Voices in the Wilderness (VW) was founded in 1995 to protest what it viewed as the unwarranted and immoral economic sanctions which the United Nations Security Council (with strong U.S. support) had imposed on Iraq. The organization’s name—an allusion to the biblical story of the prophet Isaiah crying out for justice in a wilderness of inequity (Isaiah, 40:3)—was intended to portray VW members as modern-day prophets, calling America to its conscience.
Almost without exception, the founding members of VW were drawn from what has been dubbed the “Catholic Ultra-resistance”—radicals sympathetic to the Catholic Worker Movement‘s doctrine of nonviolent resistance and the personalities of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and, especially, the radical priests Daniel Berrigan and Philip Berrigan. The Catholic Worker Movement has always seen U.S. foreign policies as violent, and therefore morally unacceptable.
VW’s campaign against the UN sanctions mainly took the form of trips to Iraq, where its members would deliver medical and other “humanitarian” supplies—in violation not only of the sanctions, but also of several U.S. laws and presidential executive orders. The purpose of those restrictions was to prevent Americans from aiding the Iraqi economy, on the theory that Saddam Hussein‘s government, once weakened, would either comply with UN disarmament requirements or collapse altogether.
Whenever a VW delegation traveled to Iraq, its members publicly and defiantly drew attention to the fact that they were breaking the law. Time and again, they dared the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to levy the maximum fines against their organization—knowing that harsh punishments would bring valuable publicity to the cause. But throughout the mid- to late 1990s, the Treasury Department imposed only small fines on a few VW members who, in turn, invariably refused to pay.
The quantity of humanitarian aid that VW delivered to Iraq was relatively small—more symbolic than substantive. The real emphasis was to have the group’s members personally “witness” the detrimental effects of sanctions, by visiting Iraqi hospitals, schools, and other sites—always in the presence of official “minders” of the Iraqi regime. After spokesmen for Saddam’s government had briefed them about the deadly toll that sanctions were taking on Iraq’s population, VW volunteers returned home to dutifully parrot those accounts to audiences across the United States.
VW members knew almost nothing about Iraqi history or politics, but this did not concern them in the least; they saw themselves as people of action, not reflection. Thus, rather than plumb the broader political and economic issues, they opted instead to simply demand the complete and unconditional repeal of all sanctions. Indeed, they portrayed the sanctions as the primary cause of violence in Iraq and thus overlooked (or denied) Saddam’s decades-long legacy of repression and mass murder.
Possessing neither the training nor the inclination to dissect Baathist propaganda, VW members:
By contrast, VW delegates had no interest in meeting with Iraqi dissidents, exiles, and opposition groups, who had documented Saddam’s past aggression, genocide, and flouting of UN resolutions.
In addition to their underlying ignorance about such matters, however, another factor as well prevented VW members from critically evaluating the merits of Saddam’s propaganda: Because travel to Iraq was central to VW’s activities, the organization was wholly dependent upon the regime’s good graces to gain the necessary travel permits and visas. If VW members were to be seen by the regime as hostile to its interests, their access to Iraq would have been swiftly cut off. In short, they could continue their chosen form of activism only if they collaborated with Saddam and his cronies. Thus, until about 2000, VW had a policy that explicitly barred its members from publicly criticizing the Iraqi government.
Like Saddam’s regime, VW members were antagonistic toward the UN Oil-for-Food program (known sometimes as UNSC Resolution 986), which permitted Iraq to collect a certain amount of oil revenues to “provide for the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people.” As VW founding member Chuck Quilty once noted: “The problem [VW] saw right away was that 986 would be used by the United States to say that humanitarian problems in Iraq were taken care of and [to] allay any of those who might be concerned that sanctions were killing innocent people.” VW co-founder Bob Bossie put it this way: “The biggest problem [VW] face[s], as I see it, is Resolution 986.” Onetime VW member Charles M. Brown, who later came to view the organization as irresponsible and duplicitous, has acknowledged:
“To be perfectly frank, we were less concerned with the suffering of the Iraqi people than we were in maintaining our moral challenge to U.S. foreign policy. We did not agitate for an end to sanctions for purely humanitarian reasons; it was more important to us to maintain our moral challenge to ‘violent’ U.S. foreign policy, regardless of what happened in Iraq. For example, had we been truly interested in alleviating the suffering in Iraq, we might have considered pushing for an expanded Oil-for-Food program. Nothing could have interested us less. Indeed, we even regarded the paltry amounts of aid that we did bring to Iraq as a logistical hassle. … We were so preoccupied with our own agenda that we didn’t notice or care that the regime made use of us. When critics asked us whether the group was being exploited by the Iraqi regime, we obfuscated, and in so doing put Saddam and his minions on the same level as the U.S. government.”
In 2002, VW became a member organization of the newly formed United for Peace and Justice anti-war coalition.
After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, VW condemned the war as the latest in a long series of “misguided, ill-conceived, and criminal acts” which America had committed against the Iraqi people. Thus the group initiated a War Tax Resistance campaign demanding that the “[m]onstrous amounts of dollars” spent on the U.S. military be redirected to projects “which could reinvigorate our ailing health, housing, and school systems.” “The best way to stop the war machine is to refuse to fund it,” said VW.
In August 2005, U.S. Federal District Judge John Bates ordered VW to finally pay the $20,000 fine that had been imposed three years earlier. In a defiant response, the organization said that because “the economic sanctions regime imposed brutal and lethal punishment on Iraqi people,” it “will not pay a penny of this fine.”
VW disbanded in October 2005 and later reconstituted itself as Voices for Creative Nonviolence.
 The sanctions were first imposed on August 6, 1990, in an attempt to compel Iraq to withdraw its military forces from Kuwait, the nation it had invaded four days earlier. After the end of the 1991 Gulf War, those sanctions—which banned all trade with Saddam Hussein’s regime but allowed Iraq to import food and medicine for humanitarian purposes—were extended and expanded. Their purpose was now to compel Iraq to verifiably disarm itself of all weapons of mass destruction.
This profile is adapted from “Confessions of a Former Anti-Sanctions Activist,” by Charles M. Brown (August 4, 2003).