Dahr Jamail: Honoring The Vets Who Go Unnoticed

Interviewed by Christian Avard for Air America:

Today is Veteran’s Day and every year, veterans are honored on television, in the newspapers, with parades and so on. We salute the American flag, wear yellow ribbons in honor of the troops, listen to “Taps,” watch 21-gun salutes and hear speeches about those who gave their lives for freedom and democracy.

But what about those who sacrificed and served their country and speak against the horrors of war? What about those who come back from war never the same? Why do we honor the silent, dead warriors, but not those who have been harmed by war and feel the need to speak out?

Dahr Jamail is an award-winning independent journalist whose work has appeared on National Public Radio, in The Guardian, The Nation, The Progressive, and more. In his latest book, The Will to Resist: Soliders Who Refuse To Fight In Iraq And Afghanistan, Jamail brings his readers inside the movement of military resistance to the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

War is traumatic and many veterans who speak out against their actions (or their government’s policies) want their experiences to be validated, understood and accepted. Yet anti-war veterans organizations are not honored to the same degree as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion or Disabled American Veterans. Jamail believes all veterans must be honored, even those who speak out against war. The Will to Resist opens the door to the lives of many servicemen and veterans who speak out against war and killing, and their need to regain their humanity. Jamail talked about what war resisters endure on a daily basis, including the recent tragedy at Fort Hood, TX.

Avard: In researching this book, is it true that many service members and veterans lack adequate psychological and emotional counseling? Did Nidal Malik Hasan received adequate attention for his needs? Could the Fort Hood tragedy have been avoided if he had received adequate attention?

Jamail: It’s true that people in the U.S. military who need post-traumatic stress disorder treatment as well as secondary trauma treatment, like Nidal Malik Hasan, are not getting what they need. I can’t tell you how many soldiers I’ve been talking to, some who are in the book, who are already diagnosed with PTSD and then they are sent back over to the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan. As of last year, more than 43,000 soldiers already diagnosed with a medical condition, including PTSD, were classified as non-deployable and were deployed anyway. In Hasan’s case, this is a guy who was counseling people with severe PTSD who had lost limbs and were at Walter Reed. He had an extremely heavy workload, he was overworked, and he clearly needed counseling himself for secondary trauma he was experiencing. This was certainly a factor that contributed to what he chose to do by carrying out this atrocity. I think the Fort Hood situation on Friday, as well as what’s been happening there this year, clearly illustrates more than anything else, how severe the situation is in the military with people not getting psychiatric and psychological treatment they need. Another thing to add about Fort Hood that Friday’s tragedy doesn’t illustrate enough: this is an Army base that so far, this year, according to the most recent statistics we have, is averaging 10 suicides every month–at that base alone.

Avard: Is it systemic that the military’s reaction to handling soldiers’ and veterans’ emotional and psychological problems is, “suck it up,” “don’t be a pussy,” or “quit being a fag?” What did you discover?

Jamail: Absolutely. I just wrote a story about a guy who came back from Iraq with severe PTSD. He was being held in this unit and they were threatening to send him back again. He was trying to get counseling because he was suffering from regular abuse from his commander. One time the soldier met up with some of the other folks suffering from PTSD. They were all talking with each other and the commanding officer called them “a bunch of PTSD pussies.” It falls right in line with this kind of code in the military you exactly described. It’s based on the whole premise that boys don’t cry. It’s the grade school mentality of “we need you to be a mindless robot that’s willing to follow any order we give you.” If you have any concerns, physical or psychological, you need to suck that up and keep moving forward. Anyone that shows weakness or asks for help, they are ridiculed regularly and ostracized and this is another factor why so many people who need help are not getting it.

Avard: You write about stories of discrimination in The Will to Resist. What about racism and Islamophobia? The Armed Forces claims they do not have any form of racism. Is it more prevalent than we think? Does the military cover it up like they often do with sexual violence and other recurring social problems?

Jamail: Racism, sexism, homophobia are all a big problem. This is an institution where mysogynistic behavior is embedded in people. That would certainly include race and racism. I’d say there is a kind of informal segregation in the military. When I was in Iraq, I talked to several people, including a Jordanian contractor who worked at a base serving food to soldiers. There were entire units that were only Hispanic, and Spanish was the only language they spoke. Slang terms like “nigger” and “spic” are used and all of this is common in the military. I think this is another indicator of how dysfunctional the military really is as an institution.

Avard: I know racist language is used in dehumanizing the enemy. But on an ordinary day-to-day basis, is it bigger than we think?

