Captivity: 118 Days in Iraq and the Struggle for a World Without War - James Loney (2011)
Did it really happen, those four months of handcuffs and chains, terror and uncertainty, excruciating boredom without end? Sometimes, when I’m not sure, I go down into my basement and open a cardboard box to reassure myself. It contains a pair of pants, a sweater, a collared shirt, two undershirts, a pair of socks, two sets of underwear, the green string I used to hold up my pants—and one handcuff. The things the RCMP took from me on the day of our rescue, while I stood shivering in an emergency room hospital gown, in a hospital located in the Green Zone, headquarters for the occupation of Iraq. They said it was for forensic evidence.
I was alarmed. Will I get them back? Even the handcuff? It was the only thing I cared about. Yes, they said. True to their promise, the box came in the mail a year later, each item meticulously folded and wrapped in brown paper. Proof that it really happened.
One hundred and eighteen days. To say “we thought it would never end” would be to dilute an understatement with a cliché. Glaciers moved faster than any single minute of any single one of those days. Each day, each minute was a lash, an open grave, a forced march, an agony and a theft for the four of us held hostage together—Tom Fox, Harmeet Singh Sooden, Norman Kember and myself—and all of our families and loved ones imprisoned with us in that four-month tomb of unknowing.
It is good to be alive. It could easily have turned out differently. The moment of my death might have been recorded on a grainy home video, or I might still be mouldering in the living hell of captivity. Instead I am alive and home free because a unit of crack soldiers risked their lives to secure my freedom. Without regard for my politics or my purpose in going to Baghdad. Simply because it was the duty they accepted. For this I am immensely and perpetually grateful.
I began to record these memories and thoughts in my brother Matthew’s apartment in Montreal. He was away for a while and I needed a quiet place to finally start what I had been avoiding for months and months. My heart was heavy. By some strange coincidence, it was Remembrance Day, and Canadians were gathering at cenotaphs, school gymnasiums and churches to honour those who risk their lives in the service of our country. In Calgary, Diane Dallaire laid a wreath at the cenotaph in Memorial Park. She is the mother of 22-year-old Private Kevin Dallaire who, along with two others, was killed on August 3, 2006, in a rocket-propelled grenade attack while fighting Taliban forces west of Kandahar. She said the ceremony was an important reminder of the cost paid for peace. “I hope they remember where their freedom came from,” she said.
I felt the calamity of that day deep in my body: a fist clenched tight in my chest. I thought of Diane Dallaire mourning the loss of her son. The grief must be too much to bear. I wondered what I would say to her, were she to ask me, “Do you remember where your freedom came from?”
I do. My living, breathing, everyday-walking-around freedom comes directly from the hand of the soldier who took a bolt cutter in his hands and cut the chain that held me captive for four months. Yet I remain a pacifist, a Christian who believes that Jesus’s teaching to love one’s enemy is a call to lay down the sword and pick up the cross, to accept rather than inflict suffering.
It is a paradox. I went to Baghdad on a Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) delegation in opposition to the institution of war. I was kidnapped by Iraqi insurgents who were fighting against the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of their country. CPT used every weapon in its non-violent arsenal to get us out. There was an international uprising of prayer vigils, solidarity statements, appeals, public witness, moral pressure. Our kidnapping was front-page news for weeks. The constant, unrelenting hope was that our captors would have a change of heart and release us. They didn’t. The days piled into months and Tom was killed. It was a secretive Special Forces operation led by Task Force Black—a joint U.S./U.K. unit established in 2003 to hunt down senior al Qaeda operatives in Iraq and rescue foreign hostages—that finally ended the crisis. Soldiers like Kevin Dallaire.
The first Remembrance Day was declared by King George V on November 7, 1919. It recalled the Armistice signed the previous year by Allied commander-in-chief Marshal Ferdinand Foch and Germany’s Matthias Erzberger in a secret railway carriage hidden in the Compiègne forest. On November 11, 1918, at 11:00 a.m.—the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month—the First World War was officially over. Twenty million were dead, 21 million wounded. They called it the War to End All Wars.
