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 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 Forrrest Wilder, was published by the Texas Observer, August 17 2009.
In March, Michael Kern, 22, returned to Fort Hood after a year and a day in Iraq.
Shaken by his experience and disgusted with the war, Kern, a native of Riverside, Calif., tried to readjust by getting as hammered as possible. “Put it this way: For the first month, I was drunk at work, I was drunk 24/7.”
In Iraq the violence had been fast and furious. “We were going through all sorts of bad shit: mortars, IEDs, indirect fire. Anything you can think of we experienced the first day.”
On his second mission, Kern drew the short straw to drive the lead vehicle—a “mine resistant ambush protected” vehicle—in a convoy looking for a weapons cache near Baghdad. An IED exploded next to his vehicle, damaging his door. The platoon pulled back to base. The next day, April 7, on an identical mission, insurgents came after his unit with AK-47s, machine guns and IEDs. During the nine-hour firefight, a sniper killed Kern’s buddy, Sgt. Richard A. Vaughn. Two others, including Kern’s lieutenant, were seriously injured.
Kern tells me his story over two days in July at Under the Hood Café, a new GI coffeehouse and soldier-outreach center that opened in February. Since mid-May, when a drunken Kern first dropped in, Under the Hood has become his second home. While awaiting a medical discharge for PTSD and traumatic brain injury, he’s here almost every day, working out what happened to him in Iraq, planning anti-war events and helping other soldiers come to terms with their combat experiences. The coffeehouse provides a support network, friends who’ve helped him quit drinking, people he can call on day or night, and provides what Kern appreciated most about the military: a sense of camaraderie.
“If it wasn’t for this place, it’s sad to say, I feel like I would be dead. I feel like I would have killed myself,” Kern says.
Under the Hood is a rifle shot from the east gates of Fort Hood in a grim commercial zone of tattoo parlors, pawnshops, car lots, payday lenders, bars, strip clubs, and a place advertising “gold grillz” for teeth—establishments eager to drain young soldiers of their earnings. In this garrison town, the café has become a gathering place for dissident GIs, peace activists, veterans and active-duty soldiers who need help.
Inside, the walls are decorated with peace propaganda, including a map of the world pinpointing U.S. military interventions and a poster that reads, “You Can’t Be All that You Can Be if You’re Dead.” A bookcase is stocked with anti-war literature. For entertainment, there’s a dartboard, a foosball table and a big-screen TV with PlayStation. No alcohol is allowed, but there’s no shortage of cigarette smoke.
I came here to suss out efforts to build an anti-war movement within the Army. Fort Hood, the largest military installation in the country, has produced a smattering of war resisters in recent years. I met some of them at the coffeehouse, including Victor Agosto, an Iraq War veteran who refuses to deploy to Afghanistan, and Casey Porter, a mechanic who did two tours in Iraq. Porter, preparing to attend film school in Florida, recorded local life in Iraq, posting interviews with military personnel, battle footage and unvarnished street scenes.
Over the past four years, I’ve come into contact with scores of military personnel through my involvement with the Austin GI Rights Hotline, a group of volunteers trained to counsel service members about their rights.
Once a week, I sit on my couch and talk on the phone to soldiers, Marines and airmen who call with a dizzying array of issues, from the mundane to the impossibly complex. Many are stationed at Fort Hood. We get AWOL cases, people with untreated PTSD, 18-year-old enlistees who’ve found out their recruiter lied to them, middle-aged soldiers who’ve been stop-lossed, moms and dads calling on behalf of their kids, gay officers who’ve been outed—you name it. Some have made poor decisions; others are victims of a sometimes capricious, even cruel military system.
I got into it through my girlfriend. Katherine was in the news some years ago for being the first female conscientious objector to emerge from the war in Afghanistan. The military refused to recognize her as a conscientious objector, and after a long and painful process she was court-martialed and sentenced to 120 days in the brig. She ate lunch every day with Lynndie England, the young West Virginia woman best known for holding the leash in the infamous Abu Ghraib photos.
Joeie Michaels, Michael Kern’s roommate and an Under the Hood regular, used to dance at Babes, a Killeen strip club popular with GIs. Performing there, she made sure the troops left with a flier for the coffeehouse.
Under the Hood’s signal event was a Memorial Day peace march in the streets of Killeen, the city’s first since Vietnam. The Killeen newspaper reported about 70 participants. Cindy Thomas, the military spouse who manages the coffeehouse and plays den mother to the young, often-raucous soldiers, estimates about 10 to 15 were locals, including veterans and active-duty soldiers.
“It’s like a mother with a child,” Thomas says. “It’s unconditional love, and we help them any way we can.”
