Interviewsand Articles


A Conversation with Janessa Gans Wilder: Listening to the River

by , Nov 19, 2020



This is an excerpt from a interview from Nov. 10, 2018.
(Awakin Calls)
Aryae Coopersmith host 
Richard Whittaker - moderator
At the time of the conversation the Camp Fire, the largest in California history, was raging in Butte County and its smoke, carried to the west and southwest, was blanketing the Bay Area.

Janessa Gans Wilder grew up in a family that was grounded in the principles of Christian Science and that also embraced the importance of military service. She attended Principia College as an undergraduate and received her master’s degree in international policy studies at Stanford University. She served five years in the CIA and spent time in the Middle East during the Iraq War as a counterinsurgency analyst. She experienced the profound reality of war, an experience that only those actually in a war can really know. During a quiet moment outside of Fallujah, she had an epiphany that gave her a new direction in life and to the founding of the Euphrates Institute. The Institute is dedicated to peace building and now has a global network of thirty chapters across fifteen countries. Janessa also works with the Educare Unlearning Institute and the United Religions Initiative.

“Then when the Iraq War started, they were asking for 90-day volunteers to go to Iraq. I begged my boss, ‘Please, please, please, can I go?’” - Janessa Gans Wilder

Richard:  Good morning, Janessa.

Janessa:   Good morning, Richard.

Richard:   We’re all coughing because we’re living in a world of smoke. Is there a lot of smoke where you are?

Janessa:   Guys, it was so bad last night. Paradise is about an hour away from where I live. So, so many folks here have cherished friends there and the town has just been lost. I mean, the entire town is gone. We were really feeling and smelling all the smoke yesterday. That’s cleared up a bit this morning, but we’re still suffering from the huge fire that came through Redding this summer.
Richard:   Well, we won’t get into the environmental question. We’re living in it. So to start with, can I get a timeline? Like when did you join the CIA? When did you leave? And when did you found the Euphrates Institute? Could you just give me the years there?

Janessa:   Sure. I joined the Agency in January 2001 and was there for five years. I founded the Euphrates Institute in February 2006, right after returning from Iraq. And even while I was founding Euphrates, I was consulting, and I was teaching and doing a lot of other things part time.

Richard:   So how did you get into the CIA?

Janessa:   The CIA was recruiting at Stanford and I got into a conversation with the recruiter at their booth. We talked about how that agency, in particular, has the role of knowing the most about other countries and what’s going on abroad in order to critically inform our policy makers. I realized I would love that, and growing up, I thought America could be such a force for good in the world. So it was really both those things—American interest, but also seeing how we can embrace the world. Our role has such an impact.
works:  I see. So when you talked to that recruiter at  Stanford, did you already have your master’s degree?

Janessa:   No, I was there getting my master’s, and there was a career fair. I ended up leaving my resume there with them and, lo and behold, I got a call back.

Richard:   When I met you, a young, attractive woman, it just wasn’t the image I have of people in the CIA. So when you did actually get into the CIA, what did you find that you were pleased with? Let’s put it that way.  

Janessa:   That’s a good question—certainly the sense of service, commitment and dedication. On the analysts’ side, there are incredibly smart people—really knowledgeable and really dedicated to their jobs. Just the highest quality folks, and it was remarkable to be able to serve with them.
     I think the number one disappointing thing for me was I thought, even joining as an analyst, that I would be out in the field. To me it’s really about getting a sense of the place. You get a gut feeling, you meet the people and learn the language, and you’re there on the ground. But the only travel I did the first few years at the Agency was my personal travel. I was just stuck in my cubicle in Langley, and it was hard.
     Then when the Iraq War started, they were asking for 90-day volunteers to go to Iraq. I begged my boss, “Please, please, please, can I go?” I remember having this thought that I would rather dodge bullets in Iraq than sit in my cubicle one more day. And she relented and said, “yes.” Then the 90 days turned into 21 months in the field.
     Being on the ground with the military helped me put the pieces together, see what was going on and what were they learning from their tactical operations, and then helping to put that into the strategic picture. Also, I think I helped our men and women on the ground, our soldiers, put their pieces into that bigger picture of what was happening nationwide with the insurgency—what the overall trends were. So I was sort of connecting the dots both ways.

Richard:   Does that mean you were driving around in a Humvee out there and talking to people?

Janessa:   Sometimes. Sometimes there was a helicopter, a Blackhawk, to get from place to place. Or sometimes it was a caravan with Humvees.

Richard:   So let’s say you land somewhere in a helicopter. Then what do you do? Do you just start walking around? And you had an interpreter? You didn’t speak Arabic, I’m guessing?

Janessa:   Not at the time. We always went to different bases—either military or Special Forces bases in the field. The helicopter would take us there and I’d walk onto the base. I’d meet with our folks and sometimes go out with them—with our military folks or other folks—into the field on their various meetings or operations.

Richard:   You actually did, at times, talk with the Iraqi people who lived there? Or was it always kind of mediated through other people who talked with them? I’m just curious about how that worked.

Janessa:   Yes. I had a translator, or I’d borrow a translator, and we were regularly meeting with Iraqis. Also there were a lot of detention centers and prisons, so we’d even go and interview people there. We were definitely not isolating ourselves, as we were needing to get a sense from the Iraqis of what the picture was.
     After having been isolated in Langley and trying to paint this intelligence picture, then finally being in the field and getting to smell the air and meet the people and understand what was going on, it was just such a relief in so many ways. But that first year, anyway, was definitely still focused on seeing the Iraqis as the enemy, and trying to understand what made them tick and what was motivating them. It was still seeing them in an antagonistic way.
Richard:   I was wondering what must have evolved for you to go from Langley to finally getting out into the field and talking to people. As you said, it was a relief—and then coming into touch with some of the darker realities of war. Did you find something shifting for you around all this?

