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GIs against the war

As the war in Iraq seethes, dissent among US military personnel and their families is growing. The anti-war campaign Military Families Speak Out began with two families in November 2002; now more than 1,500 families are members.

September 1, 2004
9 min read

At the recent Democratic Convention in Boston, a new group, Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), made its first public appearance. When IVAW’s predecessor and model Vietnam Veterans Against the War was founded in 1967 it boasted just six members; within two years it had more than 30,000 members and was to have a major impact in bringing the Vietnam War to an end. Providing counselling to soldiers considering conscientious-objector status, the GI Rights Hotline is now handling 3,000 calls a month – a 50 per cent increase in a single year.

Red Pepper spoke to two prominent activists in the anti-war struggle within the US armed forces. We asked them about their efforts to organise among soldiers and their families and their views on where the movement is going.

Lou Plummer lives in Fayetteville, North Carolina, home of Fort Bragg, where 45,000 military personnel are stationed. Plummer served in the US army in the 1980s and is the grandson, son, brother and father of men who’ve served or are serving in the military. His son is currently serving in the US Navy.

It’s difficult for pro-war folks to label us as unpatriotic or cowards for opposing the war since many of the war’s most ardent supporters have no military experience. They think it’s a great thing for my kid to fight but not theirs. It’s the role of soldiers, ex-soldiers and military families to constantly remind the public of the human cost of Bush and Blair’s military adventurism.

The troops are weary. Some are now facing their third deployment since 9/11. I’ve encountered troops who hate the war but are staying in the army for economic reasons. These guys are strengthened by knowing that there is a movement that is working to stop the war. We’ve arranged anonymous interviews with different media outlets so that soldiers who aren’t on the army’s approved speakers’ list can get the real truth out.

The impact of anti-war organising in a military town is hard to measure. In Fayetteville a small grass-roots group formed soon after 9/11. When the group conducted a series of vigils during the opening weeks of the invasion of Iraq, counter-demonstrators routinely outnumbered and out-shouted the peaceniks. As time passed and the body count from Iraq grew steadily higher, the counter-demonstrations ceased. More and more passers-by, including troops in uniform, began offering honks of support. More thumbs-up signs were seen. The wives and parents of service members began to appear. Several veterans made and held their own signs for the weekly one-hour vigils. My son, an active-duty sailor assigned to the USS Dwight D Eisenhower, was prosecuted for disloyalty by the navy for speaking to a reporter at one of the demonstrations he attended while home on leave.

Jeremy Hinzman, a paratrooper assigned to the 82nd Airborne [regiment], attended meetings regularly both before and after deploying to Afghanistan. In January Hinzman left Fayetteville with his wife and son to apply for refugee status in Canada after his application for conscientious objector status was denied and his unit received orders for Iraq.

Few military family members have any experience in organising. Fortunately, a few of the civilian members of [the campaign group] Fayetteville Peace With Justice are veterans of the civil rights, anti-nuke and women’s rights movements. Their experience and connections with members of other groups helped develop relationships with a loose network of like-minded people across the state.

It took a long time and a lot of senseless killing during Vietnam for elements of the left, members of the faith community, vets and military families to combine their strengths. Today, only a year after the invasion of Iraq, those groups are already working together. They are making an impact. Their voices are being heard.

There’s a woman in Military Families Speak Out whose husband served as an engineer in Iraq. Initially, the mission of this guy’s unit was building stuff, but as the resistance in Iraq grew, instead of rebuilding or anything else mission-oriented, all they did was protect themselves. In essence, the only reason they’re in Iraq is to keep from getting killed by Iraqis. This is just so illogical. If they weren’t there, they wouldn’t have that mission, thus saving money and lives and not creating so much hatred.

The officers and administrators of Abu Ghraib prison have a contingent of young soldiers much like I once was. These young men and women are products of a military that gave them a one-hour class on the Geneva Conventions during their first month in the military. They have been trained and drilled into mind-numbing, unquestioning obedience ever since that moment. Few of them have the slightest idea how to refuse an unlawful order, much less how to report a war crime. It isn’t the little people on the bottom who should be condemned for designing the system. It is the self-serving masterminds at the top who should bear that burden. Bush says that he intends to get to the bottom of this situation. I suggest that he forego that plan. He should instead get to the top of it.

