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Where Your Conscience Can Take You: North Korea

05/19/2015 11:51 am ET | Updated May 19, 2016
STR via Getty Images

On 24 May, 30 women peacebuilders will walk across the De-Militarized Zone that separates Korean families. Ann Wright describes her journey from serving in the U.S. Army to citizen diplomat walking for peace..

Following my conscience to challenge U.S. policies began with my resignation as a U.S. diplomat in 2003 in opposition to the Bush war on Iraq. Before working as a diplomat, I was a U.S. Army Reserve Colonel. Over the past 12 years, my conscience has taken me on life's journey to see the effect of U.S. policies on Gaza, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, Cuba, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Iran.

My conscience is taking me now to North Korea. Today, as a citizen diplomat, I am part of a delegation of 30 international women peacemakers from around the world who will walk with Korean women, north and south, to call for an end to the Korean War and for a new beginning for a reunified Korea. We will hold international peace symposiums in Pyongyang and Seoul where we can listen to Korean women and share our experiences and ideas of mobilizing women to bring an end to violent conflict. On 24 May, our hope is to cross the two-mile wide De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) that separates millions of Korean families as a symbolic act of peace.

My life as a citizen diplomat began 12 years ago. In December 2001, I had volunteered to be part of the team that reopened the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan. A month later, a few of us went to Bagram Air Base in Kabul to wish Afghanistan's interim leader, Hamid Karzai, good luck as he left for Washington to attend the State of the Union address. We encouraged him to secure commitments for military and development funds, knowing that America's attention seldom stays on any one country for long.

Three days later, I was sitting in a bunker outside Kabul's old Chancery building, watching President Bush's State of the Union address on a TV our team had connected to a satellite dish made from flattened Coke cans and activated with a Pakistani computer chip. We were awaiting news of the President's plans for Afghanistan, but after he said a few words about Afghanistan, he began talking about Iran, Iraq and North Korea, calling them the "Axis of Evil." The TV cameras focused on Hamid Karzai, in the gallery, and I could almost see him wince.

Like many other Americans, I'd felt that the U.S. needed to respond to the attacks of 9/11, and going after al Qaeda in Afghanistan seemed sensible and appropriate. Countries around the world supported our action as a legitimate response to the attacks. But as I stayed in Afghanistan longer, I began to wonder when the full strength of the United States would be brought to bear. Why was it was taking so long to clear out the Taliban, capture al Qaeda and help the Afghan people rebuild their country? Washington kept telling us we couldn't expand our presence to all the major cities or begin economic development too quickly. Why? We were in an extremely dangerous situation without enough military, but instead of deploying additional troops, President Bush started threatening other countries, the so-called Axis of Evil. I sat there, stunned.

Half a year later, I was Deputy Chief of Mission (Deputy Ambassador) in the U.S. Embassy in Mongolia and followed developments in Afghanistan and the build up to war in Iraq. By then, the U.S. had deployed tens of thousands troops to the Middle East. When the Bush administration's mushroom-cloud rhetoric began, it was obvious that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice were not waiting for UN authorization, that they intended to go to war. For the first time in my 35 years of government service -- military and diplomatic -- I was unable to represent a position of the United States. I'd disagreed with policies of many administrations, but none seemed as fundamentally dangerous and morally wrong as the imminent invasion of Iraq.

Much of my military background concerns the law of warfare. The U.S.'s action in Afghanistan, it seemed to me, had met the criteria for engagement under international law as a direct response to the September 11th attacks. But going to war in Iraq was entirely different. Iraq had not done anything to us. Therefore, under international law -- the Nuremberg Principles and the Geneva Conventions -- this would be a war of aggression, a war crime.

I felt the claim that America and the world were in imminent danger from Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was misleading. Although I had no specific knowledge of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, I felt that Saddam would not use them because he knew the response of the U.S. would be massive. During the decade following the first Gulf War, the United States and our allies flew 400,000 missions over two no-fly zones, taking photos the whole time. If there had been WMD in Iraq, we would have seen evidence of it, as would the UN weapons inspectors, many of whom were U.S. intelligence officials. Ten years after the rout of Saddam's forces and the destruction of much of his military hardware -- reinforced by a 10-year embargo on replacement military equipment -- Iraq did not pose a challenge to the best-equipped, best-trained military on earth. A "preemptive strike" in that part of the world could easily incite individuals and groups to attack the United States and American citizens.

This was the first time I ever thought about resigning. I loved my job and serving my country, and wanted to continue. But a foreign service officer's assignment is to implement the policies of the administration in power, and if one disagrees strongly with an administration's policy and wants to speak out publicly, the only option is to resign. It was winter in Mongolia, and I was waking up at three or four o'clock most mornings, freezing cold. So, I developed a ritual to try to make sense of my government's actions and what I might do about them: I wrapped myself in blankets, went to the kitchen table and wrote page after page on the Bush administration's intentions and my responses. I'd also begun to study Buddhist texts to try to understand the cultural and spiritual foundations of Mongolian society.

One commentary stated that all actions have consequences and nations, like individuals, are ultimately accountable for their actions. Another text, the Dalai Lama's statement on the first anniversary of 9/11, declared, "Conflicts do not arise out of the blue. They occur as a result of causes and conditions, many of which are within the antagonists' control. This is where leadership is important. Terrorism cannot be overcome by the use of force, because force does not address the complex, underlying problems. In fact, the use of force can exacerbate the problems and frequently leaves destruction and suffering in its wake."

On March 19, 2003, the day before the bombing began, I cabled my letter of resignation to Secretary of State Colin Powell. The moment I did, I felt a huge weight lift from my shoulders. I was taking a stand, joining two other American diplomats who had already resigned in protest. In the days that followed, I received nearly 400 emails from State Department colleagues saying, in effect, "we're sad you are not going to be with us, but we're proud of the three of you who resigned, because we think going to war in Iraq will have terrible consequences." Each letter writer then described the growing anti-American sentiment in the country where he or she was serving.

Because of the Bush administration's highly successful propaganda campaigns and a huge media failure in the United States, most Americans didn't realize until recently how often the Bush administration has violated domestic and international law. The lack of independent, credible information in America's mainstream media came about, in part, by the administration's punitive stance toward those who disagree with or criticize its policies.

Since 9/11, the Bush administration has treated speaking out as unpatriotic, if not treasonous. Many of those who have dissented have faced the administration's wrath and retribution.

Despite this, people within our government did speak out. Susan Dixon and I wrote the book Dissent: Voices of Conscience as a tribute to these government insiders and active-duty military personnel who exposed our leaders' illegal actions, or resigned rather than accede to the actions, or refused to fight in what they considered an illegal war. Their loyalty to the Constitution and the American people transcended partisan politics.

Most Americans don't know about these courageous men and women -- American and coalition insiders -- who spoke out. These are patriots of our democracy, who stayed loyal to what is right, risking their own security. President Bush said that "questioning his actions... is a betrayal of the troops in battle today." For those we profile in our book, the real betrayal would have been to stand by silently while our leaders were implementing policies destructive to our country and the world. They dared to dissent, dared to risk everything for the sake of real national security. We honour their courage, integrity, and patriotism by sharing their stories.

Ann Wright is a former Army Reserve Colonel and Army veteran who resigned her post in opposition to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Ann received the State Department's Award for Heroism due to her actions during the civil war in Sierra Leone. Since her resignation, she actively writes and speaks out for peace. She is the co-author of the book DISSENT: Voices of Conscience.

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