New war resisters

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(340)

Growing numbers of US soldiers are refusing to go and fight what they see as immoral wars, reports Dahr Jamail, who has recently written a book on the soldiers who won't return to the battlefield.

Today the US finds itself in two seemingly unending occupations. With veterans not being given the healthcare they need upon their return, redeployment becoming increasingly common, and a stop-loss policy that continues to lower morale among troops, GI resistance is once again on the rise. This is what my book is about.

Examples of various forms of GI resistance are once again becoming commonplace.

On 1 May at Fort Hood in central Texas, Specialist Victor Agosto wrote on a counselling statement, which is actually a punitive US Army memo, "There is no way I will deploy to Afghanistan. The occupation is immoral and unjust. It does not make the American people any safer. It has the opposite effect."

Ten days later, he refused to obey a direct order from his company commander to prepare to deploy and was issued a second counselling statement. On that one he wrote, "I will not obey any orders I deem to be immoral or illegal." Shortly thereafter he told a reporter, "I'm not willing to participate in this occupation, knowing it is completely wrong. It's a matter of what I'm willing to live with."

Agosto had already served in Iraq for 13 months with the 57th Expeditionary Signal Battalion. At the time, while still on active duty at Fort Hood, he admitted, "It was in Iraq that I turned against the occupations. I started to feel very guilty. I watched contractors making obscene amounts of money. I found no evidence that the occupation was in any way helping the people of Iraq. I know I contributed to death and human suffering. It's hard to quantify how much I caused, but I know I contributed to it."

Even though he was approaching the end of his military service, Agosto was ordered to deploy to Afghanistan under the stop-loss programme that the US Department of Defense uses to retain soldiers beyond the term of their contracts. More than 185,000 troops have been stop-lossed since 11 September 2001.

Agosto betrayed no ambivalence about his willingness to face the consequences of his actions:

"Yes, I'm fully prepared for this. I have concluded that the wars [in Iraq and Afghanistan] are not going to be ended by politicians or people at the top. They're not responsive to people; they're responsive to corporate America. The only way to make them responsive to the needs of the people is for soldiers to not fight their wars. If soldiers won't fight their wars, the wars won't happen. I hope I'm setting an example for other soldiers."

Today Agosto's act is becoming less isolated in an all-volunteer military built to avoid the dissent that, in the Vietnam era, came to be associated with an army of draftees. His is an example that is beginning to have far greater meaning for an increasingly overstretched military plunging into an expanding Afghan war seemingly without end, even as its war in Iraq continues.

Agosto was court-martialled and sentenced to one month in a county jail. He is now free. When asked how his time in jail was, Agosto replied, "It was relaxing." One week after his court martial another soldier from his base, Sergeant Travis Bishop, was also court-martialled for refusing to deploy to Afghanistan.

These recent examples, however, are the continuation of a thread of resistance that has been ongoing and growing slowly but surely since nearly the beginning of the occupation of Iraq.

In October 2007, for instance, I interviewed Corporal Phil Aliff, an Iraq war veteran, then based at Fort Drum in upstate New York. He recalled:

"During my stints in Iraq between August 2005 and July 2006 we probably ran 300 patrols. Most of the men in my platoon were just in from combat tours in Afghanistan and morale was incredibly low. Recurring hits by roadside bombs had demoralised us and we realised the only way we could avoid being blown up was to stop driving around all the time. So every other day we would find an open field and park, and call our base every hour to tell them we were searching for weapons caches in the fields and everything was going fine. All our enlisted people had grown disenchanted with the chain of command."

Aliff referred to this tactic as engaging in "search and avoid" missions - a sardonic expression recycled from the Vietnam War when soldiers were sent out on official "search and destroy" missions.

While no broad poll of troops has been conducted recently, a Zogby poll in February 2006 found that 72 percent of soldiers in Iraq felt the occupation should be ended within a year. My interviews with those recently back from Iraq indicate that levels of despair and disappointment are once again on the rise among troops who are beginning to realise, months after the Obama administration was ushered in, that hopes of an early withdrawal have evaporated.

In November 2007 the Pentagon revealed that between 2003 and 2007 there had been an 80 percent increase in overall desertion rates in the army (desertion refers to soldiers who go awol and never intend to return to service), and army awol rates from 2003 to 2006 were the highest since 1980. Between 2000 and 2006 more than 40,000 troops from all branches of the military deserted, more than half from the army. Army desertion rates jumped by 42 percent through 2006 and 2007 alone. These rates are increasing today.

The Iraq war boils on at still dangerous levels of violence, while the war in Afghanistan only grows, as does the US commitment to both. It's already clear that even an all-volunteer military isn't immune to dissent. If violence in either or both occupations escalates, if the Pentagon struggles to add more boots on the ground, if the stresses and strains on the military, involving endless redeployments to combat zones, increase rather than lessen, then the acts of Agosto and Bishop may turn out to be pathbreakers in a world of dissent yet to be experienced and explored. Add in dissatisfaction and discontent at home if, in the coming years, US treasure continues to be poured into an Afghan quagmire, and real support for a GI resistance movement may surface. If so, then the early pioneers in methods of dissent within the military will have laid the groundwork for a movement. DJ


The Will to Resist by Dahr Jamail is published by Haymarket, £13.99. You can order it from Bookmarks.