The article below appeared as a full page ad in the New York Times 05/30/03
05/30/03: (SeanPennCom) In early October of 2002 -- when the radio sputtered and whined with accusations by the Bush Administration declaring a direct link between the terrorist activity of Al Qaeda and the brutal dictator Saddam Hussein; I was sitting beside my 11-year old daughter in a car. It continued, with charges that Hussein's Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction in violation of U.N. resolutions.
"It's a sunny afternoon in Northern California," the weatherman interrupted, "puffy white clouds resting upon a beautiful blue sky." We sat in the car eating french fries in the parking lot of our local burger joint. President George W. Bush had just rebuffed the United Nations' push to re-introduce weapons inspection teams into an Iraq where even a deservedly humiliated Saddam Hussein had expressed willingness to accept them. Tightening in my gut, on this otherwise fab day, were troubling questions about our nation's understanding of this pending conflict. Its most accessible information sources were the corporately sponsored and largely conservative media outlets. Indeed, in my gut, were my own troubling questions, not only about our Administration's unilateral military posturing, but also, what effect U.S. decisions today might have on my children's tomorrow.
11, 2001, when Kilroy left his mark, I had been, of course, concerned
for the physical safety of my children, and those of the nation. More
urgently though, for the food of their spirit, their sense of right and
wrong, and of their will to be individuals of character and true patriotism
in a media environment largely exemplified by mistrust, dishonesty, censorship
and national policies fostering division, death, and arbitrary consumerism.
Saint Augustine said that "Hope has two beautiful daughters: anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to change them." Beside me, my little girl tugged at the blue ribbon in her blond hair, her eyes forward, gentle but unblinking; her front teeth nipped at a french fry, one slow bite at a time. As I started the car, I wondered if her future and my son's would befriend or be vanquished by Saint Augustine's daughters of hope. And I had to ask myself, "What remaining hope did I have? What example was I to them?" I carried my troubling questions to the President of the United States, in a public letter printed October 18, 2002, in the Washington Post.
I'm neither a peace activist nor a partisan politico and the letter I printed did not represent the platform of any movement, or speak with determination against any necessity. My letter spoke to questions of an American man and father, protected and encouraged by our Constitution, and obliged by my own individual sense of democracy and civic responsibility. I had been inspired to speak up by my love of my children, which recalled my admiration for our founding fathers, and the tradition of thousands of engaged men and women before me. In my own way, I sought to join all of them in waving the American flag.
Following the printing of that letter, my public flag, I was hit by a tidal wave of media misrepresentation, and even accusations of treason. I experienced firsthand the repressive condition of public debate in our country, as it prepared for war. I was beginning to feel the price to be paid by a citizen exercising a position of dissent.
If my hope as an American was not dwindling, it was certainly under siege. Hope though, like truth, is a stubborn creature.
In early December 2002, I was invited by Norman Solomon of the Institute for Public Accuracy to join him on his journalistic tour of Baghdad. I met with Norman and did some due diligence on the IPA. Norman is a softspoken gentleman, and a relentless author of books, essays, and articles exposing media truth and fiction. He is a scholar of media truth bending and breaking, and his IPA is an American non-profit mobilizer dedicated to that journalistic mission. There was no question in my gut on this one. I accepted Norman's invitation and was going to Iraq.
I acknowledged the concerns of my wife and children for my safety and they acknowledged my need to replace television images with a real sense of place and people (if only the kind one gets visiting anywhere for the first time). You search for a taste, a smell, a piece of truth, something to attach to the questions of conscience that gnaw at many of us.
It was very
clear that my trip, like my letter, would be misrepresented both in the
United States and by the Iraqi press. But my view is unchanged, that as
a weapon of propaganda, it would only be the most popular American media
that could do myself and eventually our increasingly deployed troops any
real harm. The United States had all the cards. We have the greatest military
might on the planet. The Iraq I visited was the most decimated, starved,
diseased and polluted place I had ever witnessed. Much of this, the result
of sanctions imposed upon its people by a United States-led coalition,
and exacerbated by the willful exploitation of them by their own leadership.
In short, we deserve the government we allow, and none more than those of us who have experienced economic and personal privilege. In Iraq, I made no expert assertions and came to no absolute conclusions. Prior to, during, and since visiting Iraq, I have consulted over 100 experts in our Middle Eastern affairs, military and civilian, with a primary focus on U.N. weapons inspection capabilities. These consultations measurably increased my doubt at the factuality or the wisdom of the Administration's assertions and proposed remedies. I spoke at length with wary war correspondents whose repeated attempts to bring deeper understanding to the American public were consistently thwarted by editorial staffs, networks, and superiors, both Iraqi and American.
