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Chris Harrison of Iraq Veterans Against the War:
"Their wars are for conquest"

March 18, 2005 | Pages 6 and 7

CHRIS HARRISON is a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), and he co-founded Peace-Out, an organization that helps military personnel learn their options in gaining conscientious objector status. He is also on the steering committee of the national antiwar coalition United for Peace and Justice.

A former first lieutenant in the Army, he filed for conscientious objector status at the end of 2002. His application was still pending when he was discharged last September.

Chris talked to Socialist Worker's HADAS THIER about his experiences in the military and the future of the antiwar movement.

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WHAT WAS your personal experience in becoming antiwar while in the military?

I ALWAYS tell people that a lot of the same reasons that led me to join the military in the first place were the same reasons that led me to refuse and resist while within the ranks. They seem kind of surprised by that, but basically, what happened to me is that I grew up a rural small town, and people were very patriotic.

I grew up believing that I lived in a country that stood for the values of democracy, self-determination and on down the list--and that we always came down on the side of freedom against tyranny in every instance. I saw that there may have been blemishes here and there, but by and large, I thought that was the case.

After I had been in the military for some time and was in my mid to late 20s, I started working as an activist on trade issues. As I started to do my own research on trade and economic issues, I began to see links between economic exploitation and militarism. And the more that I uncovered, the more that I saw the rhetoric of the U.S. as always standing for freedom to be very hypocritical.

Really, what it stood for was its own self-interest. There were instances when this meant coming down on the side of democracy, but if self-interest was on the side of dictatorships that brutalized their own populations and waged war against their neighbors, we didn't hesitate to take their side, too.

I really reached a point when I saw my continued service in the military as being more of a detriment to the realization of those principles, than helping to realize them.

I also came to the conclusion that wars were not fought for the purposes of liberation. The only one that I think could be considered an exception in our history would be World War Two, and even that is murky in a lot of areas. Wars were fought for conquest--for the purpose of control of raw materials, of expanding markets and things of that nature.

I trace a lot of my moral foundation back to my upbringing exposed to mainstream Protestantism. And I really came to the conclusion that warfare was nothing less than the ultimate failure of humanity. As such, if we didn't act in ways that sought to avoid war in every way that we could--to exhaust every single avenue to avoid it--I wouldn't be living up to a lot of the religious and moral principles that I was brought up with.

WHAT ARE soldiers going through in Iraq, and since coming back?

I'VE GOTTEN to know a lot of people through Iraq Veterans Against the War who took part in the initial invasion, or who have gone over there since. I think what they went through was really summed up well in a column written recently by Stan Goff, where he advised soldiers to hold on to their humanity.

Also, on the DVD Hijacking Catastrophe, he talked about having a son who was serving in Iraq right now, and he said that one of his biggest fears, aside from his son being killed, is that he would come back and go crazy from his experiences in Iraq--the same way that Stan says he went crazy from his experiences in Vietnam.

He said that people went crazy in different ways, both when they were over there and when they came back. We have this view in America, especially because we've been so detached from war, that it's clean, it's surgical--it's something where you can just go in and take out the bad guys.

But when you study histories of war and when you talk especially to the men and women coming back from the war now, the thing you're hit with is that war is anything but clean. War is dirty. War makes you sacrifice. It basically makes you choose between carrying out your orders, or listening to your humanity.

As a result, we're seeing people who are coming back scarred emotionally. A lot of the guys that I've come to know are going to have to live with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder issues for the rest of their lives. I think as more and more people come back, we're going to see that more and more--especially as the insurgency grows in strength.

For example, Kevin Benderman, the soldier who did one tour in Iraq and recently was ordered to go back, but refused and is attempting to file for conscientious objector status--he said that the reason he didn't want to go back was because of the things that he saw when he was over there. Seeing Iraqi children with third-degree burns all over their arms at the side of the road and pleading with his command to let them pull over and do something to help them, but they would say, "No, we have to drive on."

They come back and look at their children, and think, "My kids aren't any different from those kids over there; it's just the part of the world they were born in and who they were born to." Some people do have the ability to disconnect that, for better or worse. But the vast majority of people don't, and that's really the effect that you're going to see in more and more of the people who have to serve over there.

THE U.S. government's line about Iraq is that it's bringing democracy, and that the resistance fighting the U.S. occupation is made up of anti-democratic terrorists. What's your perspective on the situation?

FIRST, I think it's important to clarify the justification for this war. It had nothing to do with bringing democracy to Iraq. That was the justification put forward by the Bush administration and picked up by the media because it wasn't challenged, by and large, by the Democratic Party.

The justification that they initially put forward in going to war was that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, and therefore posed a danger to his neighbors, to U.S. allies, and to the U.S. Obviously, that justification proved to be false. A lot of the pro-peace and antiwar crowd had said it all along--that those weapons were either non-existent or in such small quantities that they were negligible.

Secondly, I think that it's a very difficult thing for me, as someone who has served in the military, to say that people are justified in attacking and firing on U.S. soldiers. Even given my background, there's still a visceral reaction to hearing that and thinking that.

But at the same time, if this country were invaded and taken over, I can guarantee you that the vast majority of the people who are saying that the Iraqis have no right to resist the U.S. would be taking up arms and resisting that occupation.

