Soldiers Who Just Say No
KAUAI, Hawaii -
Six months into Barack Obama's presidency, the U.S. public's display of antiwar sentiment has faded to barely a whisper.
Despite Obama's vow to withdraw all combat forces from Iraq before
September 2011, he plans to leave up to 50,000 troops in "training and
advisory" roles. Meanwhile, nearly 130,000 troops remain in that
country and more than 50,000 U.S. soldiers occupy Afghanistan, with up
to an additional 18,000 approved for deployment this year.
So where is the resistance?
independent journalist Dahr Jamail's "The Will to Resist: Soldiers who
refuse to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan" (Haymarket Books), Jamail
profiles what may ultimately prove to be the United States' most
effective anti-war movement: the soldiers themselves.
early years of the Iraq war, Jamail traveled to Iraq alone and reported
as an unembedded freelance journalist. Over four visits, Jamail
documented the war's effects on Iraqi civilians in "Beyond the Green
Although he is a fierce critic of the wars in
Iraq and Afghanistan, and of the U.S. mainstream media which he says
served as a "cheerleader" for war, Jamail admits he was raised to
admire the military. However, after covering the war from Iraq between
2003 and 2005, Jamail was enraged by what he calls "the heedless and
deliberate devastation [he] saw [the U.S. military] wreak upon the
people of Iraq."
Back in the U.S., traveling the country
speaking out against the war, Jamail met scores of soldiers who had
served in Iraq and Afghanistan and found that he shared with them a
"familiar anguish" which drove him to further explore their motivations
as soldiers. In doing so he opens the door to a growing subculture of
internal dissent that is increasingly bubbling up and spilling over the
edge of an otherwise ultra-disciplined, highly-controlled military
"The soldiers I spoke with while working on this book
are some of the most ardent anti-war activists I have ever met," Jamail
told IPS. "Having experienced the war firsthand, this should not come
as a surprise."
In "The Will to Resist", Jamail profiles
individual acts of resistance that he envisions as the possible seeds
of a broader anti-war movement. The book is filled with stories of
soldiers who refuse missions deemed "suicidal", go AWOL, flee abroad,
refuse to carry a loaded weapon, even arranging to be shot in the leg -
and those who in a final act of desperation commit suicide.
who refuse to deploy or follow orders risk court-martial, prison time,
dishonourable discharge and loss of veteran's medical benefits, yet an
increasing number of active duty soldiers and veterans are willing to
Rather than accept a mission almost certain to bring
death, some troops simply refuse to follow orders. Jamail describes
soldiers in Iraq on "search and avoid" missions who grew adept at
giving the appearance of going out on patrol when, in fact, they were
lying low, catching up on sleep and trying to avoid being killed.
quotes one Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan as saying,
"Dissent starts as simple as saying 'this is bullshit. Why am I risking
Soldiers tell Jamail that incidents of refusing
orders are unremarkable and "pretty widespread," to which he responds,
"It is also understandable why the military does not want more soldiers
or the public to know about them."
"Army Specialist Victor
Agosto, who served a year in Iraq, has recently publicly refused orders
to deploy to Afghanistan," Jamail told IPS, "and the Army, due to the
threat of more soldiers and the broader public learning of this, backed
away from giving Agosto the harshest court-martial possible, to one of
Jamail also dedicates two chapters to soldiers
who stand up to systemic misogyny and homophobia in the military.
Extensive interviews with female soldiers detail a pervasive culture of
institutionalised "command rape," harassment, abuse and assault which,
in a number of high-profile cases (and many more unknown) end in
ostracism, coercion, demotion, suicide and murder.
studies from professional medical journals that offer a grim assessment
of sexual intimidation and abuse within the U.S. military, Jamail
writes, "According to the group Rape, Abuse, and Incest National
Network, one in six women in the United States will be a victim of
sexual assault in her lifetime. In the military, at least two in five
will. In either case, at least 60 percent of the cases go unreported."
Jamail recounts horrific cases of violence toward women in the
military, he notes the irony of frequent claims that the wars in Iraq
and Afghanistan are "liberating" women of those Muslim countries.
female soldiers, gay and lesbian service men and women are targeted for
harassment and abuse. Jamail meets soldiers who, under the 'Don't Ask,
Don't Tell' policy, must conceal their true identity, falsely posing as
straight while battling internal conflicts about their own roles in the
In the blunt language of the soldiers, Jamail
describes the military experience as a process of dehumanisation. "The
primary objective appeared to be to mistreat and dehumanise your guys
[fellow soldiers]," one Marine says. "I could not do it, not to my men
and not to those people. I like the Iraqis, I like the Afghanis. Why
were we treating them like shit?...That is when I really started
questioning what the hell was going on."
For many soldiers
however, the pain of war is simply too much to bear and so they choose
their own final discharge: suicide. In an emotionally exhausting
chapter, Jamail cites statistics from the Army Suicide Event Report
which states active duty military suicides have risen to their highest
rates since the Army started tracking self-inflicted deaths in 1980,
and the numbers are growing.
Documenting the phenomenon of
"suicide by cop," Jamail quotes from a Post Traumatic Distress Syndrome
(PTSD)-wracked veteran's pre-"suicide" internet article in which he
wrote, "…We come home from war trying to put our lives back together
but some cannot stand the memories and decide that death is better. We
kill ourselves because we are so haunted by seeing children killed and
whole families wiped out."
Contemplating the long-term
implications of the more than 1.8 million military personnel who have
served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Jamail points out that the United
States, for many years to come, will be faced with caring for tens of
thousands of veterans whose lives are permanently marred by grave
physical and traumatic brain injuries, psychological scars, PTSD, and a
host of associated problems ranging from divorce and substance abuse to
domestic violence, homelessness and run-ins with the law.
soldiers manage to cope somehow and, perhaps in a sense, recover.
Following their discharge, some veterans profiled by Jamail seek to
make peace with themselves by educating others about the realities they
experienced in war.
The most successful and constructive of
military efforts to resist war are made by those who turn their
experiences into teaching tools and therapeutic exercises like music,
video, theater, painting, books, blogs, photographic and art
exhibitions, performance art and even making paper out of old military
In a chapter titled 'Cyber Resistance,' Jamail
contends the Internet "is probably the first time that we have
available to us an inexpensive and extremely inclusive means to
communicate and thereby advocate sustained resistance to unjust
military action, at an international scale without losing any gestation
Websites like YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, Twitter,
Blogspot and countless alternative news sources have given soldiers and
veterans both a voice and the means to connect with those Jamail calls
"fence-sitters, members of the silent majority and well-intentioned but
resource-less individuals to participate in the promise of a historical
"While we don't have an organised GI resistance
movement today that is anywhere close to that which helped end the
Vietnam war," Jamail said, "the seeds for one are there, and they are
continuing to sprout amidst a soil that is becoming all the more
fertile by the escalation of troops in Afghanistan, the lack of
withdrawal in Iraq, and an increasingly over-stretched military."