True Strength, in Lyla’s Prayer and Song, and How I Came to Mine Quite Late

Lyla June Johnson joined us last month at the Lincoln Memorial from her ancestral homeland of Diné Tah, what the Mexican-American War, through violent conquest, defined and delineated for us as the states of the American Southwest. The Mexican-American War was a war that American general and president Ulysses Grant would describe in his memoirs as: “one of the most unjust [wars] ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation” and “I do not think there was ever a more wicked war…I thought so at the time…only I had not moral courage enough to resign.” I’m convinced that Grant’s life and soul were irrevocably and forever wrecked by the moral injury he sustained from his participation in the Mexican-American War. However interesting it would be to think on how that war effected Grant and drove him in the years before, during and after the Civil War, Grant is not the purpose of this post, Lyla is, and by extension, my own inability to act fully on my own feelings and beliefs for too many years.

Lyla spoke after I did at the Lincoln Memorial. In contrast to my speech, which was filled with anger and sorrow, and offered only bitter reflection, Lyla offered healing and hope, and a path forward for all of us, even the diseased war-makers, as she aptly, and compassionately described them. Please take the time to hear her words, her prayer and her song:

Here is my speech at the Lincoln Memorial. Please listen/watch both and note the difference. I’d like to be more like Lyla.

Thank you to Chris Smiley for filming all the speeches and music performances at the Lincoln Memorial and at the White House. You can watch all the videos here at Chris’ Youtube channel.

Note that the title of this post is True Strength. I see that strength in Lyla, as I see it in so many of my comrades in the Peace and Justice community, so many of them women, I would say most of them women. Not discounting my brothers, but many of the most influential people on me, these past years of my life, have been women, my sisters.

I see that strength so especially when women like Lyla are willing to see the war-mongers and war-profiteers and pray for them, when people like Lyla seek to heal those whom I decry and detest. Where I want to tear down, set ablaze and destroy, where I want to let loose and satisfy an anger, a hate, a desire for bloody and savage revenge that haunts and cripples me, Lyla looks to comfort, to fix and to sooth; her way brings peace. Inside of me the cycle of violence is still spinning, and that weakens me so that I can never be strong, so that I can never recover, so that I can never find relief and rest. Only when that cycle of violence is truly broken, and to do so, the entire cycle must be embraced and touched, as Lyla demonstrates, can peace and justice be achieved. In order to do so, to break the cycle of violence, both within ourselves and within our societies, True Strength must be had.

With that in mind, this notion of strength and the unfortunate, and all too frequent absence of it, I want to share a talk I gave at the semi-annual conference for the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee in St. Louis last month.

For a long time after my resignation from government service and the war in 2009, I hedged on my actual feelings of aversion to the war, my sincere moral disgust with the killing, and my honest intellectual rejection of war and violence as a solution overseas and at home. I had harbored these feelings and beliefs for a long time before 2009. I hadn’t believed in the necessity of the war in Iraq in 2003, my colleagues in the Secretary of the Navy’s office can attest to that, but I was overtly agnostic at best, and I certainly was not filled with any principled degree of resistance, as I had not been personally touched by that vicious cycle of violence that was yet to come, so my connection to the war was abstract and academic.

As I explain in the video below, and in the video I talk about some personal history I have not shared before, some things I discuss go back to high school and the first Gulf War, my ability to lie to myself during my time in the Marine Corps, during the wars, to make excuses, to justify and incur responsibilities and obligations that required me to look past the immorality, the illegality, the lies, the simple WRONGNESS of the wars, in retrospect, was breathtaking. For example, if I were not to take command of Charlie Company, 4th Combat Engineer Company in 2006 when that opportunity came about, then other, less capable, less competent officers would take command which would risk Marines and Sailors to get killed; so I volunteered, accepted the command, went to Anbar Province and back to a war I knew was corrupt and was wrong. And on and on the justifications and excuses would go on, for years they went on, cloaked, camouflaged, and be-knighted with responsibility and obligation for the lives of others, all this moral justification in my head to allow my participation in an immoral war.

What my point in that reflection at the war tax resistance conference in St. Louis was how after I left the war and government service is that I continued to hedge my actions in relation to the wars. That rather than being set free, as I thought I might have been, I still aspired to be a part of the establishment, to be a part of something that “mattered” because I wanted to influence and have an effect on a peace process in Afghanistan, something that if I had the courage to look at what really existed in my mind and in my heart I would have known did not not exist from the American government’s perspective.

