"The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another." -Thomas Merton
Specialist Kyle Wesolowski is eagerly awaiting the return on his Conscientious Objector packet, which he submitted last fall after writing three drafts. "The writing process was really rigorous," he explains. But Kyle isn't twiddling his thumbs while his command debates: when he isn't handing out flyers to JROTC recruits or planning demonstrations, he's creating what he calls an "activist veterans' commune" at his house outside Killeen, Texas. Kyle lives with other anti-war activists, and explains: "We have a spare room, and I want a new activist visiting every month, supporting local GI organizing and working on their own projects."
Kyle is stationed at Ft. Hood, the nation's largest military base, near Killeen, Texas, a historic site of resistance: from 1968-1972, Killeen was home to the Oleo Strut, a legendary GI coffeehouse, which played a large part in GI & veteran anti-war movement. Continuing that tradition is Under the Hood Café. In addition to its role as an open community center, Under the Hood offers support services for soldiers, including counseling referrals, legal advice, and GI rights information. The café-and its supporters-are supporting Kyle, who is only one among many active-duty GIs showing tremendous courage in resisting in diverse ways the US-led War on Terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, and other countries.1
Kyle's transformation from willing soldier to war resister might seem strange-mystical even. These transformation stories require rupture points, when reality is exposed and lies become evident: consider the dramatic story of anti-war Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic as portrayed in Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July). However, these popular narratives frequently obscure more complicated realities. Many GIs and veteran resisters may not have been sold completely on the US military to begin, but any hesitancy could be outweighed by financial need, compelling military rhetoric, or another reason. Indeed, what is frequently referred to as a process of transformation when a soldier becomes anti-war might be more accurately called a process of confirmation.
While deployed in Iraq, Kyle picked up an introductory book on Buddhism at a chaplain's office at his operating base and was struck by what he read. Reflecting on his experiences in the field, he uses a beautiful metaphor to explain his realization: "The story of the Buddha really brought it home for me: even though soldiers aren't that well-paid, we're still much better off than the Iraqis, and sitting on top of that MRAP, I felt like a prince looking out at people suffering. That was all I saw. People dying, people starving."
His comparison is astute, with a key embellishment: the Buddha-to-be was disturbed by the existence of suffering outside the confines of his protective palace (i.e. the suffering that exists in the world "out there"), but Kyle-going even further-recognized his complicity in the suffering he witnessed every day. He quickly realized one of the key concepts of Buddhism: interdependence. No matter what kind of "us vs. them" rhetoric he was exposed to, or how much he was told to "kill, kill, kill," he felt inextricably connected to those at the end of his gun. In Buddhist terms, we are all responsible for one another, tied up together in existence.
That also goes for those of us whose experience of war is primarily mediated by images and stories: although we perceive the suffering of Iraqis to be a phenomenon that exists "over there," you and I carry that suffering around within us, 8,000 miles away from the war. The Buddha realized this truth (i.e. was enlightened) sitting under the Bodhi tree. Kyle's realization was expedited by the horror of his situation.
Like a lot of young people in the jarring & uncertain political climate after 9/11, Kyle felt compelled to join the military to defend the world in which he lived. Previously involved in the punk community and a vegetarian, he hardly fit the stereotype of a military recruit-which says more about the media's representation of the military than the reality of it. In the 5th grade, he told kids in the lunch line that he was an atheist and took hell for it. The perpetuation of one-dimensional portrayals of our military disregards the stories of folks like Kyle, folks who find themselves in ethically complex situations, eventually risking all they have to do the right thing.
The key moments for Kyle were all anomalies, moments when the narratives were ruptured, when he confronted the reality of his situation beyond the denial and repression of military culture. One of the most significant anomalies for Kyle occurred during the last few months of his tour, when his unit was sent down to the southern suburbs of Mosul: Kyle's platoon lived at a combat out-post and, like all residences, someone had to take out the trash. The trouble came in that the trash contained a lot of edible food (mirroring US waste patterns). Kyle recollects that a good portion of the food was sealed in cellophane packaging, or in unopened boxes. There were whole loafs of bread, bruised but edible fruits and vegetables, and other food. Disposal comprised of dousing the trash (i.e. food) in JP8 fuel and setting it on fire.
As Kyle witnessed on his first trash detail, Iraqi children came from all over to try to salvage what food they could. The first time it happened, Kyle's platoon wasn't sure how to handle the situation, and allowed the children to take what was left after the fire had decimated much of it-but after the incident, they were given strict orders to bar children from taking food from the garbage.
"It was like something from the Twilight Zone," he relates. "The children were starving. They knew that the food was coming out, and they'd come from the desert hills a kilometer away." He related the story:
They would get closer and closer and as the distance between us shorten their cries got louder. We would push them back and intimidate them as they screamed and cried for the perfectly good packaged food goods that us soldiers deemed unworthy for our stomachs but edible food nonetheless. I hated doing the trash detail with a passion and seeing the poor children suffer. Our own American tax money burned in a fire pit, while Iraqi children-who we were supposed to be helping-were begging for our trash.
