Soldiers Who Just Say No

by Jon Letman | IPS

KAUAI, Hawaii – Six months into Barack Obama’s presidency, the U.S. public’s display of antiwar sentiment has faded to barely a whisper.

Despite Obama’s vow to withdraw all combat forces from Iraq before September 2011, he plans to leave up to 50,000 troops in “training and advisory” roles. Meanwhile, nearly 130,000 troops remain in that country and more than 50,000 U.S. soldiers occupy Afghanistan, with up to an additional 18,000 approved for deployment this year.

So where is the resistance?

In independent journalist Dahr Jamail’s “The Will to Resist: Soldiers who refuse to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan” (Haymarket Books), Jamail profiles what may ultimately prove to be the United States’ most effective anti-war movement: the soldiers themselves.

During the early years of the Iraq war, Jamail traveled to Iraq alone and reported as an unembedded freelance journalist. Over four visits, Jamail documented the war’s effects on Iraqi civilians in “Beyond the Green Zone” (2007).

Although he is a fierce critic of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of the U.S. mainstream media which he says served as a “cheerleader” for war, Jamail admits he was raised to admire the military. However, after covering the war from Iraq between 2003 and 2005, Jamail was enraged by what he calls “the heedless and deliberate devastation [he] saw [the U.S. military] wreak upon the people of Iraq.”

Back in the U.S., traveling the country speaking out against the war, Jamail met scores of soldiers who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan and found that he shared with them a “familiar anguish” which drove him to further explore their motivations as soldiers. In doing so he opens the door to a growing subculture of internal dissent that is increasingly bubbling up and spilling over the edge of an otherwise ultra-disciplined, highly-controlled military society.

“The soldiers I spoke with while working on this book are some of the most ardent anti-war activists I have ever met,” Jamail told IPS. “Having experienced the war firsthand, this should not come as a surprise.”

In “The Will to Resist”, Jamail profiles individual acts of resistance that he envisions as the possible seeds of a broader anti-war movement. The book is filled with stories of soldiers who refuse missions deemed “suicidal”, go AWOL, flee abroad, refuse to carry a loaded weapon, even arranging to be shot in the leg – and those who in a final act of desperation commit suicide.

Soldiers who refuse to deploy or follow orders risk court-martial, prison time, dishonourable discharge and loss of veteran’s medical benefits, yet an increasing number of active duty soldiers and veterans are willing to do so.

Rather than accept a mission almost certain to bring death, some troops simply refuse to follow orders. Jamail describes soldiers in Iraq on “search and avoid” missions who grew adept at giving the appearance of going out on patrol when, in fact, they were lying low, catching up on sleep and trying to avoid being killed.

Jamail quotes one Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan as saying, “Dissent starts as simple as saying ‘this is bullshit. Why am I risking my life?'”

Soldiers tell Jamail that incidents of refusing orders are unremarkable and “pretty widespread,” to which he responds, “It is also understandable why the military does not want more soldiers or the public to know about them.”

“Army Specialist Victor Agosto, who served a year in Iraq, has recently publicly refused orders to deploy to Afghanistan,” Jamail told IPS, “and the Army, due to the threat of more soldiers and the broader public learning of this, backed away from giving Agosto the harshest court-martial possible, to one of the lightest.”

Jamail also dedicates two chapters to soldiers who stand up to systemic misogyny and homophobia in the military. Extensive interviews with female soldiers detail a pervasive culture of institutionalised “command rape,” harassment, abuse and assault which, in a number of high-profile cases (and many more unknown) end in ostracism, coercion, demotion, suicide and murder.

Citing studies from professional medical journals that offer a grim assessment of sexual intimidation and abuse within the U.S. military, Jamail writes, “According to the group Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, one in six women in the United States will be a victim of sexual assault in her lifetime. In the military, at least two in five will. In either case, at least 60 percent of the cases go unreported.”

As Jamail recounts horrific cases of violence toward women in the military, he notes the irony of frequent claims that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are “liberating” women of those Muslim countries.

Like female soldiers, gay and lesbian service men and women are targeted for harassment and abuse. Jamail meets soldiers who, under the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy, must conceal their true identity, falsely posing as straight while battling internal conflicts about their own roles in the military.

In the blunt language of the soldiers, Jamail describes the military experience as a process of dehumanisation. “The primary objective appeared to be to mistreat and dehumanise your guys [fellow soldiers],” one Marine says. “I could not do it, not to my men and not to those people. I like the Iraqis, I like the Afghanis. Why were we treating them like shit?…That is when I really started questioning what the hell was going on.”

For many soldiers however, the pain of war is simply too much to bear and so they choose their own final discharge: suicide. In an emotionally exhausting chapter, Jamail cites statistics from the Army Suicide Event Report which states active duty military suicides have risen to their highest rates since the Army started tracking self-inflicted deaths in 1980, and the numbers are growing.

Documenting the phenomenon of “suicide by cop,” Jamail quotes from a Post Traumatic Distress Syndrome (PTSD)-wracked veteran’s pre-“suicide” internet article in which he wrote, “…We come home from war trying to put our lives back together but some cannot stand the memories and decide that death is better. We kill ourselves because we are so haunted by seeing children killed and whole families wiped out.”

Contemplating the long-term implications of the more than 1.8 million military personnel who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Jamail points out that the United States, for many years to come, will be faced with caring for tens of thousands of veterans whose lives are permanently marred by grave physical and traumatic brain injuries, psychological scars, PTSD, and a host of associated problems ranging from divorce and substance abuse to domestic violence, homelessness and run-ins with the law.

Other soldiers manage to cope somehow and, perhaps in a sense, recover. Following their discharge, some veterans profiled by Jamail seek to make peace with themselves by educating others about the realities they experienced in war.

The most successful and constructive of military efforts to resist war are made by those who turn their experiences into teaching tools and therapeutic exercises like music, video, theater, painting, books, blogs, photographic and art exhibitions, performance art and even making paper out of old military uniforms.

In a chapter titled ‘Cyber Resistance,’ Jamail contends the Internet “is probably the first time that we have available to us an inexpensive and extremely inclusive means to communicate and thereby advocate sustained resistance to unjust military action, at an international scale without losing any gestation time.”

Websites like YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, Blogspot and countless alternative news sources have given soldiers and veterans both a voice and the means to connect with those Jamail calls “fence-sitters, members of the silent majority and well-intentioned but resource-less individuals to participate in the promise of a historical transformation.”

“While we don’t have an organised GI resistance movement today that is anywhere close to that which helped end the Vietnam war,” Jamail said, “the seeds for one are there, and they are continuing to sprout amidst a soil that is becoming all the more fertile by the escalation of troops in Afghanistan, the lack of withdrawal in Iraq, and an increasingly over-stretched military.”