Tuesday, December 14, 2010

From Henry Ford to Rob Ford: auto-destruction, and possibilities of a car-free future

From car assembly-line pioneer Henry Ford, to Toronto's new pro-car mayor Rob Ford, we are living in an auto-dependent and auto-destructive society that is harming our health and our environment. But a healthy and green, car-free world is still possible.

     During every hospital shift I see people who have been directly injured by cars—from whiplash and bruising, to broken bones, to fatalities. Car crashes are so common as to be simply part of the daily hospital routine. Listening to the radio traffic report outside the hospital is no better: collisions are presented as daily nuisances to be avoided, their human toll hidden.

    But the patients and traffic reports add up. According to the World Health Organization cars kill more than 1 million people a year, injure 50 million, and are predicted to become the third largest contributor to the global burden of disease by 2020. This costs countries up to 4% of their GNP, with a global total of more than half a trillion dollars a year. Even without collisions, car production contributes to the cancer epidemic (as the Canadian Auto Workers’ Prevent Cancer Campaign puts it, “the auto industry is producing laryngeal, stomach and colorectal cancers along with its cars”) while car use contributes to air pollution that leads to respiratory and cardiac conditions (which by some estimates kill more people than crashes do). Car dependency is also harming the planet—with roads that pave over arable land and undermine animal migration, emission gases that lead to global warming, a requirement for oil that leads to inevitable oil spills like in the Gulf of Mexico, and animal deaths dismissed as "road kill".
     Why are we so dependent on a mode of transporation that is so harmful to people and the planet?

     The name of Henry Ford is synonymous with industrial capitalism, market efficiency, ingenuity and economic progress. How did he do it? Pioneering the assembly line in car production, Ford purged the intellectual involvement of workers in the product of their labour (brilliantly spoofed by Charlie Chaplin). As Ford famously complained,  “why is it that whenever I ask for a pair of hands, a brain comes attached?”, and he went to great lengths to make his company the last major automaker to unionize—from shooting unemployed workers on the Ford Hunger March in 1932, to beating up union organizers in the Battle of the Overpass in 1937.
     During WWII, Roosevelt created a War Production Board that turned the whole economy towards war, banning civilian car production and mandating tanks, planes and munitions instead. To maximize profit Ford also built tanks for the Nazis, with whom he identified ideologically (for a satirical history lesson, listen to folk singer Dave Rovics). As the automakers were building their fortunes through warfare abroad they were also undermining public transit at home. As Greenpeace co-founder Rex Weyler explains in his blog:
“In 1922, some 1,200 thriving urban railways operated in North America, accounting for ninety percent of urban travel. No one complained or demanded more cars and roads. However, General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan saw a “great opportunity” to replace public transportation with private cars. To achieve this, he established a “task force” to “motorize” North America…Then, in 1936, General Motors, Firestone Tires, and Standard Oil (Exxon-Mobil), formed a holding company, National City Lines, which bought urban transport systems and systematically destroyed them. They bought the Pacific Electric system that carried 110 million passengers in 56 communities. They increased fairs, cancelled routes, reduced schedules, cut salaries, allowed trains to decay, ripped up over 1800 kilometers of track, and closed the entire network. By 1956, over 100 rail systems in 45 cities had been purchased and closed.”
Transit City proposed routes (red), and old(yellow/green)
     Fair hikes, transit decay, attacks on salaries and working conditions have continued to undermine public transit. Last summer the Toronto media launched a campaign against transit workers, focusing on a fare collector with health problems who fell asleep on the job, who recently died of a stroke. Toronto’s new mayor Rob Ford wants to provide the coup-de-grace to public transit. He promised to rip up street cars (finishing the job of National City Lines), and on his first day in office he declared that “the war on the car is over” and that the previous Transit City plan to massively expand public transit was dead. He also follows Henry Ford's obsession with undermining workers rights, blaming poor subway conditions not on underfunding but on the 13 days of strike over the past 20 years—and promising to revoke transit workers right to strike.

     Rob Ford’s solution to traffic congestion is to remove the few transportation methods that are not cars by removing bicycle lanes (while blaming cyclist deaths on the cyclists themselves), while corporations are proposing hybrid cars as solutions to climate change. But As Weyler explains:
“The harvesting and mining of resources – rubber, iron, rare-earth metals for hybrid batteries, copper, plastics and so forth – plus the energy-intensive manufacturing process – comprise a massive 'embodied' energy and resource demand. Some 20-40% of energy an automobile uses in its lifetime is 'embodied energy' consumed before it is purchased. None of this is solved by building hybrid cars.”
     Meanwhile, most public health solutions propose harm reduction strategies—seat belt, don’t drink and drive, reduce speed—that take the car society as a given, while financial disincentives like tolls or taxes simply punish those with less money who are forced by circumstance to depend on cars.

