Learning from the Courage of Ali
By KATHY KELLY
Earlier this month, I visited a center in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq which
has, since it began in 1991, helped survivors of land mine
detonations and other war related injuries gain a new lease on life.
On the walls of the Emergency Rehabilitation Center are small photos
of people whom the staff has treated, over the years, with surgery,
physical therapy and prosthetics.
Workshops train people in carpentry, tailoring, shoemaking and other
skills so that people can return to their homes with a new vocation.
Several of the therapists and technicians were maimed by weapons.
They adamantly oppose war as a means to solve disputes. The staff's
dedication and the familial atmosphere at the center give many
people hope in a dark time.
They gave hope to Ali, an 11 year old boy who was severely injured
by accident. While he was climbing a high voltage tower, the power
was turned on. Electricity surged through his body, leaving him
armless. It seemed a miracle that he survived. He is bright,
energetic, and thoroughly engaging.
His mother, who is Kurdish, beamed with energy and pride as she
helped Ali cope with physical therapy. She saved her tears until he
was out of sight. Ali's father, an Arab Iraqi, has taught Ali to
speak both Arabic and Kurdish. Ali helped me practice my fledgling
language skills over the course of a few days. But mostly, from Ali,
I learned about courage.
One day, as technicians at the center showed me a video about one of
their "success stories," Ali walked into the room. He climbed up on
the chair where I sat, and immediately grew curious about the 28
year old man, in the video, who was struggling to use his artificial
limb, with a spoon inserted in the plastic hand, to feed himself.
I glanced at Ali's face several times, anxious that he might feel
frightened or overwhelmed. First he was curious, and then clearly
taken aback as he stared at the man's repeated failures to bring the
spoon to his mouth. Ali quickly realized that he would face this
challenge. Suddenly he sat up straight, nodded his head eagerly, and
then smiled with delight when the man on the video succeeded in
feeding himself. The next day, Ali was fitted with an artificial
limb. Within hours, he proudly posed for a picture that shows him
putting a spoon in his mouth.
Just before I headed off to visit this Rehab center renowned for
helping victims of war, I received a letter from Brian Willson, a
U.S. Viet Nam veteran who, unlike Ali, received horrible wounds from
direct military action. He received these wounds from the U.S.
military, on American soil.
Here is how he remembers September 1, 1987:
"In 1987, while peacefully blocking a military train at a U.S. Navy
munitions base in California loaded with armaments headed for
Central America, I received severe injuries and was almost murdered
when the train chose not to stop. The Navy train crew and their
supervisors knew in advance of our nonviolent three-member veterans'
blockade and had a clear, 650-foot view as the train approached us
at high noon on a bright sunny day.
Though expecting to be arrested and jailed by the nearby armed U.S.
Marines and local police, we never imagined the conscious and
criminal acceleration of the loaded train to more than three times
its posted five-mile-an-hour legal speed limit.
I lost both legs, suffered a fractured skull, multiple other
injuries, and nearly lost my life as I was run over by the speeding
One of the other veterans jumped high in the air to grab onto the
cow catcher railing on the front of the locomotive just above the
platform where the two government spotters stood.
A military ambulance and crew quickly arrived on the scene but
refused to transport me to a hospital, alleging that my limp, maimed
body was not lying on military property.
In the meantime, my wife, who was a midwife, and other friends at
the scene, worked feverishly to stop my bleeding and to preserve my
life energy while we awaited arrival of another ambulance 15 or 20
Shockingly, unbeknown to us, we had been labeled "domestic terrorist
suspects" by the FBI, explaining the orders given the crew that day
to NOT stop the train to prevent what they feared was to be
a 'hijack.' This case remains an illustrative example of the severe
danger of the government using the 'terrorist' label for dissenters,
both at home and abroad, so prevalent today."
Ever since, Brian Willson has bravely "walked the talk," although he
must do it on two artificial legs, traveling all over the world to
campaign against weapons and war and the voracious resource
consumption, chiefly by Western nations, which spurs so many of the
world's conflicts. In more recent years, Brian has, with impeccable
logic, started staying closer to home to avoid consuming more than
his fair share of energy resources wasted in nonessential air travel.
