Breaking this Cycle of Imperial Violence

I was grateful for the opportunity to author a guest post over at the Strategies and Tactics for the Anti-War Blog at the Veterans Reparations Project. The Veterans Reparations Project is a joint project between Veterans For Peace and the Islah Reparations Project and is something very meaningful to me, something with which I hope to become more and more involved. Please visit the Veterans Reparations Project’s webpage to see how you can be involved and how you can help with the grassroots reparations process.

Breaking this Cycle of Imperial Violence:

I’m in my local Starbucks—yeah I know corporate evils and all that, but at 5pm on a Sunday in Wake Forest, NC you take what you can get, and I can walk here. So you take all the good you can get with the bad. Here in Wake Forest we’re not far from Ft. Bragg, home to the US Army’s paratroopers and special operations forces. Thousands of them have been ordered to deploy to Kuwait, where they will be sent into Iraq and Syria to make their own contributions to a decades long folly that has brought death, mental and physical mutilation, and societal destruction to the peoples of Iraq and Syria, profits to American defense corporations, corporate board memberships and university professorships to retired generals, and thousands upon thousands of new recruits to foreign terrorist groups; if there is something else these wars have brought, please leave a reply below, because I certainly can’t think of anything.

There is a large, neon green sign, hand written, like you would see announcing the homecoming dance in the high school hallway or your neighbor’s kid’s lemonade stand on your intersection’s stop sign: “Our Troops Are Deploying, Help Us Thank Them With Coffee.”  A large cardboard box is about a 1/3 of the way full of bags of coffee and boxes of k-cups, hopefully no decaf for those young paratroopers.

I’m not lying to you when I tell you I’m wearing a t-shirt with a Howard Zinn quote on it that reads “There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people” as I stand next to that box of coffee bound for the Persian Gulf. I linger for a bit hoping that maybe someone will read the shirt and the sign, that maybe something will register, someone will say something to me, something to medicate me, numb me, tell me that this cycle isn’t starting all over again for several thousand young men and women, barely more than an hour’s drive from me, about to travel halfway around the world to do irreparable harm to people they’ve never met and irredeemable harm to their own souls, hearts, and minds.

I’ve been involved in this war effort since before it even had a name, taking part in training exercises with Indonesian, Malaysian, Philippine, and Thai counterparts that actively engaged in fighting Muslim insurgents in their own countries prior to 9/11. Whether as a willing participant of the wars or as a vocal war opponent, as an occupier or now as someone who hopes to do more to support those who are occupied, I’ve seen very little explained as to how to right the wrongs done in war and even less done to repair, to rebuild, to resuscitate, or to resurrect. Surely, I have never walked into anyplace in America since we began killing more than 1 million people overseas in response to the attacks of 9/11 and seen a box asking for coffee for the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, or Yemen.

Now, of course, reparations may be the proverbial bridge too far at this point, as all the nations for which we have transgressed against are still receiving the blows of our aggressions, and those of others, from both internal and foreign belligerents and villains. However, I do recognize that waiting for our government to act in the future to administer some form of restorative justice to the people of the Greater Middle East may be as great a sin as the original acts of violence themselves, because we know that our government, the United States, will never do such a thing, and if our government ever does act the list for such reparations will be a long and worthy one.

So, I am extremely grateful for what the the Veterans Reparations Project is doing. Through grassroots reparations projects we can make a difference, we can begin to help rebuild and repair, and we can begin to fix some of what we destroyed.

Nothing we do will absolve us of what we have done in these wars, I am clear on that; the spot is on and always will be on our hands, to use one of my favorite allusions from high school English class. So be it and so it goes. However, we don’t have to go along with the killing any longer and we don’t have to go along with sitting idly by either and not helping to rebuild and repair. We can and we must do what we can to help those who we hurt. I do not believe we have any other choice.

I would not change anything I said about Afghanistan


From an interview I did in the summer of 2011 on Afghanistan with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. This may be the most complete summation of my views on the war in Afghanistan, on counter-insurgency, and on American political and military decision making. I do not believe anything I said in this interview differs from what I said in 2009 when I resigned from my State Department position in Afghanistan and I don’t believe I have said anything different in the past four years as I have worked against these policies. Sadly, I think the results of our military and political policies in Afghanistan delivered the consequences I feared so greatly.

I am also horrified, four years later, that my t-shirt was showing during this interview…

The program that aired in Australia can be found here:

In Their Sights…

The web page for the program also has other extended interviews with some of the other commentators on the program, including Major General Nicholson, whom I remember meeting and speaking with a number of times in Kandahar, I always liked him. Please give them a watch and let me know what you think. I am not looking to be told I was right,  I am just looking to be told I am not crazy.



Ida and the Cycles of Violence and Forgiveness

Have you seen the film Ida?

