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 Richard Lee, was posted to The Rag Blog, November 11, 2009
To Barack Obama:
Let’s have a military buildup! You can show those crazy-ass generals at the Pentagon that you aren’t just a chicken-shit weenie from Harvard.
You gotta do it right, however. Stop waffling about a measly 40,000 or 44,000 troops and do it like you mean it! I know you have never fought for or against anything. (That squabble with the Court Clerk to get your papers filed doesn’t count.) But you can do it! Don’t forget to keep that HOPE and CHANGE thingy going, so we won’t see what is really happening behind the curtain.
Since you don’t have a clue how to go about it, you should go back and dust off the template that the power-drunk cowboy used way back when. Turn to the record of his build-up, covering March 8, 1965, through, say, the end of January, 1966. Yep, that’s right I’m talking about Vietnam (they told me you were smart); don’t let that slow you down, a buildup is a buildup and you can do it in Afghanistan just like Lyndon and Waste-more-land did it back then.
You’ve already got 68,000 troops and an untold number of mercenaries... uh, contractors there so maybe you can forgo the photo op of the Marines stomping ashore like at Da Nang, or maybe you can arrange something like that, it was a good photo. No one will call you on it; the ignorance of the American people knows no limits. Don’t forget to include the Afghani ARVN; they’ll do you a lot of good.
That done, throw caution to the wind, fire anyone who counsels caution, and begin a real buildup!
Expect casualties. Lyndon was told to expect civilian casualties of 25,000 dead, about 68 men, women and children a day, mostly from “friendly fire” and 50,000 wounded. That was an estimate for the one year the generals said it would take to bring the Vietnamese “to their knees” and initiate their surrender; one year, or maybe 18 months at the most. That number was good enough for Lyndon, so don’t let anybody’s numbers scare you. In 1968 there were 85,000 civilians wounded.
Next, establish free fire zones. Once you get all those troops there, they will need some place to fire off all their ordnance. Go to an inhabited area, drop leaflets or have USAID workers visit and tell the population to get on the road and become refugees. Those who are too old or too infirm to go, or who come up with the excuse that Afghanistan is their country and they ain’t going; well, those are Viet Cong... I mean, Tally Band.
What good is a free fire zone if it doesn’t have any targets to shoot at anyway? While you are busy changing “Viet Cong” to “Taliban," change the name “free fire zones” to Specified Strike Zones; those pesky Congressional liberals will feel better about it. It worked when Lyndon did it.
Get an air war going. Crank up the SAC B-52’s, they don’t have anything to do now that the Russians opted out of the Cold War. One B-52 at 30,000 feet can drop a payload that will take out everything in a box five eighths of a mile wide and two miles long. You can still call it “Operation Arc Light”; no one will remember that’s been used before.
Don’t forget to let the other planes in on the fun! Fighter bombers can deliver ordnance too. Lyndon, in that first 10 months, got it up to 400 sorties a day, add in the B-52’s and they were able to drop 825 tons of bombs a day. Some even hit their targets.
Drop more than bombs. I hate to suggest a return to Agent Orange. Military science must have come up with better stuff in the last 50 years. If not, then use the leftover Agent Orange, the residual effect is worth it. Not only will those enemy Afghanis (or friendly ones, for that matter) not be able to plant food crops in target areas for decades, but “Taliban fighters” will keep dying from it for years after we’re gone.
During the 10-month Vietnam build-up, specially equipped C-123’s covered 850,000 acres, in 1966 they topped that, “defoliating” 1.5 million acres. By war’s end they’d dropped 18 million gallons of Agent Orange, in addition to millions of gallons of less notorious but still deadly poisons code-named for other colors -- Purple, White, Pink, and more -- over 20% of the south of Vietnam.
To help keep the buildup affordable, take no costly precautions with our own troops; it’s hot in Afghanistan, so let them take off their shirts while spraying. The afflicted Vietnam vets sued the government over it, they won! My brother Tommy was one of them. What did they win? Well, when they die, they get $300.00 from the government. You can forget about the vets anyway when the war is over, that’s S.O.P.
Now, a buildup ain’t all in the air. Howitzers, Long Tom Cannons and mortars expended enough high explosive and shrapnel in Southeast Asia to equal the tonnage dropped from the air.
And it’s not just troop strength that you’ll need to build up. Your friends The Masters of War have probably already told you that. A build-up is troops and MATERIAL. See how Waste-more-land did it, and more or less copy that. Brown and Root are still in business; have a sit down with them; they can help you sort it out.
Build airfields. With hundreds of thousands more troops you will need lots of airfields. Jet airfields are best for business. Lyndon had three in Vietnam before he started, he quickly built five more. So, discount what you have and get cracking! A 10,000 foot runway to start, and then add parallel taxiways, high speed turnoffs, and tens of thousands of square yards of aprons for maneuvering and parking. Use aluminum matting at first; you can replace it with concrete later. You gotta build hangers, repair shops, offices and operations buildings, barracks, mess halls, and other buildings. Don’t stint on the air conditioning!
Build deep water ports. What? Don’t have an ocean? Kee-rist, what kind of a country are we liberating anyway? Well, you still gotta build ports! Guess you can build them in Kuwait and other countries and truck all the shit through Iraq, they will be pacified by then and welcoming us with open arms and goofy little dances. Pakistan might like one or two, it would be good for business and we can just pay them to be our friend like we do now... only more.
Ports were dredged to 28 feet back then, but the newer boats draw 40 feet. It may be only mud to you, but its gold to the contractors. Half a dozen new ports should get you started.
But wait, there’s more. Four or five central supply and maintenance depots and hundreds of satellite facilities, build them along the lines of the prison gulag you are building in the U.S.
Build thirty more permanent base camps for the new combat and support troops you are sending. Another fifty or so tactical airfields long enough to hold C-130’s. Build two dozen or more hospitals that have a total of nine to ten thousand beds. Be sure there are new plush headquarters buildings for the brass and about four or five thousand staff. Everything has to be connected by secure electronic data systems, secure telephones, two or three hundred communications facilities around the country. Tens of thousands of new circuits will be needed to accommodate the built-up war machine.
You are a smart guy, Mr. President, so I won’t belabor an explanation of each thing. But here is a quick list of bare necessities: Warehouses, ammunitions stowage areas, tank farms for all the petroleum, oil and lubricants, new hard top roads, well ventilated and air conditioned barracks with hot water and flushing toilets (think 6-10,000 septic tanks). Food, not just MRE’s, but for all those REMF’s who will need fresh fruit and vegetables, meat and dairy products. Thousands of cold lockers to store this, and you need to build a milk reconstitution plant, maybe two or three, and ice cream plants.
All this is going to take a lot of electricity, so you will need thousands of permanent and mobile gas-driven generators (better add another tank farm). PX’s, not just for cigarettes and shaving cream, but all the things that the consumer army you will be sending is used to having: video game consoles, blackberries, microwave ovens, computers, slacks and sport shirts (to wear on R&R -- could omit that by having no R&R), soft drinks (better build a bottling plant), beer, whiskey, ice cubes (more generators?). Hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, steaks.
