[MKE - Indymedia] U.S. soldiers Breaking Ranks
random12 at hotmail.com
Mon Oct 25 09:09:57 PDT 2004
More and more U.S. soldiers are speaking out against the war in Iraq -- and
some are refusing to fight.
By David Goodman
October 11, 2004
MIKE HOFFMAN would not be the guy his buddies would expect to see leading a
protest movement. The son of a steelworker and a high school janitor from
Allentown, Pennsylvania, he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1999 as an
artilleryman to blow things up. His transformation into an activist came
the hard wayon the streets of Baghdad.
When Hoffman arrived in Kuwait in February 2003, his units highest-ranking
enlisted man laid out the mission in stark terms. Youre not going to make
Iraq safe for democracy, the sergeant said. You are going for one reason
alone: oil. But youre still going to go, because you signed a contract. And
youre going to go to bring your friends home. Hoffman, who had his own
doubts about the war, was relievedhed never expected to hear such a candid
assessment from a superior. But it was only when he had been in Iraq for
several months that the full meaning of the sergeants words began to sink
The reasons for war were wrong, he says. They were lies. There were no
WMDs. Al Qaeda was not there. And it was evident we couldnt force democracy
on people by force of arms.
When he returned home and got his honorable discharge in August 2003,
Hoffman says, he knew what he had to do next. After being in Iraq and
seeing what this war is, I realized that the only way to support our troops
is to demand the withdrawal of all occupying forces in Iraq. He cofounded a
group called Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and soon found himself
emerging as one of the most visible members of a small but growing movement
of soldiers who openly oppose the war in Iraq.
Dissent on Iraq within the military is not entirely new. Even before the
invasion, senior officers were questioning the optimistic projections of the
Pentagons civilian leaders, and several retired generals have strongly
criticized the war. But now, nearly two years after the first troops rolled
across the desert, rank-and-file soldiers and their families are
increasingly speaking up. Hoffmans group was founded in July with 8 members
and had grown to 40 by September. Another organization, Military Families
Speak Out, began with 2 families two years ago and now represents more than
1,700 families. And soldier-advocacy groups are reporting a rising number of
calls from military personnel who are upset about the war and are thinking
about refusing to fight; a few soldiers have even fled to Canada rather than
go to Iraq.
In a 2003 Gallup Poll, nearly one-fifth of the soldiers surveyed said they
felt the situation in Iraq had not been worth going to war over. In another
poll, in Pennsylvania last August, 54 percent of households with a member in
the military said the war was the wrong thing to do; in the population as
a whole, only 48 percent felt that way. Doubts about the war have
contributed to the decline of troop morale over the past yearand may, some
experts say, be a factor in the 40 percent increase in Army suicide rates in
Iraq in the past year. Thats the most basic tool a soldier needs on the
battlefielda reason to be there, says Paul Rieckhoff, a platoon leader in
the New York National Guard and former JPMorgan banker who served in Iraq.
Rieckhoff has founded a group called Operation Truth, which provides a
freewheeling forum for soldiers views on the war. When you cant
articulate that in one sentence, it starts to affect morale. You had an
initial rationale for war that was a moving target. [But] it was a shell
game from the beginning, and you can only bullshit people for so long.
With his baggy pants, red goatee, and moussed hair, Mike Hoffman looks more
like a guy taking some time off after college than a 25-year-old combat
veteran. But the urgency in his voice belies his relaxed appearance; he
speaks rapidly, consumed with the desire to get his point across. As we talk
at a coffee shop in Vermont after one of his many speaking engagements, he
concedes, A lot of what Im doing is basically survivors guilt. Its hard:
Im home. Im fine. I came back in one piece. But there are a lot of people
More than a year after his return from Iraq, Hoffman is still battling
depression, panic attacks, and nightmares. I dont know what I did, he
says, noting that errors and faulty targeting were common in the artillery.
I came home and read that six children were killed in an artillery strike
near where I was. I dont really know if that was my unit or a British unit.
But I feel responsible for everything that happened when I was there.
When he first came home, Hoffman says, he tried to talk to friends and
family about his experience. It was not a story most wanted to hear. One of
the hardest things when I came back was people who were slapping me on the
back saying Great job, he recalls. Everyone wants this to be a good war
so they can sleep at night. But guys like me know its not a good war.
Theres no such thing as a good war.
Hoffman finally found some kindred spirits last fall when he discovered
Veterans For Peace, the 19-year-old antiwar group. Older veterans encouraged
him to speak at rallies, and steadily, he began to connect with other
disillusioned Iraq vets. In July, at the Veterans For Peace annual meeting
in Boston, Hoffman announced the creation of Iraq Veterans Against the War.