I was aware of a desire for peace within elements of the insurgency, as well as other parties within Afghanistan, including Hamid Karzai’s government, however our own government was, by far, the biggest obstacle to peace in Afghanistan – this was one of several reasons for my resignation in 2009. I, however, held out hope that, concurrent with the escalation of the war or after the escalation had failed, by 2011, when it had been agreed between President Obama and Gates/Clinton/Petraeus/et al. that a draw down in Afghanistan would begin, that serious negotiations would take place to end the war in Afghanistan. I was shockingly naive on two counts: 1. that someone who had been so disloyal as me would ever be allowed back in again, and 2. that the escalation of the war in Afghanistan was ever anything more than a stage play to make it look like Obama had done all he needed to do to “win” and allow the US to retreat, the same feat Petraeus had performed for Bush in Iraq just a few years prior. As in Iraq the same held true for the Afghans, once we were gone whatever happened to them could be pinned on them as the Afghans being too corrupt, not brave enough, not up to to the task, too sectarian, falling back on centuries old conflicts, or whatever specious soundbite the media talking-heads would gleefully regurgitate on the evening news. The president would be a war time president, Gates and his generals would get a chance to win and redeem themselves for Iraq, and Clinton would be a hawk for her presidential run in 2016, and the defense budget would keep going up – as I was recently reminded, the defense industry spent $27 million lobbying Congress in just those last three months of 2009 – and there I was thinking I might accomplish something by hanging out with Ron Paul and John Murtha in Congress and going on the Today Show

 

However, at the time, my thoughts were that I could somehow play a role as an outsider and go back into government service at a later point, as many who resigned in protest of the Vietnam War did. I thought maybe I could play a role in the negotiations that I suspected may be occurring, although I had no idea to the level that they were actually occurring with the Taliban, although with American involvement – again our government, the United States, being the greatest obstacle to peace in Afghanistan. I kept my true feelings about war and violence in check, determined to be a realist and a professional, but only contributing to and engaging in a fraudulent and rigged game, perpetuating an industry of war and a phony intellectual foreign policy and defense establishment in Washington, DC, a community whose only requirement for entry, promotion and prominence is allegiance and a pronounced demonstration to the greater good, or should I say God, of the war industry.

In my earliest talks and writings upon my resignation from the war, I believe I was more earnest in speaking for US withdrawal from the war, but as my belief in possible reconnection with the establishment, and my position with a think tank began, my views became more moderate, more reasonable, more sensible…i.e.. more palatable to Washington, DC and to the money that keeps the city and its people afloat.

I’m no longer in DC. I’m no longer captive to those interests. I also don’t make a ton of money any more, more like no money ;), and I now live with my family again in NC. But I have strength in my heart, in my mind and my soul.

I owe that strength to many people. A lot of it to one lady in particular: Diane Baker; who may be the strongest person I’ve ever met. It was meeting her in Dallas in the summer of 2012, staying with her and her husband Tom that really shook me and made me realize that I was a coward for not embracing and articulating what I actually knew and believed about violence. It was never anything Diane specifically said, but just who she was. Her presence, the dignity with which she spoke and carried herself, and her commitment to life and peace. I haven’t been the same since I met her. Now, to be sure, Diane was no magic potion for me, and there is certainly still LOTS wrong with me, but I feel the last many years I have written, spoken and acted much more forcefully and honestly than I did prior to staying with her. If you have had someone like that in your life, and I believe we all have many people who have influenced us in many different ways, make sure you tell them.

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With Diane Baker (middle) at VFP convention in Asheville, NC, 2014

Here is my talk at the War Tax Resistance Conference on hedging on my own morality. I hope this will help and maybe inspire some other people. Please take this talk for what it is worth, but at the very least for an understanding that life is very truly a journey. Today, typing this in a coffee shop in Durham I am living the values I imagined living as a 17 year old high school student.

Wage Peace.

 

Bless My Sword, Make Me Holy, and I Shall Commit Thy Crimes…

For anyone looking for a graphic depiction of the institutionalized militarization of Christianitity and/or the institutionalized Christianization of the American Armed Forces, I wanted to share this photo of me, a second lieutentant in the Marine Corps, getting my sword blessed by a Navy Chaplain as part of an official sword blessing ceromony for newly commissioned officers in 1998 at the Quantico Marine Corps Base Chapel.

Feel free to share or use this photo as you wish, particularly with those who argue that Islam is the only religion that is utilized for murder, conquest, greed, violence, profit, control, demagoguery, pillage, brainwashing, etc.

Ira Hayes

Today is the 70th anniversary of the flag raising on Mount Suribachi on the fourth day of the battle for Iwo Jima in WWII. The battle would last for another month and three of the six men in Joe Rosenthal’s iconic photograph of the second flag raising would be killed within a matter of days of the picture.

