Human Shield

human shieldsIn 1991 Antoinette McCormick was shipped to the Persian Gulf as a jet mechanic with the United States Navy. 12 years later she returned, but this time she was not in uniform and hers was a non-combat battalion. She was a "human shield."

McCormick justifies her participation in the first Gulf War as part political naiveté, part reverence for the idea of public service, and part need for a job -- a seemingly typical equation for a young American soldier. Twelve years later, the distinctions she saw between the two conflicts and an increasing alienation from mainstream politics fueled her radical decision to return to Iraq as a shield and not as a soldier. "I'm not a pacifist," says McCormick. "In 1991, Saddam was the aggressor, and obviously a brutal man. In this situation we were the aggressor. I'm a patriot, but I'm not a blind patriot."

As President George Bush began to gather his "coalition of the willing," countries supportive of military intervention in Iraq, McCormick grew increasingly alienated. "I really wanted to stop the war. Ok, when that's not possible, let's minimize the damage. The human shield movement was a way of putting out your body in a way that's much stronger than a single vote," says McCormick.

The idea to be a human shield, of traveling to Iraq to occupy power plants, food silos, schools and hospitals that were crucial to Iraqi civilian life and protecting them from U.S. bombs, appealed to McCormick's now broader definition of public service. "I think it's important to represent that Americans aren't all assholes," she said. She solicited funds from the Quakers in Yorkshire, England, where she was living at the time, and threw herself into the organizational center of the human shield movement. "We were all a bunch of amateurs, and that was part of its charm and success. We were called together by a visionary and the Internet."

"I really wanted to stop the war. Ok, when that's not possible, let's minimize the damage. The human shield movement was a way of putting out your body in a way that's much stronger than a single vote."

The visionary was Ken Nickels O'Keefe, another Gulf War veteran. In January 2003, O'Keefe put out a call to convene 10,000 foreign peace activists in Iraq and force the coalition forces to reconsider their planned attack on Iraq. Only 300 would get to Baghdad and of those, only 70 stayed for the bombing. McCormick was part of O'Keefe's Peace Truth Justice (TJP) group. Chicago based Voices in the Wilderness and the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) also organized groups.

In the media circus that ensued, the human shields were America's favorite freak show. Fraught with organizational breakdown and a duplicitous Iraqi regime, they were branded as "peace tourists" by conservative media commentators back home. Donald Rumsfeld, U.S. Secretary of Defense, assailed them as treasoners who threatened the effectiveness and safety of his troops' operations. But in the polarized political climate of the war, when restaurants were selling "freedom fries" while pouring out bottles of French wine, this international brigade of non-violent activists felt compelled to fight back the overwhelming drumbeat for war with simple sit-ins for peace.

The use of human shields was not a new tactic. In 1991, the Iraqi regime used Western businessmen they had captured in Kuwait as human shields at various infrastructural sites. Although the shields this time around were volunteers organized by American groups, they did come into contact with the Iraqi regime.

Many of the voluntary human shields from TJP arrived in Baghdad with no money and were welcomed by Abdul Razzaq Al-Hashimi, a former Baath party official from the Ministry of Information. The regime had arranged Mr. Hashimi to be the head of the Organization of Friendship, Peace and Solidarity, and they paid for the food and lodging of many of the TJP shields. When Hashimi demanded control over the movement and selection of sites (food silos and power plants over schools and hospitals), "the velvet gloves came off," said McCormick.

McCormick admits that some of her companions were naïve. "There were some people that were completely seduced by the Iraqis," she said.

McCormick recalls a shouting match between Mr. Hashimi and Mr. O'Keefe in which Hashimi asserted, "You are here because we want you here. You are nothing." For refusing to comply, O'Keefe was deported before the bombs fell. McCormick admits that some of her companions were naïve. "There were some people that were completely seduced by the Iraqis," she said. "When I saw this guy [Mr. Hashimi] in a green army suit, with a pistol, driving a Mercedes claiming he was from an NGO, I thought, oh no." McCormick refused his hospitality and remained independent throughout her stay.

