Warriors for peace
A year ago, as the nation prepared for the invasion of Iraq, support for the war and the ouster of dictator Saddam Hussein ran deep.
Saddam's history of brutal and criminal behavior was documented. His antipathy to the West -- especially the U.S., which drove him from Kuwait in 1991 -- was a matter of record. And his capacity for more mischief seemed clear, based on information gathered by Western intelligence agencies and Iraqi defectors.
Peace activists had pushed for alternatives -- more negotiations, more inspections, better intelligence, United Nations leadership -- but the president said Saddam had weapons of mass destruction that posed a clear and present danger. And after 9/11, who wanted to take chances?
As U.S. pilots pounded Baghdad, hundreds in Springfield participated in a wave-the-flag rally organized by a local veterans and WMAY (AM 970). A poll by the State Journal-Register found nearly two-thirds of respondents supported the war. One rally participant told the newspaper: "The time to protest was before the war."
Some local activists didn't agree. For the past year, a small group of Springfieldians has soldiered on -- through rain, snow, and summer heat - armed only with information and convictions. Their mission: To remind us it's never too late to stop killing.
To mark the one-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, longtime Illinois Times contributor Ginny Lee set out to profile some of our hometown "warriors for peace" and find out what drives them.
Karin Cotterman, 35, began working on peace issues since the first Gulf War. She is a poet and has a master's degree in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. She has lived in Springfield for the past two years and has been the Coordinator for Student Volunteers at the University of Illinois. Cotterman has a broad worldview, which she comes by naturally. Her mother is a Swedish citizen, her father an airline pilot, and her brother lives in Germany. She spent time in Ghana five years ago and will return in May.
"I am passionate about issues of social justice, and working for peace falls under that umbrella. When George W. Bush was elected, I said, 'People are going to die. I don't think U.S. voters are going to understand.'
"The violence of war goes on well beyond the date the last bomb is dropped. It impacts people, communities, and countries in very real, visceral ways for generations. War has ongoing socioeconomic, psychological, physical, and environmental implications.
"When I think about war, I think about poverty, race, class, who's being sent to war, who signs up for the National Guard so they can go to college, soldiers coming back with post-traumatic stress or physical problems. People don't want to go get medicine because that goes on their military record."
In January 1947, Lynn Miller was living in West Berlin, where his father was a chaplain in the U.S. Army, helping deprogram Hitler youth of their Nazi ideology. That winter was the coldest on record for Germany, says Miller, who was 11 then. Each day, he saw impoverished Germans outside in rags. Women in thin housedresses shoveled snow and chopped wood. People cut up carpets to make shoes. "Those Germans lived on a subsistence diet of 1,500 calories a day," Miller says. "I've been interested in how to avoid war ever since."
Miller taught classes in local government in the Public Administration Department at Sangamon State University for many years, then started Consumer Credit Counseling Service in Decatur. He retired five years ago and has been active in the antiwar movement locally for two years, serving as the chairman of the Iraq Peace Project. He recently returned from the Ecumenical Advocacy Conference on Global Peace with Justice in Washington, D.C. He is also an avid bicyclist.
"The neo-conservative movement is this country is grotesque. It is important that we go beyond the lies and deceptions of the Bush Administration. We need to examine how our government, our system of checks and balances, failed. How did the American people allow the administration to sell this war? How did we allow compassionate conservatives to hijack the American Century into an eye for an eye in Iraq? We have fallen into a victim mentality since 9/11, allowing ourselves to be duped because we wanted someone to pay for 9/11."
Twenty-year-old Liz Moran is a junior at University of Illinois at Springfield, where she is a Capitol Scholar majoring in Political Studies. Moran comes to the Springfield community from Chicago and has been a volunteer for Heartland Peace Center for the past year and a half. She has been involved in peace vigils in Springfield since October 2002, and she led students to Washington, D.C., to protest the pre-emptive strike in Iraq.
She has been nominated for the Howard R. Swearer Humanitarian Award, a national award given to only five college students working as peace activists, by UIS Chancellor Richard Ringeisen. She has been counselor for Heartland's Peace Camp, teaching children about nonviolent conflict resolution and environmental stewardship.
