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Fifteen years into the Iraq war and more: Destroying lives, livelihoods and hope

February 15, 2018 marked the fifteenth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq. As we enter another year in which permanent war seems to run as a faint background noise, it may help to be reminded of some very dark realities.

The cost of our wars since 2001 totals at least $4,481,569,180,121—or, about 4.5 trillion dollars; mostly borrowed. The number of nations that we have invaded—in force, or repeatedly, or covertly—might be about 76, with only a few of those—Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, South Sudan—recognized as places the US is “waging” war. No one knows for sure, as our government deploys some forces we recognize as “troops,” but also Joint Special Operations Commandos, advisers, trainers, mercenaries, contractors, drones, bombers, etc. to do the killing.

The number of dead owed to these activities is also unknown—but reliably estimated in the millions. Another 10 million people have been turned into refugees in their own countries and elsewhere. Last November, Congress approved a new “defense” budget in excess of even the Pentagon’s request. Last week, Congress rejected a resolution to end US military support for the war in Yemen.

The pity of this goes beyond even these chilling numbers. A famous quote from a speech by President Eisenhower captures this:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”

Recently, Brock McIntosh, a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War addressed the same reality at a rally for the Poor People’s Campaign this March. [See below for sources.]

I’m here to speak to you today about one of Dr. King’s triple evils: militarism. As an Afghanistan War veteran, I’d like to highlight an aspect of his warning about militarism, when he said, “This way of… injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane… cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love.”

I’d like to tell you all about the precise moment I realized there was poison in me. I’m the child of a nurse and a factory worker in the heartland of Illinois, the family of blue-collar and service workers. At the height of the Iraq War, military recruiters at my high school attracted me with sign up bonuses and college assistance that some saw as their ticket out—for me, I hoped it was my ticket up, providing opportunities that once felt out of reach.

Two years later, when I was 20 years old, I was standing over the body of a 16-year-old Afghan boy. A roadside bomb he was building prematurely detonated. He was covered in shrapnel and burns, and now lay sedated after having one of his hands amputated by our medics. His other hand had the calloused roughness of a farmer or a shepherd.

As he lay there with a peaceful expression, I studied the details of his face and caught myself rooting for him. ‘If this boy knew me,’ I thought, ‘he wouldn’t want to kill me.’ And here I am, supposed to want to kill him. And feeling bad that I wanted him to live.That is the poisoned mind. That is the militarized mind. And all the opportunities afforded me by the military can’t repay the cost of war on my soul. It is poor folks who carry the burden of war for the elites who send them.

A working class boy from Illinois sent halfway around the world to kill a young farmer. How did we get here? How did this crazy war economy come to be?

First, there is the demand. A society that feels perpetually threatened perpetually prepares for wars, even in times of peace. To do this requires a military-industrial complex, a vast war economy whose charters, profits, stocks, and jobs depend on permanent militarization and whose fortune prospers most in times of war. Corporations have political influence, and so do constituents who need the jobs.

Second, there is the supply. A nation that wants to attract volunteers to its military and care for veterans provides opportunities that allure recruits who are predominantly working class folks with limited opportunities.

We need a Poor People’s Campaign to amplify the voices of regular folks above the lobby of militarized industry, a poisoned economy, to demand jobs in industries other than war-making, to demand opportunities for working class folks that don’t require killing other working class folks.

We need a Poor People’s Campaign to demand justice for people of color killed by a militarized police force, a poisoned law enforcement.

We need a Poor People’s Campaign to transform a militarized politics, a poisoned Congress and a poisoned White House, that proves their toughness with chest beating and unites their base with war drumming.

The Poor People’s Campaign offers an antidote to a poisoned and militarized culture. War always has a way of distracting our attention, and perverting our priorities. We need a Poor People’s Campaign to organize for racial, economic, and ecological justice; to force these issues to the front; and rectify our nation’s agenda.

Figures on total spending, the number of countries where the US is fighting terrorism and the number of refugees are from Brown University Cost of War Project; figure for number of dead is offered in many places. The Eisenhower quote appears in “White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters,” by Robert Schlesinger.  Brock McIntosh’s remarks were posted in Common Dreams under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license.


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