The building housing Under the Hood’s local antecedent, the Killeen coffeehouse Oleo Strut, is a few blocks away; it now houses an office complex. The Oleo Strut had a four-year run from 1968 to 1972, according to a history on Under the Hood’s Web site. Run by civilians and veterans, the Oleo Strut plugged Fort Hood soldiers into the Vietnam anti-war movement and spread their ideas in the barracks. An underground newspaper circulated from the coffeehouse, and the crowd there organized demonstrations and teach-ins. Musicians passed through, purportedly including a young Stevie Ray Vaughan.
“The tinder was very dry,” says Tom Cleaver, an Oleo Strut alum, Vietnam veteran and Hollywood screenwriter who helped raise money to start Under the Hood. “They ended up in ’69 and ’70 having big demonstrations there, a thousand guys marching in Killeen against the war.”
Fort Hood at that time was a holding station for soldiers returning from Vietnam with less than six months left on their enlistments. Before being discharged, many were deployed to suppress domestic riots and protests, including those at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
“Here they come back to America, and what does the Army want them to do?” Cleaver asks. “Fight a war in America. That radicalized a lot of guys. They came back with bad feelings about the war, and now they were supposed to go defend the war.”
There’s no draft now, nor is there a broader social counterculture, to tap into. Given that, Thomas says, one of Under the Hood’s primary functions is giving soldiers a place to speak openly.
“The military, they don’t want you to think for yourself,” Thomas says. “They don’t want you to be informed; they don’t want you to know that you have support because they function by fear and intimidation over these soldiers. So when you have a space where you can talk freely and find out what your rights are, you have that support, you have that kindness. It is a threat to them.”
One coffeehouse regular, Spc. Ben Fugate, told me that after his commander spotted his name in a Killeen Daily Herald article about the Memorial Day peace march, his unit was lectured for two hours on the dangers of protesting.
Fugate, who describes himself as “very conservative,” had been quoted in the paper saying, “I lost three buddies in my platoon in Iraq, and for what? Why lose more when we don’t have to?”
Kern, seated on a couch in a cozy back room at Under the Hood, explains how he became a coffeehouse fixture. It’s a Thursday in July, and he’s wearing a T-shirt that asks, “Got Rights?” He’s pale and swallowing tranquilizers to suppress panic attacks.
“I’m fucked up,” he says. “I know it.” Later, he says, “You know how they say a teenage boy thinks about sex every eight seconds. Every eight seconds I think about Iraq.”
Kern, a tanker, says his unit averaged about two and a half missions per day.
At first, Kern says, he was gung ho: “I was an excellent soldier. I took joy out of killing people in Iraq. It was such an adrenaline rush. I craved it.”
Over time, bravado faded into depression, guilt and a strong feeling that the war was wrong. When Kern deployed to Iraq he took a small handheld digital video camera and a laptop with editing software. He fixed the camera to his vehicle’s turret and captured hours of patrol footage.
Some of that raw video has been distilled to a 10-minute film called Fire Mission that’s available online.
In the film’s last minutes, Spc. Steven Pesicka, a soldier in Kern’s unit, narrates what he calls a “mortar mission for shock and awe” near an Iraqi village. The first mortar lands near a house, and the forward observer calls for the next one to be targeted 200 meters farther from the village. The mortar team thought that was too far away, Pesicka says. The film shows the second mortar hitting the town. “Oh fuck,” the forward observer is heard to say. “They did not drop 200 [meters], over. They hit the town.”
Minutes after the explosion, the soldier describes dead bodies being loaded into the back of trucks.
Such experiences led Kern to a radical form of empathy.
“If you just take a step back and you think, I mean, I’d be doing the same thing if Iraqis were in the United States,” Kern, dressed in battle fatigues, says in Fire Mission. “I’d be the dude trying to plant a bomb under the road. I’d be trying to kill them. Oh, hell yeah, get the fuck out of my country.”
Beginning in May or June, Kern started having nightmares, sometimes while he was awake. On several occasions he hallucinated an Iraqi child with half his skull missing, as real to him as the desert heat. His psychiatrist says the child might represent guilt, but all Kern knows is that it scared the shit out of him. In January, on his birthday, while his unit was on patrol, he told a commander—in confidence—that he was going to see a mental health specialist. The doctor prescribed Zoloft and sent him on his way. Back with his platoon, Kern discovered that the commander had ratted him out to his platoon sergeant.
“I was called out in front of the entire platoon, was made an example of, saying why are you going to mental health. This isn’t a war. This isn’t bad.” The next day, on a mission, Kern talked openly of suicide. “Still to this day, my buddy doesn’t know he talked me down, but I really wanted to kill myself on that mission. I had three loaded weapons sitting right next to me. I could have done it real easy.”
Back home, Kern avoided his demons, drowning them in drink. Thomas and Michaels encouraged Kern to open up.
