Col. Ann Wright (ret.)
Podcast: “The common thing is that no one wants war” – Col. Ann Wright (ret.)
“I thought, well, I cannot be a part of what I know is going to be a horrific, horrific bloodbath in Iraq. And not that my resignation will make a bit of difference, but at least I won’t be a part of it. I won’t have that on my conscience. And so, I ended up resigning.”
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The decision of the Bush administration to invade and occupy Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, that was the point where I said I can no longer work for the U.S. government. I cannot be a part of what I know is going to be a horrific, horrific bloodbath, and I resigned.
This is the Courage to Resist podcast. Since 2005, Courage to Resist has worked to support military resistance to illegal and unjust wars, counter recruitment, draft resistance, and the policies of empire. This episode features a guest from the 30 years of current U.S. military intervention in the Middle East.
Retired Army Colonel Ann Wright is our guest today. Ann served in the U.S. Army as well as a U.S. diplomat in numerous countries. In 2004, she was one of only three people in the State Department to resign in protest over the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. Since that time, Ann has written a book chronicling dissenters in the U.S. government. Ann went on to be a speaker and peace activist, visiting nations such as Iran, China, Russia, and most notably, North Korea.
Well, welcome, Ann, to the Courage to Resist podcast. You have a very long and distinguished career of activism, if you will. All of our guests, we like to get a little sense of who you are and what brought you to a place where you joined the U.S. military. So, why don’t you go ahead and give us a little bio on Ann Wright.
Well, thank you, Matt. And it’s a pleasure to be with you and this podcast for Courage to Resist, an organization that I really respect very, very much for all the work it’s done for people in the military and those associated with the military. And I joined the military right after… well, actually, while I was still in college.
The Army recruiters came through the university, and this was during the Vietnam War in 1967, ’68. They had a college junior program. They said we can pay you your final year of college if you go to this three-week training thing. And if you like it, and then join up. And then my first question was, “Well, if I join up, can I get to Europe?” Because I desperately wanted to go traveling. And I didn’t want to go to Vietnam, but I wanted to go travel to Europe.
And the recruiter, and probably the only truthful recruiter I think I’ve ever run into, was yes, I think you probably can, because most of the guys are having to go from Europe out to Vietnam. And if you just want to go to Europe, we can probably get you an assignment in there. So, I thought, well, if they pay me my senior year of college if I join up. At that time, you only had to sign up for two years. And with the two years you got the GI Bill, you got all of this stuff, GI Bill for four years.
And I thought, “Well, I can wear a stupid little uniform, and I can march, and I can put up with a lot of crap.” So, I thought, “Well, I’ll just sign up right there”. So, I did, and that’s how I got involved with the Army. I wanted to get the hell out the state of Arkansas where I grew up. And like so many young people, it got me out of Arkansas, for sure.
So, your motivations, you weren’t thinking past beyond the monetary benefit of joining the military?
Not at all. I was going to stay in for two years, get to Europe. And then I did. I got to Europe. And then I said two years is enough over here. I want to go travel, do the things I want to do. So, I got out of the Army, but I stayed in the Reserves because I could see that there was some benefit to having this loose association with the military.
And in the Reserves, they had some programs where you didn’t have to do monthly drills with the unit. You could just be floating around the world and do two weeks of active duty and then some correspondence courses or stuff like that, and you got credit for a year’s military service in the Reserves. I thought, well, that’s that’s okay. So, I ended up staying another three years in Europe traveling around, doing what I wanted to.
And then whenever I would run out of money, I would call up the Army headquarters in Heidelberg, Germany, and say, “I’ve got the next two months free. Do you have any jobs?” And they always had some jobs. So, they would fly me in from wherever I had fallen on bad times and didn’t have any money, fly me into Germany, and then I’d work for a couple of months and get some more money, go traveling around. So, I used the Army just as much as I think the Army used me.
What about the rest of time in the Army Reserve? You served there for quite a number of years. Just give us an overview of that time.
Yes. Well, I was in the Army Reserves during part of my time that I was in Europe. And then I returned to the U.S. in the mid-1970s to start using my GI Bill. Since I’d paid my dues, I’d had my two years of active duty, it was time to use some of that. So, I ended up going to graduate school and then law school at the University of Arkansas on the GI Bill. I also got a commercial pilot’s license through the GI Bill. So, I used every penny of it.
