Critical Responses to Sir! No Sir!
Marc Cooper, The Nation
Mark Dearden chooses his words with extreme precision. And not just with the deliberateness of a 36-year-old with a BA from Brigham Young, an MA in public health from Tulane and an MD from George Washington University. Dearden is also an active-duty lieutenant commander in the Navy who joined in 1997 and is still considering the possibility of a lifetime military career. "So this was a very difficult decision for me to come to," he says in a quiet, thoughtful voice. "I don't take this decision lightly."
Nor should he. Just a few weeks ago Dearden took the dramatic step of signing a petition to Congress--what's being called by its organizers an Appeal for Redress--opposing the war in Iraq and calling for the withdrawal of US troops. When the Appeal is delivered to Capitol Hill in mid-January, all the names of its almost 1,000 uniformed endorsers will be seen by members of Congress, if they care to look. But with his Nation interview, Dearden is now going public. And while the military cannot take reprisals against those who have supported the Appeal, many of the signers agree that there are an infinite number of ways they can be punished, including internal evaluations, denial of promotions and harsh assignments or postings. "I'm expressing a right of people in the military to contact their elected representatives, and I have done nothing illegal or disrespectful," says Dearden, now an anesthesiology resident at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego. After two tours in Iraq attached to a Marine battalion, including participation in the initial 2003 invasion, Dearden says that signing the Appeal gave him "closure" on what he describes as very tough deployments. "It gave me peace," he says.
Dearden has indeed joined the most significant movement of organized and dissident GIs seen in America since 1969, when 1,366 active-duty service members signed a full-page ad in the New York Times calling for an end to the Vietnam War. The Appeal for Redress, surfacing only in late October, has taken anti-Iraq War sentiment that's been simmering within the ranks and surfaced it as a mainstream plea backed by the enormous moral authority of active-duty personnel. It's an undeniable barometer of rising military dissent and provides a strong argument that the best way to support the troops is to recognize their demand to be withdrawn from Iraq. While clearly inspired by the GI movement of the Vietnam era, it takes a much different tack. Instead of attacking or confronting the military, as the resistance movement of the 1960s often did, the Appeal works within the military's legal framework.
The Appeal was posted as a simple three-sentence statement on a website managed by a Navy seaman:
As a patriotic American proud to serve the nation in uniform, I respectfully urge my political leaders in Congress to support the prompt withdrawal of all American military forces and bases from Iraq. Staying in Iraq will not work and is not worth the price. It is time for U.S. troops to come home.
The Appeal comes as the natural culmination of previous flickerings of military discontent with official Iraq policy. The bogging down of the war, along with the Bush Administration's use of a "backdoor draft"--the extension of tours of duty and an unprecedented call-up of active and inactive reserves--has stoked the discontent. Two years ago, some two dozen Army reservists refused to carry out a supply mission in Iraq, complaining that their vehicles were unsafe. Twenty Florida National Guard members petitioned their commanders to bring the troops home. In Kansas, Army reserve family members collected 8,000 signatures on a website protesting extended tours. While figures are difficult to confirm, counselors at the GI Rights Hotline estimate that as many as 1,000 or more troops and reservists go AWOL every month, not wanting to serve in Iraq. About 200 to 300 have fled to Canada, according to military rights lawyers. And in a half-dozen or so high-profile cases, uniformed personnel are facing court-martial and jail for refusing deployment to Iraq.
Therein resides the power of the Appeal for Redress. Its signers don't marginalize themselves as lawbreakers, resisters or deserters. Potential signers have been assured they are sending a communication to Congress protected under the Military Whistleblower Protection Act and will not be subject to reprisal. The result has been electrifying. In the two months since it surfaced, almost three times as many people have signed it as are members of the two-year-old Iraq Veterans Against the War. Almost three-quarters of the signers are active duty (the rest are reserves), and include several dozen officers, of whom a handful are colonels.
Interviews with more than two dozen signers, both in Iraq and on domestic US military bases from Fort Stewart in the east to Hawaii's Hickam Air Force Base, reveal a movement that includes low-level grunts and high-ranking officers, as well as a rich diversity of racial, economic and educational backgrounds. The signers offered a variety of motivations--ideological, practical, strategic and moral--but all agreed the war was no longer worth fighting and that the troops should be brought home. As the debate on Iraq sharpens in the wake of the Baker-Hamilton report and as a new Democratic Congress is seated, the collective voice of active-duty opponents of the war is likely to add considerable clout to the antiwar movement.
This Martin Luther King holiday weekend, members of the Appeal will appear on Capitol Hill to formally present the petition to Congress to press their case. For an all-volunteer force, says Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, "it's simply unprecedented."
