Early in his historic speech in Cairo in June of this year, President Barack Obama greeted Muslims in Arabic: Assalaamu Alaikum, peace be upon you. These words, spoken by the first African American US president, elicited quite a thrill. But however diplomatic his rhetoric and as much as he quotes the Holy Qur’an, Obama has continued to disappoint those working for an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. USA Today reported in March that US support for the war in Afghanistan had reached an all-time low. If the mainstream media can hear the message that we don’t support spending $80 billion more to send 21,000 additional troops there, why can’t he?
Later in the same speech, Obama justified continuing former President Bush’s holy war on terror because there are “violent extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can,” a hypocritical statement coming from the commander in chief of a military that is bombing highly populated areas in those countries in order to kill a few Taliban. However, it should come as no surprise. Obama promised during his campaign that he would bomb Pakistan, and he’s staying true to his word.
The real cost of war
Sadly, we have passed the 5,000 mark on troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, about 2,000 more than died in the September 11 attacks. One Johns Hopkins study estimated that over 600,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq alone, and there are millions of Afghani and Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons. To date, over $830 billion have been allocated to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And in late June, Obama signed into law a measure containing $79.9 billion to further fund these wars through September 30.
The wars are taking their toll on US soldiers in myriad other ways as well, including post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, failed relationships and suicide. The mental health screening, studies and increased psychiatric staff the Army is scrambling to provide have mostly been too little, too late. The suicide rate for the military has surpassed the civilian rate, and military psychiatrists are doing little more than prescribing pills (See “Reaching GIs”). Until recently, the Army has been blaming the suicides on the soldiers themselves rather than lengthy, repeated deployments into a violent, unpopular war.
As the peace movement has been saying since before Obama’s election, we cannot sit back and wait for any president to end these wars. A powerful, grassroots movement is the only change we can truly believe in, and that movement continues to grow even among worries that Obama’s election has left activists complacent.
Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are resisting and organizing in amazing and creative ways that pay tribute to their predecessors during the Vietnam War. GI coffee houses inspired by the Vietnam-era movement are springing up near bases around the country, like Coffee Strong in Fort Lewis, Washington, or Under the Hood in Killeen, Texas. These are spaces where veterans and soldiers can meet to support one another and exchange experiences, screen films like David Zeiger’s Sir! No Sir!, offer GI rights counseling and hold meetings. Groups like Citizen Soldier, Iraq Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace are active in these spaces, offering resources to conscientious objectors and war resisters who have seen first hand the crime and brutality that is all war.
Where the G.I. peace movement seeks to starve the Pentagon of the people power to fight its wars, others who work for peace are looking to remove its funding. United for Peace and Justice, a national coalition of antiwar groups, is calling for Congress to cut military spending by 25% by 2010. War tax resisters are refusing to pay all or part of the 51% of their taxes budgeted for current and past military. In addition, the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee continues their campaign to encourage a boycott of war taxes throughout the country. Other groups are working on antiwar profiteering campaigns promoting divestment, brand busting and direct action to cut off financial support of the military-industrial complex. Bite the Bullet! is a network of organizations that focuses on the ways in which universities, the government, weapons makers, the media, corporations and more are all heavily invested in and supported by the war machine. Through investigation and hard work, many individuals and organizations are working to stop the flow of indirect support of the military.
Not only adults and organizations are refusing to be complacent under the new Democratic administration. Students of all ages are at the forefront of the peace movement. As the military focuses more heavily on high school recruitment, young people and adults are combining their efforts to keep recruiters out of schools and to train youth to organize for peace. While the US government spends money on recruitment tools like the Army Experience Center in suburban Philadelphia that lures children with war video games and promises of college funding, communities are fighting to counter the military’s efforts. BAY-Peace (Better Alternatives for Youth), a RESIST grantee, is a California-based group that fights back against aggressive military recruiting in high schools. Meanwhile, university students have been occupying buildings on campuses from New York City to Edinburgh calling for aid to Gaza, scholarships for Palestinians, divestment from Israel’s military and more.
Obama’s speech in Cairo was titled “A New Beginning.” But those of us who have been working for peace and justice have a longer timeline in view. An elected official may spark hope for change, but that change comes from the people striving day by day in solidarity with one another, breaking apart the military-industrial complex from all sides. The president may wish peace upon the Arab world, but it is our efforts that will bring about that peace.