Standing Trial: A Naval Commander of the 99%
Consider the story of Leah Bolger, the latest American hero up on trial:
She is a young female artist in the Midwest. She joins the Navy at 22, is made Commander and serves two decades as an anti-submarine warfare specialist. After retiring she joins Veterans for Peace and becomes the organization’s first female president. Then, in October of 2011, she commits the crime of interrupting a public congressional hearing of the Super Committee to deliver a message from the 99%: End the wars and tax the rich to fix the deficit.
Because of her 45-second transgression, retired Naval Commander Bolger now faces a court trial beginning this Thursday morning, April 12, where she could receive a maximum jail sentence of six months. Bolger, 54, intends to plead guilty and instead use her court appearance to draw the connection between America’s false deficit debacle and the three-quarters-of-a-trillion-dollar defense budget we, as voting taxpayers, spend as the base-mark for failed and unending military ventures overseas.
Bolger, speaking by phone over the weekend, listed four concrete reasons to oppose America’s wars.
They are immoral: “Wars kill innocent people.”
They are illegal: “We violate all kinds of international laws and treaties, we use illegal weapons and illegal techniques, we’re not even signed on to the International Criminal Court, and the Geneva Conventions are [treated as] quaint.”
They are ineffective: “Wars don’t solve anything, they only bring more profits to the war profiteers like Blackwater, Haliburton, Boeing, Dyncorp and Grumman. That’s why war doesn’t end, because it’s profitable.”
- They cost too much and we cannot afford it: “Shamefully, that is the only reason this is really starting to resonate with the American public: because people are starting to see the connection between teachers and firefighters laid off in their communities, the closing of senior centers, etc. and they look at our federal budget where almost 60 percent of discretionary funds go toward war and military spending. Our federal budget is a moral document illustrating our values and priorities.”
Bolger has no illusions about the mountain Americans are up against, facing a corporate-run military machine “that is so big and complicated and intertwined with the government and congress and the media that I don’t know where you can start unraveling the knot.” But one place to begin is with the Occupy movement, which she says has placed too little emphasis on ending America’s wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.
She feels, so far, that Occupy is “all about corporate rule and the 99%, with the 1% controlling everything. But I don’t see very many people talking about the war and the killing machine and the military industrial complex being a major contributor to this disparity between the rich and the poor.”
A “moment of epiphany”
Bolger grew up in the Kansas City area and majored in fine arts at Central Missouri State University. When she failed to get into grad school, she joined the Navy for the simple reason that she needed a job. Bolger knew she wasn’t a typical naval officer and that, in a sense, she “never really fit in.” While studying at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI, where she eventually became the deputy dean of students, she wrote papers on conflict termination and the importance of the United Nations, putting her “on the other side of what most people were talking about.”
“I had no intention of sticking around for 20 years,” Bolger recalls, noting that in the 1980s women still weren’t even allowed to work on Naval combat ships or aircraft. Yet as a Commander—equivalent to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Army—and a specialist in anti-submarine warfare, Bolger’s skills led her on what she considered “exciting” missions around the world, from Iceland and Bermuda to Japan and Tunisia (where, interestingly, she worked from 1995 to 1997 as a security assistance officer for the International Military Education and Training, or IMET, program, which ushers foreign militaries into line with U.S. objectives).
Despite all the experience, though, Bolger says she remained “naïve and ignorant about foreign policy and about what the military does. It was easy to be in for 20 years and not have to make any moral decision. I never had to shoot at anybody or launch any weapons. I never had to see the damage caused by what I was doing. And I did not have to confront the politics or the morality of what the American military machine is.”
Until later, when she did just that.
After retiring from the Navy, Bolger married and lived a traveling life on a sailboat, then in an RV, before she and her husband settled in Oregon in 2004. She began working in the peace movement soon after and, in March of 2005, attended an exhibit of the American Friends Service Committee called “Eyes Wide Open,” where she had a “moment of epiphany.”