“They’d be like, ‘How was Iraq?’ I’d say ‘Oh, it was just Iraq.’ I kept brushing it aside and stuff. They kept telling me, ‘You’re gonna break, you’re gonna break. You need to get help.’ ” Kern relented.
Michaels found a psychiatrist in Austin whom Kern has been seeing twice a week for free. In May he visited Fort Hood’s mental health services office, but was told he’d have to wait six weeks to see a doctor.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi child had followed Kern back to Texas. On the first of June, Kern was in the bathroom at Under the Hood when the child made an appearance. Afterward, Thomas and Michaels found Kern sitting outside under a tree. “The look on his face was just empty. His eyes were hollow,” Thomas says. Kern entered the 12-bed psychiatric ward at Fort Hood’s military hospital. He spent the next week there, emerging with a diagnosis of PTSD and traumatic brain injury. Doctors put him on five medications, including tranquilizers, antidepressants and antipsychotics, which he carries in a small orange pillbox.
A week after being released, Kern started a blog, “Expendable Soldier.” In his first post he wrote, “I still hate myself and everything I do. No matter what I am doing any day of the week I some how am still reminded of the things I did while I was in Iraq, and sometimes it gets so bad that I believe I am still in Iraq. ... Sometimes I wish I never came back.”
Still, Kern reports for duty at the coffeehouse every day. He’s working on restarting an Iraq Veterans Against the War chapter in Killeen and talking to other soldiers about the coffeehouse. Does he feel like he’s become part of an anti-war movement? “I am part of an anti-war movement,” he says. “There’s no ‘feeling’ about it.”
This article, by Dahr Jamail, was posted to Truthout, August 12, 2009.
Sgt. Travis Bishop, who served 14 months in Baghdad with the 3rd Signal Brigade, faces a court-martial this Friday for refusing to deploy to Afghanistan.
Bishop is the second soldier from Fort Hood in as may weeks to be tried by the military for his stand against an occupation he believes is "illegal." He insists that it would be unethical for him to deploy to support an occupation he opposes on both moral and legal grounds and he has filed for conscientious objector (CO) status.
Spc. Victor Agosto was court-martialed last week for his refusal to deploy to Afghanistan. Agosto's lawyer, James Branum, who is also Bishop's lawyer, is the legal adviser to the GI Rights Hotline of Oklahoma and co-chair of the Military Law Task Force. Branum told Truthout during a phone interview on July 10 that, contrary to mainstream opinion that believes Afghanistan to be a "justified" war, the invasion and ongoing occupation are actually in violation of the US Constitution and international law.
"Victor is approaching this from the standpoint of law and ethics," Branum explained, "It's his own personal ethics and principles of the Nuremberg Principles, that the war in Afghanistan does not meet the criteria for lawful war under the UN Charter, which says that member nations who joined the UN, as did the US, should give up war forever, aside from two exceptions: that the war is in self-defense and that the use of force was authorized by the UN Security Council. The nation of Afghanistan did not attack the United States. The Taliban may have, but the nation and people of Afghanistan did not. And under US law, the Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution, any treaty enacted by the US is now the 'supreme law of the land.' So when the United States signed the UN Charter, we made that our law as well."
Bishop told Truthout he was inspired by Agosto's stand and had chosen to follow Specialist Agosto's example of refusal. Both his time in Iraq, the illegality of the occupation and a moral awakening led to his decision to refuse to deploy.
"I started to see a big difference between our reality there and what was in the news," Bishop explained to Truthout about his experience in Iraq, but went on to add that morality and religion played a role as well.
When he received orders to deploy to Afghanistan, Bishop said, "I started reading my Bible to get right with my creator before going. Through my reading I realized all this goes against what Jesus taught and what all true Christians should believe. I had a religious transformation, and realized that all war is wrong."
Bishop received his orders to deploy to Afghanistan in February, but at the time "didn't know there was a support network or a way out at all. I thought GI resistance was something archaic from Vietnam."
As his deployment date approached, he met with other soldiers at a GI resistance cafe, "Under the Hood", in Killeen, Texas.
"They told me not only do I have a choice, but I have a support network backing me up," Bishop explained, "I told them my thinking, and they said that I sounded like a CO. They put me in touch with (James) Branum and when I learned from him what a CO was, I knew I couldn't go."
Bishop went absent without leave (AWOL) for one week the day his unit deployed, "because I didn't have time to prepare to file for CO status. So while AWOL I prepared a statement and filled out my application for CO (status). Then I went back (to Fort Hood) with Branum and turned myself in. I never planned on staying AWOL. They gave me a barracks room and assigned me to a platoon and told me to show up to work the next day. That was it. They started the CO process, but they also started the Uniform Code of Military Justice process, and that's where it gets shifty."
