“Hostage In Iraq” & “118 Days: Christian Peacemaker Teams Held Hostage in Iraq”* Reviewed

Reviewed by Chuck Fager

This is a bad news-good news review. Bad news first: In US army jargon, the “Tooth-to-Tail-Ratio” describes the fact that for every armed soldier on the Baghdad streets or in Afghan mountains, there is a “tail” of eight to ten others, stretching back to the states, and typically including civilians.

I thought of the “Tooth-to-Tail Ratio” often, and with chagrin, while reading Norman Kember’s sorry tale of misbegotten adventurism. Competent military commanders know that the “tail,” while cumbersome, provides useful places for those unfit for the front line. “They also serve who only stare at computer screens,” and such.

This is said not to praise the military but to acknowledge the underlying rationality of its organization. And this rationality casts a sharp and unflattering light of contrast on the account at hand.

The “Christian Peacemaker Teams” (or CPT), under whose auspices Norman Kember went to Iraq, would do well to make a careful study of this military approach to structure. Instead, it is hard to overstate the reckless incompetence displayed in their abetting of this frail septuagenarian’s self-indulgent fantasy of combatant tourism.

This recklessness is not an accident. CPT claims as its inspiration a 1984 speech by Ron Sider, the founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, to a Mennonite world conference. In it, Sider declared that “To rise to this challenge of history, we need to . . . prepare to die by the thousands.” In particular, the test of real Christian peace work, he insisted, was for his hearers to get “ready to start to die by the thousands in dramatic vigorous new exploits for peace and justice . . . .”

Sider’s speech is still posted on the CPT website at: www.cpt.org as a kind of scripture and manifesto.

Frankly, such martyr machismo has no appeal for me. My problems with it are theological, strategic, and practical.

Theologically, I simply don’t believe that martyrdom is the test of true Christian peacemaking. After all, when Jesus sent his disciples out (Matthew 10:16), he told them they were like “sheep in the midst of wolves,” so they were to be “wise as serpents” as well as “harmless as doves.” He did not urge them to make themselves available as wolf food. Sure, faithful peace action will sometimes entail risk, and occasionally martyrdom. But like the military, it’s the mission which is primary, not the risk.

Strategically, there is simply no clear relationship between dead Christians and effective peacemaking. Both peace and war are much more complicated than that; not to mention Christianity. If “dead Christians” equaled peace, then Iraq should be fine, because in fact, Christians have been “dying by the thousands” there – many of them U.S. soldiers fighting the war, and many others native Iraqis victimized by it. The simplistic, sectarian frame of the Sider/CPT approach may not be apparent to them, but it is obvious to others and makes a hash of its moral pretensions.

And practically, CPT’s attachment to this premise “on the ground,” has not gone much beyond a kind of rhetorical pose: its members have not been dying even by the dozens (and thank god for thatཀ). But cases like Kember’s show that the difference between “dramatic vigorous new exploits” and plain damned foolishness can sometimes be hard to discern.

In this case, Kember’s whole rationale for wanting to go was cockeyed. A retired professor of Biophysics and a longtime British anti-war activist, he felt he hadn’t “risked” enough for his longtime pacifism. As a Baptist, he was particularly haunted by the example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who conspired against Hitler and was killed.

But here’s a clue for wannabe Bonhoeffers: neither peacework – nor for that matter military operations – is primarily about risk; they are about achieving specific objectives. And any experienced army squad leader knows that soldiers who go out courting danger and excitement (scornfully called “cowboys”) pose potentially fatal hazards to their entire unit and their overall mission.

Kember could have found a suitable place in the “tail” of peacework; there is plenty that’s useful to do. But his acknowledged liberal guilt would not yield to such undramatic stuff: “In no way was I taking risks for my beliefs in the way that young servicemen and women in Iraq were taking risks for theirs,” he wrote.

But guilt aside, there were good reasons for this disparity: Kember was in no kind of shape to be “on the front lines.” In real life, combat troops train for months, or even years, for their hazardous tasks. But all Kember needed was – well, CPT as it turned out. And once he found it, the rest is history. As his book makes plain, his planned ten-day jaunt was little more than a kind of guilt-fueled danger tourism, which CPT had no business enabling.

