Feature: Where are the peace people?

By NICHOLAS M. HORROCK  |  April 15, 2003 at 12:44 PM
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BAGHDAD, April 15 (UPI) -- Charles Litkey lay in the al-Wadah water treatment plant in the darkness listening to the B-52s and his mind drifted back to Vietnam and to the night there he had lain in the darkness listening to the giant bombers blast the ground.

"It took me back to Vietnam in a big way, to feel the rumbling of the ground and the horrific noise. I began to feel sorry for the Iraqi soldiers beneath all of that," he said.

Later as the U.S. Marines entered Baghdad a firefight raged around the water plant. He heard the familiar sounds of machine guns and mortars and the unmistakable sounds of a bullet passing his ear.

Litkey knows about firefights. He won the Medal of Honor 35 years ago as an Army chaplain when a platoon of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade on a routine patrol in South Vietnam stumbled across 500 North Vietnamese soldiers. When the battle ended they found that Litkey, despite being wounded, had carried 23 wounded men to safety.

Now 70, still with a piece shrapnel in his foot, Litkey spent 20 days living at the Baghdad water plant under the coalitions bombardment because "it seemed the place to be." Litkey long ago became a committed peace activist and sent his Medal of Honor back to President Reagan because the then leader supported CIA wars in Central America.

The outriders of the American peace movement are here. Like Litkey and Kathy Kelly a trifle tattered and worn after years of risking their lives, their fortunes and sometimes their freedom to end what they see as the vociferous U.S. appetite for conquest.

This particular group, Voices in the Wilderness, first arrived in Iraq almost a decade ago trying to tell America of the terrible human suffering being caused by international sanctions. They came over a decade, often under suspicion by Saddam Hussein's regime and minded by his secret police operatives.

However, they formed friendships, documented leukemia cases, allegedly stemming from U.S. ammunition in the first Gulf War, and reported on the medical difficulties that resulted from the embargo on selling medical drugs and equipment to Iraq.

In the decade since Litkey left the Army and the priesthood and became a devoted opponent of war, the peace movement slipped from the American consciousness, making him and others quite as their name described them, Voices in the Wilderness.

Now in the lobby of al-Sanar tower hotel -- with no electricity, occasional water, bomb blasted windows and falling plaster -- these veterans congregate a few hundred yards from U.S. Marines; they are trying to understand where the peace movement goes from here, but never in doubt of why they go forward.

Last December, as the war against Iraq became more and more a reality, Litkey flew home to San Francisco disheartened at the seeming inevitability of military action against Iraq. He was lifted up by the peace movements around the world and in the United States that had succeeded in informing people of their views.

The organization has every sort of member from Buddhist to atheist. Kelly and Litkey grew up as serious and committed Catholics. Litkey was ordained in 1960 in the Mission Services of Holy Trinity and with roots in the Catholic Church and the military.

He was born in Washington and his father was a naval officer. He said he went to Vietnam with all the commitment that he sees in the young U.S. Marines now guarding Baghdad's streets. But when then Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara ordered the "body count system," Litkey became convinced that it was "nothing but a bounty."

He met a young soldier who had earned a three-day pass to a Vietnamese beach by killing three Vietcong soldiers. He complained, taking his complaint all the way to Gen. Creighton Abrams, the commander in Vietnam. Abrams couldn't end the body count system, but he ended the rewards for soldiers who killed the enemy.

This incident began Litkey's metamorphosis to peace activist. He has served two prison terms for demonstrating against the School of the Americas –- the U.S. Army training facility at Fort Benning, Ga., that trained Latin American military officers accused of repressive practices in their home countries.

Kathy Kelly, a Chicago native, was a student at the Catholic Hyde Park Jesuit School of Theology as remote she said "as Brigadoon in the mist," from issues of war and peace, when she volunteered at a northside Chicago soup kitchen. She said she found herself. "Everything fell into place; it was easy. I did not have to go to my sisters' Tupperware parties anymore."

In 1991, she came to Baghdad to try and stop the first Gulf War and was in the city during the bombing. At the end of that conflict, she demonstrated against other war issues, but it wasn't until 1996 that she says she came to realize how deadly the U.N. sanctions were for the Iraqi people.

She and others wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno saying they were going to knowingly violate the embargo. They came back and forth from Iraq carrying teddy bears and antibiotics -- both violations of the law. In 1998, Kelly and others were fined $10,000 each and the group was fined another $10,000. The fines have never been collected.

Kelly's passport was also seized, but several years later she was allowed to apply for a new one.

So last October, she and other group members, 40 strong at one point, came to Iraq again to try and end the sanctions and end the war. They believe that you have to risk your life and fight for peace as hard as you'll fight in a war. Most of them remained here throughout the bombing and one activist died in an accident as they went to the Kuwait border to demonstrate against the U.S.-led coalition's invasion.

Now they are regrouping to return to the United States and change the political forces they see committing the nation to endless wars.

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