Shortly thereafter, the military charged him with two counts of missing movement and disobeying a direct order.
Bishop, Agosto, and other resisters are not alone. In November 2007, the Pentagon revealed that between 2003 and 2007 there had been an 80 percent increase in overall desertion rates in the Army (desertion refers to soldiers who go AWOL and never intend to return to service), and Army AWOL rates from 2003 to 2006 were the highest since 1980. Between 2000 and 2006, more than 40,000 troops from all branches of the military deserted, more than half from the Army. Army desertion rates jumped by 42 percent from 2006 to 2007 alone.
Bishop informed Truthout that morale is low among his peers in the military, whether they are pro-war or opposed to the occupations.
"Hard Corps folks, as soon as they hear about my sentence being capped at a year, they are changing their minds already," he said, "There's a lot of soldiers that go just because they feel they have to go. They are driven by money and legal obligation, not patriotism. They go because they don't want to lose their job and get in trouble. A lot of the people I talk to that are in, they feel as I do, but they say things like 'I only have four more months, so I'll ride it out and hope not to get stop-lossed.'"
Spc. Michael Kern, an active duty veteran of the occupation of Iraq (where he served from March 2007 to March 2008), is also based at Fort Hood. He is currently getting treatment for traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Kern turned against both occupations, as he told Truthout, "Once I realized it wasn't a war and was an occupation, and once I realized I was a terrorist to people in Iraq. It wasn't a hard decision. My whole unit feels as I do, but are afraid to speak out because they don't know there is support for those of us who speak out against the war."
Kern, like Bishop, says that troop morale is very low.
"I'd say it's at an all-time low - mostly because of Afghanistan now. Nobody knows why we are at either place, and I believe the troops need to know why they are there, or we should pull out, and this is a unanimous feeling, even for folks who are pro-war."
Kern feels that the decisions of Agosto and Bishop to refuse to deploy to Afghanistan is worthy of admiration and support.
"I admire these guys," he told Truthout, "They are truly amazing. I wish I would have done that, but when I deployed I didn't know what I was getting into, or my options. I look up to these guys. They are standing up for what they believe in, and that's the greatest thing any of us can do, and they are doing it despite what the Army is doing to them."
Kern suggests that soldiers "do your research before you willingly follow orders, because this is an unjust war, and according to Army regulations, you are entitled to question an illegal order, such as deploying to an illegal war not sanctioned by the UN. And that there is a large community of support for those who are standing up. And it's all over the world, not just the US, wherever you are, there are people who feel the same way you do."
In England, Lance Cpl. Joe Glenton, from the Royal Logistics Corps, has become the first British soldier to speak out publicly against the war in Afghanistan.
Glenton delivered a letter to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on 30 July stating why he is refusing to return to Afghanistan.
Glenton wrote: "The war in Afghanistan is not reducing the terrorist risk, far from improving Afghan lives it is bringing death and devastation to their country. Britain has no business there. I do not believe that our cause in Afghanistan is just or right. I implore you, Sir, to bring our soldiers home."
Glenton, like Agosto, and soon for Bishop, began his court-martial proceedings on 3 August.
US commanders recently announced that US and NATO troop deaths from Afghan bombings spiked six-fold in July, compared to the same month last year. In July, resistance fighters detonated the highest number of bombs against occupation forces in the eight-year occupation, according to figures released Tuesday. More US troops were killed in July in Afghanistan than any other month of the entire occupation, and violence continues.
Meanwhile, Anthony Cordesman, a senior adviser to the US military commander in charge of NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, told The Times of London that an additional 45,000 US troops are needed in Afghanistan.
Bishop hopes his refusal to deploy will inspire soldiers to search their consciences.
"My hope is that people who feel like me, that they don't have a voice and are having doubts, I hope that this shows them that not only can you talk to someone about this, but that you actually have a choice," he said.
"Choice is the first thing they take away from you in the military," Bishop added, "You're taught that you don't have a choice. That's not true. And not wanting to kill someone or get killed does not make you a coward. I hope my actions show this to more people."
This article, by Dahr Jamail, was posted toTruthOut, July 14, 2009.
US Army Specialist Victor Agosto served a 13-month deployment in Iraq with the 57th Expeditionary Signal Battalion. "What I did there, I know I contributed to death and human suffering," Agosto told Truthout from Fort Hood, in Killeen, Texas, in May, "It's hard to quantify how much I caused, but I know I contributed to it."
His experience in Iraq, coupled with educating himself about US foreign policy and international law, has led Agosto to refuse to deploy to Afghanistan. "It's a matter of what I'm willing to live with," he said of his recent decision, "I'm not willing to participate in this occupation, knowing it is completely wrong."