Such lack of preparation is not unusual in that group’s ranks. A few years back, I met a much younger fellow who had spent two weeks in Iraq with CPT. He was terrified most of the time, and raced back across the border to Jordan just in time to write a melodramatically callow little book about the experience.

More recently, a CPT volunteer approached me; he was packing to leave for a two-week stint in a conflict area of Colombia, and wanted my advice (and, I suspect, blessing).

To begin, I asked him questions:

Did he speak or understand Spanish? No.

Was he familiar with the players and issues in the long Colombian civil war? No.

Had he, indeed, studied guerilla warfare at all? No.

In that case, my advice was: stay home until you have a better idea of what you’re getting into. Or, in gospel parlance: get some serpentine wisdom if you really want to be harmless as a dove.

Of course, he went anyway, and thank goodness came back okay. But that outcome did not diminish my skepticism.

Kember, of course, was not so lucky. He went to Baghdad in November 2005 for a similar jaunt and was kidnaped along with three others, including Quaker Tom Fox.

They were kept till March of 2006, when rescued by SAS Commandos – all except for Tom of course, who had been taken away and murdered.

By the way, Tom Fox was a friend of mine, and I discussed his situation with him personally between his stints in Iraq. In contrast with these others, he seemed very well-informed about the dangers there; and the evidence afterward showed that he had prepared carefully to face it: he wound up his worldly affairs; he took graduate courses in peacemaking in one of the finest programs available; he studied Arabic and Islam; he gathered a support committee; etc.

Whether this was adequate in a personal sense we shall never know. But I think it’s a fair judgment that Tom Fox was better prepared to face that life-threatening situation than many of the soldiers who leave Fort Bragg for Iraq. His blog posts from Iraq, which continued until a few days before his capture, are anything but simplistic. For me at least, his example wears better than some others.

Kember summarizes this information about Tom, which he learned later. The meat of the book is his inside account of their captivity. Kember earns a grudging measure of respect for admitting just how unready he was for any kind of physical privation. So much that, when the four were chained together for sleep each night, he had to be placed where he could scramble abruptly for the toilet, dragging the others along, to avoid unmentionable disasters, which were not always avoided.

Mentally he was little better prepared. He admits to once starting a row with Canadian captive James Loney over what he felt was the latter’s slovenly pronunciation of Loney’s home town, Toronto, as “Tronno,” the native version. (At least he later apologized.)

Much of this can be forgiven as due to the harsh tedium of their imprisonment. But Kember’s querulousness was such that even his captors reversed their cultural deference to elders and regarded him, in his words, as “the wimp” of the lot.

Kember notes that during the empty days, there were long and vigorous discussions about CPT, particularly between Tom Fox and James Loney, the two who had been with the group longest. We have not been favored with the details of these talks, and Kember says he had no interest in them. But my suspicion is that the issue of the wisdom of the whole Iraq project was on the table. I do note that the 2008 annual report from CPT indicated that they had withdrawn from Baghdad. (More recent reports indicate they have sent a small, more experienced unit to the Kurdish region there, which is relatively less dangerous.)

Certainly peaceworkers should be thinking about how their skills and energies could be applied to ameliorating the awful situation in Iraq. But considering how much time, effort and money was expended, by both civilians like myself, and military units like the British SAS, to the end of saving the lives of these four visitors, it is more than an open question whether the benefit even comes close to matching the cost. And that’s just resources; how much was Tom Fox’s life worth?

Kember tells us that at one point during his captivity, “I wrote in my captivity notebook: ‘Once I had a nightmare that I was kidnapped and, confined, handcuffed to three others, in a small room, for weeks. I woke and it was reality.’ I opened my eyes to see the dreadful truth of the room around me. I felt the handcuff on my wrist and the chain on my ankle. Why did I ever come to Iraq?”

Why indeed?

Kember didn’t have much better answers after the rescue, when he was given a rough time by BBC interviewer Fergal Keane:

Can you yourself, having been back – now that you’ve been back some time and absorbed some of the things that have been written about you, can you see how you got up a good many peoples noses? Because they probably would have seen you, and I have to put it to you this bluntly, as a sanctimonious old buffer who went and put himself at enormous risk, put his family through hell, is then rescued by the SAS and still says they are the most violent outfit in the world and that war is wrong. Do you see how that might greatly aggravate people?

