How Ann Wright, Former US Army Colonel and Diplomat, Became a Peace Activist

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From the Freedom Flotilla in Naples, Italy, Colonel Ann Wright explains her commitment to Palestinian rights

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Story Transcript

DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris reporting for The Real News Network from the port in Naples, Italy.

I’m seated here with Ann Wright, in front of the one of the ships to Gaza on the 2018 Freedom Flotilla. Ann is a retired United States Army colonel. She’s a former United States diplomat who resigned in protest over the war in Iraq. And she is a peace activist for Veterans for Peace and Code Pink. Thank you so much for joining us today, Ann.

ANN WRIGHT: Thank you. Dimitri, and welcome back. We’re so thrilled that you’re, you’ve recovered, and are joining us again on the Gaza flotilla.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Thank you so much. I can’t, I can’t express enough appreciation about the crew and the passengers of the Freedom who delivered me safely to Algiers. That was remarkable.

ANN WRIGHT: Well, we are thrilled that all went well in Algiers, and that you’re back with us on this remarkable voyage that we have.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: So I’d really like to talk to you about today, to begin with, your, your your reasons for resigning from the diplomatic corps of United States government back in 2003. Can you tell us about what prompted you to do that, and also what the consequences were for you, personally?

ANN WRIGHT: Well, I’d been in the U.S. government virtually all my adult life. I joined the Army right after graduating from college. Stayed in the army a long time. And then switched over to be a U.S. diplomat. It wasn’t that I agreed with all U.S. policies over the many years, eight presidential administrations I worked in. But it was the war in Iraq, the invasion and occupation of an oil-rich Arab Muslim country that had nothing to do with 9/11. This issue of the alleged weapons of mass destruction made no sense to me at all, even after my boss at the time, Colin Powell, gave his impassioned plea to the U.N. Security Council. I was like, I don’t believe that. And so right before the war started I ended up resigning. I was one of three federal employees that resigned before the war in Iraq.

And after I resigned it was like, well, what do I do? I really didn’t know anyone in the peace movement in the United States. I knew more people that were in other countries that had challenged their own government’s policies on, you know, whatever it was. As a diplomat that’s one of the things you cover, is all aspects of civil society in the countries where you are assigned to an embassy there. But in my own country of the United States I, in all my adult life, I’d never been a part of a peace movement, or anything like that. So it took a while to kind of get my sea legs, so to speak, in terms of comfort level and what I felt I could say, should say. And fortunately, Veterans for Peace was the first group that I really, that asked me to come speak as a veteran. And a veteran-. And they say we’re a veteran for peace. And I said, well, I guess I’m a Veteran for Peace, too, because I resigned over the issue of war and peace.

And so for the last 15 years now I’ve been working with every group that stands for peace around the world. And the Gaza Freedom Flotilla is one of the great groups that’s challenging policies, challenging Israeli policies and U.S. policies. So I started working with the Gaza Freedom Flotilla through the Free Gaza Movement in 2010. And now I’ve been a part of five missions to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: So before we talk about those prior missions, I’d like to talk to you a little more broadly about other members, current or former members of the United States military who’ve sort of become critical in the way you have about the relationship between the United States and Israel. You mentioned Colin Powell. A frequent guest on The Real News is Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, his former chief of staff, who’s become intensely critical of U.S. foreign policy with respect to the Middle East and its relationship with Israel. On this mission another former member of the United States military, Joe Meadors, who was on the USS Liberty when it was attacked quite savagely by the Israeli military, I think in 1967.

You know, based upon your experiences since your resignation from the U.S. diplomatic corps, how widespread do you think it is within the United States military some level of dissent about United States policy with respect to Israel-Palestine? Do you think that there is a growing level of dissent? Do you think that there is really just a sort of unbreakable wall of ignorance about the issues. What’s your sense of, sort of, the unspoken feelings of United States military personnel towards this relationship?