The humanitarian situation in Iraq is a mess. Where Kyle was stationed, some areas were lucky to have power for two hours per day, there was raw sewage running through the streets, and clean water had to be hauled around. This is a reality of occupied Iraq, which may be seeing less combat than in the early years of the war, but is populated by what Kyle calls an "abandoned population."
Kyle's new feelings were personally and socially alienating, and put him increasingly at odds with his command. Even his friends noted a difference, interrogating him on the field: "What, are you a Buddhist now?" He would lie and say no.
This radical perspective crystallized and became outright refusal after Kyle made a connection with two young Iraqis girls in the town of Hurriyah, where his platoon regularly patrolled. "They were the sweetest little girls," he says. Every time they went through Hurriyah, Kyle would find the girls to talk or goof around-all while sitting in his vehicle. He didn't want to get out because he was armed: the senseless violence represented by the weapon would have been too much. It wasn't worth risking; as Kyle admits, "those girls were all that was keeping me sane."
One day, while another platoon was in Hurriyah on patrol, a truck started barreling down the road toward the US military's convoys. The platoon used "the proper escalation of force": after failing to make contact, they took a warning shot at the speeding vehicle. But it didn't stop, and so soldiers shot into the vehicle. Two bullets went through the truck; one struck a young girl on the road. Although the soldiers offered to take the girl to a US hospital, the community distrustfully refused, and she died.
When Kyle heard the story, as part of his command stating that they wouldn't be patrolling Hurriyah for a period of time (US military protocol)-he was horrified: Was the girl who was killed one of those he knew? He was in anguish for days, and finally admitted the depth of the suffering he was going through as a soldier. The event marked a complete spiritual rupture. By the time he found out that the girl wasn't one of those he knew, it didn't matter anymore: his ability to fight had collapsed; he was done.
Kyle went to his command and told them he could not kill another human being. He was suffering severe depression, and said that he was suicidal. He was brought into a Combat Housing Unit, where those at the meeting proceeded to yell at him for his weakness and insubordination, then stripped him of his weapons and ammunition. The next day, Kyle's command asked him if he was "willing to do [his] job," an admittedly tricky question. "I just can't kill anybody," Kyle responded. They repeated, "That's not what we're asking you. Are you willing to do your job?" Kyle said yes, but his consent was hollow. "I would have been killed, because I wouldn't kill," he explains. "They were willing to put their own troops in danger. It sickened me."
Confused and depressed, Kyle went on leave. Before he left, he went to talk to the chaplain on base and explained his situation. Back at Ft. Hood, Kyle had a rough few months before deciding to get himself together. He started a Buddhist meditation practice (he even shaved his head-one of the few things GIs and monks have in common). He re-adopted vegetarianism and started taking care of his health: previously a long-distance runner, he picked it up again.
One fateful day, he was driving through Killeen when he saw a black flag streaking across the sky. "It was about the last place you'd expect to see that! I almost crashed my car," he relates. "I spun around and drove towards it. I had to see what it was about." The black flag was being flown at an anti-war protest organized by Under the Hood. Kyle introduced himself to the folks at the demonstration. Soon enough, he was writing his Conscious Objector packet.
In an official statement, Kyle described the system of informal punishments meted out to him because of his objection:
[...] My experience of physical threats, religious persecution, and general abuse seems to speak of a system that appears to be broken. This is evidenced by my exhaustion of all of the Army avenues as stated above to resolve my issues: (1) speaking to my chain of command on several occasions, (2) the article 138 process, and (3) an IG complaint. Having taken these measures with no avail (and given my unit's decision to send me out on field exercises) it appears that I have no other recourse but to now refuse all duties that prepare myself for war or aid in any way shape or form to other soldiers in conditioning them to go to war. Therefore, in compliance with Army regulations, I refuse to take part in any field exercises that go against my core values as a Buddhist such as but not limited to: handling of ammunition and weapons under any circumstances, maintenance of any army vehicles, taking part in any classes in army job education as these activities prepare either myself or others for war. Participation in such activities is perpetuation of war, which is an objection of my conscience.
Kyle-like the many other active-duty and veteran resisters-cannot be silenced, and reflects, "Even as I'm waiting on the answer [regarding my CO status], it's therapeutic to do actions." He sees the Ft. Hood/Killen area-not Washington-as the frontline for ending war. "I'm sick of the DC protests . . . It needs to happen here, in the conservative heartland." He hopes that the activist residency he is creating will support this kind of work. Regarding the house, Kyle hopes that veterans will be interested in coming down for a month, especially disabled vets who may be able to take a month off (though he welcomes civilians). The planning process is nearly complete, and by February, there should be kickoff events happening to celebrate the opening of the residency. In addition to the myriad projects mentioned, Kyle is in the process of reorganizing IVAW Chapter 38 at Ft. Hood.
And Kyle's Buddhist practice continues, giving him the solace he needs while doing such brave and uncompromising work.
He invites anyone interested in participating in the work-particularly the activist's residency-to contact him. His email is KyletheCO[at]gmail.