Thursday, February 17, 2005

Murder mystery in Iraq

This chilling story is from Sojourners' email for Feb. 17:

Murder mystery in Iraq
by David Batstone

My friend Kirk von Ackermann has joined the list of American casualties in Iraq. Not that long ago he was designated as "missing." He is now "presumed dead." Suspiciously so.

According to a story in last Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle, Kirk disappeared on the afternoon of Oct. 9, 2003, on a deserted road in Iraq that runs between Tikrit and Kirkuk. A tire on his car had gone flat, so he used a satellite phone to call a colleague to request a jack. When his colleague arrived about 45 minutes later, Kirk was nowhere to be found. There was no sign of struggle, not even footprints of possible assailants, which would seem to rule out a ragtag team of Iraqi resistance fighters. Robbery also is out for a motive - Kirk's satellite phone, a laptop computer, and a briefcase containing $40,000 were found left in his car, according to the article.

"It was as if he had been abducted by aliens," Ryan Manelick, another one of Kirk's colleagues in Iraq, told the Chronicle reporter. More like professional assassins, I might add. Manelick and Kirk worked for Ultra Services, a civilian contracting company that supplied U.S. troops in Iraq with essential living services (tents, toilets, etc.) and technology.

That's not the only significant observation Manelick had to make. He also shared with army investigators looking into Kirk's "disappearance" that Kirk was ready to blow the whistle on a kickback scheme that involved business operatives and a U.S. Army officer, according to the article.

Manelick voiced fears for his own safety because he also had divulged details about this scandal. "I'm in fear of my own life," he told the Chronicle reporter. "It's not Iraqis I'm worried about, either," he added. "It's people from my own country." The very next day after the interview, a car pulled up alongside Manelick's 4x4 and a gunner opened fire with a machine gun, according to the article, instantly killing him.

I first met Kirk a couple of years ago on a soccer field in Half Moon Bay, California. I was his son's soccer coach. When Kirk could get off work at his business software company, he would come out to the field to help me out with practices.

As our friendship evolved, Kirk shared with me his background as a former deputy director of intelligence for NATO operations in Kosovo. He told me that he subsequently had worked as a Pentagon advisor on counterterrorism and espionage, and had high-level security clearance. He confessed that he could not share details with me, but he was disturbed by the rise of terrorism internationally and the lack of thoughtful U.S. foreign policy that would nourish democracy and freedom abroad. One thing about Kirk: He was a true believer in the potential for America to do good in the world. In Kosovo, he was convinced that the U.S. presence had helped to stop genocide and build a fragile peace.

When Kirk told me that he was going to Iraq to work with Ultra Services, I could only guess what actual role he would be playing in intelligence and security. Early in April 2003, only weeks after the invasion, he wrote me an e-mail from Iraq, and it was flush with hope of a quick end to the conflict, yet also concern for the long-term destiny of the country:

"As I watch what appears to be the beginning of the conclusion of this conflict in Iraq, I'm struck by something that [I became familiar with] in Bosnia and Kosovo - the children. When I was in the Balkans, I always brought something along for the kids, who had suffered for reasons they simply did not understand. As I look at the Iraqi kids, I realize that [those] in their mid-20s were children when the suffering in Iraq started. After eight years of war with Iran, 12 years of sanctions, and this current war, I wonder what the children of Iraq must be thinking."

In that same e-mail, Kirk solicited my help in thinking through an economic and social development program that would offer Iraqi children a chance to build a new society. I received several e-mails over the ensuing month exuding this same passion to change the tides of an oppressive history.

As the months passed along, however, Kirk began to express a frustration and despair that other American military and business personnel did not share his lofty goals. On Oct. 6, three days before his disappearance, he wrote me the following e-mail:

"The real problem is that - not surprisingly - the [Bush] administration seems to have dramatically overestimated the willingness of corporate America to take the risks of Iraq. Other than myself, there really are no contractors operating in Tikrit, Samarra, Balad, etc.... It cannot be stressed enough that even pro-Saddam Iraqis are not anti-American. They are violently opposed to U.S. occupation forces, but not an individual American. The tribal leader in the city where Saddam was born told me, 'We have our Arab pride, we will fight, we will lose, and then we will move on. No one wanted these days, but these are what we have, although it will not forever be this way.' It's dangerous, but not like Bosnia was."

Kirk obviously could not share with me over e-mail his deeper concerns. Apparently, he was aware of a corruption scam involving U.S. military and corporate services. Perhaps he did not know what real danger he had fallen into from his own people.

My personal connection to a lost American in Iraq adds to my sense of despair over U.S. engagement in Iraq. The smell of rotting fish continues to waft its way out of Iraq - and we catch mere glimpses of the misdirection of billions of dollars passing through the likes of Halliburton, Kellogg Brown & Root, and other less-than-credible corporate enterprises. We need to head down a different road, one driven by integrity.