         Fortunately the climate movement is proposing real alternatives. As Jonathan Neale notes in his book Stop Global Warming, Change the World:
“City travel accounts for almost 90% CO2 from cars. The solution to car emissions is to ban cars in cities and provide first rate public transport—buses, trains, underground railways, trams, and bicycles. This would not mean sacrifice. Public transport without cars would not be less, it would be different. And that difference would be better…The buses and trains will have enough room on a quarter of the streets. On the other three quarters of streets there will be no vehicles at all. Children will be protected, and have far more space to play. With parked cars removed the streets will be twice as wide. Trees, bushes, grass and flowers could turn the old streets into countryside. Cycling would also be safer and easier. Some side streets could provide cycle lanes, where children and adults could ride freely and safely, to the benefit of their health. Disabled people and the frail elderly, who are now excluded by most public transport, could have access to those lanes in small electric vehicles”
     The massive expansion of green jobs required to build such a transit system would help get us out of both the economic and ecologic crises. The first step towards this in Toronto is defending the existing public transit system--including the brains and hands that make it work, whose right to strike Rob Ford threatens to take away--while implementing the Transit City expansion. And if federal governments can spend billions bailing out companies, why not turn them towards good green jobs for mass transit? As Michael Moore (who's uncle was part of the famous sit-down strikes at GM) said on the eve of the multi-billion dollar auto bailout:
“I would encourage Congress to do what Franklin Roosevelt did at the beginning of World War Two, where he just said to the Big Three, ‘you’re not building cars anymore because we’ve got a crisis, you’ve got to build tanks and planes’. This new President and this new Congress has got to say to the Big Three, ‘I’m sorry, but this car thing isn’t working out, we’re running out of oil. So you need to build hybrids, electrics, and we need mass transportation, so we you’ve gotta build trains and subways and lightrail."
     In Canada, 900 steelworkers have been locked out by US Steel, which is trying to scrap their pensions. With the billions required to extend the war in Afghaninstan, the Canadian government could nationalize US Steel to cover the hard-earned pensions, and turn steel production towards  windmills for energy, and electric trains for transportation. A healthy and green world is possible, but to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, either the car goes or we do.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Cigarettes, pharmaceuticals, wikileaks, and our right to know

From preventing an update of smoking labels, to ending an independent pharmaceutical review agency, to waging war on wikileaks, corporations and governments are cracking down on our democratic right to information.

     As I've written in other posts, cigarettes are but one of many carcinogens, and blaming smoking for the entire cancer epidemic distracts from toxic chemicals and workplaces over which people have little control, individualizes the causes of cancer, and can turn into moralizing against "bad behaviour" instead of addressing the stressful conditions of people's lives that encourage smoking. That being said, smoking is a preventable causes of death, and labels highlighting the health impacts have been shown to decrease smoking. While Canada was the first country to impose mandatory health warnings on cigarette packages, they have not changed in ten years. There was a 6-year, $4 million plan to update labels--with bigger graphics and a 1-800 national Quitline number--to be launched on May 31, World No Tobacco Day. But at the last minute the Tory government abandoned their plans, diverting focus to contraband cigarettes.
     The CBC has revealed that this decision took place after intense tobacco industry pressure:
"Health Canada's abrupt decision in September to back down from expanding warning labels on cigarette packages came after tobacco company lobbyists waged a co-ordinated, sometimes secretive lobbying campaign…The big three tobacco companies, Imperial Tobacco Canada, JTI-Macdonald Corp. and Rothmans, Benson & Hedges Inc., lobbied a combined total of 53 times in just over two years, according to the registry. When other industry associations and smaller tobacco companies are factored in, the number of 'communications' jumps to 82."
     The CBC has also revealed that many tobacco lobbyists have ties to the Tories--including Duncan Rayner (who went from director of operations for the Conservative Party to lobbyist for Imperial Tobacco), Ezra Levant (who went from Tory insider to lobbyist for Rothmans, Benson & Hedges, and now ideological defender of the carcinogenic Tar Sands), and Perrin Beatty (who went from Conservative health minister to president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, which lobbies on behalf of the tobacco industry).

