On Saturday, Grand Rapids area U.S. Representative Vern Ehlers hosted his annual town hall meeting at the Gerald R. Ford Museum (audio). As in years (2005, 2006) past, Ehlers gave an update on what has been happening in Washington DC to the approximately fifty people in attendance before taking questions from the audience.
In his prepared remarks, Representative Ehlers explained that Iraq is the number one issue facing the United States Congress. Ehlers said that “nationwide people are upset” and “Congress is disgruntled” because of the war, describing the war as “a major concern” that has to be resolved. However, Representative Ehlers did not offer any new ideas for how to resolve the situation, instead stating that if the United States chooses to “pack up our goods and walk out the door it’s admitting defeat.” As was the case last month at a forum at Calvin College, Ehlers admitted that the war was “not going well” and explained that prior to the war, he had warned the Pentagon that it was “going down the wrong path.” He said it turned out that he was right–which he is not proud of–but explained that he was unsure if his approach would have been much better. He did not go into detail in his comments, neither elaborating or supporting his assertions or offering any ideas for how to “resolve” the conflict. He justified this lack of specificity by saying that he expected that there would be questions on Iraq during the question period.
As soon as the question and answer period began, four antiwar protestors wearing “STOP FUNDING THE WAR” signs stood up and began to question Representative Ehlersabout his support for the war . One of the protestors asked Ehlers a lengthy question in which she cited his past statements on the war, his failure to support or craft measures designed to end the war, his record of voting for every funding request and supporting the war without requiring any accountability to Congress, and argued that his story about telling the Pentagon that they were “going down the wrong path” was largely meaningless since he failed to raise those concerns publicly before the war. Rather than respond to the protestors’ question or explain his position on Iraq, Ehlers had the protestor asking the question removed and ignored the questioned. He simply dismissed question by stating that “they” (the protestors) had visited his home “a few weeks” ago and that being confronted by them was “just part of the job.”
Later in the question and answer period, an attendee was called on who asked another very specific question about Ehlers’ position on the war:
Thank you, Congressman Ehlers. I’m just wondering if you’re familiar with what the Geneva Convention says about war crimes and that the US policy in Iraq of killing innocent civilians, particularly women and children, is a violation of those. The massacres at Nabulus and Fallujah, the ongoing tortures at Abu Ghraib and other US detention centers, the use of depleted uranium, the firebombing, the use of phosphorus weapons. The Lancet, the British journal, has said that at least 650,000 Iraqis have died since the beginning of the war. And you’ve signed off on all of this, and those would constitute war crimes. How would you respond to that?
Representative Ehlers responded saying that:
First of all, I’m opposed to torture of any sort, I’m opposed to war crimes, I’m opposed to the position that was taken by Mr. Gonzales when he was still the President’s legal advisor that implied that torture could be ok in some situations. I frankly didn’t approve of him becoming the attorney general as a result of that, but the House has nothing to say about that, it’s up to the Senate. I think the examples that you’ve given, some of them I’m familiar with, others I am not. I doubt the 650,000 figure, I think that’s at least a factor of 2 or 3, but it’s still a large number of people killed. I’m not trying to defend that in any way, but I will simply say that Iraq has a history of that and that to the best of my knowledge there are considerably fewer people killed in this war so far–I’m talking about Iraqis–then were killed by Saddam Hussein during his regime. Neither one justifies the other, I’m just saying it’s a tough country and it’s been that way for a while.
As has been the case with many of Representative Ehlers’ public statements on the war, his response was misleading and dodged any personal responsibility for what has happened in Iraq. While Ehlers stated that he is opposed to torture, he failed to mention he voted in favor of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 that authorized the use of torture, gave immunity to US officials who tortured prisoners, and gave the United States the power to detain people indefinitely without giving them the power to challenge their detentions. Amnesty International has asserted that the Act “will lead to violations of international law.” With regard to Ehlers’ skepticism about the 650,000 Iraqi civilians killed in the war, The Lancet is a peer-reviewed medical journal whose conclusions are now considered valid by British government, suggesting that Ehlers’ doubts are unjustified. In asserting that more people were killed under Saddam Hussein’s regime than in the current war, Representative Ehlers both failed to provide specifics such as a source for his numbers and failed to explain that the United States was either complicit in or ignored many of Hussein’s crimes.
Ehlers also was asked about Blackwater, a company who’s founder Erik Prince, comes from West Michigan. Ehlers said that he did not know of anyone equivalent to Blackwater, which apparently justified to Mr. Ehlers why Blackwater gets so many contracts. A questioner cited Jeremy Scahill’s recent book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, and asked Ehlers about Blackwater’s conduct in Iraq and their killing of innocent civilians. Of Blackwater, Ehlers said that “they are not a cutthroat organization that goes around killing willy-nilly,” although immediately after that statement he said “I don’t know a great amount about them.” He asserted that they are under contract to do specific tasks, but that it is not to kill innocent civilians. He told the questioner “don’t believe everything in the book” but appeared not to have read the book himself.
To hear Ehlers’ comments on issues other than the Iraq War, listen to the audio from the meeting.