November 11 is also the feast day of St. Martin of Tours. Martin is the patron saint of soldiers, cavalry and quartermasters. The U.S. Army Quartermasters Corps established the Order of St. Martin in 1997 to recognize the distinguished service of quartermasters. The website reads: “Saint Martin—the patron saint of the Quartermaster Regiment—was the most popular saint in France during antiquity and the early Middle Ages. It is said that French kings carried his cloak into battle as a spur to victory. Usually pictured on horseback dividing his cloak with the beggar, the image of Saint Martin as a Soldier-Provider offers a fitting symbol for Logistics Warriors charged with SUPPORTING VICTORY now and for all time.” Their website also tells us that Martin’s name comes from the Latin Marten Tenens (one who sustains Mars, Mars being the Roman god of war). And that is precisely what quartermasters do—sustain armies by making sure they have everything they need to do their job: gasoline, rations, bullets, boots.
Martin was born in 316 or 317 in the Roman province of Pannonia (now modern-day Hungary). As the son of a senior officer in the Imperial Horse Guard, Martin was forced by law to join the army at the age of fifteen. While on duty at the age of eighteen, he encountered a ragged beggar at the gates of Amiens. Moved with compassion, he cut his cloak with his sword and gave half of it to the beggar. That night he had a dream in which Jesus appeared in the half cloak he had given away. “Here is Martin,” Jesus said, “the Roman soldier who is not baptized; he has clad me.” Shortly thereafter Martin was baptized.
When Martin was twenty, Julian II ordered him into battle against the Gauls. He refused. “I am a soldier of Christ. I cannot fight,” he told the emperor. (The early Church prohibited the baptized from bearing arms or serving in the military under pain of excommunication.) When Julian accused him of being a coward, Martin volunteered to go onto the battlefield unarmed at the head of the column. Julian accepted his offer and threw him into prison. The next day the Gauls sued for peace and the battle never happened. Martin was discharged from the army.
Martin travelled to Poitiers to become a disciple of St. Hilary, the local bishop, and then later joined the monastery at Solesmes. In 371, he was acclaimed Bishop of Tours against his will by the citizens of Tours. As bishop, Martin worked tirelessly for prisoners. A general named Avitianus once arrived in Tours with a cohort he intended to torture and execute the next day. Upon hearing this, Martin went immediately to the house where Avitianus was staying. Arriving in the middle of the night, he threw himself on the threshold and began crying out in a loud voice. An angel is said to have awakened Avitianus, telling him Martin was outside. “Don’t even say a word,” he said upon seeing Martin. “I know what your request is. Every prisoner shall be spared.”
In addition, Martin was a staunch opponent of the death penalty. Priscillian of Avila was the leader of a growing heresy that advocated, amongst other things, abstinence in marriage. Condemned by the First Council of Saragossa and excommunicated in 380, Priscillian fled to Trier in southwestern Germany. A group of Spanish bishops led by Ithacius wanted Emperor Magnus Maximus to execute him. Although greatly opposed to Priscillian, Martin petitioned the imperial court in Trier to have him removed from the secular jurisdiction of the emperor, arguing this was a church matter over which the secular authority had no power to intervene and excommunication was punishment enough. When Maximus agreed and Martin departed the city, Ithacius persuaded the emperor to follow through with the execution. Priscillian and his followers, beheaded in 385, were the first Christians executed for heresy.
Martin hurried back to Trier as soon as he heard the news in the hope of saving the remaining Priscillianists. Once there, he refused to concelebrate with the bishops who had ordered the executions. Fearing a public scandal, the emperor promised to release the remaining prisoners if Martin shared Communion with Ithacius. Martin reluctantly agreed but then was so overcome with guilt for agreeing to this compromise that he resolved never to attend another bishops’ assembly.
It is believed Martin died in 397 at the age of eighty-one. He was buried, at his request, in the Cemetery of the Poor in Tours on November 11.
Irony and paradox. A young man who disobeys a direct order to kill becomes the patron saint of soldiers; a pacifist conscientious objector who leaves the army in disgrace is turned into a warrior icon charged with supporting-victory-now-and-for-all-time. The quartermasters have taken the cloak of St. Martin away from the beggar and wrapped it around the institution of war.
