'They can't train you for the reality of Iraq. You can't have a mass grave with dogs eating the people in it': Two years after the war began, a growing number of US troops are refusing to return to Iraq
(By Suzanne Goldenberg, originally published in The Guardian, March 19 2005)
At the same time that Kevin Benderman's unit was called up for a second tour in Iraq with the Third Infantry Division, two soldiers tried to kill themselves and another had a relative shoot him in the leg. Seventeen went awol or ran off to Canada, and Sergeant Benderman, whose family has sent a son to every war since the American revolution, defied his genes and nine years of military training and followed his conscience.
As the division packed its gear to leave Fort Stewart, Sgt Benderman applied for a discharge as a conscientious objector - an act seen as a betrayal by many in a military unit considered the heart of the US army, "the Walking Pride of Uncle Sam".
Two years ago today, the columns of the Third ID roared up from the Kuwaiti desert for the push towards Baghdad. When the city fell, the marines controlled the neighbourhoods on the east side of the Tigris and the Third ID had the west. It was, according to the army command, an occasion for pride.
Some of the men and women who were there remain unconvinced. Like Sgt Benderman, who served six months in Iraq at the start of the war, they were scarred by their experience, and angry at being called again to combat so soon.
They may not be part of any organised anti-war movement, but the conscientious objectors, runaways, and other irregular protesters suggest that, two years on, the war is taking a heavy toll.
"They can't train you for the reality. You can't have a mass grave with dogs eating the people in it," Sgt Benderman told the Guardian. "It's not like practising for a football game, or cramming for a test in college. You can go out there and train, but until you actually experience war first hand you don't know what it's like."
A large man in his uniform, with blue eyes and a southern drawl, the 40-year-old is every inch the soldier. He has spent nearly 10 years in the army, signing up for a second stint in 2000 because he felt he had not done his duty to his country. The war did away with that feeling, with the sergeant horrified by Iraqi civilian deaths and the behaviour of the young men he commanded, who he said treated war like bumping off targets in a video game.
"I didn't turn into the pope overnight. I am still Kevin Benderman, but I am trying to find a better way of living," he said.
Once such dissent would have been unthinkable - as would the growing disquiet within the ranks of the US army as its forces rotate into Iraq on second and even third tours. Open resistance remains relatively rare. Only a handful of troops have filed conscientious objector applications; Vietnam, which was fought by conscripts, produced 190,000 such petitions.
But the conscripts only had one tour. Soldiers' advocates and peace activists believe the first signs of opposition within the military could slowly grow - as it did for Vietnam - turning disgruntled soldiers and their families into powerful anti-war advocates. A number of Iraq veterans have begun to speak out. The root causes for more widespread dissent are there. Longer and repeat deployments have worn down regulars and reservists. So has the rising toll, with more than 1,500 US soldiers dead and 11,000 wounded. Recruitment and re-enlistment rates are down - especially for African-Americans, a 40% drop in the past five years - increasing the strain on the Pentagon.
Between 40,000 and 50,000 military personnel are in Iraq despite serious medical conditions that should have ruled them out of combat, according to the National Gulf War Resource Centre. The GI Rights Hotline, which counsels troops, says it fielded 32,000 calls last year from soldiers seeking an exit from the military, or suffering from post-combat stress.
Others vote with their feet. Last year the Pentagon admitted that 5,500 of its forces had gone awol, although it claims many returned to their units after resolving personal crises. Some abandoned the country altogether - like Chris Cornell, a Third ID private. At 24, he had been in the military for two years, joining up in search of a better life than in the Ozark mountains of Arkansas. Army life had begun to pall - "because of the crap that goes on" - when the division began to prepare for Iraq. He didn't want to go. "I didn't sign up to kill people. I couldn't live with myself," he told the Guardian. At first, he tried to get a medical discharge, deliberately failing dozens of physical training tests.
Then, weeks before his unit's January 10 departure, his sergeant called the troops in for a talk. "He got up there in front of the whole battery and he told us we were going to Iraq, whether we liked it or not."
Pte Cornell went home on leave and consulted the activists he calls his adopted family. They suggested Canada - terra incognita for a southerner like Pte Cornell - and he landed in Toronto, jobless, sleeping in someone else's flat, and seeking political asylum. He was the seventh US soldier to apply for refugee status in Canada, and a half dozen more with Canadian parents or spouses are claiming citizenship, according to Jeffrey House, a Toronto lawyer handling many of the claims. But there could be hundreds more who have gone to ground. "I believe there are a number of people here illegally," he says. "No one would suspect them by their accent, and so they just disappear."
Among those who serve, resentment is high, fuelled by "stop loss" orders by which the Pentagon hangs on to troops past their release date, and shortages of armoured vehicles and protective gear. Emails and blogs from Iraq regularly rail against officers and the war.
The high command does not want to hear them, soldiers' advocates say, because it does not want to encourage dissent. When Sgt Benderman tried to file his papers as a conscientious objector in December, his commanding officer called him a coward. Last month he was ordered to face a court martial for desertion. He could face seven years in prison.
Now, away from his unit in the war zone, Sgt Benderman waits for the army to hear his case. Each morning he leaves his home in Hinesville, Georgia, to report for 6.30am drill. Others in his situation have gone underground, but Sgt Benderman views that option with distaste. So does his wife, Monica, who says: "If you really believe in what you are doing, then why run?"
Carl Webb, 39, a member of the Texas National Guard, claims he didn't have a choice. His protest is just as public as Sgt Benderman's - and even less conventional. He has been awol since last August but the military should not have any problems finding him. Mr Webb has posted his email address, phone number, and several photos of himself on a website setting out his opposition to the war
For years, the military had been his one constant in an otherwise anchorless life, and Mr Webb did stints in the regular army as well as various guard units. But by last July, when he was a month away from getting out, he got the call that he was being plucked from his unit to serve with a tank company near Baghdad.
"It was a total surprise. Even my command said this is some kind of a mistake, and I could file a hardship case," he told the Guardian. Mr Webb thought about filing a conscientious objector application, but decided he didn't fit the strict criteria. Now he is daring the Pentagon to try to get him because he figures that would encourage other opponents of the war.
"Most soldiers obey their orders because they are afraid of what could happen to them. They think, 'Oh, they are going to throw me in a dungeon, and put shackles on me, and I'll never see the light of day,' or they fear the isolation," he said.
"But just by being out there, I am going to give them ideas. I'm an example."