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David Swanson: Teach-In on War Demands Truth

Teach-In on War Turns to Demand for Truth

By David Swanson
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A teach-in on ending the Iraq War was held in Washington, D.C., on June 3, organized by Progressive Democrats of America (PDA). It followed, in part, a pattern established by other teach-ins, but also took an exciting new turn.

The event was familiar in that the speakers argued for the speedy withdrawal of U.S. troops, and most of the audience agreed, while others insisted that the Iraqis cannot handle their own security and are not ready to go without U.S. soldiers.

But this teach-in also developed a new focus, one on which there seemed to be unanimous agreement, namely that we need to demand the truth, that we need to bring to light the evidence of Bush administration lies about the reasons for the war.

The connection between proving that the war was based on lies and persuading people to push for an end to the war is not an obvious one. There were people in the room, and millions of U.S. citizens outside it, who believe we would have been better off without the war, but believe that now we should continue it.

However, it's worth noting that there were some at the teach-in who professed to favor the speedy withdrawal of U.S. troops, but who argued against saying so out-loud, on the grounds that this could offend people. It seems likely to me that forcing a public discussion of the lies that started the war, and of the resolution of inquiry into impeachment that they justify, will fundamentally change what counts as acceptable to say out-loud. Once the I word (impeachment) is commonly associated with the war, ending the war might just become less of a taboo. And, of course, if the President is impeached over the war, he or his replacement may decide they have a strong motivation to end the war.

Communicating to people what is happening on the ground in Iraq could also move them to oppose continuing the war, and this approach may be greatly advanced by a US tour of six Iraqi labor leaders set to begin June 10 and discussed at the teach-in by one of the tour's main organizers. But even knowing how much the occupation is part of the problem and how little it is advancing any solution, and recognizing Iraqis' desire to accept the risks of governing themselves, may not - I think - persuade some Americans unless it is made acceptable for them to speak in public against the war and the president and the "supporting of the troops."

The teach-in was moderated by Steve Cobble, a strategist for PDA and a co-founder of Panelists included Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS); Reverend Lennox Yearwood, president and CEO of Hip Hop Caucus, and a board member of PDA; Ray McGovern, former CIA analyst; Cindy Sheehan of Gold Star Families for Peace, whose son was killed in Iraq as a U.S. soldier; John Bonifaz, a constitutional attorney and a co-founder of; Acie Byrd, a veteran of the Vietnam War and co-chair of PDA's National Organizing Committee; Karen Dolan, organizer with IPS of Cities for Peace and Cities for Progress; and Gene Bruskin, a co-convener of U.S. Labor Against War.

Cobble, who worked for Rep. Dennis Kucinich's (D-OH) presidential campaign, began by noting that Kucinich had proposed a plan for withdrawal in 90 days, and that it had now been some 630 days since that proposal. Cobble might have added that Kucinich and Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-HI) plan on June 8 to introduce a bill that would set a certain date for completing the withdrawal of US soldiers, and that rumor has it that date will be the end of December 2006. If so, one can hope that setting the date 18 months away will compel many other congress members to look at the details of the plan, the positive aspects, the reparations, the rebuilding, the things that we are not doing now but which we are now using to justify a military occupation. And one can hope that widespread support for such a plan will flush out those members of congress whose vision is for permanent occupation of Iraq, but who have never been forced to say so.

Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey's proposed amendment to simply require creating an exit strategy and a plan to rebuild Iraq gained 128 votes in the House on May 25, including the votes of five Republicans. And 94 congress members have signed onto Congressman Conyers' letter to the president demanding an explanation of the Downing Street minutes. So, there are signs of life and hope on Capitol Hill.

Bennis spoke first at the teach-in and argued for making immediate withdrawal our top priority. We should do so, she said, not because the Iraq war is the war that is currently killing the most people (it is not), and not because there are U.S. soldiers dying (other types of humans are valuable too). We should focus on ending the war in Iraq, Bennis said, because "it is the wedge in the U.S. drive to empire."

Now, some people, Bennis said, say that we have an obligation to Iraq. "You're damn straight we have an obligation!" But we can't fulfill that obligation, she said, while occupying the country. We need to make reparations.

Bennis advised putting some of our energy into counter recruitment, persuading the poor in our country not to enlist -- which, she said, means finding them jobs. We should, Bennis said, not just find people jobs that allow them to avoid the military. We should also recruit them into the peace movement.

Secondly, we should challenge the spending of another dime by Congress on any aspect of the war other than withdrawing the troops. "We will never succeed in fighting racism or poverty, unless we are prepared to link them to the question of war."