But in the Reserves, sometimes I was in a location. For example, when I was in graduate school at the University of Arkansas, there was a Civil Affairs Reserve unit that was right in Fayetteville, Arkansas. So, I joined up with that unit to make friends, to see what the unit was doing. And it turned out to be a very interesting time because it was right at the end of the war on Vietnam. And the mass evacuation of Vietnamese and other Indochina, China area people that had left primarily Vietnam and had fled to the United States, first as boat people, and then being picked up from the boats and going to the Philippines or Guam, and then being flown to the U.S.
And at the time there were, it’s mirroring the evacuation that we’ve had from Afghanistan, there were about 130,000 people in a very short amount of time, but not as short as 15 days from Afghanistan. But over a period of months, 130,000 Vietnamese and others came to the U.S. And just as what happened today, 40 years ago, the U.S. military was called upon to house and feed and provide care for all of these refugees that were coming into the United States.
So, four military installations were identified as places that needed to be set up to house refugees. So, Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, was only an hour’s drive from our Civil Affairs unit in Fayetteville, Arkansas. So, those of us that wanted to go back on active duty to help with the refugee resettlement project were immediately picked up and sent down to Fort Chaffee where I spent about six months helping a continuing population of 30,000 people that flowed through there. Meaning in six months, we never had less than 30,000 people in that you were having to feed them, clothe them, get medical support for them. Everything they needed, needed to be provided by the U.S. military.
I ended up actually going back on active duty in the early 1980s, and ended up being on active duty for about six years. I answered a recall to active duty that had come out for people that had a background in civil affairs and psychological operations. And since I’d had quite a bit of experience with that in the reserve unit in Arkansas, I decided I would go back into the Army. And I went back on active duty with the Army.
And it ended up the job I ended up with was in a graduate level military school, which was at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, at the School of International Studies at the Institute for Military Assistance. And this school was a training place for not only U.S. military, but also for militaries from other parts of the world to train them in methods of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
So, the U.S. got into Grenada, and within 24 hours, it was apparently very obvious that many of our soldiers didn’t know the law of land warfare, and didn’t know that you can’t steal other people’s stuff. And there was a lot of looting by the U.S. forces in Grenada to the extent that the media that was there was talking to Grenadians and they were commenting about this.
So, I got a call saying, “Could you go down to Grenada and help sort out what’s going on with the looting? And also, we need to set up a claims commission for damages that we’ve done and other things.” So, I ended up being in Grenada for about four months with that.
And then I ended up being assigned down to the U.S. Southern Command in Panama. And that was right in the midst of the U.S. support for the Contras that were trying to take down the Sandinista revolutionary government in Nicaragua, and also when the U.S. was supporting a very terrible dictator in El Salvador against an indigenous force that was saying, “We don’t want this dictator.” And the U.S. was totally supporting the Salvadoran military as it massacred so many people in El Salvador.
I ended up switching over to the State Department. And I did stay in the Army Reserves, though. I wanted to complete the 30 years, either the combination of active duty and the Reserve component. So, I stayed in the Reserves. And then, turned out my very first assignment in the foreign service was going back to the very region that I’d left. And I became a political officer in the U.S. embassy in Nicaragua in the last two years the Sandinistas were in power.
After two years there, I ended up going back to Grenada where I had been six years before, because a foreign service officer, my predecessor, had actually been murdered there. Let’s see, the next one was going to the Naval War College, being selected from the Army Reserves to go to the senior military training school. And then from there, I ended up going to…that was the year that the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, 1992. And the U.S. was opening embassies in the 15 new nations that were formed out of the republics of the Soviet Union.
I was fascinated by central Asia, so I put my name in to try to go to one of the new embassies. And I ended up going to the new embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, for about five months. And then I ended up being reassigned to an office that dealt with the issues of Somalia, and ended up going to Somalia for over a year and being succonded to the United Nations as the chief of the Justice Division of the UN in Somalia.
I had put in for an assignment, again, back to Central Asia because I found it very fascinating, and went to the U.S. embassy in Kyrgyzstan for two years. And then following that, two years in West Africa and Sierra Leone, which was very difficult assignment because there was already a civil war. And then there was a military coup and we had to evacuate. And that triggered, at the time, the largest evacuation since Vietnam, 20 years before.
From there, I went to Micronesia out here in the Pacific. A small little embassy, a micro embassy in Micronesia. And then from there, on a special assignment to the office of the governor of the state of Hawaii. And then 9/11 happened, and I volunteered to go to Afghanistan and helped reopen the embassy that had been closed there. I stayed there for about five months, and then went on to Mongolia as the deputy ambassador.
