Monday 03 August 2009
by: Sarah Lazare
An interview with two former soldiers who describe how they helped
prevent their unit from deploying to a war zone.
What do you do if you are a soldier being asked to fight a war
you do not believe in?
For two former soldiers whose unit was ordered to deploy to Iraq
in April 2005, the answer came in the form of work slowdowns,
letter-writing campaigns, and one-on-one organizing with fellow
soldiers. The result: they helped prevent their unit from deploying
to a war zone.
In this interview, Skippy and Robert, who did not give their
full names for fear of military retaliation, share their stories,
telling how they convinced several in their unit to deliberately fail
physical training, called public attention to the insufficient
training and gear they were being asked to fight with, and found
creative ways to encourage soldiers to "drop the military before the
military drops you." They tell how they dealt with the fear and
intimidation of standing up to their command, and about friends and
comrades who fell victim to "broken Joe" syndrome.
These stories give a glimpse into the world of GI resistance -
the oft-hidden side of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While the military is not forthcoming with information about the
number of troops refusing to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan,
statistics suggest military resistance overall is on the rise. Since
2002, the Army has court-martialed twice as many soldiers for
desertion and other unauthorized absences per year than for each year
between 1997 and 2001. AWOL rates in the Army are at their highest
since 1980, with the desertion rate having jumped 80 percent since
the start of the Iraq War, according to The Associated Press.
Skippy and Robert's experience shows that while some GI
resisters go public, much resistance happens silently, under the
radar, in circles of trusted friends, in the small acts that fly in
the face of military obedience and command. Their stories serve as a
reminder that there are multiple ways to resist military control, and
despite military efforts to quash dissent, these varied forms of
resistance are as ongoing as the wars themselves.
Sarah: I know that you two were involved in an unconventional
form of GI resistance where you essentially ... organized your unit
not to deploy to Iraq. Can you tell me the story of how that happened?
Robert: Sure; we were in Fort Polk, Louisiana, in an area called
"the box," which is a large training area that is meant to resemble
different areas of Iraq or Afghanistan. They basically employ
civilians from outside the base and bring in interpreters to try to
make a realistic training situation. We were training to go in and
basically rebuild UNAID, which is military assistance to the United
Nations operations. It can be very dangerous, because the Rules of
Engagement that govern soldiers under the command of the UN are very
limiting and create fear because they are unrealistic in the
battlefield - they'll get you killed.
We weren't as a unit prepared for that, and that's where Skippy
and I started to look for other actions. We were against the war and
were hoping just to ride out the rest of our military career. We both
knew that after that deployment, by the time the next deployment came
up, we'd be getting out. As we started to gear up for going to Iraq
we started to explore actions for getting out of the military. Skippy
went towards a hardship discharge, and I went conscientious objector.
And basically you could say we agitated several other soldiers to
take other means to get out of the military.
Skippy: As concerned citizens and concerned soldiers, we were
looking at the situation in front of us and saying, you know, this
just doesn't seem right to us. And so we started to talk to our
fellow soldiers about this to get a sense of, "are we alone on this,
what's going on," and we did quickly realize that everybody else had
the same kinds of feelings as us. They either felt that there was
something really fishy about the war, in general, or particular, they
would start to say that our leadership was incompetent, that we're
totally dependent upon a leadership that obviously doesn't know what
The other thing was we didn't even have the proper equipment to
train, let alone mobilize. So it was like, "hey, here's this super
dangerous mission, how about let's mobilize the guard for it, they've
been in the box for a while, they might be able to handle this." But
the reality was, we totally couldn't handle something like that, and
we were actually struggling to do a good job in "the box" in my opinion.
So we endeavored to talk to our fellow soldiers, and we told
them to call their parents and let them know what was going on and
complain about it. So that's where the letter-writing campaign really
came in handy, and the parents are really the backbone of this whole
thing. Rob, maybe this is a good time to go into how you helped set
up initially that conference call with Dick Durbin, senator from Illinois.
Robert: Ok, sure. So it was set up by my fianc ©e, who was
working with different groups who were doing antiwar work, and they
were able to set up a conference call, and basically we carried forth
some of the demands of the soldiers there. You know, complaints about
no body armor, our leadership was absolutely horrible - for example,
in our infantry unit, our sergeant major had been a cook his entire
Same thing with our company commander, who was absolutely
horrible - there was no confidence, at least within our platoon, in
his ability. You know, within the military it's very interesting,
because you have a lot of the lower enlisted, you could say,
specialists and below, basically people who aren't in a leadership
position, for the most part coming from working-class communities.