Be sure to stock candy, lingerie, and cosmetics to improve the standard of living of the local women. They will also need to buy electric fans, toasters, percolators, TV’s, CD and DVD players, room air conditioners, and small refrigerators.
Movie theaters, service clubs, bowling alleys... will the list ever end? No!
Well, that will get your buildup started. I haven’t even addressed the more and more and more troops the generals will want, that is way too heavy for me!
In re-creating Johnson’s buildup, it will be better to skip over the second week in November, 1965, and all that stuff about the Drang River Valley, that’s just for historians. Close the book when you get to the end of January, 1966. Don’t read through April, with all those dreary reports from Khe Sanh. Don’t read about Tet 1968. Just remember it was the press and the Congress and the people who lost their will that lost that war, and not the stupid blundering generals or the presidents who didn’t give a shit how many they killed on either side.
One last thing: get your architects busy designing the Bush/Obama wall to put opposite ours on the Mall. Maybe you can even have your vets pay for it themselves like we had to.
I go there whenever I am in that stinking city. I sit on the edge of the grass just before sundown and sometimes I talk to the wall. The wall stands silent then; they are still waiting for an answer to the question of why we went to Vietnam. When it gets dark, sometimes the wall talks back. They say a lot of things, but they never say, “God bless my Commander-in-Chief.”
Richard Lee, Vet (Veterans Day, 2009)
This article, by Krystalline Kraus, was posted to rabble.ca, October 29, 2009
With the war in Iraq still ongoing and the conflict in Afghanistan going from bad to worse, who is paying the price? Can success be measured by piling the dead up against a wall – ours and theirs? How high does the ladder to freedom and democracy have to be?
One hundred and thirty-two Canadians soldiers dead (also, one diplomat and two aid workers) since the 2002 invasion began. Twenty-six dead as of October 28, 2009.
As of July 7, the United Nations recorded over 1,000 deaths in the first six months of 2009 -- 24 per cent more than during the same period last year. Total number of estimated civilian deaths -- direct and indirect deaths from Coalition-led military operations since 2001 -- are 8,436 - 28,028.
As another heavy November 11 approaches, how should we as a society reflect on the horror of war and its horrible consequences?
As the America government hides its military’s dead and abandoning its wounded, is Canada’s treatment of its dead and wounded soldiers any more honourable? Sure, we sometimes allow news broadcasts of ramp ceremonies and we do have public displays like the Highway of Heroes, but how are we as a society really honouring our heroes? Shouting “Support Our Troops!” during recruitment drives and yet not supporting them when they return home -- dead or alive -- is dishonourable, unpatriotic and a disgrace to any society.
Is a two minute pause one a year enough, if people even pause at all on November 11? Lest we forget?
Just yesterday, yet another Canadian forces member -- Lt. Justin Garrett Boyes, 26, of 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, who was only 10 days into his second tour in Afghanistan -- lost his life in Afghanistan, and two more were injured. Did anyone pause when they heard this news?
For Canadian civilians the concepts of honour, duty and sacrifice act as a shield keeping people from recognizing that active duty, reserve and retired soldiers are also casualties of war. For the anti-war community, it’s a hatred of the whole military complex that clouds the eye. Either way, it’s the dead and walking wounded who suffer.
The formula the military uses to dehumanize the enemy blows back on its own recruits, and the first people really dehumanized are the soldiers themselves. If they don’t come home in a box, they often come home broken. How the anti-war movement treats these men and women is a direct reflection on our ability to show concern for the ‘other’ who – for whatever reason -- chose to go to war.
The sooner we acknowledge and understand the true cost of war, the sooner we can take responsibility for our soldiers’ actions and our soldiers themselves.
Our peaceful Canadian society frankly does not want to truly acknowledge the impact and blow back combat has on all involved. Civilians and warriors alike. But this is the only way we as a society can truly heal from these scars and give peace to the victims of combat. Innocent and enlisted alike. Hiding the dead
For all its love of military and patriotism, the United States is quick to hide its dead. There are no American Valkyries to gloriously carry dead soldiers to an anglo-Valhalla. Bodies are instead buried and forgotten under the dirt of censorship, with a state imposed silence like mist that hangs over the public and media.
Last month, U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates had stern words for the Associated Press (AP) for publishing a photograph of a dying Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard, who was killed in southern Afghanistan from wounds received from a rocket-propelled grenade in a Taliban ambush on August 14, 2009.
In defending its decision to circulate the photograph -- an image of fellow Marines helping Bernard after he suffered severe leg injuries -- Santiago Lyon, the Director of Photography for the Associated Press, said, "AP journalists document world events every day. Afghanistan is no exception. We feel it is our journalistic duty to show the reality of the war there, however unpleasant and brutal that sometimes is."
Writing for Common Dreams, Dave Lindorff chastized the U.S. government for its censorship. “Enough with the censorship! If we are going to be a warlike nation, if we are going to have a public that cheers everytime the government ships off men and women to fight and kill overseas in countries that most Americans cannot even locate on a globe, then let's make sure that everyone at least gets to see the blood and gore in full, including our own, and of course, also the civilian casualties of our military.”
The Bush administration has an equally ugly legacy regarding how it treats its wounded. During the last presidential election, the Bush adminitration took a hit regarding the substandard care wounded soldiers were receiving at the Walter Reed Medical Centre. The scandal resulted in the resignation of Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey and a call for a bipartisan commission to investigate.
Apparently, when an injured soldier salutes or an injured marine shouts “Semper Fi!,” the military doesn’t return the honour. The army marches on, leaving them behind. The wounded warrior project http://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/ describes the feeling in simple painful terms: “The Greatest Casualty is Being Forgotten.” Honour and horror in Afghanistan
The situation isn’t looking much brighter for soldiers serving in Afghanistan. While foreign involvement in Afghanistan had been overshadowed by the war in Iraq, it is back now under the media’s glare.
Grievances concerning the current North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) mission keep rising to the surface. Most recently, Senator Colin Kenny stated he believes the war is doomed to fail unless NATO changes its tactics towards a more diplomatic and political angle. He also noted a Strategic Counsel poll taken July 13-16, 2009 showing that 56 per cent of Canadians opposed sending troops to Afghanistan.
Senator Kenny’s doubt concerning the Afghanistan mission mirrors concerns raised recently in the United States by the top U.S. and NATO commander, General McChrystal, who according to a 66-page document obtained by the Washington Post, which stated that situation is Afghanistan is grim and that without more boots on the ground, the mission, “will likely end in failure.”
Unfortunately, redacting an occupying army into a diplomatic mission is as impossible as magically turning a knife into a spoon. Casualties of shame and censorship
Canadians, while always quick to criticize the U.S. government, have nothing to be proud of in regards to how we treat our casualties of war.
In his recently published autobiography, Former Chief of Defense, General Rick Hillier, outs the current Harper government for its own shameful, unpatriotic handling of Captain Nicola Goddard’s repatriation ceremony. Goddard died from wounds received from a rocket propelled grenade on May 17, 2009 in the dusty Panjwaii district of Afghanistan.