Agosto's lawyer, James Branum, who is also the legal adviser to the GI Rights Hotline and co-chair of the Military Law Task Fore, told Truthout during a phone interview on July 10 that, contrary to mainstream opinion that believes Afghanistan to be a "justified" war, the invasion and ongoing occupation are actually in violation of the US Constitution and international law.
"Victor is approaching this from the standpoint of law and ethics," Branum explained, "It's his own personal ethics and principles of the Nuremburg Principles, that the war in Afghanistan does not meet the criteria for lawful war under the UN Charter, which says that member nations who joined the UN, as did the US, should give up war forever, aside from two exceptions: that the war is in self-defense, and that the use of force was authorized by the UN Security Council. The nation of Afghanistan did not attack the United States. The Taliban may have, but the nation and people of Afghanistan did not. And under US Law, the Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution, any treaty enacted by the US is now the "supreme law of the land." So when the United States signed the UN Charter, we made that our law as well."
The Supremacy Clause is a clause in the United States Constitution, Article VI, Paragraph 2. The clause establishes the Constitution, Federal Statutes, and US treaties as "the supreme law of the land." The text establishes these as the highest form of law in the American legal system, mandating that state judges uphold them, even if state laws or constitutions conflict.
This was also the basis for the stand taken by Lt. Ehren Watada of the US Army, who in 2006 was the first commissioned officer to publicly refuse a combat deployment to Iraq.
In an article for Truthout published August 14, 2006, I posted the text of a speech given by Watada at a National Convention of Veterans for Peace in Seattle, Washington, where I was present.
Watada outlined the principled stand he took, which applies to that of Victor Agosto today:
"The oath we take swears allegiance not to one man but to a document of principles and laws designed to protect the people. Enlisting in the military does not relinquish one's right to seek the truth - neither does it excuse one from rational thought nor the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. "I was only following orders" is never an excuse.
"The Nuremburg Trials showed America and the World that citizenry as well as soldiers have the unrelinquishable obligation to refuse complicity in war crimes perpetrated by their government. Widespread torture and inhumane treatment of detainees is a war crime. A war of aggression born through an unofficial policy of prevention is a crime against the peace. An occupation violating the very essence of international humanitarian law and sovereignty is a crime against humanity. These crimes are funded by our tax dollars. Should citizens choose to remain silent through self-imposed ignorance or choice, it makes them as culpable as the Soldier in these crimes.
"Aside from the reality of indentured servitude, the American Soldier in theory is much nobler. Soldier or officer - when we swear our oath - it is first and foremost to the Constitution and its protectorate, the people. If soldiers realized this war is contrary to what the Constitution extols - if they stood up and threw their weapons down - no president could ever initiate a war of choice again. When we say, "... Against all enemies foreign and domestic" - what if elected leaders became the enemy? Whose orders do we follow? The answer is the conscience that lies in each soldier, each American, and each human being. Our duty to the Constitution is an obligation, not a choice."
In a victory for Lieutenant Watada, the Justice Department decided in May to drop any further attempts to retry the officer for his refusal to deploy to Iraq.
Having served three years and nine months in the US Army, Agosto was to complete his contract and be discharged on August 3, but due to his excellent record of service and accrued leave, he was to be released at the end of June. Nevertheless, due to the stop-loss program (a program used to keep soldiers enlisted beyond the terms of their contracts which has affected over 185,000 soldiers since September 11, 2001) the Army decided to deploy him to Afghanistan anyway.
When Agosto refused, the Army issued him a Counseling Statement (a punitive US Army memo) on May 1, which outlined actions taken by the Army to discipline Agosto for his refusal to obey a direct order from his company commander, Michael J. Pederson. Agosto wrote on the form, "There is no way I will deploy to Afghanistan. The occupation is immoral and unjust. It does not make the American people any safer. It has the opposite effect," and posted it on his FaceBook page.
On another Counseling Statement dated May 18, Agosto wrote, "I will not obey any order I deem to be immoral or illegal."
On May 27, rejecting an Article 15 - a nonjudicial punishment imposed by a commanding officer who believes a member of his command has committed an offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice - Agosto demanded to be court-martialed instead.
In words prophetic of Agosto's ethical and lawful refusal to deploy to Afghanistan, Watada said:
"I have broken no law but the code of silence and unquestioning loyalty. If I am guilty of any crime, it is that I learned too much and cared too deeply for the meaningless loss of my fellow soldiers and my fellow human beings. If I am to be punished it should be for following the rule of law over the immoral orders of one man. If I am to be punished it should be for not acting sooner."
Agosto continues to show up for duty at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, where he is currently stationed, but refused to take part in any duties that supported either the occupations of Iraq or Afghanistan. He told Truthout during a recent telephone interview he was "cleaning the motor pool" and "pulling weeds," and that the Army was being careful not to order him to do anything that would cause him to refuse to comply.
