PRESIDENT BUSH is busily trying to convince Americans that the war in Iraq is a phenomenal success. Meanwhile, a recent survey conducted by the military newspaper Stars and Stripes found that half of the troops described their unit's morale as low and a third complained that their mission had little or no value. Many viewed themselves as sitting ducks, rather than soldiers engaged in war.
Last year, I heard a historian describe the Iraq war as Vietnam on crack cocaine. It was an apt comment. It took years, not months, before large numbers of civilians and soldiers questioned the sanity and cost of that war.
This time, the anti-war movement started before the invasion of Iraq. It may not be long before GIs refuse to follow orders or ask for discharges based on their conscientious objection to the occupation.
Many groups are supporting such dissatisfaction among the troops, including Veterans for Peace and Veterans for Common Sense. Some of the most anguished opposition appears on Web sites created by "Military Families Speak Out" and "Bring Them Home Now."
Also drawing attention is an "Open Letter to Soldiers Who are Involved in the Occupation of Iraq" posted Sept. 19 on the Internet by two men who know about refusing military orders.
James Skelly, now a senior fellow at the Baker Institute for Peace Conflict Studies at Juniata College in Pennsylvania, was a lieutenant in the Navy during the '60s. Rather than serve in Vietnam, he applied for a discharge based on his conscientious objection to the war. When the Pentagon refused his application, he sued Defense Secretary Melvin Laird for being illegally held by the military and became a West Coast founder of the Concerned Officer Movement.
Guy Grossman is a graduate student in philosophy at Tel-Aviv University who serves as a second lieutenant in the Israeli reserve forces. He is one of the founders of "Courage to Refuse," a group of more than 500 soldiers who have refused to serve in the Occupied Territories for conscientious reasons.
"We write this letter," the two begin, "because we have both been military officers during conflicts that descended into a moral abyss and from which we struggled to emerge with our humanity intact." Addressing the terror and moral anguish faced by soldiers who cannot distinguish friend from foe, they write, "From time to time . . . some of you may want to take revenge for the deaths of your fellow soldiers." But they urge soldiers "to step back from such sentiments because the lives of innocent people will be placed at further risk, and your very humanity itself will be threatened."
They explain how soldiers can legally express their moral objections, but also warn of the physical dangers and social consequences that can result from open opposition to the occupation.
Knowing the cost of war to the human heart, they end with these words: "Regardless of what you decide, it is our fervent desire that. . . you ultimately return to your homes with your humanity enriched, rather than diminished."
Reached in Denmark, Skelly told me that although soldiers have not yet responded to the letter, some family members have replied quite favorably. One mother thanked him and wrote, "We are passing it around and surely many copies will find their way into Iraq." The sister of a Navy weapons officer explained why, after nine years in the service, her brother resigned his commission after his application for conscientious objection was denied. "Because of all the reasons you describe; I hope some soldiers will hear you and Guy Grossman -- and their own consciences."
"These families know their loved ones are fodder," said Skelly. The question is: What will happen when soldiers say the same thing?
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle