An activist, clown, trainee lawyer and writer from England. I was in Iraq several times, most recently Nov 03 to May 04, still writing about Iraq and passing on my friends' stories from there.

Saturday, June 12, 2004

There's loads to write about the tour in the USA and all the people I've met, but not much time to get it all onto a computer. Meanwhile I thought I'd share this:

> You are a lying,full of shit,coward and a hypocrite,like all ugly Brits
> and the simple reason why I hate all u Brit-shit.If u yellow faggots are
> so "humane and peacefull" why didnt u cry like bitches when Saddam killed
> 250,000?Are u a sore loser?You know your kind was good and
> shit-stomped,not only in Iraq but also in Afghan.U know u faggots are
> finished and you're suitably scared.Even Khaddafy's shitting his asshole
> Arab diapers.Too bad our good ole'Marines are shooting u faggots in the
> back in Falluja.Well,u cunts should know that what goes around comes back
> 'round.I knew Scott Helvenston,u fuck-pig,(he's 1 of the prvt.security men
> that was mutilated there)and his family's cheering at the sight of u
> suffering,murdered faggots.There's only 1 problem.I dont believe u.I know
> u lie about "civillian casualties" in Falluja.You limeys invented tabloid
> journalism,then invaded nations like Irelan,USA and even Iraq.Why the fuck
> was'nt the British left whining against that shit?If u cant win
> a war,why not try to pretend to be a victim instead of a predator,which
> is what any Arab faggot or leftie Euro- asshole is.U faggots lie all the
> time.Iraqi shit were denying US troops were IN Iraq last yr when we were
> at the gates of Baghdad.Everything Arabs and left-wing westerners say is
> a lie.U camel cock-suckers ONLY know how to lie.U cant do anything else.U
> certainly cant win a war.Not a cold one or a hot one.If Bush really IS
> the liar u say he is,u should love him,cause u bitches love every other
> lying,thieving mass murderer.Why not the Yankee kind?Afraid your
> socialist/fascist/Islamic "revolution" is dying of ass cancer?Looks to me
> like it is.Why dont u ugly,repulsive,loathesome English
> losers(inbred?)learn to brush your teeth?(inbred?)

Dear Greg,

Thankyou so much for your insightful and interesting comments. Please accept my apologies for my misguided belief that what I witnessed were people and ambulances being shot dead by marines in Falluja. Thanks to your careful explanations I now realise I was also wrong when I believed that George Bush had lied, along with Tony Blair. I now realise that bombing a nation to get rid of a dictator that my country and yours supported, funded and armed, shaking his hand in friendship while blocking international condemnation of his gassing of the Kurds using the helicopters we had sold him was entirely the right choice. I further realise that the social and economic chaos which were inflicted by the war are a great benefit to the Iraqi people, who are merely being ungrateful when they whine about this, as they were when they consistently grumbled about the sanctions which starved them while strengthening Saddam. I am most grateful for your help in revealing the truth to me and, having finally seen the light, I shall now go shopping for a toothbrush to clean my inbred teeth and go home happy.

Thankyou, with all my heart,


Monday, June 07, 2004

June 6th, 7pm, Albuquerque, New Mexico - Peace and Justice Centre, Harvard NW

June 7th, 7pm, Santa Fe, New Mexico - Cloud Cliff Cafe

June 8th, 6:30, Taos, New Mexico - Chamisa Mesa High School.

June 10th,7pm, Salida, Colorado - Bongo Billy Cafe, Sackett St.

June 11th, 7:30pm, Cristol Chemistry Building, University of Boulder, Colorado

June 12th, 7pm, Barbecue Woof Cafe, 333 E Colfax, Denver, Colorado

June 14th, 7pm, Tempe Friends Meeting House, Phoenix, Arizona

June 16th, Flagstaff, Arizona

July 3rd, 3:30-5pm, Ideas for Freedom workshop, Highgate Newton Community Centre, 25 Bertram St, London N19 (10 mins walk from Archway Tube)

Sept 26th - Labour Against the War Fringe meeting at Labour Party conference, Brighton

Thursday, June 03, 2004

May 27th
Honey Buckets

You can find Honey Buckets all over Washington State and beyond, not sweet-smelling receptacles of goodness but foul stinking pits of raw human waste with a note on the side specifying that they are designed for use by up to ten persons for a working week and if overused they are liable to overflow.

