Witnessing on the Sixth Anniversary of the War with Iraq—Fulfill the Promise: End the Occupation

By Susan Leslie, Director, UUA Office for Congregational Advocacy & Witness

On Saturday, a coalition of Unitarian Universalist congregations from the Mass Bay District and the UUA, Military Families Speak Out, and United for Justice with Peace (a MA coalition of peace and justice organizations) gathered on the Boston Common and read the names of all the US military personnel killed in Iraq since the war began six years ago.

There were eight UU parish ministers and representatives and groups from 15 UU congregations (Marblehead, Dedham, Cambridge, Concord, Arlington Street Church, Community Church, First Parish Arlington, Sharon, Jamaica Plain, Sherborn, Middleboro, Beverly, Bedford, No Andover, and Stow). A group of UU young adults who had heard about the event on Facebook came together from Western MA to the Metro Boston area. College students from Bridgewater State also picked up on the Facebook listing, checked out www.uua.org/socialjustice and came carrying peace signs.

The names were read for six minutes at a time, followed by the ringing of a gong. Every hour there was a minute of silence for the Iraqi victims. Members of military families spoke gave testimonials including Bonnie Gorman and Gold Star Mother Malida Arredondo. [The Arredondo family circled the Common with their flatbed truck exhibit for Gold Star Families to End the War and sent passersby over to our Witness event.] They spoke of the pain and suffering of losing loved ones in an “ill-begotten war” and they called for healthcare and jobs for returning soldiers. Patrick Daugherty, of Iraq Veterans Against the War, called for a justification for President Obama’s plan to leave 50,000 troops in Iraq.

Rev. Wendy von Zirpolo, minister, UU Church of Marblehead, MA, presided over the event and began by saying:

We gather today in worshipful remembrance of those lost in the United States war with Iraq. Although it seems unreal that we mark a sixth year of US Occupation, the consequences are all too real for many here. We mark with great sadness over 4300 US deaths. We mark with a different sadness all the Iraqi deaths. Some reports are of up to 1 million victims. Neither lesser or greater, but each arriving with a host of other emotions. We gather for more than remembrance of these lost lives, however. We come here with a call to Fulfill the Promise, to End the Occupation, to recognize the cost of the occupation upon Iraq and stand accountable. to tell the truth about those who have returned and how we as a nation will own their stories and tend to their needs. We gather because it matters. We gather because it was on our watch that we arrived in Iraq and we must be quite sure that we bring them home. Thank you for joining us here today.

She ended our time together with these words:

We gather with heavy hearts.
Among us, those grieving the unimaginable. Those who have lost loved ones.
Among us are those who served alongside comrades who would not return, and those who would return, forever altered..
Among us are those who know war too well. Those who served faithfully and know death in ways that inhabit nightmares and on some days, waking hours.

We gather with hopeful hearts as well.
Among us, those looking to a new way of being in the world. A way that will lead to a more rapid return of our soldiers.
Among us, those looking with new eyes at raising awareness of the needs of those already home, but facing economic and health issues that should shame our nation.
Among us, those who know that change will not arrive without our voice – our call to fulfill the promise, end the occupation, tell the truth and take good care.

A picture and caption of the event was featured in The Boston Sunday Globe on March 22nd. We also got some good Indy coverage including a You Tube posting with lots of footage of Rev. Wendy and others.

Mass Peace Action posted a photo album of the witness.

It felt good to be standing with UUs and partners as we work to help President Obama end this immoral war that he too opposed. We remain faithful in our witness to end this war.

My Vision on the Anniversary of the War in Iraq

On this sixth anniversary of the Iraq war, guest blogger David Pyle, military veteran and candidate to be a UU military chaplain, shares his perspective.

I remember watching television six years ago today as the U.S. Military crossed the border into Iraq, in an operation known later as “Iraqi Freedom”. I remember feeling a conflict between my identity as a military veteran and my identity as a Unitarian Universalist. My growing Unitarian Universalist faith had brought me to a commitment never to personally carry a weapon again, and yet seeing those young men and women going into harm’s way, I felt that somehow I was supposed to be there with them.