Janessa:   Yes. I think I was still trying to do my best in whatever situation I was placed in—trying to understand what was going on in order to quench the insurgency and move forward on our, the Iraqis’ and Americans,’ mutual goals. I was really trying to do the best I could.

Richard:   Can you tell us what led up to your epiphany? It’s such a wonderful story.

Janessa:   I guess this was seven to eight months into my time there, in April, 2004. That was when a sense of helplessness and hopelessness really came to a head. It was during that first major battle in Fallujah, when the four Blackwater guards were burned and dragged through town, and strung up on the bridge. One of them had served in the Seals with my brother. I’d just been in Fallujah a month and a half before that and had driven over that same bridge. So to see those images, it just kind of hit home in a new way.
     I was the only civilian woman on base during that first battle. It was intense. I was sleeping in a tent with six guys. We got very little sleep and were constantly running out to the sand bags when mortars were incoming, and the outgoing mortars were deafening. It was a scary time. In every meeting I was trying, again, to help convey the intelligence I had on the insurgency and what was happening, like who are the key players to support this war effort? It was really tough seeing our marines coming back wounded from the field. It felt really dark; there was a lot of despair.
     Then, we were called off about halfway through the effort because the Iraqis and Americans did not like how it was going in Fallujah. Too many civilians were being displaced and hurt. The Iraqis had threatened to pull out of the government, and all sorts of things. They sort of forced us in before the military was even ready, and then they were forced out. It was handed over to a Fallujah brigade, sort of a local militia, which turned into Taliban-style rule in the city. It was just to no end, and that was a low point for me.
     About a month or so later, I was staying with Special Forces on another base in a nearby town. I’d gone for a run one evening and went up on the roof of the base to cool down. I just sat there and took in this beautiful scene before me, which was the Euphrates River just floating by. It was so beautiful, crystal clear blue. The sun was setting, and the only sound I could hear—no deafening bombs were going off—was that beautiful sound of the water and the swaying of the leaves and the bulrushes.
     I took a deep breath and really breathed that in. And a question came to me: Which picture will you choose?
     I realized this river flowed, just a few miles downstream, through the middle of Fallujah—and that it had been flowing on, even amidst the bombs going off and the death and destruction. There was this river of life that had been flowing silently in the midst of all that.
     These two things were happening in the same place at the same time, but I’d been totally, completely unaware of it, of the river flowing through the war zone. But at that moment, all stress from that war zone and angst just completely left me and I felt a sense of peace and stillness. So it really was a choice. Which picture or image would I choose, this river of life and peace, or the war with its chaos and destruction going on around it?
     It was so clear to me in that moment that the river was the more powerful force. It flowed on uninterrupted, no matter how many bombs went off. The bombs couldn’t affect the flow and trajectory and stillness of that river. It was more powerful than anything going on around it. Yet it was so subtle, and so silent.
     If course, everything in my being wanted to choose peace, choose life, choose stillness—that beauty. I was yearning for it. So, I put my stick on the ground and said, “I choose the river.” I had no idea what that meant. I just silently acknowledged that.
     Then I went back to my boss in Baghdad—I don’t remember, in the next day or two—and said, “I think I’m done with counterinsurgency and analysis. I want to do something good for Iraqis. I want to do something positive.”
     It was amazing. I never did counterinsurgency again. It happened really quickly. I even got to do human rights as part of my portfolio. I was part of the liaison to most of the Iraqi political parties leading up to the elections. It was so strange, to go from seeing them as the enemy.

Richard:   That does sound amazing. So tell us some-thing about the Euphrates Institute.

Janessa:   Well, you know, the way I want to jump into that is I’m realizing it’s so similar. Instead of American service men and women, the Euphrates Institute is a global community of people who are still willing to lay down their lives and who are sacrificing everything and dedicating so much of their financial resources, their time, their energy, their efforts to this greater mission of transformation in their communities and themselves, bringing peace and reconciling differences, enlightening people, making our world closer. I mean, it’s the same level of dedication and commitment that I experienced in the military and in our government. But now it’s global, and so it feels like coming home, in a way. A lot of the folks from our different chapters I’ve never even met in person, yet I feel such a sense of kinship of values alignment. We just get each other, and we all feel how hard this is and what a long road it will be. The support and encouragement we derive from being connected to the community is so vital.
      One example I love is our chapter leader, Abdul in Khartoum, Sudan. A few months ago we were on a community chapter call. He said, “ISIS has been stepping up activities and recruitment in Sudan. So I have been stepping up my Euphrates activities.” He writes a lot of op-eds in the newspapers. He goes to different universities to talk to youth about getting to know the West, how they’re not the great Satan and that there’s another path beyond extremism. We can reconcile our differences and bridge the Middle East and West.
      I asked Abdul, “How are you doing that? You’re openly aligning yourself with an American Christian, a woman, who founded this and who’s former CIA. And you’re in an extremist Muslim Society.” So I said, “Aren’t you risking your life by doing this?”
     He laughed a little bit. And I said, “No, seriously, Abdul! Isn’t that a great risk to yourself to be openly doing that?”
     He got really quiet, and we all got so quiet on the phone. He said, “Well, you’ve risked your life. Now, I have to risk mine.”

To learn more about Janessa's work visit the  Euphrates Institute.   


About the Author

Janessa Gans Wilder is a former CIA analyst and the founder of the Euphrates Institute which is dedicated to peace building, She spent time stationed near Fallujah during the Iraq War.
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