[See URLs for video footage.]
Training that makes killing civilians acceptable
Josh Stieber: In boot camp we trained with songs that joked about
killing women and children
May 12, 2010
Josh Stieber enlisted in the army after graduating high school. He
was deployed to Baghdad from Feb 07- Apr 08 with the military company
shown on the ground in the Collater Murder video. Upon his return
from Iraq, Josh was granted conscientious objector status.
Josh Steiber Interview (Part 1 of 4)
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Hi. I'm Paul Jay in Washington. A few
weeks ago, some video of a shooting that took place in 2007 in
IraqApache helicopter shooting a group of men on the ground. And
here's some of that footage. I'm sure most people have seen it already.
VIDEO, WIKILEAKS TRANSCRIPT: 01:09 Yeah roger. I just estimate
there's probably about twenty of them.
01:13 There's one, yeah.
01:15 Oh yeah.
01:18 I don't know if that's a...
01:19 Hey Bushmaster element [ground forces control], copy on the one-six.
01:21 That's a weapon.
01:23 Hotel Two-Six; Crazy Horse One-Eight [second Apache helicopter].
01:41 Yup. He's got a weapon too.
01:43 Hotel Two-Six; Crazy Horse One-Eight. Have five to six
individuals with AK47s [automatic rifles]. Request permission to
02:43 You're clear.
02:44 All right, firing.
02:47 Let me know when you've got them.
02:49 Lets shoot.
02:50 Light 'em all up.
02:52 Come on, fire!
02:57 Keep shoot'n, keep shoot'n.
02:59 keep shoot'n.
03:02 keep shoot'n.
03:05 Hotel Bushmaster Two-Six, Bushmaster Two-Six, we need to move, time now!
JAY: Now joining us to explain what we're seeing and why this took
place is Josh Stieber. He joined the armed forces in 2006, was in
Iraq in 2007, and after 14 months applied for conscientious objector
status, which he finally got. And here he is. Thanks for joining us, Josh.
JOSH STIEBER: Sure. Thanks for having me.
JAY: So you grew up in Maryland.
STIEBER: Right. Not too far from here.
JAY: And so before we get into your story, just tell uslet's go back
and look at some of the footage. And first of all, aswe're going to
start playing the footage now. So, as we're seeing it, tell us, first
of all, how atypical is this? Or is this happening all the time, this
kind of instance?
STIEBER: Incidents similar to this, I would say, are not altogether
infrequent. I'm not as familiar with incidents with helicopters,
because I was in an infantry unit, but that common mindset to shoot
first and ask questions later is one that stems back as far as the
very first days of training, and, yeah, that mindset and the things
built on top of that throughout training have these results in combat.
JAY: Now, you're in the company that was on the ground that day. You
weren't there yourself that day. But when the guys came home that
day, was there something remarkable for them that they talked about
it? Or was it kind of just another day out in Baghdad?
STIEBER: It was treated with a little more, you know, maybe, emotion
than usual thatyeah, they came back and were talking about what had
happened and that there waswhat they said was an attack against
them, and just, I guess, the number of people that were killed was
maybe a little larger than usual. So a little bit more, but, you
know, not something extremely irregular.
JAY: Was there any sense that the guys in the Apache helicopters had
done anything wrong? Or this was par for the course?
STIEBER: The people in the video, you know, as you can see, weren't
actually on the scene as they saw what happened from the helicopter.
So you just kind of trust what you're told. If someone tells you, you
know, this is what I saw and this is what I did, then you kind of
take them at face value, 'cause there's really no way to prove or to
examine otherwise. So perspective from the helicopter, without this
video or without other eyewitnesses, really couldn't be verified.
JAY: Now, it's hard to tell from the video whether there were
actually weapons in the guys' hands or not. Apparently they found
some later. I mean, when you watch the video, can you see weapons in
the hands of some of the guys on thepeople on the ground?
STIEBER: I can see things that look like weapons enough that, based
on the training that I went through, I know I would have been
commanded to fire if I was in a position where I observed that. And
then, also, in the 40 minute Wikileaks version of the video, the full
video, the soldiers actuallyyou can hear them coming on the radio,
saying they found weapons on the scene.
JAY: So let's go back to you. I don't know whether this incident or
incidents like this helped to form who you were or who you became,
but start from the beginning. Why did you join? And you told me
off-camera you joined knowinghoping to be sent to Iraq. Why?
STIEBER: I grew up very religiously and very patriotic, in a
selective sense that, you know, I only wanted to hear things that I
wanted to hear and only things that I thought would make my country
look better and make my beliefs look better, and I wasn't very
interested in understanding other perspectives. And the vision I had
of my country was that, you know, we were going all throughout the
world doing, you know, all this great stuff and helping people in
need. And, you know, after 9/11 I was obviously affected by that and
wanted to protect the people that I cared about, and, from everyone I
trusted, was told that the military would be a good way to do that,
and then was also told, you know, there's this country Iraq that's
getting oppressed by this horrible dictator who's also a threat to
us, and if we can get rid of him, not only will we be keeping
ourselves safe, but we'll also be helping this other country in the process.