Kirk worried about the children of Iraq, and their future: He wrote in one of his e-mails to me: "In Bosnia and Kosovo I noticed...the eyes of the kids - knowing that they weren't likely to die anymore, but still so far from hope. Of course, kids are kids and can take a stick and a rock and make up grand adventures, but when war's ravages have subsided it often takes something to reawaken the spirit of belief, especially in young people."

Kirk was right. It is not enough to wave the flags of democracy and freedom. We must live up to their lofty standards.

Sojourners is online at

Monday, February 14, 2005

Support our troops - stop the war!

Another soldier has given us a message about the war in Iraq.

This message didn't come in a well-articulated, impassioned plea for peace, however. This one came in the form of a body hanging in a Kansas Army barracks.

Sgt. Curtis Greene had served in Iraq, and the experience left him terrified of going back. He wanted out of the Army, but financial worries kept the 25-year-old soldier in.

The article from the St. Petersburg Times, near where Greene is buried, says Greene was depressed at seeing thousands of his fellow soldiers shipping out to Iraq. He argued with his wife Lisset about the war, grew increasingly distant, and then one night it all apparently just got to be too much for him., and he disappeared. When he called later, he apologized for leaving and said he'd come home. But he swore he would not go back to Iraq. "Over my dead body are they going to make me go back," he said.

He came to work at Fort Riley the next day, seemingly happy and his old self. That night he hanged himself in the barracks.

This excerpt from the story offers chilling evidence of why morale is so low in the military:

Sgt. Greene told his stepfather that he had to kill a few people, and that the guilt was weighing on him. "Curtis seems to think that he was a murderer," his stepfather said. "Curtis was raised to respect life; in the military you're taught to take it. I think he struggled with that."

The Army does not provide detailed information about where specific soldiers were stationed or incidents they witnessed, said Rudd, the Army spokeswoman.

Lisset said her husband shared his worst experience: A soldier next to him was shot in the face and died instantly. He told her he screamed until he got to his destination, then watched as the man was placed in a body bag.

He felt guilty because they had switched seats in the car shortly before the shooting.

"He said they treated the body like a bag of trash," she said. "He said that he was supposed to be in the passenger seat, and the bullet was for him." ...

Lisset said he had nightmares and couldn't sleep. He cried easily, but avoided talking about Iraq.

"He just said it was ugly, and that you don't know what it's like until you're there," she said. "He always said he wouldn't wish it on his worst enemy."

When the evening news reported deaths in Iraq, he would weep and ask her to turn off the TV.

"He really cried, like it was someone he knew," she said. "He'd say that we shouldn't be there. He always wanted to know why we were there."

I, too, want to know why we are there. It's been way too long, and I haven't heard a solitary word that makes sense to me about why we're there. Whatever the reasons, we will be suffering the consequences for several generations. Sgt. Greene and his family represent just one of the many ways we will suffer.

Lisset Greene explained the dynamics of that suffering: "You can't expect a soldier to go and be expected to take people's lives - women, children, anyone - then expect them to come back and be fine."

America will learn the truth of those words very well over the next decade. Maybe one day we will learn the truth of war: there are only losers.


Sunday, February 13, 2005

In Defense of Kevin Benderman

Kevin Benderman has been a good soldier, a soldier who like many, signed up to help defend and support the country he loves. He even went to Iraq with his Army unit. But while he was there, a serious thing happened. Kevin saw some things that began to make him doubt that what he and other soldiers in Iraq were doing is really about defending America. When he came home, he began to talk about the things he'd seen and the thoughts he'd had with his wife, Monica, and a few friends.

The LA Times article on Kevin reported: In the six months he spent in combat in Iraq in 2003, Benderman said, he was badly shaken by what he witnessed. He saw a young Iraqi girl with her arm horribly burned and blackened, standing helplessly on a roadside as Benderman's convoy rushed past. He saw dogs feasting on civilian corpses that had been dumped into pits. He saw young U.S. soldiers treat war like a video game, he said, with few qualms about killing or the effects of the invasion on ordinary Iraqis.

Benderman said he begged an officer to stop and help the girl, but was told that the unit couldn't spare its limited medical supplies. "I had to look at that little girl, look into her eyes, and in her eyes I saw the TRUTH. I cannot kill," Benderman wrote in his application.

He began to pray and search his soul about these things., and after a few months he came to the realization that he could no longer justify what was being done by the US in Iraq, nor his own role in it.