     Instead of enhancing labels, the Harper government is parotting the tobacco industry party line that focus should instead be on reducing contraband tobacco. According to professor Dave Hammond, who consulted Health Canada on the warning labels, "they use contraband as a blunt weapon to try and beat down anything else that might be effective." As lobbyist Beatty argues, "There is a significant share of the market that it is being fuelled by organized crime. Do we want to make it easier for organized criminals by eliminating the ability of other people to offer brands in competition?" So their efforts are not to reduce smoking, but to eliminate competition with tobacco company profits.
      Like the Harper government's decision to spend billions of dollars building prisons despite a falling crime rate, the hysteria about contraband tobacco goes against current trends. According statistics from Health Canada, sales in contraband cigarette consumption have declined since 2009, along with increases in brand name tobacco. Like the government's false dichotomy between "combat" and "non-combat troops" in Afghanistan, the dichotomy between contraband and brand-name tobacco diverts attention from the fact that cigarettes, like military occupations, are deadly regardless of what form they take. Cigarettes kill 45,000 Canadians a year, 100 times the number of people murdered. Instead of being tough on corporate crime, the government is coluding with it. As Cynthia Callard of Physicians for a Smoke Free Canada describes the tobacco lobby (shown previously in the great film, The Insider):
"There's no way of knowing conversations that take place over golf games or cocktail parties or people who float between one world and another...By and large they threaten, they bully, they cajole, they seduce and they purchase support and they've done that for decades. So it's no surprise that they've been successful this time and it's sadly no surprise why they're successful."
     Another recent sad victory for corporations is the killing of the Therapeutics Initiative, a publicly-funded group based at the University of British Columbia, that provides independent evidence-based reviews of pharmaceutical risks and benefits. Therapeutics Initiative helped expose the health risks of blockbuster drug Vioxx. Vioxx, an anti-arthritis medicine, was heavily marketed and made billions for Merck. But it increased the risk of heart attacks and killed killed more Americans than were killed in the Vietnam War. Thanks to the early warnings by Therapeutics Initative, it was kept it off the shelf in BC, saving 500 lives.
     Therapeutics Iniative has also called into question the costly and widespread use of levaquin to treat pneumonia, statins for primary prevention of heart attacks, gabapentin for chronic pain, and recently blew the whistle on a new blood-thinner. Dabigatran is set to replace coumadin as a blood thinner to prevent stroke, and has been approved by Health Canada based on a study funded by its maker, pharmaceutical giant Boehringer Ingelheim. Therapeutics Iniative recently alerted the fact that it appears to increase the risk of heart attacks and stomach bleeds, but the company refuses to release all its safety data. In additition to exposing health risks of Big Pharma, Therapeutics Iniative's input to which medications will be covered by the provincial drug plan has saved the government $50 million a year and given BC the lowest average per-capita drug spending.
     But despite this life-saving, cost-saving and efficiency, the BC government (under industry pressure) cut the small $1 million required to sustain Therapeutics Iniative,  refused to hire the scientists to its advisory board, and instead will base its decisions on profit-driven pharmaceutical companies. This is the latest scandal in the corrupt world of Big Pharma (for a more detailed look into the industry, see this video).

     If pressuring a government to cut funds to a review agency that saves lifes and resources isn't damning enough, how about trying to sabotage a government's lawsuit against a company for its role in the death of children with meningitis. That's what wikileaks has recently revealed about the world's largest pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer, which tried to pressure the Nigerian attorney general to drop charges against Pfizer for its antibiotic's role in the death of children during a meningitis epidemic in 1996.
     Wikileaks has come under sustained attack by governments and corporations--from kicking it off internet servers to calls to assassinating its editor in chief--for the "crime" of releassing information that the public should know: about corporate corruption, military war crimes, government lies. The leak about Pfizer is just the tip of the iceberg, as wikileaks has announced it will blow the whistle on corporations after finishing the current release of diplomatic cables.
     Please sign the petition by Avaaz to defend their freedom of expression and freedom of the press. And you can donate to wikileaks through their website. There is no freedom or democracy without information, and from cigarettes to pharmaceuticals to corporate/government behaviour we have a right to know.

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.

Friday, October 29, 2010

HARPER = threat to health

“I’ve been here for five hours,” a patient shouted at the end of my shift, and they were not alone. Working in an ER I see the individuals behind the overcrowding statistics, and the conditions to which patients and healthcare providers are subjected—long waits, being short staffed, assessing and treating patients in the waiting room, admitting people to a hallway. I recently saw someone with a bleed in their brain who left the hospital because they couldn’t stand having to sleep in the hallway.  Last week a man died in an ER waiting room in Montreal, while Alberta ER doctors are also sounding the alarm.

     Ten years ago the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians identified ER overcrowding as “a national problem” and “a chronic state in many departments”. They diagnosed this as symptom of the broader healthcare system: “increased waiting times for transfer to an inpatient bed has become the most important cause of Emergency Department overcrowding. Over the past 5 years, hospital beds in Canada have been reduced by almost 40 percent nationally”. According to the Canadian Health Coalition, there were 64,000 hospital bed cuts between 1988 and 2002 and this has not visibly changed for the better since then. This is not because healthcare is unsustainable but because it is underfunded, at both federal and provincial levels.