Meanwhile, Branum was in negotiations with the Army in efforts to seek a lower-level court-martial so that Agosto would suffer the minimum penalties possible.
"We were working with the Army's Trial Defense Services (TDS), and Victor has a military lawyer on his side as well, which I recommended he have," Branum told Truthout during a July 10 phone interview.
"TDS had communicated to the prosecution for me that we were willing to accept an Article 15 and do a month of extra duty, then if he (Agosto) got a summary court-martial we'd take it - which would mean Victor would serve a maximum of 30 days in jail, and receive an Other Than Honorable discharge," Branum explained, "So TDS said they took this offer to the CG (Commanding General) who was to sign off on it, but they said he made a mistake and wrote "special" rather than "summary" on the court-martial and sent it back down."
Branum explained that "a summary court martial is little more than an Article 15. Supposedly there was an "honest" mistake made by them handing down this special court martial, but I think they are playing games with us."
Branum, angered by this recent turn of events, explained the difference between the types of court martial, "They (the Army) are not acting in good faith here. What this still means, is the cap went from 30 days (of possible jail time for Agosto with a summary court martial) to a year (with a special court martial), so a pretty big jump I would say, and a leap from an Other Than Honorable discharge (summary court martial) to a bad conduct discharge (special court martial), which means once he is convicted his pay would stop."
Due to the perceived breach of good faith by the Army during the negotiating process, Branum believes he has no choice now but to up the stakes in Agosto's upcoming court-martial.
"Now we're going to put the war on trial with their special court-martial," Branum said, "They had their chance to keep this quiet and move on, but now we're going to pull out all the stops and put the war on trial, and show how the whole thing is illegal."
The most significant factor in Agosto's case is that he has taken a principled stand against the occupation of Afghanistan long before the "point of crisis," according to Branum. The "point of crisis" to which he refers is generally an ethical crisis a soldier experiences when he or she is getting on the plane to deploy.
"He connected the dots long before that point of crisis," Branum explained, "To me, this is a very morally developed point of view. Most resisters don't reach that point until much later on."
It is a similar point reached by Watada, who in the aforementioned speech precisely articulated this experience:
"Now it is not an easy task for the Soldier. For he or she must be aware that they are being used for ill-gain. They must hold themselves responsible for individual action. They must remember duty to the Constitution and the People supersedes the ideologies of their leadership. The Soldier must be willing to face ostracism by their peers, worry over the survival of their families, and of course the loss of personal freedom. They must know that resisting an authoritarian government at home is equally important to fighting a foreign aggressor on the battlefield. Finally, those wearing the uniform must know beyond any shadow of a doubt that by refusing immoral and illegal orders they will be supported by the people not with mere words but by action."
Agosto spoke with Truthout on July 8, immediately after receiving the news of his "special" court-martial. "I was escorted over to the headquarters of Fort Hood and was handed a folder with the paperwork that said he (Commanding General Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch) approved this kind of court-martial. We were in the middle of negotiating a deal where I would have taken a summary court-martial, where the maximum penalty is 30 days in prison and an Other Than Honorable discharge. But somehow during this process someone submitted the case over to the general's discretion, and that' s not something that is supposed to happen in this negotiation phase. I'm surprised, because I thought this deal was going to go down last week and it didn't. I was with my military lawyer, and we were talking about the case, and during that discussion she got the call from the prosecuting attorney that the case had been referred to the general, and then we knew it wasn't likely we would get the deal I'd sign ed off on. So yesterday I went to the III Corps building and got the news."
Agosto said he has "gotten the indication" that he will be leaving the company he is currently in to be moved to the Battalion's rear-detachment company "because that's the one that will stay here. I think they want to avoid a Jeff Paterson moment, I guess that's their thinking. They won't try to deploy me, they just want to punish me for my intentions and for what I've done so far."
Jeff Paterson was a US Marine during the US attack against Iraq in 1991. Paterson opted to apply for conscientious objector status. When that was denied, he refused to board the plane that was heading to Saudi Arabia during the build-up to the war by literally sitting down on the tarmac and refusing to move. Eventually his unit left without him. Paterson told his story to Truthout last summer in Oakland, California.
"Leaving without me is what I thought they were going to do. I was a sort of liability. Also I had been on a hunger strike the previous week, and had at that point become a medical issue for them. So they left me behind, and I was taken instead to the Pearl Harbor brig, where I did the next two months in pre-trial confinement. I was court-martialed for a number of offenses. Ultimately they chose to cut their losses and give me a quiet discharge even before the court-martial ended."
