CBS News reported, in December 2004, that 5,500 soldiers have deserted since the US invaded Iraq. One of those soldiers, Pfc. Dan Felushko was quoted as saying: “I didn’t want, you know, ‘died deluded in Iraq’ over my gravestone.” Some of these soldiers -- like Jeremy Hinzmen -- applied for Conscientious Objector status but were denied. Hinzmen fled to Canada with his family. In October of 2004, 16 members of the 343rd Quartermaster Company defied orders to go out on what they described as a “suicide mission” for lack of armor. None of them was court marshaled and lack of armor became a bit of a thorn for Donald Rumsfeld, assisted in part by Tennessee Guard member Thomas Wilson. His direct question about armor was heard around the world. Peace activists have embraced these examples and many live in hope that others will follow in dissent.
The invasion of Iraq has been unveiled as an illegal war founded on the Bush administration’s false claims to the American public, to soldiers fighting in this war, and even to the pope. Before the March invasion began a group of opponents to the war, over 500 of them, issued a statement calling for soldiers to refuse to fight (jonahhouse.org/refuse.htm). My name was included. The statement itself violated the law because it encouraged desertion. Our number was listed and we did receive phone calls. All the signers were party to that violation and many of the signers passed out printed copies all over the country. Signers also intended to help those who would desert. It was published as an advertisement in newspapers sparking debate in the public arena but eliciting absolutely no response from any government agency. A band of Catholic Workers even held signs at the Pentagon begging the workers to refuse orders to kill.
Then my brother was called up. My first response was that he should refuse even if that refusal led to prison. I knew I could set up support. Prison you can come out of alive; war is not so certain. I never told him outright what I thought, but I dropped hints. Family situations make these comments more polarizing and thus, are sometimes best left unspoken (reminiscent of Vietnam).
The call up pained me and his participation pains me more than he will ever know. I live at Jonah House (jonahhouse.org) in Baltimore, a community dedicated to nonviolence in the steps of Jesus. I have been to Iraq and met with people all over the country, even where he is today. I am considering returning to Iraq. Every day the memories come back to me along with a persistent pain in my heart. The curious thing is that my brother and I are very much alike. I understand why he went and I hear the same from many of the other veterans with whom I am in contact. The military is the so-called “band of brothers”.
When Army Times published the story of the 16 soldiers who refused to participate in a convoy they called a “suicide mission,” the editorial pages following that issue were full of responses. “How dare they refuse when they were leaving others stranded in the field”. “How dare the Army not provide them with adequate support”. The letters published were mixed, about half for the soldiers, about half against the soldiers, and a couple noting the difficulty in placing blame. As for the 5,500 deserters, I read with great sadness that an easy solution is “5000 some bullets”.
The reason for controversy falls with the “band of brothers”. Refusing a mission leaves others without something, be it expertise, supplies, or just someone to watch another’s back. If someone dies, the sisters and brothers did all they could, they were there. This is the same reason why whole groups of soldiers reenlist; I believe it is something that we need to understand.
No matter how deeply I would like all soldiers -- especially one in particular -- to refuse duty and come back home, I think we need to understand that some soldiers may not be able to mentally handle leaving the “band of brothers.” Refusing and leaving their sisters and brothers can be a prospect worse than death. This is where I am very much like my brother. It is the same reason that I cannot do enough to stop this war. I would gladly sit in a prison for the rest of my life if I knew that would end this fiasco. I would risk my own life if it would guarantee that he could return to his wife and daughter. I am personally responsible for my brother. I am also personally responsible for all the other soldiers there and all the Iraqis whose lives are intolerable or ended because of some neo-con’s power complex.
Understanding this “band of brothers” is also important for understanding how difficult it really is for those who do refuse or dissent. It is not an easy step as the controversy which results from such an act reveals. Some, like Camilo Mejia who refused to go back after leave, are in prison today. Some are working to attain asylum in Canada, like Hinzmen. Some are only thinking about it and need to know that people are out there who will support them. They can look forward to labels of “coward” and “traitor.” People need to be out there in that support role. Despite these risks, I still pray that even more soldiers will refuse.
Certain kinds of support for the troops are evident in very visible ways. Yellow ribbons are everywhere. Groups are working to support the families and to send letters and supplies. Families have been working to send condiment packets for my brother and his companions so they can add flavor to their shoe leather rations. The price lists at the local post offices have even been combed over so more can be sent for less money. Is the same energy being applied to writing letters to congress or the president? Is the same energy applied to dissent?
Other kinds of support are needed. There are groups that are working in opposition to the war in support of our troops and taking the brunt of this controversy. Iraq veterans have formed the anti-war groups Iraq Veterans against the War (ivaw.net) and Veterans against the Iraq War (vaiw.org). Some members of these groups are still in Iraq; others could be returning to the front and are contemplating refusing. Also active are Veterans for Common Sense (veteransforcommonsense.org) and Veterans for Peace (veteransforpeace.org). I am a part of Military Families Speak Out (mfso.org), a group of people who have loved ones in Iraq and are actively working to end the war. Some MFSO families have also lost loved ones in the war. This movement has become so effective that counter-protesters specifically target us at large demonstrations, calling MFSO “Osama’s USO”. Some of our members have been harassed by the military and soldiers have been told to shut their family up. Veterans for Peace and military families have also teamed up for Bring them Home Now (bringthemhomenow.org).
I love my brother and I don’t tell him that enough. This deployment is incredibly difficult for me having dedicated myself to peace and nonviolence. Given a different time and space, I could be where he is and making the same decisions. I could never condemn him. I need to support him the best way I can. I work to bring him and the all our sisters and brothers home.
Gary Ashbeck lives at Jonah House (jonahhouse.org) a faith based peace community in Baltimore Maryland, founded in 1973 by peace activists including Liz McAlister and Philip Berrigan. His brother is deployed in Iraq.