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An Iraq war veteran speaks out:
Questioning our role in a crusade for oil profits

February 24, 2006 | Pages 10 and 11

JEFF ENGLEHART is a former specialist in the U.S. Army's 1st Infantry Division. While serving in Iraq, he became an outspoken opponent of the war, communicating along with several fellow soldiers through the Internet, as the bloggers hEkLe, Heretic and Joe Public. The three earned a reputation for reporting what was really taking place in occupied Iraq--especially during the brutal U.S. siege of Falluja--on their Web log at ftssoldier.blogspot.com.

Returning from Iraq a year ago, Jeff began speaking out openly against an occupation for oil and U.S. empire. He wrote this article for Socialist Worker.

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I WILL never forget the day the soles of my tan leather boots made contact with a gray tarmac runway at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Stoically, our company marched from the C-130 plane that had delivered us from one year in Iraq.

Funny, I thought, that these first steps of closure were not taken with the cheerful excitement that normally would accompany a soldier's glorious return from war. We were not welcomed with streamers, confetti or parades. Our homecoming presented us a bitter, freezing wind, carrying flurries of snowflakes, typical of a February afternoon in Germany.

As warriors of the desert, we were not prepared for the extreme differences in weather. The winter cold sliced like a surgeon's blade through our Gore-Tex jackets and severed the thrill of being home. Like camouflaged reptiles, our senses were dulled; our joys subdued. The barren and dismal surroundings seemed to be the physical attributes to the bewilderment that everyone seemed to be feeling unanimously.

With both feet on solid ground, I knew that the journey was over. I was home, but I could not convince myself that it was true. Only six hours ago, we were sitting in bunkers as mortar rounds impacted on Balad Air Force Base, just prior to our flight home. The concept of being in a civilized society was too surreal to understand in its entirety. The war's end seemed to be a hallucination, yet here I was at the end of the road.

My war in Iraq had proven to be excruciating. Unlike the others in my company, I had to fight a war on three different fronts. One was against an insurgency that proved elusive and deadly. Another was against the Army, as I stood openly opposed to the war and became vulnerable to harassment. The other was fought against myself, battling a conscience that longed to resist participation in an illegal occupation.

I felt tired, battered and beaten. But I had made it, barely. Many times, I had almost lost the war on each front, but had managed to fight my way through it all.

Now we were home, and the war was over. It felt good, but somehow, the cold winter day only complicated the manner of our return. For some, it was an inconvenience that could be overlooked. For me, it seemed the most appropriate ending to a long and dreary story.

Our company stood in formation under the cover of an unheated aircraft hangar, waiting for buses to take us to our Army post. I looked around at the other soldiers, wondering if their thoughts were similar to mine. Perhaps they were looking forward to meeting their estranged families. Maybe they were contemplating how the first night at the bars would turn out. Maybe some were wondering how they could possibly make sense of the yearlong debacle.

Their emotions seemed placated as they stood with arms crossed over their bodies, staring at the ground with teeth chattering in the frosty air. No one was talking about whatever was running through their minds, including me.

As I glanced up to the hanging banner exclaiming, "Welcome Home, 1st ID!" I pondered what was next. How have I learned from this unique experience, and how could I continue the fight to end the war that was still raging on in Iraq?

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SOME PEOPLE assume that American soldiers are a faceless and mechanized fighting force, blindly following orders given to them by war hawks and profit gluttons in Washington, D.C.

These soldiers are compared to "storm troopers," marching through obliterated towns in an ever-expanding empire. Unfeeling, uncaring, their rifles aimed toward the horizon with patriotic fervor and the American flag behind them, U.S. soldiers are commonly viewed as a world police force, killing in the name of democracy.

Most think that soldiers do not contemplate the ramifications of their jobs, nor is it their place to question the mission. They have the reputation of wholeheartedly supporting their commander-in-chief and never harboring antiwar sentiments.

However, what is commonly missing from discussion is that soldiers are people, inherently capable of thinking individually, and they can easily come to despise warfare while engaged in its bloody practice.

It wasn't until after I joined the Army that I began to understand what the American soldier represents. Early in my enlistment, I came to despise the weak and callow men of authority, hiding behind their pretentious shields of rank and prestige. I realized that I was low in the chain of hierarchy, and came to view GIs as a lowly proletariat, without a voice or a chance.

