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Shifting Alliances and Building Tribes

Shifting Alliances and Building Tribes


Church leaders didn’t want me there. The minister had even called me into her office to ask me to stop passing out anti-war flyers and articles on the Iraq War. Why? Because I led a church peace group that was calling for the church to take a public stand against the illegal, immoral US government-led invasion and occupation of the sovereign nation of Iraq in March 2003, an invasion justified by lies.

The church has recently taken a public stand in support of gay marriage and posted a large banner on its façade. I, and other peace committee members, thought this terrible war was at least as worthy of our commitment. Some church leaders, and funders, disagreed. They not only disagreed, they were openly hostile to us, turning their backs to us when we tabled in the fellowship hall after services and complaining about us to the minister.

From Phil Donahue fired from MSNBC for opposing the US-led invasion to Bill O’Reilly yelling at war protestors to shut up to people burning the Dixie Chicks’ CDs for criticizing George Bush and the war, the vilification of dissenters during wartime was not that different from what we have experienced in the last few years during the Covid “wars.” The sides have just gotten all mixed up.

My family and I attended this church regularly for a couple of years as the Iraq War raged, including during George Bush’s 30,000-troop “surge” in 2007. Not having grown up in a church, my attendance was an introduction to organized religion and to peace activism. I studied the Iraq War, and past wars, and learned of David Swanson’s work on the Downing Street memos. The Downing Street memos revealed that George Bush and Tony Blair decided to remove Saddam Hussein from power but had to fabricate a reason to invade and occupy the country, Swanson reported. The claim that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction was a lie to justify the invasion. I called Swanson with questions. He said the US invaders dismantled the Ba’ath Party in Iraq, which ran the government and the military, sent them all home, creating a power vacuum for enraged Iraqi fighters, defending against invaders.

Chaos and carnage ensued, largely caused by the US invasion. The more I learned, the less sense it made. I wondered where the churches and church people were during the invasion and catastrophic destruction. Where had the churches been during past wars? I kept reading and asking questions.

Swanson, a clean-cut family man, UVa Philosophy major and Charlottesville neighbor of mine, and many others, helped me learn about criminal lies and collusions that precipitated the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Vice President Dick Cheney’s company, Halliburton, and many others, made billions on the invasion and occupation while US soldiers stirred burn pits, which exposed them to life-threatening toxic chemicals; stepped on Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), lost limbs; were blown up in vehicles by IEDs; and broke into and destroyed Iraqi families’ homes. 

Previously, I naively had thought that all churches must be peace churches. Not that we wouldn’t fail but that if churches represent our highest ideals and aspirations, our most noble beliefs, then of course they would work for and stand for peace. I had read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and The Beatitudes. Why even have a church if it wasn’t a peace church?

Then I learned differently. Most churches, including this so-called liberal one, very loosely based on Protestantism, mostly stood by silently during wars, and some denominations even rallied around wars. At this church we were attending, beliefs were so wide open, it was hard to pin down what the beliefs were. Someone at the church told me a joke: “When is the only time you will hear the name, Jesus, at the —- Church?” The answer: “When the janitor falls down the stairs.”

As I worked on the peace committee, I studied past wars, the concept of “just war” or “justifiable war,” and I studied organized religions. I asked religious people from various denominations and peace activists lots of questions. Where had churches been during past wars? What did members do or say? Where were they in the run-up to WWI and II, Vietnam, and now the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars? “What about Hitler?” people always seemed to get around to asking. “We couldn’t stop Hitler without war,” they asserted.

I wondered what effect it would have had if the US ceased to do business with Hitler years before the war? I studied the runup to WWII and learned in Nicolson Baker’s Human Smoke and other texts, about British and American pacifists and many others who tried to stop that war years before millions died. I wonder what would have happened if WWI had ended differently?

