From January 4 – 12, 2015, Witness Against Torture (WAT) activists assembled in Washington D.C. for an annual time of fasting and public witness to end the United States’ use of torture and indefinite detention and to demand the closure, with immediate freedom for those long cleared for release, of the illegal US prison at Guantanamo.
Participants in our eight day fast started each day with a time of reflection. This year, asked to briefly describe who or what we had left behind and yet might still carry in our thoughts that morning, I said that I’d left behind an imagined WWI soldier, Leonce Boudreau.
I was thinking of Nicole d’Entremont’s story of World War I, A Generation of Leaves, which I had just finished reading. Initial chapters focus on a Canadian family of Acadian descent. Their beloved oldest son, Leonce, enlists with Canada’s military because he wants to experience life beyond the confines of a small town and he feels stirred by a call to defend innocent European people from advancing “Hun” warriors. He soon finds himself mired in the horrid slaughter of trench warfare near Ypres, Belgium.
I often thought of Leonce during the week of fasting with WAT campaign members. We focused, each day, on the experiences and writing of a Yemeni prisoner in Guantanamo, Fahed Ghazi who, like Leonce, left his family and village to train as a fighter for what he believed to be a noble cause. He wanted to defend his family, faith and culture from hostile forces. Pakistani forces captured Fahed and turned him over to US forces after he had spent two weeks in a military training camp in Afghanistan. At the time he was 17, a juvenile. He was cleared for release from Guantanamo in 2007.
Leonce’s family never saw him again. Fahed’s family has been told, twice, that he is cleared for release and could soon reunite with his wife, daughter, brothers and parents. Being cleared for release means that US authorities have decided that Fahed poses no threat to the security of people in the US Still he languishes in Guantanamo where he has been held for 13 years.
Fahed writes that there is no guilt or innocence at Guantanamo. But he asserts that everyone, even the guards, knows the difference between right and wrong. It is illegal to hold him and 54 other prisoners, without charge, after they have been cleared for release.
Fahed is one of 122 prisoners held in Guantanamo.
Bitter cold had gripped Washington D.C. during most days of our fast and public witness. Clad in multiple layers of clothing, we clambered into orange jumpsuits, pulled black hoods over our heads, our “uniforms,” and walked in single file lines, hands held behind our backs.
Inside Union Station’s enormous Main Hall, we lined up on either side of a rolled up banner. As readers shouted out excerpts from one of Fahed’s letters that tell how he longs for reunion with his family, we unfurled a beautiful portrait of his face. “Now that you know,” Fahed writes, “you cannot turn away.”
US people have a lot of help in turning away. Politicians and much of the US mainstream media manufacture and peddle distorted views of security to the US public, encouraging people to eradicate threats to their security and to exalt and glorify uniformed soldiers or police officers who have been trained to kill or imprison anyone perceived to threaten the well-being of US people.
Often, people who’ve enlisted to wear US military or police uniforms bear much in common with Leonce and Fahed. They are young, hard pressed to earn an income, and eager for adventure.
There’s no reason to automatically exalt uniformed fighters as heroes.
But a humane society will surely seek understanding and care for any person who survives the killing fields of a war zone. Likewise, people in the US should be encouraged to see every detainee in Guantanamo as a human person, someone to be called by name and not by a prison number.
The cartoonized versions of foreign policy handed to US people, designating heroes and villains, create a dangerously under-educated public unable to engage in democratic decision-making.
Nicole d’Entremont writes of battered soldiers, soldiers who know they’ve been discarded in an endless, pointless war, longing to be rid of their uniforms. The overcoats were heavy, sodden, and often too bulky for struggling through areas entangled with barbed wire. Boots leaked and the soldiers’ feet were always wet, muddy, and sore. Miserably clothed, miserably fed, and horribly trapped in a murderous, insane war, soldiers longed to escape.
When putting on Fahed’s uniform, each day of our fast, I could imagine how intensely he longs to be rid of his prison garb.Thinking of his writings, and recalling d’Entremont’s stories drawn from “the war to end all wars,” I can imagine that there are many thousands of people trapped in the uniforms issued by war makers who deeply understand Dr. Martin Luther King’s call for revolution:
“A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war, ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love.”