Editor's Note | I delivered the following comments as the keynote speaker at the Veterans for Peace National Convention in San Francisco. - wrp
We Stand Our Ground
By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
I must begin by saying that standing here before you is, simply, one of the greatest honors of my life. I have never served in the armed forces in any capacity. My father, however, did. He volunteered for service in Vietnam in 1969. The changes that war wrought upon him have affected, for both good and ill, every single day of my life. Vietnam did not only affect the generation that served there. It affected the children of those who served there, and the families of those who served there. That war is an American heirloom, great and terrible simultaneously, handed down from father to son and from mother to daughter, from father to daughter and from mother to son. The lessons learned there speak to us today, almost thirty years hence.
Let me tell you a quick story about my father. His call to the freedom bird came while he was still out in the field. He arrived at Dulles Airport to meet my mother still dressed in his bush greens, still wearing the moustache, with the mud of Vietnam still under his fingernails and stuck inside the waffle of his boot sole.
A few days earlier, he had come across a beautiful old French rifle. It was given to him by a Vietnamese friend, a former teacher with three children who had been conscripted permanently into the military. My father managed to bring this rifle home with him, and sent it on the flight in the baggage hold along with his duffel.
My father and my mother stood waiting at the baggage claim for his things to come down. The people there - and this was 1970, remember - backed away from him as if he was radioactive. They knew where he had just come from. If the greens were not a giveaway, the standard issue muddy tan he and all the vets wore upon return from Vietnam was. When the rifle came down the belt, not in a package or a box, just laying there in all its reality, the crowd was appalled and horrified. My mother and father looked at each other and wondered what these people were thinking. What did they think was happening over there? What did they think it is that soldiers do? Did they even begin to understand this war, and what it meant, what it was doing to American soldiers, to the Vietnamese soldiers like my father's friend, and to the civilians caught in the crossfire?
The looks on those people's faces there said enough. The answer was no. They didn't know, and apparently didn't want to know. Now, thirty three years later, we are back in that same place again, fighting a war few understand that is affecting soldiers and civilians in ways only those soldiers and civilians can truly know. Ignorance, it seems, is also an American heirloom to be passed down again and again and again.
Many of you know, far better than I do, what my father felt that day in Dulles. That is why I am honored to speak to you tonight. If the American people fully knew what this war in Iraq was really about, if they fully knew what it means today to be a soldier in that part of the world, they would tear the White House apart brick by brick. If the people had but a taste of the horror and the lies, they would repudiate this administration and all it stands for. The don't know, because they have been fed a glutton's diet of misinformation and fraud. Changing that is why we are here.
The first of August saw a very interesting article published in the Washington Post. The title was, "US Shifts Rhetoric On its Goals in Iraq." The story quotes an unnamed administration source - I will bet you all the money in my wallet that this "source" was a man named Richard Perle - who outlined the newest reasons for our war over there. "That goal is to see the spread of our values," said this aide, "and to understand that our values and our security are inextricably linked."
Our values. That's an interesting concept coming from a member of this administration. We make much of the greatness and high moral standing of the United States of America, and there is much to be proud of. The advertising, however, has lately failed completely to match up with the product.
Is it part of our value system to remain on a permanent war footing since World War II, shunting money desperately needed for human services and education into a military machine whose very size and expense demands the fighting of wars to justify its existence?
Is it part of our value system to lie to the American people, to lie deeply and broadly and with no shame at all, about why we fight in Iraq?
Is it part of our value system to sacrifice nearly three hundred American soldiers on the altar of those lies, to sacrifice thousands and thousands and thousands of innocent civilians in Iraq on the altar of those lies?
Is it part of our value system to use the horror of September 11 to terrify the American people into an unnecessary war, into the ruination of their civil rights, into the annihilation of the Constitution?
Is it part of our value system to use that terrible day against those American people who felt most personally the awful blow of that attack?
Is striking first part of our value system?
Is living in fear part of our value system?
It is not part of my value system. It never will be.