War should be relegated to the shelves of history, as was human sacrifice. If you stop to think about it you become aware that war is just human sacrifice. There is no honor in killing as many as you can as quickly as you can," Kevin said in a statement. He applied for Conscientious Objector status with the Army, and while the request was being considered, Kevin was ordered to return to Iraq with his unit, the 3rd Infantry out of Ft. Stewart, in Hinesville, Ga. He refused to deploy, despite threats from his Commanding Officer and ridicule from his Chaplain. He is now being prosecuted by the Army for his actions, though its not clear what the charges against him, or the evidence, are.

The story of this incident and updated information are available, along with an opportunity to contribute to Kevin's defense fund, at

We know this imperial attack on Iraq - and the continuing occupation by US forces - is morally repugnant, tactically wrong, and strategically stupid. But we don't have to put our lives and freedom on the line to say that. Kevin Benderman does, and he has done so willingly out of his great courage and moral conviction. He speaks for all of us, and his example is a shining one that gives hope and the possibility of redemption for all of us. We need to support him with our words and our money. Right now, he needs money to hire a civilian lawyer to help him defend himself against possible charges of desertion, and to help him make the case for his CO status. Please help. It's the least we can do.


Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Even scarier!

Anyone who thinks the progressive concerns about reviving the draft are paranoid just needs to read this letter from the lovelies over at PNAC! They just don't think the admin are hawkish enough, so they're boosting up the Congress with this little message:

Dear Senator Frist, Senator Reid, Speaker Hastert, and Representative Pelosi:

The United States military is too small for the responsibilities we are asking it to assume. Those responsibilities are real and important. They are not going away. The United States will not and should not become less engaged in the world in the years to come. But our national security, global peace and stability, and the defense and promotion of freedom in the post-9/11 world require a larger military force than we have today. The administration has unfortunately resisted increasing our ground forces to the size needed to meet today's (and tomorrow's) missions and challenges.

They don't use the D-word, but as the Truth-out article says, it screams from between the lines. Good patriotic Americans may need to find a new base of operations to protect the country from if these guys get their way!

Elections as Theatre

Remaining reality-based requires skepticism about the elections in Iraq. It would be nice to be able to praise the wonderful democratic experience of the Iraqi people, and it feels bad to criticize them - it seems to play into the hands of those who say I'm too negative, and I want to use it as a chance to be positive and full of light and optimism.

Then I come across little snippets of reality like this one:

United States officials were surprised and heartened today at the size of turnout in South Vietnam's presidential election despite a Vietcong terrorist campaign to disrupt the voting. According to reports from Saigon, 83 percent of the 5.85 million registered voters cast their ballots yesterday. Many of them risked reprisals threatened by the Vietcong. A successful election has long been seen as the keystone in President Johnson's policy of encouraging the growth of constitutional processes in South Vietnam.

"U.S. Encouraged by Vietnam Vote," The New York Times, Sept. 4, 1967

Unfortunately, I remember September of 1967 well. I was sitting in college looking at my draft deferment about to expire when I graduated nine months later, so I was watching events in Vietnam very closely. I was hoping they would work things out before I had to go, but it didn't go that way. Those "constitutional processes" never seemed to materialize, despite the glory of "democratic elections." By September of 1968, things were much worse and they were dragging every warm body they could find toward Vietnam, including mine. It was November of 1970 before I was done with training and actually sent, but that vaunted democracy still had not flowered in the Pearl of the Orient.

All the lies, the soul-destroying reality of war, the guilt and hypocrisy of it all somehow broke my willing suspension of disbelief about this whole "bringing democracy to the world" business. So I hope you'll all forgive me if I don't buy it in 2005. I hope you'll all forgive me for turning off the state of the union address as soon as the head stater began to speak. I hope you'll forgive me if I just don't believe anything the little bugger says.

Anyway, the quote is from a Truthout article -- good stuff -- check it out. I'm still too busy to post, just borrowing stuff and dropping in a few lines... hope to be back in form soon.

Here's a bit more of it...

In all the media hoopla over Sunday's "election" in Iraq, a few details got missed.

The powerful and influential Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS) is not buying the idea that there was some great democratic breakthrough with this vote. AMS spokesman Muhammad al-Kubaysi responded to the election by saying, "The elections are not a solution to the Iraqi problem, because this problem is not an internal dispute to be resolved through accords and elections. It lies in the presence of a foreign power that occupies this country and refuses even the mere scheduling of the withdrawal of its forces from Iraq."

"We have consistently argued," continued al-Kubaysi, "that elections can only occur in a democracy that enjoys sovereignty. Our sovereignty is incomplete. Our sovereignty is usurped by foreign forces that have occupied our land and hurt our dignity. These elections ... are a means of establishing the foreign forces in Iraq and keeping Iraq under the yoke of occupation. They should have been postponed."

read the rest at the link...