It is a Polish film from last year that is a powerful, brilliant piece of filmmaking. I use those words powerful and brilliant, because, 48 hours later, I am still contemplating and dissecting the movie; I am still in meditation over its meaning and in awe at how the film has stimulated my own thoughts and tested my beliefs.

The story is a road trip in the early 1960s in Poland between a young woman, brought up in a convent and on the verge of taking her vows to become a nun, and her aunt, a once leading figure in Poland’s post war Communist Party and now a judge. The young woman has no worldly or sensual experiences and is about to begin her adult life by joining the once almighty, but now politically bankrupt, morally spent, and intellectually disregarded Church. The older woman with her life ending professionally, and judging by her alcohol consumption, physically and emotionally as well, belongs to the new order, the new way of the world, the post war communist party promising brotherhood, meaning and purpose in the years after the cataclysms and holocausts of WWI and WWII. It is a political and philosophical movie, but it is also a deeply personal movie, as two individual life stories, differentiated by commitments to competing ideologies and life’s purpose, commitments that dominate and control their lives because of circumstance and history, more than by individual choice, are forced to look past the veneer and trappings of their costumes and titles, to examine who they are and why they are.

As I watched Ida the same challenges arose in me, and as a testament to the great storytelling of the film, are still resident with me. Most concerning, about 2/3rds through the film, I said to my girlfriend, “if I were them, I’d take that shovel and split his head”. It was an honest and true feeling. I was not acting or parading as some phony tough guy or a has-been Marine, but my visceral, gut reaction at that time, during that scene, was that I would commit violence and I would revel in it to assuage my anger and celebrate revenge. But, as the film went on, and as I reflected on those emotions, spurned by the actions of the characters, I realized how wrong, how foolish and how weak such a sentiment and desire was and how embarrassing my utterance.

In the scheme of the movie, killing the man would have been possible and it would have fulfilled some form of duty or obligation to my family, my community and my people, as well as fulfilling a duty to my own image of myself and my need for vengeance; vengeance based on personal, cultural and institutional values. However, taking myself away from that scene, watching the characters and applying my own life’s experience participating in and around the violence of war, I grudgingly recognize and must accept the futility of such violence. I say grudgingly, because violence and revenge is such a part of our identity and our culture that I am loathe to give it up, I am afraid to move on, and to recognize the myth of redemptive violence, as exactly that, a myth constructed primarily for the purposes of national, ethnic, sectarian or religious hegemony, dominance and absolution.

But if I had killed that man, if I had split his head with that shovel, seen death overcome him and gain the satisfaction of such grisly passage of state, what would come of it, what events would I now own? His wife and children, as innocent of crimes as those in whose name I murdered, would be widowed and orphaned on a struggling farm. His sons, would they not seek revenge and in time come for me and my family? Would not the children of my family, the next generation, be butchered in turn? My actions, murder and the infliction of suffering on the innocent, would begin a cycle of violence, an uncontrollable, bloody cycle without end, the likes of which we see in our wars overseas and in the wars in our own cities. And for me? My own experiences in war, my own and personal struggles with moral injury, is that not instructive to me? What would become of my mind and my soul after killing the man?

To move on and say nothing to the man is an option and a better one than violence. However, it is an incomplete option, leaving a chapter of life open ended and without closure, in essence running from a problem and not attempting a resolution, but it does not require the strength needed for a third, and rightful, option. Imagine saying to the man: “I forgive you” and giving him your hand and your blessing. How hard that would be! It seems nearly impossible to me and such a thought, such an option, which leads to an involuntary reflex and rejection within me, would stop the cycle of violence and lead to peace, both within me and my community.

The choice of mercy, of forgiveness, is anathema to my sense of manhood and my obligation for revenge and justice; but what would come of such forgiveness, besides a rejection of cultural and institutionalized violence and loss of personal pride, if I had the courage to enact it? A man would be given mercy and his family spared, and perhaps nothing more than that, but, with deep consideration, is anything else truly necessary? Breaking the cycle of violence is enough. Quite possibly, and maybe very likely, the man would be changed and his family enlightened, hell, maybe his daughter would grow to be the second coming of Mother Theresa, but such achievements or results would not be necessary to validate or vindicate the forgiveness proffered to the man. Stopping the cycle of violence is enough, the peace that would come to my mind and to my community would be enough.

I like to say that one of my favorite quotes is from Saint Francis de SalesNothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength. Yet, how difficult to turn such an outlook into an attribute, even when through personal experience you have seen the glaring failure and horrific counter-production of violence and have been affected so forcibly by grace, kindness and forgiveness as I have.

So please give Ida a watch. It’s a wonderful, well done, contemplative film and I trust it will challenge something in you.

*For another excellent film that takes on the myth of redemptive violence and exposes it for the tragedy it really is, please watch Blue Ruin. Both films are available on Netflix.