Contents: The Sir! No Sir! blog is an information clearing house, drawing on a wide variety of sources, to track the unfolding history of the new GI Movement, and the wars that brought the movement to life.
Where applicable, parallels will be drawn between the new movement and the Vietnam era movement which was the focus of the film Sir! No Sir!
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This article, by John Bermingham, wasa posted to Courage to Resist, October 19, 2009
U.S. army deserter Rodney Watson has become the first fugitive from service in Iraq to enter church sanctuary in Canada. Monday morning, the 31-year-old told reporters he has been living in refuge at the First United Church in Vancouver since Sept. 18. "I don't believe it will be just for me to be deported," said Watson, flanked by church ministers and supporters. Watson lost his refugee claim on Sept. 11, and was expecting to be deported back to the U.S., where he faces jail for refusing to do a second tour of duty in Iraq.
Ric Matthews, minister with the First United Church, said Watson has an apartment at the church, and is fed on-site. Watson cannot leave the grounds of the church. Matthews said the church agreed to let Watson take refuge because it doesn't support the Iraq War, or the way the U.S. military treated Watson — who signed up to be a military cook, but was ordered to find explosives.
"We expect the authorities will continue to respect this place as a place of sanctuary," he said.
Sarah Bjorknas of the War Resisters Support Campaign Vancouver said three out of the five military deserters who have been deported from Canada since 2008 have been jailed.
A statement by Vancouver NDP MP Libby Davies said she'll continue to ask the Tory government to honour two non-binding votes in Parliament to allow army deserters to seek asylum in Canada.
"The government has chosen to ignore the will of the majority view of Canadians," said Bjorknas.
This biography, by Tyler Zabel, was posted to the IVAW website
I joined the Illinois National Guard when I was 17 years old, living in a very small town and still a junior in high school with just a simple signature from my father. At the time I was a very patriotic and nationalistic young man. I wanted to protect my country and defend my family from the "evil" terrorists that threatened our so-called freedom. I was also full of anger and pain, something many kids feel at that age. I was looking for an escape, an outlet for my rage and frustration, and a way to get ahead in life. The military promised me education, adventure, and excitement I knew I would never find on a college campus.
Basic training wasn't at all what I had thought it would be, as I callously screamed out brutal chants about slaughtering kids in schoolyards and laughing about the way napalm would stick to their skin. We must’ve screamed, “Kill!” hundreds and hundreds of times to get into our heads that this was our purpose as soldiers. But I played along, acting the part of the good soldier, nodding my head and doing what I was told, though the feeling in my gut told me something was wrong.
When I finished basic training I moved to Chicago in search of work and new opportunities, getting much more than I bargained for. I came across perspectives and views I had never seen before, learning so much more about my own country's history than I ever had in school. Eventually, I would meet up with Mercedes, a war survivor from El Salvador, another country my government had helped to ruthlessly oppress. Once I came to see war from a child's eyes, I slowly began to question some of the orders I was being given. After some time and introspection I decided to become a conscientious objector (CO), knowing that I could not kill in the name of American imperialism, or a mutant form of democracy, some ancient idea of nationalism, and definitely not for George fucking Bush and his oil junkie friends.
Resources on the CO process are scarce, so I started to do research on my own. I was immediately discouraged from applying for the process from the beginning. The chaplain-to-be, Lt. Todd, told me that I didn't even qualify for CO because my objection was not moral AND religious. The CO process is shrouded in secrecy in order to keep more soldiers from finding a more honorable way out than going AWOL. Thankfully, I had done my homework and had the support of the GI Rights Hotline, the Iraq Veterans Against the War, the American Friends Service Committee, Courage to Resist, and the Center on Conscience and War. Then I was also lied to by my team leader, Sgt. Washington, after he gave me my first counseling statement on the CO process and I asked him if I could get a copy of the Army Regulations on CO that he had read to me so I could be better prepared. He told me the document was 'classified' and could not give me a copy. I later called him a liar after Aaron Hughes of IVAW sent me Army Regulation 600-43 in an email.
I started speaking out with the IVAW while I was going through the process, and the first three steps went somewhat smoothly, the interview with a chaplain was a go, the psychiatric evaluation was a go, and the interviewing officer recommended me for
discharge. About a week after I had put in my application my unit got official orders for a deployment to Afghanistan and I was told that it wouldn't affect me.
Then about a week before everyone was scheduled to leave they called me up and told me I would be deploying with them, even though for months beforehand when everyone else was training to leave I was not. I was shocked, but started packing my things, saying goodbye to my family, quitting my job, mentally preparing myself for whatever was ahead. Then my chain of command called me the day before everyone left and told me they had made a "paperwork error" which seems like a pretty big thing to err on if you ask me.
But nonetheless I was relieved. I had contacted Jan Schekowski (my congressional representative) multiple times about my case and never heard anything back from her office, though her help may have averted some of these issues. Though later, I did speak with Linda Englund of Military Families Speak Out and she contacted her office for me a bit and spoke with some people working there.
Then next month when I went to drill they give me orders to ship again, and I was slightly angry to say the very least. I decide to go AWOL because I was tired of their mind games. I knew what my conscience was telling me and had to follow it. They were calling me every day for a while, trying to get me to come back or talk to them. I had a policeman (who had formerly been in my unit) come to my dad's house where I left my car and harass my friends and I at the beginning of the AWOL so I got a little scared after that. I stopped working, in fear that they might find me, and refused to drive anywhere. I was constantly looking over my shoulder fearing I was being followed, knowing that any minute someone could kick down my door and haul me off to a brig in handcuffs.
Eventually, I decided that I could not live like this forever and I called my unit. They told me to come into drill the next week, and I did, assuming I would be arrested for refusing a deployment. Then they proceeded to tell me that they had never planned on sending me anywhere, which seemed to be another lie. Sadly, the sergeant that had told me I was going to be deployed had died of a strange heart condition and could not be contacted to back up my claim. So instead of detaining me, they demoted me, which was essentially a slap on the wrist for what I thought I was going to be punished for.
I didn't understand much of this while it was going on, but in retrospect it seems much clearer. They were doing their best to wear down my resolve and force me to quit. They didn't want me to come back from my AWOL because that would have made it easier for them. Me coming back meant more paperwork to fill out and, in their view, it tarnished the command’s macho image having one of theirs go CO. But I did come back, and a couple months later, after a nearly two yearlong battle, they granted me CO status in April 2009. I have yet to receive paperwork for my discharge, but my sergeant says it’s in the mail.
I'm going back to school without the help of the GI bill, though I am happy to take on the cost myself. Finally, I am writing a book about the experience and doing my best to relax, taking a small break before getting back into the world of activism and organizing.
