Monday, November 29, 2010

3 health reasons to oppose the extension of the war in Afghanistan

For the third time, the Liberals have made a coalition with the Tories and voted to extend the war in Afghanistan.

During last week's Parliamentary debate, Bob Rae, the Liberals’ “foreign affairs critic”, defended the Harper government's extension of the war in Afghanistan—against majority opinion—with the following justification:
"I am familiar with the people’s opinion. But what poses a problem, in my view, is that I see a world where Canada has no choice but to get involved, eliminate the sources of violence in the world, eliminate the potential for a great many deaths and, indeed, eliminate the possibility of consequences even worse than those that now exist"
But it is increasingly clear that it is the war itself that is the greatest source of violence and death. Extending the Afghanistan war until 2014 threatens the health of Afghans, Canadian soldiers, and the wider population of Canada.

     Despite claiming to promote security, development, and women’s rights, the war and its extension  undermine all these--threatening the health of Afghans.

     According to Barigul, a 22-year old Afghan living in a refugee camp, “Where is security? The Americans are just making life worse and worse, and they're destroying our country. If they were building our country, why would I leave my home town and come here?" The Afghanistan War Logs, released by wikileaks, exposed attacks on civilians and assassination squads, while it’s just been revealed that the Canadian Forces have long been arresting children suspected of working with the resistance and handed them over to an Afghan security unit accused of torture.
     As in Vietnam, the US and its allies have responded to increasing resistance by turning to an air war of planes, drones, and helicopters—a strategy that only increases the death toll, and the resistance. According to the LA times, “Civilian deaths have risen 11% from 144 at this time last year to 160 in 2010. The increase has coincided with the rising number of incidents in which U.S. and NATO attack helicopters mistakenly fired on Afghans who turned out to be civilians”.

     Bob Rae defends the extension with reference to Afghanistan’s tortured past:
“Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the whole world. It is a country that has been through 30 years of civil war. It is a country whose infrastructure has been destroyed. It is a country where whole generations have never been to school and never received any education. It is a country that has a narco-economy, of which we are all familiar, where the narcotics economy is equal to at least half of the total GDP of the country. It is a country that is a dangerous and violent place”
     But nearly a decade of occupation has done nothing to alter that history. Despite constant reassurance of “progress” by the military, government, and media, the CIA World Factbook shows that life expectancy has not even recovered to its awful pre-war status:

UNICEF ranked Afghanistan the worst of 202 countries in terms of maternal, infant and child mortality last year.  In a survey by the Afghan Ministry of Public Health and the World Health Organization in 2009, 22 children under the age of five and 15 children below the age of one die every hour. And every 30 minutes, a mother dies during childbirth…54% of children are malnourished; 38% of children and 25% of women aged between 15 and 49 suffer from anemia.
     Recently the National Post exposed the failures of NATO "development", which by 2011 will have cost Canada $22 billion and the US $455 billion:
"$455 billion is almost four times more than the annual amount of development assistance given by all the rich countries of the world to all the poor countries….Very simply, if the promotion of human rights and development is the reason we’re in Afghanistan, we should leave immediately: We could accomplish vastly more elsewhere, at a fraction of the cost.”
How has half a trillion dollars and 2 prior extensions changed the percentage of the Afghan population living in absolute poverty?