Jamail: Absolutely, I think all of that falls under the umbrella of dehumanization. When someone joins the military, the military–primarily the U.S. Army and Marines–will break them down in basic training and prepare them to follow orders to kill people. To do that, you have to dehumanize the people they’re going to kill. So Iraqis become “Ragheads” or “Terrorists.” In Vietnam, the Vietnamese were “Gooks” and in World War II, they were “Japs.” In that process of dehumanizing “the other,” they cannot do that without dehumanizing themselves. They have to kill off parts of their own humanity so they can be willing to go out and kill somebody else. This is another factor of why racism is so bad in the military. Anything that doesn’t fit in with the dominant paradigm of a white male soldier is going to be an object of racism and discrimination in that institution.

Avard: One of the responses I often hear is “this isn’t systemic” or “there are always rotten apples” or “there’s always going to be some element of racism” in any institution. What is your response to that?

Jamail: Yes, because when soldiers complete their training, they’ve all been through this process and were subjected to what we were just talking about. I’ve had many veterans tell me that’s exactly what it’s like. It’s like the high school boys locker room syndrome where you are consistently reinforced–all the talk and behaviors in basic training–if anyone goes against it, they are ostracized or ridiculed.

Avard: Vietnam veterans got significant attention for speaking out against the war in the 1960s and 1970s. Polls constantly show that the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations are very unpopular with the American public. Why aren’t groups like the Iraq Veterans Against the War, Veterans for Peace, Gold Star Mothers for Peace, and such, gaining ground like Vietnam Veterans did? Especially with all the activist tools they have today that they didn’t have back then…

Jamail: I think it’s because it was an entirely different era. The first main thing we could point to is lack of a draft. The draft mobilized the entire population in the country. It wasn’t just poor people that were forced to get a college education or serve. All of a sudden upper middle class kids had to be very concerned and of course, people resisted. Nobody wanted to be forced to go. So not having a draft is a critical component. Also, the lack of a real antiwar movement with any real power [like] the civil and women’s rights movements [had]. All of these things were going on simultaneously and Vietnam was the perfect storm for an antiwar movement to stand up and give the backing necessary for an effective GI movement. All of what’s said is in the context and what I hear so much from soldiers today is, “Look, I was afraid to stand up because I felt like I would be all alone. I didn’t feel like there would be any support and I felt like I’d be hung out to dry.” That was not the case during Vietnam. It was the opposite. The people who stood up were heroes. They had housing, friends, they were hooked into this underground railroad where you could be shipped to Mexico or Canada and it was a completely different scenario.

Avard: A thing I often hear is soldiers don’t decide where they go, they’re not supposed to have opinions of the conflict, and it was all part of the contract they signed. I’ve heard this in regards to Ehren Watada’s recent case and others veterans you talked to. How do you and/or your book respond to that?

Jamail: Here’s my rebuttal. According to the U.N. Conventions, the United Nations charter says there’s only two reasons why a country is allowed to have a “just war.” One, it must be ratified by the U.N. Security Council. The other is it must be an act of self-defense. Iraq doesn’t pass either of those. This war violates that and it also contravenes the Geneva Conventions. With Afghanistan, international lawyers like Marjorie Cohn, president of the National Lawyers Guild, are arguing that Afghanistan does not meet those qualifications. It did not have the U.N. Security Council ratification and they’re now arguing this was not an act of self-defense. Neither the country nor the people of Afghanistan attacked the United States. Thus, it’s a violation of international law. Because of that, there’s a [supremacy] law in the U.S. Constitution that states that when the United States signs a foreign treaty, that law becomes our law and essentially a part of our Constitution. Soldiers are sworn to support and defend the Constitution and they are violating their own oath by following an unlawful order, namely Iraq and Afghanistan. Those who are standing up and refusing are actually being hyper-patriotic. When you stop and read the laws of the letter and listen to what these international lawyers are talking about, it’s very clear that the people who are dissenting and refusing these orders are following the law right to the letter.

Avard: This interview will be published on Veteran’s Day. Why are veterans’ peace groups and veterans who speak out against war not taken seriously on Veteran’s Day? Every year I read about how this group or that veteran was not allowed to march in this parade or that one. It seems that Americans are pushed into honoring only those veterans that are sanctioned. Your response?

Jamail: It sounds like a similar situation as to why my articles (and probably your articles) are never going to make it into the New York Times or the Washington Post. If you take a stand and you write an article coming down on the side of international law and you’re being critical of government or the wars, you’re perceived as biased. But if you write articles that are pro- war or pro-U.S. government policy, then you are considered objective. It’s the same thing with these veterans groups. They are censored and kept out of the public eye. Another example is high schools. Military recruiters can go into any high school, hand out their propaganda, help them go to college and recruit people. But Veterans for Peace can’t go into high schools because what they’re talking about is too political. The military is going in and that’s not political, but people talking about peace and alternative ways to get college funding is political. It’s the same thing when these organizations are censored and kept out of the media.