This new justification for our war in Iraq is yet another lie, an accent in a symphony of lies. The values this administration represents play no part in the common morality of the American people, play no part in the legal and constitutional system we adore and defend. One of the worst things ever to happen to this country was allowing the people within this administration to use words like "freedom" and "justice" and "democracy" and "patriotism," for those good and noble words become the foulest of lies when passing their lips.
For the record, the justification for war on Iraq was:
The procurement by Iraq of uranium from Niger for use in a nuclear weapons program, plus 26,000 liters of anthrax, 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin, 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agents - 500 tons, for those without calculators, is one million pounds - almost 30,000 munitions capable of delivering chemical agents, several mobile biological weapons labs, and connections between the Iraqi regime and al Qaeda that led directly to the attacks of September 11.
None of these weapons have been found. The mobile weapons labs - termed "Winnebagoes of Death" by Colin Powell - turned out to be weather balloon platforms sold to Iraq by the British in the 1980s. The infamous Iraq-al Qaeda connection has been shot to pieces by the recently released September 11 report. And the Niger uranium claim was based upon forgeries so laughable that America stands embarrassed and ashamed before the judgment of the world. This is all featured on the White House's website on a page called 'Disarming Saddam.' The Niger claims, specifically, have yet to be removed.
Lies. Lies. All lies.
That Washington Post story, however, reveals a deeper truth here. Now that the original and terrifying claims to justify this war have been proven to be utterly and completely phony - Niger recently asked for an apology, by the way - the administration is falling back upon the justification for war that these men have been formulating for years and years and years.
They call it Pax Americana, a plan to invade Iraq, take it over, create a permanent military presence there, and use the oil revenues to fund further wars against virtually every nation in that region. This we call bringing our "values" over there. Norman Podhoretz, one of the ideological fathers of this group of neoconservatives who now control the foreign policy of this nation, described the process as "The reformation and modernization of Islam." That's a pretty fancy phrase. I am a Catholic, and can therefore call it by its simpler name: Crusade. We know all about those.
This is the Project for a New American Century, the product of a right-wing think tank that, in 1997, was considered so far out there that no one ever thought its members would ever come within ten miles of setting American policy. One broken election, however, vaulted these men into positions of unspeakable power. Their white papers, their dreams of empire at the point of the sword, have become our national nightmare, and the nightmare of the world. I speak of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, John Bolton, Lewis Libby, and the rest of these New American Century men who have taken our beloved country and all it stands for it and thrown it down into the mud.
You will note that I did not name George W. Bush, for blaming Bush for the gross misadministration of this government is like blaming Mickey Mouse when Disney screws up. He is not in charge. Truman said "The buck stops here," and so we point to Bush as a symbol of all that has gone wrong. But he is not in charge. These other men, these New American Century men, have delivered us to this wretched estate, and by God in Heaven, there will be a reckoning for it.
But is it all ideology for these men? Of course not. There is the payout. Have you ever heard of a company called United Defense, out of Arlington, Virginia? Let me introduce you. United Defense provides Combat Vehicle Systems, Fire Support, Combat Support Vehicle Systems, Weapons Delivery Systems, Amphibious Assault Vehicles, and Combat Support Services. Some of United Defense's current programs include:
The Bradley Family of Fighting Vehicles, the M113 Family of Fighting Vehicles, the M88A2 Recovery Vehicle, the Grizzly, the M9 ACE, the Composite Armored Vehicle, the M6 Linebacker, the M4 Command and Control Vehicle, the Battle Command Vehicle, the Paladin, the Future Scout and Cavalry System, the Crusader, Electric Gun Technology/Pulse Power, Advanced Simulations and Training Systems, and Fleet Management. This list goes on and on, and includes virtually everything an eternal war might need.
Who owns United Defense? Why, the Carlyle Group, which bought United Defense in October of 1997. For those not in the know, the Carlyle Group is a private global investment firm. Carlyle is the eleventh largest defense contractor in the US because of its ownership of companies making tanks, aircraft wings and other equipment. Carlyle has ownership stakes in 164 companies which generated $16 billion in revenues in the year 2000 alone. The Carlyle Group does not provide investment or other services to the general public.
Who works for the Carlyle Group? George Herbert Walker Bush works for the Carlyle Group, has been a senior consultant for Carlyle for some years now, and sits on the Board of Directors. This company is profiting wildly from this war in Iraq, a tidy gift from son to father.
