KEN SEHESTED was the founding director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. His story and his writing are included in Daniel Buttry’s new Blessed Are the Peacemakers. Ken currently is pastor of the Circle of Mercy congregation in Ashevile, North Carolina, with his wife Nancy Sehested and Joyce Holiday. In 2003, Ken was part of a Christian Peacemakers Team in Iraq just before the US invasion. He also was one of the most effective voices against the Gulf War, engaging in fasting and other anti-war activism during a time when many Americans concerned about peace remained inactive.
‘Come Home’: The 20-Year War in Iraq
By Ken Sehested
“They’re coming home.”
The words penetrated my groggy reading of the Sunday morning paper as I sat at the kitchen table, the coffee maker’s final perks hacking like a smoker’s cough. I paused in my reading and turned up the radio: They’re coming home. U.S. soldiers from Iraq. The remaining few thousand crossing the border into Kuwait just as the sun rose. A few will remain, along with a Marine guard unit and likely hundreds of $1,000-a-day mercenaries hired to protect personnel at the world’s largest embassy, in Baghdad, spread over a 104-acre site projected to house 5,500, costing three-quarters of a billion dollars to build and more than twice that in annual operating costs.
I remember that Kuwait border crossing, having spent 4 days there in late February 2003 less than three weeks before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. There were 30 or so of us in the Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation that drove from Baghdad to the border’s edge, pitching tents a few hundred feet from the check point on the main artery connecting the two countries. A 10-foot-high dirt berm marking the border, built after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, was visible as far as the eye could see in either direction on that desert landscape.
We began Lent a week early that year, watching and praying and fasting, offering conversation with interested reporters about politically realistic alternatives to war. A few of the flock of international media took the time to drive the route soon to be flooded with the invasion’s ground troops.
‘WE’LL GET BETTER AS WE DO THIS MORE OFTEN’
Now, nearly nine years later, I read a newspaper editor’s reflections on the war’s official end. He recalled asking readers in late March 2003 to answer a poll: How many Iraqis were part of the 9/11 terrorist attacks? Only 17% answered correctly: Zero. For at least two more years President Bush and other administration officials would continue to link “9/11” and “Iraq,” all the while admitting “mistakes were made” on intelligence about suspected weapons of mass destruction. Rarely has “my bad” covered so much catastrophe.
At a formal transition ceremony, held in a corner of the Baghdad airport, the U.S. force’s flags were furled as a small military band played. US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta spoke, saying the war’s toll—4,500 deaths and 32,000 wounded, nearly $1 trillion in direct costs—were justified and that the 1.5 million men and women who had rotated through Iraq during the war could share in a “lasting pride.”
Economists who study the war’s cost argue over whether the final tab will be $2 or $3 trillion, once the ongoing costs for treating wounded soldiers (physical and mental—more soldiers now commit suicide, 18 every day, than die in combat) and interest on what amounts to our nation’s credit card that covers this bill. The Iraqi fatalities, whose estimate begins at 100,000, and many times that number of wounded, were not mentioned, nor were the 4 million refugees. No wonder that at this flag-lowering ceremony neither Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki nor President Jalal Talabani showed up to claim their reserved seats.
Although it may seem comforting to think of this long war as a single painful lesson learned, I am recalling the unnamed assistant to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld who told us all during the war: “”This is the future for the world we’re in at the moment. We’ll get better as we do it more often.”
‘JUNKYARD GIVES UP SECRET REPORTS OF MASSACRE’
On December 14, as US forces rapidly were shutting down operations, closing facilities and supposedly destroying sensitive documents, a New York Times headline revealed: Junkyard Gives Up Secret Reports of Massacre in Iraq. The story was based on 400 pages of secret interrogations conducted after the 2005 massacre of civilians by Marines on patrol in Haditha. An Iraqi contractor was supposed to destroy the files—but, like many expectations in this war, the destruction never took place.
The Haditha tragedy isn’t news. Time Magazine broke the gruesome story in 2006—and it was widely credited with forever deepening the chasm of distrust between U.S. forces and the Iraqis they supposedly were there to help. The harshest details of the bloodbath were never reported, until these documents turned up. In fact, the story had all but vanished and charges were dropped against six of the accused Marines, one was acquitted of charges and the last remaining case appeared to be indefinitely postponed.
