Interview: Hell No, We Won't Go

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Carl Webb from the US and George Solomou from Britain explain to Andrew Stone and Simon Assaf why they refuse to go and fight in Iraq.

Socialist Review: Why are you accusing the US army of drafting you?

Carl Webb: I'm refusing to go to war because I do not believe the US is on the right track. I think this war is not about liberating people, it's about oppressing them. It's a war that's being fought for profit.

So what's your history with the army?

That goes way back. In 1982 I was 16 when I dropped out of high school and my mother said, 'Well, you have to find a job.' But it was very difficult to find one in those days. During that time I had been contacted by an army recruiter, who convinced me to join the army reserves.

In 2001 you re-enlisted in the National Guard. What was the reason for that?

Well, the situation in 2001 was similar to that in 1982. I didn't have a job, I was facing eviction from my home and I needed some extra cash. This was in August 2001 and I thought, 'We've invaded everyone we possibly can invade,' and it was relatively peaceful for the US. And there was a local medical unit close to my neighbourhood. So with the agreement that I would get an enlistment bonus - which wasn't much - I signed on for three years. The very next month 9/11 happened. In July 2004 my draft came through. I was getting ready to get out, because I only had one more month left to serve on my contract. That's when I got a phone call from my sergeant. She said she had bad news - I had been one of the soldiers selected to serve in Iraq. I was stunned and shocked. I had missed so many wars and I was thinking, 'Wow, I've done it again.' I thought I'd made it through a three-year contract without seeing any action.

So you're 38 years old. Isn't that a little bit old to be sent into combat?

I think when the US started to run out of regular army troops and started to use more of its reserves and National Guard the average age jumped up - particularly in Iraq. In the regular army most of the soldiers are around 21 or 22. In the reserves and the National Guard the force is a bit older because most of us are army veterans in our late twenties and early thirties.

Can you explain what the stop-loss programme is? It seems quite a lot of the reserves and National Guard are unhappy about it?

The stop-loss programme has been around since the year before the First Persian Gulf War. But this is the first time they've implemented it to such an extent across the services. It prevents any serviceman from leaving the service, even once their contract has finished. So it automatically extends your service beyond the contract which you enlisted for.

So they're getting you under this rule?

Yes. When they called me I only had one month left in the service, and they handed me some orders saying I'm going to Iraq for approximately 18 to 24 months.

I'm a licensed practical nurse, I'm in a medical unit - now they're telling me my time is extended and I'm going to be assigned to a combat unit.

They're running out of combat soldiers in Iraq so they're forcing soldiers who have support jobs - such as cooks, medics and mechanics - into combat positions.

People are definitely unhappy about it. Last time I heard there were approximately 5,000 soldiers who have deserted the army. This isn't a whole lot considering we have 750,000 soldiers. But even those who are complying with these orders aren't happy.

What did you say when you received your orders?

The first day I was still in shock and denial. I said to myself, 'This is a mistake. I'll go into drill with my unit this weekend and I'll go to the administrative clerk and clear up this mistake.' But even before then I had sent an email message out to an email list that I belonged to in my home town of Austin, Texas. There's an organisation called Austin Against War that has a discussion online about protesting against the war. So I sent an email to the list, which has a few hundred people on it - and immediately I got a call from one of my friends who happens to be one of the most active anti-war protesters in Texas, and we had a long discussion as to what my options would be.

There were basically three options. I could just comply, which was what some people thought I should do, since I was a medic. Another option was to flee the country. Since Mexico is so close to Texas, it was the most likely option. But neither of those appealed to me. My friend asked if I'd thought about obtaining conscientious objector status, but I'd ruled it out because I'm an atheist.

I spoke to one of my sergeants and asked her about getting this status. She said that you could be an atheist. So I decided to explore that option.

I surfed around on the internet and called organisations that I found online. There was one in my home town that I found called Non-Military Options For You. Some of the members were Quakers, who have a long history of being anti-war. So I went and got some material from them.

According to the rules you don't have to be religious. It specifically says that any objection you have cannot be political. But you don't necessarily have to be a pacifist. The rules just say that you have to have a strong conviction against organised violence.

