My real heroes are those soldiers who stood up to the war before they went.
These are the people I look up to. To stand up at that time and say, no, I'm not gonna do it, to be accused of cowardice, is amazingly brave.
I disagreed with the war. I was already reading about the Black Panthers and Huey P Newton and Malcolm X, I was already beginning to radicalise, but I still went because I thought that's what soldiers do. I went into the military because of, well, a big ball of different things. And that ball just totally unravelled when I was in Iraq.
I always grew up thinking if it was America fighting, then we were fighting for good. I thought America was the greatest country on earth and that we fight for freedom and democracy. I came to realise that Iraq is a war of genocide, a war of racism. When I went to Iraq, it all became real.
It had been October at Fort Drum when we took off. A cold October. We had snow on the ground. I got off the plane in Kuwait, and I had a duffel bag in each hand, and a rucksack and my weapons on my back and I was so tired and then that heat hits you.
You're hot and you're sore and they put you on a bus. We drove for a few hours until we got to a base where they gave us a briefing. And they told us, 'You can't trust these fucking hajis. Every one of these fucking hajis just wants to kill you! They're all gonna stab you in the back. And when one of these fucking haji kids is out in the middle of the road and you're out with your convoy, you run them over!'
I really thought, 'Wow, I can't believe they're using such a racist term like this.' At the time I didn't know what haji meant, or its significance. I just thought, 'Wow.'
In a film about the GI resistance in Vietnam, Sir! No sir!, there is a scene where a black GI, Greg Paton, says one day he realised, 'Wow, a gook is just like a nigger!' This light went on. And now I watch a film like this and I think what I realised in Iraq was, 'Wow - a haji is a gook!' Make that connection!
All this became crystal clear for me one day when in my division there was a traffic control point - a TCP - and this 18-yearold kid is on a 50-calibre machine gun atop an armoured humvee and this car's coming at it really fast and he makes a split-second decision. He presses butterfly trigger on his 50-cal and he puts 200 rounds into a vehicle in less than a minute. A few minutes later, they drag out the results of his decision: it's a dead father, a dead mother and two dead kids. The son was four. The daughter was three.
That night, I sat in on a briefing, as I did most nights, and this colonel turns around to the entire division-level staff and he says, 'If these fucking hajis just fucking learnt to drive, this shit wouldn't happen!' And I looked around and thought, he never stopped to think that this 18-year-old kid for the rest of his life is going to be fucked up. He never stopped to think that we killed an entire bloodline that day, of how many more insurgents we created, of how many more service members are going to die as a result of this. There were so many things that he could have thought of.
The left, the anti-war movement, really needs to come up with alternatives, with solutions. We've essentially won the argument that the war is wrong, that the occupation is wrong. The mid-term elections show that. We should now be aiming for popularising concrete solutions. There are quite a few plans out there, but they need to be developed and they also need to take into account what the Iraqi people want.
We have to make sure America never ever does this again. Because after Vietnam, we thought we had learnt our lesson, but people forgot. We have to make sure that in ten years time, 20 years time, 50 years time, we never, never do this again.
I feel I'm becoming a warrior, fighting this fight, whereas before I felt I was just a soldier. Now I get to fight from my heart, for what I believe in, not what someone orders me to.Iraq Veterans Against the War can be found at www.ivaw.net
Leigh Phillips is a regular Red Pepper writer and was previously a Brussels-based journalist and Red Pepper's Europe correspondent.