July 9, 2009
Independent journalist Dahr Jamail documented the day-to-day
brutality of life under U.S. occupation in a way no mainstream media
sources did in his 2007 book Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from
an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq.
In his new book, The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in
Iraq and Afghanistan, Jamail looks inside the resistance developing
within the American military.
This is the first comprehensive look at dissent within the ranks of
world's most powerful military, documenting the fight for justice
inside the belly of the beast. Below, we reprint the Introduction to
The Will to Resist.
AS AN independent reporter working at different points during the
first six years of the occupation of Iraq, I had some of the most
disturbing experiences of my life. The U.S. military, which I had
been raised to admire, had for me morphed into the enemy. Reporting
from the Iraqi perspective on a brutal, chaotic, violent occupation
that was destroying millions of lives with the indiscriminate
randomness of a hurricane, my sense of outrage had transformed into
an anger that I often aimed at those same soldiers I had admired as a child.
This feeling of being violated and betrayed increased with my
continued coverage of widespread military operations; the use of
white phosphorous against civilians in Fallujah; the collective
punishment of entire cities by cutting off their water, electricity,
and medical supplies; the widely prevalent torture of Iraqis; and
ongoing home raids. To date, the occupation has managed to displace
one out of every six Iraqis from their homes, and has, directly or
indirectly, killed more than 1.2 million people.
I felt a solidarity with the Iraqis because I had no difficulty
imagining how I would feel if my country had been invaded and
occupied. My direct experience of this extremely unethical behavior,
very common among those in the U.S. military in Iraq, and my rage at
the heedless and deliberate devastation I saw them wreak upon the
people of Iraq, fueled my rage and transformed my childhood heroes
into beasts. I was dehumanized by the occupation.
On returning home, in the course of delivering lectures and
presenting slideshows and providing testimony at various forums, I
started to meet soldiers who had deployed to Iraq. As I got to know
them, I was surprised to discover within them a familiar anguish. I
found the same survivor guilt, the ongoing burden of living a normal
life without while carrying the knowledge within that Iraq is burning
and her people are struggling to survive on a daily basis. I could
see in their eyes the same angst that I felt--the utter inability to
reconcile what we had seen in Iraq with the fact of our own
relatively secure existence in a country whose government was
responsible for causing irreparable damage there.
This compelled me to dig deeper. I realized a desire to meet more of
these veterans who had been placed in an untenable situation and
examine the roots and implications of their resistance to what was
happening in Iraq. Through conversations, I learned quickly that
there was active resistance within the ranks to what the troops were
being ordered to do in Iraq.
I found men and women to interview who had spent time in Iraq doing
patrols, working on bases, running supply convoys, and even acting as
snipers. Others worked as intelligence operatives gathering
information by spying on cell phone conversations. Along the way,
talking with these men and women, I realized the bond I shared with
them had become, in many ways, as strong as my bond with the Iraqis I
interviewed abroad, a bond that inspires me to risk my life to work
there time and time again.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
WHILE THERE is a widespread, mostly subterranean resistance movement
in the military today, admittedly it is not yet nearly on the scale
of that which played a critical role in bringing an end to the
Vietnam War. More than ever, due to the faltering U.S. economy,
people are joining or staying in the military because of financial
necessity, despite the risks this decision entails.
In fall 2008, I spoke with David Cortright, a Vietnam War veteran who
has served as consultant or adviser to agencies of the United
Nations, international think tanks, and the foreign ministries of
Canada, Japan, and several European countries. He has authored 16
books, including Soldiers in Revolt (Haymarket Books, 2005), which is
about the massive GI resistance movement against the Vietnam War. I
was interested to know how he viewed the growing resistance movement
in the military today. Cortright said he feels soldiers are not being
as overt today when speaking out against what is happening to the
military because "there is much more to lose now by being punished by
the brass. I see that as the most fundamental change--the nature of
the military today as an all-volunteer force, economic conscription."