Hillier had intended on a hero’s welcome for Goddard -- the first Canadian female combat death since WW2 and the first woman to die in front line combat in Afghanistan. (Lest we forget the Major Michelle Mendes, who committed suicide in April 2009 while stationed in Kandahar; she should also be considered a casualty of war.)
But in his autobiography, Hillier leveled harsh charges against former Defense Minister, Gordon O’Connor (himself a former military commander, thus adding insult to injury) and the Harper government of disgracing Goddard by attempting to hide her repatriation ceremony from the media and public -- at which the government had some success. This lead to a very public battle that pitted her grieving father against the governments’ recently enacted policy a month earlier of shielding the flag-draped coffins from public view by keeping journalists outside the fenced airfield at CFB Trenton.
He has gone on record, stating: “Officials in the Prime Minister's Office ordered the military to hide the return to Canada of the first female soldier killed in combat because they didn't want her flag-draped coffin seen on the news.”
This article, by Selena Coppa, was posted to Facebook, September 26, 2009
First, I'd like to say that I really appreciate the efforts of Brandon Friedman, Director of New Media over at the VA, for getting the VA to acknowledge the ways that people receive media, and that so often it is via the internet rather than print newspapers. There was a really excellent Blogger's Roundtable for military veteran bloggers and representatives of veterans service organizations via the phone, Assistant Secretary Tammy Duckworth and VA Deputy Director of Education Services Lynn Nelson taking the time to discuss the delay in GI bill payments with veteran bloggers and answer their questions. I really appreciate this-I think it's much more likely that the information in its unabridged form will make it to veterans than when it hits a newspaper and has to conform to space restrictions. I especially appreciate it as Duckworth was traveling on behalf of the VA and still made time for us and our concerns.
Veteran's benefits is a big piece for me, it's the IVAW mission that I think I do probably the most work on, because it's one of the most important: making sure our returning veterans are taken care of fully. So getting the chance to participate in this and help our members and other veterans and get answers was very important.
I think one of the most valuable things that came out of this was a little more clarification on where the problems are. Secretary Duckworth said that while 277,403 veterans have submitted for eligibility determination, (and that they've processed 205,704 of those) they cannot send checks to those people. They have to wait for the schools to send enrollment certifications, and a lot of the schools are apparently waiting until the ad-drop period to do this. They have received 27,735 enrollment certifications, and of those, they've processed and sent out 24,186.
So this is where (by my math) 71,699 students were as of Thursday. Much as I am quick to blame the VA usually, to be fair, this means the bulk of the problem is quite possibly indeed in the schools and with communication. Using the numbers Secretary Duckworth gave, that's (my math) 249,668 veterans whose schools have not sent enrollment certifications, and (my math) 177,969 veterans who have gone as far as they can in the VA system without the enrollment certification and are now waiting on the schools. Granted, it's hard to tell how many of those are actually trying to go to school this fall. Some may have simply wanted to create eligibility for later. But that is overwhelmingly the largest number of screwed veterans in this situation, and it seems to be coming from bad communication and the schools.
Some possibilities I'm thinking:
chools are, as Duckworth says, not sending until after ad-drop period
schools and students are not aware that they in fact do need to send it for payment to start
schools are not aware where specifically to direct it to
They do seem to be working on this: spring survival guides were mentioned to improve the communication issue and apparently more reaching out to the schools is going on to ask them to cut their veteran students a little slack.
Duckworth also assured us that Shinseki is really aware of this and receiving daily reports.
Terry Howell, from military.com asked a really important clarification question: whether or not certifying officials at the schools need to wait for that eligibility determination to certify that the veterans were taking classes at their schools. This is really important, and I'm glad he asked that. What Ms. Nelson told our fellow vets is that they do not. So what this means for you, is that as /soon/ as you are in the school system as attending for that term, you can start bugging the bursar/registrar to get them to send the information to the VA, /even/ if you're still waiting for your eligibility letter. This means you can do them simultaneously, and cut down your wait time massively. Some colleges, especially those dealing with Yellow Ribbon Programs, will need the eligibility letter, but if the GI bill covers your whole tuition, do it now. Tomorrow, in fact. If you are enrolled in school and are still waiting, you should go to your school tomorrow and ask what the status of the certification of enrollment is.
The mention again was made: they pay you housing after the fact, rather than before. I think this is a really lousy way to go, personally: rent is due before you start living there, not the month after. I understand that the VA is most likely trying to protect itself from fraudulent claims, but we are talking about veterans who served honorably. Could we not assume as a default that these guys are more likely to be honest, and take it back afterwards if it's found out they didn't deserve it? VA did accept fault, however, on the call, for failing to communicate to students that this would be happening, for which I applaud them.
What I also took from this call is that VA is working around the clock in order to get this done-VA employees working massive overtime on weekends, etc. They may not have anticipated the full demand, but they're doing a lot now.
Also, I know a lot of you guys have been talking about how when you call in, the VA has no clue where your stuff is at. I did ask about this, about what sort of tracking system they have and why everyone is getting such bad information. This is because, according to Secretary Duckworth and Ms. Nelson, the status of your claim is not visible until the authorization has been signed and the payment has gone out. Before then, they are not able to track at all where your claim is at. That is apparently not going to change for a while, but for next year, they'll have improvements-they estimate December of 2010 for a fully automated system that will fix a lot of these problems (as well as potentially have your results in an amazing ten days)
More confirmation for those of you who were a little unsure: they reaffirmed that if you completely use your MGIB, all 36 months, that you're still eligible for 12 months of the Post 9/11 GI Bill.
One thing the VA is doing well: they pointed out that if they owe you money, if you're owed back pay by the time the VA processes the claim, you will get it right away, you don't have to wait until the first. The payment will go out the day it's finished being processed.
Richard Smith of VoteVets made a really important point I think that applies for all of us pressing the VA on this. He mentioned some details of his own situation, and they offered him a personal followup. However, he pointed out that it wasn't for himself that he was asking, but for the other veterans. A solution that helped only him would not be a solution in his eyes. We're not out for ourselves. We're out for our brothers.
By the time of this writing, there has in fact been action on the VA, but it is so outstanding that it deserves its own separate post. However, this call in and of itself was pretty amazing, and I applaud it.
Please pass this news along! It could really help some veterans struggling to get their payments.
This video is a mix of the Army Strong video produced by the army to entice young women and men to join the military. The other video is produced by Displaced Films which is a series of films produced for the Iraq Veterans Against the War http://ivaw.org/wintersoldier
The series of films can also be seen here http://www.vimeo.com/5448532
You can make a donation to Jeriko Films here http://jerikofilms.wordpress.com/about/
The military has a budget of $459 million in advertising revenue which is the amount it spent in 2005. Please help us provide an honest picture of war by making a donation. Here is further information from, David Zeiger who requested we include the following information.
Hello Cindy and All
I am so happy that you used episodes from our series, This is Where We Take Our Stand, for your Army Strong video. It's incredibly powerful, and getting out to a lot of people. You did a great thing with it, and this is what the series is for.
I have a very important request, though. Please make it much more clear on your site and in the piece that the material is from the web series This is Where We Take Our Stand, and that the entire series can and should be seen at http://thisiswherewetakeourstand.com/ There are still two episodes that will be posted this monday and in two weeks, and then the entire series will be available as a single piece as well.