Their system was enforced by draconian rules and idiotic regulations, and held together by conformity and fear. Individual thought was not encouraged. Orders were passed down from higher echelons and obeyed unconditionally every step of the way. Military life, for me, was stale and rigid. I felt surrounded by stupidity and herd mentality.

To preserve a different state of mind, I began to educate myself on U.S. imperialism and its history of enforcing hegemonic control over the world. I saw the Army for what it was: a powerful militant arm of a corrupt and ruthless government; the crack at the end of the whip. I was just another cog in the war machine, but I knew instinctively that in their world, knowledge was power.

I was naïve when I signed an Army contract, thinking that I could do some good for myself and my country. I was ignorant when I traded indentured service for college money and a chance to see the world. I enlisted prior to September 11th and did not expect war in the foreseeable future.

What a fool I was! That contract would send me to Iraq three years later. But in the long run, this mistake would prove to be a valuable lesson. Military service and live combat is an education that one cannot buy in college. I saw firsthand the depraved condition of power and greed and the detriment of a corporate-driven war waged on innocent people.

Ultimately, it was the war in Iraq that single-handedly forged my strong antiwar beliefs. While some may argue that soldiers do not--or should not--question the mission, I know from personal experience that not only is it possible to develop antiwar sentiments during warfare, but very probable. As soldiers are faced with death, destruction and deep personal guilt during their role as occupiers, more and more of them will begin to question the reasons for such madness, and eventually grow to resent and oppose the nature of war itself.

I made it a personal resolution to speak out against war the very moment I arrived in Iraq.

It did not take long for me to feel convinced that the war was wrong. As a gunner in a cavalry scout platoon, my view of what was going came from behind the perspective of a truck-mounted machine gun.

Upon our arrival, we conducted missions in Humvees that lacked even a shred of armor. The truck doors were made of plastic, and the windows could be shattered by a well-aimed rock. Gunners were the most susceptible, and the only form of protection was the trigger.

Daily, we raced down the streets of Baquba, trying to avoid direct contact with roadside bombs. Our missions primarily consisted of counter-mortar operations, house raids, combat patrols and escorting KBR-Halliburton convoys from one base to another. With time and strong words from congressmen, our trucks received adequate armor, but the mission never changed.

Many soldiers began to question our purpose in Iraq. We worked long hours at any given time, but did not see the Iraqi population ever warm to our presence. Despite many promises from our government to rebuild the Iraqi infrastructure, there was nothing but conflict. Schools were not being built, civilian populations continued without electricity or running water, and hospitals were desperately ill equipped.

Our military came to Iraq to build nothing more than a police state, setting up roadblocks and vehicle checkpoints, and storming random houses, based on bad intelligence.

After these tasks became too dangerous for our forces, we began to utilize subservient Eastern European militaries and U.S.-trained Iraqi paramilitaries to do the dirty work. While the Bush administration was boasting of success back home, we soldiers felt that we were involved in an endless game of cat and mouse.

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AS MY own personal frustration became unbearable, I began to feel the need to speak out against the war. I found the best way to vent these frustrations was to write about what I saw and how I felt on the Web site "Fight To Survive," which I shared with two like-minded friends.

In writing about the war, I felt that I was making the best of a bad situation, by informing the outside world of the real conditions of Iraq. Writing also helped me to atone for the guilt I felt in being involved in a malicious war.

By writing antiwar/anti-government material, I placed myself in great personal danger from a disapproving chain of command. I used the pen name "hEkLe" to hide my true identity. But as the Web site gained more readers, anonymity no longer protected the site from leering eyes.

Eventually, the command uncovered the source of writings and singled out the authors. Drastic punishments were to be expected for such dissidence. Harassment soon followed. During this time, I began to feel as though I had an enemy on both sides of the wire: The insurgents who were out to kill me as an American, and the Army that was out to crucify me for sedition.

Luckily in the end, Army intelligence and the Criminal Investigation Department could find no wrongdoing as far as leaking classified information. We were only guilty of speaking our minds. No punishments were issued, although we received the occasional browbeating and discrimination.

Soldiers have a very limited freedom of speech--one that hardly exists at all. The ironic aspect is that soldiers go to war to protect this freedom, which they can never have themselves.

