How to rise above the war your government waged
You are not your government. An Iraqi is not theirs. Is it time to retune your perspective?
Amaryllis Fox is a Former CIA Clandestine Service Officer, writer, television host and peace activist. Before attending university, she traveled to the Thai-Burmese border to volunteer in the Mai Laa refugee camp and worked with the Burmese democracy movement and eventually interviewing Aung San Suu Kyi for the BBC, which landed her a brief stint in Burmese prison at the age of 18, but also resulted in the first radio broadcast from Suu Kyi in almost a year.
In 2002, after extensive field work in East Timor and Bosnia, Amaryllis graduated from Oxford with an honors degree and started graduate work in international security at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. There she developed an algorithm to predict terrorist activity under thesis advisor Dan Byman, a leading thinker on terrorism and US security policy. Asked by the University's CIA Officer in Residence, Dallas Jones, to share the algorithm with the Agency, she began work as a political and terrorism analyst for SE Asia, commuting between Langley and Georgetown to finish her degree with honors. Following graduation, she moved into CIA's Directorate of Operations and deployed as a Clandestine Service officer, focused on counterterrorism and counterproliferation. She served in 16 countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, before leaving government service in 2010.
Following her CIA career in the field, Amaryllis has used her coding abilities and international experience to build projects in support of international development and has covered current events and offered analysis for CNN, National Geographic, al Jazeera, BBC, and other global news outlets. She speaks at events and universities around the world on the topic of peacemaking and her videos about dialogue and nonviolence have been viewed over 120 million times online. She is the co-host of the History Channel series American Ripper and lives in San Francisco, CA, with her daughter Zoë.
Amaryllis Fox: So I grew up all over the world; my mom is English, my dad is American. I grew up in much of the developing world, and have spent most of my career in intelligence and development work and journalism since then, also overseas. And what continues to surprise me in every conversation I have, in each country I go to, is how sophisticated people are at separating the American citizen from the American government. And I think that we do the same—I would hope—in return.
Here in the United States, because we are lucky to live in a mature democracy, I think we sometimes forget that, for many citizens, the actions of their government have nothing to do with them. They have no say in them whatsoever and are mostly horrified by what their government does. And so often overseas people who have grown up in that kind of a government structure actually assume—more than an American would—that when they meet an American citizen, that citizen is in no way responsible for the actions of the government, because they’ve grown up in autocracies where they themselves have no say in the actions of their government.
One of the things that I find—I spent a lot of time in Iraq and there’s a sort of fragmentation that happens on both sides where when I bring veterans back to Iraq with my organization Operation Zoe, which brings veterans back to war zones to use their same skills for humanitarian missions that they were previously using to wage war. When I bring veterans back to the theaters that they were active in, what I find is that there’s this incredible dual healing that goes on, where the veterans themselves may have spent two years in theater and never actually spent time with a local except through the reinforced glass of their Humvee. And the local townsperson may have never had any experience with that veteran that wasn’t buffered, you know, with an M4 and security on all sides.
It’s very difficult to build a human connection with that kind of security apparatus around you. When we’re surrounded by weapons our reptilian brain defaults to a conflict stance, and when we bring veterans back, unarmed, to these same theaters and they work cheek by jowl with people living in the refugee camps—those who are rebuilding their homes—and build a health clinic, build a youth center together with local Iraqis, it’s almost like watching someone wave a magic wand and seeing a curse lift. And people blink for the first time and look at one another and realize that the person they’re seeing is human.
There’s a real magic to it when you recognize yourself in someone else. And a lot of the military-industrial complex is intentionally designed—sometimes with good reason and sometimes not—to prevent you from having that recognition. Humans don’t like to kill one another—which is great news. But basic training, not just in the United States but in every military worldwide, is designed to walk that back to make you believe that your adversary is something other than human in order to enable you to kill them, should you need to.
So I think what we have, you know, ten years into a conflict, is a generation that has been subjected to that training, sometimes necessarily. And now here they are needing to walk that back and rediscover the humanity in one another, and in so doing the humanity in themselves. And when you watch that process it’s really magical.
How does the world view American citizens? It might actually surprise you. Amaryllis Fox is a former CIA clandestine operative who grew up in the developing world and who has spent most of her career so far in foreign countries. "What continues to surprise me in every conversation I have, in each country I go to, is how sophisticated people are at separating the American citizen from the American government." You are not your government, just as an Iraqi is not theirs. That is a humanizing realization that is incredibly powerful for the everyday citizen, and even more so for veterans who have been trained in detachment, inside the military-industrial complex. Fox's organization Operation Zoe brings veterans back into their old theaters of war and uses their unique military skill set for humanitarian missions, like rebuilding homes, youth centers, and health clinics with local townspeople. "There’s a real magic to it when you recognize yourself in someone else," Fox says. Whether you grow up in an autocracy or a democracy, there is often very little say for citizens in the actions of their government. Your perspective on others and personal actions, however, are entirely in your hands.
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