The soldiers who fight Washington's wars
April 11, 2003 | Pages 6 and 7
ELIZABETH SCHULTE reports on the U.S. soldiers who are fighting Washington's war on Iraq.
GEORGE W. Bush supports the troops. As long as they're fighting his war for oil, that is. Because the minute that they come home, they aren't his troops anymore. The U.S. government treats its soldiers, in the words of Vietnam Veterans Against the War activist Bill Davis, like "no-deposit, no-return bottles."
According to the Veterans Administration, more than 275,000 veterans are homeless on any given night--and more than half a million experience homelessness over the course of a year. Large numbers live with the terrible effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and substance abuse, which are made worse by a lack of family and social support networks. The gap will only become greater once Bush's $25 billion in cuts to veterans' benefits are completed over 10 years.
And if the soldiers that the U.S. government claims it cares so much about survive the wars they were told to fight, hundreds of thousands come home to die slowly of illnesses that they contracted while fighting.
During the 1991 Gulf War, only 148 U.S. soldiers died in the fighting. But out of the 540,000 Gulf War vets, two of every five suffer from Gulf War Syndrome--a debilitating combination of ailments that includes chronic fatigue, skin rashes, muscle joint pain, memory loss and brain damage.
Vets believe that Gulf War Syndrome is the result of coming into contact with chemical weapons like mustard gas and sarin nerve gas. These agents were released into the air when U.S. forces demolished Iraqi weapons dumps. Anthrax vaccine and PB pills, a nerve agent antidote that the military gave to soldiers, are also possibly to blame.
"I feel like a walking medical experiment in a sense," Gulf War Syndrome victim Brian Martin said in a Frontline interview in 1997. "They took what I considered a perfectly healthy, all-American boy and turned him into a crippled old man." But to save its hide, the U.S. government called men like Martin liars--and for years denied that Gulf War Syndrome even existed.
The U.S. gave the same treatment to veterans of the Vietnam War, who were poisoned by Agent Orange, a defoliant that the U.S. sprayed--some 19 million gallons--all over South Vietnam.
Then there are the soldiers they used as guinea pigs. Last year, the Pentagon revealed that U.S. sailors were sprayed with live nerve and biological agents in Cold War-era experiments to test the Navy's vulnerability to toxic warfare.
Between 1964 to 1968, the Defense Department conducted six tests in the Pacific Ocean in which nerve or chemical agents--including sarin, VX nerve gas and the biological toxin staphylococcal enterotoxin B--were sprayed on ships and their crews.
The working-class people who make up the American military are little more than cannon fodder and guinea pigs to serve the U.S. interests abroad. The U.S. government doesn't "support" its troops once they've finished fighting--and it never will.
Trained to be killers
"IT WAS the most horrible thing I've ever seen, and I hope I never see it again," said Sgt. Mario Manzano. Manzano was the Army medic on the scene after U.S. soldiers opened fire on a van filled with Iraqi civilians near a military checkpoint, killing 11 people.
The massacre came a few days after an Iraqi suicide attack on another U.S. checkpoint. So U.S. soldiers were shooting at anything that moved--including Iraqi women and children. No matter what Manzano hopes, scenes like these will be repeated in the days and weeks to come.
How is it that ordinary men and women could commit such horrors? The answer is simple: They're trained to. That's what the U.S. military is all about.
Racism is key to the training. "As soon as I hit boot camp in Fort Jackson, N.C., they tried to change your total personality," recalled Vietnam veteran Haywood Kirkland in the book Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans.
"Right away they told us not to call them Vietnamese. Call everybody gook, dinks They were like animals, or something other than human. They don't have no regard for life. They'd blow up little babies just to kill one GI They told us they're not to be treated with any type of mercy or apprehension. That's what they engraved in you. The killer instinct. Just go away and do destruction."
And "do destruction" they did. It was a regular policy for U.S. troops in Vietnam--supposedly to "liberate" the people from a Communist tyranny--to go on rape and murder sprees. The best-known example is the My Lai massacre of 1968, in which almost 500 villagers were slaughtered by U.S. troops.
