Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Is This America?

“Is This America?” Fannie Lou Hamer

It’s been 40 years since Fannie Lou Hamer asked this question to the delegates of the Democratic National Convention. She was referring to the lack of representation of Black voters on the Mississippi delegation to the convention and the disenfranchisement of African-Americans in general. But she could have just as easily been asking about her own beating in a Mississippi jail, an act of torture that left her with chronic health problems. If Ms. Hamer were alive today, she might have been asking about the torture of Iraqi’s held by US troops all over that country.

And the answer would have to be yes, this is an aspect, an important and historically persistent aspect of US history and life throughout the Americas. Torture and genocide were perpetrated at the founding of this country, its practices formed the basis for this country’s early economic prosperity and torture was the underpinning of Jim Crow and other forms of oppression of people of color throughout the US. Certainly, a general disrespect for human dignity is an important tool in all forms of military training.

The “founders” of this country destroyed the peoples native to this country in order to “discover” and “civilize” it. They invaded Africa, enslaved and deported its people, tortured those people into submission in order to build the first economy built on industrial agriculture and the value added to the products it produced and exported to Europe. When slavery was no longer legal systems like Jim Crow and the legislated disenfranchisement of Japanese, Mexican, Chinese and Native Americans guaranteed its economic and political advantages continued. The US military were enforcers of these policies.

Today the US military, especially the Army, is the most racially integrated part of US society. How the military conducts its primary function, warmaking, reveals what we have allowed ourselves to be integrated in to.

Citizen Soldiers
The military is proud of its core of citizen-soldiers, men and women like you and I (though mostly younger) who enlist for some level of participation in the Armed Services. Some are full-time regular forces. Most are National Guard and Reservists, that is, people holding jobs who agreed to serve a few days a month, a few weeks a year and on a limited full-time basis in a national emergency.

Most citizen-soldiers signed up for economic reasons, presented in the context of vaguely patriotic sentiments. Certainly Sept. 11 motivated some folks to enlist but the majority of the military were in place before that atrocity. A recent congressional hearing report showed that a disproportionate number of full time armed service personnel were from economically depressed rural and small town communities. These young people were looking for opportunities, looking for work. I suspect that most National Guard and Reservists have similar economic aspirations – they needed a job, a way to continue their education, a chance to better themselves in communities that could not fulfill the modest dreams of their children.

Indeed, the economics of this war reveals the increasing militarization of the private sector. Witness those flocking to private contractors such as Halliburton for jobs, many that at one time had been the province of the armed services. Today, everything from food service to determining how Iraqi prisoners will be tortured are jobs filled by people who think of themselves as civilians.

I have to state here that I have never been in the military, I have never aspired to military service and have been a life-long critic of how the US utilizes its armed forces throughout the world. I have been the recipient of the romanticized sanitized view of military life provided by television and movies. Even in this view there is a high premium placed on breaking down any resistance to authority, any tendency to independent thought that might interfere with obeying an order. Conformity is an important value in our society, especially in a time of national emergency after Sept. 11, supported by an increasingly popular evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity burgeoning throughout this country. This is the only reason I can see why troops who have been fully appraised of their rights under the Geneva Convention can perpetrate acts of torture. How else to explain how troops who have specific expectations of how they will be treated if taken prisoner can claim they were never told of the rights of “the enemy” under the same Convention of those they might capture and imprison as they invade someone else’s country. And if they were not told, isn’t this the triumph of conformity that not one of these soldiers could extrapolate from their own rights to think about the rights of others?

Is it a surprise then that in an environment where the leader of this country describe our activities in religiously insensitive ways – crusades against evil-doers – when any display of critical thought is described as unpatriotic, when the rights of citizenship are eroded by covert and overt actions of our government; is it a surprise then that our troops are willing to thoughtlessly carry out orders that destroy the humanity of prisoner and prison guard as well?

Pres. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, all our leaders responsible for this unjust and unnecessary war decry the actions of their troops and declare this is not what the military is about. But women enlistees are harassed and raped with depressing regularity. Some of the military police serving in Iraq serve in prisons and facilities in the US where detainees, who are US citizens, are molested, abused, beaten, killed.

Our leaders say the military represents our principles, us, citizens of this country. Yet many of us have allowed our leaders to perpetrate this war without question. We have not demanded to know how many civilians have been killed, how many Iraqi’s illegally detained, how many atrocities have been committed by the troops. We have not asked why our military are using the heinous tactics of the Israeli military, using helicopter gunships and fighter planes to bomb houses and cars in civilian areas of Afghanistan. We have not demanded to see the images of war – destruction of homes, the maiming of civilian and soldiers, death in its many forms. Our leaders think it would be too much for us, yet we can watch CSI’s stylized, glamorized dismemberment of the human body several times a week.

So, it all comes back to us. We must not hide behind the dangerously simplistic theology espoused by the president. We can no longer use Sept. 11 as an excuse to be afraid and look away. The people of Iraq, the people of the world are watching to see if we care enough to say no to this war. Those who claim to defend us in the military need to be saved from their own worst intentions and brought home. We as a people must find ways to come together and make it up to the world for the evil we have are perpetrating upon it.

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