First of all, it's important that people see the whole series. But along with that, it's been a tremendous struggle to get the story made and told, and we are still in the midst of trying to get the funds to complete a television film as well. So it is crucial that both the name of the series and the people who made it be very prominent whenever it is used. It's also important to include that it is from the people who made Sir! No Sir! I'm sure you understand all of this.
We are linking Army Strong to http://thisiswherewetakeourstand.com/, and will do what we can to help get it out there.
You are now watching: Episode Four - Broken Soldier
Why are so many veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan psychologically damaged? Is it the natural trauma of war, or the product of military whose mission is to occupy and suppress the civilian population? Zollie Goodman recounts the racism against Iraqis imbued in his unit, while Kris Goldsmith reveals the hatred that finally made him a "broken soldier," caught in the endless web of the Veterans Administration. And the parents of Jeffrey Lucey mourn their son, one of thousands who could no longer live with what he had become.
This article, by Penny Coleman, was posted to AlterNet, August 12, 2009
Wayne McMahon was busted on gun charges six months after he got out of the Marines.
He was jumped by a gang of kids in his hometown of Albany, N.Y. , and he went for the assault rifle he kept in the back of his SUV.
He's serving "three flat, with two years of post-release" at Groveland Prison in upstate New York.
Maybe it's tempting to write McMahon off as just a screwed-up person who made the kinds of mistakes that should have landed him in jail, but maybe that's because his injuries don't show on the outside.
Unlike physical injuries, psychiatric injuries are invisible; the burden of proof lands on the soldier (or sailor or Marine), and such injuries are easy for the public to deny.
The diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder include a preoccupation with danger.
According to Jonathan Shay, a Veterans Administration psychiatrist and author of Achilles in Vietnam, hypervigilance in soldiers and veterans is expressed as the persistent mobilization of both body and mind to protect against lethal danger -- they act as though they were still in combat, even when the danger is no longer present.
That preoccupation leads to a cluster of symptoms, including sleeplessness, exaggerated startle responses, violent outbursts and a reliance on combat skills that are inappropriate, and very often illegal, in the civilian world.
When I asked McMahon what he was doing with an assault rifle in his car, he told me that since he got back from Afghanistan, he didn't feel safe without guns around.
"There was almost always a gun," he said. "In the apartment, there was guns everywhere.
"I was just over in combat, and you guys gave me an M-16 and a 9mm and let me walk around for eight months straight. And now I get back, and I get jumped by a bunch of people, and I can't have a gun?"
McMahon sits across from me in his prison greens, elbows on his knees, leaning into his story about the kid he was and the man he is hoping to become. His eagerness and optimism make it clear that he believes his mistakes are behind him.
His parents were teenagers when he was born, and they separated shortly after. He bounced around on the streets of Albany, and, like so many other young Americans with dreams of escaping dysfunctional families and lousy neighborhoods, he saw the military as a get-out-of-jail-free card.
He enlisted in the Marines right out of high school.
For the first time in his life, McMahon found himself in a meritocracy. He was promoted regularly and quickly, making sergeant by the time he got to Afghanistan.
Then two days before his five-year contract was up, he was caught drinking on the job, busted down to lance corporal and administratively discharged. He lost all his benefits.
McMahon was in the Marine Corps from 2001 until 2006. He spent his last year working as an aircraft mechanic on a flight line in Afghanistan that was under near-constant attack. It was also a transshipment point for injured American soldiers who were being evacuated to Germany.
For eight months, his days and nights were spent up close and personal with the visceral evidence of what the rockets, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades do to human bodies.
"We had a lot of explosions. Almost every day. And I seen guys coming out from convoy missions where their Humvees would have exploded," he told me matter-of-factly. "The first two months were pretty terrible. "
After that, even though "a lot of other people found it hard to deal with, it wasn't really too rough for me." A bit of Marine bravado, perhaps, but reinforced with a bit of liquid courage:
"We Marines, we're smart," he explained. "There was no alcohol provided, but I was making my own from fruit juice I got from the chow hall and yeast they gave us at the pizza shop. It was horrible, really horrible -- but two little 20-ounce water bottles, and you were good for the night. " It was the only way he got any sleep.
Jonathan Shay also notes the almost-universal reliance on alcohol or drugs by psychically injured veterans. They afford some temporary relief from intolerable memories and from the emotional and physical exhaustion of maintaining a constant state of vigilance.
McMahon came home from Afghanistan with a serious drinking problem, a hair-trigger temper and conditioned to rely on his combat skills for survival.
Both his marriage and his military career quickly unraveled, and then he was arrested. Nobody diagnosed his PTSD until he got to Groveland.
McMahon's obsession with safety and guns, and his compulsive drinking are both typical of a post-traumatic stress injury, but instead of diagnosis and treatment, he was left to his own compromised resources and promptly landed in jail.
In terms of the bottom line, it's a trifecta for the military when that happens. A damaged soldier is disappeared, the cost of treatment avoided and the evidence that would prove how often veterans find it impossible to readjust when they come home is erased.
Traumatized soldiers are not a military asset. They are unreliable, and can be dangerous to their fellow soldiers and to themselves. Their care can take years and be quite expensive. But because the macho culture of the military stigmatizes mental health issues, most soldiers won't ask for the help they need.
When they try to manage on their own and fail, when the entirely predictable symptoms of their injuries get them into trouble, their behavior is used to justify kicking them out of the service.
They lose all their health and disability benefits, and in the absence of treatment and support, the same behaviors that got them kicked out of the military land them in jail.
Once they enter the criminal justice system, their military service is irrelevant. Soldiers and veterans with psychiatric injuries who, like McMahon, end up in jail, are handed -- and in fact often accept -- the full burden of responsibility for their actions. And when that happens, the system gets off free.
That's what happened to McMahon, and though it's still too soon for meaningful statistics about incarceration rates among this new generation of veterans, the anecdotal evidence suggesting a predictive relationship between military experience, PTSD and trouble with the criminal justice system continues to mount .
And this is not a new phenomenon. The National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study, published in 1990, found that more than a decade after the Vietnam conflict ended, 15 percent of male veterans still suffered from PTSD, and half of them had been arrested or in jail at least once.
Most Vietnam War veterans deployed for exactly one year. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have experienced longer and repeated deployments, and top military psychiatrists acknowledge that veterans of these new wars may have an even harder time coming home.
And instead of improving, the situation is getting worse. In 2008, the Rand Corp. estimated that 300,000 soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan will suffer from post-traumatic stress issues, and 320,000 others will suffer traumatic brain injuries that express many of the same symptoms as PTSD.
And although most of them will not seek treatment, even when they try the VA has made such care extremely difficult to access.
For years, the Pentagon has chosen to ignore congressional directives to screen soldiers both pre- and post-deployment.
In May, the Hartford Courant reported that such screenings are still being administered in haphazard fashion. Only 1 percent of at-risk soldiers were referred to a mental health professional prior to deployment, and post-deployment screenings continue to be a laughably inadequate box to be checked on a form.