Another factor that serves to dampen GI resistance today is that
nearly 50 percent of those serving are married, and many of them have
children to support. This, according to Cortright, constricts the
nature and scope of the movement. Another key difference between
Vietnam and current-era GIs, he feels, is that today when someone
joins the military, they tend to stay with their unit for their
career. "Now there is much emphasis on unit loyalty and solidarity.
You bond with these people, and these social horizontal linkages have
an effect of binding people to each other within the military
community...I talk with lots of guys who hate the war, yet they go
back for a second or third tour out of their duty to support their
fellow soldiers. They think they are helping their buddies." That has
been my experience, too. I have had occasion to speak with veterans
and active-duty soldiers totally opposed to the occupation who
nevertheless agree to redeploy for the sake of their "buddies."
Cortright also underscores the lack of substantial civilian support
as a reason for today's GI antiwar movement not being on par with the
Vietnam-era movement. "During Vietnam there wasn't a real GI movement
until 1968, so it took a few years, but that was supported by
civilians who made enormous sacrifices to help them. At the time we
had a couple of legal defense organizations set up to defend GIs
which don't exist today. Then we had groups like the Young Socialist
Alliance, among others, that would back those of us who spoke up in
those days--we knew we could get access to lawyers."
However, a network is gradually building up, of groups tasked with
helping those in the military who choose to resist. Two such groups,
the Military Law Task Force and the Center on Conscience and War,
which are both successors to similar groups from the Vietnam era are
examples. Cortright is convinced that "though we haven't seen as
widespread a phenomenon as during Vietnam," there is no denying that
resistance exists and is spreading. "We've also seen individual cases
of resistance, and the work that many veterans have done in reaching
out to active-duty military personnel has been successful. This is
another expression of the underlying sentiment in the military that
the war is illegal and unjust."
With each passing day, more soldiers are speaking out against the
occupation, and are receiving support from civilians. This was a key
component of the resistance during Vietnam, says Cortright. "People
in the military have great authority and legitimacy in speaking to
the broader public in the political arena, and the more we as
civilians can support them in doing this, the more effective they
will be in bringing awareness to the movement and the need to end the war."
Of course, times have changed. During Vietnam, there was one main
Winter Soldier event--when Vietnam veterans returning from the front
lines held a weekend press conference in Detroit on January 31, 1971,
to tell the media what was really happening in the war and why it
should end immediately. "Winter soldiers" is a reference to what
Thomas Paine, America's founding father, called people who stand up
for the soul of their country, even in its darkest hours.
Today, we've seen several of these Winter Soldier events, sponsored
by a group called Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). Such events
are spreading across the country, as well as internationally. By
spring 2009, Winter Soldier events had occurred in Maryland,
Washington, Florida, Wisconsin, California, Illinois, New York,
Oregon, Texas, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C., and were
scheduled for Georgia, as well as Germany.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
DURING THE writing of this book, I was consistently and deeply moved
and awed by the courage and fortitude of the veterans who were taking
a stand, despite the long odds against them and the brute force the
military is able to exert upon them for doing so. I learned from them
that, as perpetrators, their post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is
far more incurable and difficult to treat than that of people like me
who had only witnessed the horrors they had been instrumental in
inflicting. They have to live with the consciousness of having killed
Iraqis, participated in their torture, raided their homes with women
sobbing in the background.
Surpassed only by average Iraqis, members of the U.S. military who
have been deployed to Iraq are paying the highest price for the
occupation--both while in Iraq and when they come back home. They are
now part of an unfortunate, tragic segment of U.S. society that has
been maligned and tossed aside, neglected, forgotten. Today, more
U.S. war veterans are killing themselves than are dying in open
combat while overseas. One thousand veterans who are receiving care
from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) are attempting suicide
every single month, and eighteen veterans kill themselves daily. Not
all of these veterans served in Iraq, but what these figures bode for
the future is inconceivable, when we consider that 1.7 million
soldiers have so far served in the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
As if surviving their deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan is not
enough, upon their return home, soldiers face another battle--to
obtain the services they are entitled to receive from the VA. A valid
discharge from the military entitles all soldiers to medical care
from the agency. In the six months leading up to March 31, 2008,
1,467 veterans died while waiting to learn whether their disability
claims were going to be approved by the government. Veterans who
appeal a VA decision to deny a disability claim must wait an average
of nearly four and a half years for their answer. As of March 25,
2008, 287,790 war veterans from the occupations of Iraq and
Afghanistan had filed disability claims with the VA.
