A Letter From the Grunts

03/05/2009 01:23 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This week I got an email from a stranger that I actually read. I want to share it: it's to the President from Veterans for Peace of Bellingham, WA: about Afghanistan. After it, I write a little about the man who sent it, who I called up and talked to. He has quite a story. He saw it all happen before.

Maybe the best line in it is this one:

We are at a historic moment very much like the moment when President Johnson was escalating the Vietnam War and Dr. King asked him to stop and think. President Johnson missed his opportunity...

Or maybe it's this:

We might try using our resources to empower women instead of killing men.

Here's the full letter:

An Open Letter to President Obama. Feb. 24, 2009.

Dear President Obama,

While you are reviewing U.S. policy toward Afghanistan, we ask that you include a perspective that has been lacking in the national conversation since Sept. 11, 2001. You have received much advice, whether sought or unsought, from political and military experts. We ask that you give even greater consideration to seeking out spiritual guidance.

There is no shortage of people seeking to advise you on how to win a war. But there is a critical shortage of people around you who might ask a more important question: How can we make peace?

Since Sept.11 our national conversation has been lacking a spiritual perspective. When Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his great "Beyond Vietnam" speech at Riverside Church, the event was organized by Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam. Perhaps the religious community has not been as organized during these last few years as it should have been, and perhaps no one can take Dr. King's place, but we can still take advantage of the wisdom he revealed in that speech.

There is no shortage of deep spiritual thinkers in our country today, but there is a shortage of leaders willing to seek their guidance. We are asking you to be that leader.

If we really want peace in Afghanistan, we should start with an offer of a cease-fire. That is the most immediate concern, to stop the killing of the innocent. Then comes the hard part, negotiating for justice.

Everyone has a viewpoint in Afghanistan, but instead of encouraging a dialogue to seek common ground, we have focused on a military solution to the problem of injustice. The Taliban's idea of justice may be light years away from ours, but we are not going to solve the problem of male injustice to women in Afghanistan by killing all the men. And if we did, there are another 10 million men on the Pakistani side of the border with the same anti-woman attitude. In fact, it is a planet-wide problem that cannot be fixed by war. We might try using our resources to empower women instead of killing men.

We are at a historic moment very much like the moment when President Johnson was escalating the Vietnam War and Dr. King asked him to stop and think. President Johnson missed his opportunity to be one of our greatest presidents because he let the military/political dimension overrule the spiritual dimension.

George Bush called himself a war president. He was misguided. We voted for you, President Obama, because we believed that you would seek the path of peace. We believe you can make us proud again.

War is the worst way to solve problems. Peace is the best way. We believe our country can become a leader in peacemaking. You can start to lead us along that path.

With best wishes to you and your family, and for peace for everybody, no exceptions.

If you agree with this letter, you can have your family sign it and mail it to the Obama Family at:
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20500

I called Bill Distler, who sent me the letter. He said that Veterans for Peace in Bellingham, WA has an active core of about twenty. Most are Vietnam vets, only one is an Iraq vet.

Bill says the Iraq vets mostly don't want to talk about it yet. "It's way too much to lay on 19 and 20 year olds," he says; it took him many years before he could see clearly how wrong his war was, the Vietnam War, and how the mess he got into wasn't his own fault.

Bill is receiving 100% disability for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but he says his war was in the jungle, in forests. The Iraq War vets' traumas have been and still are in buildings, highways, city streets. He can stay out of forests, but every plastic bag on the highway, every window, every street corner can trigger an Iraq vets' PTSD. "The psych trouble for these guys will be way more," he concludes, and adds: "The people who talk about war are either those who didn't go, or they're the officers, who have a different perspective. To know about war, ask the grunts."

"I wandered for years after Vietnam," Bill tells me. "Settled in Bellingham in 1985 and worked in an organic flour mill... My beautiful daughter Lily is 8 years old. My beautiful wife Lisa and I have been married since 2000, my first marriage at 52 years old."

It's only in recent years he started to organize against war, appalled at what Bush had done. "My brother Ken was in the 4th Infantry Division in the Central Highlands from Jan. to May '69 when he was wounded in a huge firefight that left about half of his company killed or wounded. He killed himself in 1994. I still feel that he is watching me from heaven and encouraging me to keep going. If I accomplish anything good, I feel that I share that with him."

If I have one comment about his letter it's this: let's not imagine that all the men in Afghanistan are anti-woman. That would be as false as imagining that all the soldiers serving the American empire are pro-war. We ran a terrific article in Tikkun by Wil Morat about Afghan men, all Muslims of course, who are risking their lives to support women's rights. (Our website just crashed and we haven't got a lot of it back yet, but you can get Wil's article here).