The Courant noted that the situation has remained unchanged since the paper reported on the issue in 2007.
And for veterans, the VA's claims backlog in May was approaching 1 million, a 14 percent rise since January.
By now, the anecdotal evidence associating combat-related PTSD with crime and incarceration ought to be part of the conventional wisdom. Its accumulation over the past century should have engendered enough concern to provoke some serious attention and study.
But the reality is that nobody knows the precise number of veterans who have ended up behind bars in the aftermath of America's wars.
There are more than a few reasons why military and government officials might want those numbers to remain hidden, but certainly among the most compelling is cost.
Large numbers of veterans in prison suggest a pattern, perhaps even a causal relationship between military service and behaviors that lead to incarceration, lending support to those who argue that such behaviors should be seen as possible symptoms of a service-connected injury deserving of treatment and support rather than punishment.
When the patterns are hidden -- the numbers unavailable -- it is easier for the military to pretend that the problem is with a given individual and not systemic.
In January 2008, when the New York Times reported that it had identified 121 cases in which veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan had been charged with murder, the Pentagon declined to comment because it could not duplicate the newspaper's research.
A year later, the Army finally admitted that there might in fact be a connection between the violent behaviors of some returning service members and their combat experience. Pete Geren, Secretary of the Army, announced that in response to a spate of homicides at the Fort Carson Army base, he was “considering” conducting an Army-wide review of all soldiers involved in violent crimes since returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The report, which was finally published last week, does in fact “suggest a possible association between increasing levels of combat exposure and risk for negative behavioral outcomes."
And though it accuses the Army of denying necessary care to soldiers, and specifically blames commanders for proscribing access, Eric Schoomaker, the Army's surgeon general, calls it “preliminary,” and insists that no causality can be inferred from the findings.
Without causality, there is of course limited accountability.
Shoomaker pointed out that soldiers themselves should bear some responsibility for failing to seek help, ignoring the fact that half of the surveyed soldiers accused of violent behaviors had been sent back to Iraq “early,” and that many of them had documented suicide issues. Schoomaker also stressed that though many soldiers claimed to have witnessed war crimes, an Army probe did not substantiate those claims.
The results of this report might have been an invaluable contribution to the public conversation about what war does to soldiers and who should be responsible for their readjustment into society. Instead, once again, soldiers are blamed for violent behaviors that are clearly symptomatic of their injuries. When individuals take the rap, there is no interrogation of the pattern. Officials remain free to dismiss and deny how many ex-service members are ending up in jail. And as long as the bodies remain hidden, they get away with it. Vets Demonized; the System Gets Off the Hook
Ed Hart has a hard time accepting official denial of a connection that to him seems more than obvious.
Hart is an 87-year-old Marine, a veteran of World War II. He is also a former president of Veterans for Peace, a retired attorney and a deeply concerned citizen.
"People like me are upset about what they did to us -- and what they continue to do to the fuzzy-faced kids they haul off to boot camp," Hart said. "Too many of those kids never made it back into reality; they were found guilty of terrible crimes and sent off to spend years in prison -- maybe all the years left to them -- and we can't figure out what happened to them?"
Hart did in fact try to figure out what was happening in the late ‘80s, when Vietnam veterans began showing up in large numbers in the criminal justice system. Along with his pro bono legal work, he began interviewing large numbers of vets in prison.
What he discovered has been corroborated by every Bureau of Justice Statistics survey since: incarcerated veterans are better educated than their non-veteran counterparts; they are more likely to have been employed at the time of their arrest; and they are more likely to be in jail for a first offense -- all of which should be factors in their favor at sentencing.
But instead, they are more likely to get longer sentences than non-veterans -- on average, more than two years longer -- for the same crime.
Guy Gambill, director of research and policy at the Veterans Initiatives Center and Research Institute (VICTRI), attributes this to a "know better" syndrome.
"Judges and juries, ironically, place veterans in a higher category, one with heavy moral undertones. The thinking goes that they should know better and therefore should be held to a higher standard of conduct," he said.
Hart also recognized that moral judgment, but in his days as a practicing attorney, he saw an element of demonization in the dynamic as well.
"I've seen prosecuting attorneys in their final statements point to the bewildered man at the defense table and tell the jury, ‘Look at him! He's a trained killer! We need to get him off the streets and make them safe for our women and children.' "
Mike Thomas has experienced that prejudice firsthand. Thomas did three tours in Vietnam, was wounded twice, and earned all kinds of medals, but he's doing 25-to-life at Mule Creek Prison in Ione, Calif., for spewing some racist bile at an Asian man over the phone.
The day he got home from Vietnam, he beat up an Asian man in a bar, and he did it again the day they let him out of jail. He was sent to a military hospital for two years with a diagnosis of Adult Situational Reaction, a diagnostic precursor to PTSD.
The military declared him "fully recovered." For 25 years, he held down a job as a sales manager.
Then, one morning, in the midst of a flashback, Thomas lost his balance. Aside from hypervigilance, the symptoms of PTSD also include flashbacks. Flashbacks can be so convincingly real that the sufferer behaves as though he or she were actually in the remembered moment.
"Everybody who's lived at the brink of terror for some time has stored that place in his memory," Hart explains with empathy. "There's always the possibility that something will take him back sometime, give him that little push that will take his balance away.
"But there ain't much more you can do to a guy on the phone worse than yell at him."
Nonetheless, the prosecutor, noting Thomas's two priors, decided to interpret his phone rant as a terrorist threat -- hence the draconian sentence.
Some might argue that Thomas's antagonism towards Asians made him an accident waiting to happen, and they're not wrong. But dehumanization of the enemy is central to how military training enables soldiers to overcome their inherent resistance to killing other human beings.
Author Jonathan Shay describes how images of the enemy were drilled into his Vietnam-era patients as a "demonized adversary … evil, loathsome, deserving to be killed as the enemy of God, and as God-hated vermin, so inhuman as not really to care if he lives or dies."
It seems a distortion of justice to send a man to prison for life because in the course of his military training a switch got flipped, making him temporarily more useful to his government.
The practice continues. Bob Herbert, writing in the New York Times, described "the growing rage among coalition troops against all Iraqis (known derisively as 'hajis,' just as the Vietnamese were known as 'gooks')."
He quotes Sgt. Camilo Mejía, an Iraq war veteran, who explained, "You just sort of try to block out the fact that they are human beings and see them as enemies. You call them hajis, you know? You do all the things that make it easier to deal with killing them and mistreating them."
"The sacrifice that citizens make when they serve in their country's military," Shay reminds us, "is not simply the risk of death, dismemberment, disfigurement and paralysis -- as terrible as these realities are. They risk their peace of mind."
"When I went to boot camp," Thomas said, "I was a good Catholic boy who'd never shot so much as a squirrel. But I turned 20, 21 and 22 in Vietnam, and that became my identity. I tried to filter life through that prism of horror, pain and loss. Not good. A recipe for disaster."
Thomas once tried suicide to escape "the despair, grief, survivor guilt, nightmares, depression, the pain of hearing my mother say she wished I had died in Vietnam so her memories wouldn't be tainted."