This interview was originally published on the Law is Cool blog, August 14, 2008
Rich Droste: My name is Richard Drew Droste, the second. I’m age 22. I’ve lived in Canada since March 7th Law is Cool: What brings you to Canada? Rich Droste: It’s a long, long. long journey and a long and winding and road that led me to Canada. I joined the army at the age of 17 for many reasons — mostly to escape the lifestyle I was living, the promise of education, the pursuit of something more grand than what I was living. I was homeless at the time, living in my car for the previous two years, still trying to get my own education and just maintain a working lifestyle. They provided me with so many benefits of what I now know is half-truths obviously but didn’t at the time. And at the age of 17, I was able to make that one decision to give my life for the country that I barely knew anything about but you’re not old to make any other adult decision in the US at that age, right? So I joined as a combat engineer time at this time, believing that there was this huge terrorist threat on our nation, believing that America could not wrong type mentality, you know, I followed CNN and Fox ‘News’ pretty much for my whole life and, you know, if you don’t look for an outside source you’re not going to find it. And if you’re happy in your bubble why burst it, right? So the further I get into the military I become more educated with what’s really going on all across the world and not just in Iraq or just Afghanistan but also the human trafficking and prostitution rings around military institutions across the world. The fact that we’re standing up for human rights and freedom to me and seeing these things happen in Korea while I was stationed there was my first big question against the military and I basically got told to shut and try not to fix anything that your pay grade can’t handle, you know. They say they don’t support it if you ask them and they’ll be quoted saying they don’t support it but during the day there’s regulations and only US soldiers and citizens can go inside these clubs and these bars that contain all this human trafficking and prostitution. All of their money for those rings are coming from soldiers’ pockets. It shows that there may not be verbal support but there’s definitely financial support, right? And that was my first big problem. Around my second year in the military I became a Conscientious Objector the war in Iraq because of the illegalities, the unhumane activities that are happening there. The just unusual behavior — the way we treat men, the way we treat women. Law is Cool: What does it mean to be a Conscientious Objector for those of us who don’t know? Rich Droste: Within the military, there’s a system so if you want to be a non-combatant, this is supposed to be a legal thing. You can file this Conscientious Objector packet which states that you are against the dualities of the war that the efforts working for and then you can work as a noncombatant inside the US military such as a cook, a medic, an X-ray technician, whatever it may be, there’s numerous jobs and there supposed to supply you with that. Well around a year after I filled out that paperwork, it was mysteriously lost. And I was told this with a wink from the person I was asking. So it just goes to show they weren’t trying to put that much effort into helping me with this Conscientious Objector packet. Around my third year, six month, which meant I only had about six months left on my original contract, I found out I was getting stop-lossed and sent to Iraq. By this time I had already stated I was an objector and I would have no part in this war, if anything I would like to end this war — you know what I mean — I’m not going to fight in it. And they said you go to this war, you go jail, your only other option is to re-enlist , signing on a new contract, and get a non-combatant job, right? So those are my options. I decide through friends and people that were looking out for me honestly that had no role over what happens to me they advised me to re-enlist for a different job and I did. I thought it was a smart thing to do. So I re-enlist to be a computer networker, well a systems operator analyst, it’s all computer networking, IP configuration, connecting servers, routers and such. Law is Cool: What was your reason for choosing that kind of a job? Rich Droste: It was — it was mostly just maintaining networks for the generals and superiors that are going over there anyway. Which I didn’t know when I signed up for the job. The reason I signed up for the job was because I thought it was a communication job. So I could communicate. Law is Cool: But you probably wouldn’t be in the front lines with something like that? Rich Droste: Absolutely. And by my understanding, I wouldn’t be participating in any combatant side of the military. Well my last week of training, I’m about to graduate this new course, and I find out that I’m going to 4th RTB which stands for Ranger Training Battalion. So not only am I training combatants, I’m training elite combatants to go fight in this war and I told them I wouldn’t have any part of it. So there I got to try to fill out another Conscientious Objector packet. It’s denied because I don’t meet the quote-unquote “criteria.” I ask them what the criteria is, they can’t give me an answer. Then I go to mental health and explain my reasoning behind all this. They try to put me on sleeping aids and anti-depressants saying I’ll get over it, I just need rest, and to lighten up. And I was told to “suck it up and drive on.” And that was their cure-all answer for that. And then I went to a chaplain which is a preacher, a priest, and he finds your religious denomination. At this time, I was still very much agnostic which is I believe in a higher power but I think there’s too much out there for the human mind to comprehend really. And I’m talking to him and he tried to explain to me that God justified this war and wouldn’t harm us or call us sinners for our wrong doings to the Iraqi people — civilian and terrorist alike because humans are humans, regardless of their decisions, right? And uh, so that’s what he tried to convince me. I talked to him numerous occasions and I couldn’t get anything out of him or any help. After I went up and down the chain of command and tried to get this non-combatant job and after so much so much dedication I actually went AWOL four days after my original ETS date — so I fulfilled my original contract and I came to Canada. Law is Cool: Now why Canada? Why not Mexico? Rich Droste: There we go, yeah. That’s a great question and that’s something I wish more potential resisters would know is when I was going through this I was looking for other instances where soldiers experienced similar grounds, same thing that happened to me, because I knew it was happening all across the military . So I looked up online. What better source, right? So I find there’s all these soldiers and there’s so many thousands living in the States and there was anywhere from 200 to 500 living in Canada. I found that there was about 50 that applied for refugee status in Canada. And the things that they were doing, the political aspects, the education . . . I didn’t come here to hide. I came here very well knowing that I could be deported and sentenced in the United States for my ‘wrong doing’ and that’s — I’m fine with that. I accept that. I came here to educate the people. I came here to open people’s views and even if they don’t understand it, even if they disagree, at least they’re not ignorant to the matter.
This article, by Ed Corrigan, was published in The Hamilton Spectator, October 16, 2009.
Members of Parliament Gerard Kennedy and Bill Siksay introduced a private member's bill last month in support of Iraq War resisters. Bill C-440 would make binding on our government very specific directions -- to immediately stop the deportation of Iraq War resisters and to allow them to apply for permanent resident status from within Canada.
Since then, conservative pundits have likened veterans of the Iraq War who have refused to participate in atrocities on Iraqi civilians, and conscientious objectors who cannot morally let themselves kill another human being, to anti-abortion extremists who shoot doctors. Some have even suggested the bill should be contorted to include sanctuary for the criminally indicted U.S. financiers that caused the current recession.
For any rational Canadian, these comparisons are ludicrous at best. Along with Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's spokesperson's hyperbole about "rapists and murderers," they are part of a campaign by the Harper minority to distract from, distort and deny the reality that Bill C-440 responds to a demand by the majority of Canadians in every part of the country, reflected in a similar motion that has already been debated and passed twice in Parliament.
Nonetheless, these criticisms have been levelled and they deserve a response.
The term "conscientious objector" doesn't refer to anyone who objects to anything for any random reason; conscientious objector specifically and only means a member or former member of the military holding certain sincerely held beliefs.
The bill only covers soldiers who refused to participate in wars not sanctioned by the United Nations. Iraq is such a war.
There are good reasons why the majority of Canadians, including Conservative voters, supports these U.S. soldiers who are opposing the Iraq War.
First, Iraq War resisters are refusing to kill, injure or generally do harm to others. Many of them have seen firsthand the U.S. military's treatment of all Iraqi civilians as the "enemy" -- a practice prohibited under international law -- as both morally and tactically bankrupt. When these soldiers have raised objections, their superiors have told them to shut up and just follow orders. Refusing to participate is the only effective method of objection under such conditions.
Second, Iraq War resisters are breaking no Canadian laws. Leaving the military service of another country is not an extraditable offence here nor should it be. Canada welcomed U.S. deserters during the Vietnam War, we're still a sovereign country and we can and should do it again.
