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Trouble in the Ranks

Private Jeremiah Adler wrote home on his sixth day in Army boot camp:

"’I am so fucked up right now... I feel that if I stay here much longer I am not going to be the same person anymore. I have to GO. Please help... Every minute you sit at home I am stuck in a shithole, stripped of self-respect, pride, will, hope, love, faith, worth, everything. Everything I have ever held dear has been taken away. This fucks with your head... This makes you believe you ARE worthless shit. Please help. By the time you get this, things will be worse.’"

Shortly after writing this, his unit was scheduled to ship out, and Jeremiah went AWOL (absent without leave).

Private Jeremiah Adler wrote home on his sixth day in Army boot camp:

"’I am so fucked up right now... I feel that if I stay here much longer I am not going to be the same person anymore. I have to GO. Please help... Every minute you sit at home I am stuck in a shithole, stripped of self-respect, pride, will, hope, love, faith, worth, everything. Everything I have ever held dear has been taken away. This fucks with your head... This makes you believe you ARE worthless shit. Please help. By the time you get this, things will be worse.’"

Shortly after writing this, his unit was scheduled to ship out, and Jeremiah went AWOL (absent without leave).

There is a lot of that going on. According to CBS News reports, the Pentagon officially says that 5,500 troops have deserted since the start of the war. Some have fled to Canada. Others just left on leave and didn’t come back. Many of them are Army reservists who thought of themselves as "weekend warriors" and have now found themselves repeating tours of duty in the occupation zones, with no end in sight.

At the same time, the Army and Marines are having a harder and harder time filling the ranks of their volunteer military. The war-planners want to expand their military by 30,000, and their Army recruiters are rapidly falling "behind schedule." One article in the Associated Press (March 8) pointed out that young Black men and women are now less willing to join.

An August 2004 study for the Army wrote: "More African Americans identify having to fight for a cause they don’t support as a barrier to military service." The study added that attitudes toward the army had "grown more negative" among all groups of American youth.

The occupation of Iraq continues without end. The casualties are mounting. Many people question why the invasion of Iraq was launched in the first place, and many understand that the government lied about its motives for going in.

*****

I was preparing to go to Fort Bragg, North Carolina to cover the protests there marking the second anniversary of the huge demonstrations against the U.S. war on Iraq. And I was suddenly reminded of how I first learned about the resistance of soldiers during the Vietnam War.

I was fortunate to have a progressive teacher in a suburban Chicago-area high school who showed the movie Only The Beginning. This is a film about GI’s who came back from Vietnam radically transformed by their experience. To this day, I know that my development as a revolutionary communist was greatly impacted by a scene in that documentary.

The film, made in the ’70s, shows a long line of GI’s throwing their purple hearts and other medals at the steps of the Congress. What struck me was one vet who stepped up to a microphone and said, "If I ever have to fight again it will be to take these steps." It sent chills down my spine, you know, in a good way.

It led me to want to understand more deeply how someone could go into the military looking at the world one way- -and come out seeing the system that military enforces and defends as the enemy.

It is a trip to think about how different the world is now than it was in the 1960s and ’70s. One could write whole books on it, I’m sure. On the one hand, the rulers of the U.S. empire have always told their armed forces that each war was about bringing "democracy" to someone and about securing the "free world" from threats.

But, at the same time, there are real differences in the war plans and the mentality of this post-9/11 world. These rulers have designs to recast the world under U.S. domination—focusing most intensely, right now, on the strategic and oil-rich Middle East.

And it stands out that this global crusade is described and promoted in openly messianic ways. Many representatives and top generals of the U.S. ruling class openly describe this "war on terror" as a holy war between godly forces and evil (even demonic) enemies. The president himself, George W., constantly talks about getting "god’s guidance" in a global struggle against "evil doers." This talk of "god’s will," "crusades," and "getting the bad guys" should not be mistaken for sheer lunacy. It is a madness with method—which is to appeal to and deceive fundamentalist religious people who believe in revealed truth.

Millions of people who see so clearly through the blatant lies that have justified the war on Iraq wonder how anyone could still believe that there are weapons of mass destruction there. But when George W. says "trust me," the hidden meaning for some people is that this man has god’s ear, and what he says is truth "revealed by god."