JAY: How interwoven were your beliefs in America and what America
stands for and your religious beliefs?
STIEBER: They were pretty closely intertwined. I went to a religious
high school. And one example is, in a government class that I was in
at this religious high school, we read a book called The Faith of
George W. Bush. And people like that were held up as, you know,
thesethese are people that are fighting for God's will here on
Earth. So religion was very interwoven with a sense of nationalism.
JAY: But by 2006, when you join, it's already really clear that there
were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that Bush and Cheney had
essentially lied to start a war. Like, that wasby 2006 that's fairly
acknowledged. Had that penetrated in to you, to your school?
STIEBER: There, and just thekind of the people I was listening to.
And, again, I wasn't making any kind of effort to really challenge my
thinking. People were saying, you know, whoever it is, the media or
other countries are out to make us look bad, and, you know, we did
the right thing, and we're doing the right thing. And I might have
had a few doubts in my mind, but even I comforted the doubts by
saying, you know, even if the reasons that we're there weren't
completely justified, we're there and we're still in this position,
since we're there, that we can't just pull out, and we need to help
JAY: So even if there were no weapons and even if the argument for
weapons wasn't legitimate, it's still good versus evil, and they're
evil and we're good, and we've got to fight it?
STIEBER: Yeah. I bought into that lingo a lot.
JAY: So you go to Iraq. You join, you go through boot camp, and
you're sent to Iraq, and you're still more or less the same mindset.
Tell us a little bit about boot camp and the kind of training that
takes place to prepare you for war. I mean, your religious training
is supposed to be about love thy neighbor, and then you're sent to
war. So how do they get you ready for that?
STIEBER: Yeah, I guess that's where I started to see, maybe, some of
these contradictions, just by the kinds of things that we did on a
regular basis in basic training, whether it was the cadences that we
sang as we were marching around, some that even joked about killing
women and children.
JAY: Like what?
STIEBER: One that stands out in my mind isit goes, "I went down to
the market where all the women shop/I pulled out my machete and I
begin to chop/I went down to the park where all the children play/I
pulled out my machine gun and I begin to spray."
JAY: That's as you're marching.
JAY: So this is, like, an authorized chant, you could say.
STIEBER: Yeah. I mean, the training, they focus on the physical
aspect, or, you know, they say that's the challenging part, but then
they slip all these psychological things in along with it.
JAY: Well, that's got to be shocking for you to hear that the first time.
STIEBER: Yeah. And so I started writing home to religious leaders at
my church, saying what I'm being asked to do doesn't really line up
with, you know, all these religious beliefs I had. And I would get
letters back with explanations that I needed to have more faith in
God, or this is just how the military works.
JAY: They would write back and defend a chant like that, that it's
okay to go down where the kids are playing and start to spray? They
would defend that?
STIEBER: They would either defend it or say that ends justify the
means or say, you know, maybe you personally don't say chants like
that and just march silently, but you still go along with the whole
system. And so I adopted that mindset that even if there were
particular things that troubled me, which there definitely were, then
you can calm that discomfort by saying, well, you know, even if I'm
uncomfortable with these certain practices, in the long run we're
still getting rid of the bad guys, and we're still keeping our
country safe, and we're still spreading freedom and democracy around
the world, so you shouldn't focus on the smaller things.
JAY: So at this point, to what extent do you start to question your
faith? 'Cause it's all about faith, and faith is about not
questioning. So once you start to question, it leads you to places
you haven't been before. So does thatand does it begin in boot camp?
STIEBER: Yeah, I would say that it definitely did. And kind of the
more I saw the things that seemed like they were in contradiction, I
would kind of have less and less faith in my faith and just start
doing things lessthatI guess that idealism or that religious
motivation started to fall away, and it became more about doing
things to either fit in with the crowd or to take on this nationalism
that, yeah, we're still a good country, you know, even if I don't
like these particular things, and we're still spreading freedom and
democracy around the world.
JAY: Now, I've been told byI have never been in the military, but
I've been told to get people ready to kill it's quite an intense
psychological process. Humans actually, apparently, don't like
killing each other. How did thatwhat was that for you, and what was
the impact on you?
STIEBER: I would say it's very calculated. It starts with bayonet
training, even though bayonets haven't been used in any war since, I
believe, the Korean War. But, you know, they first start out by
getting you used to stabbing a dummy with a bayonet, yelling "kill,
kill, kill" as you do it. And if you can get comfortable with that,
then it's slightly more comfortable to shoot at a target from further
away. And just the nature of the training, as the military's gone on,
as I've gone back and studied it, that has changed. Before, targets
just used to be circles, and now the targets look like actual people.