In the months that followed, I wrestled with whether my faith called me to a personal pacifism, or whether I should re-enlist in the Army to be with the soldiers I had once trained as they went to war. The political questions about the conflict, the justifications made, the words said by politicians… all of this was distant compared to this deep spiritual question: Which is greater, the responsibility I feel to my self and my faith, or the responsibility I feel to those young men and women with whom I had once served?

As “Shock and Awe” was talked about and images of combat and falling statues dominated our media, I sat at my television in this spiritual conflict. I talked to recruiters about how I might put the uniform back on, and I kept silent at church for fear they would not understand. Over a period of months, I came to the realization that my personal faith would not allow me to carry a weapon ever again. That seemed to be the end of the question, until I realized over a year later that it was possible to do both, as a Unitarian Universalist Minister serving as a Military Chaplain.

One of the most common questions that Unitarian Universalists without military experience ask about military ministry is whether our liberal faith is attractive to or can be understood by those serving in the military. Unitarian Universalist military veterans never ask this question, because they know from their own lives how much our faith can speak to the military experience, how it can even seem like salvation. Even with my own experience as a soldier, I do not think I realized the profound depth of what Unitarian Universalism offers to those who serve until I began presenting weekly Unitarian Universalist Worship at the Great Lakes Naval Station, Recruit Training Command.

For over two years, students at the Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago and members of the Unitarian Church of Evanston, Illinois have facilitated a Sunday Morning Unitarian Universalist worship service for the naval recruits going through basic training. Begun by myself and a fellow UU seminarian and military servicemember, Seanan Holland, the service reaches almost 1000 young women and men per year with a message of inherent worth, interdependence, love, and hope. Though some of our recruits have been life-long UU’s or attended UU churches before, the vast majority are encountering our liberal faith for the first time. Depending on the time of year, each service draws between 20 and 90 recruits every Sunday morning.

If there is one thing I have personally learned from being with these young women and men these past two years, it is that Unitarian Universalism speaks deeply to who they are, and what they are facing in basic training and in the years to come. A faith that recognizes the inherent worth of all is profound, because they are often questioning their own worth. A faith that teaches interdependence is profound, because they are learning to be interdependent upon one another. A faith that challenges them to spiritual growth is profound, because basic training is a time of deep personal transformation. It is empowering to show that they can have a profound impact on who they want to be in this world.

In the last six months, we have encountered a new trend among the recruits who attend UU Worship. Many are seeking ways that they can continue to practice and identify as Unitarian Universalists in the years to come. They ask for help in finding the nearest UU congregation to their next assignment. They ask for a way to connect with the Church of the Larger Fellowship while they are serving overseas (www.clfuu.org/military). They ask for a symbol of a chalice that they can wear on their Identification Tags. While we can help with the first two, we do not have the funding to provide the ID Tag Chalices… yet.

Because for me, this ministry is about planting a seed of Unitarian Universalism, a seed of liberal faith. That seed may grow now, in the case of those who are asking for ways to identify with and connect to our religious movement beyond basic training. That seed may also grow later, when the experiences of their lives show them that they need a faith and a church with the healing message of universal love and grace. Such a seed sprouted in me, almost ten years after a military chaplain first said “Unitarian Universalism” to me, and was a part of my healing after I served as a Peacekeeper in Bosnia y Herzegovina.

I believe that there is no more profound act of social justice than bringing our values and principles into communities where they are needed, before they are needed. If we begin these young men and women on a path of thinking of the inherent worth and the interdependence of all at the beginning of their military service, perhaps we bring the military as a whole closer to our values and principles. And maybe, just maybe, bringing our principles and values into our military communities can bring our world closer to healing and peace.

This is my vision on this anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War.

Yours in Faith,

David Pyle
MOD Minister, Great Lakes Military Ministry
Candidate for the UU Ministry
U.S. Army Chaplain Candidate

Sixth Year in Iraq This Week

This week, we mark the sixth year our forces have acted as an occupying force in Iraq. Since the initial invasion we have seen thousands of US, Coalition and Iraqi lives lost. We have seen billions of dollars wasted and lots of lost opportunities.