Agosto's stand has already inspired another member of his unit to refuse to deploy to Afghanistan as well. Sgt. Travis Bishop, who served 14 months in Baghdad with the 57th Expeditionary Signal Battalion - the same battalion as Agosto, who served north of the Iraqi capital - recently went AWOL from his station at Fort Hood, Texas, when his unit deployed to Afghanistan. He insists that it would be unethical for him to deploy to support an occupation he opposes on moral grounds.
On his blog, he writes about his position:
"I love my country, but I believe that this particular war is unjust, unconstitutional and a total abuse of our nation's power and influence. And so, in the next few days, I will be speaking with my lawyer, and taking actions that will more than likely result in my discharge from the military, and possible jail time ... and I am prepared to live with that."
Truthout spoke with him briefly after he turned himself in at his base in early June. He said he'd chosen to follow Specialist Agosto's example of refusal, which had inspired him, and wanted to be present at his post to accept the consequences of his actions. Like Agosto, he, too, hoped others might follow his lead.
Agosto and Bishop are not alone. In November 2007, the Pentagon revealed that between 2003 and 2007 there had been an 80 percent increase in overall desertion rates in the Army (desertion refers to soldiers who go AWOL and never intend to return to service), and Army AWOL rates from 2003 to 2006 were the highest since 1980. Between 2000 and 2006, more than 40,000 troops from all branches of the military deserted, more than half from the Army. Army desertion rates jumped by 42 percent from 2006 to 2007 alone.
Branum, who has defended over a dozen war resisters, told Truthout, "As far as I know, this is the first time since Vietnam that we've had two resisters in the same unit."
Adam Szyper-Seibert, a counselor and administrative associate at Courage to Resist, an organization that supports war resisters, recently told Truthout that "in recent months there has been a dramatic rise of nearly 200 percent in the number of soldiers that have contacted Courage to Resist." Szyper-Seibert suspects this may reflect the decision of the Obama administration to dramatically increase efforts, troop strength and resources in Afghanistan. "We are actively supporting over 50 military resisters like Victor Agosto," Szyper-Seibert says. "They are all over the world, including André Shepherd in Germany and several people in Canada. We are getting five or six calls a week just about the IRR [Individual Ready Reserve] recall alone."
The IRR is composed of troops who have finished their active duty service but still have time remaining on their contracts. The typical military contract mandates four years of active duty followed by four years in the IRR, though variations on this pattern exist. Ready Reserve members live civilian lives and are not paid by the military, but they are required to show up for periodic musters. Many have moved on from military life and are enrolled in college, working civilian jobs, and building families.
Agosto told Truthout he stands willing to face the consequences of his actions.
"Yes, I'm fully prepared for this. I have concluded that the wars [in Iraq and Afghanistan] are not going to be ended by politicians or people at the top. They're not responsive to people, they're responsive to corporate America. The only way to make them responsive to the needs of the people is for soldiers to not fight their wars. If soldiers won't fight their wars, the wars won't happen. I hope I'm setting an example for other soldiers."
"One who breaks an unjust law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law," Dr. Martin Luther King Junior said, words that concisely explain the ramifications of Agosto's position.
As evidenced by the stand being taken by Sergeant Bishop, Agosto's hope has already been realized. However, with 19,000 US soldiers recently added to the occupation of Afghanistan (bringing the total to 68,000) and violence continuing to escalate, there is an increasing likelihood for more to follow Agosto's lead.
This article, "Anti-war group visits state", by Ron Jenkins, was posted by the Associated Press, August 18, 2008
Members of Iraq Veterans Against the War spoke out Monday in Oklahoma as part of a national tour that includes events in Oklahoma City and Lawton, near Fort Sill Army Base.
Several members of the anti-war group attended a news conference at the state Capitol, including Justin Cliburn of Lawton, an Oklahoma Army National Guard member who went to Iraq in 2005.
The protesters criticized politicians for saying they support the troops, while voting against legislation to upgrade military equipment sent to Iraq and take care of veterans' medical needs when they return home.
They said that contrary to what is seen in news reports, most Iraqis do not support "the American occupation" of their country.
"The Iraqis told us, 'Look, I know you have good intentions here, but you're messing up our lives,'" said Jason Hurd of Asheville, N.C., an Army veteran and medic who was deployed in Baghdad in 2004.
Kristofer Goldsmith of Long Island, N.Y., spoke of attempting suicide after becoming disillusioned in Iraq.
Goldsmith said more needs to be done to help returning veterans with medical problems, including post traumatic stress disorder.
"The best way to support the troops is to keep them alive when they get back," he said.
Members of the IVAW were scheduled to speak Monday night at the First Unitarian Church in Oklahoma City and planned a free barbecue and workshop for veterans on Tuesday at Cameron University in Lawton.