I say this, of course, with tongue in cheek, but if a Portaloo (or Porta-Potty, as Andy assured me they are known in North America) can be called a Honey Bucket without any apparent controversy then why should not an invasion and occupation which kills civilians and replaces the ruling Baathists with ruling ex-Baathists be called a liberation or the devastation of Falluja a ‘pacification’?

A young woman gave us directions to Fairhaven Campus and bowed. The administration at West Washington University in Bellingham tried to shut down the teachers’ union but found itself unable to do so because international as well as state laws protected the union, which was fighting, among other things, lack of funding and the drop in lecturers’ pay to less than it was a decade ago in real terms.

The Global Forums lecture series is organised outside of the normal lecture programme to allow students access to speakers from a variety of disciplines. The campus itself is multi-disciplinary, a display on the wall showing the final project of a young woman who spent a few weeks working in India with a farmers’ group, looking at the effects of the global agricultural and biotechnology industries’ efforts to control them.

One of the things I talk about is what people can do next, how they can support Iraqi people and some constructive actions generally towards global justice and human rights. On my list of useful actions is “Get rid of Bush.” Then I have to confess that I’m not sure what the alternative is. Kerry wants to send more troops to Iraq and is little better, if at all, on health, the environment, education, anything else that serves the majority of US citizens. The big difference is that, like Clinton, Kerry would shaft the US public with infinitely more charm than Bush so that most would not notice until it was too late.

There was a woman there who’s been investing enormous energy in voter registration and motivation, trying to make sure that people get out, vote for Kerry and oust Bush. She was demoralised, she said, to think that Kerry was not the answer, that it wouldn’t solve anything, that she couldn’t go home and have a rest safe in the knowledge that Bush was gone if only she could do enough to help get him voted out. She felt like giving up.

No. No no no no no. Though Bush’s re-election would seem to the rest of the world like a vote of approval, politics doesn’t begin or end with the presidential election. The citizens of the US need to be out on the streets for the Republican National Convention and for the Democratic National Convention. They need to be out on the streets the day after the election demonstrating against the unjust policies of whichever candidate gets his hands on power.

They need to know that there is not going to come a point where they can go home and forget about struggling for justice because there’s already legislation in process to reinstitute the draft, which no one’s going to talk much about until after the election but the country cannot maintain recruitment rates at the level it needs unless it starts conscripting, even with the ‘economic draft’ already in place whereby the lack of civilian jobs and the expense of higher education and health insurance forces so many into the military already.

They need to know that if they go home and wait for things to improve, they will find their savings worthless, their jobs disappearing, their schools closed, their houses repossessed. Al called it the most ‘Class War’ election in history: Yale class of 67 versus Yale class of 69. I might have the years wrong, but you know what he means.

From Bellingham we went back south a bit to Olympia, where they’re fighting the plan for a nuclear submarine to dock in the port. As you drive through, you can see where the really huge ships are, the place the submarine would dock. It’s right in town. There’s been massive local opposition to it, including many of the city council members, of whom the most active and vocal have been receiving death threats and other harassment. At the council meetings, the locals said, all those from Olympia itself were against the sub docking; those in favour were all from elsewhere.

The IOW Union dockworkers threatened to shut down the port for the entire time the sub was there and the military, fearing protests, withdrew the plan, but the locals say it isn’t won yet. A couple of other councillors have tabled a counter motion in favour of the sub docking there. Meanwhile there are moves to make Olympia a nuclear free city, like Manchester, in the UK, and a few other cities around the world, and the navy has been asked to rename the submarine something other than the USS Olympia. The nearby town of Lacey has apparently offered up its name in exchange.

We talked first in the South Puget Sound Community College. The community colleges offer two year courses, whereas the university programmes last four years and cost much more. It’s possible, although not easy, to transfer to a university later. David teaches a couple of courses, including one on Social Problems, things like criminology. For him, teaching political and social issues to a hundred people each quarter who have never heard anything like it is more productive in terms of awareness raising than anything else he’s ever done.