What’s more frustrating is that this unacceptable situation persists despite available resources. Prime Minister Harper did not create this situation, but he (along with provincial governments) in choosing to ignore it. Instead of spending $1 billion on health, he spent it on the biggest mass arrest in Canadian history. Instead of building much needed hospitals, he is spending $9 billion to build prisons despite a falling crime rate, and $18 billion to build fighter jets when most Canadians are opposed to the war. Instead of bailout out healthcare, he is bailing out corporations with $47 billion in corporate tax cuts

     ER overcrowding from underfunding is the most visible way in which the government is neglecting our health. But in a broader sense, patterns have emerged over the years of a government agenda that does not just ignore health, but actively undermines it. In the field of health, HARPER has come to stand for:

Humanitarian aid politicization: the Harper government has repeatedly undermined health in Palestine—making Canada the first to cut humanitarian aid to the Palestinian Authority, the first to cut funding to UNRWA that provides healthcare to refugee camps, and the first to criminalize George Galloway for delivering ambulances, food, and medicine. It’s no wonder this bias cost Canada a UN Security Council seat for the first time. In addition, the government militarized aid to Haiti, while practically ignoring the catastrophic floods in Pakistan. The cost of G20 security could have twice covered the $460 million that the UN requested—and has still not received—for health security in Pakistan.

AIDS facilitation: While 25 million people have died of AIDS worldwide and 40 million live with HIV, Harper refused to attend the 2006 International AIDS Conference in Toronto, preferring to tour military bases in the arctic. As UN envoy Stephen Lewis said at the time:
“In a very real way it's a slap in the face to the international community of activists and scientists and researchers and advocates and agencies all gathered to deal with the single greatest problem on the planet… it's just profoundly inappropriate and I think it's a measure of the government's commitment to (fighting) the disease."
     This year, Harper renewed this inappropriate commitment by quietly joining others in underfunding the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. As Dr. Jennifer Cohn, MSF HIV/AIDS Policy Advisor said a few weeks ago:
“Today marks a sad turning point in the fight against AIDS, TB, and malaria: world leaders have officially under-financed the Global Fund. This decision will result in the death of millions of people from otherwise treatable diseases.”
     The cost of new fighter jets—built to destroy life—could cover twice over the $8 billion shortfall required to save lives.

Reproductive health prejudice: Conservative MPs introduced two anti-choice bills in 2006 and one in 2008. This year the Harper government is imposing its anti-choice agenda on women in the developing world with a “maternal health plan” that specifically excludes abortion services. According to the Lancet, one the world’s leading medical journals,
“This omission is no accident, but a conscious decision by Canada's Conservative Government not to support groups that undertake abortions in developing countries. This stance must change. 70,000 women die from unsafe abortions worldwide every year… Canada and the other G8 nations could show real leadership with a final maternal health plan that is based on sound scientific evidence and not prejudice.”
Psychological/physical trauma: The Harper government has been complicit in traumatizing detentions of Canadians: delaying repatriation, not apologizing for torture, and maintaining “security certificates”. The government has also been complicit in abuses overseas—transferring Afghan detainees to torture, and deporting US Iraq War resisters to jail for refusing to participate in war crimes.  Harper justifies these policies by claiming to support our troops, but he has silenced those advocating for their healthcare—from Veterans’ Ombudsman Col. Strogan, to veteran advocate Capt. Sean Bruyea—while ignoring military families who oppose the extension of the mission

Environmental pollution

While climate change leads to 300,000 deaths a year, Harper abandoned Canada’s Kyoto obligations and has supported tar sands that lead to global pollution and local cancer epidemics for First Nations communities. When Greenpeace dropped banners on Parliament to raise awareness of the health impact of climate change, the government responded by arming Parliamentary guards with machine guns.

Refugee criminalization
    The Harper government is trying to criminalize those fleeing war crimes. It issued Operational Bulletin 202 to criminalize US Iraq War resisters, which the former chair of Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board Peter Showler described as “fundamentally wrong-headed and a violation of the UN Refugee Convention”. The government claims war resisters interfere with other refugees, but last year Harper was silent over the genocide against tamils, and this year has tried to criminalize the resulting refugees. The Canadian Council for Refugees has responded by stressing that “people who are forced to flee for their lives need to be offered asylum and a warm welcome, not punished".

     Fortunately Canadians are rejecting this bad medicine: campaigning for Medicare and the redirection of military spending, organizing an aid boat to Gaza, exposing Harper’s prejudice concerning abortion and AIDS funding, demanding the repatriation of Omar Khadr and an end to security certificates, mobilizing to support the troops by bringing them home and taking care of their health, demanding sanctuary for war resisters, organizing to stop the tar sands, and opposing the criminalization of refugees. This is truly a prescription for health.
     As I share patient frustration trying to provide individual healthcare in an overcrowded ER, I’m comforted by all the work others are doing outside the hospital to protect and strengthen our collective health.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Cholera: the latest war against Haitian democracy

A cholera outbreak in Haiti has killed more than 250 people killed, and infected more than 3300, in just over one week. Five of those infected were in the capital of Port-au-Prince, raising the specter of a mass epidemic. According to Imogen Wall, spokeswoman for the United Nations humanitarian office in Haiti, "It's tragedy upon tragedy for Haiti. We're working on a worst-case scenario. We're planning for a national outbreak."

