Thoughts at the White House Fence

“Show me your company, and I’ll tell you who you are,” my grandmother would often say with a light Irish lilt but a heavy emphasis, an admonition about taking care in choosing what company you keep.

On Thursday, I could sense her smiling down through the snow as I stood pinned to the White House fence with Daniel Ellsberg, Chris Hedges, Margaret Flowers, Medea Benjamin, Coleen Rowley, Mike Ferner, Jodie Evans, and over 125 others risking arrest in an attempt to highlight the horrors of war.

The witness was sponsored by Veterans for Peace, a group comprised of many former soldiers who have “been there, done that” regarding war, distinguishing them from President Barack Obama who, like his predecessor, hasn’t a clue what war is really about.

(Sorry, Mr. President, donning a bomber jacket and making empty promises to the troops in the middle of an Afghan night does not qualify.)

The simple but significant gift of presence was being offered outside the White House. As I hung on the fence, I recalled what I knew of the results of war.

Into view came some of my closest childhood friends – like Bob, whose father was killed in WWII when Bob was in kindergarten. My uncle Larry, an Army chaplain, killed in a plane crash.

Other friends like Mike and Dan, whose big brothers were killed in Korea. So many of my classmates from Infantry Officers Orientation at Ft. Benning killed in the Big Muddy called Vietnam.

My college classmate with whom I studied Russian, Ed Krukowski, first lieutenant, USAF, one of the very first casualties of Vietnam, killed, leaving behind a wife and three small children. Other friends, too numerous to mention, killed in that misbegotten war.

More recently, Casey Sheehan and 4,429 other U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq, and the 491 U.S. troops killed this year in Afghanistan (bringing that total to 1,438). And their mothers. And the mothers of all those others who have died in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan. Mothers don’t get to decide; only to mourn.

A pure snow showered down as if to say blessed are the peacemakers. Tears kept my eyes hydrated against the cold.

The hat my youngest daughter knit for me three years ago when I had no hair gave me an additional sense of being showered with love and affirmation. There was a palpable sense of rightness in our witness to the witless policies of the White House behind the fence.

I thought to myself, this White House is a far cry from the Camelot White House that brought me to Washington, 47 years ago. Still, I found myself borrowing a song from the play, Camelot: “I wonder what the king is doing tonight. What merriment is the king pursuing tonight…”

Perhaps strutting before a mirror in his leather bomber jacket, practicing rhetorical flourishes for the troops, like, “You are making our country safer.” The opposite, of course, is true, and if President Obama does not know that, he is not as smart as people think he is. 

More accurately, the troops are making Obama’s political position safer, protecting him from accusations of “softness” on Afghanistan, just as the troops spared George W. Bush from the personal ignominy of presiding over an obvious American defeat in Iraq.

Both presidents were willing to sacrifice those troops on the altar of political expediency, knowing full well that it is not American freedom that “they” hate, but rather U.S. government policies, which leave so many oppressed, or dead.

Despite our (Veterans for Peace) repeated requests over many months, Obama has refused to meet with us. On Wednesday, though, he carved out five hours to sit down with many of the fat cat executives who are profiteering from war.

It seems the President was worried that he had hurt the fat cats’ feelings – and opened himself to criticism as being “anti-business” – with some earlier remarks about their obscenely inflated pay.

Before our witness on Thursday, we read in the Washington Post that Obama told the 20 chief executives, “I want to dispel any notion we want to inhibit your success,” and solicited ideas from them “on a host of issues.”

“The Big Fool Said to Push On”

In another serendipitous coincidence, as we were witnessing against the March of Folly in Afghanistan, the President was completing his “review” of the war and sealing the doom of countless more soldiers and civilians (and, in my view, his own political doom by re-enacting the Shakespearean tragedy of Lyndon the First).

Afraid to get crossways with the military brass, who see no backbone under that bomber jacket, Obama has missed another exit ramp out of Afghanistan by letting the policy review promised for this month become a charade.