The great Johnny Cash immortalized one of the surviving flag raisers, Ira Hayes. Despite the post-war fame, including Hollywood and the White House, Ira never really ever left Iwo Jima and his friends who died on that awful island. Only a couple of weeks after his 32nd birthday Ira would drink himself to death, dying of exposure, in two inches of water in a lonely ditch, as Johnny Cash forever reminds us.

Semper Fidelis Ira.

Thoughts on Yemen and the Middle East

Here are some of my thoughts on Yemen and our foreign policy in general in the Middle East:

Institute for Public Accuracy:

“You don’t have to be an expert on Yemen, the Middle East, Islam or foreign policy in general to realize that what is occurring in Yemen is similar to what is occurring throughout the Greater Middle East. Decades of American interventionist policy, that can be at best be described as inept meddling, with roots going back to the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953 and the establishment of the Shah’s authoritarian police state, have created, fostered and sustained sectarian, ethnic and religious conflicts that have birthed repressive regimes, extremist terror groups and genocidal civil wars throughout the Middle East. Yemen is one more glaring example of failed American policy in the Middle East, perhaps all the more tragic and absurd as Yemen was cited as an example of success by President Obama when he authorized his seventh bombing of a Muslim nation, Syria, last year.”

Inter Press News Service:

“I don’t know if Yemen will split in two or not. [But] I believe the greater fear is that Yemen descends into mass chaos with violence among many factions as we are seeing in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, all nations that have been the recipient of interventionist U.S. foreign policy.”

“Based upon the results from decades of U.S. influence in trying to pick winners and losers in these countries or continuing to play the absurd geopolitical game of backing one repressive theocracy, Saudi Arabia, against another, Iran, in proxy wars, the best thing for the Yemenis is for the Americans not to meddle or to try and pick one side against the other.”

American foreign policy in the Middle East, he said, can already be labeled a disaster, most especially for the people of the Middle East.

“The only beneficiaries of American policy in the Middle East have been extremist groups, which take advantage of the war, the cycles of violence and hate, to recruit and fulfill their message and propaganda, and American and Western arms companies that are seeing increased profits each year,” said Hoh, who has served with the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq and on U.S. embassy teams in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Profile in VICE: The First US Official to Resign Over Afghanistan Is Fighting to Help Whistleblowers

I’ve liked VICE for a bit of time now, so it was pretty cool to have been profiled by VICE UK while I was in London. Much appreciation for to Joe Sandler Clarke and Adam Barnett for their time and effort telling my story.

The First US Official to Resign Over Afghanistan Is Fighting to Help Whistleblowers

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It’s five years since Matthew Hoh became the first US official to resign in protest over the government’s handling of the Afghanistan war, resulting in a PR disaster for the US government.

“After I resigned, I was in a bar and it just so happened that I was sitting next to an editor from the Washington Post. We got talking and he told me to call the foreign affairs desk the next day.” He did and a few hours later, Post journalist Karen DeYoung was on the phone. They spoke for six hours and within days, his resignation letter was on the front page.

In the letter, Hoh explained he had lost confidence in the tactics being used in the conflict, and that he had no idea why it was going on. He wrote, “My resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war, but why and to what end.”

Today, sitting in his hotel room in central London, wearing a War Resisters International badge and with leather elbow patches sown onto his jacket, he admits he is surprised by his journey from Marine Corps captain to peace activist. “I never planned any of this,” he says. “In a year I went from thinking I would have 35 years in the government before getting a PhD and teaching at a small college somewhere to saying, ‘Fuck you, I am not doing this anymore. It’s wrong.'”

The years since he resigned have been marked by the current administration embarking on what Glenn Greenwald has called “the mo​st aggressive and vindictive assault on whistleblowers of any president in American history.” Of the 11 times the Espionage Act has been used to prosecute whistleblowers who have leaked information to journalists, seven have been under Obama. Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist James Risen is to this day ​facing possible prosecution for refusing to reveal the identity of his one of sources to the authorities.

Hoh now fears that if he had blown the whistle today as he had done in 2009, he would be facing prosecution. This explains his motivation for becoming an advisory board member at ExposeFacts, a new website led by veteran journalist and activist Norman Solomon. The project is designed as a place for people to leak information safely, while also offering better protection to whistleblowers and campaigning to shield reporters from state surveillance. It already has the backing of a host of Pulitzer Prize winners and Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times.

The day before I meet him, Hoh was part of panel of former intelligence workers at the launch of ExposeFacts that told the world’s media that they were fighting back against the Obama administrations “war on journalism and whistleblowing.”

They aim to provide technology for secure, anonymous whistleblowing, and to push the actions of whistleblowers “to the forefront of the public consciousness.”

Having enlisted for the Marines in the heady days before 9/11, initially Hoh’s military career was “just like the brochure said it would be.” He was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, with his days spent training, traveling the world, and hanging out at the base’s private beach.

