Deadly Occupations - US Troops in Iraq & Afghanistan: Growing GI Resistance to Endless Illegal War
The InnerView with Dahr Jamail by Peter Moore & Werner Brandt
In late 2003, weary of the overall failure of US media to accurately report on the realities of war, Dahr Jamail went to the Middle East to report on the war himself. Dahr spent a total of nine months in occupied Iraq as one of only a few independent US journalists in the country. Since then, he has become world-renowned for documenting the human costs of the Iraq war. His first book, “Beyond the Green Zone”, describes his experience as an unembedded journalist reporting accurately on how the United States has destroyed, not liberated, Iraqi society.
His most recent book, "The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan", covers a subject that has received little mainstream press—the growing antiwar resistance of American GIs. Gathering the stories of these courageous men and women, Jamail shows us that far from “supporting our troops,” politicians have betrayed them at every turn. Jamail shows us that the true heroes of the criminal tragedy of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars are those brave enough to say NO.
Last time we interviewed you, in February, 2008, we were five years into the war with no end in sight. Now, in summer 2009, Iraq barely makes the mainstream news. What can you tell us about how Iraqi people are doing, and US involvement and future plans for Iraq?
Well, I was in Iraq this past February and, while yes, overall violence is lower (one to several dozen people killed a day), still, basic living for Iraqis under occupation is terrible. Violence is continuing, it’s not safe, people are really afraid to leave their neighborhoods because Baghdad’s become so balkanized. But also, basic infrastructure, basic life services are still almost non-existent. Even in the capital, we’re still looking at the average house with maybe two or three hours of electricity a day. According to the World Health Organization, a maximum of one third of Iraqis even have access to safe drinking water. The healthcare situation is in shambles. Really staggering rates of unemployment—on any given month between 30% and 70%.
So the average Iraqi is just not getting by. And then also considering the fact that we’re still looking at over two million internally displaced people within Iraq—meaning internal refugees—and then well over two million people still outside the country as refugees. So totaling well over four million people are still displaced from their homes. It’s a catastrophic situation for Iraqis trying to live a normal life.
People in the US are led to believe that things are better in Iraq, and the US is going to be withdrawing. But we’re not. Even today, the puppet prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, when he met with President Barack Obama, said about the 2011 deadline for total US withdrawal, and I quote, “If the Iraqi forces require further training and further support, we shall examine this then at that time based on the needs of Iraq.” So he’s essentially leaving the door open already for the continuation of the occupation—which isn’t a surprise because we had Barack Obama’s national security advisory staff, even when he was running his campaign for president, saying back in September, October of last year, that we’re talking about a minimum of 50,000 US troops in Iraq through the end of Obama’s first term, 2013.
How does that square with Barack Obama’s broadly publicized promises to have our occupation forces leave within 18 months of assuming the presidency? How is he spinning that?
Well, he hasn’t had to spin it. He just has had to continue with his own propaganda. Again, his security advisors, even before he was elected, were talking about continuing to occupy Iraq well beyond his first term of office, which of course is in direct contradiction to this rhetoric of him having all the troops pulled out within 18 months. It’s amazing to me that people still believe his words when you look at the facts on the ground. It’s as though people drink the Obama kool-aid. When you look at the facts on the ground, when you look at the national security strategy, all this information is right there for anyone who wants to access it. It speaks for itself. And yet Obama says something to contradict it and people choose to believe that because it’s “nicer”, it makes us all feel better, it makes you feel, well, you voted as a form of activism and that’s actually going to cause some change, when in reality that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Democrats and some Greens here in Oregon still believe that Obama is trying to make something good out of what started as an illegal invasion and occupation. Is there any shred of believability or usefulness to that kind of an explanation for what he’s doing?