This type of hypocrisy catalyzed my desire to speak out against all hypocrisies that Americans are faced with at home. It became a personal goal to return home and help the public to understand the truth. However, as I departed from the Army and returned home, I began to discover the difficulties of challenging the status quo in a massively divided nation.

While being stationed in Europe for four years, I had only been home for one two-week leave. So when I returned home in 2005, I felt as though I hadn't been home in ages. Being overseas for that long had alienated me from American customs and social demeanors. I did not know the latest popular trend, the favorite actor or best TV show, or how I would react to new rules placed on American citizens. When I found myself stepping off a jetliner, I had no idea of what to expect.

Suddenly, I had discovered that, much to my dismay, the America I had left in 2001 had changed drastically for the worse. The Bush regime, the USA PATRIOT Act, a thriving police apparatus, a dismal economy and incredible social unrest--these traits marked bad times and worse to come. This was the New America.

Despite the odds of opposition, I submerged myself in a progressive antiwar scene. I met with other veterans of wars, both past and present, and attended gatherings, protests and demonstrations. I worked in solidarity with groups like Veterans For Peace and the new fledging Iraq Veterans Against War. Together, we were present when Camp Casey was erected in Crawford, Texas, and when thousands marched at the peaceful protest in Washington, D.C., during September 2005.

We were met with scorn and rule-crazy cops every inch of the way. However frustrating this may have been, we continued the drive for peaceful solutions at every obstacle we encountered.

The struggle thus far has been a matter of give and take. Protesting goes only so far, especially in a new society filled with "free speech zones" and unlawful arrests for citizens exercising their First Amendment rights.

Other problems exist within the movement itself. There is an incredibly large portion of society that feels disenfranchised by the current trend and forms into many groups of opposition.

Unfortunately, what we are faced with is a lack of solidarity among these groups. Much like what was seen at the September protest in D.C., different affinity groups collided into one appearance and seemed to compete for media coverage, while critical antiwar fronts like Iraq Veterans Against War went largely misrepresented and ignored.

Another unfortunate setback for the current movement is the vulgar hierarchical setup of these organizations. While centralized leadership may work to help to collect an initial movement of individuals, its presence in organizing actions tend to make a group sluggish, lethargic and willing to bow to the institutions to which it is opposed.

Furthermore, this centralized hierarchy robs a group of what should be its fundamental function--that of absolute democracy. When members of a group feel that their voice is no longer heard, it creates a disaffection that could very well extinguish the flames of resistance. So while there are many outside antagonistic forces to deal with head-on, there are many improvements within the scene that must be made if any achievements are to come.

Other major issues need to be addressed as well. A huge problem that activist groups need to confront immediately is the lack of ingenuity and general malaise. Too often, these groups gather and plan for weeks at a time, but fail to make an impressive appearance in the public eye.

Perhaps the true meaning of "direct action" has been lost. Most confuse direct action with direct violence. On the contrary, an effective direct action must be peaceful, but must also completely disregard conventional authority. Direct action can come in the form of a massive act of civil disobedience. The movement should be reluctant to fight fire with fire, but it should not shy away from authorities either.

One has to wonder where civil rights would be today if not for protesters of the 60s who were willing to confront the authorities on the front lines. Not only did they take to the streets in enormous numbers, but they were also willing to sacrifice personal safety in the form of abuse by water hoses and billy clubs.

One should also acknowledge the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War, where protesters and veterans alike marched to the steps of Congress and demanded to be heard. Direct action was even utilized by Vietnam soldiers in the fashion of sabotage and massive combat refusals to literally destroy the functions of the war machine. Even in recent years, direct action and civil disobedience were used when thousands of protesters successfully shut down the proceedings of the World Trade Organization in 1999.

Of course, this type of resistance cannot happen overnight, but must be pursued through hard work and perseverance. The only question is: How long will it take for millions of agitated Americans to hit the streets and challenge this oppressive system?

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PERHAPS THE most dangerous scoundrel we are faced with today is outright apathy. A crucial shortcoming of any progressive movement is the lack of concerned individuals acting together in solidarity.

There are many reasons for this widespread apathetic disease. Some people are simply blinded by what our government wants us to believe. Upon my return to the United States, I noticed that now, more than ever, people are distracted by the hyper-capitalist lifestyle, of which they are victims. These "casualties of society" are led to believe that success is measured by the amount of goods and services owned and consumed.