By living simply, while working hard for justice, he aims to attain
what he calls "right livelihood." Brian and his community are
striving to consume services and goods that originate in their own
local bioregion. Voluntary simplicity, for them, includes refusing
to pay taxes, even if that requires living under the taxable income
level. They work toward dramatic reduction in use of petroleum for
transportation, and they increase their use of solar energy for hot
water and electricity. The community is experimenting with creating
its own internal currency and has formed a local "peak- oil" action
group to alert others to the dire and permanent energy crisis
expected when oil reserves start to be exhausted.
Now Brian, at age 65, is in training for a 1200-mile-round-trip
journey from his northern California home to the national Veterans
for Peace conference this August in Seattle. He's going to use a
hand-pedaled recumbent tricycle. "I don't know whether I can do it,"
he writes. "I'll let you know when I get there."
But his main purpose in writing to me concerned my capacity to "walk
the talk." Brian quoted from an article I recently wrote urging U.S.
people to slow down and think about where our country is going, to
feel remorse for suffering caused in Iraq, to try and stop the flow
of funds for the war, and to demand that the U.S. pay reparations to
Iraq. Brian urged me to "jack up" my prescription for what people
can do in response to the reckless direction in which our country is
Brian is right.
We can't control the U.S. government. It is every bit as reckless as
the train which ran over Brian Willson. (This train was believed to
be carrying white phosphorus something like powdered napalm-for use
in the dirty wars in or own hemisphere). But we can control our
personal budgets. Brian suggested asking people to stop
fuelling "the train." If we can't control our own government, can we
at least stop actively helping it? For most of us who have entered
into adulthood, the U.S. government doesn't want our bodies fighting
in the war; they don't even care very much about our consent. They
do want our labor, and our money. What right do we have to keep
giving it to them?
Often, if I'm invited to speak with a group in the U.S., either my
host or I will mention that I haven't paid federal income taxes
Generally, audiences applaud. Almost always, a questioner will
ask: "How do you avoid paying taxes?"
I advise people to visit the National War Tax Refusal Coordinating
Committee website, www.nwtrcc.org, and to order the fifteen dollar
manual called "A Guide to War Tax Refusal." I urge them to study the
manual and then download four pamphlets that offer a practical guide
to war tax refusal.
I insist they must get in touch with the nearest war tax refusal
counselor before embarking on what is, admittedly, a difficult route.
But I also hold that if we oppose the U.S. government by refusing to
fund U.S. war making, the risks are not that high. For several years
now, the U.S. has stood on the precipice of all out devastation-of
itself and of the world. Throughout modern history people faced far
more dire personal circumstances to resist injustices and calamities
like those we are tacitly helping our leaders foment. They faced
dreadful risks to resist oppression in Nazi Germany, in apartheid
South Africa, and in the Jim Crow South of the U.S. (and its
horribly segregated Northern counterpart). The risks we face for
nonviolent resistance are comparatively trivial. If we refuse to pay
our taxes for imperial war, we won't be disappeared by a death
squad. We won't be lynched or shot. Our families won't be massacred.
People ruthlessly crushed by U.S. foreign policies, beyond our
borders, faces such risks. For us, the risk of continued
collaboration with the reckless group of warmongers currently
leading the U.S. is, however, extremely high.
We fear terrorism. And yet, with our ongoing, unlimited war of
U.S. "wholesale" terror against reactive "retail" terror we are
creating new, more committed, more dangerous terrorists much faster
than we can kill them. But the greatest terror we face is the danger
caused by what we're doing to our own environment. We pour
pollutants into the air, water and ground, seed the planet with
festering hatred and relentlessly deplete irreplaceable natural
In his letter to me, Brian Willson recommends calling for massive
and permanent presence of people in particular locations who will
not move until the war ends and money is redirected to social needs
at home and reparations in Iraq, similar to Martin Luther King's
prescription for a permanent "Resurrection City" in Washington, D.C.
Many are now planning or enacting such projects, and yet we must
become many more than we are now.
It's easy to feel daunted by the tasks ahead. But Ali's responses to
extraordinary challenges could guide us: straighten up, smile
eagerly, catch courage from one another, and use our gifts to start
over, to gain a new lease on life.
Kathy Kelly is the author of Other Lands Have Dreams and a co-
coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, a Chicago based
campaign to end U.S. military and economic war against Iraq,
www.vcnv.org She can be reached at: Kathy @ vcnv.org
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