And the decision of the Bush administration to invade and occupy Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, that was the point where I said I can no longer work for the U.S. government, and I resigned. I was one of three people. All of us were diplomats that resigned at the time of the Iraq war. And since then, I’ve been meeting lots of activists from all over the world and getting to know people who their whole lives have been challenging U.S. government authority. I was in the government for so many years, so I’m a newcomer, so to speak, even though now I’ve been resigned from the government for 18 years, and it’s just been amazing.
I wanted to ask you about that. Obviously you have this long career with the U.S. government and being a diplomat. What were the particulars about this invasion of Iraq that really made you say, “Enough is enough, I have to resign, I can’t work for the government any longer?”
Well, I had been, of course, very interested in the rhetoric leading up to the war. The rhetoric started while I was still in Afghanistan in 2002. And in Afghanistan, we were wondering why Washington was, I wouldn’t say ignoring us, but they certainly weren’t giving us their full attention on types of humanitarian programs we could do, road building, schools. A little bit of nation building, but not much. But just something to say to the Afghan government, the interim administration, “We’re concerned about what happened during the Taliban. Here’s some things.” We were getting silence out of Washington. And it turned out that they were already planning. In the Spring of 2002, the plans for the invasion and occupation of Iraq were well underway. And as I went on to my next assignment in Mongolia and kept track of what the administration was saying about the weapons of mass destruction and all of this hyper propaganda.
And knowing that we had U.S. government intelligence people in Iraq as part of the weapons inspectors, they had been part of the IAEA teams for several years, and they had come back with nothing. In fact, what they were saying, Scott Ritter, in particular, was saying, “We looked everywhere, we didn’t find anything. The country of Iraq is on its knees, and you’re going to use military force on this country? ”
So, that was my main thing. But as I started writing out my concerns, I thought, “Well, I’m going to throw in everything I’m concerned about. I’m concerned about the lack of effort on having a conversation with North Korea.” I was concerned about that. I was concerned about the total support of the state of Israel versus the Palestinians. I was concerned about the Patriot Act and the curtailment of civil liberties.
So, I ended up first sending a cable of dissent to the State Department laying out my concerns. And I got back this paltry little statement like we know more than you do, and just be quiet out there in Mongolia. And of course, that did not sit well with me. Finally, I thought, well, I cannot be a part of what I know is going to be a horrific, horrific bloodbath in Iraq. And not that my resignation will make a bit of difference, but at least I won’t be a part of it. I won’t have that on my conscience. And so, I ended up resigning.
Everybody was just stunned, like, “What in Heaven’s name have you done?” But there were a lot of people on our staff that were shaking our heads like, what is Washington thinking about? This is not going to go well. Well, our public affairs guy immediately went downstairs to his office and started sending out emails to all of his friends saying Ann’s resigned and da da da da da.
Well, I immediately started getting emails from people from all over the world, diplomats from all over the world, saying you’ve done the right thing. I wish we could do the same thing, but I’ve got kids in college. I’ve got mortgages. I can’t resign financially. But you are doing the right thing because this is going to be horrible for, of course, the people of Iraq, but it’s going to be horrible for the United States, too.
Is that when you began to make a shift to become an activist or to live more of an activist lifestyle?
No, not at all. I didn’t know one activist in the United States. I knew lots of dissidents in other parts of the world. Because as a political officer at the U.S. embassy, one of my jobs at the various places was to meet people that were in opposition to whatever government it was that was in power. But I didn’t know anyone in the U.S. that was opposed to U.S. Foreign policies. And it really took a year before I started meeting people in the activist community.
So, I checked out the VFP website and thought, well, there was some speakers like Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Daniel Ellsberg, people that I’d heard of. So, why not go and check it out? And that was my first step into activism. And between Vets For Peace and Code Pink Women for Peace that also had a presence there.
And then the following year in 2005 at a Veterans For Peace convention in Dallas, that’s when Cindy Sheehan, whose son had been killed in Iraq, her son Casey, had come, was a speaker at the convention. And she said, “George Bush’s ranch is only two hours from Dallas. Let’s go down there and let’s just block the roads and get this war stopped.” And off we went. And 27 days later, over 15,000 people had come to Crawford, Texas, in support of Cindy and all of the other Gold Star families who were saying the war needs to end. And from that point on, it’s been pretty well nonstop of working with people all over the country and all over the world to try to get our governments to stop these wars.
And in the midst of all this, you found the time to write a, a book. Tell the listeners about the book that you wrote.
