In Our Own Image
Teaching Iraq How to Deal with Protest
by Mickey Z.
October 4, 2003
According to a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Program (WFP) report issued September 23, nearly half of the 26.3 million Iraqis are living in extreme poverty, unable to afford adequate nutrition.
With unemployment at 60 percent, thousands of jobless Iraqi demonstrators decided to give democracy a try by hitting the streets in both Baghdad and Mosul...many of them ex-soldiers. U.S.-trained Iraqi police and security forces promptly opened fire to disperse the demonstrators.
Sound familiar? It should...if you know who Jacob Sechler Coxey was. An Ohio populist leader, Coxey led a march of unemployed men into D.C. in response to the depression of 1893. Dubbing his effort a "living petition," the 500 who lined up with Coxey were met by 1500 U.S. soldiers. Coxey tried to give a speech but was arrested for walking on the grass. His "army" was violently dispersed.
Less than 40 years later, the unemployed masses again got carried away with this whole democracy thing. In the spring and summer of 1932, disgruntled, unemployed World War I veterans, government bonus certificates in hand, got the idea to demand payment on the future worth of those certificates (they were issued in 1924, to be paid off in 1945).
Anywhere from 17,000 to 25,000 former doughboys and their families formed a Bonus Expeditionary Force, otherwise known as the "Bonus Army." They marched on Washington and picketed Congress and the president.
Arriving from all over the country, with wives and children or alone, they huddled together, mostly across the Potomac River from the Capitol, in what were called "Hoovervilles," in honor of the president who adamantly refused to hear their pleas. Shacks, tents, and lean-tos sprung up everywhere, and the government and newspapers decided to play the communist trump card for the umpteenth time. Despite the fact that the Bonus Army was made up of 95 percent veterans, the entire group were labeled "Red agitators"-tantamount to declaring open season on an oppressed group of U.S. citizens. Right on cue, Hoover called out the troops, which included three soon-to-be heroes.
The commander of the operation was Douglas MacArthur, his young aide was Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the Third Cavalry-which spearheaded the assault-was led by George S. Patton.
The U.S. Army assault on July 28, 1932 included four troops of cavalry, four companies of infantry, a machine gun squadron, and six tanks. After marching up Pennsylvania Avenue, soldiers lobbed tear gas and brandished bayonets as they set fire to some of the tents. In a flash, the whole Bonus Army encampment was ablaze.
"Disregarding orders-a common thread running through his career-MacArthur decided to finish the job by destroying the Bonus Army entirely," says historian Kenneth C. Davis. "After nightfall, the tanks and cavalry leveled the jumbled camps of tents and packing-crate shacks. It was put to the torch."
MacArthur's efforts took the lives of two veterans and an eleven-week-old baby. In addition, and eight-year-old boy was partially blinded by gas, two police had their skulls fractured, and a thousand veterans suffered gas-related injuries. After this impressive military success, the members of the Bonus Army were forced to leave Washington and many of them joined the other two million or so Americans who lived their lives on the road during the Great Depression. "Some states, like California," Davis notes, "posted guards to turn back the poor."
Less than ten years later, MacArthur, Patton, and Eisenhower would be earning a place in history books by sending many of those same disenfranchised poor to grisly deaths on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific.
One last note on the shooting of Iraqi protestors: Can you imagine the response if Saddam Hussein ordered his security forces to quell an uprising of his starving countrymen?
Mickey Z. is the author of The Murdering of My Years: Artists and Activists Making Ends Meet (www.murderingofmyyears.com) and an editor at Wide Angle (www.wideangleny.com). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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