While in Baghdad, I visited a Pediatric hospital, schools, people on the streets, Iraqi officials, their Christian Deputy Prime Minister Aziz, and Minister of Health Mubarek. I met with humanitarian aides, U.N. officials, the local director of UNICEF (a Dutchman), and an 8-year-old Iraqi boy who had been maimed by a cruise missile in Basra while his older brother perished in the Clinton administration bombings of 1998.
I returned to the United States with a view to be digested, something I would have to be very careful and thoughtful in sharing publicly, and discerning in acceptance of a venue to do so. I waited out the first series of rabid attacks on my character, profession, intelligence, experience, agenda, ego, effectiveness, and patriotism. I chose to appear on Larry King's show, followed by an interview on The Active Opposition, a World Link TV political show hosted by my friend, Peter Coyote. This had been the extent of my public commentary on this issue in the United States, when on March 20, 2003, our President ordered our military into war with Iraq.
If military intervention in Iraq has been a grave misjudgment, it has been one resulting in thousands upon thousands of deaths, and done so without any credible evidence of imminent threat to the United States. Our flag has been waving, it seems, in servicing a regime change significantly benefiting U.S. corporations. What remains to be seen is an effective plan for the rebuilding of the civilian infrastructure, or any other benefit to the people of Iraq or the United States. It is an achievement that includes the callous and too easily accepted term, "collateral damage." This is a term where proportionality of loss is taken from the people who have lost, and given to marketing executives.
King's show, I appealed to American mothers and fathers to sit with a
scrap of paper and a pencil and scribble the following words, "Dear Mr.
and Mrs. (your name here), We regret to inform you that your son/daughter
(child's name here) was killed in action in Iraq..." I asked that those
mothers and fathers finish that letter in a way that would comfort them
if they were to receive it. This war, for all its military triumph, would
provide no satisfactory completion of that letter for this father. The
human death toll of this corporate march includes those courageous and
heroic Americans who lost their lives.
Unimaginable is the loss felt by the families of the dead. Are we willing to consider that the righteous execution of a soldier's duty, training, unity, and mission, has always stood or fallen, to the degree the citizens they serve struggle at home for the rights our soldiers pledge to fight for abroad? It should be noted that President Bush's 2004 budget proposed a 6.2 billion dollar cut in Veterans' health and welfare benefits.
the responsibility of citizenship and U.S. foreign policy in the post-9/11
age, there have been disparate opinions among Americans about how supporting
our troops would now be defined, how supporting our principles would now
be defined, and how the "rule of law" would now be upheld.
Even as the
New York Times presents unchallenging articles (see Judith Miller, April
21, 2003,"Prohibited Weapons") on a weapons inspections process now in
place, unnoticed are the legitimate concerns about potential insertion
of WMD evidence. Our television channels show images of grateful and liberated
Iraqis with no acknowledgement that true poverty will bring the best of
us to our knees, where we would honor any individual or nation who held
This is our
money I speak of, not theirs. Ours. Our democracy. Our flag. (Lest we
forget Enron) but, we see Exxon. We see Bechtel. We see Halliburton. We
see Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Powell, Rice, Perle, Ashcroft,
Murdoch, many. We see no WMDs. We see dead young Americans. We see no
WMDs. We see dead Iraqi civilians. We see no WMDs. We see chaos in the
Baghdad streets. But no WMDs. We see the disappearance of a murderous
Iraqi dictator, who relented his struggle and ran without the use of WMDs.
Now I want to see one more thing. In Iraq, and in the United States, I want to see who's the boss. I want to see who's the people. I want to see who are the sheep. And I want to know the lions. I don't know what the future of the Iraqi people will be. I don't know what the future of our own people will be. I do know, that while we all watched the headlines, the drama, the indelible, the horrifying and forever unjustifiable violence that occurred in the United States on September 11, 2001, that it has diverted our eyes from the beauty of this country, and its foundation that act was intended to shake. It seems Osama Bin Laden's agenda is being furthered by our fear, promoted by the invective language of media and a Congress that shamefully cowers from criticism, as we hack away at the arms, the legs, and the soul of our own civil liberties, our constitution, our principles, and our flag.
never been a time when it has been more important for citizens to stand
up, to speak, to agree, to disagree, to resolve, to be non-violent. To
be nonviolent. When we allow prideful killers to define our value as presumption,
then only murder can live in our dreams. We can't be shamed into hiding,
frightened into line. We can't be less than yesterday. And we can't sit
still today. Not if we love our children. This is a question of a peoples'
internal reflection preceding their government's external reaction.
