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The rise of the antiwar soldier

March 16, 2007 | Pages 7 and 10

ERIC RUDER tells the story of the growing struggle of Iraq veterans and active-duty soldiers to stand up against war.

THE LIFE of the military is full of contradictions. Every few years in the last century, the U.S. armed forces sprang into action, waging war in the name of peace, using guns to bring "democracy," carrying out "humanitarian interventions" that kill the very people the military is supposed to help.

No less glaring are the contradictions in the life of a soldier. In a society that promotes individualism, soldiers are never supposed to question an order from a commanding officer. People join for many reasons--to "be all they can be," get a college education or job training, see the world, or simply get out of the town where they grew up. Yet they may find themselves sent off to another land to kill its people.

The simple fact is that for some recruits, joining the military seems like the best job they can hope for. At a time when nearly 50 million Americans have no health care and a college education costs tens of thousands of dollars, the military has something to offer to people caught on the bottom end of U.S. society.

Joining the military, however, isn't like any other job. You can't quit, you can't organize a union to stand up for your rights--and in an instant, you can be injured, maimed or killed.

What you can do

Several recent articles provide a useful look at the GI rights movement today. A good place to start is SW's interview with Chanan Suarez Díaz "Dissent in the ranks"; Marc Cooper's "About Face: The Growing Antiwar Movement in the Military"; and "Iraqis are people too," by Cindy Sheehan.

Labor Beat, which produces and distributes progressive media on labor and social issues, has produced an excellent video called the "Rise of the Anti-War Soldier." It's available on the Internet and on DVD.

Active-duty soldiers can register their discontent by signing the Appeal for Redress. For news and updates about war resisters and other initiatives, go to the Iraq Veterans Against the War Web site.

Troops who need advice about their rights should go to GI Rights Hotline Web site or call 800-394-9544 from the U.S. or 510-465-1472 from outside the U.S.

David Cortright's excellent history of the GI rebellion during the U.S. war on Vietnam, Soldiers in Revolt, is available in a new edition from Haymarket Books. David Zeiger's Sir! No Sir! is an inspiring documentary about the Vietnam soldiers' revolt, and is available on DVD, along with many other supplemental materials.


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The toll in Iraq

In the four months ending January 31, more U.S. troops were killed in combat in Iraq than any other four-month period since the beginning of the war--at least 334, according to the Associated Press. The total U.S. war dead is now 3,190.

But this number by itself is an underestimation of the impact of the war on U.S. forces. For one thing, it doesn't include the nearly 800 civilians working under Pentagon contracts who have been killed in Iraq while performing duties usually handled by the U.S. military. Some 3,300 contractors have been injured.

"It's another unseen expense of the war," said Thomas Houle, a retired Air Force reservist, whose brother-in-law died while driving a truck in Iraq. "It's almost disrespectful that it doesn't get the kind of publicity or respect that a soldier would."

Today, there are about 135,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and almost as many contractors--120,000. In this light, Bush's "surge" of 21,500 appears even less likely to increase U.S. numbers sufficiently to shift the balance in the conflict.

But the Bush administration has few options when it comes to the level of outsourcing or the size of the "surge." Of the 1.4 million U.S. troops who have already deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan (not including contractors), about a third have already served more than one tour--and some of those have deployed three, four or more times.

With no resolution to the conflict in sight--no resolution favorable to the aims of U.S. war planners, that is--the pressure to continue with these multiple deployments is immense.

This takes an enormous toll on military families. A recent New York Times report on the return of 14,000 National Guard troops to Iraq next year described the trail of broken families, financial woes and resentments that long and repeated deployments leave in their wake.

"Even many active-duty military families, used to the difficulties of deployments, are reeling as soldiers are being sent again and again to war zones, with only the smallest pause in between," the Times reported. "The unrelenting fear of death or injury, mental health problems, the lack of recuperative downtime between deployments and the changes that await when a soldier comes home hover over every household."

Larry Syverson--a state worker from Virginia, who has three sons, Bryce, Brent and Branden, in the military--knows the weight of these pressures.

"Bryce just got back in November from Iraq from his second tour, my son Brent in the Navy has had two tours in Iraqi waters, and Branden has had one tour of Iraq," Larry said in an interview at the January 27 march against the war in Washington, D.C. "Branden's being transferred to a Stryker unit at Fort Lewis, and there's a good chance he'll have a second tour in the fall.