The genius of the Appeal resides not only in its simplicity but also in its nonconfrontational tone. "This is not about resistance. This is about working inside the democratic process," says lawyer J.E. McNeil, who helps run the GI Rights Hotline and who has helped advise the Appeal organizers. "This is about being proud of being a soldier, an airman or a marine, about being proud of your duty without giving up your rights as a citizen."
This was certainly the attraction for Dearden and for many other signers interviewed. "I love the military," Dearden says. "I was thrilled to find this legal outlet for what I felt. If more active duty knew there were legal and respectful ways to make their opinion known, they would eagerly join."
The inspiration to create the Appeal came to 29-year-old Seaman Jonathan Hutto earlier this year while he was floating off Iraq on the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt. Born into an Atlanta family of civil rights activists, a former student body president at Howard University, and someone who had worked with Amnesty International and the ACLU, Hutto was not the most typical of Navy enlistees when he joined up in 2003. But with $48,000 in student loans to pay off and with a young child to support, he thought the Navy would be a "good transition."
As the war in Iraq worsened, Hutto felt he could no longer maintain his silence. He had an impeccable service record, having been named "sailor of the quarter" among his junior enlisted shipmates. But he had to do something to come out against a war he thought immoral and unnecessary. That's when one of his former professors sent him a thirty-year anniversary copy of Soldiers in Revolt by David Cortright. Now a Notre Dame professor and one of America's leading peace activists, Cortright wrote his book as a chronicle of the 1960s GI movement he helped to found. "The title alone just hit me," says Hutto, as we talk in a Washington-area coffeehouse, on a day he's off duty from his Norfolk base. "This was all new to me. And I got to thinking, What's to prevent active-duty folks from doing the same sort of thing right now?"
Hutto immediately contacted Cortright and started talking over the idea of the Appeal with a few close friends. Last June Hutto organized a Friday night screening of the antiwar documentary Sir! No Sir! at the local YMCA just off the Norfolk naval base. Filmmaker David Zeiger's documentary reconstructs the GI movement of the Vietnam era. Cortright came as guest speaker and found a receptive crowd of about seventy-five.
One of those who attended the talk was 22-year-old Liam Madden, who had joined the Marines in 2002. "I was visiting a friend in Norfolk and thought we were going to a bar," he remembers. Instead, his buddy took him to the YMCA event and they caught the last half of Cortright's speech. Madden had already completed an Iraq tour in Anbar province with an all-reserve unit and had come back disillusioned with the war. "If anything, it convinced me that no tangible results could be achieved in Iraq," he says. "No one was safer. No one was happier because we were there."
Hutto, Madden, Cortright and a few others moved ahead with the idea of the Appeal. On October 29 Hutto published an op-ed piece announcing it in the Navy Times. Three days earlier the Appeal had appeared on the Web.
"Amazing," is how Cortright describes the chain of events that grew out of that YMCA meeting. "That encounter alone was one of the most fascinating moments of my last thirty-five years," he says over lunch in Washington. "Even I wasn't prepared for the depth and intensity of feeling against this war by so many active-duty members. I'm stunned. It's been moving so fast we can barely think it through."
Cortright sees an enhanced if not central political role for the rising active-duty movement. "They have been there and seen it, seen the disaster," he says. "It's much more real for them than for others in the peace movement. MoveOn and other groups got focused on the election while vets, families and active-duty folks are still suffering the burdens of the war." He adds, "Some of our liberal friends will again soon start focusing on the '08 election. So these active-duty folks over the next two years could become a key force in pushing for withdrawal."
The most compelling voices among the active dissenters who have signed the Appeal are those of troops still on the front lines in Iraq. Among them is a thirtysomething Army major, a Distinguished Military Graduate from a prestigious Southern university. Now on his second tour, "Major Frank," as I will call him, was first deployed to Baghdad just weeks after the 2003 invasion. "I believed wholeheartedly in the mission to oust Saddam Hussein," he says, "and would have been proud to die liberating Iraq from the evil dictator, because at the same time I felt I was protecting my country and my family [from] weapons of mass destruction."
Now, Frank says, he sees no point in the war, and no end. His Iraqi unit is 97 percent Shiite and is sympathetic to the extremist militia of fundamentalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. "We are merely being used as military pawns in a political struggle for Iraq," he says. "So, yes! I am opposed to our brave men and women dying every day for nothing because we cannot control this civil war."
Frank says he can pinpoint the precise moment when he turned against the war: last June 23. He was on patrol with his Iraqi unit when they came upon an illegal checkpoint set up by Sadr's Mahdi militia. The militants were using ambulances taken from the Ministry of Health to block the roads, thereby preventing American troops from maneuvering. He was flabbergasted when the Iraqi Army troops refused not only to take down the checkpoint but also returned to the militia a number of automatic weapons that had been seized from them by the army.