While we mourn the loss of lives and resources, we also celebrate our successes. President Obama may have inherited this war, but he is acting quickly to end it in a safe and responsible manner. He has promised a redeployment home of 12,000 military personnel this summer followed by a near complete withdrawal of troops by the end of 2010. However, we are disappointed that a total of 50,000 troops will remain without a clear and concrete mission or time line.

We encourage your congregation to participate in the Iraq Memorial To Life and work to finish the job in Iraq in a timely manner.

Please visit our Iraq War pages at uua.org/socialjustice to find out how you can recognize this milestone as well as support our veterans and reconciliation with the citizens of Iraq.

Obama Iraq Strategy Video Response

Adam Gerhardstein, Acting Director of the UUA Washington Office, responds to President Obama’s Friday announcement of his Iraq strategy. This is the first video post from the Washington Office and we are still working out the kinks, but hopefully you’ll get the message.

We invite you to send us links to your videos, so we can promote the important work UUs across the country are doing for justice. Cheers!

Resolve to make a difference this New Year, or, "Hey, that’s my elbow!"

Many of us are excited about changes to come in the New Year, including new opportunities presented by the incoming administration and Congress.

In anticipation, the Unitarian Universalist Association is asking individual Unitarian Universalists to choose one of fourteen Legislative Objectives and pledge their support to take action on that issue.

Click here to see the list of Legislative Objectives for 2009 – 20010 and pledge your support for the upcoming year. When you do, note the photograph on the right-hand side of the page, which is captioned, “Before you get buried in new year’s activities, resolve to make a difference.” That’s my elbow sticking out as I’m slowly crushed by the weight of hundreds of balloons. (Remember when we welcomed Adam as Acting Director by filling his office with balloons?)

Please, don’t be like me: Resolve to support a Legislative Objective now.

Iraqi and American Peace Accord On the Move

On Sunday, the Iraqi Executive Cabinet approved a timeline of American withdrawal from Iraq. Of the 28 ministers at the meeting, 27 approved the measure. This overwhelming support for the agreement from the Executive Cabinet marks positive possibilities for the passage of the plan by the Iraqi Parliament some time this week.

The agreement extends the presence of American troops beyond the Dec. 31st expiration date of the UN Resolution 1511. However, it requires a preliminary reduction of American troops on January 1st, 2009. Furthermore, it would put coalition-led missions under the guidance of the Iraqi military.

The time-line for withdrawal would continue in this way:

  • Full withdrawal of American troops from Iraqi cities, villages and towns by July 1, 2009;
  • A complete handover of all military bases to Iraqi military forces by December 1, 2009;
  • A full withdrawal of all American forces from Iraq by December 31st, 2010.

These deadlines are non-negotiable. They will not depend on benchmarks. They will not depend on ground conditions.

The agreement is expected to succeed as the Shi’a and Kurdish blocs have agreed to pass the resolution. The Sunni minority bloc is currently split on the resolution, as many fear it would leave the future of Sunni security at the hands of the Shi’ite majority. The only Minister not to approve the agreement on Sunday belongs to the strongest Sunni party.

There has been much speculation that the Bush Administration has made major concessions in order to get the resolution passed before the transfer of American governance in January. This agreement has been pushed even further up as the Iraqi Parliament prepares to adjourn for the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca for the holiday Eid al-Adha.

There is some disagreement here in the United States on whether or not this agreement would need to be ratified by Congress before it goes into effect. If Congressional review is necessary, it would need to be put on hold until the 111th Congress begins its session. That would mean then-President Obama would have the pleasure to sign the agreement into reality. According to the New York Times and Washington Post, many in the Bush Administration want to skip the Congressional review so that the reduction of troops could begin within the tenure of the Bush Presidency.