Rev. Yearwood, who spoke next, said that he agreed. He pointed to disagreements over when the withdrawal should start, and he suggested a somewhat different first step than what has been the focus of the anti-war movement thus far. "First," he said, "the truth must come forth. And the truth hurts before it heals. If this administration is truly about democracy, they must come to a point where they give us the truth."

Then, Yearwood said, we need to allow the United Nations to do its job and to include the entire world in the process. And we need to make reparations. Yearwood asked us to "imagine what 20 deaths a day is doing to the psyche of the Iraqi people."

At this point in the teach-in, a woman asked a question from the floor. She believed that the Bush administration wanted to withdraw some troops but was waiting until it had finished securing permanent military bases. How, she wanted to know, could we force withdrawal sooner and prevent the permanent use of those bases?

McGovern replied that without a doubt the oil and the bases were the reasons for the war, which he remembers as O.I.L. (Oil, Israel, and Logistical bases to support domination of the oil of Iraq and Saudi Arabia).

McGovern told a story that made clear that revealing the true causes of the war won't persuade everyone to oppose it. He met someone who told him that in comparison to the number of (U.S.) deaths in Vietnam, the number of (U.S.) deaths in this war amounted to a small price to pay for all that oil. McGovern said he replied that the Iraqis were not going to allow the United States to succeed in taking the oil, that the war could not ever be won. When that failed to persuade, he asked the man what he would think if his own son were one of the dead. When that didn't work, he asked if the man liked posting the Ten Commandments in courthouses. When he said yes, McGovern asked him if he knew about the commandments that forbid coveting possessions, stealing, killing, and lying. That didn't work either.

"The war is unwinable," McGovern told us. "Military professionals find that difficult, if not impossible, to say."

"How do we get out?" McGovern asked. "We get the truth out! And the Downing Street memorandum is all we need. They were fixing the facts. I never thought I'd see that in black and white. Our papers won't promote it, but we can. We are the ones we've been waiting for."

Cindy Sheehan spoke next and said that she believed many Americans would accept permanent bases in Iraq. "We've had them in other countries for many years."

Sheehan objected to the idea that violence would increase if the US troops left. "Iraq is not on the verge of a civil war," she said. "It is in a civil war."

Sheehan noted that while 5 Republicans voted for Rep. Woolsey's amendment, 40 percent of the Democrats in the House did not. Woolsey asked one why they didn't vote with her, Sheehan said, and they told her that they voted 'No' out of respect for those (Americans) who had died.

"That's the talk of the bastards who got us into this war," Sheehan said. Sheehan speaks calmly and deliberately, but always refers to the president as "the lying bastard."

Sheehan said that the night her son was killed, U.S. forces "slaughtered hundreds and hundreds." She added: "One of my friends' kids was killed searching for weapons of mass destruction, and he was killed by a weapon of single destruction."

"The war is immoral," Sheehan said, "and we must oppose it even if it means breaking immoral laws. The government has no right - they don't have a right to tell me what to do when they go out and kill tens of thousands of people for no reason."

Sheehan, too, concluded that the campaign for a resolution of inquiry into possible impeachable offenses is critical. "I'm really excited to be part of the After Downing Street movement! The evidence is overwhelming that the lying bastard lied about the justification for invading Iraq. Now that the smoking gun is burning in our hands, we need a vote for articles of impeachment."

Bonifaz, the lawyer whose memo to Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) launched, spoke next and described the significance of the Downing Street Minutes. "This is the smoking gun," he said, "to start an official investigation into whether or not the president has committed impeachable offenses. These are official government minutes. You can't get better evidence than that."

Bonifaz said that Article 2, Section 4, of the US Constitution gave Congress the power to impeach because its authors "knew how kings and queens in Europe had abused power."

"We've launched a national campaign," he said, "to call on Congress to introduce a Resolution of Inquiry."

At this point, someone asked from the floor whether the decline in US military recruitment would lead to increased privatization. Sheehan replied that there are already 20,000 mercenaries in Iraq. Cobble added that the mercenaries are paid more than other soldiers. Bennis described the problems with the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires parents to opt-out of having their children's' information shared with military recruiters, rather than requiring them to opt-in before that can happen.

Byrd spoke next. He was Vice President of the Institute for Security and Democracy, which opposed the Swift Boat Veterans for Lies, but which Byrd complains, "the Democratic Party didn't see fit to fund." Byrd described the military as "an institution that we have ignored."

