Anniversary Post: Human Shield Action to Iraq

Ken O'KeefeOn this day in 2003, as part of Human Shield Action to Iraq, 50 volunteers left London for Baghdad to act as human shields in order to stop the impending invasion of Iraq. The group was led by Kenneth O’Keefe — an ex-marine who has since been involved in many similar political actions. By the time of the invasion, the group is thought to have been several hundred strong. Because of their small numbers, they decided to spread themselves out at strategic locations around the country. The whole thing got very complicated, in part because the volunteers wanted to stop the war but were in no way supportive of the Hussein government.

I have two thoughts about this. The first is that those involved in Human Shield Action to Iraq are the most heroic people in the world. I’m constantly amazed that people think serving in the US military is a sign of bravery. Why don’t these people serve in tiny militaries that have little hope of winning? The US military is roughly the size of every other military on earth combined. Signing up to be on the most powerful team isn’t an act of bravery, although I don’t put down people who join the military. There are reasons to do so. But we shouldn’t talk of heroics.

My second thought on this matter is just how naive Human Shield Action to Iraq seems. I don’t know what the people involved in the effort actually thought. But they did get attention. I do remember hearing about the group at the time. But did they really think that the likes of Bush and Cheney cared in the least about killing these people? This was a war of their choice to make them feel brave after being so clearly cowardly during the Vietnam War. None of the men who have sat in the White House cared about all the people they killed. They justify it as being part of the greater good. But for those two, it’s a whole other level.

Regardless, they were brave people. And of the 80 who spent the entire war there, none were killed. The same, of course, can’t be said of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians who were killed in that cowardly war.

13 thoughts on “Anniversary Post: Human Shield Action to Iraq

    • Do you mean Bush and Cheney? I heard that Bush got a bad paper cut while signing an executive action.

        • The guy didn’t even die. Isn’t that just like those people: violent and incompetent — can’t even kill someone when you shoot them in the face.

          • In this case, incompetence was a saving grace. It was bad enough we had a Veep who shot someone for no reason. At least Andrew Jackson’s violent outburst on that attempted assassin was doing it because the guy did try to kill him.

            • Say what you will of Jackson, he was competent. When he wanted to kill millions of Native Americans, they died!

  1. I remember some people I knew at the time joking that Human Shield should be nominated for the Darwin Awards. Take that as another anecdote saying there’s no way “the people” would have been aroused against the war if the HS protesters had died.

    • People don’t even get upset with when we put people to death for crimes they didn’t commit. It is all collateral damage. Most Americans confuse bravery with machismo. I don’t have much hope for us. This is how people are in a dying empire.

      • The American Empire is probably unsustainable, but that doesn’t mean the USA is becoming worse. The height of the British Empire was during the reign of Queen Victoria, when people were starving in the streets every day. After WWII, the British colonies rapidly became independent, and at the same time Britain built a strong welfare state, many parts of which are sacrosanct today. So I have hope that we’re evolving in a better direction.

        • Right — progress is never in a straight line. Britain’s a great example. Thatcher did a lot of harm, but the advances made after WWII are still in many ways more than ours.

          These are, alas, “interesting times” . . .

        • The entire world is getting better. People are healthier. There is less war. There are more rights. But when you are talking about empires, you can’t think in absolute terms. It isn’t that the American empire is unsustainable; it is dying. This is why we spend 48% of the world’s military spending while we allow our infrastructure to crumble. We are desperately trying to hang onto our empire. Empires crumble like fortunes: first slowly and then fast.

          As for the UK, let’s not forget that a lot of that strong welfare state was paid for by the Marshall Plan, when the American empire was at its zenith and we felt we could be kind to other nations. We’d never do it today.

  2. The Wiki page has links to some interesting BBC interviews with O’Keefe. Most telling are the called-in questions. They seem to either be very supportive of the group or angrily recounting the propaganda of the day — that if you’re against the war, you’re complicit in supporting Saddam.

    Which tells me most people who supported the war did so out of moral reasons (not the architects and the pundit class.) Unaware how many tyrants the US backs on a regular basis, it was easy to whip them up into high dudgeon about saving Iraqis. And while the US is very stingy with foreign aid, and most citizens are very confused about that issue, Americans do give pretty generously to victims of disaster overseas (provided the disaster is shown on the news enough and suitably horrifying.)

    So I don’t think we’re all bloodthirsty savages. There’s that contingent, surely. There’s also many well-meaning, misled people, proud of when their churches build schools or dig wells in struggling areas. (They should be happy about these efforts, but realize charity is only half the answer.)

    Ultimately the major problem is Americans wanting to feel good about themselves. And that’s a difficult problem to overcome, as it’s a perfectly normal want. Add to that how the military recruits almost exclusively from poor communities, and it’s difficult to get through how our armed forces mostly sow disaster. Criticism is easily seen as elitists picking on the values of poor folks (even if the critics themselves are poor.)

    I go back to James Loewen writing about Southern pride. Southerners have lots to be proud of! Many risked their lives and lost them to fight slavery/Jim Crow. Just like supporters of the US military can be proud of Pat Tillman or O’Keefe. If we’re ever going to stop this madness, we’ll need activists within the military on our side.

    I actually don’t mind the Pentagon ads showing soldiers rescuing people in need. They’re terribly misleading to recruits, but they show an awareness of what most people want our military to be. The trick is going to be combating this nonsense that war somehow “protects us” from anything.

    • I feel sorry for the people. During the Persian Gulf War, I was a little fooled. I though Iraq was a backwater and I didn’t care about Kuwait. But after months of propaganda, I was wondering, “Is Iraq really some kind of threat?” That’s one of the reasons why I knew the Iraq War was a scam. But it is hard when everything you hear in the media is that this is a great big threat. (For the record, NPR’s very balanced — which is to say biased toward the government — reporting made it clear as day that there was no reason to invade Iraq.) And it is hard for reporters to push back against this. Humans are social and it is damned hard to stand up and call nonsense.

      You’re right to bring up economics. Part of it is that people feel economically insecure, so it is easy to get them to feel physically insecure.

      We’ll have to disagree about Pat Tillman. To me he was a useful fool. He’s just like all those others who buy the propaganda. But I do respect his idealism and maybe his stupidity can be reduced to his youth. We were attacked on 9/11 by a tiny group of extremists who weren’t even well defined. We invade Afghanistan, when there were undoubtedly better approaches. I mean, the war is still going on. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if one day it is called “The Second Hundred Years War.” There is one reason that we went to war there: George Bush couldn’t be seen as weak; he had to attack some place and that was the only one that made any sense. Pat Tillman was a pawn in that — while alive and then while dead. Poor, stupid kid.

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