Women’s rights
     After nearly a decade of a war supposedly waged to “liberate women”, Human Rights Watch recently released a report describing the situation of women in Afghaninstan as “dismal in every area”. This is directly related to the Karzi government NATO countries are supporting: “Women will not seek help because of their fears of police abuse and corruption, or their fears of retaliation by perpetrators of violence”. The report also found that
-    The majority of girls still do not attend primary school, and a dismal 11 percent of secondary-school-age girls are enrolled in grades 7-9. Only 4 percent enroll in grades 10-12
-    The Afghan Penal Code does not criminalize rape…victims of rape can themselves be prosecuted for the “crime” of adultery…This included a 15-year-old girl in Nangrahar who was abducted and raped by two men. They were later released on bail, while she was charged…In May 2008 President Karzai pardoned two gang rapists who had served only 2 years of an 11-year prison sentence.   
     Those advocating for women’s rights are opposed to the occupation, like Malalai Joya who was expelled from the Afghan Parliament for criticizing the warlord government:“The plight of victims such as these girls is my driving force. I will never give up my fight for justice, and I’ll continue to try to represent the millions of voiceless Afghan people – especially women and children – who are still being brutalised by fundamentalist warlords and the Taliban.” To read more of her story, get this book.
     There is also an emerging Afghan led peace movement in Canada, led by Afghans for Peace, which calls for the immediate end of NATO occupation, repapartions, demilitarization of aid, and the elimination of poverty. As they conclude,
“As Afghans united for a peaceful Afghanistan, we oppose the NATO occupation of Afghanistan as well as the NATO extension of it’s mission to 2014. Based on the last 9 years of grave failures, utter incompetence and a complete disregard for even the most basic rights and dignity of the Afghan people, we see no justifiable or valid reason for NATO to extend it’s mission in Afghanistan.”
     Those supporting the extension hide behind troops they claim to support, but it is increasingly clear that the extension (whether “training” or “combat”) and the billions to pay for it are a threat to soldier and veteran health abroad and at home. Bob Rae told people to “get a grip” and realize that the extension is merely for training not combat, but this is naive. The Karzai government has so little support that those working for it routinely join the resistance, and recently one police officer killed 6 NATO troops who were on a training mission.
     The false dichotomy between training and combat is not new. Writing in the London Free Press, a veteran described his experience with “training” during the Vietnam War:
“In 1968 I was involved in training at the jungle warfare school in Australia during the Vietnam conflict. Many of my Aussie friends were sent as trainers with the South Vietnamese units. Without these men accompanying the troops into combat, the units that were trained fell apart. So much for trainers being safe.”
     Military families also know Harper and Rae are lying, and are starting to speak out against the war. Josie Forcadilla, the mother of a Canadian soldier soon to be deployed to Afghanistan, picketed outside Bob Rae’s office to clarify that"Whether the mission is combat or non-combat, the soldiers will still be at risk", while the mother of a Canadian soldier killed in Afghanistan called for real support for the troops:
“It's 'non-combat' but who is he kidding? Does he think they're not going to be hurt or killed or injured?...What’s wrong with our government? We’re burying our kids left, right and centre here. For what? It’s time for them to stand down.”
     The bloated war budget is increasingly being balanced on the backs of veterans, who are returning home to find bureaucratic barriers to healthcare, health services shutting down, cuts to their pensions, and the firing of the Veterans ombudsperson for speaking out.

     Finally, the war budget diverts huge sums of money that are desperately needed for public health in Canada. When 1 in 10 children continue to live in poverty, 400,000 are nearly homeless, and some ERs are on the verge of collapse, the projected $3 billions that will be wasted killing Afghans and Canadian soldiers would be much better spent building hospitals and houses in Canada.

Stephen Harper and Bob Rae: we are familiar with the government’s (minority) opinion. But what poses a problem is that we see a world where Canada has no choice but to leave Afghanistan, in order to eliminate the sources of violence in the world, eliminate the potential for a great many deaths and, indeed, eliminate the possibility of consequences even worse than those that now exist.

Don't extend it, end it.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Lest we forget: soldiers who end wars

On the anniversary of the end of the "war to end all wars", Canadian Prime Minister Harper is planning to extend the endless war in Afghanistan. On November 11, let’s remember soldiers who ended past wars and support those trying to end current wars. As Einstein said, “The pioneers of a warless world are the young men and women who refuse military service.”