"Between the three sons, we've had five deployments to Iraq. Bryce had a pretty bad case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and suicidal tendencies. And even after putting him in the psychiatric ward at Walter Reed, they still sent him back for a second tour in Iraq."

"He just got back in November, and he's doing surprisingly well," said Larry, looking for the silver lining. "The positive thing is that the skills and techniques he learned at Walter Reed on suicide watch he's already using to take care of himself now."

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Fears of a broken force

In early 2005, Lt. Gen. James Helmly, head of the Army Reserve, made headlines with a memo that lashed out at Pentagon authorities who denied his repeated requests to revamp what he called the "dysfunctional" policies for mobilizing reserves. Helmly warned that the Army Reserve "is rapidly degenerating into a 'broken' force."

Two years later, the pressures turning the Army Reserve into a "broken force" have not only grown, but they have spread to the rest of the military.

There's the depletion of equipment and supplies--the broken-down Humvees, Bradley fighting vehicles and helicopters worn down by heavy use in Iraq's harsh climate.

There's the low morale--and ambivalence about the mission--among troops. One public opinion poll of soldiers in January 2006 found that only 23 percent support Bush's view that the U.S. should stay in Iraq "as long as necessary."

But just as important as the morale of troops is the "morale" of the U.S. population as a whole. That's because every military reflects the society it grows out of, giving a magnified expression to all of that society's positive and negative features.

With the U.S. population turning against the war--a record number now say the war wasn't worth fighting, and for the first time, a majority supports setting a deadline for withdrawal--it's no wonder that soldiers are, too.

Since the start of the war four years ago, more than 20,000 soldiers have gone AWOL--absent without official leave--though accurate numbers are hard to come by, as the military is loathe to acknowledge that defections from its ranks have a mass character.

Not every one of the troops who walks away from the military is against the war, or even against being deployed. There are many reasons to go AWOL--unwillingness to leave a family member in need, weariness of military life or the offer of a better job.

For most of those who go AWOL in anonymity and without expressing any misgivings about the mission, the punishment is generally light--an other-than-honorable discharge that may mean diminished benefits.

"I think there probably are a lot of soldiers who left because they don't want to participate in the war in Iraq," Kelly Dougherty, executive director of Iraq Veterans Against the War, explained in an interview.

"The reason that only a handful have come out publicly is that it's really hard to put yourself in that position. If you come forward, you are exposing yourself to criticism and more extreme punishment from the military. One friend told me that he went AWOL because he didn't want to go to war in Iraq, and when he later turned himself in, he didn't tell anyone that he felt that way."

The military makes it as difficult as possible for a service member who goes public with their decision not to deploy.

Consider the case of Spc. Agustín Aguayo. Kelly recently returned from Aguayo's March 6 court martial in Germany.

For years, Aguayo sought conscientious objector status and a discharge from the military, saying his views had evolved to the point where he could no longer participate in war in good conscience. "The way that the military is handling these cases--and the prosecutor in Agustín's case even said this--the main motivation for punishing these people is to send a message to other soldiers that they shouldn't refuse to go to Iraq," explains Kelly.

Aguayo was found guilty at the court-martial and sentenced to eight months' confinement, ordered to forfeit all pay, reduced in rank to a private, and given a bad-conduct discharge--a similar sentence to other soldiers who refused deployment. Aguayo had already spent six months in confinement prior to his trial, so he'll be free in about two months.

In the words of Camilo Mejía, who served nine months' confinement for being the first soldier to go public with his decision to refuse to deploy to Iraq for a second tour, "Behind these bars, I sit a free man because I listened to a higher power, the voice of my conscience."

The relatively high-profile cases of soldiers like Aguayo, Camilo Mejía, Pablo Paredes, Lt. Ehren Watada and Mark Wilkerson provide the most visible expression of antiwar protest in the ranks. But they are only one kind of threat that soldiers can pose to the military machine.

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The GI revolt that ended a war

During Vietnam, the 1968 Tet Offensive--a coordinated guerrilla uprising against U.S. troops in nearly every South Vietnamese city--demonstrated that U.S. prospects for victory ranged from dim to none.

Yet the war went on for another seven years while American political leaders searched in vain for an end to the war that would preserve the "credibility" of the U.S. as a military power to be reckoned with.