They just get you just to thinking in those dehumanizing terms that
this is a target, and people that look like this are targets, rather
than this is what a human looks like.
JAY: And to what extent was the actual politics of Iraq talked about,
or what to make of Iraqis, what to think about Arabs? To be able to
go and kill people, do they have to dehumanize all the people you're
about to meet?
STIEBER: The common mindset that I would say was coming towards
Iraqis were, one, just kind of, you know, how they were referred to.
They were always referred to "Hajis", you know, similar to "Gooks" in
Vietnam or other phrases and other words. So there was that mindset,
combined with this mindset, that if you don't do everything you're
trained to do and if you're not being the best soldier that you can
be, then these Iraqis, you know, at some point or another, are going
to attack you, or, you know, if you're in a combat situation and
you're not doing everything that you were taught, then you're
exposing yourself and your friends to being open to attack. So that
was very much fear mongering, from that point of view.
JAY: Well, in the next segment of our interview, let's talk about you
as you get to Iraq and how that helps to shape you. Please join us
for the next segment of our interview with Josh Stieber on The Real
Training makes killing civilians acceptable [Pt2]
Josh Stieber: They put us through psychological tests to see if we
were willing to shoot civilians
May 13, 2010
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network.
I'm Paul Jay in Washington. We're talking to Josh Stieber. He was a
member of the Army company in Baghdad that day that everyone has now
seenand we'll play a few more seconds of it, just so yougive you
some context what we're talking about. This is the video where Apache
helicopters attacks a group of Iraqis on the ground. Josh was a
member of that company, not there that day. But now we're talking
about how Josh came from joining the Army to, a couple of years
later, applying for conscientious objector status. Thanks for joining
us again, Josh.
STIEBER: Sure. Thanks for having me.
JAY: So let's just pick up the story where we left off. So you're
more or less finished boot camp. What comes next?
STIEBER: A couple of more months of training with the company that I
eventually deployed with.
JAY: And in terms of this arc of how you get from joining to
conscientious objector status, what took place before you go to Iraq?
Is there another kind of moment there for you?
STIEBER: I guess another big moment in training that really started
making me ask questionsand again I found a good excuse not to ask
too many, but what initially disturbed me was our leaders would take
us into a room one at a time, take the new soldiers, and they would
ask us a series of questions leading up to this big question, that if
somebody were to pull a weapon in a marketplace full of completely
unarmed civilians and there's only one person with a weapon, would
you return fire towards that person? And not only did you have to say
yes, but in this exercise if you even hesitated in your answer, then
you get yelled at for not being a good soldier and not prepared to do
what it took to keep your fellow soldiers safe.
JAY: So when they asked you, what did you say? And did you hesitate?
STIEBER: I hesitated, and after a second or two of hesitation they
really ripped into me.
JAY: Saying what?
STIEBER: Again, that I needed to be prepared to fire, you know,
whenever I was told and that I had to keep ityou know, always be
aware of these threats, and that any hesitation could potentially
mean the lives of the other soldiers.
JAY: So the idea of killing women and children is an actual part of
the training, that you have to kind of internalize that this is
acceptable in the right circumstances.
STIEBER: Yeah. I mean, it's not specifically said, you know, we're
going to go out today and kill women and children, but if it should
happen in the process of doing what we're supposed to.
JAY: But when you put that together with what you told us in the
first segment of the interview, that one of the marching chants was,
you know, killing women and spraying children with bullets, it seems
to be something they know you're going to get into these situations
with civilians, and so part of the training is that accepting the
killing of civilians is part of your job.
STIEBER: Yeah. Again, it's all very psychological. And I'd even take
that beyond just military training and say there's aspects of our
society, going back and looking at my history class when I learned
about the atomic bombings or bombings in other wars that either
intentionally targeted civilians or there were a lot of civilian
casualties in the process, just that same mindset that, you know,
this was unfortunate and we don't intentionally do this most of the
time, but if it should so happen that it happens as we're
accomplishing our greater goals, then so be it.
JAY: Yeah, sure, and you get nothing more than how indigenous people
were treated here, native American Indians. Like, part of history is,
you know, the slaughter is part of the building of the society, its
westward expansion and all. And in terms of how you saw going to
Iraq, is it part of that same kind of tradition that the insertion of
these American values is simply good for the world?
STIEBER: Yeah. I mean, you hear it all the time, freedom and
democracy and how horrible their systems are, and, yeah, there's a
lot of things from that angle.
JAY: So you leave that interview, just being screamed at for not
being a good enough soldier for wanting to accept the killing of
civilians quickly enough. How long before you go from there to Iraq?
