On Monday night, the fourth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, more than 250 people gathered at Palisades Park to listen to speeches and sing songs of peace in protest of a war that has gone on four years too long according to many there. Second Lieutenant (Retired) Robert Nuengaye Tolbert addressed the crowd, explaining that he had returned from Iraq less than 11 days ago. “The country I fought for does not conduct warrantless wiretaps, hold people in detention without trial or torture. I did not go through four years of hell on earth in Iraq for an America that takes away our civil liberties!” Tolbert went on to assure the crowd, “Many of the troops over there appreciate everything you are doing to stop this war, even if they can’t say so publicly.” He urged the crowd to keep voicing their opposition to the war and the rising casualty toll which currently stands at 3218 American military deaths, 32,544 wounded American soldiers and an Iraqi casualty count that some estimate to be as high as 650,000 civilian deaths.
The more than 1,100 vigils that happened across the country on March 19 were part of the grassroots political organization MoveOn.org’s national campaign to end the war. MoveOn’s 3.2 million members have been involved in ongoing anti-war efforts including vigils, protests, petitions and, recently, the delivery of handwritten constituent letters to members of Congress. “It’s been amazing to see MoveOn evolve from a bunch of people sending out online petitions to a central cog in the progressive movement,” says Santa Monican and political blogger David Dayen. “MoveOn provides tremendous strength to unify ordinary people at the grassroots around core American themes to help push the country in a better direction.”
The Palisades Park vigil was organized by Joseph Hanania, an Iraqi American born in Baghdad and with family roots in Iraq that go back centuries. Hanania’s father was a Jewish Iraqi physician who co-founded a hospital with a Shiite business partner whom he met at the Sorbonne in Paris. Hanania, a writer, teacher and journalist living in Santa Monica, was able to participate in the Iraq elections as an expatriate, explaining, “It was the first time I felt a modicum of the same pride in being Iraqi that I feel in being American.” However, he had been against this war since before it started. “The idea of imposing democracy is ridiculous,” said Hanania, “particularly on people who have not grown up with the idea of free speech and other civil liberties. What the Iraqi people want is security and the safety to practice their religion and culture. The best way to change a government is not to impose democracy, but to set an example through sharing your culture.”
He explained that when he voted, he had a moment of hope that he had been wrong in his opposition to the war and that if something good was going to come out of it, he wanted to be a part of it. His outlook at this point is bleak, however, and he believes that whether America stays in Iraq or leaves, things will get worse, citing ongoing violence and the number of Iraqis who have fled since 2003, including an estimated 40 percent of Iraq’s middle class. Hanania believes that the close to two million Iraqi refugees – including teachers, doctors, professors, scientists, bureaucrats and entrepreneurs – have left a vacuum of intellectual capital which has led to further destabilization of the country and does not bode well for the country’s future. The U.S. has been slow to take in Iraqi refugees, having accepted 466 to date and recently agreeing to take in up to only 7,000 refugees.
At the end of the vigil, Hanania was pleased at the showing and the participants and, while solemn, expressed that it felt good to take action. “Showing up here to help move this war to an end is the most important and satisfying thing we could be doing with our time,” said Santa Monican and radio consultant June Caldwell. “At the same time, I certainly hope we don’t have to be here again next year.”