James Loney: 118 days in Iraq

James Loney's new book provides a glimpse into his daily existence while captive in Iraq

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When four members of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) were abducted in Baghdad in 2005, they had no way of knowing that calls for their release would become the focus of a remarkable international movement of support that generated global media attention not only to their plight, but to that of all those unjustly detained in Iraq and elsewhere in the U.S.-led war of terror.

Grainy video images distributed at various times over a four-month period featured the captives -- Canadians James Loney and Harmeet Singh Sooden, American Tom Fox and Englishman Norman Kember -- but offered few clues about the nature of their confinement, beyond the obvious conclusion that they'd all lost a considerable amount of weight.

The outcome of the 118-day saga that gripped so many lives is well-documented: Tom Fox was tragically killed, and the three remaining captives were freed by a special forces operation. But it's only now, with the publication of James Loney's Captivity, that we get a glimpse into the unimaginable stress of fear, boredom, hunger and unknowing that dominated the captives' daily existence. Just as importantly, their journey through captivity provides the anchor for a larger exploration of the blood-drenched backdrop that brought them to a zone of daily terror: a world dominated by the myths that sustain and enable warfare.

Loney is a member of the Catholic Worker, an international movement of individuals inspired by activist Dorothy Day to live humbly, operate houses of hospitality, and resist the roots of violence while creating spaces where people can "be good." By recounting his journey to activism, he allows readers into the development of his activist through line from a priest-in-training wrestling with the contradictions of the institutional church through to someone who follows the path of a nonviolent Jesus in a world where Christ is co-opted by those who take up the sword.

He is also a remarkable writer, both for his language and his honesty, a trait rare in political circles. He acknowledges both the joys and the sometimes maddening challenges of building community, recognizing his own limitations to remaining lovingly open to those in his life -- whether fellow Catholic Worker residents or fellow hostages chained together for months on end -- who don't maintain a clean environment or pull their weight in other household commitments.

Loney's discovery of the CPT -- a movement dedicated to the proposition that people who believe in nonviolence can take the same risks as armed soldiers, only without the use or threat of violence as their guiding principle -- leads him both to global hotspots like Palestine as well as sites of conflict between settlers and First Nations in his own backyard.

It is the challenge of Iraq in 2002, threatened with invasion, and its bloody aftermath of nightly house raids, bombing runs, perpetual gunfire, indefinite detentions and torture, and a descending spiral of daily violence, that poses perhaps Loney's greatest challenge. He finds that his presence there is something that he cannot not do, to paraphrase one of his inspirations, Jesuit priest and activist Daniel Berrigan.

And so he recounts his journeys in an occupied land, among them working with the families of Iraq's disappeared in an initiative that discovered the abuses of Abu Ghraib long before the rest of the world had ever heard of the U.S.-run torture centre. Loney and other CPT members were working to bring together Shia and Sunni Muslims at the time they were grabbed, blindfolded and disappeared themselves.

Reflections on the path that led him to captivity dot his memoir, one that, despite the known ending, is a chilling, compelling read that charts an emotional roller coaster. It is a journey full of painful paradoxes as the hostages negotiate their relationships with their captors and themselves, as the captives try to shut out thoughts of family, friends, loved ones and the gnawing reality that they might not make it out alive.

Loney has a great eye for the surreal and gallows humour, and he captures well so many of those moments that he and the others experienced without any need to bump up the bizarre button. He recounts one of his journeys heading out of Iraq when, standing by a desert highway, a CBS news van sidles up, out of which jumps a man who comes up and introduces himself to Loney by stating: "Hi, I'm Dan Rather with CBS Evening News."

He also notes the bizarre irony of watching shoot-em-up movies with his captors, incredibly violent Hollywood exploitation flics that are enjoyed by Iraqi men who are products of perpetual war yet cannot see that it is precisely movies such as these that have smoothed the way towards the climate of war justifying the occupation of Iraq.

Loney's honest observations on the incessant struggle not to dehumanize his captors are remarkable (i.e., they try to come up with nicknames that represent the Iraqi kidnappers by who they are as people).

Loney's constant check-ins with his fellow captives and his own heart are also incredibly revealing, posing challenges to the reader as much as they did to the men themselves: how does one react in such a stressful situation? Are they cooperating too much with armed men who have stolen their freedom and threatened to take their lives? By not resisting, have they succumbed to the Stockholm Syndrome.

And for a pacifist who massages the neck and stiff shoulders of one of his captors, Loney is also bravely honest as he considers how easily he could have crushed his captor's windpipe. On the other hand, it is these massages that allow Loney to convince the captor not to become a suicide bomber.

Ultimately, how does one "bargain" for one's dignity? How can one contemplate escape without thinking of the ramifications for one's fellow hostages? What is the other three don't agree with your idea for an escape? And how, ultimately, does one view those armed men who rescue you, who represent governments and institutions that you have spent your life resisting?

On many levels, Captivity is a must read that allows us an incredibly intimate look into the world of four men held under the most extraordinary of circumstances, all of them forced to examine their most deeply held beliefs on a minute-by-minute basis. Because of its human-ness, and its refusal to demonize, it is a document of hope and a stepping stone towards that world without war that Loney so desperately seeks.—Matthew Behrens

Matthew Behrens is a regular contributor to rabble's book lounge. He coordinates the Homes not Bombs nonviolent direct action network.

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