     Worse than a tragedy, this is a crime. Cholera is terrifying but easily preventable and treatable. Spread through contaminated water it causes such severe diarrhea that it can kill through dehydration in a matter of hours. But it is treated with large volumes of simple fluids—either intravenous or oral rehydration—and can be prevented with clean water and proper sanitation. The science of cholera prevention has existed for 150 years, ever since Dr. John Snow famously plotted the deaths of a London outbreak on a map and found them to centre around a contaminated water pipe. When he persuaded the authorities to shut off the pump the number of cholera cases dropped.
     Rudolf Vircow, who studied epidemics at the time of Snow, concluded that “if disease is an expression of individual life under unfavourable circumstances, then epidemics must be indicative of mass disturbances”. The emergence of a cholera epidemic in Haiti, like the massive death toll following the January earthquake, exposes the mass disturbance imposed on Haiti by centuries of foreign intervention.

     Two-hundred years ago Haitians carried out the only successful slave revolution. But France forced them to pay $21 billion for “lost property”, which it took over a century to pay. Throughout the 20th century the US has interfered in Haitian development, invading in 1915 and staying for 20 years, and supporting the Duvalier dictatorship from 1957-1986. The people of Haiti overthrew the dictatorship in 1986, but was saddled with its debt. The IMF provided loans that forced Haiti to privatize services and slash tariffs on rice, which destroyed the agricultural sector and drove people into sweat-shops in Port-au-Prince. The lack of local agriculture has made Haiti dependent on food aid, and--along with poverty and the privatization of electricity--forced Haitians to cut down the forests for income and charcoal for fuel.

     Twice Haitians have voted for Jean Bertrand Aristide—to restore services and raise wages—and  twice he has been overthrown by coups, in 1991 and 2004. Since then Haitians have protested against the occupying UN force, which has done nothing to improve their lives. The war against Haitian democracy has a political purpose that connects back to the original overthrow of slavery. As Haitian-Canadian Ronald Charles explained on the Real News
“you have a country independent for 200 years now, and from the beginning that was a bad example in the eyes of the big powers of the time. So when some people would say, look at them after more than 200 years look at their condition. So all the people around the world, all the people fighting for liberation, for freedom, the colonial powers will point Haiti to them and say look. For example, In Martinique and Guadelope they had elections to see if people wanted to be independent from France, some people said we don’t want that, and one of the arguments is look at Haiti. And many big powers want to use Haiti as an example of what not to do.”
     Centuries of deliberate interference in Haitian democracy paved the way for two “natural disasters” this year, one geological and one biological. While a 7.0 earthquake in San Francisco in 19189 killed less than 60 people, and 7.0 earthquake in New Zealand this year killed 2, and a 9.0 earthquake in Chile this year killed 1000, a 7.0 earthquake in Haiti killed 230,000.

     This had less to do with events under the ground as on top of them—where centuries of foreign intervention has turned a wealthy and lush nation into an impoverished deforested nation, concentrated in urban slums, living in inadequately built houses on eroded soil, with almost non-existent governmental services, in the midst of a multimillion dollar occupation force that interferes with democracy and development. That the earthquake was so deadly after 6 years of UN occupation exposes its true purpose. According to Peter Hallward, author of Damning the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment:
“The international community has been effectively ruling Haiti since the 2004 coup. The same countries scrambling to send emergency help to Haiti now, however, have during the last five years consistently voted against any extension of the UN missions’ mandate beyond its immediate military purpose. Proposals to divert some of this ‘investment’ towards poverty reduction or agrarian development have been blocked.”
     The same factors that produced a large earthquake death toll have produced conditions for the emergence of cholera. Partners in Health explain how the  environmental destruction of Haiti has magnified natural disasters, which have destroyed infrastructure—along with poverty—concentrated the population in overcrowded areas with poor sanitation:
 “in Gonaives the capital of the Artibonite has been destroyed in two waves of floods and mudslides, after tropical storm Jeanne in 2004 and after the series of hurricanes in 2008, made possible because of the environmental devastation of the region. The destruction contaminated the water supply and left the infrastructure (including the health infrastructure) of the upper Artibonite in ruins, forcing people to seek residence and medical care in St. Marc. The St. Marc region itself experienced significant flooding in 2008, displacing thousands of people. Lastly, the earthquake of January 12, 2010 resulted in the displacement of 1.7 million Haitians. While reliable statistics are not available currently, the last estimate, as of March of 2010 was that 300,000 addition Haitians had fled Port au Prince to the Artibonite. As there are no “camps” in the region, these displaced persons are “home hosted”—joining poor relatives in already overcrowded conditions, without water security or adequate sanitation. The dispersal of displaced people makes it difficult to provide centralized services.”
     In addition, Haitians are subject to poverty and a lack of food (reducing immunity), lack of transportation (impacting the precious hours between infection and death for those who have to travel to seek healthcare), and lack of healthcare. Coming 9 months after the quake, the cholera epidemic exposes how little “aid” has been provided since the quake. While ordinary Canadians delved deep into their pockets and organized fundraisers across the country, our government cynically used aid to justify a military response to the quake while announcing huge aid sums that clearly weren’t delivered. Harper announced $1 billion in aid for Haiti, and yet clearly Haitians don’t have access to the most basic services.