Saroyan offers a noble aspiration. But we have to be very careful, whether
listening to the television after a hard day's work, or while reading
a poem at a luxury resort, to be men and women of our own time. When he
wrote about a time "to kill" he wrote in a world without nuclear proliferation,
massive globalization, television, or the decimation of a nation's long
held traditions. He was a man of his time as we are of ours. We are struggling
now with the question of whether there is any longer a time to kill. We
are grappling perhaps with memetic evolution. God help us, at some point
we may need to exercise military action to counter real and specifically
I'm not a Democrat, not a Republican, not a Green, not aligned with any party. Yet, as a citizen of the United States, I was raised in the public school system of the 1960's and '70s. Each morning, following the first bell, we were called upon as young boys and girls to stand, put our right hand over our hearts, and pledge allegiance to the flag of our country. As a schoolboy, I participated in this tradition unquestioningly and by rote. When in fact, neither flag, nor country, nor school for that matter, is of much interest to most young boys dreaming of bicycle rides, surfing, or the girl in the front of the class. (Was it the way the flag waved or the wave of her hair I'd pledged to?... I don't remember.)
Of course, with age, and maturity, come examination of, and rebellion toward, the traditions and compulsory behaviors of our childhood. With some time however, we gain at least an objective appreciation and respect for the great symbol of sacrifice and heroism reflected in such an icon as our flag (albeit historically and presently intermingled with varying degrees of corruption and exploitation). Ultimately though, as with many things in this life, these symbols are vulnerable to underappreciation, until we have lost them. I am an American and I fear that I, and our people are on the verge of losing our flag. If it is lost, it will have been under our watch, under mine and undermined.
Only five short years ago, September 12th, 1998, I sat upon a wooden church pew as a military honor guard reached across my lap to place a precisely folded American flag into the stoic hands of my father's widow. His beloved wife of forty-one years... my mother. My dad, Leo Penn, had died from lung cancer at the age of 77. (The last time I saw my father was in a viewing casket on September 11th.) A decorated soldier in World War II and a blacklisted artist in the '50s, it was this cloth of Stars and Stripes and all it had meant to him, and had come to mean to me, that brought unexpected and unrestrained emotion. The soldier, in his fine dress uniform, began to speak to my mother "In the name of the President of the United States and in gratitude for your husband's heroic..." And that was it, I was gone. I thought, where the hell did this flood of emotion come from?
But, the answer came quickly. My father loved this country so deeply, and he had passed that love and patriotism on to his three sons. At that moment, this son, this distracted boy from the public school system, became all that patriotic could describe in a living civilian, and that flag before my mother's now gently tear-streaked face, came to embody every freedom, privilege, and pride I'd ever known. It symbolized my father. His great heart, his kindness, his courage, and yes, even his (I was lucky) occasional human lapses.
Yet, now here we are, just those five short years have passed, and that same flag that took me so long to love, respect, and protect, threatens to become a haunting banner of murder, greed, and treason against our principles, honored history, Constitution, and our own mothers and fathers. To become a vulgar billboard, advertising our disloyalty to ourselves and our allies. Our forefathers entrusted that flag and what it should stand for, whether in times of bliss or terror, to our fathers and mothers. And they have entrusted it to us. The responsibility"for which it stands" is ours. That flag is my father and I want him back.
It is May
2, 2003 -- a grey day in Northern California. My now 12-year-old daughter
is on the phone in our kitchen organizing a movie-going troupe of friends
for a Friday evening show. "Is CHICAGO still playing?" They want a second
viewing. They want song. And they want dance. My son is outside skateboarding
(perhaps dreaming of the girl in the front of the class). President George
W. Bush was having his back slapped on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln
yesterday. He seemed quite pleased with this, his military service. He
likes it better now than he did when he was a member of the Texas National
Guard, when in 1972, he simply failed to show up for duty for over a year
in wartime. I certainly wouldn't want to remind him that were he AWOL
in a time of war, it would amount to treasonous desertion.
We are being told that the needs of these people and nations are being met. We are being told that our principles and our nation's rewards are being preserved and won for our people. We have been told many things. But if we do not participate in an educated democracy, we participate in its demise. We all have different means. Be it a letter to a congressman, charity support, or a piece in the New York Times. But whatever our means, and imagination, we must speak. We must question. We must value ourselves, our integrity, our families, our hearts, and the country my father and so many others served. And soon, we must do one more thing... we must vote.
you drive us to the movies?" Duty calls.
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