Few Iraq War critics spoke up twenty years later to question or criticize Covid policies, though the periods share similarities with populations’ blind following of disastrous and deadly government policies and mandates while almost every major media outlet ceased questioning and championed the policies. Glenn Greenwald and Cindy Sheehan are two rare public figures who did question publicly both the wars and our latest deadly fiascos. Sheehan’s son, Casey, was killed in Iraq in 2004 at 24, the same year my younger son was born. Casey’s death compelled Sheehan to activism against the war.

Sadly, both Democrats and Republicans supported the wars and the Covid disasters, as long as all the right people got paid. Questioners in government or media were forced out or quit or worse. Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) was a lone voice opposing the Authorization to Use Military Force in Afghanistan, which began the so-called War on Terror, opening the way for any US military action anywhere in the world.

Vocal critics of the military industrial complex may’ve been daunted by also taking on the pharmaceutical medical industrial complex recently. Propaganda was so thick we couldn’t see straight, and government censorship strangled debate. You could kill someone just by breathing, we were told. Additionally, Trump hatred clouded even the best thinkers’ judgment when they wouldn’t take “his” Republican vaccine, but Biden’s Democratic one was OK. I even read a respected peace activist refer to Trump’s Covid policies as “homicidal.” Whether Democrat or Republican, politicians all rallied around restrictive and deadly Covid policies just like they did deadly war policies. It became so tragic and ridiculous that it was hard to keep up. 

And yet, here we are more than 20 years after the US bombed Iraq on March 19, 2003, lighting up American TV screens as commentators with expensive haircuts and perfectly white teeth ran their mouths on every network. One hundred and sixty thousand US troops entered Iraq on March 20. In 2007, the US government sent 30,000 more to try to “win.” There was an “unprecedented pattern of repeat deployments,” according to the National Institute for Health with 2.1 million service members sent to war, including 38 percent sent more than once and 10 percent sent to combat three or more times.

I befriended Iraqi refugees in my town, who had entered the US with the International Rescue Committee (IRC). Nahla remembered and described to me seeing the peach fuzz on the upper lip of the US soldier invading her neighborhood. She was a government worker, an office worker, in Iraq before the war. Conditions in the country were better when Saddam was in power, she said. When I met her in 2007, she cleaned offices second shift at UVa and described her chronic wrist pain from flipping open trash can liners dozens of times each night. Sawsan, her roommate, was a drafting teacher at an Iraqi high school, who pushed wheelchairs and gurneys at UVa in her American job. Hana, who lived in an apartment nearby, had been an Iraqi business owner, and was now widowed by the war and was cleaning rooms at the Hampton Inn.

The church peace committee had asked me to lead, so I did, organizing church and public events for education and to prepare to ask the church to take a public stand against the war and call for its end. Our statement also called for support for US soldiers as well as aid to Iraqi and Afghan refugees. We tabled and passed out literature, including the transcript of Iraq veterans’ Winter Soldier testimony, similar to the testimonies of Vietnam War veterans.

We showed many documentaries, including The Ground Truth and Shocking and Awful, Rethinking Afghanistan, Why We Fight, and War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death. We held letter-writing events to urge legislators to stop funding the war. We hosted Jeremy Scahill to talk about his book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Some events were well-attended. When I printed a flyer to promote the movie, War Made Easy, the ministers asked me to take off the word, “death” from the flyer, so it would instead read: War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us.

One of our posters displayed pictures of US service members, killed in the war. Ministers asked us to take it down. During coffee hour, some church leaders (funders?) glared at us, me in particular, because I was the committee leader, and some even visibly turned their backs. Some men may have been retired State Department employees. I wasn’t sure. Their views were certainly in contrast to Matthew Hoh’s, a Marine Corps officer and State Department veteran, who had spoken publicly against the wars.

Also, during this time, I taught literature and writing for an independent adult college degree program and taught active-duty service members while they were deployed. They sent me their essays by email. One student, a Marine, in charge of a large unit in Iraq, called me about every week. I will never forget the fear and adrenaline in his voice. During one call, he told me that his literature book had been blown up.