There’s not. I think that kind of belief is actually really detrimental to people interested in making real change, whether it’s here domestically or in US foreign policy. Again, there is nothing on the ground in Iraq, and certainly not in Afghanistan now to indicate that there’s any change in policy in either occupation. We basically have Barack Obama who has taken the reins of an empire. He’s kept George Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. He’s kept all the highest ranking generals and decision makers in the Pentagon and in the military from the Bush administration. There’s literally no change in US foreign policy. Barack Obama took over this disastrous situation, it’s true, he inherited the economic crisis and all of this—but to think that therefore we have to be forgiving of his reluctance, or being slow to really make changes, I think is bogus. Theoretically, as President of the United States, if he wanted to really withdraw all forces from Iraq and Afghanistan , he could give that order right now. He’s the Commander in Chief. There’s nothing theoretically stopping him from doing it.
But I think it’s a bit of a distraction to think, well we need to focus on Barack Obama or George Bush, or whoever the next president is going to be. Because we’re looking at a systemic problem. I think Obama’s lies, and then reluctance to make real change, are evidence of this. To focus on who is the figurehead as president is a big distraction. In reality, we have to look at a system that is totally destructive and has to be deconstructed and ultimately thrown in the dustbin.
With Obama’s inauguration there was so much jubilation, but in a way it’s kind of medicated the resistance, like there’s no focal point now for people organizing. What we end up having are small networks of people working for real change, but we’ve lost that passion that was focused on removing Bush, and now the American psyche seems numb. What’s going to bring that passion back?
It’s true. It’s a really good point. That’s the basis of the argument that Barack Obama being elected has actually been one of the worst things to happen to people working for real progressive and deep systemic change in a long time. With Bush, it was so clear what the empire project was, what the agenda was, you know, the goal of the industrial growth society. We could all focus our ire on that figurehead of that system. But now, with Barack Obama, take that ugly Bush away and put a nice charismatic, articulate, handsome figurehead on there, and it’s kind of given people permission to go back to sleep instead of continuing to work with, in reality, all the same problems that were happening during the Bush administration. They’re far worse today. It’s amazing to me. Economically, ecologically, climate change, the wars, everything is far, far worse today. The only thing that changed was the figurehead, and people seem to be OK with that. Therefore it’s made it more difficult for the rest of us that are trying really hard to change things actually.
Before we go on to your new book, we’d like to hear your comments on the escalating presence of US forces in Afghanistan, and how that relates to the Mid-East policy?
It’s a good segué into the book because Obama policy in Afghanistan is really laying the groundwork for the potential of a future GI resistance movement. We’re looking at almost a 30% increase in the use of military contractors being deployed to Afghanistan. We’re looking at a US presence there that is in the midst of being increased by 19,000 soldiers, bringing the total by year-end up to 68,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan, while violence is escalating like crazy. And now there’s already talk of greater numbers of troops being sent in there in addition to that. And all of this is happening while the conflict there has spread outside the borders—obviously there’s violence in Pakistan daily and in some of the other neighboring countries already. We are starting to see soldiers stand up and start to refuse deployment. People are starting to understand the fact that the war in Afghanistan, contrary to mainstream belief, is not the “good war”, is actually like the war in Iraq—it contravenes international law. I want to lay this out, before we start talking about the book, because I think this is really important.
If we look at the war in Afghanistan, OK, the US signed the UN Charter, and according to the UN Charter, there are only two legitimate reasons a country is allowed to go to war. One, in self-defense. Two, if it has a UN Security Council ratification to go to war. Well, the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan has neither of those. It wasn’t the people of Afghanistan, nor the country of Afghanistan that attacked the United States, yet there the US is. This is against international law that the US is in Afghanistan. According to the supremacy clause of the US Constitution, “All treaties signed by the US Government then become the supreme law of the land superceding all local, state and federal law”—that means that the UN Charter is the supreme law of the land, and according to our own Constitution then, by invading and occupying Afghanistan, the US government is in direct contravention of both international law and our own Constitution.
So, is anybody challenging this?
Well, thankfully, this discussion has begun and hopefully, eventually, it will spread into more and more media outlets. I became aware of this by covering a war resistor, a guy named Victor Agosto, down in Fort Hood in central Texas, who had already done a tour in Iraq and was slated to be deployed to Afghanistan. He was stop-claused, and then was going to be sent to Afghanistan. He said, “Look, I’m not going to do it, this is immoral, it’s illegal, this war doesn’t make anyone anywhere any safer. I’m not going to go.” And so the military was going to throw the book at him, and give him the harshest court martial possible. His lawyer, James Brannom, said, “OK, we’re going to put the war on trial, just like Aaron Watada did.” And then, so the military backed down because they didn’t want the publicity, they didn’t want everything I just talked about getting out, and they didn’t want Victor Agosto getting more media attention and then becoming a symbol for what is possible for people who want to refuse to deploy.