If this agreement is passed by the Iraqi Parliament, there will still be a lot of work to do on the part of the peace community. First of all, these deadlines are hard and fast, but the agreement has not been passed yet. And if there is Congressional Review necessary for American participation, we will need to speak to our elected officials to make sure the agreement is ratified.

Furthermore, these deadlines are crucial for the Iraqi people to feel empowered as a sovereign nation. We must keep the Obama administration accountable to the needs and requests of the Iraqi government and military. The deadlines must be respected and honored.

We must also keep our government and military accountable for other military operations we are currently in. We must work with the Afghani government to make sure our withdrawal from their country is timely and accountable to them as well as us.

Finally, after our troops come home, we must continue to support them. We must call for a strengthening of our Veteran’s Affairs as well as improving the physical and emotional services the veterans require. Even after the war is over, we will have over 1.5 million Iraq War veterans to support. This will require extensive physical and emotional rehabilitation as well as giving them concrete job skills to compete in the struggling economy.

Overall, this is an exciting time for the anti-war community and we should not forget to celebrate our successes. With this agreement, the United States is well on the road to a complete and timely withdrawal from Iraq.

The Roadmap for Peace

The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations recently endorsed an initiative spearheaded by the American Friends Service Committee called The Roadmap for Peace. Over 30 national organizations have joined together to call on the next U.S. President and administration to engage in a new foreign policy based on these five core principles.

  1. Our nation should invest in peace.

    Our country should invest in diplomacy, development, and conflict prevention — cost-effective ways to improve national and global security.

  2. Strengthen the civilian agencies that work on peace and development issues.

    The military is not an effective relief agency. The government needs a strong civilian foreign assistance and crisis response team.

  3. Give diplomacy a chance.

    With a highly skilled diplomatic corps, the United States can prevent conflict and restore its international reputation.

  4. Be a part of global peacebuilding efforts.

    We must work with renewed commitment in international institutions and partners to address major global conflicts and challenges, such as nonproliferation, climate change, migration, public health, and poverty.

  5. Create justice through good development and trade policies.

You can join the UUA and the AFSC by personally endorsing the Roadmap for Peace.

Troop Withdrawal by 2011?

U.S. and Iraqi negotiators are making progress in determining the future presence of U.S. troops in Iraq. Negotiations began in March, with the U.S. proposing an agreement that lacked a timeline for withdrawal and included complete immunity for U.S. troops and contractors. The Iraqis responded by declaring that negotiations were at a dead end. This resulted in the U.S. making some concessions and five months later negotiators appear near agreement on a 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops. While the agreement is not complete, it marks a definite step towards a new future in Iraq.

The preliminary terms of the agreement are being brought before the Iraqi executive council and will ultimately have to be approved by the Iraqi parliament. Currently there is nothing requiring the U.S. Administration to get approval from Congress for a security agreement. Sen. Biden has introduced legislation that would change that, by requiring Congressional approval of any security agreement with Iraq. [Click here to call on your Senators to join Sen. Biden]

Unitarian Universalists have been praying and protesting this war since before it began. After five years of an immoral occupation, this development offers a flicker of hope for the futures of the U.S. and Iraq.

UUA Advocacy Against the War

Bush Signs Final War Funding of His Presidency

On Monday, June 30th, President Bush signed the last major war funding bill of his presidency. The Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2008, totals $162 billion and will fund the Iraq and Afghanistan wars through the beginning of 2009. The supplemental includes $21.1 billion for a host of domestic programs, including $2.7 billion for Midwest flood relief, a 12 week extension of unemployment benefits, $5.8 billion to rebuild the levees destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and a new G.I. Bill that will provide educational benefits for veterans who signed up for service after September 11th, 2001.

These important forward thinking domestic initiatives are cause to celebrate. And, in a twisted sort of way, the signing of Bush’s last war funding bill is also cause for celebration; even though it cost the American taxpayers $600 billion dollars to reach this milestone (these costs were assessed when the Unitarian Universalist Association issued its Moral Balance Sheet over a year ago and again when the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee looked at the costs of the war during this year’s Justice Sunday).