For peace education, our committee promoted a local showing of a play about Rachel Corrie. No one came. I wondered what was so frightening about a lovely young woman who died defending a Palestinian family’s home. Prominent members of this church did not want us to ask the church to take a public stand on the war, and I couldn’t understand why and still don’t, more than twenty years later. Older members of the peace committee later apologized to me for asking me to take the lead role as they remembered how ugly things had gotten during the Vietnam War and feared our work may also provoke inexplicable ugliness.

Hostility was similar outside the church. With friends and family, I went to DC often in the war years to attend protests. Attenders defied stereotypes I had about peace protestors, having grown up in a military family. Riding on buses to protests were working people, moms and dads, grandparents, veterans of past wars in Korea, Vietnam, WWII, teachers, nurses, people of various professions.

At protests, I learned about agitators and provocateurs. Before one protest, agitators circulated online rumors that peace protestors planned to deface the Vietnam War Memorial. This was ridiculous and untrue, of course. DC police stood down that day and allowed aggressive counter protestors to scream in our faces and force us to walk through a gauntlet to our gathering. Some of us pushed disabled Vietnam and WWII veterans in wheelchairs, and my youngest son was in a stroller.

Protests were massive. One year, my dear friend, Mary, carried a sign to protest the military’s Stop Loss Policy, a policy whereby service members’ contracts could be repeatedly extended. Her veteran son had been sent for repeated deployments under that policy and had staged a protest on the downtown mall. We marched with various groups, including Military Families Speak Out, Bring Them Home Now, Code Pink, Veterans for Peace, Iraq Veterans Against the War, and Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

In March 2010, groups protested John Yoo’s speaking appearance at UVa. Yoo, George Bush’s deputy assistant attorney general, authored legal memos, authorizing the US to use waterboarding and other torture methods against prisoners. I met with Ann Wright at this event and others. Wright is a retired US Army Colonel, who resigned in protest of the Iraq War. Cindy Sheehan and David Swanson and many others attended the Yoo protest.

The vilification of dissenters at that time was not that different from now. At that time MSNBC fired Phil Donahue, one of the only so-called mainstream media figures to speak against the Iraq War. Mobs made bonfires of the Dixie Chicks’ CDs and called for their deaths when one of the group made disparaging remarks about George Bush at a concert. On this, another anniversary of the start of that horrible war, I sadly remember viciousness against dissent was not that different than it was during recent Covid nightmares and carnage. Pro-war mobs, policing others on their patriotism, were not that different from the pro-vaccine mobs, bullying and monitoring others on their masking, distancing, and gathering.

During Covid mania, you could lose your job for the wrong click or the wrong speech. The sides may’ve been different, though. And like “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” aren’t wars ramped up and fought for someone’s idea of “freedom,” that potent abstraction, also wielded during the Covid period? The sides and contexts change and are usually worth interrogating.

Is it time to disassemble sides and camps, to intermingle tribes, so we may think more critically and independently, build alliances to grapple with real and substantial challenges we share, challenges that get ignored while governments harm our health, waste our resources, order violence, and overreach their power and authority? Rulers and cartels, who have gotten paid all along, want us down in the street fighting each other. That way, they retain their power and keep getting paid…while nothing changes all that much.

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  • Christine Black

    Christine E. Black's work has been published in The American Journal of Poetry, Nimrod International, The Virginia Journal of Education, Friends Journal, Sojourners Magazine, The Veteran, English Journal, Dappled Things, and other publications. Her poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and the Pablo Neruda Prize. She teaches in public school, works with her husband on their farm, and writes essays and articles, which have been published in Adbusters Magazine, The Harrisonburg Citizen, The Stockman Grass Farmer, Off-Guardian, Cold Type, Global Research, The News Virginian, and other publications.

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