Freedom is only the freedom to shop. We are duped into believing in the spectacle of the perfect American Way of life. The citizenry becomes overwhelmed by false expectations of happiness. The government takes advantages of these shortcomings through the use of rhetoric and propaganda. Uncle Sam guides the blind down the dark path of ignorance into a dominion of xenophobia and constant fear. The perturbed citizenry desperately turns to these exploitive forces for protection, only to fall in line with a war-crazed and hysterical jingoism. More desperation leads to more apathy.

Some individuals become exhausted attempting to resist this ugly transformation, but ultimately feel helpless. They resort to apathy only after realizing that the world is doomed, but feel nothing can be done to prevent the growing catastrophe.

For example, when global antiwar demonstrations were held just prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it was an enormous voice of dissent went completely ignored by the sadistic powers who orchestrate war. It was a serious blow for individuals who honestly cared.

However, as we are now approaching the third year of a bloody and disparaging war, it is extremely important that we do not give up.

Apathy has always been an illness in large societies, but in these menacing times, an educated and sensitive populace is more imperative than ever. A widespread response is now more than possible, as the pendulum seems to be swinging the other way.

The Bush administration is being exposed for the liars and criminals that they are. George Bush's impeachment is being openly discussed in America. While this may seem to be quite inefficient in light of the horrible travesties committed against humanity and true freedom, it is a huge step in the right direction. It means that people all over the world are beginning to awake from their slumber and place guilty parties responsible.

At this crucial time, the antiwar movement has a huge responsibility to kick their efforts into high gear. Our solidarity must exceed national boundaries. We must continue to stand opposed to war and global oppression. Through peaceful direct action and civil disobedience, we can demand a more rational society. It is no longer a matter of fighting for a utopia of ideas, but rather a fight for survival as human beings.

The turning point in this struggle will surely come among Iraq War veterans. Already, more and more veterans are beginning to question their roles in a crusade for oil profits and corporate domination of the Middle East. And as they slowly return home, their experiences in this war will only be confounded by an America that is left in shambles.

Veterans will begin to ask themselves, "What good is a war that kills innocent Muslims when the real enemies are at home?" Their glorious return will be welcomed by corrupt officials in the White House, who neglect the best interests of their friends and family in their communities. America will open her arms to these soldiers with slim job prospects and a future of struggling poverty.

They will walk down the streets of their hometown, only to engage in more combat against an unruly police force--one example being Iraq veteran Elio Carrion who was horrifically shot by a trigger-happy pig while on leave in his hometown in California (http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=8907384305326268846&q=cop+shooting).

They will arrive only to see the Constitution being torn to pieces by the very men who sent them to defend it in the name of freedom and democracy. The oath to " defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic" is a solemn one, and with eyes wide open, these veterans will.

Someday, all the soldiers will come home from this war, and when they do, their stories and sentiments will follow.

One year has passed since that cold winter day in Germany. As I look back, I begin to realize that it wasn't the frigid air that froze my reasoning into shock. Instead, it was the realization that I had somehow survived through the madness and insanity of an entire year of conflict. The battlefield was limitless, but then again, it always is.

I discovered that we are all tied to this war in one way or another. Every day, we pay the price to fight a war based on ideals that are against ourselves and others across the globe.
When understanding this price, the conclusions are truly petrifying. We can try to omit the details of horror, or we can pursue this fight under the guise of false banners, but in the end, we will only destroy ourselves.

Some argue that war is a basic human attribute, and consequently, there will always be strife. I do not believe this to be true. Even in the urban combat zones of Iraq, I saw people who were not my enemy, but people who believe in love and beauty and life, like anyone else in the world.

Human beings were never meant to wage war against each other. It is only the forces of corrupt power that persuade the masses to sacrifice their lives to the jaded exaltation of God and empire. Modern man has certainly developed the intelligence and conscious capacity to find peaceful solutions to any problem, but only if that effort is made to the fullest.

The responsibility to ensure peace and justice in the world lies with all of us. No longer should we trust in fraudulent politicians to lead us into prosperity, nor pass the liability onto others or that of future generations.

No matter if we're veterans, activists, punks, peace-freaks, tree-huggers, commies or conservatives, the walls of social differences must be removed, and a broader task undertaken. This is our world, and by all means, we should fight to take it back.

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