"Many of us in the Vietnam War," he said, "were very interested in hearing the anti-war movement. That was a different view from what we heard on TV and in newspapers. And many of us joined in opposing the war."

Byrd challenged us to ask ourselves: "What are we doing to educate members of the military?" He said there are 27 million veterans, and another 27 million veterans' family members. Forty-five percent of veterans, he said, voted against Bush.

Karen Dolan was next to speak. She urged us to spread the stories "however painful" of parents who've lost their children, of those who've been injured, of those with post-traumatic stress syndrome, of those who've come home and then killed themselves.

She also recommended informing people of the financial costs of war and the alternative uses for that money that are being defunded. Data is available, she said, at the websites of the National Priorities Project, Cities for Peace, and Cities for Progress. Washington, DC, she said, is spending $1 billion on the war, and Maryland $4 billion, "and I don't have a decent school to send my kid to in Prince George's County. And we have millions of people living without health coverage. We should put this in financial terms and explain how it affects people around the country."

"Don't let one day go by," Dolan said, "that you don't turn to your neighbor or a grocery clerk or someone and say 'Did you give your consent to this war? Does our child have a good school? Did you know we've spent $200 billion on this war?'"

At this point a man in the audience asked whether the "strong, in-your-face" anti-war movement during the Vietnam War had been counterproductive, whether we shouldn't avoid asking for withdrawal in 90 days and instead work to get out the truth.

Bennis and Cobble said that they both believed it was the aggressive anti-war movement that had shortened the Vietnam War.

Next to speak was Gene Bruskin, who conveyed some viewpoints oddly lacking from the anti-war movement today, namely those of Iraqis. But first he spoke briefly about the U.S. labor movement. Bruskin said that US Labor Against War has introduced resolutions to "get out now" at the conventions of numerous US labor unions, and that often the unions' resolution committees have stripped out the "now." But, he said, people have objected from the floor: "My son is going next week, so I say end it now," or "I was over there, and every minute was hell, and I say end it now."

Almost no one in this country, Bruskin said, has heard from an Iraqi. There are interviews, however, on the website of which has organized a tour of the US for six Iraqi labor leaders, to begin next week in Washington, D.C.

Bruskin provided a brief history of European involvement in Iraq. In 1920, he said, "the British dropped mustard gas on revolting Shiites, introducing weapons of mass destruction to Iraq." After the Iraqis had thrown the British out in the 1950s, in the 60s, Bruskin said, the U.S. was involved in a coup against a popular democratic government, only a few years after engineering a coup in Iran because the government there had nationalized the oil.

"If Iraqis don't know about democracy," Bruskin said, "it's not because they're not interested, it's because we've prevented them."

There had been a labor movement in Iraq, but it resurrected itself in 2003, Bruskin said, with the formation in May of the IFTU (Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions). In September 2003, there was a general strike in Basra to demand gas, water, and electricity. Then, when a subsidiary of Halliburton brought in Indian workers, Iraqi oil workers struck and won better and more secure jobs. Then in December, the coalition forces arrested leaders of the labor federation.

Then a second federation formed out of a six-month-old movement of the unemployed organized to demand jobs. When the US-based Stevedoring Services of America (which had just tried to smash the International Longshore and Warehouse Union on the US West Coast) abused Iraqi workers, they picketed and blocked a gate.

When US Occupation chief Paul Bremer tried to lower workers' wages below the level they had been under the Hussein regime, workers struck and got their wages doubled. When millions of dollars belonging to the Saddam Hussein regime went missing, the occupation forces chose to arrest 17 women who worked as bank tellers. Workers threatened to strike and got the women freed.

Bruskin recounted these and other little-known stories of Iraqis' attempts to form a civil society and a democratic workplace, and concluded: "These are Iraqi people. They go to work every day. These are people we have to support, through the labor movement and the women's movement. And all of the unions work for equality for women."

"It's going to cost us $50,000 to send six leaders to 20 cities, and when they leave, we will give them substantial financial support," Bruskin said. "This is concrete solidarity."

More questions and answers concluded the teach-in, and Rev. Yearwood brought the discussion back to the question of whether to get out "now." He presented an analogy of a police chief occupying your house, and his voice reached a booming preacher's crescendo. You would want, he said, to say "Get out! I can handle my affairs! The Iraqis can handle their affairs! Get out of their house!"

Most clearly left the event energized, others undecided. But all apparently agreed on the need to reveal Bush administration lies.

Watch the PDA website at for a video of the teach-in.

Learn about Iraqi labor leaders' tour at


David Swanson is a co-founder of

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