In the audio version, Kember’s embarrassment at the weight of this indictment is clearly audible, as he replies, “Oh yes, I understand it . . . .” ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/news/norman_kember_transcript.shtml )

Maybe this is now all water under the bridges of the Tigris. Yet one more item requires notice:

On arrival in Baghdad, Kember and the others were given what CPT called its “Magic Sheet,” a scrap of myopic piety that was supposed to preserve them from harm by expounding their peaceful intentions. In the catalog of folly that is Hostage In Iraq, the “magical thinking” behind this document may be the most egregious example of all.

Again: I’m not opposed to peace projects in dangerous situations; but in planning them, I think Quakers have much to learn from the military, and much to eschew in this example. That kind of arrogant naivete could get someone killed.

And in this case, of course, it did.

It’s always hard to read about Tom Fox’s death, and let me never forget him and his sacrifice. That said, when it comes to our other book, 118 Days, I want to focus on someone else. In this reading, two chapters in the book leaped out.

They were about the Canadian captive, Jim Loney, who is gay, and what his being gay meant in this life and death saga.

This was a bad news-good news situation also, but of a different sort. The good news is, of course, that Loney survived. The bad news is about what was required for that, even half a world away.

118 Days is a compilation of reports by various staff and others associated with CPT about the kidnaping; this is the “official story,” or more accurately, stories. And one of the stories is about silence. Not the silence of Quaker worship, but the enforced silence of the closet.

What’s clear from these pages is that if Tom Fox had not been killed, Loney’s plight and its ramifications would have been a major chapter of this saga. And Like Tom’s, Jim’s story transcends the specifics of his kidnaping.

The two chapters which deal with this story are by Dan Hunt, who had been Jim’s partner for more than ten years in 2005; and by William Payne, one of their gay friends. Payne is part of a community of LGBTs and their supporters, centered in Toronto, among whom Jim and Dan lived. The couple, like the community generally, had been publicly out for years.

The impact of these chapters grows out of the gruesomely undeniable fact that by 2005 in Iraq, gays were being hunted down and murdered, brutally and with impunity. (They still are.) Many reports have documented this ongoing reign of terror, which is one of many tragic outcomes of the US invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

A gay Iraqi exile, Ali Hili, who launched the website Iraqi LGBT said of this:

“Homosexuality was generally tolerated under Saddam. There certainly was no danger of gay people being assassinated in the street by police. Since his overthrow, the violent persecution of gays and lesbians is commonplace. Life in Iraq now is hell for all LGBT people; no one can be openly gay and alive.”

That’s what was happening in November 2005, three years into the US occupation. So a few days after the kidnapping, when a Toronto TV reporter came knocking at the door where Jim and Dan lived, saying, “I’m looking for Jim Loney’s partner,” a housemate did not mince words:

“‘If you mention in your story that Jim might be gay, whether he is or not, you’ll get him killed.’ It was time to be blunt,” Payne writes, “and it worked.”

The reporter protested, no doubt truthfully, that neither she nor her employers were homophobic. And it was no secret in Toronto that Jim and Dan were a same sex couple. But that wasn’t the point; and the reporter soon backed off That incident was only a beginning. To make the silence about Jim and Dan stick, Payne notes, “our collective return to the closet began.”

At first, Dan Hunt writes,

“my public disappearance seemed like an inconsequential strategic decision, one that would be easy to bear. I was responding to homophobia that was far away, in Iraq. It wasn’t real. How quickly that changed.”

An essentially false identity had to be constructed and then maintained:

“Publicly, Jim became known as an upstanding Christian boy and community-worker from a typical, small-town all-Canadian nuclear family. It was the only picture of him that was safe to portray. I, and everyone connected to me, including the community Jim and I began with William [Payne] in 1990, had to be erased if Jim was to have any chance of surviving.”

The erasing was done in very concrete ways. Needing a photo of Jim for CPT to give the media, they settled on one taken the night before Jim left for Baghdad. “It was my favorite photo from that night,” a friend recalled, Jim with his arm around Dan’s shoulder, both smiling, with Jim’s head tilted toward Dan’s head.” (The photo is online at this blog post.)

