Long Strange Journey: Meditations On The Costs Of Empire

Delivered at the Coalition for Peace Action “Rally Against The Wars” in Princeton, New Jersey, March 19, 2011:

Thank you, Reverend Moore, for that very kind introduction, and an even broader thanks to all of my friends at the Coalition for Peace Action for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you today.

Although today we are gathered together to mark the eighth anniversary of one war with Iraq, I come before you this day to speak about our first war with Iraq–a war whose consequences continue to shape the world we live in today.

It was in late January 1994 that my wife, Robin, came home from her first day on the Senate Banking Committee waving a thin committee report from September 1993 and exclaiming “Read this; I think we got gassed.” The document represented the Committee’s first effort to offer an explanation for why so many Desert Storm veterans were suffering from neurological and other symptoms that they felt were connected to their war-time experiences. As I read the report, I quickly realized that a then-unknown number of Desert Storm veterans had had their health and their lives forever altered by the toxins they’d been exposed to during the war. What only became clear later was how much our lives were changed by the decision to act upon the findings in that first report.

My first book, Gassed In The Gulf, chronicled in detail our joint investigation into how tens of thousands of Desert Storm veterans were exposed to Iraqi chemical agents and how the Pentagon and CIA tried to conceal those exposures from the veterans, the Congress, and the public. A concurrent battle that went on for several years after I very publicly left the CIA involved follow on lawsuits designed to bring still more information to light–not only about the war and its consequences, but how the Agency had dealt with me and Robin. The result of that struggle was officially released on February 24, 2011, the 20th anniversary of the start of the Desert Storm ground war.

Long Strange Journey: An Intelligence Memoir, is the account of my tumultuous, abbreviated career as an intelligence officer, and chronicles my entire tenure at CIA (1988-96) as well as the early years of my advocacy work for Desert Storm veterans (up through about 2003, shortly before I came to Capitol Hill). Operation Desert Storm–General Schwarzkopf’s code name for our first war with Iraq–was one of the defining experiences of my life, and is thus one of the key story lines in the book.

As the actual publication date drew closer, I experienced a series of emotions. Relief that it was finally done. Satisfaction that I managed to pull it off. Gratitude to the many people who helped make it possible. But the strongest feeling of all was the one that’s been there from the beginning of this long strange journey: a sense of mission.

For the men and women of Desert Storm who returned to this country with illnesses they and their doctors did not understand and could not effectively treat, the war never ended. Too many have already perished to dreaded neurological diseases like ALS. Others linger daily in a netherworld of pain. And as I feared, there was a paucity of media coverage about the 20th anniversary of this conflict; those who served in America’s first Gulf War are in danger of becoming the new generation of “forgotten veterans.”

But I won’t forget the ones I met along the way. Kristi Schurman, John Chavez, Paul Sullivan, Charles Sheehan-Miles, Michael Donnelly, Randy Hebert, and so many others whose lives changed my own and helped me to understand, at least in part, my duty to them. I have tried to keep faith with them through my veteran’s advocacy work over the years. Long Strange Journey is another attempt to honor that commitment. My bearing witness with you today is intended to take that mission one step further.

During the researching and writing of Long Strange Journey over the last 13 years, I began to understand that Desert Storm had not simply wrecked the health of roughly one-third of the 697,000 who were deployed to the theater. The war truly ushered in a new imperial age for our nation, one in which the frequency and scope of our military interventions increased dramatically–and almost invariably to ill effect.

Desert Storm unleashed what has become a bipartisan penchant for the use of force as the default setting for our foreign policy, particularly in the Islamic world. That militarism reached new heights in the wake of Al Qaeda’s September 11, 2001 attacks on our country, when former President George W. Bush and those around him used the attacks–which only succeeded because of the incompetence and infighting between the CIA, FBI, and NSA–to push through a cowed Congress the most sweeping grant of executive war-making power in American history.

