To Build a Fire in the Heart of Our Country

yemen starving child4

But for most of us, the movement was a life-giving force. To join a hundred thousand others in marches and rallies, to know that even if you felt helpless against the power of government you were not alone in your feelings—that people all over the country, of all ages, black and white, working people and middle-class people, were with you—was to be moved beyond words. … to see Mohammed Ali defy the authorities even at the cost of his championship title, to hear Martin Luther King speak out against the war, to see little children marching with their parents, carrying signs—“Save the children of Vietnam”—was to feel the best of human beings were fighting your cause. … millions of people protested the war not because their own lives were at stake, but because they truly cared about other people’s lives, the lives of Vietnamese, of fellow Americans.

– from You Can’t Be Neutral On A Moving Trainby historian and activist Howard Zinn.

When I was young and the war in Vietnam was raging, I rejected much of what I associated with a government and a society that could undertake the destruction of an entire people and still carry on as if there were nothing in the least bit abnormal about that state of affairs. In time, I saw that the way forward, at least for me, was to join those who understood just how evil the war was and how imperative it was for people to lift their voices, take to the streets, and risk their personal well beingto protest the war.

Reading Zinn’s account of the Vietnam antiwar movement (in his book You Can’t Be Neutral On A Moving Train) and how it grew from isolated pockets of opposition into a massive, nation-wide wave of resistance, I felt re-united with feelings that have languished inside me for the past decade and a half. In the winter of 2003, as the US prepared to invade Iraq, I was on the streets with hundreds of thousands of others who truly cared about preventing the needless deaths of both Iraqis andfellowAmericans. For a time, I believed we would prevail over the Pentagon, the defense contractors, and the Department of Defense—each of which had its own reasons for wanting to prosecute yet another act of criminal aggression against a relatively defenseless country. This time around, however, it was conceivable that our passionate commitment to peace and its expression through movement building, rallies, and demonstrations might actually stay the hand of our “Commander-in-Chief” and his war-mongering, neo-conservative ideologues: Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, et al.

On a frigid, fingertip-freezingday in February 2003, close to a million of us hit the streets of New York to make our voices heard. Together withcomparable numbers of our brethren in other countries, we declared our united opposition to a war against Iraq—a war that many in the peace movement judged would be both illegal and immoral, and unconscionably destructive.

That winter afternoon stands out in my memory as the last time I felt the degree of exhilaration Howard Zinn so beautifully evokes in his description of the camaraderie he experienced during the high watermark of the Vietnam antiwar movement. A month later, on March 20, 2003, the war we hoped to prevent officially began with the much ballyhooed “shock and awe” bombing of Iraq. As someone with deep, personal connections to people in Iraq and a long-term involvement with the anti-sanctions movement, I felt profoundly demoralized by our failure to stop Bush II from attacking yet another Muslim nation under the pretext of “defending the world from grave danger.” But fellow activists reminded me that our surrender was not an option. However much defeated many of us felt, we had to keep up the struggle to bring some measure of sanity to a world in which the glorification of military power and the choice of violence over diplomacy nine times out of ten trumpsinternational law and humanitarian considerations.

This year, on the eve of Thanksgiving, I turned to historian and activist Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, fora way to hold and live with the terrible knowledge that once again my country is putting the projection of power and the pursuit of hegemonic objectives (controlling global energy resources; maintaining ties with US-friendly regional allies, etc.) ahead of simple humanity. Instead of the Vietnamese, the latest target of the US government’s malevolent, calculated indifference to massive human suffering are the people of Yemen. Progressive writers and activists have spoken out forcefully against the genocidal nature of Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen, and demanded a total suspension of arms sales to the Saudi regime and the cessation of all other forms of assistance, including mid-air refueling of Saudi war planes, targeting information, and diplomatic cover.

In this essay, I have no wish to repeat what has been said elsewhere about the conflict between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Houthi rebels of Yemen. Informed readers are aware of the Kingdom’s bogus claim that the rebels are significantly supported by Iran, its greatest foe. Therefore, the war is, in effect, a battle with the Islamic Republic of Iran for dominance of the Middle East and the ultimate victory of extremist Sunni Islam over the Shia theocracy of Iran. By this line of specious reasoning, the US alliance with Riyadh is a necessary bulwark against Iran’s growing regional influence and its purported role in fomenting terror and further destabilizing the Middle East.

I leave the delineation of such matters in far more competent hands. What matters most to me are the humanitarian consequences of this three-year-conflict, which shows no sign of stopping any time soon despite the recent US decision to stop re-fueling Saudi war planes and the growing, world-wide alarm that the Saudis are condemning an entire people to death from famine, sickness, and unrelenting airstrikes on civilian targets, like markets, hospitals, schools, and mosques. Consider the following figures from authorNicholas Davies, citing data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), a nongovernmental organization (NGO):

ACLED now estimates the true number of people killed in Yemen is probably between 70,000 and 80,000.ACLED’s estimates do not include the thousands of Yemenis who have died from the war’s indirect consequences, such as starvation and preventable diseases like diphtheria and cholera. UNICEF reported in December 2016 that a child was dying every 10 minutes in Yemen, and the humanitarian crisis has only worsened since then.  At that rate the total of all deaths caused directly and indirectly by the war must by now be more than one hundred thousand.

An estimated one hundred thousand people killed directly or indirectly in a war that never should have begun in the first place. A war that has the blessings of Donald Trump in the form of billions of dollars of arms sales; a “bromance” with Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia; and a brazen refutation of the CIA’s conclusion that the Crown Prince “personally ordered” the killing of Saudi journalist and self-imposed exile Jamal Khashoggi. Quoting Secretary of Defense Mike Pompeo, Trump told the world on Thanksgiving morning, “It’s a mean and nasty place out there.”