The reason, I think, is very simple. Every war needs a cloak. Every war needs something to surround and protect and dignify it, something to conceal that it is really a rotten stinking corpse. Every act of violence needs a pointing finger, a reason, a story to explain why it is necessary. And every soldier needs a blessing. They need to know that the horror of what they are called upon to do has purpose and meaning, that it is legitimate and just, even noble. Without this cloak, this story, this blessing to protect them from the flesh-and-blood consequences of their actions, their work becomes impossible.
Perhaps the quartermasters have chosen more wisely than they know. By enlisting Martin as their patron, they have put him right where he is supposed to be, at the front of the battle column, reminding us that we need not be governed by the imperium of war but that we can, at any moment, lay down our swords and stand up, or sit down, for peace. Perhaps it is those who are most involved in the institution of war—soldiers, quartermasters and cavalrymen—who most need Martin of Tours, the voice who says there is another way.
Christian Peacemaker Teams is an experiment in this other way. “What would happen,” CPT asks, “if Christians devoted the same discipline and self-sacrifice to non-violent peacemaking that armies devote to war?”
The question comes from theologian Ron Sider’s challenge to the Mennonite Church at the 1984 Mennonite World Conference in Strasbourg, France. Conscientious objection to war is not enough, he said. “Too often we fall into an isolationist pacifism which silently ignores or perhaps profits from injustice and war as long as our boys don’t have to fight.” Mennonites, he argued, had become “soft and comfortable,” even wealthy, staying home from war. “To vote for other people’s sons and daughters to march off to death while ours safely register as conscientious objectors is the worst form of confused hypocrisy.” In contrast, Sider argued, “Those who have believed in peace through the sword have not hesitated to die. Proudly, courageously, they gave their lives … For their loved ones, for justice, and for peace, they have laid down their lives by the millions.”
Sider challenged pacifist Christians to get out of their easy chairs. “Why do we pacifists think that our way—Jesus’s way—to peace will be less costly? Unless we … are ready to start to die by the thousands in dramatic vigorous new exploits for peace and justice, we should sadly confess that we really never meant what we said.
“What would happen if we in the Christian church developed a new nonviolent peacekeeping force of 100,000 persons ready to move into violent conflicts and stand peacefully between warring parties in Central America, Northern Ireland, Poland, Southern Africa, the Middle East, and Afghanistan? Frequently we would get killed by the thousands. But everyone assumes that for the sake of peace it is moral and just for soldiers to get killed by the hundreds of thousands, even millions. Do we not have as much courage and faith as soldiers?”
The speech created a stir. A 1986 conference in Chicago was convened to discuss how to implement Sider’s challenge. A steering committee was organized and Gene Stoltzfus was hired as the first full-time staff member in 1988. The first delegation went to Iraq in November 1989. In 1993, CPT held its first training and sent its first team to Haiti.
Currently, the CPT Peacemaker Corps includes 40 full-time and 170 reservist members, all of whom receive a month of training before joining a team in the field. Full-timers receive a needs-based stipend; reservists cover their travel and living expenses through fundraising. As of this writing, CPT has teams working in Hebron and the shepherd village of At-Tuwani (both located in Palestine), Colombia and Iraqi Kurdistan and with Aboriginal communities in Ontario. We only go where we’re invited and generally work in partnership with communities experiencing lethal violence who are struggling to effect social change through the power of non-violence.
We sometimes conceive of our work as violence-reduction. Peacemaking is a complex, time-consuming, multi-dimensional dynamic process, and often what we are able to accomplish in a given context is very modest. We look for ways to reduce and limit violence through what we call a “ministry of presence”: street patrols; observing in volatile situations with cameras and notebooks; de-escalating body language; physically intervening to protect those facing an immediate threat of violence; accompanying those who have been targeted for violence. We sometimes call this the grandmother effect: you’re less likely to stick your hand in the cookie jar while Grandma is watching. While many CPTers are grandmothers, an international passport can sometimes have the same effect. In Colombia, for example, paramilitaries and guerrillas tend not to commit acts of violence in the presence of internationals in order to avoid the international scrutiny that would result.