Despite the Harper government's desire to model Canada after George W. Bush's America, it has no mandate or authority to turn Canada into an enforcement agent for the martial law of any other nation.
Third, the Harper government's deportation of these soldiers to jail in the United States is an endorsement of the Bush legacy and an attack on free speech. Iraq War resisters are not being punished for desertion, which 94 per cent of time results in an administrative discharge, but targeted for speaking out. Even with President Barack Obama in office, as many as 50,000 troops will remain in Iraq until 2011. Since president Bush left the White House, soldiers such as Cliff Cornell have received harsh sentences of 12 months or more for voicing their opposition to the war.
The Harper minority would not have to go to such lengths to defend its position if it was clear about its true motivation: support for Bush's invasion of Iraq. For hard line neo-conservatives such as Kenney and Prime Minister Stephen Harper who staunchly endorsed Bush and pushed our Parliament to send troops into combat in Iraq in 2003, the deportation and punishment of soldiers resisting participation in this war is a logical extension of the Bush doctrine.
Admitting this truth would mean ignoring consistent public opinion polling that confirms more than 80 per cent of Canadians stand by the decision not to go to war with Iraq (even 59 per cent of Americans agree with our decision). It would also require dismissing the 64 per cent of Canadians who think Iraq War resisters should be welcomed in Canada because the resisters have done the right thing.
After the massive human rights abuses in the Second World War and the Nazi persecution of the Jews, the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg described the waging of aggressive war as "essentially an evil thing ... to initiate a war of aggression ... is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole."
The chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg Tribunal and Associate United States Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson wrote: "No political or economic situation can justify" the crime of aggression.
"If certain acts in violation of treaties are crimes they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us."
Introduction of a bill that will change the law to let Iraq War resisters live here as the majority of Canadians desires is long overdue. For Harper, who admitted during the 2008 election that the Iraq War is "absolutely an error," permitting the resisters to stay would be a wise change of policy on this disastrous and unpopular war.
This paper, by Shaun Randol, was published in Nebula vol. 6, no. 1, March 2009
The conscientious objector “has never been eulogized by well-meaning persons, who understand neither the conscientious objector himself nor the national interest in a time of war, and he has, on the other hand, been roundly abused and reviled by a large part of our citizenry as a coward and a slacker. Apparently, there is no compromise ground: he is diabolically black to his critics while to his defenders his raiment is as the snows” (Kellog 1919: 1).
Ruminating over war is as ancient as the bloody craft itself. Philosophers through the ages, from Plato (1992) and Kant (1903) to James (1906) and Walzer (2004) have wrestled with the subject. Wondering how supposedly rational beings could partake in such madness, Erasmus queried, “how can I believe them to be otherwise than stark mad; who, with such a waste of treasure, with so ardent a zeal, with so great an effort, with so many arts, so much anxiety, and so much danger, ... purchase endless misery and mischief at a price so high?” (1521). Hindus examine the same moral quandary. In the opening chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, the protagonist Arjun faces on the battlefield:
In both the armies relatives,
Fathers-in-law, and companions...
Teachers, fathers, sons, grandfathers,
Maternal uncles, and grandsons,
And many other kinsmen, too.
Thus, in the middle of the battlefield, “Arjun cast away / His bow and arrows and sank down / His mind overcome with sorrow” (Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 1).
Soldiers of today face the same dilemmas when deciding whether or not to engage in war. The United States military calls those who opt out of war making “conscientious objectors.” The Department of Defense defines conscientious objection simply as, “a firm, fixed, and sincere objection to participation in war in any form or the bearing of arms, by reason of religious training and/or belief” (2007). This paper briefly reviews current conscientious objector (CO) rationality as related to the Iraq war, and seeks to give some historical context to the recent spate of CO applications. Many Iraq war COs are blazing a new path in this pacifist tradition by staking out juridical claims as justification for their positions as conscientious objectors.
Ideally, for state policy, war is a last resort. Yet neither states nor great scholars can determine the conscience of the individual when it comes to deciding to participate in the same enterprise. Committing oneself to a violent action is a very personal matter; it is a decision that rests ultimately in the conscience. “In conscientious objection,” opines author Norman Thomas, “...(is) a challenge to the basic ideas of men and their instinctive obediences on which the philosophy of the modern state and the practice of modern war are built” (1927: 3). Indeed, in some cases, participating in war ceases to be, or never is, an option. “Pacifism” and “conscientious objection” to violence are two distinct anti-war positions founded on very similar ideas. On the one hand, pacifism is “moral opposition to war” and encapsulates a broad range of positions, from absolute pacifism to selective or pragmatic grounds against a particular conflict (Borchert 2006). Pacifists often work towards achieving peace. Conscientious objection, as mentioned before, is simply an objection to participation in war. The manifold rationalities for choosing pacifism are often the same as those given for conscientious objection. Thus, a few themes emerge in pacifist and CO literature for the legitimization of these positions, including:
religious (faith denounces use of violence as a policy tool)
anti-war (against war in general)
political (against the ruling party’s politics)
socialist (international brotherhood mentality)
humanitarian (killing people is morally wrong)
individualist (for those who do not fit cleanly into another category)
absolute pacifism (Kantian, Gandhian, MLK - moral basis)
epistemological pacifism (impossible to know sufficiently to warrant killing humans)
pragmatic pacifism (traces empirical failure of war to accomplish anything)
nuclear pacifism (social and ecological considerations of modern warfare)
(Borchert 2006: 67-8; Wright and Dixon 2008; Thomas 1927)
In recent American conscientious objection movements, the justifications for objection often fit neatly into one of the above categories. Yet, in studying numerous CO cases in relation to the current conflict in Iraq, I have discerned a further category. Many of today’s Iraq war COs cite the illegality of the American invasion as their justification for seeking this status. Thus, a classification of “juridical” or “legal” must be amended to the above list. WWI and WWII – Some Perspective (in Brief)
Conscientious objectors were present in all of the U.S.’s 20th century major conflicts. For example, of the 2,810,296 enlisted soldiers in the United States military, 3,989 personnel filed as COs during World War I (Thomas 1927). A strain of international brotherhood, or the socialist category listed above, underpinned the philosophy of a large portion of these COs, more so than in any other American conflict. While the overwhelming majority of these COs were Christian pacifists (10-11), they often questioned the moral limits of state control over the individual; after all, for them, god as an authority takes precedence over the state. With the Christian faith raising the question of the limits of state authority, in the end, many COs decided that the state should exercise control over the common good, not the consciences of men (8-9). It was up to the individual to decide if he should fight or not.
To be sure, many WWI COs based their decisions on precepts of their faith. Maurice Hess, for example, professed his willingness to endure imprisonment, torture and death “rather than to participate in war and military service.” Hess, like many of his fellow COs, was willing to endure persecution as a true soldier of Christ, and not of the American government (Thomas 1927: 26). Yet perhaps just as often Christianity was invoked, so too was solidarity with the global, working class.
