In These Times, We Must Continue Down the Long Road to Peace
Editor’s note: The following testimony will be presented by Jaya Priya Reinhalter at the People's Tribunal on the Iraq War, to take place December 1-2 in Washington D.C. under the leadership of CODEPINK, Institute for Policy Studies, Washington Peace Center and numerous other organizations.
Prior to November 8, I had a written draft of what I wanted to say. On the morning of November 9, I tore it to shreds and wondered what was left to say. America had spoken, and I felt silenced. But then I was reminded of another time I felt silenced and recalled the impacts of the ongoing silence that has ensued since.
The invasion of Iraq in 2003 happened when I was only 15. At the time, I had little understanding of what this really meant. Only later, when my intellectual understanding grew, and my cousin was deployed, did I start to realize that I felt helpless. One of the biggest lies we have ever been told is that there is such a thing as “war abroad.” There is no such thing. The costs always come home, in the most insidious of ways. I cannot speak with much insight about the Iraqi experience, which is probably the voice we should privilege in this tribunal, but what I can offer is my experience of growing up in the age of “terror” and so-called “inevitable warfare.”
Perhaps the biggest insult was the propaganda that told us this was an unavoidable and just war in the name of both our, and the Iraqi people’s, wellbeing and happiness. We were told that the losses incurred were “worth it,” and that what the Iraqi government had done and intended to do was “much worse.”
If we wanted to engage in a morality contest, or compare atrocities, we might find the pro-war U.S. narrative begin to unravel. According to a report released in 2015 by Physicians for Social Responsibility, Physicians for Global Survival, and the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, at least one million Iraqis were killed between 2003 and 2012 alone as a direct result of the U.S. invasion and occupation. That same study found that at least 1.3 million people have been killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan as the result of the so-called War on Terror waged in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. These figures do not include refugees killed by rough conditions and dangerous travel after they were forced to flee their homes.
In the exacting words of Arundhati Roy, "One set of atrocities is called Terrorism and the other, Progress."
Even more, the invasion of Iraq signified the initiation of a new state of “being” in the United States: an ambiguous state of protracted warfare. The War on Terror, by the nature of its very name, told us that we would be engaged in an unending state of conflict, at any location in the world, at any time. At this point, I have lived out my entire teenage and adult life under the auspices of this “War on Terror.”
Today, much of my work relates to building community and cooperation across lines of faith and religious difference. In the U.S., I resent that this work must focus so heavily on healing deep-seated Islamophobic sentiments in our nation, where Islamaphobia has become a government-sponsored national illness. Fear, disconnection and an unending state of conflict wreaks havoc on our ability to feel natural states of compassion and interconnection. We have been asked to forget that the people of Iraq, and all Muslims for that matter, are our brothers and sisters. Sometimes I wonder if there is a worse oppression than being taught to not feel. What does this do to the human conscience?
As a result of this, and a whole universe of other insults, I’ve also become a student of conflict. As a student of conflict, I often hear violence referred to as an extreme version of “turning up of the volume” due to either an actual or perceived distance between us. Whether it be physical distance, emotional distance, or a power differential, the larger the canyon grows between us, the louder we must be in order hear one another. Whether this ‘turning up of the volume’ looks like economic sanctions, violent retaliations, political slander, or event this tribunal, our efforts to be heard are expressed in myriad ways.
Fortunately, those of us participating in the tribunal have enough privilege that we can speak truth to power without resorting to violence. We are granted a stage on which to perform our protests and to be heard within the fulcrum of U.S. imperial power. Have the Iraqis been granted this same space to speak? Just as war is always a conversation between two or more parties (although almost always with significant power differences), so too is the process of peacebuilding. As peace builders, we are called to find strategies to bridge this vast space that has grown between the collective consciousness of the people and the U.S. government—and to uplift the voices of the Iraqis and others who have been impacted by this war.
Students of conflict also learn very quickly that there are two essential factors in creating spaces where conflict stands a chance of transformation: power and love. In many liberal spaces, and particularly anti-war spaces, you will often hear a variety of adages that essentially mean, “All you need is love.” While on some ethereal plane I may agree with this, I have come to learn that love without power can be feeble and sentimental. Even more, love that does not acknowledge the need to transform power may actually reinforce the gluttony of the already powerful and permit ongoing exploitation and abuse. Where love creates the potential for transformation and naturally draws us towards unity, power is required to realize these aspirations.
That said, in the absence of love, power becomes a tool of brutality and separation driven by its own self interest. In the case of the George W. Bush administration and the invasion of Iraq, we see this exact impulse at play. There, we found an already powerful voice demanding that it be the only voice. This kind of power erodes. It is untethered and rapacious in its search for itself. It is power without love. But this is all it can do. This is power’s nature when out of balance. It’s only following its own principles of self promotion. Power seeking more power. This form of power exercised by the Bush administration has had its impacts not only on our economy and military men and women, but also on our very own relationship to power.
The “idea” is that this would be democracy’s role: to keep power in check with our collective consciousness, which tends to lean towards love. Genuine collective consciousness, when free of manipulation and with our basic needs met, always leans towards love. Our own Declaration of Independence reminds us that, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.”
On the other hand, are we really shocked? Is the Iraq war an aberration? Do we really have permission to speak about the Iraq war without talking about the war machine, capitalism, nationalism and imperialism? Really, my question is a perennial one: how do we give power to our collective conscience and move away from the imperial impulse of self-promoting power?
In essence this is not just a call for an end to the Iraq war, but a call for a whole new social reality. The entire rationale behind the “inevitability” of war is a cruel and terrible insult to the human imagination. We must come together to give power to another imagination, to another set of possibilities. Life-giving possibilities. When we are talking about a terribly violent thing like War, we must call on a distinctly empowered love, and we must be willing to talk about what it means to take back our power. As Adam Kahane reminds us, “Dialogue that does not acknowledge and work with power cannot create new social realities.” So I beg us, at this tribunal, to consider deeply what power looks like in the anti-war movement, or specifically in relation to the Iraq war.
In my own estimation, the commission on truth and accountability is a great example of one approach to dealing with the transformation of power. Nothing calls power into being like the truth, and accountability is the backbone of truth. But we must also grow. To grow, we must find ways to cultivate the growth of life, not just its maintenance. To do this we need deep community. In fact, true security comes from strong and vibrant communities based on interconnection and mutual support. Finding ways to build systems of mutual support opens possibilities for transformation and growth that do not destroy that which we are trying to nurture.
Although the road to peace and dealing with the underbelly of the war machine are lofty aspirations, we have to start somewhere. As we know, there is a whole biodiversity of movements and individuals working towards these realities, and this tribunal is just one player. But it also offers an opportunity for diversity to find its point of unity. Maybe, in the simplest way, this tribunal is an effort to reunite. Not only those of us participating, but also those in power, those responsible, and those affected. To remember that we are interconnected and to bring distant perspectives and voices closer, so that we do not have to turn our volumes up so high be heard. If our proximity pulls closer and we grow in the direction of deepened understanding, even just a little, this tribunal will have been a success.
Even more, if we can make power and love visible by explicitly inquiring after them to ensure that they are seen fully for their roles, we will also have succeeded. And at last, equipped with a map of power and love for the Iraq war, a growing narrative of truth, deepened collaboration and community, and the possibility of moving towards connection, we may find that war is not so inevitable after all.