     This is not first time the great powers have colluded in cholera epidemics, doing John Snow’s experiment in reverse. In their Orwellian-named “Sourcebook on Community Driven Development in the Africa Region—Community Action Programs”, the World Bank pushed African nations to privatize their water, explaining that “work is still needed with political leaders in some national governments to move away from the concept of free water for all.” The South African government followed suit by installing pre-paid water meters that cut people off from free water. Predictably, those who couldn’t pay drank stream water, resulting in an epidemic of cholera that killed 180 and infected 80,000.
     During the Gulf War and the sanctions that followed, the US intentionally destroyed Iraq’s water treatment facilities and blocked the importation of required equipment, knowing it could lead to cholera. As intelligence documents explain: “failing to secure supplies will result in a shortage of pure drinking water for much of the population. This could lead to increased incidences, if not epidemics, of disease…unless the water is purified with chlorine, epidemics of such diseases as cholera, hepatitis, and typhoid could occur.”
     While Bush junior was sounding the alarm on Iraq’s supposed “weapons of mass destruction”, he was maintaining sanctions that spread cholera in Iraq, while cutting funding to water treatment in Haiti. Before joining Canada to overthrow the democratically elected Aristide, Bush waged an economic war that included cutting funding for water sanitation—including to the Artibonite region currently affected by cholera. As Partners in Health explain:
“In 2000, a set of loans from the Inter American Development Bank to the government of Haiti for water, sanitation and health were blocked for political reasons. The city of St. Marc (population 220,000) and region of the lower Artibonite (population 600,000) were among the areas slated for upgrading of the public water supply. This project was delayed more than a decade and has not yet been completed. We believe secure and free access to clean water is a basic human right that should be delivered through the public sector and that the international community’s failure to assist the government of Haiti in developing a safe water supply has been violation of this basic right.” 
     Humans are made up mainly of water, making access to water our most basic and life-sustaining right. That 100,000 people around the world continue to die of cholera, 150 years after its prevention was discovered, is a clear indication that people’s most basic rights are being ignored. According to Dr. Lyon from Partners in Health:
“70% of the population have no access to clean water or sanitation. People cannot protect themselves. So the country is terrified at this point. It’s a terrifying situation rooted in the lack of infrastructure, lack of sanitation and clean water, which has been very clearly slowed down by manipulation from the outside…cholera will not go away in Haiti until the conditions that make people vulnerable are changed”.
In Haiti, the fight against cholera is part of the fight for democracy--which includes the right to water, the right to their democratically-elected president Aristide instead of an unwanted UN occupation,  and the right to reparations for $21 billion taken as punishment for a slave revolution that should be celebrated. 

Monday, October 25, 2010

5 lies and 3 truths revealed by wikileaks

We all know the Iraq War was based on lies: Iraq did not pose a threat, there were no WMDs, there was no link to 9/11. The recently leaked Pentagon files reveal five more lies that are key to understanding the nature of the war, and three truths that guide future actions.

LIE #1: “WE DON'T DO BODY COUNTS” (US General Tommy Franks)

     The most obvious lie revealed by the leaked files is that the US does indeed to body counts. Through files detailed enough to provide a map of casualties across the country, the military’s own estimate show the Iraq War has killed over 100,000 people, two-thirds of them civilians.
     But the General was right in some respects. The documented death toll do not include any casualties of the initial “shock and awe” invasion, nor do they count a single casualty when the military leveled the city of Fallujah. So 100,000 is a gross underestimation of the impact of the Iraq War.


     The second most obvious aspect of the files, and another reason why the military is in a panic, is that these files were leaked from within the military. Clearly troops are not happy with the war, and it was opposition from within the military—combined with local resistance and a  mass peace movement—that forced the US military into its humiliating defeat in Vietnam, scarring its confidence for a generation. The next lies reveal why the troops are so unhappy.