On September 18, 2001, the Congress passed S. J. Res. 23, the so-called authorization for the use of military force (AUMF). Because the AUMF would subsequently be used to justify taking our nation into a second, far more disastrous war with Iraq, and to expand the war against Al Qaeda to Pakistan, Somalia, Ethiopia and elsewhere around the world, it’s worth quoting the operative section of the law in full:

(a) IN GENERAL- That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

Notice how this grants exclusive, non-reviewable authority to the President alone to determine who allegedly attacked us. Many Democrats who served in Congress in 1991 and opposed the AUMF to eject Saddam’s forces from Kuwait were still being criticized for that vote years later. That fact, combined with the direct nature of Al Qaeda’s assaults on New York and Washington, caused every Democrat but Barbara Lee of California to support the AUMF. This was the strategic political legacy of Desert Storm: Democrats who opposed what was viewed as a “just war” in 1991 could not possibly oppose an AUMF offered in response to the carnage of 9/11, even if that AUMF gave Bush and any president who followed him unfettered power to wage war on a global scale so long as the name “Al Qaeda” could be invoked to justify it.

There is no evidence that the Pakistani Taliban–who effectively did not exist prior to our combat operations in Pakistan–aided bin Laden’s organization. The Somali Islamic fundamentalist group Al Shabab did not even exist prior to 9/11–yet the 2001 AUMF is what Bush, and now Obama, have used to justify combat operations in that country. It is the same AUMF that is being cited by Obama administration officials as the source of their authority to target Al Qaeda elements in Yemen. Congress has not declared war on any of these countries. It didn’t have to–because through the passage of the 2001 AUMF it had given successive presidents the power to do it for them–or so President’s Bush and Obama have asserted.

The Desert Storm experience laid the ground work for all of what has followed over the last two decades. The reaction to the 9/11 attacks radically intensified and accelerated these ominous trends. Over the past year or so, I’ve often struggled to sum up my own fears and anxieties about the perilous future I see unfolding before us. Within the last few months, I finally hit upon the phrase that captures my current worldview: We may still be living in the United States of America, but we are no longer living in The Republic of The United States of America.

No republic worthy of the name wages endless, futile, and bankrupting imperial wars. No republic worthy of the name suspends habeus corpus, operates secret, off-shore penal colonies, or spies on its own citizens. No republic worthy of the name s
pends more than the rest of the world combined on the weapons of war while simultaneously permitting its children to go hungry, allowing its homeless veterans to sleep on sidewalks, and forcing its elderly to choose between buying home heating oil to keep warm or buying food to live. A country that creates such inhuman conditions will inevitably face God’s judgment.

In the years ahead, through forums like this and through other venues, I will continue my own efforts to help our fellow citizens understand these truths. I take comfort in the knowledge that those of you who are here with me today are on the same long, strange but very necessary journey, sounding the same call for national repentance and redemption. Our task is a daunting one, but it is also the most important one in our lives–calling forth our best efforts, even as it brings out the best in each of us.

My deep thanks to the Coalition For Peace Action for allowing me to share my thoughts with you today. I wish you all God’s peace.

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1 Response to Long Strange Journey: Meditations On The Costs Of Empire

  1. D. Travers says:

    "A country that creates such inhuman conditions will inevitably face God's judgment."That is an interesting quote and the idea has bothered as these events increase in intensity. I truly now feel that we will be facing Gods wrath for our wrongdoings in the name of National Security. Our fears, paranoia, greed, and desires have lead us to this zenith of destructive consequences.A few natural catastrophes in a few places would be enough to cripple this country and give our legions of enemies an opportunity to finish us off. A quake on the New Madrid fault would cripple the center of the country, leveling buildings, flooding huge areas and sending reactors into meltdown. A quake on the Cascades fault zone and the ensuing tsunami would cripple the Northwest. A landslide on an Island in the Atlantic called La Palma would be big enough to crash the Atlantic coast with a huge tidal wave flooding NYC. Truly I have had enough of our global hypocrisy and double dealing in the name of a few companies. No one is able to turn the direction of our country around. These events will continue and we will be locked into a 1000 year struggle with Islam where we will be spreading depleted uranium munitions around these countries indefinitely.Never have I seen the events so fluid and so pointedly moving from our grasp as we push country after country into the Islamic madmens grasp. Clearly a cocktail of ever increasing wars, privately funded armies, bankruptcy and hyperinflation face us as we deal with these problems.I fear our destruction cometh more rapidly than we could ever imagine. There is no one to stand in the gap. Even if there were they would be discredited, destroyed or killed by the community of contractors, companies and control freaks that set us on this course.I am reconciled, I am ready, I will die at home for I, as a citizen bear some responsibility. If a country gets punished we shall all suffer. It is unstoppable, it is coming. Hold on North America; God's judgment has come and your actions have found to be far more destructive than what you return to the world.

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