The Cancer of Violent Extremism
The Cancer of Violent Extremism
By Robert Koehler /

“As we look to the future, one issue risks a cycle of conflict that could derail so much progress. And that is the cancer of violent extremism that has ravaged so many parts of the Muslim world.”

The cancer of violent extremism . . .

I listen to the president’s words and stare into the void. All I can think about is white phosphorous and burn pits and the horrific, DNA-wrecking genotoxins of war. All I can think about is depleted uranium — DU — the dense, super-hard metal used in some U.S. missiles and shells that explodes on impact into an extraordinarily fine, radioactive dust. Turns out “cancer” isn’t merely a stern, nation-rallying metaphor for our enemy of the moment. The stew of toxins we’ve inflicted on Iraq over the last couple decades have caused a horrifying upward spiral of actual cancer, birth defects and neurological diseases in that country.

The cancer of violent extremism is U.S. foreign policy and its addiction to war.

“More violence is not going to rectify the damage,” Chris Hedges writes at TruthDig, speaking of the shattered state of the countries we’ve invaded. “Indeed, it will make it worse. But violence is all we know. Violence is the habitual response by the state to every dilemma. War, like much of modern bureaucracy, has become an impersonal and unquestioned mechanism to perpetuate American power. It has its own internal momentum. There may be a few courageous souls who rise up within the apparatus to protest war’s ultimate absurdity, but they are rapidly discarded and replaced. The state rages like an insane King Lear. . . .”

The history of war is still writing itself and those of us who are outside its box — its planet-sized coffin — have no choice but to keep struggling to unleash a wave of human compassion large enough to engulf war’s logic and madness. Politically, we’re locked into organizational structures called nations that are born of war and must keep identifying enemies to destroy — with, oh God, ever-increasing efficiency.

“The biggest dangers to human life from weapons are from governments themselves,” Brian Martin, an Australian professor of social sciences, wrote recently at Truthout. “One need only think of genocides in Guatemala, Rwanda and ex-Yugoslavia, the pre-2003 blockade of Iraq leading to a million deaths, not to mention millions killed in central African wars, while the Western media drums up fear about shoe-bombers on civilian aircraft and airport announcements endlessly repeat warnings about unaccompanied baggage.”

So now what? I think again of the (literal) “cancer of violent extremism” that the U.S., its allies and its enemies spread across the planet as they play the game of eradicating evil. War kills people not simply in its initial assault but also, more insidiously, in its silent aftermath.

For that reason, the movement to counter war has to bring the reality of this aftermath into humanity’s collective consciousness. Thus I note and applaud Iraq Veterans Against the War and the Center for Constitutional Rights, which last week filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Department of Defense to learn, in detail, where and when DU munitions were fired in Iraq during our decades of war.

“As the U.S. launches new military actions in the Middle East, the groups say getting information about the military’s use of DU in weaponry and its long-term effects is as urgent as ever,” a CCR press release states. The release adds that, according to the U.N., as many as 2,000 metric tons of DU may have been dropped on Iraq, wreaking havoc on the health of Iraqi civilians as well as American soldiers.

Of course, the U.S. military establishment is still in official denial that DU has any harmful effects whatsoever, just as it remained in denial for decades that Agent Orange had any negative health consequences in Vietnam. When that denial could no longer be maintained, Congress appropriated relatively small amounts of money (one figure I read was $40 million) to help Vietnam clean up the mess, which had affected some 3 million Vietnamese. Healing people is nowhere near the priority of our government that killing them is.

And now we’re bombing Iraqis again, and Syrians. These new campaigns will slaughter more civilians (a large percentage of them children) and further radicalize the opposition. It will also spread more toxins, poisoning land, air and water. Why?

A number of American organizations, including Iraq Veterans Against the War and the Center for Constitutional Rights, have teamed with several Iraqi organizations to create something called the Right to Heal Initiative. Its purpose is “to assess the far-reaching, multigenerational impacts of the Iraq War on Iraqis and U.S. veterans and to begin to take steps toward healing in the war’s aftermath,” Laura Raymond of CCR wrote in August at Huffington Post. “Our initiative’s documentation of the human rights violations from the war and demands for accountability are ongoing — both among Iraqis and also among veterans.”

An initiative like this couldn’t originate in the halls of government itself because the interests it represents are neither self-correcting nor public. I’m not sure how this will change, but this much seems clear to me right now. We can pursue war or we can pursue healing. We can’t pursue both.


Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound is now available. Contact him at or visit his website at

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The Cancer of Violent Extremism