Carl Haessler exemplified much of the WWI CO population, invoking the language of international camaraderie when choosing not to fight. At his court martial, Haessler, a former Rhodes Scholar and philosophy professor, stated, “...America’s participation in the World War was unnecessary, of doubtful benefit (if any) to the country and to humanity, and accomplished largely, though not exclusively, through the pressure of the Allied and American commercial imperialists” (Thomas 1927: 24-5). Combining his religious and political convictions to justify his resistance to fighting, Roger Baldwin eloquently proclaimed, “I do not believe in the use of physical force as a method of achieving any end, however good.” He felt himself representative of a larger struggle “against the political state itself, against exploitation, militarism, imperialism, authority in all forms...” (27-8). At a time when socialist principles enjoyed a broad audience in the United States, those asked to fight for their country decried imperialist exercises in the name of solidarity with their working class, Christian comrades afield.
World War II saw the galvanization of the American spirit, mobilizing the entire country to fight a two-front war. Volunteerism amongst the “Greatest Generation” to fight the “Great War” was high, pressuring the decisions of conscientious objectors who may have otherwise opted out of fighting in any other conflict. While WWII saw its fair share of COs, the way many of them approached the issue differed than their brethren from the previous war. Rather than adopt a wholly, non-participatory stance, many opted for the title of “conscientious cooperator.” At the time, “it was an honor to serve god and country,” said WWII CO Desmond Doss (Benedict 2007). WWII COs were not “political objectors” because they felt the war was justified; yet, largely due to religious convictions, these soldiers could not bring themselves to personally kill another human.
Harry Truman presented the Congressional Medal of Honor to Desmond Doss, the only conscientious objector ever to receive the nation’s highest military honor. Invoking the Christian tenet of “thou shall not kill,” Doss, like many of his fellow COs, filed for conscientious “cooperator” status, deciding to serve as a medic rather than a soldier. “I was saving life... because I couldn’t imagine Jesus out there with a gun,” Doss recalled. Like many of his contemporaries, Doss told his superiors that in battle he would be right beside them helping the effort, and that he was “willing to go to the front line to save life, not take life” (Benedict 2007). In short, because the U.S.’ engagement WWII was seen as just, COs dropped the mantle of international solidarity and justified their stance on Christian faith. Vietnam
More often than any other American (or foreign) invasion/occupation, the debacle in Iraq is compared to the Vietnam War. The mainstream press has certainly jumped on this “Iraq as Vietnam” bandwagon. USA Today highlighted the comparison before the invasion (Moniz 2003). “Bush Accepts Iraq-Vietnam War Comparison,” ran one headline in The Guardian (Tran 2006), and writing for the Washington Post, Thomas Ricks drew similar comparisons (2006). Intellectuals got on board too: Ronald Bruce St. John, a widely published expert on Mid-East affairs, penned an article titled, “Sorry, Mr. President, but Iraq Looks a Lot like Vietnam,” for a think tank publication (2004). Whether there is a parallel to be drawn, in terms of military strategy, tactics, the anti-war movement, press coverage and propaganda, or any number of fronts, is a topic for another paper. What is of interest here is whether there are similarities to be teased out of the conscientious objector movement. For instance, are the rationales behind the filings for CO status similar between the Vietnam and Iraq conflicts?
The American military did its best to dehumanize the Vietnamese people. In the eyes of American soldiers, the “inhuman” Vietnamese were “gooks” or “slopes,” and everyone, even the children, innocent or not, were VC (Viet Cong) or VC-sympathizers. The military “concocted such phrases as ‘kill-ratios,’ ‘search and destroy,’ ‘free-fire zones,’ and ‘secure areas,’” in order to “mask the reality of their combat policy in Vietnam,” recalled Army CO Edward Sowders (Davis 2002). More than just a policy, this denigrating mindset underscored the very psychology of those running the war. “The Oriental does not put the same high price on life as does the Westerner,” pontificated General William Westmoreland. For the Oriental, “life is plentiful, life is cheap in the Orient...,” and in Oriental philosophy, “life is not important” (Davis 2002).
Issues of race and class dominated the discourse of resistance amongst conscientious objectors. Largely, those who fought in Vietnam were people of color and the white, working class poor. “Why do poor people have to go into the military for a college education, or for a job?” asked CO Michael Simmons (2008). Ironically, while the opposition to a supposed, imperialist endeavor in Vietnam sought to unite the working class in the U.S. with those around the world, there were divisions within the peace contingent at home. No “white” peace groups would help Simmons, for example, because, it was thought, his being black would “dilute” the “white, upper-middle class” driven CO action in the U.S. (2008). With race and class divisions apparent at home it was difficult to link the war-resister campaign to a larger, international movement.
A number of individuals, because of their celebrity stature, stood above the rest when they took the torch of war resistance. Martin Luther King, Jr. perhaps the most eloquent of this group, fought against the popular current of Vietnamese-dehumanization to reveal the war for what he saw it as: a war against the poor. Seeking “worldwide fellowship” Dr. King sought to close real and perceived racial and class divisions in his opposition to the war. In order to get on the “right side of the world revolution,” King corrected his own habit of not speaking against violence at home without speaking against violence abroad (April 30, 1967). Class conscious and a “preacher by calling,” Dr. King listed seven reasons he was against the war in Vietnam:
Poverty connection – the war took away from programs for the poor at home;
Only the poor are sent to fight;
Violence cannot be used to solve problems, at home and abroad;
America can be better;
Felt the burden of the Nobel Peace Prize;
Believed deeply in the peaceful ministry of Jesus Christ and his teachings;
International solidarity and brotherhood (April 4, 1967)
Disappointed in the militaristic and racist policies of his home country, King decried American policies that spend more on military than social programs. A country, he said, that behaves as such approaches nothing less than “spiritual death” (April 20, 1967).
A truer conscientious objector, in that he outright refused military service, was Muhammad Ali. Considering his chosen profession as a boxer, Ali was not exactly a pacifist. Much like Dr. King though, Ali viewed the war in Vietnam through the prisms of class and race. As fierce as he was in the boxing ring, Ali pulled no punches in voicing his opposition to participating in a war on the other side of the globe. “I couldn’t see myself taking part in nothing where I would help and aid in any way, shooting and killing these Asiatic, dark, black people, who haven’t called me ‘nigger,’ haven’t lynched me. They haven’t deprived me of freedom and equality. They haven’t assassinated my leaders,” he cried out (Jacobs 2002). How, he wondered, was he expected to free the people of South Vietnam while his own people were being abused at home in Kentucky? Indeed, Ali harbored resentment against “white power,” segregation, and inequality. “No nation, no people can be free when they have no land. And we are a whole nation of twenty-two million without a toothpick factory” he once professed (2002).
Ali, a converted Muslim, also cited religious principles for declining to join the United States military. Acknowledging his faith allowed Ali to obey the law of the land as long as it did not conflict with Muslim precepts; he once boldly affirmed the “draft is another thing that’s against my beliefs” (Jacobs 2002). Declining to join the army (after being drafted) Ali declared he would rather face death than denounce Islam or violate the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, a powerful leader in the Nation of Islam.