These facts partially explain the growing resistance within the
military not just against the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan,
but also against the horrendous toll they are taking on troops, who
suffer while they serve there and suffer even more upon returning
home. Being virtually abandoned by the government they swore an oath
to protect and serve often becomes the proverbial last straw for the
veterans, forcing them to resort to suicide.
The deeper one digs, the more apparent it becomes that the military
is in a state of near collapse. For years now, one retired general
after another has appeared in the media to denounce the occupation of
Iraq, and to expose what it is doing to destroy the military. With
the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 565,000 troops
have been deployed more than once.9By December 2006, it was estimated
that 50 percent of troops in Iraq were serving their second tour, and
another 25 percent were on their third or fourth tour.
A horrific example of how this is affecting soldiers in Iraq occurred
on May 11, 2009, at 2 p.m. Baghdad time, when a U.S. soldier gunned
down five fellow soldiers at a stress-counseling center at a U.S.
base in Baghdad. Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S.
military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at a news conference
at the Pentagon that the shootings occurred in a place where
"individuals were seeking help." Admiral Mullen added, "It does speak
to me, though, about the need for us to redouble our efforts, the
concern in terms of dealing with the stress...It also speaks to the
issue of multiple deployments."
The military is so overstretched that troops being redeployed often
have traumatic brain injury (TBI) from surviving roadside bombs in
previous deployments, and more than 43,000 troops listed as medically
unfit have been deployed anyway. Soldiers already diagnosed with PTSD
and other severely debilitating mental health conditions that
accompany it are being redeployed as the military dredges up troops
to keep enough boots on the ground in Iraq. By October 2007, the army
reported that approximately 12 percent of combat troops in Iraq were
coping by taking antidepressants and sleeping pills. By January 2009,
the army announced that suicides among U.S. soldiers had risen in the
previous year to the highest level in decades. The suicide rate for
2008 was calculated roughly at 20.2 per 100,000 soldiers, which for
the first time since the Vietnam War is higher than the adjusted
civilian rate.14In addition, more active-duty marines committed
suicide in 2008 than in any year since the U.S. invasion of Iraq was
launched in 2003, at a rate of 16.8 per 100,000 troops.
Prior to the recent and ongoing collapsing of the U.S. economy, which
by raising national unemployment has driven more people to join the
military, the armed forces were so short of troops that more than
58,000 troops have been "stop-lossed" since September 11, 2001. Under
this policy, soldiers who have fulfilled their contracts are frozen
into the military and redeployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. Further
deepening this crisis, more than a quarter of a million National
Guard men and women, who joined the guard to provide aid at home in
times of national emergencies such as hurricanes and earthquakes,
have been deployed overseas.
Attempting to keep enough boots on the ground for both occupations,
on June 22, 2006, the army increased the permissible enlistment age
to 42, from a previous limit of 40. This follows a previous rise in
the age limit from 35 to 40 in March 2005. By summer 2007, the army
had grown so desperate for recruits that it began to recruit
indiscriminately in violation of its own criteria. It accepted
individuals with health and weight issues, lower academic test
scores, and even those with criminal records.
By July 2007, the number of incoming soldiers with prior felony
arrests or convictions had more than tripled over the previous five
years, and in the first half of 2007, the army had accepted an
estimated 8,000 recruits with rap sheets. Former army Private Steve
Green is one such example. He was awarded a waiver for previous
involvement in criminal activity and was found guilty of raping a
14-year-old Iraqi girl, Abeer Qasim Hamza al-Janabi, and murdering
her and three of her family members in the village of Mahmudiyah.