But Dan had to go. He was literally cut from the photo. A CPT staffer who was there said,

“The defining moment for me as a queer woman during the crisis was when Dan’s image was cut out of that loving photo . . . . I watched the process of photo editing from my desk, and cried quietly. In the days that followed I worked ferociously to protect Dan and Jim’s relationship, from an already knowledgeable media. At the same time, my active role in making Dan invisible broke my heart.”

Another gay man who was present when the photo was taken said he

“found something in the photo to hold onto. ‘I noticed . . . a little red triangle in the bottom right corner, Dan’s shirt. I thought, ‘There’s Dan. You’re silent, you’re invisible, but there’s the visibility.’ It was the weirdest thing. I don’t know why but it comforted me to know that even though Dan was cut out of the picture – at least to the few who knew—that little bit of red shirt was actually Dan. That was beautiful to me.”

To be effective, this “re-closeting” and becoming invisible extended well beyond Jim and Dan.

“For the sake of Jim’s safety, those who love him took great pains to reconstruct the closet walls he had so painstakingly torn down a decade ago . . .” Payne wrote. “Reversing years of closet dismantling is hard to do, but we were amazingly successful.

“Gay, lesbian and bisexual people used the gifts of their lives to do whatever could be done in a situation where there as very little to do. We are used to surviving despite the closet. Though it’s not a place we want to go, we know how to craftily navigate the waters of deception when we need to protect life and limb, and we did it again for four months.”

While necessary, this invisibility was a destructive burden.

“The media is very powerful,” Dan wrote. “It shapes the way we view the world and the way we experience ourselves in it. Though I knew a myth was being created, it was difficult not to let the myth have the power of truth. Media coverage of the kidnapping was so intense that not being included in it began to annihilate me — especially because my behind-the-scenes experiences often paralleled my public disappearance. . . .

“When I went downtown for the vigil following Tom [Fox’s] death, I watched from a distance of a hundred yards until the vigil was well under way. The media were there and so were my friends. I did not want them to pay undue attention to me in front of the media. The myth became my reality over and over. I could not exist, therefore I did not exist.”

But then it seemed to be over.

“In the end,” Dan Hunt wrote, “Jim came home to all of us who love him.”

Dan was there to greet him at the Toronto airport, and walked with him, finally, to face the press openly and together.

But there was a bittersweet tinge to the moment:

“I sometimes wonder,” Dan wrote, “if the diminishment and debasement I endured would have been washed away in a single moment, had Jim and I held hands, walking towards the thousand cameras, when he arrived home at the airport, or if we’d embraced in front of everyone. But we didn’t. It would have been unnatural for us. Our own coming out hadn’t brought us that far. The terrible violence of being silenced was more dominant than the freedom we had thus far acquired.

‘Silence equals death.’ It was the rallying cry of the queer community as it faced the AIDS crisis. It’s a statement of truth. Non-recognition, disappearance, invisibility, are violence that can eradicate one’s very being.”

For William Payne, his chapter of 118 Days

“is about queerness and about how the sexual orientation of one of the four CPTers kidnapped in Iraq must be seen as an intrinsic, even central part of the story.” Indeed, “. . .the narrative of the hostage-taking is incomplete without an account of how homophobia played a leading role in this drama.”

And in some concrete ways, even after Jim’s rescue, the ordeal was not entirely over. Both Payne and Dan Hunt report that along with the jubilation following Jim’s return home, there was a homophobic backlash.

This negative report is underlined by the note, “Why We Are Self-Publishing,” at the front of the book: First one, and then a second church-related publishing house agreed to print this book for CPT, but both later demanded that sections about Jim and Dan be deleted. More silence, more invisibility. When CPT refused, the publishers dropped the project.

“Sadly,” the CPT editors conclude, “what neither publisher seems to recognize is that their editing requirements are part of the same system of homophobia that threatened Jim’s life while he was in captivity, and subsequently condemned Dan to invisibility.”

My hat is off to Dan and his friends for their dedication and skill, and to CPT for standing up to this renewed call to re-closeting and silencing. It is an example that applies to issues beyond gender, and I hope others will remember and live up to it.


*Hostage In Iraq, Norman Kember. Lorimer, 2007, hardbound.

*118 Days: Christian Peacemaker Teams Held Hostage in Iraq. Tricia Gates Brown, Editor. Christian Peacemaker Teams, 2008, paper.

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