More recently, he asked Veterans for Peace -- by mail -- to sponsor a nationwide program for incarcerated vets. His proposal was accepted and in May, VFP Incarcerated Chapter 001 was officially incorporated at Mule Creek Prison.
Wayne McMahon was luckier in that New York state still maintains residential therapeutic programs for veterans at three of its prisons. (In 1999, there were 19, boasting a recidivism rate of 9 percent after five years compared to 52 percent for non-veterans. Unfortunately for taxpayers, those programs were consolidated for the sake of "efficiency and effectiveness.") He has taken advantage of courses in anger and aggression management, interpersonal dynamics, and substance abuse, and he has completed his training as a group facilitator.
McMahon has a job waiting for him when he gets out; he wants to go back to school; and he is going to try for a discharge upgrade from the military based on his PTSD diagnosis. The Hidden Numbers
Since its first study of the issue in 1979, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has been the best source of information on the number of vets who have ended up behind bars.
According to the bureau's most recent survey, in 2004, there were 140,000 veterans in the nation's prisons -- or about 10 percent of the total prison population. By 2007, that number had risen to156,100, but the prison population overall had increased, so the relative share of vets in the population remained unchanged.
But as Baruch College's Aaron Levenstein once said, "Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital. "
For example, the numbers above don't include veterans held in the nation's jails, or those on probation or parole. When those groups are included, according to BJS estimates, the number of veterans who were under correctional supervision in 2007 jumps to 703,000. In addition, just under 1.2 million vets were arrested in 2007.
At least some of those on parole or probation at a given point will be arrested later in the year, skewing the estimated total. But Christopher Mumola, author of the last two BJS surveys of incarcerated veterans, said "if 703,000 veterans are supervised in some fashion on a given day, and 1,159,500 arrests in 2007 involved veterans as well, that gives you a rough approximation of the maximum number of vets who are touched by the criminal justice system in a year of about 1.8 million to 1.9 million veterans."
Still, in all probability, that number under-represents the number of veterans behind bars for several reasons.
For one, Mumola points out, an inmate's military history is irrelevant to prison administrators. "(They) measure the things they operationally use or are bureaucratically accountable for. Whether someone is a veteran or not doesn't change how that inmate is handled, the privileges they have or anything like that." So prison administrators don't ask. And, Mumola added, "the federal government doesn't require them to keep those statistics."
Frank Dawson, a patient advocate at the Boston VA, has long been frustrated and dismayed by the lack of reliable numbers. Dawson says he believes veterans need support before their lives spin out of control, and, "as a national service provider, the VA can't target services unless it knows where its population is."
But Dawson, like everyone else, has been stymied in his efforts. "I keep on my desk a stack of 6,000 address labels that I got from the Department of Justice," he said. "Six thousand institutions, 6,000 egos, 6,000 systems, 6,000 sets of protocol. There is no standard intake anywhere. I keep that stack on my desk to remind me how complicated they have made it. "
In the absence of federal, state or local legislation requiring penal institutions to use standard intake procedures that include verification of an inmate's military history, veterans' advocates across the country are pressuring the courts to at least inquire about veteran status during the bail-screening process.
But Taylor Halloran, who recently retired as the VA's liaison to veterans in New York's downstate prisons and jails, said there are more than a few reasons why veterans might refuse to divulge their military background.
Halloran emphasizes that many veterans offer fake Social Security numbers or aliases at intake, or they fail to report their arrests to VA because they fear the loss of benefits -- which is at least partially true. Health care benefits are suspended for the term of an inmate's incarceration and, after 60 days, disability benefits are reduced by about half, but those too should be reinstated when a veteran is released.
Lots of veterans don't know or understand the VA's policies, many have families that depend on those checks, and the VA has a reputation for taking its time reinstating benefits after an inmate is released.
So it's sort of a devil's bargain: identify themselves and lose half of their disability benefits, or take a chance they won't get caught. But if they do, they are royally screwed.
They have to pay the government back with interest and fines, but the far more serious consequence is that they lose all future benefits, including health care, disability and education.
To many, the risk seems worth taking. A 1999 Inspector General's report sharply criticized the VA's failure to "implement a systematic approach to identify incarcerated veterans and dependents, resulting in additional past and future overpayments exceeding $170 million dollars."
A 2004 VA Performance and Accountability Report found $5.7 million in benefit overpayments in a 20 percent sample of cases, and the report noted that "tracking 100 percent of these cases would not be cost beneficial."
Halloran said he had to work to get his potential clients to come forward voluntarily. And even then, he "couldn't touch the guys the VA doesn't consider veterans -- anyone with a dishonorable or bad-conduct discharge." One in six incarcerated veterans has been dishonorably discharged.
New Wars, Old Problems
Although the data are imperfect, one thing the BJS surveys do well is identify trends and patterns. For example, its last survey showed that at about 40 percent, Vietnam-era veterans still constitute the vast majority of vets in state and federal prisons.
The Gulf War involved far fewer soldiers and lasted for only six months, but at 15 percent of the veteran population in state and federal prisons, they constitute the newest wave. Veterans of the Gulf War are almost twice as likely to be incarcerated as demographically comparable non-veterans.
At 4 percent of the incarcerated veteran population, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were only just beginning to show up in the 2004 BJS survey.
"It takes quite a while for these folks to show up in the criminal justice system," Chris Mumola explained. "They are out there in these conflicts, having these experiences, coming back, getting into trouble with the criminal justice system, being fully adjudicated, winding up in prison, and only then are they available to be interviewed in these surveys. It may take years and years to marinate before it really manifests itself. "
Unfortunately, the next BJS survey is not scheduled until 2012.
However difficult those populations might be to track, it would seem that if ever there was a population that should be easy to count, it's prisoners. Every one has a number. Files are kept. There are forms -- and now computerized records -- from which patterns might be gleaned.
And prisons aren't the only black holes into which our nation's damaged warriors are disappearing. They also end up in hospitals and mental institutions. They vanish beyond the margins of society when their lives, their marriages, their careers fall apart. They end up in boxes on the street, vilified, forsaken, and self-medicating. Far too many die too soon of disease, accidents, overdoses or suicide.
An honest accounting of their numbers would be ammunition for those who believe that soldiers and veterans are still not receiving the care and support they need.
It would help challenge the myth of the romantic warrior by better educating our children to the real dangers of military service. It would also contribute to a public better informed about the hidden costs of our military ventures, including the ongoing damage to our citizens and our treasury, and to our national character as well.
This article, by Maya Schenwar, was posted toTruthOut, July 16, 2009.
Neglect, mistreatment and abuse are the norm for active-duty soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have thrown post-traumatic stress disorder into stark public light. As of the end of March, 346,393 US veterans were being treated for PTSD; 115,000 of those served in Iraq or Afghanistan. That number continues to grow rapidly.
However, PTSD symptoms don't always wait to emerge until soldiers return home. For active-duty soldiers like Airman Steven Flowers, stationed in Aviano, Italy, it can take years to receive even minimal care. And once treatment begins, the soldiers are often punished for revealing their problems.