Eugene spent 28 years in the army, retiring recently in order to avoid taking part in a war in Iraq that he didn’t agree with. He served in Somalia, the Balkans, dozens of other places around the world. Like most people, he said, he joined because he was poor and there were not many other options available to him. In the former Yugoslavia he described being transported by bus across Hungary and into the conflict zone. They would travel into villages, deposit food and leave under fire, not able to stop and make sure it was safely distributed, immensely frustrated because their mission was never quite clear and there wasn’t the support, the equipment, the communications to enable them to do it properly.

Nick’s brother is in Iraq in the army, a truck driver based at ‘Camp Anaconda’, the base at Balad, a small town in Anbar province which is sealed off with razor wire and a fierce curfew. All his brother’s letters said was that he just wanted to come home, Nick said, asking us about Balad, where it was, what it was like. Their mum was against the war and ignores the news because it’s the only way she can deal with having her boy over there. Their dad went the other way, wholeheartedly supporting the war.

Nick’s best friend has just finished basic training. He doesn’t agree with the war either, Nick said, but is resigned to the fact that he’s going to have to go there. He joined the army because he couldn’t see any other options, no way into college, no jobs. The army recruiters promise money for college: Frank Davis, the soldier on the checkpoint going into Baghdad airport when I left, said the same. He was training to be a paramedic and needed money for that. Often, it seems, the actual money is elusive, depending on a series of obstacles, but it’s hard to get out once you’re in, even if the promises don’t come true.

The local brewery in Tomwater, the town next to Olympia, was bought by the multinational Miller corporation which immediately threatened to close it down with the loss of 400 jobs unless the local authority gave $12 million for a new water processing plant. Over a barrel, so to speak, the authority obliged but three years later Miller, having also bought the Portland and Seattle breweries, closed Tomwater and put the premises up for sale subject to an undertaking not to brew beer.

Briefly there was the possibility of a water bottling enterprise taking over, which would have provided forty jobs, but even that was scuppered when the company expressed an interest in starting brewing operations a few years down the line. The brewing equipment is all there, perfect for an employee take-over, Argentina style, though the sale condition would mean it would have to be squatted, a guerrilla brewery.

“Those politics are not here,” Nick said. I don’t suppose for a moment that Miller was in cahoots with the US military and it’s recruitment battalion when it destroyed the local industry but it might as well have been and it demonstrates yet again the inextricable connection between the military and the economy, how the same practices that destroy social well being and the environment also fuel military recruitment and wanton war-making.

So if there’s anyone out there who drinks Miller’s beer, I suggest they stop, and if there’s anyone who lives near a Miller brewery or office HQ, I suggest they go and leave a little message on the walls expressing disapproval, on behalf of the unemployed brewers of Tomwater, Seattle and Portland.

Back in the college, Heather explained that the authorities tried to ban their group, Brick, and cancel its funding because of a court ruling on balance. Brick focuses on one side of the political spectrum because it’s that kind of club, just as the Conservative Club on campus focuses on the other side. Overall, on the campus, there’s a balance. But the college interpreted the ruling to mean the individual clubs had to call on speakers from opposing political ideologies.

“The college always errs on the side of suppressing free speech rather than protecting it. Their first reaction to anything is to try and shut stuff down,” Heather explained. The reason it was irritating her so much was that the college was now discussing closing down the Christian Club, in response to an Attorney General’s ruling that a student elsewhere in the country couldn’t use his federal aid funding to pay for study in some kind of Christian institution. They interpreted it to mean that no funds at all could be given to anything Christian and nothing Christian could be allowed to exist on campus.

It reminded me of the struggle at the University of the West of England when I was studying there part time and the Students’ Union banned all mention of the war and any events relating to the war. It passed a motion declaring the Union, as an institution, neutral in the matter of the war on Afghanistan and interpreted that to mean that no one could discuss the war, or any war, on university premises.

The students had to get officers elected to minor roles on the Union committee, like Disability Officer, in order to overturn the ban on the Stop the War society and prevent posters being taken down all over campus. If Unions and universities won’t defend free speech, who will?

Some of the students and lecturers are going to the National Governors’ Association meeting which is coming up. A lot of the health and education programmes operate at state rather than federal level so the place protesters can make a difference, or try to, is in the faces of the state governors.

Meanwhile it was announced that a State of Emergency has been declared across five counties in the state of Georgia for a month surrounding the G8 meeting. The restrictions have been announced two weeks ahead of the meeting, to prevent protests outside the meeting.