Despite their extraordinary positions as leaders in American life and culture, King and Ali represented the views of a large swath, if not the majority, of Vietnam War resisters, including conscientious objectors. Their objections were illustrated by combining religious doctrine and concerns over American, neo-imperialist ambitions in South East Asia. If these COs had to be compared to previous, American COs, their ideas would find intellectual and spiritual comfort with those opposed to fighting in WWI—not with those fighting in the Middle East today. Vietnam era conscientious objector Bill Evers illuminates the generational and intellectual gap between his compatriots and today’s war resisters: “I have had to learn that my experiences are ancient history to the students I see in the college classroom today,” he laments (Evers 2006: 6). By contrast, Iraq War COs, many of whom continue the tradition of citing religious beliefs as a condition for their position, have also carved out a new approach in this pacifist tradition. Iraq
Since March 2003, tens of thousands of American soldiers have gone AWOL (absent without leave), but not all have done so because they are anti-Iraq war. 25,000 soldiers have deserted their posts so far, and the number rises each year. To put this in perspective: “At the height of the Vietnam War in 1971, 33,000 military personnel ...had deserted” (Ehrenreich 2008; Wright and Dixon 2008: 139). The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports between 2002 and 2006, 425 conscientious objector applications had been processed (2007). Further, “of the 425 applications... 224 (53 percent) were approved; 188 (44 percent) were denied; and 13 (3 percent) were pending, withdrawn, closed, or no information was provided.”
Religious sensibilities often motivate the conscientious objectors of Iraq. Christian soldiers, like Mark Wilkerson, quote passages from the Bible in which Jesus intones the promise of peace or praises peacemakers, and they take to heart the dictum, “love thy neighbor” (2008: 175; Tonn 2004). And despite being denied his conscientious objector status, army medic Agustin Aguayo refused to deploy to Iraq. To do so, he argued, “would be taking part in organized killing and condoning war missions and operations, even though I object, on the basis of my religious training and belief, to participating in any war” (2008: 169). These are just two examples of how the Christian faith still plays a significant role in steering soldiers toward conscientious objection.
Conscientious objectors opposed to the Iraq invasion on religious grounds were not only Christian. Abdullah Webster, for one, affirmed, “My faith forbids me to participate in an unjust war.” A convert to Islam, Webster maintained his religion “prohibited him from participating in any aggressive war, or in any oppression or injustice to Muslims or non-Muslims” (2008: 153). Yet, Aidan Delgado’s religious objection to the war presents the most fascinating religious, CO case study. A student of Buddhism, Delgado sought to leave the army and the Iraq war based on Buddhist teachings. A man who, previous to his deployment would not consider killing animals or insects, let alone people (2007: 33), Delgado could not stand the constant “dehumanization of the enemy.” The regular bombardment of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment from the American military, including slurs such as “towelheads,” “ragheads,” “terrorists,” and “hajii” are reminiscent of the ugly bigotry of the Vietnam era’s epithets “Charlie” and “gook.” Delgado and other religiously-minded COs could not handle such negative disposition.
Delgado’s position was strengthened by his assignment to Abu Ghraib prison. For instance, on hearing that unarmed prisoners were shot and killed at Abu Ghraib (4 dead, 12 injured), he recorded in his diary: “I feel the last ounce of my attachment to [his unit] wither and disappear. I’m not one of these people. I’m not one of them anymore. What happened today was wrong: shortsighted and trigger happy at best, and downright vicious, at worst. From here on out, I don’t want any part of what we’re doing at Abu Ghraib” (Delgado 2007: 152-3). Like his fellow, religiously-focused COs, Delgado could not abandon his religious principles, despite strong feelings to stay with his brothers-in- arms. In a written report surely characteristic of the hundreds of others religious CO applications, Captain George T. Ferguson IV, wrote of Delgado:
He stated that it is not a preference but rather an imperative that he leaves because military service places him in a moral quandary. [Specialist] Delgado also believes it is rigorously important for him to make a public statement. He believes a religious sentiment is not something you can put off, he works everyday to support our organization that is not congruent with his beliefs (Delgado 2007: 130).
To be sure, a goodly number of Iraq war COs (Debartolo 2003; Jashinski 2008) also espouse humanitarian and pacifist reasons for voicing their opposition to America’s war efforts overseas. “I have come to the conclusion that there are no valid arguments for the destructive forces of war” stated army CO Kevin Benderman. Moreover, humanity “should evolve to a higher mindset” of conflict resolution because “war is the ultimate destruction and waste of humanity” (Benderman 2008: 150, 152). In the same vein, Marine CO Stephen Funk proclaims, “I refuse to kill. I object to war because I believe that it is impossible to achieve peace through violence.” Indeed, Funk confesses, “I would rather face the military’s punishment than act against my beliefs” (2008: 153). Still others, disturbed and appalled by the atrocities they witnessed or committed, turned away from war-making to embrace humanitarian ideals (Wright 2008: 181-2, 185-7). “I left the war in Iraq because the American Army made no distinction between [combatants and civilians]” remarked one (Key 2008: 180). Having seen the military from the inside, first hand, Sunny Raleigh of the Navy found war to be disheartening and morally objectionable” and determined that “...peace is the only method for solving any conflict” (2006: 4).Thus, for many, seeing the horrors of war up close is enough to provoke a change in sentiment.
Beyond the usual, religiously-slanted or humanitarian-based justifications for becoming a conscientious objector, the number of COs in the Iraq conflict legitimating their position on the basis of international law is surprising. For its uniqueness and the evolution in thought it represents, the juridical claim in contemporary American CO discourse is worthy of attention.
In just a cursory review of Iraq war conscientious objectors, an exceptional number appeal to international law to justify their stance: in my rudimentary research, I could not find a single case from previous conflicts in which a CO made the same claim. Beyond lacking “any high ground in the topography of morality,” Pablo Paredes sings a typical refrain: “I am convinced that the current war in Iraq is illegal” (Paredes 2008: 146). “If you were given an order to participate in an unlawful occupation that is resulting in the deaths of thousands of innocent people with no justifiable cause, would you be able to live with yourself if you carried out that order?” asked Army CO Brandon Hughey (Wright and Dixon 2008: 179-80). Ghanim Khalil, a believer in Sufism, expressed his dismay at American policy toward Iraq: “Just because you sign a contract doesn’t mean that you’ll go along with everything you’re told, especially if the orders are illegal under international law” (Khalil 2003). “Refusing and resisting this war was my moral duty, a moral duty that called me to take a principled action. I failed to fulfill my moral duty as a human being, and instead, I chose to fulfill my duty as a soldier,” stated CO Camilo Mejia. Afforded “moral clarity” while on leave from Iraq, Mejia realized “I was part of a war that I believed was immoral and criminal, a war of aggression, a war of imperial domination” (Mejia 2008: 142).
As of late March, 2008, there were a known 225 American military COs seeking refuge in Canada. Jeffry House, a lawyer representing many of them, explained why so many had fled to America’s northern neighbor: “They tend to say they aren’t opposed to all wars in principle—just to the one they were ordered to fight. ...a war of aggression” (Ehrenreich 2008). In defending these COs in Canadian courts, House’s argument:
...relied largely on his reading of international law. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees lays out a slender possibility for relief. Mere disagreement with the ‘political justification for a particular military action’ is not sufficient. The action must be ‘condemned by the international community as contrary to basic rules of conduct.’ Only in that case can punishment for desertion or draft evasion ‘be regarded as persecution.’ (Ehrenreich 2008).
