The movement to refuse military service in Iraq is on the rise, reports Sharif Abdel-Kouddous from Washington. 17-23 February 2005
In his second inauguration address on 20 January United States President George W Bush issued a recruiting call. "I ask our youngest citizens to believe the evidence of your eyes. You have seen duty and allegiance in the determined faces of our soldiers," Bush said. "Make the choice to serve in a cause larger than your wants." Young men and women across the United States are answering his call. But not in the way Bush would like.
A revolt is taking place within the ranks of the US military as a growing number of soldiers refuse to fight in Iraq and are increasingly vocal in their opposition to a war they consider illegal and immoral. They are today's generation of war resisters.
Sergeant Kevin Benderman is one of the US's latest war resisters. Benderman spent eight months in Iraq in 2003 as an army mechanic. Though he never fired a gun in combat, he says the misery he saw firsthand led him to seek conscientious objector status.
"One thing that really sticks out in my mind, is the picture of a young girl standing there with her arm burned," Benderman said in an interview with the Associated Press. "Her mother was there and they were both crying and begging for help. The executive officer refused to help because troops had limited medical supplies."
Benderman, 40, notified his commanders last month that he was seeking a discharge as a conscientious objector. He then refused orders to deploy with his unit on 8 January, while the army processed his claim. He was charged with desertion and a second count that accuses him of intentionally skipping his deployment flight. If convicted, he faces up to seven years in a military prison, demotion and a dishonourable discharge.
"My response to those charges is 'not guilty'," Benderman said. "I am prepared to deal with whatever consequences my action brings."
Sometimes, the consequences of resisting war can go beyond just criminal prosecution. Army Reserve Specialist Aidan Delgado applied for conscientious objector status soon after his deployment to Nasiriya in April 2003. After Delgado, 23, informed his superiors of his decision and handed in his weapon, the military confiscated part of his protective body armour.
"It was a punitive measure, at least a repressive measure, against me for coming out with my beliefs," said Delgado. "They knew I was very sympathetic to the Arabs and very critical of the occupation. So, by and large, people called me a traitor." Delgado was finally granted conscientious objector status in April 2004 and was honourably discharged.
But hundreds of other US soldiers are facing criminal prosecution for refusing to serve in Iraq and some have been jailed for desertion. In May 2004, Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia, 29, was sentenced to one year in prison after a military jury convicted him of desertion.
Mejia spent six months in combat in Iraq where he witnessed the atrocities of the US-led war, including the abuse of prisoners and the killing of civilians. After returning to the US for a two-week leave in October 2003, Mejia decided he never wanted to fight again in Iraq and went AWOL (Absent Without Leave) to avoid re-deployment. He finally surrendered to the military after five months in hiding and filed for conscientious objector status.
"We are doing this for the soldiers and their families who are victims of this war," Mejia wrote from Fort Stewart in a letter to his aunt, Norma Castillo, shortly after turning himself in. "We are doing this for the people of Iraq, who are being oppressed for the oil. We are doing this for humanity, which has already paid a high price." Mejia's application for conscientious objector status was ultimately denied and he is currently in jail, serving out the remaining months of his sentence.
New Pentagon statistics show that more than 5,000 soldiers have now been charged with desertion from US and overseas bases since the invasion of Iraq in early 2003.
"They make it hard to get conscientious objector status," said Steve Morse, the GI Rights Program coordinator for the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors. "The military says they do not keep statistics on the number of applications filed. But in 2004, it was probably in the high hundreds -- close to 1,000 -- and not many were granted."
The GI Rights Program maintains a toll free hotline that provides information to members of the military about discharges, grievance and other civil rights. They have experienced a sharp increase in the number of incoming calls since the launch of the invasion. In 2004 alone, they received 32,000 calls, nearly double the number in 2001.
Another solution for US war resisters is simply to flee the country. In January 2004, US Army Specialist Jeremy Hinzman, 26, crossed the border into Canada with his wife and one- year-old son soon after his application for conscientious objector status was denied. Hinzman is believed to be the first US soldier to file for refugee status in Canada for refusing to fight in Iraq. Some say this is the first echo of the tens of thousands of war resisters who went north more than 30 years ago to escape the Vietnam War.
In December 2004, Hinzman told Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board that the war in Iraq was illegal and that fighting in it would make him a war criminal. He faces certain punishment if he returns to the US. The FBI has a federal warrant out for his arrest and he could face up to five years in prison. His case is still pending review by a Canadian tribunal.
It remains to be seen whether the level of resistance to the Iraq war within the US military will ever reach that of Vietnam. But as the bloody US occupation of Iraq spills over into 2005, one thing is clear: dissent is growing