"I joined the Army to go to war, and now I'm fighting to get out," says Pfc. Ryan Follan, laughing nervously. He quickly becomes serious. "Some of the causes are good, but I don't think the war is for the right reasons." Follan laughs again, and there's a long pause. "I'm deploying in a month, actually. I'm not a big fan of it, honestly." Private Follan is standing in a Taco Bell parking lot just outside Fort Stewart in Savannah, Georgia. Each day, soldiers gather for lunch at fast food restaurants like this one. On this particular day, the soldiers at Fort Stewart have visitors.
Last week, a convoy of approximately 20 veterans riding in converted school buses left Fayetteville, North Carolina. They were sponsored by Veterans for Peace, armed with literature and headed for New Orleans, where they are spending this week rebuilding houses in the Ninth Ward. On the way, the group stopped at military bases throughout the South. Their goal? They were passing out copies of the Appeal for Redress, GI rights information, and copies of the videos "Ground Truth" and "Sir! No Sir!"
Veterans for Peace members say they're not trying to pressure GIs to resist war. They want to educate soldiers about their rights. They know from experience that the military frowns on dissent and doesn't go out of its way to educate soldiers regarding constitutionally protected ways to express their opinions on issues like war and peace. Despite popular opinion to the contrary, soldiers do indeed have rights to express political dissent.
The Appeal for Redress is a confidential online petition to Congress asking for an end to the Iraq war. Because the Uniform Code of Military Justice expressly permits members of the military to petition their representatives, the Appeal is 100 percent legal, and since its unveiling in late 2006 the Appeal has gathered over 1,700 signatures.
Private Follan hadn't heard of the Appeal before, but says he thinks he'll sign it. "I can't see any reason why I wouldn't," he says, explaining he hasn't heard a single good reason for the Iraq war. "If there are good reasons, I haven't been told them yet. Maybe I'll find out some more reasons when I get there."
Follan is dressed in desert camouflage fatigues and is with a couple of friends. He's 18 years old, and he joined the Army last July. He's young and really earnest. He explains that despite his objections to the war, he doesn't mind going. "I'm hoping to do the right thing," he says. "I have no problem going and helping in any way I can."
Pfc. Richard Jones was having lunch with Follan. He's quieter, just as young and just as earnest. He's a cavalry scout, with less than a year in the military. He expects to be deployed in May as well, but isn't sure. He's well aware of the complexity of the arguments both for and against the war.
"Nobody should go to war. War's not a good thing at all. But if that's what has to be done, then I guess that's what has to be done to protect your country and your people. It would be a lot worse if they were over here saying if you don't believe in our religion, and if you speak against it, we're gonna kick down your doors, then we're going to kill your family. That's not good. I wouldn't wish that on Iraqis either."
Jones doesn't know if he'll sign the Appeal, but he's glad to see Veterans for Peace. "I think it's a good thing that they're trying to help people. I don't want people to get the impression that we're just piddling around not really taking things seriously. I have no doubt that if we could get out of Iraq right now we would, obviously."
"I'm not a big fan of it," his friend Ryan Follan says again. "But who is, right? It's war. I can't wait to go." Follan appears to think about these contradictions and laughs. "I have no problem being in the Army. It's just the whole being in the Army thing."
These views were reflected in a shocking number of soldiers last week. Almost everyone responded favorably to Veterans for Peace, with many soldiers leaving the parking lot with videos and brochures, saying they'd look into the Appeal for Redress. While the majority of the media frames the public debate about the Iraq war in terms of supporting the troops vs. opposing the war, the men and women fighting it see things differently. Soldiers are increasingly expressing unabashed opposition to the war.
Capt. Ben Gatskey is a tank company commander in the 130 Infantry Division, Second Brigade. He already served in Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom Three, between January 2005 and January 2006. He was supportive of Veterans for Peace and their outreach to the troops. "I feel that it's an honest support of us, and I do appreciate that."
He served as a logistics officer, a battalion planner in Baghdad, and worked on the transition team training the Iraqi Army. He too is scheduled for redeployment in May. "I don't really think any soldier ever truly wants to go to war, but that's what we do. Ultimately, it's why we have a job, and it comes as no surprise that we're being asked to deploy."
Captain Gatskey declined to share his personal feelings about the war, reframing the question in terms of obligation. "Part of my duty is leading soldiers into combat, and I take that very seriously," he said. He also says that, despite the reports of violence and the civil war, he's seen forward motion. "Based on my interaction with soldiers in the Iraqi Army, it seems like their security forces made quite a bit of progress the year we were there."
Gatskey believes it's important that the public take an active interest in the Iraq war, the military and the public policy they're asked to carry out. "We are direct representatives of the American people and the American way of life, and we take that very seriously," he said. "We take our role as ambassador very seriously, and don't want to have a disconnect between the American people and the military representing them."
A little later, two young women emerge from Taco Bell carrying to-go bags. Although they decline to give their names, each seems almost eager to share their views on the war.
"I don't believe in the war. I really don't wanna go to war. But I have to, so I'm gonna go," said one of them. She joined the Army six months ago, and is assigned to warehouse supply. She's just learning her job and is apprehensive about doing it in a war zone. She doesn't feel like she has enough training.
Both women say they're frustrated with public apathy towards the war and those fighting it. "It seems like if it doesn't hit close to home, a lot of people don't really care," said the first private. This is one of the reasons they're happy to see Veterans for Peace. "It makes me feel good to know that other people think the same way I do. I'm glad they don't want to see us go to Iraq, because we really don't want to go."
Both women joined the military out of economic necessity. "I don't support the war either," said the second soldier. "But we all have necessities, so here we are. I'm scared, but at the same time, I'm excited in a weird way. I'm going somewhere new."
Throughout their week on the road, Veterans for Peace met with similar responses to their education and outreach efforts. Defying public expectation, most soldiers from Fort Bragg to Fort Benning expressed apprehension, ambivalence and concern. For the most part, they joined the military because they love their country, and because they needed a job. Many of them are perplexed by the tasks their country is now asking them to perform.
"I just want people to realize that we don't want to go over there. We're not looking forward to it," she said. "People are over there dying and suffering. Nothing has been accomplished. We've sacrificed a lot of our time, and a lot of people have died for all of this. And for what?"
Sarah Olson is an independent journalist and radio producer based in Oakland, California. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.