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 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 article, by Patrick Dunn, was posted to Common Dreams, February 23, 2009
With a new administration taking office in Washington, and an era of profound economic crisis on the horizon, the U.S. military apparatus is undergoing a strategic makeover. In many respects, conditions "on the ground" have remained essentially the same: violence rages on in Iraq (Obama and his commanders disagree about whether to extend the fighting for another sixteen or twenty-three months); air strikes continue to kill Pakistani civilians (though now at a much higher rate); Palestinians and Israelis continue to suffer under U.S.-funded occupation; corporate war profiteers continue to receive high-level government appointments; the U.S. military budget pushes along on its path of annual expansion. And yet at the same time the elite managers of the military-industrial complex are engineering a shift in both their marketing image and their operational focus. Blackwater Worldwide has changed its name to Xe; military recruitment figures have increased as the economy declines; weapons programs are being advertised as instruments of "job creation"; torture and secret imprisonment have been symbolically expunged from the national conscience; Marine commanders are proposing a full-scale transfer of forces from Iraq to Afghanistan.
This last item is particularly relevant, as President Obama has ordered an immediate fifty percent increase of U.S. troops in Afghanistan (from 36,000 to 53,500), with thousands more expected to deploy by early summer. In the face of sustained public opposition to the Iraq war, the military establishment has found it necessary to direct its ambitions elsewhere – and with Robert Gates staying on as Defense Secretary, the "surge" gimmick that sold so well in the context of Iraq is now being used to promote a similar strategy in the historically unconquerable terrain of Afghanistan. Evidently, the hope of the new administration is that a fresh White House image, renewed international support, and the appearance of a connection to the 9/11 attacks will turn Afghanistan into a preferred venue for its highly profitable "global war on terror."
For many rank-and-file GIs, however, this image of the war in Afghanistan as a "good war" is not at all convincing. Extreme climate, austere geography, and vague military strategies combine to make the country into a hellish environment for day-to-day ground operations. Moreover, those familiar with life in the region are doubtful that a U.S.-led "troop surge" will contribute substantially to the well-being of the Afghan people.
But in the eyes of some enlistees, the problems with the war in Afghanistan extend far beyond the agonies of wartime experience, or doubts about the underlying geopolitical strategy.
A groundbreaking event in Chicago this week featured a panel of six military veterans, all of whom have spoken out not only against the war in Iraq, or even against the war in Afghanistan, but against the "global war on terror" as a whole. The panel was organized by the Chicago chapter of Iraq Veterans against the War (IVAW), and its participants set a bold and courageous tone for GI resistance in the age of Obama-imperialism.
One of the veterans, Tyler Zabel, could face deployment to Afghanistan at any moment. A member of the Illinois Army National Guard who enlisted at the age of seventeen, Tyler has already survived a horrifying ordeal at the hands of the military bureaucracy. After completing basic training at Fort Benning, GA, Tyler returned to Chicago and began the application process to become a Conscientious Objector. Having joined the military in order to serve the people of his country, he was appalled by the rampant bloodlust and blind conformity he witnessed during his time at Fort Benning. After meeting a young woman in Chicago who had experienced war first-hand during her childhood in El Salvador, his perspective was deepened and he became a committed pacifist.
The military's application system for Conscientious Objectors seems designed to prevent people like Tyler – who are morally opposed to the combat missions for which they are being trained – from acting on their moral convictions. In addition to three official interviews (including both a religious and a psychological evaluation), Tyler was required to submit a long essay explaining his refusal to engage in combat. Only then would he begin the excruciating process of waiting for his application to be reviewed, which usually takes between six months and one year, during which time the applicant remains an active member of his unit.
In Tyler's case, however, the system was especially unfriendly. One of the first officers he consulted about his application, his squad leader Sergeant First Class Washington, provided false information about Tyler's eligibility, claiming that his lack of religious affiliation would prevent him from becoming a CO. (This has not been true since a Supreme Court decision in 1971 expanded the basis for Conscientious Objection beyond religious grounds.) The same officer also withheld a key document pertaining to Tyler's case – document AR 600-43 – falsely claiming that the information it contained was classified. (The document is in fact available through the IVAW website.)