The way they define 'organised violence' is that if someone is threatening you or your family you can defend yourself. You don't have to be a strict pacifist. But if you join a group and organise some sort of dissent or aggression then they call that 'organised violence'. Previously my friend had suggested that I talk to other people who applied for such status, to see what kind of questions they would ask. They would give examples like, 'If you were living during the Second World War would you fight with the Jewish underground?' or, 'If you were a slave during slavery, would you have run away and fought with the Union army against the Confederacy?' Most people would say, 'Yes - if I was a slave I would fight against slavery. If I was persecuted by the Nazis I would join the Jewish underground.' And in that case they would say that you were denied CO status because that's organised violence.

As soon as that option evaporated I began to think again about fleeing the country.

They're threatening you now about being a deserter, is that right?

Yes. Once you leave your unit, after 24 hours you are listed as Awol - absent without leave. Then after a certain amount of time (with me it was a week) the National Guard personnel would assume that you had no intention of coming back and they would list you as a deserter.

If you were to hand yourself in what would the result be? Would you be imprisoned?

I spoke to a lawyer and she said that as of now they really weren't cracking down too hard on soldiers who went Awol. I speculate that they fear the backlash that it would cause. They would have to spend resources in rounding up these 5,000 - either forcing them to go to Iraq or throwing them in prison - which I would assume would cause bad publicity for the military. So I can only assume that this is what they are trying to avoid.

I know normally they shoot deserters. I assume they're not going to shoot you. But if they were to put you in prison, what kind of sentence could you expect?

Believe it or not, the US military still has the death penalty on the books, for what they call 'desertion in time of war'. I think Jeremy Hinzman, who is in Canada, has filed his case for asylum and has used that as part of his argument. But as you say, even though they still have that law on their books, it hasn't been used since the Second World War. I think the war is so unpopular that if they were to take some extreme measure like that it would only make people protest all the more.

So what next for you?

I've already decided that fleeing is not my best option. I don't think they're going to stand me up against a wall and shoot me. The case that has got the most publicity recently was that of Sergeant Mejia. He'd done one tour in Iraq, was home on leave, refused to go back and decided to go public. He went on 60 Minutes, one of the most popular shows on television here. He got 12 months in jail. So I think that at worst I'm looking at a similar sentence, if and when I do turn myself in - which to me is better than one and a half or two years in a combat zone and better than permanent exile.

As you pointed out, I'm much older than the average soldier. And my mother's 75 years old. If I decided to go in exile, it might be ten or 15 years that I was gone. That's how long it was for the generation that fled to Canada in the 1960s. They weren't granted amnesty until 1978. That was more than a decade for some of them.

From your general military experience how do you feel about the torture at Abu Ghraib and that recently exposed involving British troops? Is this really, as the US and British governments insist, the work of a few bad apples?

[Laughs] Definitely it was the result of more than a few bad apples. They are using these young enlisted people as scapegoats to hide a policy that was part and parcel of their military strategy. They tried to do the same thing during the Vietnam War, when they tried Lieutenant Calley for the Mai Lai massacre. Such violence against civilians was commonplace. It was unspoken, undeclared policy. Unfortunately for them, with this new technology that we have, this got out to the media.

Is the stand you're taking a political stand, or is it more specifically about the way the army is treating reservists and veterans like yourself?

For me it is very much political. My case is different from some of the other soldiers who have deserted, either because they just don't want to go, or because they think these 'stop-loss' orders are illegal. I tell people that even if there was no stop-loss policy, even if the government wasn't illegally using the reserves and National Guard and retirees as they are, I would still be opposed to this war. I don't think it matters what category of service you're in - whether you're in the reserves, National Guard or the regular army - I think all military personnel should oppose fighting in this war of imperialism.


Socialist Review: Tell us about yourself.

George Solomou: I come from an émigré family. My father left Cyprus due to the conflict there. This was early in the 1960s when ethnic tension between Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots was very high. He was a Greek Cypriot, and he had a very good friend - a Turkish Cypriot - who got murdered. So he came to England and started a business, and I was born here. I grew up in a very Cypriot family, but with a broad outlook on life. I was educated here and went to hotel management school, then I travelled the world.

I've always supported the Labour Party. I come from a family where all five of us voted for the Labour Party - but not now. We feel we've been disenfranchised by Blair's attitude to everything.