Hewing to the script of “Lyndon the First,” Barack Obama has chosen to shun the considered views of his intelligence agencies, which, to their credit, show in no uncertain terms the stupidity of getting U.S. troops neck-deep in this latest Big Muddy in Afghanistan – to borrow from Pete Seeger’s song from the Vietnam era.

There is one reality upon which there is virtually complete consensus as highlighted by the U.S. intelligence agencies: The U.S. and NATO will not be able to “prevail” in Afghanistan if Pakistan does not stop supporting the Taliban. Are we clear on that? That’s what the recent National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan says.

A companion NIE on Pakistan says there is not a snowball’s chance in hell that the Pakistani Army and security services will somehow “change their strategic vision” regarding keeping the Taliban in play for the time when the United States and its NATO allies finally leave Afghanistan and when Pakistan will want to reassert its influence.

Should it be too hard to put the two NIEs together and reach the appropriate conclusions for policy?

It is difficult to believe that – after going from knee-deep to waist-deep in the Big Muddy by his early 2009 decision to insert 21,000 troops into Afghanistan, and then from waist-deep to neck-deep by deciding a year ago to send in 30,000 more – Obama would say to “push on.”

The answer lies in a spineless persistence behind this fool’s errand, driven by fear of offending other important Washington constituencies, such as the neoconservative opinion-makers, and having to face the wrath of the much-bemedaled Gen. David Petraeus.

“When will we ever learn,” mourns another Vietnam-era song.

Well, we have learned – many of us the hard way. We need to tell the big fool not to be so afraid of neocon columnists and Petraeus’s medals – you know, the ten rows that made him so lopsided that they must have contributed to his famous slumping down on the witness table before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

So, outside the White House on Thursday, we found ourselves singing “We Shall Overcome” with confidence. And what we learned later of other witnesses that same day provided still more grit and determination.

For example, 75 witnesses braved freezing temperatures at the Times Square recruiting station in New York to express solidarity with our demonstration in Washington.

There in Times Square were not only Veterans for Peace, but grandmothers from the Granny Peace Brigade, the Raging Grannies, and Grandmothers Against the War. Two of the grandmothers were in their 90s, but stood for more than an hour in the cold.

The Catholic Worker, War Resister League and other anti-war groups were also represented.

What? You didn’t hear about any of this, including the arrest of 135 veterans and other anti-war activists in front of the White House? Need I remind you of the Fawning Corporate Media and how its practitioners have always downplayed or ignored protests, large or small, against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

A Rich Tradition

Civil Disobedience was Henry David Thoreau’s response to his 1846 imprisonment for refusing to pay a poll tax that violated his conscience. Thoreau was protesting an earlier war of aggression, the U.S. attack on Mexico.

In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau asked:

“Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward.

“It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.”

Imprisonment was Thoreau’s first direct experience with state power and, in typical fashion, he analyzed it:

“The State never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.”

Prior to his arrest, Thoreau had lived a quiet, solitary life at Walden, an isolated pond in the woods about a mile and a half from Concord. He returned to Walden to mull over two questions: (1) Why do some men obey laws without asking if the laws are just or unjust; and, (2) why do others obey laws they think are wrong?

More recent American prophets have thrown their own light on the crises of our time while confronting the questions posed by Thoreau.

Amid the carnage of Vietnam, Fr. Daniel Berrigan, SJ, posed a challenge to those who hoped for peace without sacrifice, those who would say, “Let us have peace but let us loose nothing. Let our lives stand intact; let us know neither prison nor ill repute nor disruption of ties.”

Berrigan saw no such easy option. “There is no peace,” he said, “because the making of peace is at least as costly as the making of war – at least as liable to bring disgrace and prison.”

So, if the making of peace today means prison, that’s where we need to be. It is time to accept our responsibility to do ALL we can to stop the violence of wars waged in our name. Now it’s our turn to ponder those questions.

Reprinted courtesy of

Author: Ray McGovern

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. In the Sixties he served as an infantry/intelligence officer and then became a CIA analyst for the next 27 years. He is on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).