The Marines were hit first on that day in 2005 in Haditha. A roadside bomb killed one and seriously injured two others. Then, the men went on a killing spree in the neighborhood, assassinating 24 Iraqi civilians, including women, children as young as 3 and a 76-year-old man in a wheelchair. Many of the dead were killed in their homes.
When he first learned of the incident, Major General Steve Johnson, the American commander in Anbar province at the time, thought it unworthy of further investigation. However, the classified documents found at the trash dump included a chilling transcript of in which Johnson explained his 2005 inaction this way: “It happened all the time … throughout the whole country. So you know, maybe, if I was sitting here [in Virginia] and heard that 15 civilians were killed I would have been surprised and shocked and done—done more to look into it. But at that point in time, I felt that it was—had been, for whatever reason, part of that engagement and felt that it was just a cost of doing business on that particular engagement.”
‘… because they have a hard time dealing with that’
The tragedy of this Haditha narrative is not that a squad of Marines went berserk, or that officers up the chain of command thought the story unremarkable. The tragedy is that we can be so naïve to think bloodlust and the slaughter of innocents can be avoided under such conditions. It is the exception, not the rule, for our moral compasses to stay intact during war.
The New York Times report drew the same conclusion, based on years of reporting in Iraq and on the new transcripts. Times reporter Michael Schmidt’s story explained that in the quagmire of Iraq, soldiers “feeling they were under attack constantly, decided to use force first and ask questions later. If Marines took fire from a building, they would often level it. Drivers who approached checkpoints without stopping were assumed to be suicide bombers.”
Sgt. Maj. Edward Sax, whose testimony was included in the hundreds of pages found in the junkyard, gave a common example: “When a car doesn’t stop, it crosses the trigger line, Marines engage and, yes, sir, there are people inside the car that are killed that have nothing to do with it. I had Marines shoot children in cars and (later I talked) with the Marines individually one on one about it because they have a hard time dealing with that.”
HOW LONG WAS THE WAR? DO YOU REMEMBER …
How long was the war? Everywhere you turn, these days, people are talking about the nine years of warfare. In fact, however, U.S. combat operations against Iraqis continued from our first war with Iraq through the outbreak of Shock and Awe in 1993. Remember the “no-fly” zones? In 1991, Saddam’s army was quickly dislodged from its occupation of Kuwait. There’s a hole in our public memory of the dozen years’ siege we conducted in and around Iraq. News reports rarely mention that conflict and, even while the seige was unfolding, its impact went largely unreported. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright confirmed the grisly conclusions of a UNICEF study revealing that half a million Iraqi children had died as a result of economic sanctions. When asked by 60 Minutes reporter Leslie Stahl if the deaths of 500,000 children—from causes including polluted water and inadequate nutrition—was worth the price, Albright said “Yes, we think the price was worth it.”
‘THEY MADE A DESOLATION, THEY CALL IT …’
This “lasting pride” Leon Panetta was describing apparently is supposed to stretch across a whole generation of combat operations: 19 years and 11 months. I can’t help but remember the ancient historian Tacitus’ comment about Roman imperial reach: “They make a desolation, they call it ‘peace’.”
Every empire claims divine sponsorship for its lasting pride. Rome, depicted as the beast in John’s Revelation, claimed “I rule as a queen; I am no widow, and I will never see grief” (18:7). Just as Babylon had previously claimed: “I am, and there is no one beside me” (Isaiah 47:8). Just as Egypt had claimed before Babylon: “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:17).
Yet hundreds, maybe thousands, of choirs this Christmas season will announce by way of Handel’s “Messiah” the New Testament’s ultimate counter-claim to imperial hubris: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord, and he will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15).
And somewhere, someone is singing: “Come home, come home, ye who are weary come home.”
Care to see faces from Iraq in a video Ken Sehested produced?
A video screen should appear, below. Click the screen to view this 8-minute slide show of photographs, accompanied by D.E. Adams’ rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Lay Down Your Weary Tune.” If you see no video screen in your version of this story, then you also can click here to jump to YouTube and watch it there.
Care to read more on meeting violence with peace?
Nationally known peace activist (and World Sabbath co-founder) Rod Reinhart writes about his own pilgrimage from a life of faith and action on behalf of peace—to working arm in arm with returned U.S. military veterans. This is especially important as winter arrives across our hemisphere. Thousands of U.S. veterans are homeless nationwide.
Want to find peace in your reading—and group discussions—this winter?
Consider learning about Daniel Buttry’s Blessed Are the Peacemakers.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.