Socialist Worker talks to two antiwar veterans
June 11, 2004 | Pages 6 and 7
THE BUSH administration is still spouting the same old lies about its invasion and occupation of Iraq. But every few days brings new evidence of the complete disarray of Washington's occupation--and exposes the war makers claims about "liberation" and "democracy." Here, DAVE CLINE and LOU PLUMMER talked to Socialist Worker's Eric Ruder about developments in Iraq.
DAVE CLINE is a disabled Vietnam veteran and national president of Veterans for Peace. He is also active in Military Families Speak Out and Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
LOU PLUMMER lives in Fayetteville, N.C., which is home to Fort Bragg, one of the biggest Army bases in the country, with many of its soldiers on active duty in Iraq. Lou is also an Army veteran and worked for several years as a prison guard in North Carolina. He has a son currently on duty in Iraq and is active in Military Families Speak Out.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
ONE YEAR ago, George Bush was swaggering after the quick military victory in Iraq. Today, his approval rates have dropped off a cliff. What happened?
Lou: The biggest thing is the continuing upward climb of the U.S. body count--and as time goes by, the lies that Bush told become more apparent. Plus, Bush has no ability to admit any fault, which is ticking people off.
I don't think it has anything to do with what's coming out of the Democratic Party, because unfortunately, Kerry is doing pretty much the same chest pounding as Bush. I think Bush has been his own worst enemy.
Dave: When they first invaded Iraq in March of last year and then Bush declared "mission accomplished" on May 1, that was the simple part. It was always known that the Iraqi army couldn't withstand an assault from the U.S. military. The army wasn't really enthusiastic about fighting, and they were up against a force that was overwhelming in terms of conventional warfare.
Similar to the dynamic that took place after the 1991 war on Iraq, there was a bunch of triumphalism in the U.S., and people thought that Bush had it together and knew what he was doing. But the reality is that the Bush administration made no plans of any real significance for what they would do after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime.
There were reports that a lot of Iraqis initially welcomed the U.S. after the invasion because they wanted Saddam out, but that turned pretty quickly. Now, the Iraqi economy is a mess, there has been no real reconstruction, and there has been the growth of an armed resistance--and beyond the armed resistance a popular discontent and opposition to the continued occupation.
I've always said that the real objective of the Bush administration was to gain control of the natural resources and to gain regional military dominance. So their real objectives never had anything to do with their claimed objectives of freedom and democracy. This is all continuing to collapse--and the body bags keep coming home.
In the Vietnam War, they sold a lot of the lies by building a whole construct. It was only in 1970 when the Pentagon Papers came out that people actually saw that these were government lies--that took from 1963 to 1970. In Iraq, it took from March 2003 to January 2004 for these lies to be exposed.
So it's natural--people wanted to believe, and as the thing falls apart piece by piece, people become disgusted. The other side of the coin is that they keep saying the economy is getting better, but people on the street are saying, "I don't see the jobs, or they're low-wage jobs."
WHAT DO you think the attitude toward Bush and the war is among rank-and-file soldiers?
Dave: The military is being run into the ground today, but it's not easy for soldiers to speak out when they're in a war zone. Usually, some guys in a unit are for it, and some are against--and that can be life-threatening. I haven't heard of any killings for speaking out, but I think that the possibility has a chilling effect.
Also, I think that the military has certainly tightened its grip. Donald Rumsfeld just decreed that soldiers can't have digital cameras or camera phones because they don't want pictures getting out. They're trying to control the news a lot more.
At the beginning of the war, the media was in lockstep with the administration. Now, reporters of integrity--not the corporate owners of the media, of course--are trying to dig up some of these issues, and the military is trying to respond to that. They thought they had the media in their pocket--"embedded." And the Department of Defense is saying that we've got to sit on this--we can't have this look like a revolt.
Lou: The Pentagon did a study of mental health among troops in Iraq, and I'm surprised that it didn't get more play in the media. It's shocking what came out of that. Over half the troops describe their own morale as low, and 75 percent describe their unit morale as low. And there were stories told by army mental health professionals treating things like combat stress and so on, who said there was a lack of medication to treat anxiety and depression.
I think morale is plummeting. The soldiers at Fort Bragg just found out that they're going to have to send 4,000 troops back to Iraq within the next year. And they just started coming home in February and March!
Some of these guys have been to Afghanistan and Iraq. Not only is this hurting the morale of the troops, but also their families and the community. There's a real weariness setting in on the part of the military.
And this week, the army announced the largest expansion of the "stop-loss" policy to date. Anyone in a unit set to deploy in the next 90 days can't be discharged. In the past, if you had already deployed to Iraq and your discharge date came, you had to stay until your unit came home. Now, even if you haven't gone yet, you can be extended. It's just awful.
Dave: A small number of those who have returned have begun speaking out, but I think many people are still trying to make sense of it. Very few people come back from a war and go right from being a soldier to being an anti-warrior. They're trying to figure it out and put their heads back together.
The discontent is still there, and there's some support for antiwar activities. And a lot of people are waiting for the November elections and plan to vote against Bush. At the same time, we've seen growth in Military Families Speak Out--up to about 1,500 families now. And you have to look at the families as the voice of the soldiers, rather than soldiers speaking in their own voice at this point.
