the world on missions of citizen diplomacy. Instead of bombs, they bring medicine, wheelchairs, vitamins and companionship for children affected by war. This year Edilith, representing VFP, along with eighty other peace workers, traveled to Iraq with Ramsey Clark in a delegation known as the "Iraq Sanctions Challenge." In defiance of the United States, they did not ask or receive permission to travel and brought with them $4 million worth of drugs and other medical supplies for the thousands of children suffering under the U.N. economic embargo, tied to the U.N. weapons inspections. As Kathy Kelly of Voices in the Wilderness wrote to the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) in Iraq, "It defeats the purpose of disarmament if hundreds of thousands of civilians die in the process."

This focus on people, individuals "not hardware, firepower, or government obduracy" is a sharp reminder of the how far from reality our cocooned response to conflict has become. More than 500,000 children are reported to have died as a result of the sanctions.

"The sanctions have been in place for eight years, and I've seen the effect," says Edilith, named "Humbolt County's Dauntless Peacenik" by California?s Northcoast Journal. "Women have a different way of looking at this whole war thing. I've seen the babies dying in Iraqi hospitals. I've helped shoo the flies off their mouths and eyes. Their mothers were waving their hand over their face and I felt I just had to sit there and help and not go on to the next ward because I wanted to keep on shooing the flies away. If the 90 or so percent of the American public who wanted to bomb Iraq could have seen those babies, they would have thought differently. Five of us reported our experiences to the VFP convention this year and the members passed a resolution calling for the lifting of sanctions against Iraq. We were first-hand observers, fresh, committed and passionate about what we had to report."

One of the experiences they reported was visiting the Ameriyah bomb shelter in Baghdad that had been destroyed by U.S. "smart bombs." "I've been to Hiroshima, I've been to Nagasaki,' reported Edilith. ?I?ve been to the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem and I have felt very touched in all those places, but in the Ameriyah bomb shelter, where our two smart bombs hit...It"s an upper middle-class neighborhood. It was during Ramadan, where they fast all day and have a party after nightfall, so the whole neighborhood had sent its children to the bomb shelter, the safest place. They said there were 1,200 people in the shelter, killed. That neighborhood lost all its children. We were escorted by a woman who had lost nine family members, including seven children. The U.S. government knew damn well it was a bomb shelter and not a nerve gas facility, because it had been built by one of our allies!?

There are considerable advantages to replacing embargoes and violence with citizen diplomacy, according to Antonia Balazs, acting executive director of Veterans for Peace. "A citizen diplomat is someone who isn't necessarily in public service, who has skills that can be brought to bear on these issues," she explains. "They use those skills in their capacity as private citizens, but with the knowledge from their military experiences, for example, to educate policy makers here and policymakers and citizens elsewhere. I think in Iraq just talking to each other can cut through a lot. There is a great feeling there that America is being unfair and that America is to blame. If people like Edilith can talk to Iraqi citizens, they can help dispel some of these ideas. Citizen diplomacy can show the Iraqi people that Americans do care, and it can help shatter some of the perceptions that feed the escalation of tensions. I think that is a great use of people talking to people."

Edilith noticed that Saddam Hussein's popularity had only seemed to increase as a result of the sanctions and the hardships they produced. "If you want to bring Saddam Hussein down, sanctions are not the way," she says. "It makes the people of Iraq hate the sanctions and hate the American government. But they don't hate me! We were waved and smiled at, even cheered, when we were in Baghdad. The students at the university were so very happy to meet with our students and were so delighted that we were there. It was a wonderful feeling. This was citizen diplomacy. And the little children in schools were so delighted with us when we came into their classrooms. They couldn?t speak our language and we couldn't speak theirs...We gave each child a pencil. They didn't have any pencils because the sanctions don't allow importing graphite. It's a war material, so no pencils. They were jumping up and down because they had gotten pencils from us!"

The group also had a face-to-face meeting with Tariq Assiz, Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq and the country?s chief spokesperson. Edilith suggested that Iraq and Veterans for Peace work together on the controversial Gulf War syndrome, depleted uranium effect. Depleted uranium was used on the U.S. anti-tank missiles in the Gulf War and as armor plates on U.S. tanks because of its strength as a metal. Many cases of leukemia are reported in the countryside in battle zones where supposedly radioactive dust resulted from the explosions of the missiles, also affecting U.S. troops.

"In two days Tariq Assiz had arranged for us to go out to the University of Baghdad and receive a report from a professor who had been studying the effects of the radiation from our missiles that were encompassed with depleted uranium," remembers Edilith. "I felt that Tariq Assiz himself thought, 'Ah yes, here is something, here is a commonality!' "

How do warriors, such as members of Veterans for Peace, including highly-ranked officers, become peacemakers? Edilith says she "always felt a soul anxiety about my country having dropped those two bombs in Japan in a war where I was complicit."

Ron Landsel, a VFP Vietnam veteran who came back from the war keeping a place within himself separate and untouchable, vowed that none of his sons would ever fight in a war. He has since used public speaking opportunities with other veterans to share experience and wisdom with younger generations.

Brian Willson, another Vietnam vet and member of VFP was assigned during his tour to enter villages bombed by the South Vietnamese. What he saw, including a young mother with children in arms with her eyelids burned off by napalm, made him cry in shame and frustration. "She could be my sister," he reports in Daniel Hallock?s book Hell ,Healing and Resistance, Veterans Speak, and these kids could be my kids. And then I knew I had moved on to something completely different. It seemed as though I now had a new soul."

"It's my underlying belief that humans are compassionate, cooperative beings," asserts Edilith. "Television, movies, the media have squeezed us down and numbed us down. We forget the inner, basic being that we are, and that is compassionate. That's our true nature. My son-in-law was a platoon sergeant in Vietnam. He put himself out as a pointer to go see who was sniping at them. When they got to the little dugout, they threw a grenade in first. They found the snipers.Two teenage girls. The last thing one of the girls did before she died was spit on my son-in-law. It broke his heart. He said, 'What am I doing here, what am I doing here?'

"Another of our veterans tells how he didn't get sent to Vietnam for various reasons, but his army outfit did go and the messages came back one by one that his fellows in that group were killed. He is now an activist. Sometimes it's the survivors, who have had their friends killed by this absolutely ridiculous thing called war, and sometimes it?s those who have seen combat."

Is war, then, never justified? VFP says it has an obligation "to understand and recognize the difference between military defense and military adverturism, and to resist the latter."

One-third of VFP members have served in combat. One-quarter are women. Although headquartered in Washington D.C., there are fifty chapters of the organization throughout the United States, which initiate their own agendas and programs. VFP has sent delegations to Cuba, Central America, Mexico, Iraq and Bosnia and acted as human rights observers throughout the world. In the U.S. they've set up information tables on college campuses during rush week.

Most Veterans for Peace members are veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Antonia Balazs suggests there are fewer members from the Gulf War because "People want to get on with their lives and want to put it behind them. Also, I think, it's time and distance. They are only just coming around to assimilating the whole experience. Then they reach a point where they are interested in getting reinvolved with that part of their lives." Some veterans, unfortunately, never do reconcile themselves to the horrors of their experience.

Ron Landsel, in Hell, Healing and Resistance, describes one of his own answers to despair. "I'd say that you have to live for something else, something bigger than yourself, bigger than your own problems... Giving my life to something more meaningful, to working for peace and justice in a life of nonviolent brotherhood, is the only way I can deal with it." ###

 

[Jan/Feb 1999]

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