And what's happening in terms of your own thinking? Like, my
understanding of boot camp is one of the prime objectives of boot
camp is to get you to stop thinking for yourself; you need to accept
this is the way the world is and do what you're told. You're already
starting to think for yourself here in ways you hadn't before.
STIEBER: Right. I mean, I would have these concerns, but I would
always have a good excuse, whether it was, you know, as I saw things
in basic training, saying, yeah, the ends justify the means, that
even if I don't like this particular thing, you know, in the long run
we're doing all this great stuff, or with this other training I was
saying things like, you know, maybe this is an extreme example, or
surely something like that is never going to happen, and just
anything kind of to take you out of personal responsibility to act on
that, to say that I know this is wrong and I'm going to do something
about it. Instead my natural reaction at the time was just to find an
excuse for why I didn't need to act on it.
JAY: So tell us. So you get to Iraq. And how long before you see
action? And talk about the first action.
STIEBER: It was probably a couple of months before we saw action. And
kind of the process of how I remember things in Iraq is that one of
the first big milestones is that we moved from the larger base that
we were living in, first to one building in the middle of a district,
and then into an even more remote area in the poor industrial part of
town. And as we were moving in to the poor industrial part of town,
in to this factory, the whole district came out and held a large
peaceful protest and were actually waving signs and flags and banners
and telling us peacefully but very explicitly that they don't want us
in their neighborhood.
JAY: This was a neighborhood protestget out of our neighborhood.
JAY: And how did that affect you? And what was the response?
STIEBER: All these things slowly started to trouble me more and more
and just kind of changed how I was seeing things.
JAY: 'Cause you were supposed to be there, you know, to stop
sectarian violence, and people wanted you there, supposedly.
STIEBER: Yeah, exactly.
JAY: So it was a little surprising for you to see the protest.
STIEBER: Yeah. I mean, here I was thinking that I was doing all this
great stuff for their country, and, well, if we're really helping
them out so much, why are they asking us to leave?
JAY: So did you just discuss this with some of the other guys in the
company? Were you able to talk about this stuff?
STIEBER: A little bit. I mean, people didn't really want to think
about it a whole lot. And as time went on, people were more open to
talk about it. And I'd say, later on, down the road, the majority of
people I knew said that what we were doing there was at the very
least a waste of time, if not morally wrong, and some people even
went as far as to say that if roles were reversed, that they
themselves would be insurgents.
JAY: So when do you see your first action that involves shooting?
STIEBER: I don't remember a specific date, probably a couple of weeks
or maybe a month before this video took place in July.
JAY: And, again, this is that video of the Apache shooting the [inaudible]
STIEBER: Right, the WikiLeaks video. And most of our contact was from
IEDs or the roadside bombs or from snipers.
JAY: So are you ever in aso what starts to lead you towards saying
this is wrong? What's your experiences?
STIEBER: One thing that really troubled me that I was thinking about,
on a practical level and a moral level, was this policy that we
started practicing that when a roadside bomb would go offsince that
started happening pretty frequently, some of our leaders, from a
somewhat high level, started saying that every time a bomb went off,
anybody standing in that area was open game to fire upon, with the
logic that, you know, if we can essentially out-terrorize the locals
and make them more afraid of us than of the people planting the
bombs, then they're not going to plant the bombs, even if they
weren't directly involved in the process.
JAY: So the order came down that when a bomb goes off, you're there,
you look around, you can shoot anybody in sight standing around there.
JAY: And that could be men, women, or children.
JAY: So were you in a situation where you and your guys fired at men,
women, and children after a bombing run?
STIEBER: Yeah, I was in that situation, and I specifically was told
to fire. And there was one night when that happened and a bomb went
off, and our truck pulled ahead a few feet, and the trucks in front
of us kicked up a lot of dust, and the last thing I had seen before
the dust went up were children running in the street. And my leaders
were yelling at me to fire my weapon, and I said, "No. The last thing
I saw were children running around. I'm not going to do that." And
that didn't go over so well. And that was not long before this video
happened. And that's the reason why I wasn't on the mission that day
is because when I started refusing orders like that and saying, look,
not only is it morally wrong to just open fire for the reasons that
were being given, it practically doesn't make sense thatyeah, you
might scare a few people, but it's probably going to do a lot more to
motivate people who might have had neutral feelings towards us to now
be justified in becoming our enemies, and I wouldn't blame them if they did.
JAY: So you're standing there, there's dust all around, you knew
there were kids. You didn't fire, but other guys did.
STIEBER: In that situation, yeah.
JAY: And kids were killed.
STIEBER: I don't know specifically on that.
JAY: People were killed.
STIEBER: Yeah, yeah, at various times people were killed. And, you
know, other soldiers refused to fire, too, and some people I know
would shoot their weaponsand I did this a couple times before I just
straight up said, you know, I'm not going to do this anymorebut some
people, we would fire our weapons at an open field, you know, to not
get our leaders mad at us, but to also make sure that we weren't
JAY: So this is just a couple of weeks before the Apache shooting video.