All this connects closely with intense and well-developed plans for the U.S. military.

Bob Avakian has pointed out that "Within the armed forces there has been, for some time now, a development and cultivation of a situation in which the outlook of the fundamentalist reactionaries occupies a prominent place, including among higher level officers." The U.S. officer corps has become increasingly characterized by an aggressively conservative political "partisanship." And, within that, extreme hard-core Christian fascist and theocratic networks have had an increasing influence among officers and especially within the Pentagon’s elite commando units.

Overall, the international policy decisions of the Bush regime are being shaped by more secular "neocons," but the Christian fascists have their own growing influence within the government—and they have their own agenda for turning this country into a theocracy. And it is extremely significant and dangerous that such forces have connections and followers in strategic parts of the military. And for these extreme hard-core military networks, all the rhetoric about a "global crusade" is taken quite literally—they see the U.S. attacks on other countries as a divine war against evil. And this dovetails with their fascistic belief that U.S. society itself must be similarly purged of satanic and disloyal forces.

And this makes it all the more significant and potentially important that the war in Iraq has stimulated the growth of something quite different inside the military as well — disillusionment, questioning, rising desertion, discontent and the potential for wider and more politically conscious resistance.

If you look at these developments in the context of the rise of extreme and rightwing forces — you can see how revealing it is that Michael Moore’s irreverent Bush-bashing movie Fahrenheit 9/11 was such a powerful underground hit within the military—with bootleg DVDs passing hand-to-hand, and with movie theaters sold out in Southern military towns.

If there is one thing that can be learned from the 1960s, it is that powerful resistance among the GIs themselves can profoundly undermine the plans of the empire-builders, and can even emerge as a factor when the government attempts to use its military against people inside the U.S.

There are the beginnings of a real movement of resistance among sections of GI’s and their families. Some of the more organized forces are already playing a role within the current anti-war movement overall.

And while people within this movement hold a wide range of political views, there is a common theme among them of stopping the war in Iraq and bringing the U.S. troops home.

I have gathered some of the stories of the people involved in this new and growing resistance. In some cases, I drew from articles and interviews they have written in the press. In other cases, I was able to talk to them directly on behalf of the Revolutionary Worker newspaper. And, at the same time, it is obvious that there is much more to learn about what is going on—active duty soldiers and their families face heavy threats and retaliation from the military. And so much of what is going on remains unspoken and unreported.

A Building Resistance Within the Military

Jeffery House, an attorney, represents at least five GI’s who have fled to Canada — including Jeremy Heinz and Darrel Anderson. In an online interview, he described how he speaks to at least 12 other AWOL GI’s in Canada every week. Jeremy Heinz was one of the first cases of a recruit who filed as a "conscientious objector" prior to going to Canada. This case could set a precedent on how Canada reacts to U.S. GI’s going there for refuge.

Another case Jeffery House spoke about in the same interview was that of Darrel Anderson. Anderson refused orders to fire on a car full of Iraqi civilians. Three days later he was wounded by a road-side bomb and ended up receiving a purple heart. When Anderson was home on leave in Lexington, Kentucky and scheduled to go back to Iraq, he escaped to Canada.

A major story by Kathy Dobie in the March 1 issue of Harpers magazine follows different GI’s who have fled the military, including right after basic training. Dobie points out that the number of calls to GI Rights Hotline has "almost doubled from 17,000 in 2001 to 33,000 in the last year."

I called the GI Rights Hotline myself and spoke to a friendly guy named Steve. He informed me that around 30 percent of the calls they get were from GI’s considering going AWOL. Steve also said many of the calls they get are from GI’s still in boot camp. While he couldn’t give a percentage, he said that when folks get to boot camp it is often traumatizing because of how oppressive it is and because it is wholly different than what had been promised by recruiters.

The Harpers article follows Jeremiah Adler, who decided to go AWOL before being shipped off to Iraq. Dobie quotes from his letters home during the first few days of boot camp: " ’I’m horrified by some of the things that they talk about. If you were in the civilian world and openly talked about killing people you would be an outcast, but here people openly talk about it, like it’s going to be fun.’ In his second letter, written while he was doing guard duty, he tells his parents how sad the barracks are at night. ’You can hear people trying to make sure no one hears them cry under their covers.’