The audience of silver-haired vets from wars in Vietnam, Korea, and World
War II exploded into applause. Hoffman smiles wryly. They tell us were the
rock stars of the antiwar movement.
Several of Hoffmans Marine Corps buddies have now joined Iraq Veterans
Against the War, and the stream of phone calls and emails from other
soldiers is constant. Not long ago, he says, a soldier home on leave from
Iraq told him, Just keep doing what youre doing, because youve got more
support than you can imagine over there.
Members of IVAW led the protest march that greeted the Republican convention
in New York, and their ranks swelled that week. But the protests most
poignant moment came after the march, as veterans from wars past and present
retreated to Summit Rock in Central Park. Joe Bangert, a founding member of
Vietnam Veterans of America, addressed the group. One of the most painful
things when we returned from Vietnam was that the veterans from past wars
werent there for us, he said. They didnt support us in our questioning
and our opposition to war. And I just want to say, he added, peering
intently at the younger veterans, we are here for you. We have your back.
There was no Iraq veterans group for Brandon Hughey to turn to in December
2003. Alone and terrified, sitting in his barracks at Fort Hood, Texas, the
18-year-old private considered his options. He could remain with his Army
unit, which was about to ship out to Iraq to fight a war that Hughey was
convinced was pointless and immoral. Or he could end his dilemmaby taking
his own life.
Desperate, Hughey trolled the Internet. He emailed a peace activist and
Vietnam veteran in Indianapolis, Carl Rising-Moore, who made him an offer:
If he was serious about his opposition to the war, Rising-Moore said, he
would help him flee to Canada.
The next day, there was a knock on Hugheys door: His deployment date had
been moved up, and his unit was leaving within 24 hours. Hughey packed his
belongings in a military duffel, jumped in his car, and drove north. As he
and Rising-Moore approached the Rainbow Bridge border post at Niagara Falls,
Hughey was nervous and somber. I had the sense that once I crossed that
border, I might never be able to go back, he recalls. It made me sad.
Months after fleeing Fort Hood, the baby-faced 19-year-old still sports a
military-style buzz cut. Sitting at the kitchen table of the Quaker family
that is sheltering him in St. Catharines, Ontario, Hughey tells me about
growing up in San Angelo, Texas, where he was raised by his father. In high
school he played trumpet and loved to soup up cars. But when his father lost
his job as a computer programmer, he was forced to use up his sons college
fund. So at 17, Hughey enlisted in the Army, with a $5,000 signing bonus to
sweeten the deal.
Quiet and unassuming, Hughey grows intense when the conversation turns to
Iraq. I would fight in an act of defense, if my home and family were in
danger, he says. But Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. They barely
had an army left, and Kofi Annan actually said [attacking Iraq was] a
violation of the U.N. charter. Its nothing more than an act of aggression.
As for his duty to his fellow soldiers, he insists, You cant go along with
a criminal activity just because others are doing it.
So far, only six U.S. soldiers are known to have fled to Canada rather than
fight in Iraq. But in 2003, the Army listed more than 2,774 soldiers as
deserters (military personnel are classified as having deserted after not
reporting for duty for more than a month), and many observers believe the
actual number may be even higher; the Army has acknowledged that it is not
aggressively hunting down soldiers who dont show up. The GI Rights Hotline,
a counseling operation run by a national network of antiwar groups, reports
that it now receives between 3,000 and 4,000 calls per month from soldiers
seeking a way out of the military. Some of the callers simply never thought
they would see combat, says J.E. McNeil, director of the Center on
Conscience and War. But others are turning against the war because of what
they saw while serving in Iraq, and they dont want to be sent back there.
Its people learning what war really is, she says. A lot of people are
naiveand for a while, the military was portraying itself as being a peace
Unlike Vietnam, when young men facing the draft could convincingly claim
that they opposed all war, enlistees in a volunteer military have a tough
time qualifying as conscientious objectors. In the Army, 61 soldiers applied
for conscientious objector status last year, and 31 of those applications
were granted. The Army does understand people can have a change of heart,
notes spokeswoman Martha Rudd. But you cant ask for a conscientious
objector discharge based on moral or religious opposition to a particular
Staff Sergeant Jimmy Massey may be the most unlikely of the soldiers who
have come out against the war. A Marine since 1992, he has been a recruiter,
infantry instructor, and combat platoon leader. He went to Iraq primed to
fight. 9/11 pissed me off, he says. I was ready to go kill a raghead.