FIRST WORLD WAR: from fraternization to mutiny
soldiers during the Christmas truce, 1914
     November 11 is remembered as Armistice Day, the day the First World War ended. But how it ended--soldiers refusing to fight--is often forgotten. On Christmas Eve 1914 100,000 British and French soldiers fraternized with their German counterparts (depicted in the recent film Joyeux Noel), singing carols and meeting in no-mans-land to exchange gifts. The high command responded with orders to shoot “the enemy”, and in subsequent years rotated troops so they couldn’t get to know each other, and ordered aerial bombardments during Christmas to prevent fraternization.
     By 1917-18 refusal to fight escalated into mutinies and revolutions. In the French army 30,000 soldiers mutinied after the disastrous Nivelle offensive, causing the high command to arrest thousands of soldiers and execute dozens. Russian soldiers joined their 1917 revolution to dissolved the eastern front, while German soldiers joined their 1918 revolution that forced the signing of the armistice on November 11. It was young men and women, refusing military service, that ended WWI and gave us a day to remember.

SECOND WORLD WAR: bringing the “war for democracy” home
     The Second World War made the barbarism of trench warfare pale in comparison--with the holocaust, the atomic bomb, and the firebombing of cities. Despite declaring a "war against fascism", the Allied Powers ignored fascism in Spain and had no problem with early fascism in Germany--the Nazis hosted the Olympics in 1936 and honoured Henry Ford for his company's firm support in 1938, while the US honoured Hitler as Time's "man of the year" in 1938, and NASA hired Nazi scientists like Wernher von Braun after the war. During the holocaust American war planed refused to bomb the train tracks to Auschwitz, while Canada turned away Jewish refugees. At the same time the “war for democracy” denied basic rights for women, blacks, aboriginals, gays and lesbians sent to fight abroad.
Rustin (2nd from right) during WWII before his arrest
     For all these reasons soldiers stood up for peace and justice during and after the war. During WWII, 1 in 6 inmates in US federal prisons were war resisters, including Bayard Rustin. Upon his release from jail Rustin pioneered the Freedom Rides to spread democracy in the South, and became the main organizer for the historic March on Washington—where Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech. The great documentary Before Stonewall documents how gay and lesbian soldiers returning from the war began demanding equal rights as well.
     But there were not enough war resisters to end WWII, and after the war the international community addressed this problem with the Nuremburg Principles--stating soldiers cannot claim to "just be following orders" and instead have an obligation to refuse participation in war crimes.  

VIETNAM: the paws quit playing
    During the Vietnam War, injured soldiers returned home to find that those who sent them to fight did not care about their health, and began asking questions. As Ron Kovic wrote in his famous memoirs, Born on the Fourth of July:
“The wards are filthy. The men in my room throw their breadcrumbs under the radiator to keep the rats from chewing on our numb legs during the nights…the sheets are never changed enough and many of the men stink from not being properly bathed. It never makes any sense to us how the government can keep asking money for weapons and leave us lying in our own filth…I still tell people, whoever asks me, that I believe in the war. But more and more what I tell them and what I am feeling are becoming two different things. The hospital is like the whole war all over again”
    Gradually these doubts turned into action. In his inspiring book A People's History of the Vietnam War, Jonathan Neale provides a detailed account of the mass anti-war movement that grew within the military—from 245 different antiwar newspapers distributed on bases, to 200,000 draft dodgers who refused to go to Vietnam, to those who went who refused orders or threatened their own officers with fragging. In 1971 marine Corps historian Colonel Heinl said that “by every conceivable indicator, our Army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse…only exceeded this century by the French Army’s Nivelle Mutinies and the collapse of the Tsarist armies in 1916 and 1917”. When Nixon turned to an air war, air force and navy troops refused to fight, including sailors who declared that “the only way to end the genocide being perpetrated now in South East Asia is for us, the pawns in the political game, to quit playing.”
    Those who refused to fight in Vietnam also contributed to other campaigns—like Rex Weyler, who went on to found Greenpeace. Others contributed to the growing disability rights movement.