Diagnosed with PTSD in 2007, Flowers receives only a 15-minute monthly session with a military psychiatrist - mostly to prescribe medications - and a brief monthly or bimonthly session with a psychologist. Since his diagnosis, Flowers has endured "constant harassment" within his unit, and incurs harsh punishment from his commanders for even the "slightest perceived inadequacies."
"Though I have had suicidal ideations, I am not considered a risk," Flowers told Truthout.
Flowers's case is not unique. Active-duty PTSD sufferers are subject to neglect and ridicule, according to Tim Huber, director of the Military Counseling Network.
"PTSD is a great scapegoat for the military to trot out when veterans face discrimination or have a difficult time securing jobs and making a new life in the civilian world, but while those troops are on active duty, they're supposed to simply 'soldier on' and get over it," Huber told Truthout.
This mentality leads many soldiers to conceal their symptoms for years. It also means that military leaders are resistant to signs of PTSD in the ranks. In fact, Huber considers Flowers's case lucky.
"I am actually impressed Flowers was able to receive a PTSD diagnosis," Huber said. "We work with many service members who can't even get that much recognition, and are instead simply criticized for being soft, and/or trying to get out."
The trend toward disregarding or silencing PTSD sufferers even extends to military psychiatrists, according to Chris Capps-Schubert, the Europe coordinator for Iraq Veterans Against the War, who is following Flowers's situation closely.
"In the summary of Flowers's case, his military psychologist said it's a difficult position for him as a doctor, because he has conflicting interests in his role as a medical provider and his role as a soldier," Capps-Schubert told Truthout.
Flowers was experiencing PTSD symptoms well before 2007, but says he was afraid of the consequences of seeking help.
Many soldiers suffer for long periods before coming forward with their symptoms; others speak out about their condition but are denied treatment.
Army Sgt. Selena Coppa was recently diagnosed with military sexual trauma, a form of PTSD resulting from sexual harassment, assault or rape, years after her symptoms began.
"I think that the lack of initial treatment has severely impacted my life," Coppa, who served in Iraq and is now stationed in Germany, told Truthout. "I was told by my therapist that my PTSD had gone from simple to complex as a result of the military environment and lack of real treatment. Military practitioners tend to be extremely unwilling to diagnose PTSD in active-duty soldiers, and thus make it more difficult for individuals to have access to treatment and care." Retention at All Costs Both Flowers and Coppa protested the military's neglect of their problems, but found little recourse for their grievances.
"I complained about what I felt was inadequate treatment, but was told there was simply no better treatment to offer me outside of the States, and they would not consider transferring me to the better treatment until I had already 'run the full course' with the less-effective treatment," Coppa said.
The military's reluctance to diagnose or treat PTSD is linked to its primary goal: retaining soldiers on the ground. Even if a soldier is only marginally able to perform, military authorities may make a strategic decision to delay diagnosis and treatment, which could lead to a discharge.
"For Flowers to be discharge-worthy, the military must feel it is better off without him," Huber said. "But there's a wrinkle. The military has to cultivate a culture of commitment. If it were easy to skip the enlistment contract and get out early, retention would plummet and America's ability to maintain the military status quo would vanish. That's why so many squeaky wheels don't get greased, and eventually crack and crumble.... I guess one could say brute retention is more important than mission readiness."
Soldiers diagnosed with psychological disorders may be reassigned to alternate duties, in place of receiving adequate treatment or a discharge. Flowers, for example, is now relegated to "meter maid" duty. He walks the Air Force base looking for parking violations, though he suffers from serious knee and back problems.
By the end of his daily nine-hour shift, he is in excruciating pain.
Coppa, who is now stationed in Germany, notes that her treatment - or lack thereof - was determined almost solely based on the "wishes of the command," not on her medical needs. Even after her diagnosis was recognized, she repeatedly met with resistance and indifference.
She also discovered that the military has startlingly few resources to deal with military sexual trauma.
"There are no domestic violence groups here in Germany, and no military sexual trauma groups," Coppa said. "They are ill-equipped to treat this form of PTSD in anything but a solo setting, which is not as helpful. Though they acknowledged I would benefit medically from a transfer to the States, one was refused."
Coppa's experience is widespread: support groups and alternative treatments are very rare. Typically, PTSD-diagnosed soldiers are prescribed medication at the outset, often with little explanation or accompanying talk therapy.
Drugs are seen as the quickest, most efficient route to retaining a soldier on duty, regardless of the consequences, according to Huber.
"The main strategy is to prescribe the problems away with pills, and as long as someone can remain upright under their own power and perform the base elements of their MOS [military occupation specialty], the military is adequately 'treating' the problem," Huber said. "If someone refuses to medicate, for fear of what they might do with live ammunition under the influence of three, four, five or more mind-altering drugs, they are simply written off as refusing the military's 'help' and not wanting to get better."
Recently, after a long fight, Steven Flowers was able to form a support group for PTSD sufferers in his unit. The group was created against the wishes of the military mental health staff, and Flowers's psychiatrist initially refused to consider the idea. Such groups are almost unheard of for soldiers on active duty.
For many service members with PTSD, the best they can hope for is the strength and luck to hold out until they return home.
"The help can be a little better after people get out and start seeing civilian psychologists, who care more about the individual then retaining a soldier who fills a slot in a unit," Capps-Schubert said.
Over the last couple of weeks I have been reprinting Daniel Lakemacher blog posts, the following letter was sent to the producers of Sir! No Sir! by his wife.
Adam (and everyone who was part of "Sir! No Sir!"),
My husband, Daniel, and I just finished watching "Sir! No Sir!", and my first impulse was to immediately write to you all. Daniel is in the middle of attempting to obtain a discharge from the Navy as a conscientious objector, and I don't feel like I can adequately express how meaningful it was for me to watch the film and realize that we're not alone.
After having "served" for six months in Guantanamo Bay, Daniel came home as a very subdued and troubled version of his former self. For more than a year, he and I struggled with how to make sense of the things that he had witnessed and experienced there. I include myself in his struggle because of the fact that he received no validation of his questioning from the limited mental health resources that were made available to him upon his return home. This meant that I was his sounding board, safety net, and psychologist for the past year and a half, hardly roles that I am well equipped to fulfill, especially while trying to maintain my own sanity. Watching him try to make sense of his participation in war has forced me to question so many of the things that I have been taught about war, government, America, and obedience. I've done a complete 180 in my views and was actually the one who suggested that he research conscientious objection because of how distressed he was over his continued involvement with the military.
Despite this, I have often felt very alone in this process. Daniel wasn't part of a unit that was sent to Guantanamo Bay; he was essentially loaned out by himself to another command. This meant that there was no one who had gone through it all with him to talk with about it when he came home. Filing for conscientious objector status has proven to be a rather solitary experience as well. It was months after he made the decision to file before he found another sailor who had successfully obtained a discharge. As a fairly introverted person, I've found it similarly difficult to find people who were sympathetic enough to the situation that I could speak freely with them.