JAY: So just keep going. So you're there for 14 months. So there's a
lot of instances where this happens.
STIEBER: Right. So I was seeing these things go on. I made that
decision that I wasn't going to fire my weapon. My leader got really
upset at me, and I firmly defended myself.
JAY: Now, you wouldn't fire your weapons in those situations, or you
wouldn't fire your weapons, period?
STIEBER: At the time I was in that situation, and that was primarily
the times when I would be commanded to fire my weapon. At the time I
still had it in my head that, you know, if there were a more
justifiable situation, then I would, but I didn't find that situation
justifiable. So when I said that and would make my arguments to my
leaders, it didn't go over so well, so they took me off the gun that
I was on, off the gun on top of the Humvee, and my job switched to
that I was following around our platoon leader and officer and
relaying the radio back and forth with them. And so I still had a
weapon, but my primary job was to be on the radio. And that started
tothe things I saw with that started to influence me, too.
JAY: Okay. Well, in the next segment of our interview, let's talk
about what you heard on the radio and how that moves you towards wanting out.
JAY: Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Josh
Stieber on The Real News Network.
Training makes killing civilians acceptable Pt3
Josh Stieber: I refused to shoot where civilians might be killed and
questioned why we were in Iraq
May 14, 2010
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network.
I'm Paul Jay in Washington. And joining us again is Josh Stieber. He
was a member of the Army company that was in that famous WikiLeaks
video in 2007. He wasn't there that day, but his comrades were.
Thanks for joining us again, Josh.
JOSH STIEBER: Sure. Thanks for having me.
JAY: So why don't we pick up from the last. You had more or less
refused to stop firing your gun [sic] because you were being asked to
fire at civilians, and so you got assigned to be on radio detail with
one of the officers. So talk about that. And how does that lead you
on your journey towards applying for conscientious objector status?
STIEBER: Well, with the job of being on the radio, I got to see more
of the behind-the-scenes stuff going on. So I would be in meetings
with the different officers and with local officials. And one thing
that was really huge for me was was one of the people that we met
with regularly, who was the mayor of the district that we were living
in, an interesting thing about that was how we established our
relationship with him. We actually arrested him one night when we
found out that he had been involved in some attacks against us, and
we were all set to send him off to jail, until we found out that he
was the mayor. So instead of sending him to jail we started
negotiating with him. And here I had been, you know, hearing all
these things, from as high up as the president, saying we will not
negotiate with terrorists. And for me at the time, that epitomized
strength that, you know, I have the right answerswhy would I take
the time to sit down and talk with somebody that disagrees with me?
And weakness was negotiation, because if I'm right, then I shouldn't
need to depend on somebody else for help. But I was seeing that my
definition of strength was hurting people; and here is my definition
of weakness, of negotiating with people who are my enemies, starting
to create some progress. We would make deals and say things like
we'll give you school supplies or medical supplies if you tell your
guys not to blow us up for a certain amount of time. And violence
went down, and supplies get distributed.
JAY: And were these Shia? Sunni? Or did it make any difference?
STIEBER: I believe it was Shia, but I'm not 100 percent positive.
JAY: So you don't know which insurgent, quote-unquote, "insurgent
forces" that he was connected to.
STIEBER: We got very little training or information as far as the
cultural situation went.
JAY: Yeah, what did you know a who you were fighting?
STIEBER: We knew that the primary force in the area was the Jaish
al-Mahdi, who was under the control of Muqtada al-Sadr. So people
recognized his name. But to pretty much get any kind of idea of what
was going on culturally, you had to talk to the interpreters.
JAY: Right. So these are Shia Sadrist forces, which are mostly, if I
understand correctly, mostly poor people.
STIEBER: Yeah. Yeah, it was a pretty impoverished part of town.
JAY: So what do you start to hear then, other than the negotiations,
that starts to make you further question what's going on?
STIEBER: Well, as I saw my definition of strength begin to hurt
people and my definition of weakness begin to create progress, for a
while I didn't know what definitions to have or didn't know what to
think. And then I guess another very telling moment that really
forced me to take all this confusion I had and really ask myself the
difficult questions that I didn't want to ask was one night when.