In addition to this ministry of presence, we are becoming more and more involved in the work of documenting human rights abuses. At the time of our kidnapping, CPT was documenting the torture of Sunni men at the hands of Shia-identified departments within the Ministry of Interior. CPT issued a report in November 2003 documenting seventy-two instances where the United States had violated the human rights of Iraqi men they were holding without charges. Seymour Hirsch, who broke the Abu Ghraib story in The New Yorker in April 2004, said, “Most of the things that I ended up writing about in Abu Ghraib, most of the general concepts, they [CPT] knew a great deal about earlier, as did Human Rights Watch and Amnesty.”
We do not position ourselves in a conflict as third-party neutrals who mediate between, or separate, two opposing but roughly equal sides. We work in contexts where there is an imbalance of power, where a smaller group is experiencing violence at the hands of a larger and more powerful dominant group—violence that is often manifest in systems of social, economic and political oppression. Our thinking is that one cannot remain neutral in the face of injustice, for to do so is to become an accomplice to that injustice. Rather, we see ourselves as allies working to confront, expose and transform the systematic injustices that we so often find at the root of a violent conflict. We are trained in non-violent direct action and are ready to perform non-violent civil disobedience (i.e., break unjust laws) in order to expose injustice and mobilize positive social change.
It’s difficult for me to assess just how successful CPT has been in this approach to peacemaking. More often than not, success for us is better measured in terms of what is avoided or prevented from happening. Nevertheless, we have enjoyed a spectacular success now and then. I think of Sara Reschly, her image flashed around the world standing with her arms outstretched in front of an Israeli soldier, preventing him from shooting a group of Palestinians who were non-violently protesting a week-long, 24-hour curfew. I think of Lisa Martens and Cliff Kindy taking around-the-clock media calls during the 2003 bombing of Baghdad, telling the world the truth about war. I think of Lena Siegers, who videotaped officers from Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans officers ramming the boats of Mi’kmaq fishers and then clubbing them while they floated helpless in the water. This videotape was broadcast around the world and embarrassed the Canadian government into a change of policy. I think of Chris Brown and Kim Lamberty, who were attacked by masked settler youth with bats and chains while accompanying Palestinian shepherd children to school. Their cuts, bruises and broken bones captured international headlines and forced the Israeli government to protect the very same children they once said they couldn’t.
CPT’s budget in 2010 was $1.1 million.
Humanity is in trouble. We have entered the eleventh hour. Half of the world’s coral reef species, a third of its amphibians and a quarter of its mammals are at risk of disappearing. The UN issued a report in 2007 that said a major extinction of life caused by human activity is under way. Global warming, peak oil, the loss of arable farmland, growing food and water shortages, alone and in combination, are a clear and present danger to the social and economic systems that undergird human civilization. Meanwhile, unknown thousands are dying every day and unknown millions more are suffering in refugee camps, shantytowns and destitute villages from the violence of poverty. The future is precarious, the present an outrage, and yet the world spent a staggering $1.5 trillion on the institution of war in 2009. It is estimated that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will cost U.S. taxpayers $3 trillion.
The prevailing wisdom says we have no choice. We must do what it takes, always be ready. War is inevitable, forever looming. War for defence, security, reconstruction, democracy. War to end war. War necessary, right and just.
I too believe that we have no choice. “Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace,” Martin Luther King Jr. said on the eve of his assassination in 1968. “But now … it is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world. It’s nonviolence or non-existence.”
The choice facing us is as simple as it is stark. A major extinction of life is under way. We can’t afford to waste another minute or another penny building and maintaining the war machine. If our children, and their children, are to have any hope of a future, we must make a turn, take a different road, mobilize everything, do all we can—and do it today. But we have been taken captive by an idea. The handcuffs and chains that bind us have been forged in the false confidence that violence will save us. It cannot. Inevitably and irresistibly, it will lead to an abyss of mutually assured doom and catastrophe.
Irony and paradox. Here we are in the eleventh hour. The eleventh day of the eleventh month is when we honour the memory of those who have fought and died in war. It is the day we remember a pacifist saint whose cloak is used to mantle the very thing he walked away from. It is the day that I happened to begin writing this book, the story of a pacifist who was taken hostage in the course of opposing a war and was freed by the very institution he condemned.
This book is the story of this paradox. It is the story of my captivity and what I saw there—of the human spirit and freedom, of violence and the way to find our liberation from it. As with any paradox, there is no answer to it; it can only be lived. I tell this story in the hope that we might yet find another way.