The U.S. antiwar movement had held some large national mobilizations by 1968, but the biggest came the next year, when up to half a million people gathered in Washington, D.C., and another half a million mobilized in San Francisco. College campuses were alive with protest, with student activists holding teach-ins and challenging administration officials who came to town to defend the war.

For more than a decade, the civil rights movement had also demonstrated the power of protest, winning victories against Jim Crow segregation in the South and growing in militancy as the 1960s wore on.

The military reflected these political currents. With the stakes so much higher for the GIs being asked to fight and die in Vietnam, the military itself became a battleground. If the war was a lost cause, what was the point of losing one's life for it?

For officers, there were reasons to be enthusiastic--carrying out missions and confirming kills was a sure path to promotion. But they weren't the ones risking their necks. And for increasing numbers of GIs, the sheer brutality of the war--the killing of poor farmers and their families--led to even greater questions.

For Black soldiers, discrimination by their commanders--such as being assigned to the most dangerous missions and few opportunities for promotion--combined with a growing confidence inspired by the civil rights movement led to even more immediate identification with the GI antiwar movement.

The debate about the war grew in the ranks, with whole units avoiding combat or outright refusing to go on patrols. Some soldiers targeted gung-ho officers rather than the Viet Cong. It is estimated that 25 percent or more of the officers and noncommissioned officers killed in Vietnam were killed by "fragging"--a term coined from the fragmentation grenades that were often rolled under a commanding officer's bunk.

In 1971, the Armed Forces Journal reported, "Our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse...with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and noncommissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near-mutinous."

With the effectiveness of the U.S. military as a fighting force ground away to almost nothing, U.S. war planners had no alternative but to withdraw.

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Building a GI movement today

The antiwar movement in the U.S. military today has not reached anything approaching the militancy, boldness and organization of GIs in the 1970s.

Nevertheless, there have been combat refusals in Iraq. The media widely reported one such incident in October 2004, when 18 soldiers of the 343rd Quartermaster Company were disciplined for refusing to carry out a dangerous-verging-on-suicidal mission to transport fuel--in unarmored, run-down vehicles, without an armed escort--along a 200-mile route known for heavy fighting.

No one knows how many such refusals go unreported, but the numbers could be significant. Chanan Suarez Díaz, a Navy corpsman deployed to Iraq in September 2005, described in the pages of Socialist Worker how he and his squad balked at a mission they thought was too dangerous. Their commanding officer's response was to "decide" to take on a different mission instead.

The critical factor that determines whether disaffection turns into refusal--and whether bitterness turns into resistance--is organization.

During the Vietnam War, hundreds of GI newspapers sprung up on bases across the U.S. and in Vietnam--to give voice to soldiers' grievances, and to define and debate the strategy and tactics of the GI movement. GI coffeehouses outside bases became gathering places for soldiers to discuss their ideas.

The GI movement came to see that its main enemy wasn't the Viet Cong--after all, it wasn't so hard to identify with poor farmers who wanted their country to be free of a hostile occupying force.

Within the movement, GIs concluded that the main threat to the lives of soldiers was the officer class that sent them on pointless missions in the futile pursuit of "victory." Many went from opposition to the war in Vietnam to opposition to U.S. imperialism in other parts of the world.

These same questions and challenges face the GI movement today. Like during the Vietnam War, the most politicized GIs will have to figure out how to build a bridge to soldiers who are just beginning to draw the same conclusions. That means a constant effort to move soldiers beyond opposition to the war in Iraq alone, and to recognize that Iraqis who oppose the occupation and have suffered far greater losses have a just cause.

Many soldiers join the military because they want to "help people" or "make a difference." They didn't realize they were joining an institution that can't carry out such a mission.

The military reflects all the contradictions of U.S. society--a society divided between rich and poor; a "democracy" where a candidate for president needs $500 million to have a chance; a system where oil companies have more say over policy than 100 million voters, and where no expense is spared in pursuit of advanced weapons systems while the government skimps on medical and mental health care for the soldiers it routinely describes as heroes.

Soldiers can "make a difference" and "help people"--by joining a movement to end the war and fight for a different kind of society that puts the needs of working men and women before those of war profiteers and oil companies.

And everyone else can support antiwar soldiers by building a stronger movement that shows unwavering support for those who refuse to deploy and resist within the ranks.

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