[snip] One night, a friend of mine that I had gone to church with
before we deployedand, again, religion played a pretty important
role in my life. So I'd gone to church with this guy, and we're
sitting there one night guarding a prisoner that we'd been assigned
to watch over, and my friend started saying some threatening things
about what he wants to do to this prisoner. And, again, I'd been
sorting through all these different ideas of who I was. I was an
American, I was a Christianall these different things. And so my
first thought was this American ideal that I had grown up hearing,
and I asked him about it, and I said, "Isn't this man innocent until
proven guilty?" Alright. So my friend and I are guarding this
prisoner, and my friend, who I had gone to church with before I
deployed, started saying some threatening things about what he wanted
to do to this guy. And I had been, you know, thinking through all
those ideas of who I was as an American or as a Christian and just
trying to find my identity. So I started to ask him this ideal that I
connected with my American identity, that isn't this man innocent
until he's proven guilty? And my friend said, echoing the racism that
we're trained with, well, this man's Iraqi; there's no way he's
completely innocent; surely he's contributed to the problem in some
way; so I want take out my frustration on him. And then I started
thinking about all the things that we had heard sitting next to each
other in church and said, well, you know, what about these direct
quotes from the man that supposedly our religion is founded on, of
loving your enemy and returning evil with good and turning the other
cheek? And my friend said to me, very sincerely, I think, he said,
you know, I think Jesus would have turned his cheek once or twice,
but he wouldn't have let anybody punk him around. And as I heard him
say that, it sounded really ridiculous, but then I thought about it a
little further and I started to realize that what I was doing through
my actions and the things I was putting my faith in was pretty much
that exact same mindset. I just had a lot fancier terms to attach to
it. And when I started to think about it and how bluntly my friend
had put it, he was right, that here I was saying that, you know, I
was putting self-defense or putting national security at the top of
my priority list, whichyou know, that canthat's something you can
legitimately debate. But if you try and connect that to a man who
died on a cross trying to practice love, rather than defend himself
and not go through that, you know, horrible suffering that he did,
then those are two separate things, and I don't think they have a lot
of common ground, so that really, when I heard him say it that way,
really started to make me think, you know, which one am I going to
follow? Because I don't think it can be a combination.
JAY: And is there anyone you can talk to about this? And do you?
STIEBER: There was one friend I had who would listen to me and we
would have a lot of good conversations.
JAY: What about army chaplains or priests? I mean, they're actually
there, in a sense, to bless the union of the nationalism and the
religion, or they wouldn't be there.
STIEBER: Right. Yeah.
JAY: But were you able to talk to them about these questions?
STIEBER: I didn't see any value in talking to our chaplains, 'cause
he, you know, would, yeah, say why God was blessing what we were
doing, and said some ridiculous stuff like that we should be
interpreting everything that's going on, or the perspective we should
have on our experience in Iraq, is think of it like summer camp, and
just stuff that he didn't seem to have much connection with what was going on.
JAY: And at what point do you think back to that book The Faith of
George Bush and start to wonder whether that's a faith you want to be part of?
STIEBER: It's still a faith that I guess I want to be part of, but
not in those terms. Again, that I feel like, you know, George Bush
might have felt like he was justified to do what he did. You know,
the more I study, the harder that is for me to reconcile. But giving
him the benefit of the doubt, even if I say that, you know,
everything he said and did was completely justifiable in terms of
national securitystill doesn't match up with, you know, the way that
Jesus lived his life. And so I can either choose to have faith in
someone like George Bush or a political leader trying to, you know,
defend his country or whatever he's trying to do, or I can have faith
that, you know, if it comes down to it, that sometimes practicing
love might mean that you don't make it through alive, and that I'd
rather go down living with that love then go down input in
situations where, like this video, where you might be harming, you
know, innocent children in the process.
JAY: So do you write home? Do you talk on the phone to your parents?
Your parents are quite religious. So do you start to come out with
STIEBER: Yeah, I would start to write home about, like,
contradictions of the things that I saw, or say that, you know, I
think we need to look beyond just the flag and say that the flag or
whatever America puts its stamp of approval on, that that doesn't
necessarily make it good, or even if it's good in terms of
self-defense or whatever value that is, that maybe that's not the
same as carrying out our religion.
JAY: And how did your parents respond? I mean, Americanism is part of
STIEBER: Yeah, it didn't go over so well. And kind of the mindset it
seemed that they would have or that other people I would talk to had.
And I didn't get very into the different details specifically of what
was going on, what I was seeing on a day-to-day basis. It was more of
the theories, you know, which I think should be enough. But the
mindset that I would get from them and from other people was, you
know, you're in this really intense situation and, you know, you're
not able to reconcile everything, or maybe you should wait to try and
figure out these huge philosophical questions and just do what it
takes to make it home alive.
JAY: Did the officers you were reporting to have any idea about what
was going on inside your head and heart?
STIEBER: They knew, I think, that I was starting to question things
more and more and to feel less and less idealistic about the things
that we were doing.
JAY: And how do you think they dealt with the same questions? 'Cause
they came up with a lot of the same kind of training and education
you did. And why do you think this kind of made such impact with you
and they kept soldiering on?
STIEBER: I mean, I think the big thing was that, like I said before,
that they were questioning what we were doing, but it became about
this mindset of fighting to make it home alive, which I'm not going
to judge someone for taking that mindset, but, you know, I had to ask
myself some very serious questions, you know, of what's justifiable.