How did you come to join the Territorial Army?

I joined in 1999. When I was at school we had a very enlightened history teacher - Mrs Williams - who taught us Irish history. I learnt about the Black and Tans and the Battle of the Boyne. I didn't want to join the British army when I was younger because of the belief that we were wrong in what we were doing in Northern Ireland. Five years ago that came to an end, and I thought, 'Here's an opportunity to join the British army.'

In the first two years I had a nagging doubt that maybe I would get called up one day, and actually have to take part in a conflict that maybe I didn't believe in. But I was aware of history, because history's been my first love all my life. I was inspired by the great medical personnel of the First World War who exposed the genocide against the Armenian people.

I told my muckers in the army that I went on the march of 2 million against the war. I never hid my political views from them. And they just got on with it, and I got on with my life.

On 15 February 2003 I marched with five other soldiers in the total belief that there was no possibility that Blair could have ever taken us to war. It was the biggest march ever - even bigger than the Chartists' march. And we all felt there was no way that they were going to take us to war. Being a member of the Labour Party all my life, I could never contemplate that they would take us to a war like this because so many of us within the party were adamant that we didn't believe in this war. And we had vocally sent that message up to Blair.

We've had a history of not being involved in Vietnam and most of the other idiotic conflicts that America enjoys getting itself into. So we thought this would be another scenario where the US gets in there and does its thing, and we just stand on the sidelines thinking, 'What a bunch of... unscrupulous individuals.' But no, Blair took us in, and we were all shocked.

From that moment on I kept thinking about the reality. Should I get out, or should I remain in to act as a witness to the barbarity of the war itself? If I had to go to the war at least I could tell the truth, I could document it.

I think that this war is a turning point - as much if not more than the Vietnam War was - for the history of the world. Because this war is the final crutch of the US philosophy that it can go anywhere and take over another nation to secure resources - primarily petroleum. Everything in the US is petroleum based. It being 4 percent of the world's population and controlling 45 percent of the world's energy and resources, it is certain within itself that it has to control anything that has petroleum.

But this is also their Achilles' heel. If they don't get what they want, they know their economy will go downhill. If we within the anti-war movement can turn around this situation, if they don't get what they want - control of Iraq - I think the US will be in a very difficult position. It demands petroleum more than any other nation because of the vast distances that it covers. Its infrastructure is set up for a nation of car drivers. I've worked in the US, and you cannot go to the local shop by foot - it's 200 miles away! They have a very poor rail system. So they have to have cheap fuel to exist as a nation.

If we can stop the war and stop their thirst for petroleum, maybe there'll be a change of mind in the US, and they'll become a bit more ethical with their policies towards the rest of the world. Or possibly they will not, and we'll have to deal with a very difficult situation over the next couple of years, where the US acts like a tyrannical gunslinging Western bandit, running around the world bashing anyone it can because it can.

Did you know a lot of people who went to Iraq?

Yes. They talk about endless queues of petroleum tankers going out of the country, and them having to guard every single one of them. They say their greatest fear is coming across American soldiers, because they have no restriction on what they will do with their firepower. If you drive too close to them at night and they do not recognise you they'll fire on you. They say they are like a bunch of trigger-happy lunatics.

I've met other soldiers from medical units who were quite traumatised by it. The Americans dropped an astronomical tonnage of bombs during the war. Robert McNamara was one of the pioneering forces in US military strategy. He reckoned that if you dropped a certain amount of tonnage on a town or village you could estimate the amount of damage, injury and death. It's an old science. The Americans knew what the result would be of dropping so much tonnage of napalm, cluster bombs, etc on Iraq.

I've met soldiers who were in the field hospitals and were turning away people who were dying. The effect on them was quite horrific. The Americans, in a way, did this on purpose. They allowed hundreds of thousands to die. It's genocidal, in my opinion.

So were the army medics under orders to turn people away?

The supplies had to be kept for the troops, and there was a shortage of supplies, so they kept them for the troops. A lot of the medical units - 50 to 70 percent - are NHS employees who are in the reserve forces. Their instinct is to care regardless. But they're under orders not to care. They found it very difficult not to be able to care for the thousands of wounded who were turning up, queuing to be looked after.