Hardworking and intelligent, with supreme self-confidence and an inherent curiosity about the world, Hoh enjoyed what he describes as a “Forrest Gump-like” rise through the ranks.

By the time US forces invaded Iraq, he was working for the Secretary of the Navy. By 2004, he was leading reconstruction projects in Iraq, handing out money to political leaders and making arrangements, ostensibly so the country’s devastated athletics facilities could be rebuilt. He would travel with his own security team, with a pistol tucked into his suit pocket and $25 million in cash.

“It was part Scarface, part Lawrence of Arabia,” he recalls. “But it was very instructive to me about the folly of war.”

Throughout the conflict, Hoh was skeptical about the reasons for going to war and the mission itself. “I certainly doubted why we were there and could see it wasn’t adding up. I was doing all I could to do it right,” he says. “But it doesn’t matter how much honor you possess if a war is morally fraught.”

He worked with a group of women in Baghdad and the memory of them haunts him still. They were modern and educated. They wore hijabs that matched their mascara and believed in the US mission.

“We gave them this hope and this promise and then we gave them a hell that you and I can’t even imagine,” he says. “I know one of them is still alive, but that is something that has haunted me ever since. I don’t know if they were blown up in a car bomb, or if they were raped, or if their families were killed. That’s where a lot of my moral injury comes from.”

After a period spent moving from one prestigious desk job to the next, Hoh was back in Iraq in 2007. He was with a small group of men when the helicopter they were traveling in crashed over the Persian Gulf. “It was kind of ironic because you go to the desert and almost die in the water,” he says. “Four guys died, including one who was a friend of mine and I could not save any of them. It crushed me. I had survivor’s guilt.”

On returning home he could barely function. While spending a day at the beach in Delaware, he had a flashback. “It came over me as soon as I went in the water. All the stereotypical PTSD symptoms you hear about not liking fireworks, or not being in crowds, they’re all a joke, compared to this moral injury. It’s just blackness,” he says.

“The alcohol became key. I was always a big drinker, but this was different. It was the only way I could get through the day. My days in this period consisted of getting up, going to work, leaving work as soon as possible, getting home, working out, drinking, blacking out by 10 PM and then doing it all again.”

Two years later, figuring that if he was going to die, it may as well be in Afghanistan, he went back to fight. He was the State Department’s senior representative in Zabul province, an area which had seen some of the fiercest fighting of the war. But five months into his year-long contract, he was done with the military.

“I didn’t believe any of what was being said. That we were there to protect ourselves from another 9/11 and all that stuff. It just wasn’t true,” he remembers.

That’s when he resigned and before long he was being chased by journalists who wanted to hear of his disaffection. “It was a huge deal,” recalls Hoh. “I had three TV news trucks outside my house and 75 media requests, the day after it broke.”

Despite US Envoy Richard Holbrooke telling him that he understood his misgivings about the war and that his letter was being “taken seriously,” after news of his resignation went public Hoh found himself cut off from the Washington establishment. A Wikipedia page about him that downplayed his role in the State Department and featured a clip of him being used in an al Qaeda propaganda video surfaced online. For more than two years, he couldn’t find work and had no money coming in. He found himself selling cars for a few months just to get by.

Being frozen out took its toll. By 2011, suicide had become a daily obsession. He would plan it meticulously, figuring out when and how he would do it, how he would tell his family. “The only thing I didn’t do was buy a gun,” he says.

Ultimately, it was through the support of family and an ex-girlfriend who forced him into therapy that he was able to dig himself out of that feeling. A sense of having a greater purpose helped too. Every time he saw a politician lie on TV, or when he read a newspaper article he knew to be untrue, he kept wanting to speak out. “I was out in public and doing media, so I felt like I couldn’t kill myself,” he says. “People would say, ‘You’re gonna listen to what that guy thinks about the war?! He shot himself in the head!’ I had this cause, this purpose and I could not discredit that by killing myself.”

Hoh is now 41. Having left Washington vowing never to return, he lives in Raleigh, North Carolina and earns $48,000 a year through his job the Center for International Policy. If he had stayed in the military, he says, he would be earning more than double that.

He’s turned his back on a career, a high salary, an institution, and a way of life—now he’s determined to help others who want to do the same. For all he’s lost by speaking out, he’s also gained a tremendous amount. “I’m very happy,” Hoh tells me later. “With the moral injury, the PTSD, the depression, the suicidality, I have my bad periods, but I’m getting through. I don’t own a gun, I don’t keep alcohol in my house, I see my psychologist every week, I take medication. I manage it like you would manage high blood pressure. I’m just happy that I can express my own thoughts and think my own way. That’s worth more than any amount of money.”