And I think a lot of people think that different things, like human
beings are naturally violent, or war is always going to exist, or
these other very underlying philosophical beliefs that affect how
they act. And if you think that war's always going to exist or that,
you know, you need to use violence to stand up for yourself, you
might, you know, even have problems with a particular situation but
then justify it in terms that, you know, this is just the way the world works.
JAY: Well, in the next segment of our interview, let's talk about the
day you decided to apply for conscientious objector status. Please
join us for the next segment of our interview with Josh Stieber on
The Real News Network.
Training makes killing civilians acceptable Pt4
Josh Stieber on the journey from studying "The Faith of George Bush"
to refusing to fight in Iraq
May 15, 2010
Josh Steiber Interview (Part 4 of 4)
Transcribed from file JoshStieberPT4_0516_08-H.264 for
ARCHIVING-1.mov. Runtime 11:20:07 (SMPTE drop, 29.97 FPS).
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network.
I'm Paul Jay in Washington, and we're talking with Josh Stieber about
his journey from religious school, where he studied a book called The
Faith of George Bush, to joining the Army, going to Iraq, and then
applying for conscientious objector status. Thanks for joining us again.
JOSH STIEBER: Sure. Thanks.
JAY: So talk about that day or the few days or whatever leading up to
that application for conscientious objector status. This must've been
STIEBER: Yeah. Well, I actually didn't know what conscientious
objection was until I got back from Iraq and I knew I had to act.
JAY: So you finished your tour of duty.
STIEBER: Right, I finished my tour with all these questions going on
in my mind and knew I had to start changing things but wasn't sure
how extreme I would go with this until we got back and I got to spend
a month back home with my family. And that process for me literally
brought everything back home as I started to imagine all the
different things that we have done to other people's families for the
last 14 months going on to my family, and not just these big headline
catchers like, you know, what you see in the WikiLeaks video.
Obviously, that stuff goes on, but sometimes even the smaller things
of what we were doing on a day-to-day basis.
JAY: Like what?
STIEBER: Of searching through people's homes, and people would often
be disrespectful and that, and just, you know, you're told to search
for weapons, so you go in a house and you tear it apart looking for
weapons or anything suspicious. And I know, you know, people in my
neighborhood growing up who, if that happened to their home, they
would have some, probably, pretty passionate responses to that; and
other little things like, you know, if we were driving down the
street, somebody might think it was funny to swerve into a mud puddle
and splash an old lady with mud, or when we were going into a house
to pull the head off a baby doll that a kid was holding and hand it
back to the kid. And, again, it's like that's not going to make, you
know, the front page of the newspaper, but you start to think, well,
what if that was my mom that got splashed with mud, or what if that
was my little sister whose baby doll got ripped apart? How would I
feel about that? And so I got down to this very simple idea of doing
unto others, and I knew I wouldn't want other people to do to me.
JAY: Now, in this kind of culture that, you know, it's relatively
acceptable to shoot civilians, we've been told of stories that during
these house searches there's been quite a few killings, that people
thought there were weapons, or maybe they didn't and they shot
anyway. Did you experience any of that?
STIEBER: Not that I can remember offhand of something specifically in
a house search, but, again, it was sometimes even the smaller things
that would affect me, like just how we treated the locals when we
went into their house, and knew that if that kind of thing went on
back here, that, you know, most people I know would be up in arms
about that. You know, even some of the relatively minor things would
set people off.
JAY: So you're reaching kind of a crunch point for you, 'cause you're
going to have to decide if you're going back or not.
JAY: You start to discuss this with your parents. And what's the
reaction of your family?
STIEBER: Well, I knew that I had to do something, and this was still
before I knew what conscientious objection was. So the plan I had was
I was going to walk to the military pay headquarters in Indianapolis
and take enough time to be counted as AWOL, and turn myself in and
turn the money I had earned in, and say what I did was wrong, getting
paid for it was wrong, and if I need to finish my enlistment in
prison, then that's where I need to be. So I told my parents about
it, and then they kind of scrambled and tried to alert me of other
options and told me about conscientious objection and went through a
pretty big debate with myself about which option to go with and ended
up feeling that that was the right one.
JAY: And so what happens?