House appears to be acting in accordance with a general trend. “Many international attorneys and military personnel see the war in Iraq as an illegal act of aggression, which is a war crime. This belief is at the heart of the actions of most of the resisters,” claim Wright and Dixon (2008: 139). While the Afghanistan engagement met criteria of just war under international law, Iraq, understood in the light of the Nuremberg Principles or the Geneva Conventions, “would be a war of aggression, a war crime” (xii). Thus, while those who join the military know they may be ordered to war by the country’s leadership, “when given an order to perform an illegal action, servicemen and women are duty bound to refuse” (138). Many are doing just this.
Other COs in Iraq focus on the legal issues surrounding more specific elements of, or tactics used in the broader war. Rick Clousing, an army interrogator, for example, was concerned about brutality of tactics, and the ambiguous legality of particular, interrogation actions (Wright and Dixon 2008: 170-3). “The mentality is to shoot anyone who gets close to you, and especially those who look like insurgents. I know that killing people just because they are of a different race is wrong no matter what the rules of engagement are. That is why I left” declares Marine Chris Magaoay (182). Indeed, the ambiguous nature surrounding official orders of who should or should not be shot was a factor contributing to the decision of many to opt for CO status (184-5). “I believed that if I returned to Iraq and followed military procedures and orders, that I would eventually kill innocent people. I believed it was my human right to choose not to do so, and my military duty to resist this war,” professes Army CO Darrell Anders (183).
Beyond the perceived unjustness of the Iraq invasion on the macro (a state making war on another without provocation) and micro (deciding between civilians and combatants) levels, soldiers are vitriolic in their indictment of American leadership. A lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Ehren Watada, for example, denounces “...elected officials [who] intentionally manipulated the evidence presented to Congress, the public, and the world to make the case for war” (2008: 164). Officers swear an oath to the Constitution, not to an individual, Watada reminded military veterans present at his 2006 lecture. Officers swear to fight “against all enemies, foreign and domestic, [but] what if elected leaders became the enemy? Whose orders do we follow? The answer is the conscience that lies in each solder, each American, and each human being. Our duty to the Constitution is an obligation, not a choice” he argues (Wright and Dixon 2008: 165). In sum, the citations of illegality for the Iraq war, be it in the broader realm or at the individual level of engagement, represent an interesting, emergent trend in the conscientious objector movement in the United State military.
Decidedly absent from the discourse amongst Iraq War COs, are sentiments of international brotherhood. The dearth of solidarity is one characteristic distinguishing today’s generation of COs from their Vietnam era predecessors. The other, the insistence of citing domestic or international law, is another, more illuminating contrast. The tendency to reference juridical reasons for the anti-war stance is not only unique amongst modern CO discourse; it marks an interesting evolution in the mindset of generations coming of age in a highly networked, globalized world.
One reason for the increase in juridical reasoning for conscientious objectors in the Iraq war may be that Generation X, Y, “Millennial” (or whatever the latest generation of youth is termed), is more open to and aware of the rest of the world than previous generations have been. In an era where news and images of other people is instantly accessible via television and the internet, awareness to the interconnectivity of the world paired with access to more knowledge from more sources may be contributing to a hesitancy to rush into war without international, legal (i.e. United Nations) support. While further inquiry is warranted, the COs of the Iraq war could very well be setting a precedent for future generations of American conscientious objectors.
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This article, by Dahr Jamail, was posted to Truthout, September 28, 2009.
Afghanistan war resister Travis Bishop has been held largely “incommunicado” in the Northwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility at Fort Lewis, Washington.
Bishop, who is being held by the military as a “prisoner of conscience,” according to Amnesty International, was transported to Fort Lewis on September 9 to serve a 12-month sentence in the Regional Correctional Facility. He had refused orders to deploy to Afghanistan based on his religious beliefs, and had filed for Conscientious Objector (CO) status.
Bishop, who served a 13-month deployment to Iraq and was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, was court marshaled by the Army for his refusal to deploy to Afghanistan. Given that he had already filed for CO status, many local observers called his sentencing a “politically driven prosecution.”
By holding Bishop incommunicado, the military violated Bishop’s legal right to counsel, a violation of the Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution, according to his civil defense attorney James Branum.
The Sixth Amendment is the part of the Bill of Rights that sets forth rights related to criminal prosecutions in federal courts, and reads, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district where in the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.”
Attorney LeGrande Jones, who practices in Olympia and was designated by Branum as the local counsel for Bishop, was also denied access to Bishop, on the grounds that Jones was on an unnamed and unobtainable “watch-list,” which constitutes deprivation of counsel.
Jones was denied entry to Fort Lewis and told he would never be allowed to enter the base. Fort Lewis authorities never gave him a reason for his being denied access to the base and his client. To this, Branum told Truthout, “Fort Lewis authorities have a duty to tell LeGrande the reasons why he is being barred from Fort Lewis, and therefore [barred] from communicating with his client in the Fort Lewis brig.”
Until September 18, Bishop’s condition was unclear due to his having been completely cut off from the public.
Branum, who is the legal adviser to the Oklahoma GI Rights Hotline and co-chair of the Military Law Task Force, also represents Leo Church, another war resister being held at Fort Lewis.
Church, who was also stationed at Fort Hood, went AWOL (Absent Without Leave) to prevent his wife and children from becoming homeless. The fact that he was unable to financially support his family off his military pay alone dictated that Church seek other means to support them. With his pleas to the military for assistance going unheeded, he opted to go AWOL in order to support his dependents.
According to Branum, “Church received eight months jail time because he put the safety and welfare of his children over his obligation to the Army. Leo tried to get help from his unit, but was denied.”
Branum told Truthout that Church had been able to contact him while at Fort Lewis, but the call was monitored by a guard, violating his attorney-client privilege.
Gerry Condon, with Project Safe Haven (an advocacy group for GI resisters in Canada), and a veteran himself as a member of the Greater Seattle Veterans for Peace, told Truthout he believes Bishop and Church are being held in a way that is both “intolerable and unconstitutional.”
Condon, who is working to try to support both Bishop and Church, told Truthout, “They are denied all visitors, except for immediate family, clergy and legal counsel [legal counsel is limited at this time]. No friends or fiancés. This is not the normal practice at other brigs.”
Branum told Truthout he feels that how Bishop and Church are being treated at Fort Lewis is “part of a broader pattern the military has of just throwing people in jail and not letting them talk to their attorneys, not let visitors come, and this is outrageous. In the civilian world even murderers get visits from their friends.”
Speaking further of the conditions in which the military is holding Bishop and Church, Condon added, “Fort Lewis authorities have made it virtually impossible for Bishop and Church to make phone calls. They must first get money on their calling account. This must be done by money order and according to several other similarly prohibitive procedures. And the money may not be credited to the account until a month after it is received. Plus, officials at the Fort Lewis brig must approve the names of people that can be called.”
Condon told Truthout, “Travis Bishop is a leader in what has become an international GI resistance movement that is attempting to bring troops home from both occupations by following their consciences and international law. They deserve all the support we can give them, especially while they are in prison - they are owed their constitutional liberties.”
Branum told Truthout that as far as he knows, he may well be the only person on Bishop’s call list.
Both Bishop and Church have been prevented from adding any names to their respective “authorized contacts” lists (even for family members), which effectively cuts them off from almost all contact with the outside world. According to Branum, mail and commissary funds sent by friends and supporters will likely be “returned to sender” due to what he feels is “a cruel and inhumane policy.”