IRAQ, AFGHANISTAN: support the troops, bring them home
    The best way to honour soldiers who died in the past is to stop soldiers dying in the future, by supporting those refusing to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US has numerous pro-soldier/anti-war organizations such as Iraq Veterans Against the War, Courage to Resist, and Military Families Speak Out, and more US soldiers are speaking out against the Afghanistan war. There are also individual troops like Bradley Manning, and other anonymous heroes who leaked files to wikileaks, ensuring the shocking and awful truth about the Iraq War is revealed. Britain has Military Families Against the War, and Joe Glenton has been jailed for being the first British soldier to refuse to fight in Afghanistan. 
     In Canada we have the War Resisters Support Campaign, supporting brave soldiers who honour the Nuremburg Principles and refused to participate in the illegal Iraq War.  And military families are starting to speak out against the war in Afghanistan. As a mother of a Canadian soldier in Afghanistan recently explained:
“My support extends beyond mere sending of care packages, or attending meetings of relatives organized by the military, or boasting and giving moral support to my son. I’m taking on a flawed government policy, that resulted in the loss of 152 lives, and therefore withdrawal is the only solution to stop the cycle of violence.”
     If this sentiment connects with broad layers of troops they could end the endless war in Afghanistan. Harper is spending $18 billion on fighter jets while cutting veteran pensions, raising the same questions Ron Kovic asked himself a generation ago. This Remembrance Day week veterans rallied across the country against proposed cuts to their pensions, and the general way they've been treated by the government. According to Gary Best of the Canadian Peacekeeping Veterans Association:
“We have people serving in Afghanistan that are coming home with amputations, and these people, when they get hurt, they figure their fight’s over. When they get home, they realize it’s just starting.”
    These soldiers need to know they have support in the broad peace movement in their fight, as the majority of Canadians want to show real support for troops by bringing them home safe. The fusion of a peace movement with anti-war soldiers points the way to a healthy and peaceful tomorrow. As Ron Kovic explained on his first peace protest:
“I was never going to be the same. The demonstration had stirred something in my mind that would be there from now on. It was so very different from boot camp and fighting in the war. There was a togetherness, just as there had been in Vietnam, but it was a togetherness for a mch different kind of people and for a much different reason. In the war we were killing and maiming people. In Washington on that Saturday afternoon in May we were trying to heal them and set them free.”

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Mad about the insane use of "crazy", and why I like Alice in Wonderland

People on the political left have often thrown psychiatric labels at right-wing policies: George Bush was “crazy”, the Tea Party movement is “insane”, Toronto’s mayor-elect Rob Ford is a “lunatic” and those who voted for him are “stupid”. This came back to bite the left when Jon Stewart lumped them in the same boat as the far right, both accused of being the two poles of “crazy” that requires society to “restore sanity”. These psychiatric terms—labeling people who deviate from social norms as mentally ill and then dismissing them—not only depoliticize issues and buttress the status quo, they also reinforce the oppression of people with psychiatric disabilities.

So not helpful...
     I always thought calling George Bush  “crazy” was politically lazy, reducing US foreign policy to the intellectual shortcomings of one man. Bush policies were not “crazy”, they were an expression of the contradictions of US empire: facing an economy in decline but a massive military, the US turned to its strategic advantage. How shocked people have been to see a “sane” Obama continue Bush’s “crazy” wars. The problem is not psychiatric deviance, it’s imperialism.
     With the left caught supporting a president who continued disastrous wars and bailed out the banks but not those losing their homes, it’s no wonder the US has seen a right-wing populist backlash—with Tea Party rallies in the streets and the return of the Republicans in the House. The backlash is definitely right-wing and racist, but it is not “crazy”.
     Similarly, when Toronto’s mayor David Miller attacked striking workers, and left councilors were silent, they opened the door to a right-wing backlash that catapulted Rob Ford into office. Ford articulated a right-wing populism that spoke to people’s anger and misdirected it towards each other rather than at the corporate system responsible for the recession. He is not a “lunatic”, he is the local face of global austerity. He is certainly racist, homophobic and pro-privatization, but he’s not “crazy”.