STIEBER: So I go back to the military base in the States, in Kansas,
and make the application and fill out all this paperwork and get
interviewed by a chaplain and a psychologist and an investigator, and
just go through all these interviews and all this writing. And then,
at the same time, I'm expected to carry out most of your normal
military duties. And that started towell, the first couple of weeks
went smoothly until it came time to go out to the ranges to train to
kill again. And like I had said earlier, part of that training was
that we would shoot at targets that looked like our stereotypical
Middle Eastor stereotypical enemy, a Middle Eastern man. And as I
had been debating with myself about this idea of conscientious
objection, and if it was ever justified to kill, or when I would
kill, and went back and again looked at the person who I claim to
have faith in and who Christianity is based off of, to paraphrase
him, he said, you know, it doesn't even matter if you physically
killed somebody; that if you even looked at somebody with hatred or
with judgment, then psychologically and spiritually you've already
killed that person. And so I tried telling my leaders that if I
believe that was true, then going out to the ranges and building this
racism towards the stereotypical-looking enemy and being told this is
what your enemy looks like, practice shooting him, practice killing
him, told them I couldn't reconcile the two. And that didn't go over
so well with one of my leaders, and he got really upset with me and
started calling me a terrorist and a traitor and a lot of interesting
names along with that that he knew. But it was actually a really
important challenge, I think, for me to see if I was going to live up
to all these things that I had been preaching and talking about. And
I just thought back to the lessons that we had learned in Iraq, that
every time we got confronted with violence and with anger and we
tried to respond in the same way, it might have solved the problems
for a day or two, but then it would eventually lead to an even more
intense attack. And so taking that same idea, I was definitely
tempted to yell back at my leader who was yelling at me, but I knew
it would make him yell louder and I would yell louder and nothing
would get accomplished. So just like I had seen, trying to understand
people who, again, thought very differently and had attacked us, I
had seen that create progress. I tried to take that same mindset in
dealing with this leader and tried to understand where he was coming
from and tried to work together with his concerns.
JAY: So you applied and received conscientious objector status. But
you did more than that. You started speaking out publicly about where
you've been, interviews like this. Why'd you go public? 'Cause you
must get some feedback from this. Okay, it's one thing not to do
something in terms of your own conscience, but by going public,
people must be accusing you of harming the military, perhaps even
saying you're going to endanger soldiers, talking this way.
STIEBER: Well, a lot of it had to do with the eventual reaction of
this particular leader whoI had never seen a person that angry as he
had been with me. But by trying to live out these things that I said
I believed on a day-to-day basis, ten months after I had made my
application he went from being absolutely furious at me to being able
to give me a hug and wish me good luck on my life after the military.
So I had seen that, you know, by practicing these things, that it had
transformed this big, you know, tough, high-ranking military guy. And
these ideas like compassionate and love and understanding have more
value than I think a lot of times we like to give them credit for. So
that's what started to motivate my speaking publicly. And I started
speaking publicly right after I got out, and wanted to say that not
only do I think war is the wrong answer, I think that so many people
who are in the military think that war is the only answer, and if I
am saying that war is wrong, I need to point people to other answers.
So I started a journey across the United States and spent three
months walking and three months on bicycle, visiting different
charities across the country, and trying to point people to other
ways of going about handling their issues and towards just being
proactive and trying to address issues before.
JAY: And what kind of reaction have you gotten from other military
people that are either out or still in?
STIEBER: For the majority, people have been pretty supportive. You
know, my friends who are still in the military have some fundamental
differences of belief with me, but still have respect for what I'm
doing and what I've said, and, you know, I have respect for their
desire to try to serve their country and try and do what they feel is
right. And seeing their dedication inspires me all the more to try and solve.
JAY: Are people surprised when they hear the stories of this, from
boot camp and once you're there, this sort of creation of the culture
of the acceptability of killing civilians?
STIEBER: Well, when I did this cross-country trip, the way I framed
it, I tried to really get people to think about it, but the way I did
it was that. I did a lot of public speaking, and the way I would
start my talks was I would get in front of an audience and ask them
if they cared about their family or their friends, and if they did,
to stand up with me. And the whole room would, you know, stand up.
And then I'd say, this was an important factor in the decisions that
I made, and along the way I was told a number of different things
would be in my best interest to say, and I'm going to pass that
wisdom along to you and tell you, by repeating after me, that it'll
be in your best interest. And I would lead them in that cadence about
killing women and children.
JAY: What is it again?
STIEBER: The whole thing? I went down to the market where all the
women shop/I pulled out my machete, and I began to chop/I went down
to the park where all the children play/I pulled out my machine gun
and I began to spray. And I could get rooms full of the most
dedicated peace activists and the most hardcore religious folks to
repeat these horrible lyrics, and it was really telling for me about
just the human psychology, that in a relatively low-stress
environment like that, they were saying these things because I was
telling him to and because of the peer pressure around them, and that
if we want to change things, it has to start out with something that
is very fundamental as just starting to ask questions and not going
along with everything that we're told to do. So I used that exercise
to, one, put people in the mindset of a soldier a little bit, that
here you stood up because you wanted to do something positive, to
care about the people around you; and then before you know it, you're
being asked to say these different things, and you start to
understand how people get to the point where they say those things.
JAY: And then do it. Thanks for joining us.
STIEBER: Sure. Thanks for having me.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.