"Peace is more than the absence of violence. It takes a lifetime commitment to change the way you speak to others. It's so easy for us to celebrate warriors. It takes the same courage to be warriors for peace. People have to be willing to withstand the pressure of conformity in this country.
"We're sending off the last of the National Guard here to Iraq, people who thought they'd never go to war. It's going to be poor people fighting for rich people."
Peggy Knoepfle, 69, came late to Springfield's peace movement, though you wouldn't know it from her passion and tireless commitment to the cause. She cites others -- Diane Hughes, Doug Kamholz, John Koch, Bonnie Rubenstein, and Kathy Wood -- as actively working for peace before she arrived on the scene. In 1993, Knoepfle began managing the Peace Store at Heartland Peace Center and began letter-writing campaigns and organizing peace demonstrations.
She is active with the Mary Wood chapter of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and leads a peace vigil downtown each Wednesday at the Old State Capitol Plaza. She has made five trips to Nicaragua and one to Colombia with the group Witness for Peace, a faith-based organization that talks to working people, farmers, labor unions, and human rights groups to understand the effect of U.S. military and economic policies on their daily lives. Knoepfle returned just a week ago from a trip to Nicaragua with a delegation of UIS students, professors, and community members.
Knoepfle is a producer for the Access 4 television program "Works in Progress," which covers issues of social changes as well as literary works, subjects "which aren't as far apart as you might believe," she says.
"I believe the response to 9/11 calls for unprecedented actions for peace and a new way of life centered around respect for people and care of the environment.
"I believe that enforcement of international law, not war, is the best defense against terrorism. Creating a world where human beings and the earth are respected is the only way to end violence and oppression, whether by governments or by terrorist organizations. Peacemaking must also occur individually in our own hearts and souls.
"I am trying to understand the current chaotic situation in Iraq, where the war has toppled a cruel dictator but has also unleashed terror attacks that kill our soldiers and Iraqi civilians -- and where our control of Iraqi resources and economy seems more for the benefit of U.S. and allied multinationals than for Iraqis.
"The strength of terrorist organizations is that they are willing to kill anyone, including themselves -- but that is also their weakness. No one wants to live in that world.
"The strength of world domination through military force and corporate monopoly is that just about anyone can be quickly crushed or co-opted, but that is also its weakness. No one wants to live in that world either. There are better worlds and better ways to build them."
Proshanta Nandi is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Illinois at Springfield, retiring in 2002. As a young man in India, Nandi earned master's degrees in communication, economics, and sociology, then won a Fulbright Scholarhip, which took him to the University of Minnesota, where he earned a fourth master's degree in 1966 and a doctorate in 1968.
In Springfield, Nandi has served on the Diversity Task Force of School District 186, the Diversity Task Force at UIS, and the board of directors of the World Federalist Association. In 1998, he was a visiting professor at Heilongjiang University in China, and he gave a seminar on excellence in teaching at the university in Almaty, Kazakhstan in 2003. Those are a few highlights from his vita.
At UIS, Nandi often taught a course on Mahatma Gandhi and another on Nonviolence and Peace. One of his class assignments was for students to commit an act of random kindness, which often baffled his students. Nandi is currently teaching a course on nonviolence at the Heartland Peace Center. He is concerned that the U.S. is a very violent culture and that it doesn't consider the possibilities of nonviolence.
"Nonviolence is more difficult than violence. It takes more skill and more conviction. Nonviolence is not for winning over an opponent, it is to make sure the truth wins.
"It was confusing who did what and who turned out to be the enemy in Iraq. But Iraq is a sovereign country and the most secular country in the Middle East. Most importantly, Saddam had nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction. I accept that he was a tyrant. But there are so many tyrants, so many heads of countries who are friends of the U.S. who are also tyrants. If we use unprincipled means to resolve our issues, it will turn back on us. Does violence work?
"There is a thing called human rights, and there are American rights. In this world Americanrights take precedence over human rights. The sadness I feel is that this country has so many resources, reservoirs of good people and good will, and it can do so much to eliminate human suffering, but it chooses not to.