And then we watched "Sir! No Sir!" In one sense, it was horrifying to know what sorts of atrocities were perpetrated by the U.S. government against both innocent foreigners and its own citizens. At the same time, I felt relief wash over me as I realized that there are hundreds of thousands of people in this country who have, at the very least, risked imprisonment rather than fight a war. There was an entire movement that forced the U.S. government, with all its impressive technology, to retreat. I was born almost a decade after the Vietnam War was over, so I have no first-hand knowledge of that time. As you're well aware, the "history" that I was fed in government schools is significantly different than the events that you presented. It gives me so much hope to know that the American people themselves have ended at least one war before, which means that they can do it again. It's gotten a lot harder because the government has gotten better at managing its image, has created a perception of a "voluntary" military, and has isolated many people from being face to face with the consequences of their participation in war. Still, seeing the courage of those who were willing to be ridiculed, beaten, court-martialed, and imprisoned for their insistence that they would not participate in immoral actions was incredibly encouraging. It caused me to think that there must be additional ways for me to actively oppose the current wars that the U.S. government is perpetrating. I don't feel quite so alone now, and I feel like I've had the drink of cool water that I needed to keep going in a stressful situation.
Thank you again for speaking out about the experiences of so many others who have been in even more difficult situations and come through with their integrity intact.
This article, by William Fisher, was published by IPS, February 17, 2009
NEW YORK, Feb 16 (IPS) - With growing public support for a public investigation of crimes that may have been committed by the administration of former president George W. Bush in waging its "global war on terror", policy makers and legal experts are deeply divided on how to proceed - and President Barack Obama seems ambivalent about whether to proceed at all.
The president has said his view is that "nobody is above the law, and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen, but that, generally speaking, I'm more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards."
Before his nomination to be Obama's attorney general, Eric Holder appeared to take a stronger view.
He said, "Our government authorised the use of torture, approved of secret electronic surveillance against American citizens, secretly detained American citizens without due process of law, denied the writ of habeas corpus to hundreds of accused enemy combatants and authorized the procedures that violate both international law and the United States Constitution... We owe the American people a reckoning."
But at his confirmation hearing before the Senate, Holder tempered his responses to adhere more closely to Obama's position.
The president initially refrained from commenting on a proposal from the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, for a "truth commission" to investigate abuses of detainees, politically inspired moves at the Justice Department, and a whole range of decisions made during the Bush administration. At the time, Obama said he had not seen the Leahy proposal, although he has not explicitly ruled it out.
Such a "truth commission" is one of several ideas being offered by those who see a comprehensive look-back as essential to cleansing the U.S. justice system and restoring the U.S.'s reputation in the world.
Leahy said the primary goal of the commission would be to learn the truth rather than prosecute former officials, but said the inquiry should reach far beyond misdeeds at the Justice Department under Bush to include matters of Iraq prewar intelligence and the Defence Department.
The panel he envisions would be modeled after one that investigated the apartheid regime in South Africa. It would have subpoena power but would not bring criminal charges, he said.
Among the matters Leahy wants investigated by such a commission are: the firings of U.S. attorneys, treatment and torture of terror suspect detainees, and the authorisation of warrantless wiretapping. He said that witnesses before such a commission might have to be granted limited immunity from prosecution to obtain their testimony.
Other Democrats have called for criminal investigations of those who authorised certain controversial tactics in the war on terror. Republicans have countered that such decisions made in the wake of the 2001 terror attacks should not be second-guessed.
An arguably stronger measure has been proposed by House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, and nine other lawmakers. The measure would set up a National Commission on Presidential War Powers and Civil Liberties, with subpoena power and a reported budget of around 3.0 million dollars.
It would investigate issues ranging from detainee treatment to waterboarding and extraordinary rendition. The panel's members would come from outside the government and be appointed by the president and congressional leaders of both parties.
This body would be much like the 9/11 Commission, set up after the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks, to examine failures within government anti-terror efforts. The commission's investigation did not lead to any prosecutions.
Human rights advocacy groups and many legal experts have been more forceful in their proposals.
For example, Amnesty International is urging its supporters to press lawmakers to investigate the U.S. government's abuses in the war on terror and hold accountable those responsible. The organisation is calling on Obama and Congress to create an independent and impartial commission to examine the use of torture, indefinite detention, secret renditions and other illegal U.S. counterterrorism policies.
But the organisation does not necessarily see a conflict between a 9/11-type body and a "truth and reconciliation" commission. In answer to a question from IPS, Amnesty International's Tom Parker said, "I don't think the two approaches are mutually exclusive. Both could go forward at the same time. The immunities that may have to be granted by a Truth and Reconciliation Commission would not be absolute."
Marjorie Cohn, president of the National Lawyers Guild, does not favour the "truth and reconciliation" approach.
She told IPS, "As President Obama said, 'No one is above the law.' His attorney general should appoint a special prosecutor to investigate and prosecute Bush administration officials and lawyers who set the policy that led to the commission of war crimes. Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are used for nascent democracies in transition. By giving immunity to those who testify before them, it would ensure that those responsible for torture, abuse and illegal spying will never be brought to justice."
A similar view was expressed by Peter M. Shane, a law professor at Ohio State University. He told IPS, "The immunities that might be granted in connection with a congressional or commission investigation of the Bush administration could well compromise the prospects for criminal prosecution, as our experience with the Iran-Contra affair demonstrates. There is likewise reason to fear that justice cannot be completely served without recourse to prosecution."
"On the other hand," he said, "I believe our paramount need as a country is for a full and fair airing of the historical record; democracies depend, I think, on an unblinking understanding of their past."
"One would hope that immunity might be granted as narrowly as possible and that efforts would be undertaken to allow the Justice Department to preserve its investigative integrity based on independently developed evidence. Should push come to shove, however, I think history is more important than prosecution," he added.
Brian J. Foley, visiting associate professor at Boston University law school, takes a harder line. He told IPS, "Until we have Truth and Reconciliation Commissions rather than prosecutions for drug offenders and others accused of non-violent crimes whom we promiscuously throw into our overcrowded prisons, we should not bestow 'justice lite' on our political leaders. It appears that laws designed with government actors in mind were broken. There should be prosecutions."
And Georgetown University's David Cole, one of the country's preeminent constitutional lawyers, believes the Obama administration or Congress "should at a minimum appoint an independent, bipartisan, blue-ribbon commission to investigate and assess responsibility for the United States' adoption of coercive interrogation policies."
It should have "a charge to assess responsibility, not just to look forward", he said.
This divergence of viewpoints - from doing nothing to appointing a special prosecutor - is putting President Obama in an uncomfortable position. The most recent Gallup Poll shows that a sizable majority of citizens favours an investigation into Bush-era misconduct.
But Obama appears reluctant to take any action that might further divide the country. Moreover, he may be loath to antagonise Republicans, whose support he may need on many other issues in the future.
The Democratically-controlled Congress does not need the president in order to act - it can hold extensive hearings, grant itself subpoena power and in effect take whatever action it desires short of legislation, which would require the president's signature. But Congressional Democrats may well be reluctant to overtly defy the wishes of the president, who is the leader of their party.
So the form of the Bush-era retrospective - if there is to be one - is yet very much a work in progress that will continue to put pressure on the young Obama administration.