And then, of course, there is Dick Cheney's Halliburton, profiting in the millions from the oil in Iraq. Halliburton subsidiary, Brown & Root, is also in Iraq. Their stock in trade is the building of permanent military bases. Here is your permanent military presence in Iraq, and all for an incredible fee. Cheney still draws a one million dollar annual check from Halliburton, what they call a 'deferred retirement benefit.' In Boston, we call that a paycheck.
Pax Americana. That which President Kennedy spoke so eloquently and specifically against when he said, "What kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced upon the world by our weapons of war." This is now the rule of law for this nation. It must be stopped, and we must be the ones to stop it.
This is America. At bottom, America is a dream, an idea. You can take away all our roads, our crops, our people, our cities, our armies - you can take all of that away, and the idea will still be there as pure and great as anything conceived by the human mind. I do very much believe that the idea that is America stands as the last, best hope for this world. When used properly, it can work wonders.
That idea, that dream, is in mortal peril. You can still have all our roads, our crops, our people, our cities, our armies - you can have all of that, but if you murder the idea that is America, you have murdered America itself in a way that ten thousand September 11ths could never do. The men and women within this current administration are murdering the idea that is America with their Patriot Acts, their destruction of civil liberties, their lies, their daily undermining of even the most basic tenets of decency and freedom and justice that we have tried to live up to for 227 years.
That, and that alone, should be enough to get you on your feet with your fist in the air, whether or not you believe we have any chance of stopping all this. We may not win, but we damned well have to fight them. If we don't, we are the traitors some would say we are.
When you stare into the obsidian darkness of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, it stares back at you. The stone of the monument is jet black, but polished so that you must face your own reflected eyes should you dare to read the names inscribed there. You are not alone in that place.
You stand shoulder to shoulder with the dead, and when those names shine out around and above and below the person you see in that stone, you become their graveyard. Your responsibility to those names, simply, is to remember.
Remember what that dream, that idea that is America, is supposed to be. Never forget it. Never let your children forget. Hand it down, generation after generation, because it is the most valuable heirloom we all possess. If we lose it, we have lost everything.
When all else fails, I fall back on the words of the extraordinary anti-war activist, Daniel Berrigan. A friend of Berrigan's, Mitchell Snyder, was for years an advocate and activist for the homeless in Washington DC. Snyder became despondent over the fact that his government could spend billions on bombs and planes and guns, but could not seem to find the money to help the homeless. Snyder became so despondent that he committed suicide. Daniel Berrigan penned these lines in memory of Snyder, and it is in these lines that I find my hope and strength when the darkness creeps too close.
Some stood up once, and sat down
Some walked a mile, and walked away
Some stood up twice, then sat down, "I've had it" they said,
Some walked two miles, then walked away. "It's too much," they cried.
Some stood and stood and stood.
They were taken for fools,
They were taken for being taken in.
Some walked and walked and walked.
They walked the earth,
They walked the waters,
They walked the air.
"Why do you stand," they were asked, "and why do you walk?"
"Because of the children," they said,
"And because of the heart,
"And because of the bread,"
"Because the cause is the heart's beat,
And the children born
And the risen bread."
The cause is the heart's beat. This cause is my heart's beat. It is yours. May it be there for all time, until that day comes when we can, once again, stand in awe and pride before our flag and our government and our nation, when we can once again revel in the rescued dream that is America.
Until then we are at the barricades, and on the streets, and in the faces of all those who would spend the precious blood of our men and women on lies and profit and greed. The obsidian darkness of that memorial demands this of us. The golden ideals of this nation demands this of us. The laws of our forefathers demands this of us. Most importantly, we demand this of ourselves.
They can take nothing from us that we are not willing to give, and we are not willing to give this great nation up. Let them be warned. We stand our ground.
William Rivers Pitt is the Managing Editor of truthout.org. He is a New York Times and international best-selling author of three books - "War On Iraq," available from Context Books, "The Greatest Sedition is Silence," available from Pluto Press, and "Our Flag, Too: The Paradox of Patriotism," available in August from Context Books.