A terror warning has been put out about a seven man Al-Qaeda cell which is alleged to be on the loose inside the USA, perhaps in preparation for the Republican Convention in August, to justify even more protest-suppressing measures and frighten away the people who maybe don’t normally go to protests but felt moved to go to this one.

The New York Times has apologised for it’s failure to question the claims made by the US government on weapons of mass destruction in the time before the invasion of Iraq. It’s only the second time anyone I’ve asked can remember the NYT apologising for anything like that, the first being its reporting on a man who was wrongly accused of something.

They apologised for simply reprinting the claims of the White House lot without seeking to verify the claims, which doesn’t mean it won’t happen again, most likely means they desperately need to restore some kind of credibility but at least, I suppose, underlines the effects of a super-acquiescent media for those who hadn’t noticed it.

At the end of the second talk, in Orca Books, an ordinary bookshop which gives a lot of space to independent and radical books and to talks by their writers, I told a story specific to Olympia, the home town of Rachel Corrie, the young woman murdered by an Israeli military bulldozer in March 2003 while she was trying to prevent the demolition of Palestinian homes in Rafah.

I was in Iraq when she was killed and dedicated that day’s dispatch to her. A friend in England was reading selected, non-political parts of my writing to the kids she taught in a secure unit for young people with severe emotional problems such as advanced eating disorders or repeated suicide attempts. One of the girls wrote her a letter a while later, having moved on into another place, saying that was what turned her around, realising that there was someone who had travelled miles from home and died for something really important, while she was trying to kill herself for nothing at all.

The point is that you never know: Rachel couldn’t have known that her going to Palestine would inspire a young woman she’d never met to live; I didn’t know when I wrote about it and my friend didn’t guess when she read it out. You don’t know the effects your actions and words are going to have and often you don’t find out afterwards, so you just have to throw yourself in and do what you think is right without trying to add up the results and despair if they don’t seem big enough. That’s what I think anyway.

Outside, there was a woman called Elizabeth who had decided to run for president. Her reasoning was this: Elizabeth is the name of the Queen of England. The Queen’s dad was called George. George was also the name of the former president, Washington. She and George were both the oldest of five children. Her uncle and his son both had the middle name Blair, as in Tony. Her best friend’s name was Linton, which was suspiciously similar to Clinton.

It was, therefore, only logical and my favourite conspiracy theory of all time. It makes at least as much sense as calling a portable toilet a Honey Bucket.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

May 25th
The Man Who Wouldn’t Fight

“Anyone would have inhibitions about taking someone’s life, but there are a variety of ways that we’re indoctrinated and desensitised. The esprit de corps, the sense of pride they instil in us and each other, sometimes it seems like some sort of monastic brotherhood or cult. You learn unwavering devotion to each other. When we’re fighting it’s not for the cause or country. It’s for each other, for the person to your right and your left.

“That was the hardest thing, leaving my friends, people from my unit, having them go without me, dedicated, hard working people whose values are being exploited by the US government.” He left when his unit was sent to Iraq, having spent two years applying for conscientious objector status. He applied before his unit was sent to Afghanistan, requesting a transfer to a non-combat role. It was deliberately mishandled, the authorities claiming they had never received it but later giving the papers back to him in a package with a further application and advice to drop the matter.

Jeremy Hinzman was one of two US soldiers who left the army and applied for political asylum in Canada on the grounds of refusal of his conscientious objector status. A baker for four years after high school, he felt his life lacked structure and focus and wanted to be part of something bigger than himself. The military was great for that, he said. “I thought I’d be spreading freedom, democracy and apple pie recipes.”

But dehumanisation of the people in future warzones begins from the start of basic training. “It’s easy to get one person to shoot another. In the first week we shoot at black circles, learn how to aim, how to breathe, and the next week there are shoulders added and then torsos and then they become pop up targets, but all the time they’re targets, not people, and shooting them is a reflex.

“You do stuff till you’re blue in the face, till you’re sick of it and then you don’t question it. When you’re training they have you chanting while you run, things like, “Training to kill, kill we will,” or “Ooh ah I wanna kill somebody” or the sergeant shouts, “What makes the grass grow?” and you shout, “Blood blood blood.” If you don’t yell loud enough then you get to strengthen your upper body. I can still do a lot of push ups.” The point, as well as the rhythm, was emphasised by his foot involuntarily starting to stamp with the chants.