Stories of the shields accepting the aid of the Iraqi regime did not play well in Washington. According to a March 18 Washington Post article, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) sent a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft arguing that the human shields should be prosecuted as traitors if they impeded U.S. military efforts. Many of the shields that have returned to the States have received letters from the Treasury Department threatening a fine of $1,000,000 and 12 years of prison.

Some shields had a radical reversal of opinion based on their experiences in Iraq, and were especially disillusioned by the Iraqi regime's manipulative nature. First person accounts were published in major American, British and Australian newspapers in which wide-eyed shields recanted their convictions and expressed remorse for their complicity with the Iraq regime. In a March 27 article in the Chicago Sun-Times, a shield wrote: "I completely rethought my view of the Iraq situation. Anyone with half a brain must see that Saddam has to be taken out."

McCormick was among the majority in holding onto the rightness of their actions. "We made mistakes, but we were not fools," says McCormick, who is now back in the United States. "Our objective was to defend the Iraqi people. We were using this gambit that the media would pay attention and that it would be a diplomatic nightmare to bomb Baghdad." The media did pay attention, and although Baghdad was bombed, the sites occupied by the human shields were spared.

"Our objective was to defend the Iraqi people."

Their mission was also to challenge the media's coverage of the war. "We also went to expose the hypocrisy that the media would pay so much attention to white, first world lives, and not dark, third world people." She deplored the American media's "video game" style coverage of the war, and relied on Al-Jazeera over the Western networks while in Iraq. Many reporters traveled incognito with the human shields. When their identities were discovered, "the Ministry of Information hit the roof," said McCormick. Three of the eight people that were traveling with McCormick were taken in the middle of the night and interrogated. "I was throwing up everyday thinking of my friends being tortured or near tortured," said McCormick.

The bombs seemed a dull sideshow to the politics of organization, the battles for autonomy, and the constant fear of being deported. "The first night when I woke up with the bombs real close, I just pulled the sheets over my head and prayed. After that, I used to sleep right through the bombs." The organizational challenges were not as easy to ignore.

Before entering Iraq herself, McCormick worked from Amman, Jordan obtaining "human shield" and "tourist" visas for other activists to enter Iraq. They told every aspiring shield the same thing. "We said, 'If you want to go in, we'll support you, but we really have no exit plan,'" says McCormick. Halfway through her stay in Iraq, she was deported to Syria, and then paid a bribe to return. In all she was in Iraq for about 14 days, and spent three days occupying sites. While cautioning that such a young movement is bound to have technical difficulties, she expresses dismay at the lack of unity among the shields. "It's important to have a party line, or at least to agree on what to say to the press," says McCormick.

Recently, the Treasury department has sent new signals to human shields back in the U.S. that it is serious about collecting on their fines and following through with prosecutions. Although it seems some shields did collaborate with the Iraqi regime (accepting free food, housing, and phone use), it is questionable whether they affected the military campaign. "There was an understanding [with Iraqi officials] that you know that I know that you know," says McCormick, "but the important thing was not to get used." Unfortunately, not all the shields carried McCormick's skepticism of her Iraqi handlers. Although McCormick relates that some Iraqis thought the shields were hired by Saddam, she believes that the shields' display of solidarity, as well as all the anti-war protests around the world, "fought evil fundamentalism in those [Arab] countries."

For McCormick, the biggest victories were personal. Diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression, she was concerned about how the stress of political organizing and war would affect her. "My mental illness comes from despair and boredom and alienation," said McCormick. "So the stress of having to step forward and do something together with people was actually good." She says she no longer suffers from depression.

McCormick describes her experience as a shield as being "the birth of an activist," as she is now involving herself in the communal living movement. Activism has been her savior. "Activism is a tremendous healer for people that don't fit into society," says McCormick. "You don't fit into society? Good, society is sick. War is the biggest group insanity I can think of."

Dan Hoyle is a freelance journalist and playwright based in Chicago and San Francisco.

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