      The problem of using psychiatric labels has finally come back to haunt the left with Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity”. Stewart showed that besides depoliticizing issues, the focus on “sanity” serves to reinforce the status quo by pathologizing those who deviate from social norms—which can be applied to the left just as much as the right. As a result he lumped anti-war groups like Code Pink—who correctly accuse the Bush regime of war crimes—under the same banner of “crazy” as right-wing Tea Party protesters who liken Obama to Hitler. Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin shot back, arguing that loudly opposing war is not irrational, but she also relied on the issue of "sanity":
“So let’s get this straight: people who were so horrified when the U.S. invaded Iraq that they joined millions of others to protest are not sane?... It was because of this insanity that we began to interrupt the war criminals during their public appearances, shouting — yes, shouting — for an end to the madness. It was because of this insanity that we put fake blood on our hands to represent the hundreds of thousands of innocents who died as result of their lies...Jon Stewart says he wants to restore sanity to Washington. So do we.”
     The derogatory use of "madness" not only buttresses the status quo, it reinforces the stigma of other groups labeled “crazy”. Would the left tolerate Stewart calling the Tea Party “gay” in a derogatory way, and launching a “Rally to restore straight”? A blogger recently posted an article “Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's rally to keep ableism alive”, explaining the problems of Stewart’s focus on “sanity”:
“'Crazy' and 'Insane' are words used to describe people with mental disabilities. When someone uses these words in a negative context, to describe a person or idea they disagree with, to put someone down, or to try and make some political point, it is ableist and it harms people with mental disabilities.”
     The recent experience of the political left is a glimpse into the history of madness.

     With the rise of capitalism, people who could not fit into narrowly-defined norms of labour productivity, either because of physical or psychiatric differences, became pathologized. Since then mad people have been subjected to diverse methods of “restoring sanity”, such as institutionalization, electroshock, and “the chemical prison industry” of Big Pharma.
    At the same time, labels of mental illness have been more widely applied to any groups deviating from social norms. In the 1850s slaves who fled their masters were pathologized as suffering from “Drapetomania”, while women who disobeyed their husbands were institutionalized for “hysteria”. Until the 1970s homosexuality was considered a mental illness, and being transgendered is still labeled a “gender identity disorder”. Dissidents in state capitalist regimes in Russia and China were also labelled mentally ill and institutionalized. 
     Too often Hollywood has reinforced the stigma of mental illness, with “crazy” villains whose evil nature is rooted in their psychiatric deviance—from Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, to Hannibal Lecter, to various Batman villains (all of whom have at one time or another been incarcerated in Arkham Asylum). A noted exception is One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which famously depicted some of the repressive conditions of psychiatric institutions. This film was made in 1975, during a rising movement against the oppression of mad people.

Toronto Mad Pride, 2007
     There has been a long history of resistance to psychiatric oppression. In the liberation movements of the 1960-70s there was not only Black Power, Red Power, Women’s Liberation and the Gay Liberation Front, but also the Insane Liberation Front. These days, a Mental Health Consumer/Psychiatric Survivor movement continues to fight against economic and social discrimination, demanding peer-run services, and challenging stigma. This does not mean rejecting medicine like the anti-psychiatry movement, but emphasizing choice and self-determination. Toronto, along with other cities around the world, enjoys Mad Pride Week every year, as a “great opportunity to witness the creative potential of madness, as well as learning about the challenges faced by survivors”. As a blogger with mental health issues explains:
"Mad Pride is a movement quite like Gay Pride, it started from a need for a stigmatized segment of our community to be given respect and equal rights… We need to join the Crazy, the Sane, the lay person and professional to come together to break down the walls of hate, fear, stigma, and stand up for Mad Pride…Because we are all a little mad!”
     This year there’s also a mainstream film celebrating madness: Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Besides featuring an empowered, independent female character, Tim Burton’s film is also refreshing in how it deals with madness. Through the character of the Mad Hatter, the film treats madness not as deviancy in need of suppression or forced correction, but as a different and legitimate form of expression. When the Mad Hatter worries “Have I gone mad”, Alice reassures him by saying “I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret: all the best people are.” The key to Alice vanquishing the Jaberwocky is her ability to embrace all her experiences that would otherwise be dismissed as “crazy”—a cat that smiles, a rabbit with a watch, etc.
     As we build campaigns against right-win and reactionary policies, it’s important not to reinforce the stigma of oppressed groups who are also fighting for a better world. This means rejecting the derogatory use of “crazy” and “insane”, and instead building alliances with our mad sisters and brothers.