The military was a way to advance. For them it was pretty easy to get
in discussions in which we were able to challenge the concept of
authoritarianism a little bit. So we did seek out senators to help
us, including Durbin and to my understanding other letters went to
Obama, but we also sought self-empowerment amongst everyday enlisted
soldiers. Within our platoon, if not at that deployment, shortly
after, when we returned from Fort Polk, we had about seven people who
sought some form of discharge, and that's almost an entire squad in a
platoon. Within a platoon, you have four squads. For us I think it
was a pretty big victory.
Skippy: It was during kind of this dialogue phase, we would cut
out the various pictures in the magazines and we'd make these flyers
and we'd put them up as another sign of resistance. Initially I think
we would just distribute them in random places. I actually found this
advertisement for the National Guard from way back when, and it was a
guy's head yellin' "hoo-wah" so I cut his head out with the hoo-wah
phrase kind of echoing from his mouth and I put it in the center of
the toilet. We cut out these letters you know so that it says "drop
the Mili before the Mili drops you."
It's really strange in the military, you almost feel like you
shouldn't do these things, because somebody might catch you, but then
when you start talking to people, it's like they have the same ideas
that you do, in a way, so it's like you find yourself in this weird
position where you feel like you're alienated but then there's signs
that maybe you're not. So we wanted to create another sign to say
that you're not.
Sarah: The latest study that was done, which was in 2006, showed
that 72 percent of all the troops in Iraq are against the war and
want immediate pullout. Do you think there was an organic natural
sentiment against the war or at least skepticism within the ranks?
Skippy: I guess from my humble perspective it did seem like that
was out there and a lot of that had to do with what people were
getting from the news, mixed with what they actually saw on the
ground. Since we were in a training scenario, it was a little
different for us, because we weren't actually in country. We were
just in Fort Polk, Louisiana. But I think the premise is the same
because we were out there trying to mimic what was going on in
country, so a lot of our missions would be very similar to what
missions were like over there. So we could still connect the dots in
a similar way.
Sometimes people would understand that a lot of the training
scenario just seemed really bizarre in and of itself. We would play
the bad guys some rotations and then we would play the good guys some
rotations, so we would really get this juxtaposition of perspectives.
So when we did eventually engage in dialogue at chow or
whatever, or when we were in down time, talked about how messed up
would it be to go over there, how unfair that would be, how
ridiculous this scenario was, etc. It starts to click together that
all that's really going on is that there's this deep network of
factions warring and backstabbing each other while we get caught in
the middle. Folks didn't really want to be a part of that.
It reminds me a lot of how people felt about isolationism; it's
like an isolationist kind of perspective. Like, "Well, what's our
business over there, why is that our responsibility" kind of thing,
like; "Why can't they just deal with their own issues." But Robert
and I were relatively enlightened on these matters. At least in our
small circle of influence, were able to put out the idea that this is
sort of systemic. We'd make sure to point out that this has deep
roots in capitalism and history, and that these are patterns that
extend between nations and over time, and so we were kind of bringing
that flavor to it.
Maybe it helped, maybe it didn't, I don't know, but I know folks
really did begin to pick up the idea that they could resist. We did
do something akin to a slow-down strike. I know personally I did
encourage troops to not qualify as best as they could. When you get
mobilized you have to qualify with your weapons and that kind of
thing and we realized that we were just so ate up anyway that it
really didn't matter anyway how well we did on these things because
it's not going to really accurately reflect who we are. Our rationale
was to just do the bare minimum, don't try to prop up what we look
like on paper any more than it's already distorted.
It was kind of scary because we didn't want to publicly
broadcast that we were doing these things to anybody, but we wanted
to make sure that it was kept within like teams or squads, so I don't
know how far it did get out. Then there were soldiers who were not
too motivated necessarily against the war. For example, this one guy,
you know that wasn't his big thing, I don't think that was really
even on his mind, but his thing was, he just hated the military, and
he wasn't gonna try.
There's this peculiar broken Joe syndrome you could call it,
it's like where folks kind of see the despair already so they just
kind of reiterate it in their own individual ways. It's like "Oh
well, like the war is bullshit anyway it's not as if it's legitimate
and I can feel ashamed, it's actually illegitimate and I can feel
proud to dog it."
Sarah: Can you talk about the outcome of your organizing and
what happened? You ended up not having to deploy, right?