Last time we talked, you were about to participate in the Winter Soldier event in Washington DC. How did that experience move you to write your latest book, “The Will to Resist”.
The impetus for the book started before the Winter Soldier event, when I was actually on tour for the first book. I started running into more and more veterans who wanted to talk about their experiences in Iraq. I met one guy named Phil Aliff, a corporal in the US Army, he was active duty at the time, based out of Fort Drum in upstate New York. He was part of the 10th Mountain Division, and had done a tour in Iraq. He said, “Well, yeah, morale over there was very, very low. In fact, it was so low that we started doing what we referred to as “Search and Avoid” missions instead of Search and Destroy. For example, we would go to the end of a patrol route, park our vehicles in a field, call into base every hour and say, ‘Yes, we’re still searching the field for weapons caches’, and then we were doing that for our whole patrol, and then we’d go back home. And we were doing that every day.” About a week or two later in the tour, I met someone else. Same story, different part of Iraq, different time of the occupation. And I started talking to more and more people and finding all these different ways that soldiers in Iraq were engaging in acts of dissent. And then, of course, we have the examples of people like Camillo Mejilla, Aaron Watada, people refusing to deploy on high ethical, moral reasons, and international law. And then I started digging deeper and found that there was actually all kinds of GI resistance going on around the country, people using art as resistance, people getting involved in organizing, people doing things like the Winter Soldier events, where soldiers would come together and have public press conferences talking about “This is what we did in Iraq, this is what we saw, this is what’s really happening.” The more I looked, the more resistance I found. Not to say that there’s an organized GI resistance movement today, but there are lots and lots of really outstanding acts of individual resistance that soldiers and former soldiers are engaged in against both occupations.
What would be an example of art as resistance?
Yeah, one of the finest examples was, there was a veteran named Drew Cameron from Vermont. He came back from Iraq and was really struggling with what to do with his experience. He was quite personally affected by it, needless to say, as everybody is, and he had his uniform. He decided what he would do with the help of an artist friend of his was, he went through this process—and there’s a photographic series of him doing it—he wore his uniform, and with scissors he slowly cuts off his uniform, and then he shreds his uniform into little pieces, and then his friend had a paper mill. So they literally pulped his desert uniform, and then they made paper out of it, and then used the paper to journal about what happened in Iraq—write poetry, and do paintings. And then more and more veterans got involved in this, and they formed what turned into “The Combat Paper Project”, where they literally were pulping all their old uniforms, making paper, making art out of it, and now it’s traveling around the country as an exhibit, and other veterans are showing up and joining them, and there’s talk of them now touring around Europe as well. So that’s one example of art as resistance, one of a great many examples.
And this also works as a healing process for the people involved I would imagine.
That’s exactly how they describe it, as really personally healing, very cathartic, a way to get this information and these emotions, to share them with friends and release them. I’ve heard too, from most of those guys I was interviewing, that this has been a way to reclaim my own humanity. Because one thing that’s consistent in the war is it destroys your humanity. It really causes you to be inhumane, causes you to dehumanize other people as well as yourself. This process, like other methods of dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, it’s really enabled guys, and women, to basically reclaim themselves.
Are the commanders of the US military paying attention to these acts of resistance? Is there any discussion in military journals about how to effectively deal with it, how to stop it, apart from ignoring it to death?