He said that even as he was doing the shouting he started to realise that he didn’t want to kill anybody, “that I’d made a really bad career decision.” Still he’s grateful for the time he spent in the military, for the insights it gave him into the way the US operates throughout the world. He spent two years after basic training in the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg, determined to make the best of his situation, getting promoted until he was about to move on a stage, go into a new stage of training that felt like a point of no return.

It was then that he first applied for reclassification to a non combat role wanting, in his words, the best of both worlds – to stay with his friends but not have to fight. “September 11th had woken me up. People were asking why would they want to attack the US and I did some research and I didn’t have to look too far for the pattern of abuse. I read that the US doesn’t have friends or allies, it has interests and it didn’t have any interests in Rwanda.

“I never condoned terrorism but the actions of the US created it and I realised I was being used as a pawn. The violence was perpetuating itself and the only way I could stop it personally was to take myself out of the equation. The attack on Iraq was being proposed while I was in Afghanistan. I vowed to myself, my wife and my son that I wouldn’t take part.” He applied again for conscientious objector status and was again refused without a hearing.

“With the benefit of hindsight, it would have been better to refuse then to wear the uniform but I didn’t until my unit was sent to Iraq. These five-yearly wars are advertisements for new weapons systems. They gained approval by exploiting people’s fears and the events of September 11th but if it was about weapons they’d be better off dynamiting their own borders and blowing themselves up. Wolfowitz even said that the difference between Iraq and North Korea is that Iraq sits on a sea of oil and North Korea doesn’t. It’s not always true that soldiers don’t think.

“People are responsible for the way a country lives. It’s destiny is up to the people. We have to create our own freedom. My life is not that special but it’s not expendable either for someone else’s business venture or to line their pockets. Maybe people will think I should have done what the army always says and ‘suck it up and move on’ but history is made up of individual decisions. Even if no one would ever have prosecuted me for anything, I would have been prosecuting myself for the rest of my life.”

Nervous, before the talk, he whispered that he was “a horrible speaker” and began his talk with an apology that it had been a long time since high school speech class. He didn’t need to worry. Of course, everyone likes to be told what they want to hear and the government’s soldiers coming over to the side of peace would always be assured a welcome, but that understates the enormous courage it took for him to leave, to refuse not only the assignment but also the life he’d been living.

I know that it’s also frightening to go, especially with increasing numbers of deaths and injuries, but the Abu Ghraib prison photos and revolutions all over the world through history show that mutiny of soldiers against unjust orders and outrageous exploitation are vital to reining in governments which think it’s legitimate to dominate through with military power.

Recruitment starts in high school with glossy brochures, recruiters like car salesman cold calling to lists of students without a ticket into university, he explained, with an underclass maintained for precisely that purpose. Someone asked about the draft. The draft hasn’t been active since the Vietnam war but young men are still required to register for it. Failing to register with the Selective Service System means ineligibility for federal student aid , federal job training or civil service employment from the post office to the parks service and in some states you can’t get into state colleges.

Theoretically you can also be jailed for five years and fined up to a quarter of a million dollars but no one has been prosecuted since 1986 because public trials kept reducing registration rates. People still receive letters first reminding then threatening them to register, within the month either side of their 18th birthday, finally telling them their names have been given to the Department of Justice. Danny, a 20 year old community college student we met in Seattle, refused to register and had to have his mum vouch for his identity to get into college. Some colleges have an aid fund specially for those ineligible for federal aid for refusing the SSS registration.

If not registered by their 26th birthday, men are permanently barred from registering and from all the federal aid and employment but the SSS Board is obliged to accept registration cards any time until that birthday, so a lot of men resist the draft by illegally waiting until just before turning 26 to register.

Jeremy’s answer was that US policy is to be able to fight two full-on wars at the same time in two different parts of the world. Already they are using the reservists and National Guard who signed up to mend dams and rescue people from floods, not to fight wars, presenting a problem with retaining personnel. Already, and for some time, the politicians have been saying they need to send more troops and, from their point of view, they do. The draft, Jeremy said, is inevitable.