Well, the book is called “Dissent: Voices of Conscience”. And as I was meeting all these people in 2004, 2005, 2006, there were wonderful… I mean, there was people that had gone to prison for refusing to go either to Iraq or back to Iraq, or they were being very brave about talking about torture in U.S. military prisons and in Abu Ghraib, in Guantanamo. There were civilians in our government that were speaking out on their concerns about what they had seen, the whistleblowers. So, I thought, well, let’s just put some of these profiles of courage, so to speak, into another little book and we’ll call it “Dissent”.
And so during that period, I just kept collecting more and more materials for it. And at a certain point it was like, I’m never going to get this book finished because I’m doing too much traveling, too much activism, to get it all done myself. So, a good friend here at the University of Hawaii was teaching the geography of war and peace. And every time I would come home to Hawaii, she would have me speak at her class about the latest things that we were doing to challenge the wars.
So, I asked her, Susan Dixon, I said, “Would you want to help me finish up this book so we can at least get it out so it’ll be relevant?” And she dropped the PhD thesis that she was writing and helped out for many months to get that book finished. So, she and I are the co-authors of “Dissent: Voices of Conscience”.
And if anyone wanted to read that, it’s available on Amazon, correct?
It is. And you can get it either as a Kindle or a hard copy.
And Ann, looking at your bio, it is absolutely impressive the amount of travel that you’ve done for numerous activism opportunities that you’ve had around the globe. Why don’t you give us a little snapshot of some of the more significant works that you’ve had the opportunity to be involved with?
I’ve been really fortunate to be invited to go to a lot of places around the world to speak and to add my voice and presence to whatever issues that they are concerned about. And usually I would be in Europe several different times, whether it would be in Germany to support the German challenge to the assassin drones that are controlled out of there, whether it would be to perhaps Greece and be a part of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla where we challenge the Israeli blockade, naval blockade, of Gaza.
Whether it be in Afghanistan or Pakistan or Yemen on the issue of U.S. assassin drones that had kill people in all three of those countries, or to Iran to talk about with Iranians the need to stay in that nuclear treaty that the Obama administration finally got, but then the Trump administration threw out. To go to North Korea and speak with a women’s conference on peace, and then to be, this was 30 women, 30 international women, including two Nobel Peace laureates. And in 2015, we went to Pyongyang, North Korea, and then Kaesong, North Korea, and talked with thousands of North Korean women. And then were allowed to drive across the DMZ into South Korea where we had a peace conference with hundreds of South Korean women at the city hall of Seoul, South Korea.
So, there have been so many wonderful opportunities to get to go to places, to go to Russia several times, to talk with people in many cities in Russia about their feelings about the confrontation between the U.S. and Russia. And they say, “We don’t want a confrontation. We just want peace. We don’t want a confrontation.” And the same to go to China to speak at Nanjing University on the issue of whistleblowers. And then also to go on a trip throughout many places in China as we talked about the violence of war and the violence of World War II on China.
And also to go many, many times to Cuba, and particularly to go all the way out to the Eastern end of the island to Guantanamo, and to have participate in conferences about the prison in Guantanamo, about torture that’s gone on in Guantanamo, and about foreign military bases in the country of Cuba, that being Guantanamo. So, I really feel so privileged to have been able to use my background to help explain and challenge a lot of the policies that came about during the time that I was in the government and be willing to speak out against them.
So, in speaking in these nations, many of which would be considered the U.S.’s antagonists or enemies of the state or however they would be labeled by our government, do you find a commonality in talking with these different people groups?
Well, the common thing is that no one wants war. They all say, “Please, do what you can to control your government.” Because it’s pretty well recognized around the world, except in the United States, that the U.S. is the primary instigator of most of the instability that we have in many countries around the world. And so, the common theme is can you please try to control your own government and how it works in the international arena, and trying to get them from stop thinking that killing other people in their own home countries is the way to go about resolving issues. That seems to be the real common thing. Why don’t you go home and try to get your own government under control?
Well Ann, and thank you so much for taking the time to be on the podcast today and sharing your distinguished career as an activist. Thank you so much for being with us.
Well, Matt, it’s been a real pleasure. And thanks to Courage to Resist for giving us the opportunities to tell our little stories, and we’re certainly hopeful that they will be useful to people. Thank you.
This podcast is a Courage to Resist production recorded and edited by Matthew Breems with special thanks to executive producer, Jeff Paterson. Visit couragetoresist.org for more information and to offer your support.