We're trying to encourage some of the returning soldiers to band together, and some have joined Veterans for Peace. We're trying to get them to speak out because we think that will be a very potent voice--and that will draw other soldiers out of their let-me-come-home-and-try-to-forget-it lethargy.
There have been a lot more high-ranking officers voicing complaints. A captain just had an article in the Los Angeles Times, I think, attacking the whole stop-loss program. And [retired Lt. Gen. William] Odom is on TV, saying the only solution is to withdraw. When you start to see people like that speaking out, you figure your voice doesn't have the amplification that theirs do.
WHAT DO you think the torture revelations at Abu Ghraib say about the troops in Iraq and the overall war project?
Lou: First, I'll say something about being a prison guard. Nobody when they're a little kid wants to grow up and be a prison guard. It's not a job that anyone aspires to do. In some ways, it's like joining the military--it's a job many people take out of economic necessity.
In my own case, when I got out of the military and had no college education, the prisons were looking for people who had military experience, because prisons are run along paramilitary lines--they have ranks, and, of course, there are weapons involved and so on. I started in 1986, and it paid $15,000 a year, but it had vacation, sick leave and insurance for my kids, and that's why I took the job.
Stateside, prisons are a real bureaucracy, and all bureaucracies are self-perpetuating. It's a big "cover your ass" kind of job, and the worst sin is to embarrass somebody. It was worse to embarrass your boss than it was to abuse an inmate. Those guards who had a tendency to be abusive had to be covert about it, and the system--at least where I worked--frowned on abuse not for humanitarian reasons, but because they didn't want the bad publicity that could result.
On a staff, you always have a small minority who just groove on being a prison guard--they get off on screwing with inmates. They fail to consider them human beings. When I worked there, I wasn't Mother Theresa, but I did consider the inmates people.
Two of the seven people charged at Abu Ghraib are prison guards back home. In the prisons back in the states, where there's some degree of control, their innate sadism is frustrated. But when they get to Iraq, and the military says you can do whatever you want, these guys took their experience in the prisons and let their fantasies run wild.
The Taguba report points to the reasons why--there was no supervision and the whole chain of command in that MP brigade didn't function. It's also part of the innate racism of war. Prison guards in the states can forget that they're dealing with human beings. And because it's so pervasive in the military, American soldiers abroad can forget that people who aren't wearing American uniforms are human beings.
Dave: When Rumsfeld expressed disdain for the Geneva Conventions months ago with respect to detainees at Guantánamo Bay, we came out against that. We have a new statement online at veteransforpeace.org titled, "We've been there before."
Because in wars when you find yourself fighting a resistance that has the active or even the passive support of the population, you can't distinguish who's a combatant and who isn't. It eventually leads you to consider everyone to be your enemy--and you use more and more brutality and racism. In Vietnam, the term was "gooks"; in Iraq, the term is "Haji"--which comes from Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims take.
The military is made to fight a military force. They aren't set up to do occupation or police work. And they use overwhelming force. That's what they were planning to do in Falluja, and that's what they were trying to do with the supporters of Moktada al-Sadr. And may still be trying to do, by what I can tell--some of the reports after the "truce" indicate that there's more fighting going on.
Most of the people in that cell block were common criminals, and a lot of people have speculated that the real intention was to humiliate these people so that they had something over them--so they could send them back into the community as spies and collaborators to report on resistance activities. The U.S. doesn't have an infrastructure of spies, like the Israelis have in Palestine--and the U.S. is trying to do a knock-off of what the Israelis are doing in the Occupied Territories.
Lou: The troops were being told that they are there temporarily to help establish sovereignty, blah, blah, blah. But they're building permanent barracks for U.S. soldiers. This raises a question--why are we building permanent base camps if we're just going to be here temporarily?
There's a woman here in Military Families Speak Out whose husband served as an engineer in Iraq. Initially, the mission of this guy's unit was building stuff, but as the resistance in Iraq grew, instead of rebuilding or anything else mission-oriented, all they did was protect themselves.
In essence, the only reason they're in Iraq is to keep from getting killed by Iraqis. This is just so illogical. If they weren't there, they wouldn't have that mission, thus saving money and lives and not creating so much hatred.
This guy also told me an incredible story about the availability of combat stress counseling. He said that it was available in the area where they were stationed--but it was five miles away every other Friday.
If you were feeling stress or anxiety, you could go to combat stress counseling, but it would take a three-vehicle convoy with nine riflemen to escort you through this area with lots of improvised explosive devices in order to get stress counseling. Kafka couldn't have written something so twisted.
Dave: You've got to understand that the troops were told they would be welcomed as liberators. But with the resistance, troops start to think that these people are "ungrateful." This is arrogance--imperial arrogance--and the military is not based on being humble. They rev up the troops.
A lot of people are joining the resistance because they experienced a death in their family or community. The Bush administration is hoping they can divide the resistance up and get those people who are just patriots with guns to stop--so they can isolate whatever Islamist elements there are. The problem for Bush is that the initial reports are that the new government they're putting in on June 30 doesn't have much support on the ground--and that's because the U.S. troops are still there.