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From Baghdad to Syracuse: Exposing the Reality of War

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This article originally appeared on openDemocracy

In one way or another I’ve been involved in anti-militarism for most of my adult life. Raised Catholic but with my born-into faith rapidly eroding, I chose to attend Fordham University in the early 1960s, a Jesuit college in the Bronx. If anyone could justify the only moral compass that I knew, it would be the Jesuits, or so my thinking went.

Although I was oblivious, in those days war clouds were gathering over Vietnam. I’m not sure why, but I signed up for the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) for college students, a program operating on many U.S. campuses. Around six weeks into my freshman year, we cadets gathered on the football field for bayonet training. There, for 40 or 50 minutes, we lunged at the air with imaginary weapons. With each lunge, we screamed, ‘Kill! Kill!’

At some moment in time I was gobsmacked by the absurdity of it all—struck by the contradiction between this exercise in the de-sensitization and normalization of murder, and the so-called Christian schooling I thought I had chosen. The next morning I told the ROTC commander that I was resigning. “You can’t resign, Kinane, he sputtered. “You’re fired!”

Throughout the rest of my college years I was definitely ‘against’ the war in Vietnam, but despite the unrest that was heating up across U.S. campuses I did nothing to oppose it. Caught up in my own private concerns and keeping my nose in my books, my inaction lasted for several years. But after I got a master’s degree in anthropology in my mid-twenties I finally broke out of this bubble. I was gradually drawn into human rights activism and anti-militarism through a series of jobs in non-profit organizations like Peace Brigades International and Witness for Peace.

Fast forward to early 2003 when U.S. forces were massing along the Kuwaiti border, threatening to pour into Iraq, topple Saddam Hussein, and capture the country’s oil fields. In February I joined the Iraq Peace Team, a project of Voices in the Wilderness—a feisty human rights group based in Chicago before fines from the U.S. Treasury Department forced it to close its doors.

After flying out of New York to Amman in Jordan, getting an Iraqi visa, and being driven hour upon hour across the desert, I arrived in Baghdad. Like other Peace Team members I had brought medical supplies with me that at the time were banned by the draconian U.S./U.N. Sanctions imposed on Iraq. According to U.N. statistics those sanctions led to the premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, especially children and other vulnerable people. The Team, about 30 of us, knew that we were entering Iraq illegally according to U.S. law. But we each chose to engage in protracted civil disobedience.

We saw ourselves as being in solidarity with the Iraqi people and sharing their risk of attack. In the hope of somehow waking people up back home and ‘de-villainizing’ Iraq—and maybe helping to turn the tide against the war—we did our amateur media work with both mainstream and movement publications and websites, describing what we saw and experienced.

We knew it was a phony war. Saddam Hussein had no part in 9/11, no weapons of mass destruction, and no links to Al Qaeda. Soon after I arrived our team hit the streets of Baghdad with thousands of Iraqis—along with millions of others world-wide who protested against the impending invasion. Some say that those marches that took place on February 15 collectively constituted the largest demonstration in human history.

In the small hours of March 20 the U.S. air attack on Baghdad finally began. Cocksure, the Pentagon called its murderous three-week-long spasm, “Shock and Awe.” Not since Hiroshima and Nagasaki has the world witnessed such massive and concentrated terrorism, airborne or otherwise—“terrorism” defined as violence or the threat of violence directed toward civilians for political and military purposes.

From my balcony at the Al Fanar Hotel in downtown Baghdad I watched the bombs that were aimed at Saddam’s palace just across the Tigris River explode in pyrotechnic fury. ‘Smart’ bombs and missiles targeted vital infrastructure—destroying electricity grids, the telephone exchange, just about every government building (except the oil ministry), and many homes.

Before the sanctions, Iraq was known as a kind of ‘medical Mecca’ of the Middle East, but Baghdad’s many hospitals—by then nearly devoid of equipment or medicine—soon brimmed with maimed civilians. Our team tried to document the destruction, visit the wounded, and get the word out about what was happening.