     Periodic stories of civilian deaths over the years have been dismissed as isolated incidents. But according to the analysis of the files by Iraq Body Count:
“The new deaths are concentrated in small incidents, killing one or two people at a time, scattered all over Iraq, and occurring almost every day for the whole period. These are the small but relentless tragedies of this war that these logs reveal in unprecedented detail.”
    This tragedy is no accident. The government and military blamed defeat in Vietnam on Americans back home seeing photos of dead soldiers, so their solution was to use embedded media who would refuse to report the truth, and enhanced military doctrine that would reduce casualties. As the Guardian explains:
“Known since 2001 as force protection, it puts a high premium on minimising all conceivable risk by permitting troops to bypass traditional methods of detecting friend from foe in favour of extreme pre-emptive action.”
In other words, shoot first, ask questions later. This is exactly the experience of troops in Iraq, in countless home invasions and checkpoint killings. According to Joshua Key, who served a tour in Iraq before becoming coming to Canada as a war resister:
"“The running procedure was ‘Shoot first, ask questions later.’ We had no regard for the lives of the civilians around us. That was pretty evident in day-to-day actions, as well as the way we raided their homes and did everything else. There were no repercussions, no questions.”"
     Ironically, this so-called “force protection” contributed to at least 7 American soldiers getting killed and 34 injured in “friendly fire” attacks. Of course the impact on Iraqis has been much worse. In one instructive log, soldiers in an Apache helicopter hunted and killed two Iraqis who tried to surrender, after advice and orders from higher up the chain of command including a military lawyer. As the Guardian concluded, the “crew were not trigger-happy, but sought immediate advice from their superiors at all stages of the attack.” This is course will do nothing to dampen the emergence of a local resistance, a global peace movement, or anti-war opposition from within the military.

LIE #4: “WE DO NOT TORTURE” (George W. Bush)

     The most gruesome part of the leaked files is the accounts of torture of Iraqis handed over by the US military, who then refused to investigate. The scale of these events has led the UN to demand Obama investigate, charge, and compensate. According Manfred Nowak, the UN's chief investigator on torture:
“whenever they expel, extradite or hand over any detainees to the authorities of another state to assess whether or not these individuals are under specific risk of torture. If this assessment is not done, or authorities hand over detainees knowing there is a serious risk of them being subjected to torture, they violate article 3 of the UN convention that precludes torture.” 
Nowak said it would be up to the Obama administration to launch an "independent and objective" investigation with a view not only to "bring the perpetrators to justice but also to provide the victims with adequate remedy and reparation"


    After launching character assassination against Wikileak’s founder Julian Assange, and then pleading with media to not release the files, the US military responded to the leaks by shooting itself in the foot. It claimed that:
“The biggest potential damage here, we think, could be to our forces, because there are now potentially 400,000 documents in the public domain for our enemies to mine, look for vulnerabilities, patterns of behaviour, things they could exploit to wage attacks against us in the future.” 
How could this damage your forces if you ended the combat mission? The concern by the Pentagon exposes the fact that 50,000 troops remain and the war is not over.


    From the lies that justified the war, to the doctrine that orders soldiers to shoot civilians, to the practice of ignoring torture, wikileaks makes clear the Iraq War is a war crime. Next month former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is coming to Canada, and needs to be greeted with mass protests.


    Canadians in their hundreds of thousands mobilized before the war and stopped our government from participating. Two prominent supporters of the war were Stephen Harper (current Prime Minister) and Jason Kenney (current Immigration Minister), who have continued to support the war by deporting US Iraq War resisters to US prisons, and declaring them criminally inadmissible to Canada. Persecuting soldiers who refuse to participate in war crimes makes Harper and Kenney complicit in war crimes.


     For 6 years US Iraq War resisters have been coming to Canada to seek refuge, and the Pentagon vindicate their reasons: they don’t want to take part in the daily widespread practice of killing civilians and ignoring torture. That they volunteered and signed a contract is completely irrelevant. The Nuremberg principles demand soldiers refuse participation in war crimes, and wikileaks proves that this is the daily experience in Iraq. Furthermore, the majority of Canadians and their MPs support war resisters.

The only rational conclusion from wikileaks is for the US to finally end its occupation of Iraq, and for Canada to welcome war resisters.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Colonel Williams and violence in the military

The Canadian military is scrambling to separate itself from convicted killer Colonel Williams. This is the latest attempt to hide the reality of military training and the results it produces on soldiers and civilians--from Somalia, to Iraq, to Afghanistan.

     The Canadian military claim to have no idea how one of their rising stars, Russel Williams, who has been in the military since 1987 and climbed the ranks to colonel, could have been guilty of stalking, sexual assaulting, confiing, torturing and killing women. But the military is sure it's not their problem. According to  Lt.-Gen. Andre Deschamps, chief of air staff:
“What could we have done differently? I’m not sure we’re going to get answers to that. There are no answers yet... This individual was a man of tremendous capacities. I still can’t reconcile the two individuals we’ve seen, the professional we knew and the criminal who is in prison now....We haven’t found one thing that needs to be changed yet...There’s nothing wrong with the uniform, there is something wrong with the individual who was in the uniform...We feel this was an aberration."
     These statements show a willful ignorance of military training and its intended results.