Robert: Skippy got out on a hardship discharge for
family-related reasons. I went out on conscientious objection; once
the investigation started, things went really sour. Two weeks after I
went conscientious objector, somebody else from another platoon
within our company went conscientious objector too. I think they were
kind of fearing that people are really looking for a way out. While
we were there within our platoon, one or two people got out for
drug-related reasons. Afterwards two more got out for the same
reason. They would kick people out for, say, smoking pot. People
would be like, well, do I stay in the military and go to war or smoke
After I left, I don't think there was a lot of momentum left
within resisting; it was hard to have other people take initiative
and be a strong voice against it. I'm not sure exactly how strong
that sentiment against the military is within our old unit, but when
we got back, about a year or two years after, there were people
getting out or finding ways to get out. So that continued for sure,
and then there were people who would have re-upped and stayed in the
military decided not to.
Sarah: So the letter-writing campaign played some kind of role,
in at least pressuring the military to not deploy you all; could you
explain a little bit about that?
Robert: We don't know 100 percent if that's exactly the case. So
the letters go in and we get a meeting at Durbin's office and we're
basically on video cameras with some of his representatives in DC. I
believe that there was around 2,000 letters sent out within a week,
so for them it was probably like "OK, why are we getting hit with so
many letters, what's going on, it's something we'll probably have to
address." And then within our company and battalion, basically our
entire leadership was constantly being brought out on these meetings,
there was definitely a lot that was going on, you'd¬†hear people
talking about the letter campaign.
Skippy: Remember that time we came back on leave and then they
put the whole battalion into formation? They were like "who's
writing, whose calling back home telling their family that the
weapons are broken and the unit's messed up?" And meanwhile we're
just standing there like [muffled laughter].
Robert: They brought a company in at a time to a church, and
then they gave everyone an hour-long speech on how the unit is
prepared, how you're not supposed to be calling home about this
stuff, you have a chain of command, don't go writing home. Sergeant
Major the cook, who all of a sudden became infantry, he was like you
know, "When I call home I tell my wife I have a good weapon and I'm
prepared to use it and I know how to use it. And I'll be safe." And
I'm thinking well, maybe you have a weapon, but we don't have a weapon.
I was on CQ duty, which is, basically within the company they
have a headquarters and the CQ sits there, you're at the desk if they
need you to do something, you'll do it. It's a 24-hour watch, so I'd
kind of hear what's going on with the other companies and they'd have
their battalion meetings in there. And they'd be like "We've got to
find out whose doing this," and I'm just sitting there like "Oh man,
I know who it is."
Skippy: I believe there's another component to it. Remember when
Private Joe shot himself in the guard tower? Private Joe was in
another company, but in the same battalion. He had a lot of mental
issues. He had gone to the Army shrink and everything, and for
whatever reason they told him he was fine. So he's on guard duty in
this guard shack and he convinces the other soldier to go grab the
sergeant for something. Then he puts the barrel of his weapon into
his mouth and blows the back of his brains all over the guard shack.
So when Private Joe shot himself, that's when all of the leadership
just went apeshit, I don't know how, maybe that played a factor too
in our getting denied the deployment as well. I remember distinctly
the next day being appalled by just the regularity of the military
machine and it just not giving a damn about Private Joe for one
second. It was almost like it was a joke to them, and they cleaned it
up and everything marched right on; it was very surreal. They did
eventually honor him and say something, but it took a while; it
wasn't like an immediate concern of theirs, it seemed.
Robert: When you go conscientious objector the first thing you
have to do is announce it; you have to tell your company commander. I
was supposed to get promoted to sergeant like the next day and that
got scrapped. The second part is you basically have to state your
beliefs or reasons, motives of why you're going conscientious
objector, and then you have to see the chaplain and then from there
you have to see a psychologist. Then you have almost like a hearing
within your company, with an outside company commander. In general I
was trying to get basically diagnosed as having depression and
anxiety. So the process says you have to first go to see the
chaplain, which is interesting because on one hand it's a party
that's outside of your chain of command, but at the same time it's
also a chaplain, so if you're not very religious or whatever or a
different religion, who really wants to go talk to a chaplain? I
didn't. Then I tried to see a private psychologist, and I was able to
see one in Chicago and basically was able to have myself diagnosed.
Skippy: A lot of the depression, I think, was real. You were
close to broken Joe syndrome as well.
Sarah: Skippy, you were out already on hardship discharge when
you heard that your unit was not going to be deploying, right?