So when did you make your decision that you needed to make the break?

About nine months ago two of my colleagues came back maimed. One of them had been blown up by a roadside bomb. The other had an accident that crippled him for life. I was thinking, 'This is getting insane. What do I do? Leave my comrades?' The comradeship within any army unit is so intense that your political views, however strong, can be put aside. When you're cold, hungry and tired, at the lowest ebb you can possibly be, if your mate cracks a joke and you can both smile - you can very rarely find that kind of comradeship in civilian life. It's unique and something to be treasured. Napoleon used to call it esprit de corps. He understood that whole concept. Caesar did as well. He marched with his men. He didn't ride a horse like most of the generals at the time. But politically I was dying within the army, and I had to make a break.

It took a lot of soul searching. But finally, a couple of months ago, I went to another anti-war demo. I'd been thinking about leaving - maybe resign the easy way, just leave. Being at university had given me some leeway, but I was coming to the end of my course. I stood up at an anti-war movement meeting and said, 'What can I do? I'm a soldier and I don't believe in what I'm doing.' They gave me some information and some people to contact.

There's a lot of soldiers in the TA at the moment - I'd say 25 percent - who don't believe in the war. Another 25 percent probably are not really sure, hoping they don't get called up.

I discussed it with the movement, with Military Families Against the War, and we decided to go public. The main reason I did so was so other people would know that you can do it. The army works on an atmosphere of fear, and implied fear. There's an order for everything, a way of doing everything, and you do things as you're told. There's no room for personal reflection - you just have to do it. It's very hard for soldiers to break out of that yoke, to develop any individuality. That's what will destroy this war in the end. Soldiers are pumped up to see the war in this homogenous way - they go out to Iraq and see that it's not how they've been told, and they'll come back and reflect. In the peace movement we can bridge that gap between what the military say it will be and what their actual experience is, and make the links. Maybe we can't convert the first soldier we see, but we can put the first grain of doubt in his mind that his experience will show him is true.

Of course you went public around the time the photos of torture by British troops emerged. Is there anything you'd like to say about that?

It's not part of the British military army philosophy, because it's a very small army that doesn't have overwhelming force like the US army. It has to do things in a different way. We have clearly said to the Americans that in order to fight the war more logically you get on the side of the locals, you treat them well, you destroy the symbols of the oppressive regime that they lived under. We told the Americans to destroy Abu Ghraib, but they decided to keep it and use it as it was previously. We told them not to use overwhelming force in certain areas, and they decided to level Fallujah. The two concepts of warfare are totally alien - ours is 'softly, softly'; theirs is 'overwhelming force, kill whatever moves, and ask questions later'.

I'm certain that the US uses systematic torture. The way that they torture these individuals is the same in Afghanistan, all over Iraq, in Guantanamo Bay. But British soldiers are trained not to. Every year a padre comes in and trains us on the ethics of warfare - the Geneva Convention, the Hague Convention, the Nuremburg trials, etc. The classic example of why you obey these norms is the Second World War. The Germans never gave any quarter to the Russians, so the Russians never surrendered because they knew they would get a bullet in the head regardless.

I don't believe it's systematic in the British forces. It's possible that the officer corps has told its rank and file soldiers to do it. If that's true then that will be covered up, no doubt about it.

How has the TA responded to your public resignation?

They've been auspicious in their absolute silence. You'd have thought they would have contacted me, but they haven't. I think they're hoping that it'll blow over - that I'll be just one individual who's stuck his head above the parapet, said something and went away. They're weighing up how many people with their own doubts may try to emulate me. That's where we in the anti-war movement come in. The fact that an individual soldier stands up and says he has the right to free speech, to voice these opinions, is important. I have the duty as a soldier to question the legitimacy of a war. If this war must take place it must be democratic - legally, morally and ethically right. When the Labour Party came in they promised an 'ethical foreign policy'. This was soon thrown out through the back door, never to be seen again.


Military Families Against the War (MFAW) is an organisation of people directly affected by the war in Iraq. If you would like to contact MFAW, or if you know someone in the armed services who would like to contact them, go to www.mfaw.org.uk.

Military Families Against the War will also be leading the national anti-war demonstration in London on 19 March.