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Interviews with Iraq veterans

What's the mood in the U.S. military?

Published Sep 9, 2007 10:21 PM

After four-plus years of a failed occupation of Iraq and a U.S. regime that refuses to leave, two questions have become vital: What is the strength of the Iraqi resistance? What is the mood of the U.S. rank-and-file troops? This article discusses the latter question.

Jonathan Hutto and Liam Madden
WW photos: John Catalinotto

The Army’s records show that among a half-million troops, there were 3,196 desertions in 2006, a considerable increase over the 2,543 in 2005.

On Aug. 19, the New York Times published a statement in which seven enlisted soldiers with the 82nd Airborne stationed in Iraq dared to challenge the whole chain of command by suggesting the best thing the U.S. could do is pull out.

Recruiting is way down among African Americans and contested throughout Puerto Rico. The military is drawing from an ever narrower base—small-town USA and immigrants desperate for a quicker road to legal status. Army, Marine and National Guard troops are sent for multiple and longer tours to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Margaret Stevens

Meanwhile, organizers of the GI anti-war movement gathered in St. Louis from Aug. 15 to 19 for conventions of Veterans for Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). During the IVAW convention, IVAW elected a new board, and this board in turn selected by consensus one of the first war resisters, former Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia, as its new chair-elect.

To explore these developments, between Aug. 25 and Sept. 1 Workers World held individual phone interviews with four IVAW board members and other organizers. The following summarizes those conversations:

Workers World: What did the convention accomplish for the IVAW?

Mejia: Every time the IVAW has a conference or convention the organization comes out stronger. We meet and interact for a goal. In this case we held elections. We also talked about strategy. We will concentrate on a struggle campaign—one we call “truth in recruiting”—that will focus on young people considering joining the military. We also want to do something like the Winter Soldier hearing done during the Vietnam War [where veterans testified about their experiences—WW], but among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

Margaret Stevens of Newark, N.J., veteran of National Guard 1997-2004, new IVAW treasurer: It has political significance that Mejia is popular in the organization and respected as a war resister. It says a lot about what people think is the right way to challenge the problem. Camilo said three years ago: “I won’t participate. It is a bad military and I won’t help participate.” It is a very courageous stand. He earned his stripes.

Camilo Mejia

Mejia: There are now 575 IVAW members, double the number at the last convention. At least 10 new members are joining each month.

WW: Some of the media reports said the IVAW changed its position and now backs those who refuse to serve in Iraq. Is that so?

Mejia: The IVAW will support resistance in the military. This doesn’t mean we are encouraging resistance, but if soldiers say they object to participating on grounds of conscience, we will support them.

Former Marine Liam Madden, IVAW organizer in Boston, co-founder of the “Appeal for Redress”: We always supported war resisters and have educated soldiers and service members what their rights are. The IVAW wants soldiers and service members to make an informed decision. We were already on the track of stepping up active-duty organizing.

The IVAW’s role is to shed light on the political implications of the war and what it means for those fighting it. We explain why the U.S. is there in Iraq. In effect, we are giving the active-duty troops the tools they need to resist, but in the end it is the soldier’s decision.

WW: What is the mood now among active-duty troops?

Paul Foley, civilian organizer with the Different Drummer cafe in Watertown, N.Y., near Fort Drum, home base for the 10th Mountain Division, which has sent its brigades multiple times to Iraq and Afghanistan:

There is a chapter of IVAW at Ft. Drum now. We had a meeting at the Different Drummer Aug. 23. Both speakers, Eli Israel [who refused duty while in Iraq recently—WW] and Camilo Mejia, are well spoken and they had a powerful message.

Phil Aliff, IVAW board, at Fort Drum: In the Army three years ago, while many of the rank and file were skeptical about the war in Iraq, they followed through with the mission. Now, after the “surge” and the growing deterioration of the situation in Iraq, more are resisting, especially at Ft. Drum.

Madden: Over a year ago a poll said 70 percent wanted the U.S. to start getting out within a year. Now that year is up. This is compounded by the longer length of tours, the lack of a real break between tours, the accelerated operational tempo. The troops are involved in a conflict where they see little progress is made. And they see a stark contradiction between why U.S. troops are told they are there and what the reaction of the Iraqis is.