ANN WRIGHT: Well, first, we are so thrilled that Col. Larry Wilkerson is such a passionate, outspoken person about not only Israel-Palestine, but on so many aspects of U.S. foreign policy. He was in the inside for so long as, first as chief of staff when Colin Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and then later on when he was a national security adviser, and then finally when he was secretary of state. Larry Wilkerson was with him all along that way. So Larry knows a lot of what behind the scenes has gone on on foreign policies through the Bush administration, and has certainly kept in touch during the Obama administration, and now through the Trump administration.

As far as the level of dissent within the U.S. military and levels of ignorance, and things like that, actually, I don’t think anybody’s ignorant at all. They know exactly what’s happening. They know the, the criminal acts that Israel is conducting. Their position, though, is that they are a military force that works for whomever the United States public elects. And we elect some doozies. And the policies that we have on many subjects vary up and down and up and down. But consistently, though, on one thing. On the U.S. support for the state of Israel, no matter what it does. That is a very, very consistent thing. And as the U.S. military salutes whatever these, the people that the U.S. electorate puts into office. And it’s not their job, the military’s job to be challenging, unless specific orders will be jeopardizing this, that, or the other thing.

Behind the scenes I think there’s probably a pretty robust discussion. But they’re kind of, their hands are tied because it’s not their job to make these policies. They implement them.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: So let’s talk about one of the prior missions in which you participated, the 2010 mission in which the infamous attack on the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish vessel, occurred. I’d like you to talk about what you saw and experienced in the course of that attack and how you personally were treated following the interception of the flotilla in international waters by the Israeli navy.

ANN WRIGHT: Well, it was in May in 2010 when we had six ships that were organized through what’s called the Free Gaza Movement. Six ships, very large one that came from Turkey that held over 600 passengers, and three cargo ships and two more passenger boats, plus one more cargo vessel that arrived after. A couple of days after. So really in total we had seven, seven ships on that mission. This was the-. Prior to that we had actually had five boats that had gone into Gaza. The Israeli navy for some reason allowed in 2008 five, five boats to go in, taking international people in and bringing back Palestinians who need, who were sick, needed medical treatment, or students.

But it was in late 2008 as Operation Cast Lead started that they then stopped all subsequent boats going into Gaza. After that horrific, horrific 27-day attack by Israel on Gaza in late 2008 and then 2009. That’s when the Free Gaza Movement said, we have to challenge that blockade again. So it was in May in 2010 that we mobilized all of the ships. We never anticipated that the Israeli military would violently and lethally attack any of those boats. They had plenty of options that were available to them. They could have put a blockade around all of our boats, not let us move. In fact we’d kind of prepared for that. There was plenty of food and water on all of those boats to stay out there for days and days and days. We had made arrangements that if we needed be resupplied, we could. No one ever thought that the Israelis would attack with helicopters, with snipers shooting from the helicopters, murdering, assassinating people on the top of the Mavi Marmara, and then having commandos board the boat.

And I was actually on a small boat called the Challenger 1, a passenger boat that was right next to the Mavi Marmara. And from, from our boat we have pictures of the commandos, the helicopters, from above, and the commando boats from the side shooting into the boat. The, there were nine people that were killed that night, and one person subsequently died. So ten people ultimately died from the Israeli attack. Over 50 people were, were injured by shoot- by the shots of the Israeli commandos. Each one of the seven ships were boarded by the commandos. On ours, the small Challenger 1, they started out by bringing their, their big Zodiac boats that carry about 20 naval commandos on them, bringing them up to the sides of our boat and then shooting percussion grenades into the windows of our boat, blowing glass inside on all of us that were in there. People that were standing on the edge of the boat had paint bullets shot at them. In fact, one of the women from Belgium had a paint bullet that hit her right between the eyes. I mean, it’s a wonder she wasn’t killed with that. It wasn’t a solid lead bullet, but these, these paint bullets, they, if they hit you in a certain spot, they can kill you, too.