Shortly after Massey arrived in Iraq, his unit was ordered to man
roadblocks. To stop cars, the Marines would raise their hands. If the
drivers kept going, Massey says, we would just light em up. I didnt find
out until later on, after talking to an Iraqi, that when you put your hand
up in the air, it means Hello. He estimates that his men killed 30
civilians in one 48-hour period.
One day, he recalls, there was this red Kia Spectra. We told it to stop,
and it didnt. There were four occupants. We fatally wounded three of them.
We started pulling out the bodies, but they were dying pretty fast. The guy
that was driving was just frickin bawling, sitting on the highway. He
looked at me and asked, Why did you kill my brother? He wasnt a terrorist.
He didnt do anything to you.
Massey searched the car. It was completely clean. Nothing there. Meanwhile
the driver just ran around saying, Why? Why? Thats when I started to
The doubts led to nightmares, depression, and a talk with his commanding
officer. I feel what we are doing here is wrong. We are committing
genocide, Massey told him. He was later diagnosed with post-traumatic
stress disorder and given a medical discharge.
Back in his hometown of Waynesville, North Carolina, Massey got a job as a
furniture salesman, then lost it after speaking at an antiwar rally. Two or
three times a week, he puts on his Marine uniform and takes a long walk
around the nearby town of Asheville carrying a sign that reads: I killed
innocent civilians for our government. The local police now keep an eye out
for him, he says, because people have tried to run him over.
When asked what he would say to someone who thinks the way he did before the
war, Massey falls uncharacteristically silent. How do you wake them up? he
finally responds. Its a slow process. All you can do is tell people the
horrible things youve seen, and let them make up their own minds. Its kind
of the pebble in the water: You throw in a pebble, and it makes ripples
through the whole pond.
Jeffry House is reliving his past. An American draft dodger who fled to
Canada in 1970 (he was number 16 in that years draft lottery), he is now
fighting to persuade the Canadian government to grant refugee status to
In some ways, this is coming full circle for me, says the slightly
disheveled, 57-year-old lawyer. The themes that I thought about when I was
21 years old now are reborn, particularly your obligation to the state when
the state has participated in a fraud, when theyve deceived you. A dormant
network has been revived, with Vietnam-era draft dodgers and deserters
quietly contributing money to support the legal defense of the newest
Houses strategy is bold: He is challenging the very legality of the Iraq
war, based on the Nuremberg principles. Those principles, adopted by a U.N.
commission after World War II in response to the Nazis crimes, hold that
military personnel have a responsibility to resist unlawful orders. They
also declare wars of aggression a violation of international law. House
hopes that in Canada, which did not support the war in Iraq, courts might
sympathize with the deserters claims and grant them legal refugee status;
the first of his cases was to be heard by the Canadian Immigration and
Refugee Board this fall.
On an August afternoon, I follow House as he darts through Toronto traffic
on his way to see a new clienta young American who had been living in a
homeless shelter for 10 months before revealing that he was on the run from
the U.S. Navy. He disappears into a run-down brown brick building; moments
later, a thin, nervous young man in shorts and a T-shirt emerges onto the
sidewalk and introduces himself as Dave Sanders. Over dinner at a nearby
Pizza Hut, he tells me his story.
Sanders dropped out of 11th grade in Bullhead City, Arizona, in 2001. He got
his GED and was hoping to study computers, but couldnt get financial aid.
The only reason I joined the military was to go to college, he says. That
was late 2002, and I ask Sanderswhether he then considered he might end up
in combat. I was told, he says, that everything would be ended by the
time I got out of boot camp.
Sanders completed boot camp in March 2003, two days before the United States
began bombing Iraq. He started training as a cryptologist; in his spare time
he surfed the web, reading news from the BBC and Al Jazeera. He was growing
skeptical of the administrations motives in Iraq. Stuff wasnt adding up,
he recalls. Bush was trying to connect the terrorists with Iraq, and there
was no proof for that. I was starting to think that we kind of put the blame
on Iraq so we could go over there and make money for companies. He
considered what his job might be if he were deployed; as a cryptologist, he
could have been handling information leading to raids and arrests. I didnt
want to be a part of putting innocent people in prison, he says. I felt
that what we were doing there was wrong.
In October 2003, Sanders learned that his unit was headed to Iraq. For
several weeks he agonized over what to do; then he bought a one-way
Greyhound ticket and headed to Toronto. He picked up odd jobs and kept quiet
about his predicament, fearing that authorities might send him back to the
United States. Finally, he read an article about Jeremy Hinzman, another
deserter who had fled to Canada and was being represented by Jeffry House.
When I spoke to Sanders, House was helping him file for refugee status.
As we talk, Sanders keeps tapping his feet and twisting his long fingers.