"In his last letter home, written on his sixth day, Jeremiah’s handwriting disintegrates; ’HELP ME’ is scrawled across one page. He was due to ship to basic training in the morning. He had decided to refuse. ’I’ve heard that they try to intimidate you, ganging up on you, threatening you. I heard that they will throw your bags on the bus, and almost force you on. See what I am up against? I have nothing on my side... I am so fucked up right now... I feel that if I stay here much longer I am not going to be the same person anymore. I have to GO. Please help.’ "

Jeremiah escaped with another new recruit before being shipped off to Iraq.

Soldiers’ Stories

Mike Hoffman is the co-founder of Iraq Veterans Against the War. Mike has been part of a movement of soldiers and their families that has become increasingly visible, outspoken and active against the war in Iraq.

I was able to catch up with Mike and talk with him about his own process of transformation. Mike had joined the Marines before September 11, but for him the questions started around that time.

He told me, "When the days of September 11 happened, everything in the world turned upside down for those in the U.S. and especially those in the military. You know a couple of months before September 11, just by pure chance I had picked up some books by Noam Chomsky and started reading his works, all about U.S. foreign policy. There was a big upheaval after September 11. While people were saying let’s go kill whoever did it, I was one of the few people who was asking ’Well, why did it happen?’"

Discussions started with Mike and a small group of friends in the Marines about the question of going into Iraq. "It was everything from Iraq, the real reasons for going in there, and a lot of history, a lot of griping and talking about the history behind it. A lot of this happened in the six or seven months prior to going to Iraq."

Mike was part of the initial U.S. invasion into Iraq. The whole time he was filled with questions. He told me that the U.S. invasion into Iraq was fast paced and that deeper discussions between him and his small group of friends got put on hold. Over the course of the invasion there did develop a consensus among Mike and his friends that what the U.S. was doing was wrong, what they were a part of was wrong. Mike felt stuck and decided to do what he had to do to get home alive.

Mike says that there wasn’t a particular event that sharpened things up for him. He talked about how deeply he was affected by what was happening to the Iraqi people. "That is one of the main things that affects a lot of us—to realize what we have done to the people of Iraq. And even though we might not have direct relationships with them, a lot of this is about realizing that we have done horrible things to the people of Iraq and that we are responsible for so much of the destruction of their country. Ending this war is the first step to helping them get back on their feet."

Mike served in Iraq for two and a half months. After coming back, the whole experience weighed heavy on his mind. He explained, "I was against the war before I went over there, and when I came back very unhappy about what had happened. I didn’t feel good about partaking in it as everyone was expecting of me. And I felt very lost in a certain respect. I went around without any place to put these feelings until I by chance was introduced to Veterans for Peace. And they gave me a direction and made me feel welcome—let me know I was not the first person to go to war and feel like this. Other people who had been in situations like mine had been through the same thing. It was really important for me."

I asked Mike what is the process that GI’s go through that causes them to question their mission. He explained it this way: "Getting shot at for certain people can be a very radicalizing experience. When your life is put on the line for something and you don’t understand the reason or are dead set against it, it can have a huge effect for your life and your outlook on things. So really, people come home with a lot of questions and generally don’t like the answers they get. It makes them open to ask questions of why things are happening. Maybe the most obvious one is, Bush talks about the ’terrorists,’ that they hate us because we have freedom. Then you come back and realize that is not really the reason. They hate us because we do things like invade Iraq. And that really gets people to think about things in a different light."

Mike continued, "A lot of the guys didn’t come out of Iraq talking about American empire. They looked around and saw that they were given one bill of goods going into Iraq about what their mission is—what they are doing, what the military is doing overall. Then they go into Iraq and all this falls apart in front of them. They come home just questioning or dead set against this one thing. By seeing what is going on there in Iraq, it gives you the tools and the initiative to realize everything else that is going on around them."