“There was a pair of army boots for every soldier that’s been killed [since the wars began in 2001] with tags on the boots showing their names and where they’re from, boots lined up in even straight rows,” she recalls, and “it wasn’t just looking at American deaths, but Iraqis too, on large posters. I just remember it affecting me viscerally, the feeling in my stomach—it was a kick in the gut when I saw that. It really, really hit me.”
By then Bolger was a member of Veterans for Peace, the St. Louis, Mo.-based organization founded by 10 U.S. veterans in 1985, which today has more than 100 chapters nationwide. She initiated a chapter in her city of Corvalis and served as the president for three years before she was elected vice president of the national organization.
When the Occupy movement got underway last fall, Bolger moved into the peace activist camp at Freedom Plaza in Washington, DC. Then, on Oct. 26, at a public congressional hearing of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction—the unelected body of “super committee” legislators who ultimately failed to produce any results for their labors—Bolger walked calmly to the front of the room where she denounced the hearing, which featured “obfuscating” testimony from Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf, as unrepresentative of what the American majority wants: to end the wars and tax the rich.
During the Super Committee hearings, Occupy DC and the October 2011 movement produced its own Occupied Super Committee hearing, which aired on C-SPAN, revealing that cuts to military spending and increased taxes on the super-rich would achieve Obama’s and Congress’s 10-year deficit targets in two years, meanwhile funding a jobs program, forgiving student debt and securing vital social programs.
“We tell congress, our representatives, ‘No, we don’t want our money spent that way,’ but they’re not listening to us. They’re only listening to their corporate lobbyists, to their campaign donors,” says Bolger, which is why sometimes “it takes breaking the law, making a spectacle to interrupt a congressional hearing in order for some attention to be paid to the average person’s voice. So that’s what I did.”
Stepping outside the comfort zone
On Thursday, a press conference will be held at 8:30 a.m. in front of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, located at 500 Indiana Ave NW, Washington, DC, prior to Bolger’s court appearance.
Aside from receiving media support from Michael Moore, Ben Cohen and Roseanne Barr, Bolger’s case has caught the attention of consumer advocate and former Green presidential candidate Ralph Nader. “Bolger showed what active citizens should be doing peacefully—confronting the corruption [of corporate interests and dysfunctional government] head on,” said Nader, “and making sure the public knows what is really going on.”
For the retired Commander Bolger, whether she gets charged criminally or not, it is the act of speaking up—challenging the belief that America’s corporate-controlled government can continue to indefinitely squander the nation’s human and economic capital—that she hopes to see replicated in others.
“We have to reclaim our voices, we have to demand to be heard. The energy and the outrage and the righteousness of the Occupy movement [needs] to latch on to the war problem—for us to understand the connection and talk about it,” she says, and urges people to find “the motivation to step outside their comfort zone a little bit.”
“If they’re comfortable writing letters to the editor, maybe they can go stand at a protest. I know most people can’t take off work or fly to DC, they have children, responsibilities, they have to work. But I want to push people to find the courage and the strength to stand up and be a part of the resistance to our government. When I do something like this and I hear from thousands of people who write and say thank you, it makes me feel like I’m part of a big movement. We all are. We all have to amplify each other’s voices and find courage in each other’s voices.”
And for Bolger, the presenting the raw numbers—the facts—is the place to start.
“Fifty million people with no medical care but we have the money to spend on bombs that are killing people in Afghanistan,” she says. “Let’s help people see that every dollar we spend on the war machine is a dollar we can’t spend on feeding people, housing people, health care for people. It costs $1 million per soldier per year in Afghanistan. We’ve spent well over a trillion dollars nationally on these wars since 2001. These are lost opportunity costs because we've spent the money on the military instead of on child care, on public transportation, on clean air.”
Bolger recommends people to go to sites like costofwar.org and thenationalprioritiesproject.org where the costs of war are broken down clearly, community by community.
“This is how you make the connections: let people see in their own communities what is being funded when congress and the super committee are trying to find $1.3 trillion and the Republicans want to cut Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security and the Democrats want to raise taxes. There’s no reason why we should have to cut anything. We should be slashing the military budget.
“We have the power,” she says, “we just have to reclaim it.”