The IVAW was praised by soldiers speaking at the Capitol for helping them deal with red tape standing in the way of getting medical and other benefits.
They were joined by two Oklahoma men whose sons were killed in Iraq Warren Henthorn of Choctaw and John Scripsick of Wayne.
Also speaking were James Branum, a Lawton lawyer who operates the Oklahoma GI Rights Hotline and Nathaniel Batchelder, the director of the Oklahoma City Peace House.
>This article, by Paul Boers, was published in The Goshen College Record, February 7, 2008
Private First Class Rob Weiss sat slumped in a German street, bleeding. A beer bottle, broken over his head in a bar fight, had opened deep cuts in his face. With shards of glass still stuck in his skin, he reached for his cell phone, but not to call for help. Instead, he took pictures of his wounds for posterity.
But, that was a different time in Weiss’ life. That was before his “moment of crystallization;” before newfound faith pushed him as soldier toward pacifist beliefs, and before these beliefs became the basis for an ultimately denied conscientious objector application. That was before he deserted the army and came to hide in Goshen, Ind.
Weiss enlisted at age 17. His parents had kicked him out of their house a year before, and he had gone to live with a friend. When he and his friend were no longer welcome at this new residence, Weiss was left with few options.
“I had no money, no car, no job and no place to go,” said Weiss
Enlisting seemed like his best bet, so he set up his high school schedule in a way that would allow him to graduate a year early. He received his diploma June 2005 and was in basic training at Fort Knox two weeks later. After passing training, he was stationed in Vilseck, Germany. The lower legal drinking age and his Army paychecks gave him the opportunity and the means to go out to bars. He and his friends drank regularly and got in bar fights from time to time.
Then, in Dec. 2006 he went home on leave. During this time, his sister’s fiancé was stabbed in a fight at a New Year’s Eve party. He bled to death before he reached the hospital. This event caused Weiss to start thinking about his own mortality, especially as a soldier.
“You’re 18, you’re a soldier, you think you’re really big,” Weiss said. He considered what he would say to God if asked to give an account of his life.
“What would I say? ‘Sorry, I didn’t have time to go to church. I was hung over,’” he wondered. “I thought, ‘maybe it’s time that I would do something productive with my life other than getting in bar fights and getting hammered drunk.”
He also started questioning the worth of violence, as his sister’s fiancé, his killer and their families only experienced negative effects from the fight.
“It made me realize how pointless it is to solve problems with violence,” Weiss said. He said the experience made him doubt the way he and his comrades in arms resolve conflicts.
At the same time, he started reading the Bible and was taken aback.
“I was shocked by this message of peacemaking,” he said. “There is a constant, recurring message of not responding in violence, unlike in the Army where they teach you to kill everything.”
He cites April 2007 as his “moment of crystallization.” This was the time when he decided his beliefs were incompatible with military service. So, he called a GI rights hotline. They told him to call the Military Counseling Network, a Mennonite-founded, German-based group that aims to answer soldiers’ legal questions and apply for conscientious objector status. With their help, Weiss submitted a request to be classified as a CO. Mike Sharp, a former Goshen resident, handled his case.
Weiss filed his application June 6. While his petition was in process, he was deployed to Baghdad. On Dec 1, after writing personal essays and soliciting references, turning in receipts for books authors including John Roth and John Howard Yoder and submitting to assessments by a chaplain and a psychologist, his application was disapproved by a two to one vote.
At this same time, however, Weiss was told that he would be going on leave.
He thought, “If that’s the case, I’ll just go home and not come back again.” After going home for a short time, he flew to Goshen to wait until his actions would be classified as desertion rather than AWOL. He was able to make connections to the Mennonite community through Mike Sharp. Since coming to Goshen, Weiss has been living in an elderly Mennonite couple’s basement, but he does not plan to stay long.
While most deserters turn themselves in, others try to hide or escape to Canada. Hiding doesn’t hold much appeal for Weiss.
“I think it’s better to turn yourself in and get it over with,” he says nonchalantly. “I don’t want to live in people’s basements until the day I die.”
While here, Weiss has been speaking to young adults at local Mennonite churches. Sophomore Beth Glick heard him speak and said that he changed her stereotype of soldiers. His story reminded her that people enter the military for a variety of reasons and that even soldiers in Iraq can change their minds about war.
“It’s good to know that people are thinking over there,” said Glick.
Weiss plans to turn himself in on Monday. While he could receive a jail sentence of up to seven years, Mike Sharp does not expect him to spend that long in jail.
“I usually estimate it would be more like a year, but you never know,” said Sharp.
Among the reasons the review panel cited for denial was that “threatening to disobey orders does not equate to action.” To Weiss, going AWOL showed that his beliefs carried through to action.
Weiss smiled. “I wasn’t joking.”