The far-left elements of the anti-war movement are out of touch with reality when they spout “support the resistance”. That’s an empty slogan, not much different than those who proclaim their support for the troops while doing nothing. Unless one is preparing to join an international brigade to fight the occupation or sending money to [the radical Shiah cleric] al-Moqtada Sadr, then how can one claim to support the resistance?

Making links between the US and British anti-war movements is important. We need to understand each other’s tactics and issues. We need to clear any misconceptions that may exist. For example, folks in the UK need to know that America isn’t full of pro-war Bush lovers. There is a vibrant movement here in opposition to the war. Those of us in the US need to learn how we can support our British counterparts and how you guys manage to turn out the huge crowds at the demos you organise.

Michael Hoffman took part in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 as a Marine lance-corporal. When he returned home to Pennsylvania he became involved with Military Families Speak Out. In July 2004 he helped found Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW).

When my unit was preparing to go to Iraq, we had a 20-year Marine Corps veteran who came up in front of us and said, “Don’t think you’re going to be heroes when you go to Iraq. You’re not going there because of WMD. You’re going there for one reason and one reason alone, and that’s oil.” What we knew going into Iraq, other troops have since figured out for themselves.

I was part of the actual invasion force, so I started in Kuwait, crossed the border on 20 March when the invasion began, and worked my way as far north as Tikrit. I was part of an artillery battery, so I was a little bit behind the front line. I crossed through these areas right behind the infantry, so I saw towns just utterly destroyed, buildings on fire. The amount of damage we did to the infrastructure was incredible.

The Pentagon didn’t expect the kind of resistance we’re seeing. Everyone on the ground, my unit included, was told, “We’ll be here for about six months, one year at the absolute latest, and that’s going to be it.” They thought this was going to be an easy, winnable war. They were trying to avoid the “Vietnam syndrome”, which is what they’ve been thrown into right now.

You can’t expect to be acting as liberators on one hand and as a conquering army on the other and expect to be welcomed into a country. It’s something we should have learned in Vietnam, that you can’t do this.

The morale among US soldiers is horrible and it’s dropping day by day. A lot of the units that are there now were supposed to be getting rotated out; they’ve already been there for a year. Now they’re being told by Bush that units which haven’t rotated yet are going to get extended because of the new hostilities. There’s a lack of equipment and a lack of information.

Soldiers on the ground know the reality of what’s going on right now. They look around and they know better than anyone else that there are no weapons of mass destruction. They know that we’re not really helping this country. If anything, we’re making things worse.

For me, the solution right now is a withdrawal of the American occupation force. It’s not working. We’re losing people on both sides every single day. We need to cut our losses and say that we can’t have any more deaths on either side. It’s a horrible toll – American, British, all the occupation forces, and the Iraqis. We need to admit that we were wrong, pull out all the occupying forces and make reparations – not be concerned about getting money out of the country, but actually be concerned about the people of Iraq and making sure that they get a real country back.

If you look at Vietnam, there were three things that really ended the war. It was the resistance by the people in Vietnam; it was the resistance by the people of the US and in other countries; and the third major part was the military, and the refusal to fight in the war. Soldiers got sick of the war, and I think that’s happening right now.

As we get more troops rotating back and getting off of active service and such, you’re going to see more and more troops coming out and speaking out against it. The line that everyone keeps saying over and over again is, “We need to support the troops. We need to let them know that we’re behind them, that we support them.” But the best way of supporting them is to make sure that they’re brought home now.

IVAW will fill a void. It’s really hard for guys over there to express themselves. Any of their stories that we can relay is a big thing, because the picture we’re getting is filtered. The guys with the lowest morale are the guys with the least access to computers – in Najaf, Samarra, Falluja. The guys in Baghdad who have it the best have the access to the computers all the time. The ones who are pushed out to the other areas are getting the worst of it. Right now, there’s no outlet for anti-war feeling. We’ll be a magnet for venting [that feeling]. I expect a lot of people to come out of the woodwork.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
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