Today, military training is much the same. Stephen Eagle Funk, a U.S. conscientious objector from the war in Iraq, described his training to Britain's Guardian newspaper last week. "Every day in combat training, you had to yell out 'Kill! Kill!'" he said. "And we would get into trouble if you didn't shout it out, so often I would just mouth it so I didn't get into trouble."
Recruits were encouraged to hurt each other during hand-to-hand combat training. "I couldn't do that, so they would pair me up with someone who was very violent or aggressive," said the 20-year-old Marine reservist, who was due to be sent for combat duty and gave himself up to military authorities earlier this month after being AWOL.
Funk said many recruits envied those who were being sent to the Gulf. "They would say things like, 'Kill a raghead for me, I'm so jealous," he said. And the soldiers in Iraq are getting the same message that the soldiers of Vietnam got--trust no civilian, everyone is the enemy.
"Did you see all that?" Lt. Matt Martin asked of a reporter after his unit opened fire during fighting around Nasiriya. Did you see that little baby girl? I carried her body and buried it as best I could, but I had no time. It really gets to me to see children being killed like this, but we had no choice."
The contradictions of war--killing a baby because "we had no choice," facing fierce opposition from the people that you are supposed to be "liberating"--throw up all kinds of questions for soldiers. Ultimately, the experiences of Vietnam lead many soldiers to question what they were doing there and the reasons for the war itself.
"You can't convince somebody to defend anything--to fight, to kill, to accept the possibility that he might be killed--unless he knows what he is fighting for," said Vietnam antiwar soldier-activist Pvt. Joe Cole in an interview at the time. "Guys would pack an M-16 and go out in the paddy in good discipline if there were a reason for them to do it. But there's not. Their enemy is not the Vietnamese peasant. Their enemy is those that sent them there. The colonel or the general sits in his goddamned bunker and doesn't even let the enlisted man come into his bunker during the mortar attack when it's the enlisted man who built that bunker."
Soldiers like Cole concluded not only that the war was wrong--but that they should organize to oppose it.
Mother of a Marine speaks out against war:
FRAN JOHNS' son, Marine Sgt. Rob Sarra, is fighting in Iraq. Johns spoke out against the war at the public meeting in Chicago earlier this month. Here, SW reprints excerpts from her talk.
THERE'S AN idealist view that a lot of young people who join the service have about being heroes, about saving the world and protecting our country--all those things you hear about in the movies. I want to read you something written by a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who is embedded in my son's unit.
"For John Massey, the worst part was not the battle that followed but 'at that last checkpoint--I ran over a dead body.' He said the victim was wearing civilian clothes and appeared to have already been struck by a vehicle Several hours north of Nasiriya, the convoy came upon a burned-out bus surrounded by undistinguishable bodies and body parts Nearby was a small boy, perhaps four, who appeared to have been blasted nearly in half, but was trying to move The older men choked up over the boy, the younger ones seemed simply stunned with horror. 'I've seen more in the last nine hours,' Massey said, 'than I've seen in my entire life.'"
One of my enormous fears when I found out that my son was being sent to fight this war was not only the danger to him personally. It was what he might see or have to do.
Part of my frustration is that these young men are being used for political aims. People are asking how can you support our troops and oppose the war. Right now, I feel the only way to support our troops is to oppose this war and get them out of there as soon as possible.
This war is about a lack of leadership and an arrogance of power. Saddam Hussein has inflicted enormous suffering on the people of Iraq, but war inflicts enormous suffering, too.
The Bush administration wanted this war, and it's not going to end with this war. They've ignored the voices of millions of protesters around the world and dismissed hundreds of thousands of Americans who took the streets in the U.S. as a "focus group."
People ask how can I support my son and not support the war. I support his safety. I support his desire to come home, which is why I believe we have to keep fighting to end this war.
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FOR RESOURCES on what your rights are as a member of the armed services, here are some places to look on the Web:
--Vietnam Veterans Against the War, www.vvaw.org