I have watched mothers and fathers keening in grief over the frail corpses of their children in hospitals in Gaza and rural villages in El Salvador, Bosnia and Kosovo. The faces of these dead children, their bodies ripped apart by iron fragments or bullets tumbling end over end through their small, delicate frames, appear to me almost daily like faint and sadly familiar ghosts. The frailty and innocence of my own children make these images difficult to bear.
A child a day dies in war-related violence in Afghanistan. Children die in roadside explosions. They die in airstrikes. They die after militants lure them to carry suicide bombs, usually without their knowledge. They die in firefights. They are executed by the Taliban after being accused, sometimes correctly, of spying for the Afghan National Army. They are tiny pawns in a futile and endless war. They are robbed of their childhood. They live in fear and surrounded by the terror of indiscriminate violence. The United Nations, whose most recent report on children in Afghanistan covered a two-year period from Sept. 1, 2008, to Aug. 30, 2010, estimates that in the first half of last year at least 176 children were killed and 389 more wounded. But the real number is probably much, much higher. There are big parts of the country where research can no longer be carried out.
We will not stop the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, we will not end this slaughter of innocents, unless we are willing to rise up as have state workers in Wisconsin and citizens on the streets of Arab capitals. Repeated and sustained acts of civil disobedience are the only weapons that remain to us. Our political system is as broken and dysfunctional as that once presided over in Egypt by Hosni Mubarak. We must be willing to accept personal discomfort, to put our bodies in the way of the machine, if we hope to expose the lies of war and blunt the abuse by corporate profiteers. To do nothing, to refuse to act, to be passive, is to be an agent of injustice and to be complicit in murder. The U.N. report estimates that during the two-year period it studied almost 1,800 children were killed or injured in conflict-related violence, but numbers can never transmit the reality of such suffering.
On March 19, the eighth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, I will join a coalition of U.S. military veterans from Iraq Veterans Against the War, March Forward!, Vietnam Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace who will gather in Lafayette Park across from the White House. The veteran-led action will result in numerous arrests, as did a Dec. 16 protest organized by Veterans for Peace. It will seek, because it is all we have left, to use our bodies to challenge the crimes of the state.
It does not matter if this protest or any other does not work. It does not matter if we are 500, as we were in December, or 50. It does not matter if the event is covered in the press or ignored. It matters only that those of us who believe in the rule of law, who find the organized sadism of war and militarism repugnant and who seek to protect the sanctity of life rise up. If we do not defend these virtues they will be extinguished. No one in power will defend them for us. Protests are rending the fabric of the U.S.-backed dictatorships in Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan, Egypt and Libya. They are flickering to life in the U.S. in states like Wisconsin. And they are beginning to convulse Iraq. Iraqis, for whom eight years of war and occupation have brought nothing but misery and death, are surrounding government buildings to denounce their puppet government. They are rising up to demand jobs, basic services including electricity, a reining in of our mercenary killers, some of whom have been used to quell restless crowds, and a right to determine their own future. These protesters are our true allies, not the hired thugs we pay to repress them.
We are wasting $700 million a day to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while our teachers, firefighters and police lose their jobs, while we slash basic assistance programs for the poor, children and the elderly, while we turn our backs on the some 3 million people being pushed from their homes by foreclosures and bank repossessions and while we do nothing to help the one in six American workers who cannot find work. These wars have taken hundreds of thousands of lives. They have pushed millions into refugee or displacement camps. They have left young men and women severely crippled and maimed. They have turned our nation into an isolated pariah, fueling the very terrorism we seek to defeat. And they cannot be won. The sooner we leave Iraq and Afghanistan the sooner we will save others and finally save ourselves.
There will be veterans in the park who carry with them physical and emotional wounds of great magnitude, who remain crippled by the dead hand of war, who never sleep well, who struggle in the black pit of depression and with post-traumatic stress disorder, and who will bear the cross that war inflicted upon them until the end of their days. They will have surmounted tremendous psychic and physical pain to make it to Lafayette Park, to defy what they know must be defied. And if they can walk their trail of tears to the White House so can you. They are our wounded healers, our disregarded prophets.
Hugh Thompson, a helicopter pilot who while flying saw the killings of unarmed Vietnamese civilians in what later became known as the My Lai massacre, landed in the village during the slaughter. He spotted a group of about 10 civilians, including children, running toward a homemade bomb shelter. Soldiers from the 2nd Platoon, C Company, were chasing the civilians. Thompson, dismounting from the cockpit, put himself between the civilians and the soldiers. He ordered his gunner to open fire on the Americans if they began to shoot the villagers or him. Later, Thompson, who crusaded for justice after then-Maj. Colin Powell led the official whitewash of My Lai, received death threats. Mutilated animals were tossed on his doorstep. He was unsung for decades and forgotten until shortly before his death in 2006. He exhibited real courage, moral courage, the kind of courage the state detests, the kind of courage for which they do not mint medals.
Bradley Manning, who allegedly downloaded thousands of documents and videos that confirmed war crimes by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and passed them on to WikiLeaks, is being held in a military brig in Quantico, Va. He has been kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day and denied exercise, a pillow or sheets for the last nine months. His prolonged isolation is designed to break him physically and psychologically. There will be a protest outside Quantico on March 20 in support of Manning, another soldier from another war whom Thompson would have understood.
The documents published by WikiLeaks detailed for the world the widespread use of torture by Iraqi and Afghan security forces and the silent complicity of Washington. They confirmed that civilians, including children, are routinely murdered by occupation forces and that the killings are not investigated. The documents lifted the veil on our undeclared, black war in Pakistan, including drone strikes that have killed more than 900 civilians in Pakistan since Barack Obama took office. They shed light on the gross corruption, drug trafficking and crimes committed by the Afghan president as well as the reign of terror carried out by the Afghan National Army. These documents confirm that huge numbers of Iraqi civilians have been killed by U.S. troops at checkpoints, and that since the invasion tens of thousands of civilians have died as a result of the war. These documents illustrate in page after page that our government makes no effort to protect liberty, democracy or human rights, but instead prefers crude and brutal mechanisms of power.
The Obama administration, which has proved as efficient in serving the war machine and the corporate state as the Bush administration did, is attempting to destroy not only Manning but WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The state seeks to silence anyone who practices moral courage. It does not want the truth heard. It does not want the reality seen. If these forces of war and greed triumph, and we do not, there will be darkness. But if on March 19 there is at least one person willing to defy the state, to demand justice at the cost of his or her freedom, there will be a flame held to light the way for us all.
Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.