Skippy: Yeah, I was long gone. It was in March 2005 that I
officially got out. When I heard the news from Rob, I guess even then
I really didn't kind of connect our resistance with the canceled
deployment, because what we were doing kind of felt more instinctual
than anything. A lot of our resistance just kind of felt like the
thing that we should do at the time. Even though we did kind of have
a broad articulated strategy between each other and amongst some
sympathizers, it still felt like anything could happen at any moment.
The atmosphere was totally precarious, and the uncertainty just made
all of us so anxious. I remember Rob and I were coming up with just
alternatives; we had like 100 alternative plans, like "If this goes
wrong, if the other thing goes wrong ..." I remember us just
revisiting it to each other constantly and now it just reminds me of
how anxious we really were and how scary everything really was. So it
was definitely a sigh of relief but really hard to put what caused it
into a direct line.
Sarah: What do you hope GI's and the peace and antiwar movement
can learn from your experience?
Robert: My reasons for going into the military were, I had a 1.9
GPA in high school, and right now, next semester at school I'll be
student-teaching to fulfill the requirements to become a history
teacher. But when I was younger I had no confidence in myself. I came
from a working-class family, my dad worked at the post office and was
a Nam vet, in the infantry. That was the reason I didn't at that time
go active Army, but I had considered it. But looking back at it,
there's a feeling of wanting to get ahead, of wanting to not be in
such a precarious situation that my family was in. Not that we were
poor, but we basically just got by. With having a 1.9 GPA in high
school I was just wondering what I was going to do with myself. My
parents can't afford to put me in school, so what I'm seeing in my
future is just getting by, just working your ass off so hopefully you
So I looked at the military as a way of basically thinking that
it would solve my problems. Whether you go in the military or not,
the situation's gonna remain the same. There's much broader and
larger economic forces at play.
So then from there it's like, who are you fighting for? Who is
benefiting from Iraq? And then I think from there the question is, do
you have agency in your life; are you empowered? You know, was my
family empowered at work, in our community? In short, there's no
running away from these authoritarian social relationships, and if
you really want to make things better in your community then you have
to take part in community struggle. And you have to take part in
struggle at your job. I think that whether or not they're in the
military, people need a sense of agency and empowerment.
If you look at WWII, and you ask people who were flipping the
switches at Auschwitz, they say they were just following orders. It's
a common thing in the military to say, "Hey, I'm just following
orders, I'm just a soldier," and that's not the truth. You can
determine what you're gonna do, you can take control of your life and
you can do something. What fascinates me about history is if you look
at pictures of the civil rights movement and you look at the National
Guard's original role, it was breaking the strike movement. Shooting
striking families, you know like literally mowing them down with
machine guns. Of course the assumption is you're just following
orders. So if a soldier wants to question or a soldier's opposed to
war, then they need to find, or should be encouraged to find, ways to
resist. You need to take control of your own situation, to take
control of your life, or somebody who really doesn't care anything
about you is going to control your situation and they're going to
control your life. You have to take some accountability for what
you're gonna do and stop just following orders and being some drone
or little duck in a row.
Skippy: Echoing what Robert was saying, I certainly agree with
the agency part and I certainly think that's the best message to get
to GI's right now. To question everything and be critical; the trend
in the military is to not be critical. In order to survive properly,
you actually have to be very critical. That's the biggest one piece
of advice I could or would give any soldier or GI in the military
now. And then the second would be, you have to investigate different
ways to get out of the military, and encourage others to get out of
the military. You can do similar things that we talked about here
today, which is just to slow down things, talk to your fellow
soldiers, and just begin to realize that you're not alone in that
sentiment and you can do something to get out of the situation.
I think that the peace movement can learn a lot from what we've
said here, because they have a really important role to be playing
that they seem to want to play, but really haven't articulated. In
our little micro-scenario, you could say those parents who wrote
letters were part of the antiwar movement just in that brief instance
of time and space. They represented what a lot of people are trying
to replicate in different places at different times. So it's really
just about finding those opportunities for people to resist and then
supporting them 100-110 percent all the way and responding to their
needs and trying to play an auxiliary force to what the troops want.
It's hard to communicate to the troops because they're either in
country or on leave. If you can get veteran groups, I think antiwar
movement people - if they're serious about antiwar - they would
volunteer or get involved with organizations that are already formed
for that purpose. Why reinvent the wheel when this stuff's been tried
a lot? We also need to get our heads together to come up with new and
surprising projects and tactics.