Of all the egregious atrocities this administration has committed in the name of the American people, the Iraq war stands out as the most shameful and immoral. As we are forced to swallow a final helping of our children’s yet-earned money, let us hope – and through our work ensure – that the next time our Congress takes up the business of funding this war it will be to end the occupation. With Bush’s war chest running out, let us envision a responsible global engagement that honors both our democratic core principles and the international community of nations. May that vision soon come to life.

IFEA- Our Meeting with Iraqi Parliamentarians

On Friday, June 6th, Adam and Alex attended a panel discussion featuring two Iraqi parliamentarians, Sheikh Khalaf Al-Ulayyan, founder of the National Dialogue Council, a nationalist Sunni Islamist political party, and Dr. Nadim Al-Jaberi, co-founder of the al-Fadhila Party, a nationalist Shiite political party. The lawmakers testified before congress earlier in the week. Their visit was arranged by the American Friends Service Committee http://www.afsc.org/, particularly through the work of their consultant, Raed Jarrar. The discussion touched on many issues, including reconciliation within Iraq, the role of the United States in the future of Iraq, oil resources, and the threats faced by Iran and al-qaeda. Here are some brief reports from Adam and Alex…

Adam Reports… It was unequivocally made clear that in their opinion America needs to leave Iraq. Dr. Al-Jaberi responded to the three main fears about what would happen as a result of an American withdrawal. Dr. Al-Jaberi believes, contrary to popular belief:

  1. Iraq will not crumble due to increased sectarian fighting – Such fighting did not exist before America arrived. Iraqis have coexisted peacefully across its sectarian divides since the country came into existence. He does not anticipate any increase of fighting after American withdrawal.
  2. Al-qaeda will not take over – there was no presence of al-qaeda before 2003. The only reason that they have grown and been able to recruit so many people is because they are rallying people around a call for liberation from the Americans. Once America leaves, there will be nothing to rally around.
  3. Iran will take not over – Iran has only been able to gain influence in Iraq under America’s presence.Iran’s main reason for meddling in Iraq’s affairs is that America poises a major threat by being so close to their borders.Iraq has defended itself from Iran throughout its history and is capable of doing so without an American presence.

The lawmakers were also strongly against the proposed Security Agreement by the Bush Administration. Sheikh Al-Ulayyan said that such an agreement would push Iraq from being occupied by America to being part of America. He asserted that it would give the U.S. the rights to use its military bases in Iraq to carry out military missions to any part of the world and that it would give the U.S. the right to arrest any Iraqi without permission of the Government. He thought that it was completely unfair to the Iraqi people.

When asked about the upcoming elections and which of the candidates’ policies they preferred, Dr. Al-Jaberi responded that Iraqis do not rely on a change of faces in Washington to determine their future, they rely on themselves.

Alex reports…the members of Parliament were also adamant that the US State Dept. and Pentagon should give the Iraqi government full self-determination. Especially in the realm of the Reconciliation process, the lawmakers were frustrated by how many times the US had overturned or blocked laws created by Parliament.

Dr. Al-Jaberi told us the US Government blocked a resolution that would grant amnesty to organizations that took up arms against occupying Coalition forces. He believes bringing those groups to the table would be crucial to the Reconciliation process—much like they did in Northern Ireland in the 1990’s. However, the Pentagon is not eager about granting amnesty to these groups.

Sheik Al-Ulyyan was very certain that the reconciliation process could not be successful with a large presence of U.S. and Coalition forces. He said the occupation forces:

  1. ignore or create problems in order to justify their presence;
  2. protect many parties;
  3. refuse to protect other groups as a way of political punishment.

While he did not explain his point of view, it is very interesting to see how Coalition troops are perceived by Iraqi parliamentarians.

Initially, the AFSC had planned to bring many different voices to the table to hear how different political parties are working for the Reconciliation process. Unfortunately, many were unable to attend. I am sure this would have made the conversation much different. However, it was an extremely fascinating conversation and I am glad I was able to attend.