In addition, there are no work programs at the Fort Lewis brig, nor any classes available for soldiers to take while they are incarcerated. Generally, work programs and/or classes are available for incarcerated soldiers.
“By participating in work programs and school classes, soldiers being held in brigs can get time cut off their sentences,” Branum explained to Truthout, “But these don’t exist at Fort Lewis, so that means Travis and Leo can’t get time taken off their sentences. Travis will do a minimum of 10 months, and could have theoretically worked an additional month off his sentence if Fort Lewis had these programs.”
Branum, who is the lead attorney for both Bishop and Church, told Truthout the actions of officials at Fort Lewis violate his clients’ constitutional rights.
“Bishop and Church’s defense team and supporters are in the process of negotiating with Fort Lewis officials to ensure transparency and that Bishop and Church’s legal rights are being met,” Branum stated in a press release on the matter that was published on September 17. “The unusual circumstances of isolation of these soldiers is unquestionably illegal. If Fort Lewis doesn’t change its ways, we will be forced to go to court and demand justice.”
On September 18, officials at Fort Lewis finally allowed Branum to speak with Bishop on the telephone, but not privately.
Bishop was accompanied by two guards, who monitored his conversation with Branum. In addition, Fort Lewis authorities claimed that the recently rebuilt/remodeled brig does not yet have proper facilities to facilitate a private telephone conversation.
Speaking further about the conversation he was finally allowed to have with Bishop, Branum added, “In the phone call we did get to do, they still refused to let Travis talk to me privately. He actually had two guards in the room with him the entire time, which obviously negates any compliance with attorney-client privilege. And presumably the phone call was taped (all of the other brigs have special rooms for attorney calls, that have phone lines to the outside that are not taped) which is completely unconstitutional. The brig of course will say, “well we won’t listen to that tape” but that is bullshit, and it is illegal.”
“The only reason they [Fort Lewis authorities] let me talk to Travis on Friday [September 18] was that he was finally “medically cleared,” Branum told Truthout, “This took 10 days in this case, and it looks like this is their standard operating procedure, which is completely wrong.”
When Truthout questioned the public affairs office at Fort Lewis about Bishop’s situation, we were told all matters were being handled “legally, and according to standard operating procedure,” and “any wrongdoing would be investigated.”
Branum added, “They are giving the excuse that “we don’t have the secure room for attorney phone calls set up yet,” but can’t tell me when they are going to have the room set up.”
Branum and Jones are planning to file a lawsuit against Fort Lewis in the near future, specifically targeting the denial of attorney-client privilege.
Both soldiers are being supported by two GI resistance cafes: Under the Hood cafe (in Killeen, Texas, near Fort Hood) and Coffee Strong (in Tacoma, Washington, near Fort Lewis).
This article, by Martin Fletcher, was published iun the London Times, October 9, 2009
American soldiers serving in Afghanistan are depressed and deeply disillusioned, according to the chaplains of two US battalions that have spent nine months on the front line in the war against the Taliban.
Many feel that they are risking their lives -- and that colleagues have died -- for a futile mission and an Afghan population that does nothing to help them, the chaplains told The Times in their makeshift chapel on this fortress-like base in a dusty, brown valley southwest of Kabul.
"The many soldiers who come to see us have a sense of futility and anger about being here. They are really in a state of depression and despair and just want to get back to their families," said Captain Jeff Masengale, of the 10th Mountain Division's 2-87 Infantry Battalion.
"They feel they are risking their lives for progress that's hard to discern," said Captain Sam Rico, of the Division's 4-25 Field Artillery Battalion. "They are tired, strained, confused and just want to get through." The chaplains said that they were speaking out because the men could not.
The base is not, it has to be said, obviously downcast, and many troops do not share the chaplains' assessment. The soldiers are, by nature and training, upbeat, driven by a strong sense of duty, and they do their jobs as best they can. Re-enlistment rates are surprisingly good for the 2-87, though poor for the 4-25. Several men approached by The Times, however, readily admitted that their morale had slumped.
"We're lost -- that's how I feel. I'm not exactly sure why we're here," said Specialist Raquime Mercer, 20, whose closest friend was shot dead by a renegade Afghan policeman last Friday. "I need a clear-cut purpose if I'm going to get hurt out here or if I'm going to die."
Sergeant Christopher Hughes, 37, from Detroit, has lost six colleagues and survived two roadside bombs. Asked if the mission was worthwhile, he replied: "If I knew exactly what the mission was, probably so, but I don't."
The only soldiers who thought it was going well "work in an office, not on the ground." In his opinion "the whole country is going to s***."
The battalion's 1,500 soldiers are nine months in to a year-long deployment that has proved extraordinarily tough. Their goal was to secure the mountainous Wardak province and then to win the people's allegiance through development and good governance. They have, instead, found themselves locked in an increasingly vicious battle with the Taliban.
They have been targeted by at least 300 roadside bombs, about 180 of which have exploded. Nineteen men have been killed in action, with another committing suicide. About a hundred have been flown home with amputations, severe burns and other injuries likely to cause permanent disability, and many of those have not been replaced. More than two dozen mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs) have been knocked out of action.
Living conditions are good -- abundant food, air-conditioned tents, hot water, free internet -- but most of the men are on their second, third or fourth tours of Afghanistan and Iraq, with barely a year between each. Staff Sergeant Erika Cheney, Airborne's mental health specialist, expressed concern about their mental state -- especially those in scattered outposts -- and believes that many have mild post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). "They're tired, frustrated, scared. A lot of them are afraid to go out but will still go," she said.
Lieutenant Peter Hjelmstad, 2-87's Medical Platoon Leader, said sleeplessness and anger attacks were common.
A dozen men have been confined to desk jobs because they can no longer handle missions outside the base. One long-serving officer who has lost three friends this tour said he sometimes returned to his room at night and cried, or played war games on his laptop. "It's a release. It's a method of coping." He has nightmares and sleeps little, and it does not help that the base is frequently shaken by outgoing artillery fire. He was briefly overcome as he recalled how, when a lorry backfired during his most recent home leave, he grabbed his young son and dived between two parked cars.
The chaplains said soldiers were seeking their help in unprecedented numbers. "Everyone you meet is just down, and you meet them everywhere -- in the weight room, dining facility, getting mail," said Captain Rico. Even "hard men" were coming to their tent chapel and breaking down.
The men are frustrated by the lack of obvious purpose or progress. "The soldiers' biggest question is: what can we do to make this war stop. Catch one person? Assault one objective? Soldiers want definite answers, other than to stop the Taliban, because that almost seems impossible. It's hard to catch someone you can't see," said Specialist Mercer.
"It's a very frustrating mission," said Lieutenant Hjelmstad. "The average soldier sees a friend blown up and his instinct is to retaliate or believe it's for something [worthwhile], but it's not like other wars where your buddy died but they took the hill. There's no tangible reward for the sacrifice. It's hard to say Wardak is better than when we got here."
Captain Masengale, a soldier for 12 years before he became a chaplain, said: "We want to believe in a cause but we don't know what that cause is."
The soldiers are angry that colleagues are losing their lives while trying to help a population that will not help them. "You give them all the humanitarian assistance that they want and they're still going to lie to you. They'll tell you there's no Taliban anywhere in the area and as soon as you roll away, ten feet from their house, you get shot at again," said Specialist Eric Petty, from Georgia.