And thanks to people like Mike Pompeo, National Security Advisor John Bolton, Donald Trump, and his bosom buddy the Little Prince of the world’s leading autocracy and exporter of terrorist doctrine, it’s getting a whole lot meaner and nastier. According to a recent report issued by the charity Save the Children, about 85,000 children under the age of 5 have starved to death as a consequence of the civil war in Yemen. How can anyone possibly grasp the significance of that number and the scale of human suffering implicit in the deaths of so many little children. One only has to look at photos of severely malnourished Yemeni children to realize the inhumanity of this war and that of the people who either prosecute or condone the violence. Working in Yemen since 1963, Save the Children states unequivocally that “13 million people face starvation—many of them children.” Furthermore, “Over 22 million people—three out of every four—urgently need lifesaving assistance, including over 11 million children.” The following statistics are from the above-mentioned report:

  • Only 55% of girls 15 and older are literate
  • 29% of children are out of school, with up to 75% of schools destroyed
  • 55 out of 1000 children die before their 5th birthday
  • 23% of children are engaged in child labor
  • 54% of people live in poverty
  • 1,600 children have been killed since the start of the conflict

The US, first under Obama and now under Trump, does much more than condone the bombing of civilian, government, and military targets in Yemen. Not only do we provide the killers with bombs and guided missiles; we unashamedly support the economic war being conducted against the people of Yemen by Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners. Martha Mundy, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the London School of Economics, has done extensive fieldwork in Yemen and other Arab countries. In her recent report for the World Peace Foundation, Mundy notes the responsibility of the US, the UK, and France—the three major arms dealers—in the commission of war crimes in Yemen as a result of the bombing. But their support for the economic war being waged is generally ignored, she says, and it is this form of violence that is “the major cause of starvation” in Yemen.

According to Professor Mundy, the war has evolved in stages, from attacks on mainly military and government facilities to “civilian and economic targets, including water and transport infrastructure, food production and distribution, roads and transport, schools, cultural monuments, clinics and hospitals, and houses, fields and flocks.” In August 2016, the Coalition launched a third stage: economic war with intermittent blockades of al-Hodeidah, Yemen’s major port on the Red Sea; the closure of the airport in Sana’a to all commercial flights; and the transfer of the central bank of Yemen to the city of Aden. (Southern Yemen, where Aden is situated, is controlled by forces of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which is aligned with Saudi Arabia in its war on the Houthi rebels, based in San’a’ in the north.) On the basis of her research, Mundy concludes that the economic war is the leading cause of the tragedy that has befallen the people of Yemen:

Today Yemen is commonly described as the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world with 80% of the population requiring food assistance and with outbreaks of cholera that have affected more than a million people. The causes of that include not just the effects of the bombing campaign on the quality and quantity of food and water available … but above all the impact of the deepening economic war from late 2016.

The good news is that this crisis is finally getting the attention it deserves. During the week of December 1, the US Senate is expected to vote on S. J. Resolution 54, the bipartisan War Powers Resolution on ending US support for the slaughter of innocents in Yemen. Voters are encouraged to contact their senators and urge them to support the bill, sponsored by Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Mike Lee (R-UT) and Chris Murphy (D-CT).

In my home state of Massachusetts, a coalition of peace groups—including Mass Peace Action, Veterans for Peace, the American Friends Service Committee, and Friends Meeting at Cambridge (Quaker)—is undertaking a variety of actions to draw attention to the crisis and to get more people involved in working to end it. The centerpiece of our peace advocacy is an ongoing campaign to hold Raytheon accountable for its sale of deadly weapons to the Saudi-led coalition. To that end, we’ve held well-attended demonstrations in front of the company’s Cambridge office and encouraged attendees to play an active role in the campaign. Some of the tactics we advocate include organizing educational events, writing opinion pieces for local papers, and using social media to inform people about the crisis in Yemen.

The movement against that war is growing. My hope is that it will soon reach a critical mass, and that once again, as they did during the Vietnam War and in the build up to the Iraq war,  people from all walks of life, of every ethnicity and color under the sun will come together on the streets of their towns and cities, and with one indivisible voice, cry out in the wilderness, “Save the children of Yemen!”

Because the lives of those children matter every bit as much as the lives of our own children.Because our government, along with US-based arms manufacturers, is just as responsible for the bloodshed in Yemen as the Saudis and their allies. Because as members of a purportedly democratic society we are obliged to hold our leaders accountable and demand that they do everything in their power to protect and preserve the lives of the people of Yemen.

A CNN reporter once interviewed Denis Halliday about the sanctions regime imposed on Iraq by the UN but enforced by the US and the UK. A few years earlier, in 1998, Halliday resigned his post as the UN humanitarian coordinator of the Oil-for-Food program in Iraq to protest the sanctions and the devastation they caused. In response to the interviewer’s question about Saddam Hussein’s brutality and the need to keep the sanctions in place, Halliday said, “Nothing justifies the killing of children in Iraq. Nothing.”

What was true then is no less true today: “Nothing justifies the killing of children in Yemen. Nothing.”

George Capaccio is a writer, performer, and activist living in Arlington, MA. During the years of US- and UK-enforced sanctions against Iraq, he traveled there numerous times, bringing in banned items, befriending families in Baghdad, and deepening his understanding of how the sanctions were impacting civilians. His email is[email protected] He welcomes comments and invites readers to visit his website:



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