All of us kept a small bag at hand in case we were suddenly evacuated. We taped the windows of our hotel rooms in case the glass got shattered. We hung whistles around our necks to alert rescuers if we got trapped under rubble. At the Al Fanar, when the bombing got thunderously close, we dove to the floor, bruising our knees, while the always-dignified Iraqis calmly filed down into the basement. They were used to air attacks.

On April 8, the day the Marines surged into Baghdad, U.S forces bombed the offices of Abu Dhabi TV and Al-Jazeera, killing Tareq Ayoub, a journalist who was transmitting live from the building’s roof. Right across the street from the Al Fanar was the Palestine Hotel. It housed more than a hundred un-embedded international media who flocked to the scene—‘first responders’ of a sort.

The ‘journos’ knew that the bombs were ‘smart’, so they would never hit their hotel. But U.S. forces shelled the Palestine anyway, killing two Reuters journalists before surrounding our two hotels with tanks and machine gun nests. There was no mistaking the message: ‘get out!’ Mostly, the media obeyed, paying drivers vast sums of money for the risky run back to Amman.

Altogether in 2003 I spent five months in Iraq. Our team had no vehicle, armored or otherwise. We walked Baghdad’s streets—virtually the only Westerners to do so. Friends back home later asked, “Weren’t you afraid of the bombs or of the Iraqis?” I felt almost duty-bound to answer yes. But the fuller truth, which I hesitated to share, was that I experienced less fear than one might expect. I’ve come to realize that I lack the imagination of those who picture their own deaths more vividly and who therefore feel fear more intensely—and quite reasonably so.

Six years after returning to the U.S I learned that Hancock Field Air National Guard Base near my home town of Syracuse, New York was becoming a hub for the MQ9 Reaper Drone—a “hunter/killer” airborne robot that is remotely-controlled via satellite over Afghanistan and elsewhere. The base is the home of the 174th Attack Wing of the New York National Guard. Like “Shock and Awe,” “hunter/killer” is Pentagon jargon for its proud terrorizing of Afghans and others on or close to the oil lands of the Islamic world.

Since 2009 I’ve been working with other grassroots activists from upstate New York and beyond to expose what’s happening at the base and to rally opposition to U.S. drone warfare. Besides occasional larger protests, we demonstrate with our signs every first and third Tuesday of the month outside Hancock’s main gate: “Drones Fly, Children Die,” “Weaponized Drones are Weapons of Terror,” and “To End Terror, Stop Terrorizing.” Our goal is to stir the conscience, not only of the public that drives by but also of the drone operators as they pass us on their way home after their shifts.

Members of the upstate Drone Action Coalition outside the Hancock Air Force base, New York: Ed Kinane is on the far left. Photo Credit: Upstate Drone ActionMembers of the upstate Drone Action Coalition outside the Hancock Air Force base, New York: Ed Kinane is on the far left. Photo Credit: Upstate Drone Action

Weaponized drones like the Reaper have become the Pentagon’s darling—instruments of supposedly ‘frictionless’ war par excellence. Sadly, this image seems to work, so long as it’s Afghans, Pakistanis, Somalis, Yeminis and not U.S. military personnel who are maimed or killed during bombing missions. So long as that’s the case, then U.S. taxpayers don’t need to think much about them, even though ‘frictionless war’ is an oxymoron.

The propaganda that surrounds drone warfare helps to explain why people are generally so blithe about the deep-rooted militarism that’s paid for by their taxes and targeted against remote peoples in Vietnam, Laos, Nicaragua, North West Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Gaza and elsewhere. Why don’t more of us resist this criminality?

Such seeming indifference may be because so many of us, like so many ordinary Germans in the 1930s, are unable to imagine what millions of people on the receiving end of violence must experience, so their sense of empathy is never sharpened. After all it’s an experience that few people in the U.S. have endured. Since 9/11 those deeply deceitful words—the “war on terror”—have been drummed and re-drummed into their all-too-receptive minds.

That’s a key lesson that I’ve learned through years of civil resistance: the need for persistent, public truth-telling as we work to put an end to war.