*****

Sgt. Kevin Benderman, 40 years old, is a 10-year veteran of the Army. He is currently being court-martialed for refusing to return to Iraq. He has been charged with desertion for refusing to deploy with his unit, and he faces up to seven years in prison if convicted.

During a 15-month leave, Benderman had time to reflect on what he saw during his first tour in Iraq in 2003. After refusing to return he told the Associated Press, "Some people may be born a conscientious objector, but sometimes people realize through certain events in their lives that the path they’re on is the wrong one."

Benderman said, "The idea was: Do I really want to stay in an organization where the sole purpose is to kill?’"

Kevin and his wife have written a number of statements relating to his decision not to return. Particularly vivid and disturbing are his descriptions of a young 10-year-old girl he saw while his convoy was traveling through Iraq: "Her arm was burned, third-degree burns, just black. And she was standing there with her mother begging for help." The convoy didn’t stop. He also describes being haunted by images of wild dogs eating carcasses in mass graves. May 11 has been set for the date of his court martial.

*****

Camilo Mejia was released last month after serving nine months in prison for refusing to return to Iraq. Camilo was one of the first GI’s who publicly spoke out against what he had seen the U.S. military doing in Iraq, including torture of prisoners and murder of innocent civilians. During his imprisonment Camilo received a Courageous Resisters Award from Refuse and Resist! In a statement written for that occasion Camilo said, "Many have called me a hero. I believe I can be found somewhere in the middle. To those who have called me a hero, I say I don’t believe in heroes but I believe that ordinary people can do extraordinary things."

He also said in the same statement, "I accept this award on behalf of those who are still quiet, those who continue to betray their conscience, those who are not calling evil more clearly by its name, those of us who are still not doing enough to refuse and resist. I accept this award knowing in my heart that I don’t deserve it. I accept this award as a promise that I will live to earn it. I will live to fulfill my duty to the people. I will live to speak for those who know evil but are afraid to call it by its name. I accept this award with a promise that I will live my life striving to deserve it. I will live my life to refuse and resist."

*****

Camilo has served as inspiration to many other GI’s who refuse return or go in the first place to Iraq. This includes people like Petty Officer Third Class Pablo Pedres, who on December 6, 2004, reported to the 32nd Naval Station in San Diego wearing civilian clothes and a T-shirt that read: "Like a cabinet member, I resign."

He refused to ship out for the Persian Gulf on board the USS Bonhomme. Pablo’s action was one of the few public displays of protest by U.S. troops prior to being shipped off to Iraq. He told the press, "I just want people to know how many Americans feel about the war. It’s not just a few crazy liberals trying to get the attention of the media."

The Navy officers on hand tried to persuade him to board the ship and cease the protest, but Pablo maintained his position and did not board the ship. He has since been a very outspoken critic of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

When asked about the consequences of his actions Pedro said, "I’d rather do military prison time than six months of dirty work for a war that I and many others do not support."

Broader Resistance Developing Inside

While the high number of AWOL’s is an indication of questions that are being raised about the war in Iraq, there are other kinds of resistance taking place among troops that are still serving.

Mike Hoffman highlighted some significant aspects of this resistance to me. He said he’s heard that "there are small units that when sent off on patrol, instead of doing an actual patrol they all just jump in the Humvee and they just cruise through town as fast as possible without getting into a wreck and come back and say ’Yeah we went on patrol.’ They don’t want to do a full patrol because they don’t want to risk their lives."

"You see a lot of individual acts of resistance," Hoffman told me. "Like there’s one guy who is in the Army whose mom is in MFSO [Military Families Speak Out]. He is in Iraq right now and he refuses to wear any of his badges—calls them his ’man scout’ badges and calls his entire chain of command by their first name. There are individual acts like that."

*****

What is developing among sections of U.S. troops and family members is an extremely significant part of the broader anti-war movement. There is a highly important unraveling process going on now—where some people go from loyalty betrayed to a deeper grasp of the ambitions and underpinnings of U.S. empire. In the days and months ahead, many more will find themselves questioning what it is they are really fighting for and who that serves. And it is important that they also get a chance to glimpse a revolutionary future and a cause that is really worth fighting for.

 
 


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