This sort of depressing reality is what prompted Frank to sign the Appeal. "I proudly joined the Appeal for Redress out of the sense of hopelessness that I had inside for what we are actually doing here," he says. He's angry with both the Bush Administration and the top brass in Iraq. "They sit behind their desks in the Green Zone and filter reports to their bosses. No one wants to admit that we are failing." Frank says he's quite open about his views, and finds overwhelming support for them among his fellow soldiers. "Yes, yes, yes," he says, "My entire team feels the same way I do. And the other battalion [trainers] that I have come across feel that way, including my commanders.... In fact, I have not had one person in the last five months disagree with me. The typical response is, 'I know what you mean.'"
That sentiment was, indeed, echoed by an Army officer and signer of the Appeal who wanted to be identified only by his real last name. Lieutenant Smith, a 24-year-old Kansan deployed with an infantry unit in Baghdad, joined up six years ago not only because he saw the military as a route to pay for college but also because he felt it was an obligation to "pay back" America for the opportunities it affords. His doubts about the war, strong from the beginning, only hardened. "I became very angry after two friends from college were killed, both in their 20s," Smith says. "I started to wonder what they had died for. Both were killed by roadside bombs near the area where my unit operates now. And when I found out about them before I deployed, my outlook changed. I started to lose any sense of satisfaction with what I was doing for the Army because what I was doing was in some roundabout way supporting what had just killed two friends."
Smith says it was his stateside father-in-law who directed him to the online Appeal. Smith had heard about another Army lieutenant, Ehren Watada, who has been resisting deployment to Iraq on the grounds that the war is unconstitutional and who now faces court-martial [see sidebar page 14]. But that was not a route he wished to travel. "I have an antiwar history from college," Smith says. "But I hate what Lieutenant Ehren Watada did and the way he did it. I wanted a way to say I thought the war was wrong without looking like a coward." At the same time, however, Smith says that he wants his voice to be heard. "I hope the Appeal will cement in the mind of Congress growing unrest about the war," he says. "Congress got a mandate from Americans that the war was not popular, and now they can get an official mandate from troops serving abroad that we feel the same way but are limited in the way we can express it."
Some within the ranks have been more outspoken about that discontent, mostly as a product of accelerated politicization and radicalization while in uniform. Take the case of 28-year-old Californian Ronn Cantu, an Army sergeant stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. Both his grandfathers served in the Army, his father was drafted into Vietnam and Cantu himself enlisted in 1998 as a self-described "Bush conservative."
After serving out his contract, Cantu re-enlisted in March 2003. "I was in junior college studying journalism but couldn't re-adjust to civilian life. And as a journalism major I was constantly watching and reading the news, and I got totally sold that Iraq was a threat, that it had WMD, that it was going to erase America off the map."
Next thing he knew, Cantu was attached to an infantry unit in Iraq. In charge of ammo, and after making more than 300 harrowing convoys, he had seen enough. He voted against Bush in 2004 and now strongly opposes the war. While still on active duty he has not only signed the Appeal but has joined Iraq Veterans Against the War. On its website he's a contributor of pointed essays bucking Bush Administration policy. He's also started his own website--soldiervoices.net--where he's running his own freewheeling online GI forum. A firm supporter of troop withdrawal, Cantu has nevertheless enlisted for three more years and is currently preparing for a second tour of Iraq. "I'm going back with a job in military intelligence. It's a job that I think can help end the war," he says. "Working in human intelligence, I will be able to talk to Iraqis and that way find and hear the truth."
A few of the antiwar dissidents lean more toward resistance than re-enlistment. Marc Train, 19, is an Army grunt stationed at Fort Stewart, Georgia, and a signer of the Appeal. A native of Salina, Kansas, Train joined the Army right out of high school, convinced that he had no other real career prospects.
Some of his comrades in the Third Infantry Division are scheduled to deploy to Iraq for a staggering third tour of duty. For Train, it will be his first--if he doesn't refuse. He says he wasn't very political before enlisting, but now he's been radicalized. He realizes now he joined the Army only to get a job and that he's grown suspicious of the Administration's motives for war in Iraq. "I think it's all about oil," he says. Train has made clear to his superiors that he's not happy about deploying to Iraq and might refuse to step over the line when the mobilization order becomes effective in January. He's already lost the security clearance for the intelligence job he was trained for, and he's now enmeshed in a series of official investigations. "I want separation from the Army because I don't want to be just a cog in the machine. I've registered as a member of the Socialist Party USA."
Asked whether he will refuse duty if not given the discharge he seeks, Train answers: "That's a very strong question for me, a very strong consideration. Right now, I'm about 70 percent leaning toward not going."
