by James M. Branum
As a long-time peace activist, I’ve grown a bit jaded. I’ve heard many excellent speakers when they’ve come through our city, but often after hearing them I’m left with a burning question — so what? Does the act of hearing the truth about an area of injustice really make a difference?
These questions were on my mind in early April when I drove to Church of the Open Arms to hear Ethan McCord speak about his wartime and post-wartime experiences.
Ethan’s presentation had three key components: (1) the showing of the Academy award nominated short documentary film Incident in New Baghdad , (2) Ethan telling his story, and (3) Ethan answering questions and engaging in conversation with the audience. Seeing the film was of course compelling, but the real meat of the presentation was in Ethan just telling his own story.
For those who weren’t there, let me tell you the quick nutshell version of Ethan’s story. Like most soldiers, he thought that his military service would help make the world safer and more stable, however his actual combat experiences gradually eroded these beliefs. The most significant of these experiences came on July 12, 2007, when his unit (B. Co. 2-16) came up on the site of an American slaughter of Iraqi civilians, done by way of the big guns of an Apache helicopter.
Ethan and another soldier (a 20-year old private) were the first to reach a van that had been attacked. The private saw the carnage in the van and turned away retching. In the van was the corpse of a 43 year old father (Saleh Mutasaleh) and what appeared to be two other young victims of the American air assault, a 10 year old boy named Sajah and his 5 year old sister Doaha. A short time later though, Ethan discovered that the two children were actually alive. Ethan took the girl and later the boy and tried to get them help, but his unit refused to take the children to the Army hospital, and in fact his platoon leader told him to “stop trying to save these f—ing kids.”
Events like this do not pass away easily from a soldier’s mind. Ethan tried to get mental health afterwards, but he was denied care. He had no choice but to “soldier on” and get his tour over with. When he got home, he tried to move on with his life, but PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) wouldn’t let him make an easy transition to civilian life. Still Ethan did his best to be a good father and to move on from the past.
And then came Wikileaks and their public leak of the “Collateral Murder” video (which shows in disturbing detail what Ethan had experienced on the ground — it can be viewed online at collateralmurder.org ). Ethan at first was angry to have the past thrown back in his face, but in time realized it was time to speak out about what he saw and experienced. And he has been speaking ever since.
After Ethan told his story, he went on to talk about the importance of truth telling itself and why Bradley Manning did the right thing in leaking evidence of war crimes to the world. He explained that of course Bradley may have had relationship and other problems, but that Bradley showed the full extent of his courage by telling the truth anyway.
The Christian scriptures say that the “truth will set you free,” but too often we run from the truth. We are afraid of its challenges and condemnations. Yet, we can only pretend it does not exist. The Collateral Murder video showed us all, in terrible black and white video, the terrible black and white truth of the American occupation of Iraq. What happened in the “Incident in new Baghdad” was just one day in a series of other terrible days. Thanks to Bradley Manning, we know the truth. The question is, what will we do with it.
It is imperative that we hold those in power responsible for this. And we must begin at the top, holding accountable not only the men who have been president during our Middle East wars of occupation, but also the entire notion of an imperial presidency. No single human being should have the power that the American president has today. For too long have we allowed the military establishment to crucify rank and file soldiers caught in bad situations, while ignoring the greater sins of those who command them.
And it is equally important that we do our best to protect those who tell the truth. The military is doing everything in its power to see that Bradley Manning serves the rest of his life in prison for the crime of telling the truth. It is our job, as people of conscience, to do everything in our to fight for his freedom. I urge you to join the Bradley Manning Support Network (www.bradleymanning.org) in its efforts. We also are working here in Oklahoma on Bradley’s behalf (through the Oklahoma Center for Conscience and Peace Research), as we feel that we have a duty to protect one of our own (Bradley grew up in Crescent, Oklahoma).
Towards the end of Ethan’s presentation, he told us that the powers that be would love to shut him up, and of the many threats he receives for speaking out. Ethan took a risk by coming to Oklahoma.
The question for us is, will it be in vain? What will we do for the cause of truth and peace?
James M. Branum serves as the legal director of the Oklahoma Center for Conscience and Peace Research (www.centerforconscience.org) and as the Minister of Peace and Justice at Joy Mennonite Church. As an attorney he has represented hundreds of American servicemembers in seeking a discharge from their military obligations. He also defended dozens of servicemembers for the “crime” of acting in accordance with their conscience.