"I am saying these things because I love this country."
DIANE LOPEZ HUGHES
Diane Lopez Hughes has been in the forefront of nonviolence and social justice issues in Springfield since the early 1980s. She is currently convenor of Pax Christi Springfield, an active member of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and a board member of the local Sierra Club, as well as being a hospice social worker and mother of two young men.
She marched in 1971 against the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C., and participated in protests against the 1991 Gulf War. Hughes was active in the '80s with the Springfield Peace Coalition and Citizens for Peace in Central America. She also coordinated the Springfield Peace Action Network, a group of 20 peace and justice organizations. Before the current war, she helped organize a teach-in on Iraq, and the Saturday Pax Christi peace vigil downtown at Sixth and Monroe streets. She is currently organizing a Pax Christi-sponsored nonviolence training workshop to be held April 3 at Sacred Heart convent. Lopez Hughes is monitoring elections in El Salvador this week as part of an international team, with an eye towards helping monitor the presidential election here in November.
"What we see happening in Iraq is also beginning to happen in Haiti and elsewhere: the distortion of truth, the outright lies, and a lack of regard for the real welfare of the people of other countries. I'm concerned about the greed and self-righteousness that propels our country and its good people into a never-ending downward spiral of violence and callousness towards others who inhabit this planet.
"I hope to be a part of the solution by polling and registering voters [and] encouraging people to vote for candidates like Barack Obama, who might just be able to help us out of this mess of pre-emptive war thinking and refocus our energy on health care, a healthy environment and a healthy economy."
SISTER BETH MURPHY
Sister Beth Murphy, communication coordinator for the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, concedes she is a newcomer to social activism. She has a degree in journalism, has taught high school, and worked as media director in various settings. She has been with the Dominican diocese here since 1988. She is the only one of these peace warriors to have been to Iraq, and has been there three times since 2001.
On each visit to Iraq, Sister Beth visited with Dominican brothers and sisters. The first two times were fact-finding visits. Her most recent trip this past December and January was a journey of accompaniment, she says, to be with her Dominican brothers and sisters, to be available for them, and to listen to what they've been through in the stressful past year. Flying into Baghdad from Jordan, Sister Beth endured a hair-raising spiral descent landing, a technique pilots use at the Baghdad airport to avoid surface-to-air missiles.
Sister Beth lived for a week with the sisters at the Al-Hayat Maternity Hospital in Baghdad and also spent two weeks in Mosul in the north. When she arrived at the hospital, the sisters were in mourning for a friend, the youngest brother of a doctor at the hospital, who'd been shot by a U.S. soldier at a checkpoint. "Today, we do not like Americans," the nun told Sister Beth.
Saddam was captured by U.S. troops while Sister Beth was in Iraq. When pictures of the former dictator being checked for lice came on television, there was elation, fear, and then humiliation in the room of Dominicans. "Saddam Hussein was the only symbol of the state for 30 years," Sister Beth says. "To humiliate Saddam Hussein was to humiliate every Iraqi citizen."
"I'm a newcomer to social activism. In fact, I don't think of myself as an activist. Some people are moved by principle, I had to be moved by human experience [in Iraq].
"What I would like people in this country to understand is that there are human beings in Iraq who have the same hopes and dreams as we do. And that what we do in this country matters to people all over the planet. The people we elect and the policies we put into place affect the whole globe. It's very important to me that we understand that it's an interdependent world.
"For the average Iraqi person things are getting worse. The government had employed 70 percent of the population before the war, but now 50 percent of the population is unemployed. In Baghdad there are two to six hours of electricity per day. One of the two generators at the maternity hospital is broken. There is no phone service in general. Security is a problem. The situation is so unstable now that they can't start reconstruction. The spiral descent of our plane at Baghdad airport is a metaphor for the people of Iraq.
"I grew up in a family that thought public service was important. I don't care if you're a Republican or Democrat, people should be involved in the political debate. If we are so unaware of what's happening in our government, then we are complicit in the problem.
"My concern is that there will be no sense of responsibility for what we've done in Iraq."