     Canada’s General Rick Hillier famously put to bed the notion that the Canadian military is for peacekeeping when he proclaimed, “We are the Canadian Forces, and our job is to be able to kill people”. But it's a real testament to our true human nature that people are not born with this "ability". Instead it needs to be hammered into people with rigorous training, consciously aimed at desensitizing people to human suffering.
     In Michael Moore's book Will They Ever Trust Us Again (a collection of letters he's received from soldiers and their families), someone who’s brother was to be deployed to Iraq, described the process of desensitization:
“He is being trained to run over children who stand in the way of the conveys because they could be potential threats. Kids like his own, kids who may just want to get food. He’s at Fort Dix practicing, knocking over cardboard cutouts.”
Despite this intense training many people still can't bring themselves to go along with violence. Jeremy Hinzman, the first war resister to come to Canada, went AWOL after his experiences in boot camp showed him how the military turns people into killers:
“We were marching around chanting songs like, ‘Train to kill. Kill we will.,’ Or during bayonet training they’d ask, ‘What makes the grass grow?,’ and we’d say ‘Blood, blood, bright red blood.’“When we would thrust [the bayonet] the drill sergeant would yell that, and we’d have to scream back. People would actually get hoarse yelling this crap. I could never really get into that stuff. Some people ate it up because I think there is an opportunity in groups to kind of let go of your inhibitions and do wanton things... We’d sing cadences as we ran about going through villages and killing babies and stuff. It’s all presented, at least on the surface, as, ‘Oh, it’s just in humor, and no one’s around listening to it,’ but I think that really does put that mindset in a soldier that they’re killers.”
     With such "training" its no wonder brutal acts like those committed by Williams have been a regular feature of US and Canadian intervention overseas, not an aberration. In 1993 Canadian soldiers savagely tortured to death a Somali teenager, Shidane Arone, and like Colonel Williams took “trophy photos”. Then too, the military "didn't find one thing that needed to be changed". They tried to cover up the killing, recently dropped charges against the killer, and promoted the commanding colonel to general.
     The same stories have emerged from Iraq. In 2004 "trophy photos" of torture and sexual violence emerged from Abu Ghraib. In 2005 US marines went house to house in Haditha killing 24 civilians including children as young as one year of age. In 2009 Obama blocked the publication of a large number of photos, including of rape and torture, of prisoners in both Iraq and Afghanistan. This year the Pentagon is scrambling to contain the information released by wikileaks, including a video of a massacre of civilians.

     This institutionalized violence, deliberately created and directed towards a racialized "other" to justify war and occupation, inevitably spills over onto fellow troops and civilians. Within the first year of the war in Afghanistan, military wives at Fort Bragg reported high rates of domestic abuse, including 4 killings. Last year the BBC published an article about the sexual violence female soldiers face. They reported studies by the US Department of Veteran Affairs that found 30% of military women are raped while serving, 71% are sexually assaulted, and 90% are sexually harassed. This includes Army specialist Chantelle Henneberry, who served a year in Iraq:
"I was the only female in the platoon of 50 ot 60 men. I also the youngest, 17. Because I was the only female, men would forget in front of me and say these terrible derogatory things about women all the time. I had to hear these things every day. I'd have to say 'Hey!' Then they'd look at me, all surprised, and say, 'Oh we don't mean you'. One of the guys I thought was my friend tried to rape me. Two of my sergeants wouldn't stop making passes at me... During my first few months in Iraq, my sergeant assaulted and harassed me so much I couldn't take it any more. So I decided to report him. But when I turned him in, they said, 'The one common factor in all these problems is you. Don't see this as a punishment, but we're going to have you transferred.' Then that same sergeant was promoted right away. I didn't get my promotion for six months... I was fresh meat to the hungry men there.I was less scared of the mortar rounds that came in every day than I was of the men who shared my food."
US war resister Skylar James is seeking sanctuary in Canada  because she fears for her own safety as a lesbian in the military.

     Sexual violence within the military is not confined to the US military in Iraq. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper claimed Russel Williams is "unique case. The Canadian Forces are the victim here, as are the direct victims of these terrible events." But before she became the first Canadian female soldier killed in Afghanistan, Nichola Goddard wrote a letter home about the treatment of female soldiers in her camp: "there were 6 rapes in the camp last week, so we have to work out an escort at night." Russel Williams is only unique because the military have refused to look elsewhwere. Whereas Goddard herself knew of 6 cases of sexual assault in one week, the Canadian Forces admits to only one conviction for sexual assault over the past 6 years.
     The impact that the deliberate creation and coverup of violence has on our own soldiers is a microcosm of what's inflicted on the people of Afghanistan.  Hiller justified the barbaric war in Afghanistan by claiming the soldiers were killing "detestable murderers and scumbags". Harper prorogued Parliament rather than allow public scrutiny of torture, and dismissed Williams as unique despite the experiences of troops on the ground. The words and actions of Harper and Hiller, the top of the chain of command, show that Colonel Williams is not an aberration but a product of militarism.
     Everyone opposed to what Colonel Williams was turned into should support two campaigns of the Canadian peace movement: letting US Iraq War resisters stay, and ending the war in Afghanistan.