Some expert observers of military affairs, like Robert Hodierne, senior managing editor of Army Times Publishing, argue that the numbers of active-duty soldiers and sailors who have signed on to the Appeal and expressed some sort of public dissent aren't impressive. "Dissent of that nature represents but a small percentage of the people in uniform," Hodierne says, pointing out that 1.4 million serve in the armed forces. "What we are sensing is a great deal of disenchantment with the way the war has been fought, not whether it is or is not an unjust war."
But Kelly Dougherty, co-chair of the board of Iraq Veterans Against the War, who served with the Colorado Army National Guard in Iraq in 2003-04, says that critics like Hodierne are underestimating the level of dissent in the ranks. "Critics will say 800 or 1,000 signers isn't significant. I think it is," she says from her Philadelphia headquarters. "For everyone who has heard about the Appeal there are so many dozens of others who agree with it but have not heard about it or agree with it but are intimidated by the military." The military, meanwhile, has so far taken a hands-off approach to the Appeal. None of the active-duty personnel interviewed for this piece reported any reprisals. "The only official word I've gotten came from my public affairs officer," said Appeal founder Hutto. "He told me the rules: Don't do anything while in uniform or while on duty. And that was that."
Commander Chris Sims, spokesman for the Atlantic Fleet Naval Air Force, says that Hutto violates no military regulations if he's off-duty when speaking out. And Pentagon spokesman Maj. Stewart Upton, when asked about the Appeal, said: "Members of the armed forces are free to communicate with Congress in a lawful manner that doesn't violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice."
Lawyer J.E. McNeil at the GI Rights Hotline is convinced that the benign response from the higher command reflects the level of doubt that currently permeates the military. "There are enough people in the military who agree with these guys is why they are not getting much flak," she says. "I think there's a lot of sympathy among officers. We talk to them all the time. And while a lot of them don't want to stand up publicly, we know they admire those who have signed the Appeal. Admire them and support them."
One barometer of discontent is the sheer number of calls and inquiries that keep pouring in to the GI Rights Hotline, holding steady for the past year at about 3,000 a month. From the National Lawyers Guild Military Law Task Force comes a similar report. "There's no let-up, we're swamped all the time," says San Francisco-based co-chair Marti Hiken. "And whenever a reserve unit is activated, our phones begin ringing off the hook. We hear from people who didn't even know they were still in the reserves and can't understand what's happening to them."
That so-called backdoor draft, the mobilizing not only of National Guard and Army reserves but even of the Individual Ready Reserve (the IRR was called up for the first time since the Gulf War) has been a major catalyst for the military antiwar movement. It helped fuel the founding of Military Families Speak Out (MFSO) four years ago and has since helped it grow to include more than 3,000 families.
Two years before the media focused the spotlight on Cindy Sheehan, the Gold Star mother who camped out for weeks at a time near Crawford, Texas, trying to confront George W. Bush on the reasons for her son Casey's death in Iraq, Nancy Lessin and her husband, Charley Richardson--with a son in the Marines--began publicly campaigning against the war. One of the organizations sponsoring the Appeal, MFSO brought a few dozen military families to the Washington Mall on Veterans Day weekend to lobby for a meeting with Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. By the time their plane touched the ground, however, Rumsfeld had been dumped and instead they met with a representative of incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Lessin, who works as a safety and health coordinator for the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, describes that meeting as cordial but unsatisfying. She expresses fear that even with an incoming Democratic Congress, or maybe as a result of it, there will be too much room for distraction. Whether it moves toward impeachment or the convening of protracted hearings or endless debate over the Baker-Hamilton report, Lessin argues it's all beside the central point. "What we are looking for from Congress is action, not words," says Lessin. "We're worried the Democrats will focus the headlines on hearings, on how bad the management of the war has been--but we know that already. To the politicians who say we need two or three months to consider this or that plan, we ask: What do you say looking in the eye of one of those whose child is killed in those two or three months?"
Soon, some of those Congress members will have the opportunity to look in the eyes of not only the parents but also the troops. Appeal organizers, working on the Martin Luther King Day appearance on the Hill, are hoping to help galvanize Democratic support for a more explicit pro-withdrawal position. So far, only veteran antiwar Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio has explicitly endorsed the Appeal. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont has made some complimentary remarks. How much support the Appeal can muster on the Hill in the coming weeks could be a watershed test for Democrats.
Phil Waste, a 67-year-old retired elevator repairman turned activist with MFSO, with three sons and two grandchildren who have served or are currently deployed in Iraq, thinks the window of opportunity for Democrats to take up the call of organized active-duty dissidents is narrow. If the new Congressional majority dawdles over the war, the Democrats will become targets of the antiwar protesters. "I think those who say they oppose this war have to act now, not months from now," he says. "And I am most definitely talking about the Democrats. This past election was a referendum on the war, and that mandate better be heeded. If not, two years from now they will be out on their butts. And I along with everyone else I know will work my ass off to see that happen."