Now is not the time to look for purity in these types of movements. Since the bloody club of war has been unleashed to swing freely, the time for purity and ideology is over. That genie has already been released from the bottle, and we're left to deal with the consequences, for better or for worse. A lot of the people who were speaking out against the U.S. getting involved from the outset were citing that this would be an eventual effect.

As much as it pains me to say it, I would say that Iraqis have every right to resist in their country. It is not our country. It's their country, and until people remove these blinders of American exceptionalism that make them adopt rigid stances in the face of everything to the contrary, we're not going to be able to adequately address these questions.

Undoubtedly, they have a right to resist. Now having said that, by no means do I express common cause with the people who on the other side want to abduct journalists, who want to abduct civilian contractors--as much as I might disagree with what the contractors are doing and view it as war profiteering.

The average Iraqi who sees the war as the occupation of their country--they have the right to resist. This is even borne out by international law--that people in an occupied country do have the right to resist.

WHAT'S BEEN the response to the Peace Out Web site for conscientious objectors?

BY AND large, it's been positive. We've gotten a lot of responses from people just telling us thank you for what you're doing. We've gotten a lot of responses from people in the military looking for help with this, which was really our main motivation in going forward with this.

I know that for me personally, when I went through the process, even though I had a lot of people who were supporting me and helping me with it, unless they came from that place themselves, there were things that they couldn't identify with that I was going through. For instance, with the group that helped me out, sometimes I would have to hound them to get responses on my application. I realized that they were overwhelmed with a lot of other things, but when you are in that situation, there are times when you feel utterly desperate--especially when you're facing a timeline.

One of the motivations that we had with this was not only to provide counseling for people seeking a CO discharge, but also to provide a support network, so they could talk to other people who had been through the process--and, more importantly than anything, realize that they are not alone.

Organizations that have dealt with this for a long time say they have seen a tremendous increase in inquiries about CO status as compared to just three or four years ago. For us, we haven't been online long enough that we've seen a vast increase, but we've seen a pretty good response.

WHAT KIND of role can veterans play in the antiwar movement?

THE WAY that we can best help is that veterans can reach constituencies that the broader peace and antiwar movement cannot, simply because of the status afforded veterans in our society.

The best way to reach out to them is to approach them as human beings--and not look at it from the standpoint of condemning them, either implicitly or explicitly, for making the decision to go over and serve in a war that a lot of them may have been conflicted about themselves.

I think one of the mistakes made by certain elements of the antiwar movement during Vietnam was the way that they treated veterans during that time. It's a mistake that we can ill afford to make a second time, because it really does two negative things. Number one, it turns off veterans from the antiwar movement, and number two, it consigns the antiwar movement to being a fringe movement. It eliminates its capacity to appeal to a broad base of society.

THE ANTIWAR movement was largely inactive last year, in large part due to many people throwing their efforts into electing John Kerry. Do you think that hurt the movement?

YES, I do. I was one of the people who actually fell into a little bit of that mistake myself. Looking back in retrospect, we lost a terrible amount of momentum. I think that the antiwar movement didn't necessary have to be condemning Kerry. It could have kept up its condemnation of Bush, but it didn't necessarily have to endorse either candidate in this election.

The antiwar movement took itself away from its purpose, which was to be an antiwar voice, and it tried to be an electoral voice. An antiwar movement is not something that blooms up within the realm of electoral politics. It always has been and always will be something that operates outside of the electoral political structure--applying pressure from the outside. For individuals to make that decision to become involved in electoral politics is one thing, but the antiwar movement as a whole really took a few steps backward--it lost the momentum it had built up.

I think that the antiwar movement hurts itself when it gets into the idea of endorsing candidates. What the antiwar movement should do is apply pressure for the candidates to endorse the antiwar movement.

We come to expect a messiah to save us from all of the problems that we face in our political system. Yes, we do need politicians who are sympathetic to our views in order to get things enacted, but we also have to get out of the mindset that politicians are going to solve our problems for us. They're not.

Politicians are followers. It's very rare that you have politicians who will be bold and go against what the broader public opinion may be in order to advance something that they believe to be morally right. I think that we need to get politicians to get on board with us, rather than look to them.

WHAT DO you think is at stake for the U.S. government in Iraq?

THE FRENCH historian Emmanuel Todd in his book, After the Empire, described the American military misadventure in Iraq as attempting to hold on to a hegemony that no longer exists. That, basically, is what I believe the U.S. government is trying to do right now.

The U.S. doesn't need the oil that's in Iraq. However, the rest of the industrialized world depends upon oil in the Middle East to maintain their economic standards. By controlling the spigot of oil from the Middle East, the U.S. can maintain a position of power and privilege in the world.

However, we are seeing how quickly the military situation has deteriorated over there, despite the reports about the election. Iraqis voted, but the slate of candidates they voted for ran on a platform of the U.S. leaving.

Basically, the U.S. governing elite is consumed with ideas like national honor and saving face, no matter what the casualties are, but things will reach a point where they will no longer have a choice. U.S. officials talk about how we're at the summit of our power and influence, or that we haven't even reached it yet--that we're on the verge of some Golden Age. That golden age has past, and we're actually on the decline. The longer the current situation in Iraq drags on, it's just going to make the fall that much harder for everyone concerned.

Service members can visit the Peace Out Web site to learn their options and get support in applying for conscientious objector status.

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