Sorry if I seem nervous, he finally blurts. I never really talked to the
media before. Im a shy person. I ask if he surprised himself by defying
his orders. He nods. I never really thought I could stand up to a whole
Though Sanders has kept away from the spotlight, other deserters have
attracted headlines around the worldand drawn criticism from the wars
supporters. Foxs Bill OReilly called their actions insulting to America,
and especially to those American soldiers who have lost their lives fighting
But Sanders says he doesnt actually consider himself a deserter. I dont
think I did anything wrong by turning down an illegal order, he says. I
dont know what its calledI think its Nuremberg?thats what I followed
by leaving. When I ask if he would call himself a pacifist, he says he is
not sure what the term means and asks me to explain. Then he shakes his
head. I believe if youre being attacked you have a right to defend
yourself. But right now, we are not the ones being attacked. Thats a reason
I think this is a very unjust war.
Sanders is an only child; his father served in the Marines for 13 years. My
family is pro-war, pro-Bush, pro-everything thats happening, he says.
They would really not support what Im doing. He has emailed them to tell
them that hes alive, but they have not replied. I miss them, he says, his
eyes welling. I love them. And I hope they can find it in their hearts to
Sergeant John Bruhns is sharply critical of soldiers who go AWOL. I feel
that if you are against the war, you should be man enough to stay put and
fight for what you believe in, he says. But he also doesnt believe in
making a secret of his opinions about the war. Im very proud of my
military service, he tells me from his post with the Armys 1st Armored
Division in Fort Riley, Kansas. But I am disheartened and personally hurt,
after seeing two people lose their limbs and a 19-year-old girl die and
three guys lose their vision, to learn that the reason I went to Iraq never
existed. And I believe that by being over there for a year, I have earned
the right to have an opinion.
Bruhns returned in February from a one-year deployment in Iraq. He is due to
complete his Army service next March, but his unit may be
stop-lossedtheir terms extended beyond their discharge dates to meet the
Pentagons desperate need for troops. Critics have called this a backdoor
draft, a way to force a volunteer military into involuntarily serving long
stints in an unpopular war. A California National Guard member has filed a
lawsuit challenging the policy, and Bruhns has considered joining the case.
Im really a patriotic soldier, the 27-year-old infantryman tells me; he
addresses me as sir and stops periodically to answer the squawk of his
walkie-talkie. He signed up as a full-time soldier in early 2002, after
serving five years in the Marine Corps Reserve. I was really upset about
what happened on 9/11, he recalls, and I really wanted to serve. I lost a
buddy of mine in the World Trade Center. I believe what we did in
Afghanistan was right.
But what he saw in Iraq, Bruhns says, left him disappointed. We were
fighting all the time. The only peace is what we kept with guns. A lot of
stuff that we heard on the newsthat we were fighting leftover loyalists,
Baath Party holdoverswasnt true. When I arrested people on raids, many of
them were poor people. They werent in with the Baath Party. The people of
Iraq were attacking us as a reaction to what the majority of them feltthat
they were being occupied.
Among his fellow soldiers, Bruhns adds, a majority still support the war.
But, he notes, This is a new generation. We have the Internet, discussion
forums, cable news. Soldiers dont just march off into battle blindly
anymore. They have a lot more information.
Vietnam figures prominently in soldiers conversations about Iraq. Nearly
every one of the Iraq veterans I spoke with has relatives who served in the
military, and nearly every one told me the same story: When they grew
cynical about the Iraq war, the Vietnam veterans in their family immediately
recognized what was happeningthat another generation of soldiers was
grappling with the realization that they were being sent to carry out a
policy determined by people who cared little for the grunts on the ground.
Resistance in the military is in its infancy right now, says Hoffman,
whose cousins, uncle, and grandfather all did their time in uniform. Its
growing, but its going to take a little while.
There was a progression of thought that happened among soldiers in Vietnam.
It started with a mission: Contain communism. That mission fell apart, just
like it fell apart nowthere are no weapons of mass destruction. Then you
are left with just a survival instinct. That, unfortunately, turned to
racism. Thats happening now, too. Guys are writing me saying, I dont know
why Im here, but I hate the Iraqis.
Now, you realize that the people to blame for this arent the ones you are
fighting, Hoffman continues. Its the people who put you in this situation
in the first place. You realize you wouldnt be in this situation if you
hadnt been lied to. Soldiers are slowly coming to that conclusion. Once
that becomes widespread, the resentment of the war is going to grow even
Learn more about the antiwar movement within the military by visiting Iraq
Veterans Against the War and Military Families Speak Out.
In the service? Get answers to the questions you cant ask your commanding
officers from the GI Rights Hotline at 1-800-394-9544.
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