I can’t speak to that directly. I’m not familiar with any chatter about what’s happening in any of those journals, or what command is trying to do to deal with it. But I’ll give one example of how they’ve been pretty effective so far in keeping the topic out of the media—because worst case scenario for them is that someone stands up, refuses to deploy, and there’s a media spectacle around it, like what happened with Aaron Watada. It’s the case I talked about before, Victor Agosto. He stood up, he’s articulate, he has a deep understanding of international law, and the reasons why he’s doing what he’s doing. If they’re going to throw the book at him, well, he’s going to put the war on trial in the same courtroom. I actually wrote an article about it, and lined out the case that his attorney was going to present, as to how and why they were going to put the war on trial. We published that article, and then Victor Agosto contacted me and said, “You know, two hours after that article was published, I got a call from the military. They said “We’re going to give you your original deal back. Instead of a one year in prison court-martial, we want the lightest court-martial for you possible, 30 days maximum in jail”, which is what they had originally offered before they were going to throw the book at him. It goes to show that the military, when faced with the prospect of big media attention—and then more and more soldiers becoming aware of other soldiers resisting orders to deploy—that they will back down. They are afraid, they’ll do whatever is necessary to say, “OK, we just want to close the book on this and put it behind us, let’s just get rid of this guy”. They are willing, at least right now, to let go of these guys that do want to stand up and draw attention to the illegality of the wars and occupations.
Has there been any payback against those who resist from other guys in their unit who say, “Now we’re in it, you gotta do your duty.”?
No. In fact, staying on Victor Agosto as the example, his actions caused another soldier in his unit, a guy named Sergeant Travis Bishop, to also refuse orders to deploy to Afghanistan. His court-martial is coming up in a few weeks. So it has inspired that. And Victor told me himself that, while there has been some negativity, some people who have come up and said, “Ah, you’re a traitor, you’re scared, you’re a coward”, whatever, he said actually most of the people in his unit came up and said, “Hey, we really respect you for what you’re doing. You’re doing what a lot of us are just too afraid to do.”
What kind of numbers are we talking about here, of people serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, in terms of resistance? I know that in the Viet Nam war, it was a significant number and ultimately had a significant effect on the outcome of that war.
There are significant numbers of people who have chosen to refuse orders. For example, I’m going to read a little bit from one of the articles I wrote about this, “In November 2007, the Pentagon revealed that between 2003 and 2007, there had been an 80% increase in overall desertion rates in the Army. And Army AWOL rates from 2003 to 2006 were the highest since 1980. Between 2000 and 2006, more than 40,000 troops from all branches of the military deserted, and more than half of those from the Army. In fact, Army desertion rates jumped by 42% from 2006 to 2007.” In bringing it up more current, there’s a group in Oakland, California, called Courage to Resist. An administrative associate for that organization told me during an interview that in recent months there has been “a dramatic increase of nearly 200% in the number of soldiers that have contacted Courage to Resist”. This is a group that backs people who are going to try to get out of the military. They’ll help bring lawyers into the fold, get them media attention, sometimes help them with a little bit of money. Groups like this, like the GI Resistance Hotline, the Military Law Task Force, are all seeing quite dramatic escalations even since Obama took office in the number of soldiers contacting them for help so they can try to find a way to get out.
To be clear, these soldiers are acting as individuals rather than as an organized resistance within the military. Isn’t that so?
That is true. So far, when I talk about the book, we don’t have anything resembling an organized movement like we had in Viet Nam. That was one of the key factors, if not THE key factor that helped bring an end to the entire war—when you had a basically totally dysfunctional army that wouldn’t follow orders. A government can’t fight a war like that. We don’t have anything like that, but we do have a large number of people going AWOL, we have a large number of great examples of different kinds of resistance that soldiers are doing, and more and more people are engaged in that resistance is what it’s looking like right now. But so far, the military is doing a pretty effective job of keeping a lid on it, keeping these people out of the media, trying to navigate that very carefully. Of course the corporate media has been totally compliant in not giving any attention to these acts of resistance that are occurring. But again, when we look at Afghanistan spinning out of control, Iraq is far from over, the Pentagon has just announced they’re going to add 30,000 more people into the army, all branches of the military are once again stretched thin and starting to struggle again just to make recruiting goals DESPITE the economic crisis . . . when we add all this up with indefinite occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, I think we have pretty fertile ground for the possibility of a growing GI resistance movement.
END of PART ONE of this interview. Part Two of this interview will appear next issue of Alternatives Magazine.