Economics continues to work in favor of the military, assisted in no
small measure by its all-out efforts at recruiting. By October 2008,
the Army and Marine Corps had spent nearly $640 million in
recruitment bonuses. By the end of 2008, the military was once again
making its recruiting goals. As unemployment rises, the military
lures the desperate offering a sure method of obtaining a paycheck.
In addition, the military has resorted to a tried and tested tactic
of enticing foreigners into the ranks by offering citizenship after
service in the military. For example, on March 3, 2009, 251 U.S.
soldiers from 65 countries became U.S. citizens in a ceremony held in
one of Saddam Hussein's old palaces in Baghdad. Since 2004,
active-duty immigrant soldiers can apply for citizenship without the
normal three-year waiting period and without being inside the United States.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
THE DRAMATIC change in the political climate of the country following
the election of Barack Obama as president, and his promises to bring
the troops home, has expectedly caused the population to lose what
interest they still retained in Iraq, despite the tardy coverage by
the mainstream media. While President Obama promises to bring troops
home, he aims to leave behind at least 50,000 as a "residual" and
"training" force indefinitely. The end of either occupation
definitely does not seem to be in sight.
Most veterans I spoke with while working on this book feel, despite a
large section of the populace being opposed to the occupation of
Iraq, that the consenting majority in the United States has been
complicit in pushing U.S. soldiers into an unsustainable position by
not doing enough to end the war. Today antiwar veterans have to
muster all the support and resources they can, not only in an attempt
to rebuild their lives, but also to affirm and intensify their dual
resistance to the ongoing occupation of Iraq and to the inherently
dehumanizing nature of the U.S. military system.
I have been impressed by the courage and inspired by the persistence
of these veterans. I recognize the risk their resistance entails.
Their actions jeopardize benefits they have earned, including health
care and funds for college, and can even lead to incarceration.
Working on this book has made me privy to the individual as well as
collective transformation that has taken place in a section of the
population that is commonly known for its rigidity and subservience
to authority. While it was not my initial plan, the voices of
resistance in this work have led me to remain more of an observer in
the book. By often quoting their words at length, I have attempted to
retain the rage, despair, and rawness of their feelings without
interjecting my own.
The environment in the United States today is not one that can
support and sustain a GI resistance movement of significant
proportions, giving it enough power to directly affect the foreign
policy of the country, as it did so effectively in the Vietnam era.
There is much in the military to prohibit a GI resistance movement
from growing anywhere near the proportion that helped end the U.S.
war in Vietnam. Military discipline is much more repressive than in
the past, which makes organizing more difficult. There is less
radicalization of the GI movement, as compared to that in the late
1960s and early 1970s; therefore, passive resistance against the
command is more common than direct resistance. There is a much lower
level of political awareness and analysis among soldiers as compared
to that during Vietnam, when there were hundreds of underground
newspapers that served to inform troops while criticizing the
military apparatus. The all-volunteer military, rather than a draft,
is also responsible for stifling broader dissent.
Despite these factors, dissent in the ranks is happening on a daily
basis. While overall violence in Iraq has dropped, it is escalating
dramatically in Afghanistan, as President Obama begins to "surge"
30,000 troops into that occupation. The overstretched military is in
a state of disrepair, full of demoralized, bitter soldiers whose
reasons for staying in are based on economics and loyalty to their
friends rather than nationalism or patriotism.
These elements, accompanied by the continuing neglect that soldiers
experience upon their return home, are driving larger numbers toward dissent.
This is a book about average soldiers and their brave acts of dissent
against a system that is betraying them. I decided to focus on the
rank-and-file members who actually served in Iraq, rather than those
giving the orders from within safe compounds. I believe it is those
who have followed the orders who have had to pay the highest price.
My main objective in presenting this book is to highlight the reality
that oppressed and oppressors alike suffer the dehumanizing effects
of military action. For soldiers and war journalists like myself who
have lived with this, struggled with PTSD, and reintegrated ourselves
into society, a light at the seemingly endless dark tunnel of the
U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan is the possibility of the
shifting of these individual acts of resistance into a broader,
organized movement toward justice--both in the military and in U.S.