Then, a few months later, when it seemed that the worst was over, Tyler received a call from the military notifying him that he would be deployed to Afghanistan in one week. He was flabbergasted. Normal practice within the military allows six months advance notice for calls such as this – and Tyler had already informed the military at length of his pacifism and opposition to the war in Afghanistan. Suddenly, his life was thrown into a state of panic. The personal transformation he had undergone during the previous year, his relationships, his work, his life itself – the U.S. government was asking him to sacrifice all of this for a war that he found morally abhorrent.
But this was not the end. Just one day before Tyler was scheduled to leave for Afghanistan, he received another call from the military indicating that he would not have to deploy after all. Then, as if this torment was not enough, he was contacted yet again a month later with reissued orders for deployment.
In Tyler's mind, this was the last straw. Instead of reporting for deployment, he decided to go AWOL and face the risk of military prosecution. After weeks in hiding – during which time he could not work and rarely left his home – he decided to turn himself in to his old unit. The response of his commanders was to "demote" him to a lower rank – indicating that their intention was not to enforce military policy, but to manipulate Tyler (an active war resister) into psychological submission. This indication was confirmed earlier this month when Tyler's commanders failed to contact him for drill practice, as is the unit's routine procedure; when he telephoned them to resolve the confusion, his commanders accused him of insubordination for his absence. Confronted with this final pattern of abuse, Tyler knew that it was time to get out of the military for good. Instead of reporting to his unit, he stayed home and has not gone back since.
For several months Tyler has lived in a state of legal and existential limbo, knowing that the military could show up at any moment to haul him off to prison (or worse, to Afghanistan). He has received advice from numerous activists and politicians, but his best allies have been fellow veterans from IVAW, whose support has strengthened his will and inspired him to speak out publicly. Now, empowered by these relations of solidarity, he is determined not only to resist the military's internal abuses, but to combat the spread of militarism throughout society. "They need this war [in Afghanistan] to continue to expand the military-industrial complex," he says, "which our society now depends on" – but we can resist this expansion by "closing the door to recruitment, and opening the door for resistance," both within and outside the military.
Tyler's moral opposition to the military-industrial complex was echoed by the other members of the IVAW panel in Chicago. Two national guardsmen (one of whom is now a militant labor organizer with the IWW) described their success at fomenting resistance among fellow rank-and-file guard members. By sharing ideas and literature at their base, they were able to establish strong personal relationships that served as a bottom-up defense against the military's institutionalized discipline. Another AWOL veteran described the U.S. military as an institution whose mission is to "exterminate" the oppressed people of the world "like so many cockroaches," while emphasizing the damage inflicted on vulnerable enlistees by the military's "racist, sexist, and homophobic practices."
All members of the panel recognized the need for movements of counter-recruitment and anti-militarization to intensify under the new political administration. As Fallujah veteran D. Paul Muller pointed out, the armed forces are under strict orders to "keep the recruitment numbers up, keep the high school students coming in." With wealthy financial institutions tightening their budgets, military planners are under pressure to ensure that taxpayer funds continue to flow into the massive "defense" economy. Competition among lobbyists and policymakers for access to these funds has escalated in recent months, and the various branches of the military are devising new marketing strategies to cope with this financially starved environment.
In order to prevent the further militarization of our society, and to steer public wealth towards investment in non-military social programs, we will need an alternative culture that counteracts the military's attempts to prey on desperate communities in a time of crisis. The war resisters from IVAW have paved the way for such an alternative by creating a culture of disobedience within the military's own ranks. By supporting their efforts – and by developing cooperative networks that will sustain these and other projects of demilitarization – we can begin the work of freeing our society from its dependence on war profiteering and military power.