Captain Rico told of the disgust of a medic who was asked to treat an insurgent shortly after pulling a colleague's charred corpse from a bombed vehicle.
The soldiers complain that rules of engagement designed to minimise civilian casualties mean that they fight with one arm tied behind their backs. "They're a joke," said one. "You get shot at but can do nothing about it. You have to see the person with the weapon. It's not enough to know which house the shooting's coming from."
The soldiers joke that their Isaf arm badges stand not for International Security Assistance Force but "I Suck At Fighting" or "I Support Afghan Farmers."
To compound matters, soldiers are mainly being killed not in combat but on routine journeys, by roadside bombs planted by an invisible enemy. "That's very demoralising," said Captain Masengale.
The constant deployments are, meanwhile, playing havoc with the soldiers' private lives. "They're killing families," he said. "Divorces are skyrocketing. PTSD is off the scale. There have been hundreds of injuries that send soldiers home and affect families for the rest of their lives."
The chaplains said that many soldiers had lost their desire to help Afghanistan. "All they want to do is make it home alive and go back to their wives and children and visit the families who have lost husbands and fathers over here. It comes down to just surviving," said Captain Masengale.
"If we make it back with ten toes and ten fingers the mission is successful," Sergeant Hughes said.
"You carry on for the guys to your left or right," added Specialist Mercer.
The chaplains have themselves struggled to cope with so much distress. "We have to encourage them, strengthen them and send them out again. No one comes in and says, 'I've had a great day on a mission'. It's all pain," said Captain Masengale. "The only way we've been able to make it is having each other."
Lieutenant-Colonel Kimo Gallahue, 2-87's commanding officer, denied that his men were demoralised, and insisted they had achieved a great deal over the past nine months. A triathlete and former rugby player, he admitted pushing his men hard, but argued that taking the fight to the enemy was the best form of defence.
He said the security situation had worsened because the insurgents had chosen to fight in Wardak province, not abandon it. He said, however, that the situation would have been catastrophic without his men. They had managed to keep open the key Kabul-to-Kandahar highway which dissects Wardak, and prevent the province becoming a launch pad for attacks on the capital, which is barely 20 miles from its border. Above all, Colonel Gallahue argued that counter-insurgency -- winning the allegiance of the indigenous population through security, development and good governance -- was a long and laborious process that could not be completed in a year. "These 12 months have been, for me, laying the groundwork for future success," he said.
At morning service on Sunday, the two chaplains sought to boost the spirits of their flock with uplifting hymns, accompanied by video footage of beautiful lakes, oceans and rivers.
Captain Rico offered a particularly apposite reading from Corinthians: "We are afflicted in every way but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed."
This article, by Travis J. Tritten and Hana Kusumoto, was published by Stars and Stripes, August 14, 2009
The U.S. military in Japan has been more aggressive in charging and tracking deserters since a fugitive sailor stabbed a taxi driver to death last year, military legal staff and investigators said.
Since then, a dozen servicemembers have been charged with desertion and five remain at large, according to figures supplied by U.S. Forces Japan, Japanese police and local bases.
The Navy began a crackdown about a month after Seaman Olatunbosun Ugbogu, who was sentenced to life in prison last month, murdered a cab driver near Yokosuka Naval Base in March 2008.
Commands have pushed to issue desertion charges earlier — within hours or days compared to the month of absence that can trigger a desertion charge under military law. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which in the past worked such cases by request only, has launched investigations of all U.S. Navy desertions on the mainland.
“These days, when somebody goes missing for any significant period of time in Japan, they are very quickly declared a deserter,” said Lt. Jonathan Flynn, the staff judge advocate general for Yokosuka Naval Base. “Within a couple of days at the most — very often it is within hours — we turn around the various [desertion charge] forms.”
Desertion is a more serious crime — carrying a penalty of up to five years in prison and dishonorable discharge — compared to the similar charge of unauthorized absence, which carries a maximum prison term of 18 months.
To charge desertion, a command must determine a servicemember has no intention of returning to the military. Charges are routinely filed if a servicemember does not turn up after 30 days, but commands can decide to charge much earlier if they feel there is enough evidence.
Decisions could hinge on evidence such as whether the servicemembers took all their clothes and money when they disappeared, legal officials at Yokosuka and Sasebo Naval Base said.
“We are very forward-leaning in declaring it a desertion case,” said Lt. Josh Stutts, the staff judge advocate general in Sasebo.
Over the past year, 12 servicemembers were charged with desertion and five remain at large among about 48,000 servicemembers stationed in the country, the U.S. and Japan reported.
The cases originated from three areas. Yokosuka charged seven troops with desertion, the highest number, and two are still missing. Sasebo had three desertions with two still missing, and Okinawa had two with one still at large.
“It is easier to find some people more than others,” said Gregory Ford, supervisory special agent at the NCIS Far East field office. “Sometimes it will be a week, and sometimes it will be a month. Japan is a big country.”
The agency, reacting to concern among the Japanese, changed its policy and began investigating all desertions about a month after the Ugbogu murder, according to Ford.
“I would expect that because we are looking at all of them now, we will be able to solve more,” said Ford, who declined to discuss specifics of ongoing investigations.
Two missing deserters who were stationed at Sasebo are believed to be in the United States and the Philippines, according to officials at that base.
Officials at Yokosuka said one deserter from the base was arrested in the U.S. in the past year but would not comment on the believed whereabouts of two deserters who are still missing.
Marine Corps officials in Okinawa did not reply to requests for deserter information.
“Because they are still at large doesn’t necessarily mean they are still in Japan,” Ford said. “If they are not still in Japan, there is not a lot we can do here locally to find them.”
Still, the missing servicemembers — coupled with the murder last year in Yokosuka — have some Japanese worried about desertion-related crime.
“I want to know the reason [they deserted],” said Emiko Miyamoto, a leader of a women’s civic group in Sasebo called Women Who Will Not Forgive Base Crimes. “They may be desperate, and we don’t know what they’ll do when they are driven into a corner.”
The 12 deserters have not committed any Japanese crimes so far, said Norihiko Kaneko, deputy chief of the U.S. Military Facilities Relations Division for Kanagawa prefecture.
“There are various backgrounds for them becoming a deserter,” said Masashi Suzuki, division chief of Yokosuka city’s Military Base Division. “You can’t say that they are all dangerous.”
Under a new agreement with Japan, any desertion charges must be reported to Japanese police within 72 hours along with a description of the wanted servicemember, including a Social Security number and any tattoos.
“We send it to our liaison over at Yokosuka [police],” said Ensign Shawn Kline, a security officer at Yokosuka. “We continue a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week search for this person.”
Each security shift reviews information about any wanted deserters, and patrol officers and gate guards are advised to be on the lookout for specific deserters during the course of their duties, Kline said.
Yokosuka has resolved five of its seven deserter cases since May 2008, and Japanese police have assisted in two of those cases through information sharing, Flynn said.
U.S. Forces Japan touted the agreement to share deserter information as a “resounding success” in a statement issued Tuesday, and Japanese officials said it helps ease concerns among the public.
This announcement was distribute by Adam at Displaced Films, October 6, 2009
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