A local business man, an Iraqi, recently went home. He saw his mother for the first time in 38 years, paid his last respects at the grave of his father, killed by Saddam, was reunited with the cousins he grew up with. “He hugged me and kissed me and cried when he saw me and then cursed me when I asked who he was, but that tells you about the physical separation. I remembered him as he was and now he is older.”

Riadh Musli was fiercely opposed to the war in spite of all that. “I feel very strongly about the suffering of people in Iraq and they were intimidated before and they are intimidated now.” Most of all he’s passionate about the unity of the Iraqi people: ”When I was young and during the diaspora we never thought about Shia or Sunni and Kurd or Arab. We identified ourselves as Iraqis. I am Shia and four of my sisters are married to Sunni men. We trade together. There are those in the Governing Council who reject the Arab identity and would detach us from the rest of Arabia.”

In between the two, I talked about Falluja and the circus and the squatter camps and what’s happening for my friends, especially my women friends, in Iraq and afterwards we swapped e mails because there wasn’t enough time to chat, to delve into each other’s reasons and experiences, I who went, because I cared about Iraqi people and he who didn’t, for precisely the same reason.

The others went to the premiere of Naomi Klein’s new film about Argentina and the devastating effects of economic liberalisation, the country’s bankruptcy and the takeover of factories by workers whose families were facing starvation because of the job losses, getting the factories working again and running them independently.

Canadian film makers are struggling with the National Film Board which, though it gives some grant funding, demands a lot of control over the rights and somehow manages to have itself paid back twice over.

So the Iraqis struggle for the right to self determination and for day to day survival, the Argentinians against the ruinous effects of neo-liberalism and the World Trade Organisation; Jeremy struggles for the right not to go to war against his conscience and Canadian film makers fight against the increasing narrowness of the media, against the free-market constriction of the range of information which reaches the public domain.

The day before, we were in Seattle, in Richard Hugo House a community centre for writers (www.hugohouse.org). The poet Hugo wrote that “Writing is a way of saying you and the world have a chance.” The house is a place for people to write, to record their own stories and history, to express and to encourage more people to read, write, publish and publicise writing and art from many more people, outside the commercial sphere which restricts what gets seen.

It also houses the Zine Archives and Publishing Project. Zines, (pronounced Zeens) for those who don’t know, are small scale amateur-made magazines, including a lot of radical and political writing which has no other outlet than self publishing. There are over 7000 in the archive, including comics. It was the main way for activists to publish their ideas and analyses before the days of internet and weblogs.

There are loads of kids’ programmes there and displays of their poems, collages and illustrated books decorate the walls. “My Frog That’s Still Alive”, “How Bossy Is A Sister?” and “Managing the Wild Thing – How to Look After Your Child” were my favourites of the latter.

Of the former, I liked this: The War, by Paul Nguyen, grade 3 (about 8-9 years old):

“My dad went to the war because he was brave.
He fought in the war because he was strong.
Though he was short,
his heart was very tall.
His smile shines like the stars in the sky.
He hates the war because
they didn’t get freedom.
His smell is made out of the smoke of bombs.
My father’s sound is of explosions of war.
His hands are small and slender.”

Seattle is the place where, on November 30th 1999, the World Trade Organisation’s meeting was closed down for a day by huge protests. We were joined by Agent Apple, author of a new book, “Pie Any Means Necessary” from the Biotic Baking Brigade which advocates pie-ing the powerful, like arms dealers, biotech company directors, politicians who start wars and others whose misdemeanours are ignored by the mainstream media until their faces are covered with custard.

Not to say it’s the only way or that it’s enough on its own, Apple says, but protest with humour, ridiculing the people who abuse human rights and the environment and have legal impunity because they run the law, is more life affirming and joyful than ‘po-faced protest’.

Stories, resistance and pies are ways of saying you and the world have a chance.
Latest on the tour dates for New Mexico and Colorado, more to come, plus Arizona:

June 6th, daytime, Los Alamos, New Mexico

June 6th, 7pm, Albuquerque, New Mexico - Peace and Justice Centre, Harvard NW

June 7th, 7pm, Santa Fe, New Mexico - Cloud Cliff Cafe

June 8th, 6:30pm, Taos, New Mexico - Chamisa Mesa High School.

June 10th, evening, Salida, Colorado.

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