We had people that were shoved on the ground into the glass, their face rubbed into the glass. We had people that were tasered on our boat. On all the boats, people were assaulted, beaten up, handcuffed. The commandos took control of the boats, and slowly started moving them toward the port of Ashdod, taking-.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: You mentioned earlier, and we talked before the interview, about how people were- the conditions in which people were kept on the deck of the vessel of the Mavi Marmara, and also about one woman who lost her husband on that, on that particular mission. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

ANN WRIGHT: Yes. On the Mavi Marmara it was horrific conditions. I mean, there were so many people. They, they put people outside on the decks. I mean, first they had searched them, they had humiliated them. For the men, there were a lot of men from Arab countries that were there, and the Israeli military purposely humiliated them in every way possible, putting them out in the blazing blazing sun. Because they were underway then to go back- being taken against their will, kidnapped, taken to a country we didn’t want to go to, Israel. And so all of these people were kept out on the decks in the intense sun, not given water, not given the ability to go to the to the restroom.

One of the ladies from Turkey with whom I had become good friends, because I was on the Mavi Marmara for a couple of days before we actually turned to go toward Gaza, and moved from the Mavi Marmara onto the Challenger kind of at the last moment as we were making these decisions on who is going to be in what boat. But anyway, the good friend from Turkey, her husband was one of the ones that had been assassinated. And she, he ended up dying in her arms. And when she came off the boat 18 hours later, once we’d gotten to Israel, and they took everyone off all of those boats and then transported us to prison. And then that’s when we, who had arrived as the first boat to get into Israel, to the Israeli harbor and taken to the prison, we had heard that there had been, there had been- something had happened. Some people were injured. We didn’t have a clue that the Israelis had killed people. Killed people. Killed nine people right there, assassinated them. And then that- 50 had been wounded.

We were shocked when the women came in, you know, distraught, and just, I mean, in shock of what they had been through. On our boat our photographer who took the picture of the attack on the Mavi Marmara, she was tasered by the, by the Israelis. She she was one tough cookie, I’ll tell you. She was uploading onto her satellite phone fast, fast, fast. And by some miracle, the Israelis did not block that satellite phone and we were able to get the pictures, the very first pictures of what had happened.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: So I’d like to conclude by talking to you about the future a little bit. I mean, what is your assessment of the state of the, the Palestinian solidarity movement? When you look on the ground, the conditions for the Palestinian people seem to be deteriorating on a daily basis, relentlessly. Do you see signs, however, in the discussion that’s going on around the world, particularly in the Western world, that the Palestinian solidarity movement is winning? And what’s your, what’s your, sort of, prediction for the future?

ANN WRIGHT: Well, I mean, the Palestinians are leading the way. When you see what the people in Gaza have done over the last two months, where they are taking to the fences every Friday on the Great Return March, I mean, that is astounding. That you have tens of thousands of of people in Gaza who are going to the fence to sit, the majority of them sitting, looking over into, into Israel, to let the Israelis know, look at all of us. Look at all of us. You know, we are human beings. You are caging us in. And of course there are some, some of the younger ones that have gone up to the fence, they’re the ones that have been shot. Over 130 people have been assassinated, executed. I mean, the Israeli military says yes, we know every single person that we have killed. We are doing it. We intend to. And then the maiming of thousands of people, purposely shooting them in the legs so that they will always be disabled for the rest of their lives.

That shows real courage for tens of thousands of people from Gaza to say to the world, you have to get the Israelis to top this open-air prison that we have. You have to force them to show some respect for us, to show- we are human beings. Se are human beings. And that’s, that’s why we have these flotillas, that we as internationals say we, we don’t forget you. We remember you. We are sailing, and we will sail till Gaza and Palestine is free. We will continue to challenge the Israeli blockade, the criminal blockade. And, as an American citizen, we will continue to challenge the U.S. policies that support Israel and its ability to conduct these criminal acts.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, I’d like to thank you very much for speaking to The Real News today, Ann Wright. It’s been a pleasure.

ANN WRIGHT: We thank you, and welcome back.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Thank you so much. And this is Dimitri Lascaris, reporting from Naples Italy for The Real News Network.