Foley: Many of the IVAW members are in the First Brigade, which is shipping out to Iraq for a second time. The Third Brigade just got back this summer from Afghanistan. The Second Brigade is due back at Ft. Drum in November after an extended tour in Iraq doing house-to-house searches. Now there are more hassles in town of soldiers who get into trouble because they are really upset. They’ve been through a lot.

Aliff: The number of AWOL troops and deserters is increasing. There is more drug use, people are escaping. They want to get out of the military and are finding many ways to do it. The majority don’t want to go back to Iraq. It’s taking a toll on the chain of command—the brass are finding they have to deploy people who normally would be discharged. On the other side there is growing resentment toward the brass.

I feel we are on the verge of a mass exodus. People are leaving their stations or leaving the Army because they don’t want to go back to Iraq and be part of the occupation. We’re on the verge of something significant because after four-and-a-half years the war is going so badly.

WW: Will the IVAW also confront recruiters?

Stevens: The IVAW will have a three-pronged approach: truth in recruiting; mobilization of active duty soldiers; defending war resisters.

Madden: The IVAW “truth in recruiting” campaign is designed to give a strong link to the communities that are vulnerable to the recruiting of the military. We do it not to tell people what to do—teenagers have enough people telling them what to do already—but we will help them make an informed decision.

Mejia: We will provide information about what life is really like in the military. We won’t tell people not to join. But we know there are recruiters telling people about benefits and salaries. This might be true or false, but it only represents a small part of the picture.

We’re going to tell about war, about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, about stop loss orders that can extend your contract. We’ll tell what it’s like to be in combat. This is unpleasant information, but these are important parts of the military experience. We say if you join the military, you should be making an informed decision.

Madden: On Sept. 17 Adam Kokesh [who is co-chair of the board—WW] is organizing a National Truth-in-Recruiting Day.

WW: Did the convention change the IVAW’s political orientation?

Madden: What the convention did is show that the IVAW members were all more or less on the same page.

Stevens: The political statement Mejia made at the convention was that we need to look at the root of the problem—not just the war but the capitalist system. People responded positively to this.

My own position is that the movement is limited if it says only, “Get the troops out of Iraq.” The GI movement should also be an anti-racist movement. It should oppose not only U.S. intervention in Iraq but U.S. intervention in Sudan.

What Hutto is doing is important. He’s in the military now, on active duty. He’s saying, “I’m going to build the movement from within.”

The real measure of the organization will be not in the leaders but in what the chapters do. I’m organizing a New Jersey chapter of IVAW at Essex Community College.

WW: Jon, you spoke at the convention. What was your message?

Able Seaman Jonathan Hutto, co-founder of the anti-war “Appeal for Redress”:

Even though 2,000-plus GIs signed the “Appeal for Redress” and IVAW convoys toured military bases and people have demonstrated and voted against the war, the government has been relentless in its decision to continue this war and occupation. I told the IVAW convention that when the government closes off those routes for redress and frustrates political will, then the people will seek other routes. They will move beyond an appeal to a demand. This is the history of the Declaration of Independence.

Thomas Jefferson—and he was a slaveholder—wrote that when a government becomes destructive then the people have an obligation to replace or overthrow that government.

The frustration can make you cynical. I learned though from Kwame Ture [Stokely Carmichael] at Howard University 10 years ago how to combat this. He said you don’t join the struggle to mobilize around an immediate issue, and then once you have resolved the issue, you move on with the rest of your life. “The struggle is eternal. ...You have to take a long-term view, to be able to stay in the struggle.”

We have to look at what a GI/vet movement has to be. It should not be just to end the war but it should fight all forms of oppression. It should be interconnected with the fight against racism, sexism and the struggle of oppressed people all over the world. The whole call to send the troops home is limited unless it also includes reparations to Iraqi people. The GIs must understand that the average GI has more in common with people of Iraq than with the U.S. government.

Contacts: IVAW at www.ivaw.org, Hutto at appealforredress.org, Madden at [email protected], Foley at [email protected]

Catalinotto was an organizer during 1967-1971 for the American Servicemen’s Union, which opposed the war against Vietnam.

Email: [email protected]