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An antiwar vet talks about the growing...
Dissent in the ranks

January 26, 2007 | Pages 6 and 7

CHANAN SUAREZ DÍAZ was a Navy corpsman who was deployed to Iraq in September 2005. He returned to the U.S. after being wounded in February 2006, and was sent to Southeast Asia. Upon coming back to the U.S., he became active in the antiwar movement, joining Iraq Veterans Against the War in Seattle. He was honored with a Purple Heart and Navy Commendation Medal with Valor.

Chanan spoke to Socialist Worker's ERIC RUDER about how his experiences in Iraq transformed his views--about himself and the role of the U.S. in the world.

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WHAT DID you think of the war before you left for Iraq?

I DIDN'T agree with the war, but I went because I was a Navy corpsman, which is a medic. So my motivation was to go and help as much as possible to save people's lives if something went wrong.

I was attached to eight Marines, and often, our mission was to carry out sweeps, where we would bust down doors and search people's houses. Because I look Arab and knew some Arabic at the time, Iraqis that we came in contact with were more comfortable speaking with me. So I would usually sit and watch over the residents of the houses, while the other guys searched.

As I sat, I would ask them questions--like what do they feel about the U.S. being there? And pretty much everyone said that they were initially for the U.S. being there to overthrow Saddam, but they now wanted the U.S. out--and that ever since we've been there, their lives have become worse.

What you can do

Information about Lt. Ehren Watada's case and what you can do to support him, including the February 5 national day of action, can be found at the Thank You Lt. Ehren Watada Web site.

Active-duty soldiers can register their discontent by signing the Appeal for Redress. Troops who need advice about their rights should go to GI Rights Hotline Web site or call 800-394-9544 from the U.S. or 510-465-1472 from outside the U.S.

Go to the Iraq Veterans Against the War Web site for news and updates about war resisters and other initiatives.

Antiwar coalitions, campus groups and individuals can sign on to a petition, initiated by Noam Chomsky, Cindy Sheehan, Howard Zinn and others, at calling for immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops.

For an excellent history of the GI rebellion during the U.S. war on Vietnam, read David Cortright's Soldiers in Revolt, newly republished by Haymarket Books. David Zeiger's Sir! No Sir! is an inspiring documentary about the Vietnam soldiers' revolt, and is available on DVD, along with many other supplemental materials.

 

I came from a very politicized platoon. We were very politically conscious, because we would have these constant debates of left versus right, so even the guys in the middle became more political and informed.

On my mother's side, we have a Jewish ancestor, so before I came to Iraq, I was a Zionist. But when I was in Iraq, I learned in talking with Iraqis that they didn't hate Jewish people, they hated the state of Israel. It really opened up my eyes to the suffering of Arabs, because I used to be very racist toward Arabic people. So throughout my stay there, I was questioning a lot of my prior views about the world.

Late one night, I was sitting in one of the homes we were sweeping, and I started talking to an Iraqi medical student who lived there. I asked him what he thought of the war, and he said that the U.S. is here for the oil.

That was the first time I ever made the oil connection--he explained how the U.S. wanted to control the oil, make money and control Iraq. That completely blew my mind at the time. We lost 10 guys in my company, and seeing all of that and a lot of innocent people dead, it just clicked.

Earlier on, I had had conversations with Marines who took part in the initial invasion, and they told me how their orders were to protect the oil fields and the Ministry of Oil. But when I was talking to this med student, it all just came together.

There we were, occupying his house, and yet he had this completely civil, deeply human conversation with me that explained all this. He sat down, and I sat down, and I had my weapon with me, and yet he just talked very calmly and gave me examples to show why he thought this.

When one of my Marines came and I explained to him that this med student thinks that we're here because of the oil, and I think he's probably right, this Marine replied, "That's such a radical leftist view."

And from there on, I held on to that. In my recollection, I don't remember reading the mainstream press talk about the oil motivations of the war, but I learned it there. This Marine was liberal on certain social issues, but when it came to Iraq, he was still caught up with the whole 9/11 thing, and the idea that we were liberating the Iraqi people.

Our whole squad would have political arguments like this every day. Basically, I was the left spokesman, and there was this other guy who was the extreme right wing. He was an evangelical Christian from Arkansas. He and I would debate about Iraq, and then everyone else would chime on. Sometimes, it would get to the point where everyone got mad, because it became really heated.

I would talk about the state of the occupation. I would ask: How are we making these people's lives better? I would tell the guys how regular Iraqis were telling me that their lives were way better under Saddam Hussein.

The first month we were there, hardly anybody walked down the streets--kids weren't going to school, people didn't go to the marketplace, regular life routines didn't happen because people were so scared of being killed, either by the mujahadeen or the U.S. So we would debate about the role of Sunni and Shia people in Iraq. At that time, the big political question was what the Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was up to.

We were there right before the election in January, when the focus was on "bringing democracy" to the Iraqis and the inked purple fingers and so on. In Ramadi where we were, we had the lowest voter turnout in all of Iraq. Luckily, nothing significant happened that day, although we all thought this would be the day of jihad.

Some people thought that Sistani was good because he calmed people down and would get people to work more with the government. But at the time, my analysis was very limited. I didn't fully understand the U.S. divide-and-conquer strategy.

Now, looking back and understanding how the U.S. pits different groups against each other, I remember how we worked with Kurdish commandos, who hated the Sunnis.

I remember doing ops at night, and the commandos would come with us. They were the only ones allowed to go into mosques. For U.S. soldiers, mosques were a no-go zone. You didn't shoot at a mosque unless you got a contact from a mosque. But the Kurdish forces were allowed to go in, and they didn't have any mercy. They were ruthless. This fit the whole U.S. divide-and-conquer strategy.

CAN YOU talk about the time you and your squad refused a mission?

OUR COMPANY had already taken a bunch of casualties. We had already lost about eight people. And November was the worst month. We lost an average of a Marine a week. Then four snipers got killed on the same night.

My platoon was unique since its inception. It was completely an enlisted platoon. Usually, platoons are headed by an officer, and then a senior enlisted, and it goes down to the lowest-ranking person. But in my platoon, the person in the officer position was my gunnery sergeant.

Our first CO was killed by a suicide bomber. And then we had a new CO who wanted us to go on a death mission.

I was a part of the Second Battalion, Fifth Marines, which is the most decorated battalion in the Marine Corps, and it's an infantry battalion. We relieved the Second Battalion, Fourth Marines, and they wanted us to do the same death mission that one of its squads--which is eight Marines, plus a Navy corpsman, for a total of nine--did.

The squad was completely wiped out. They got ambushed in a bad part of Ramadi, and all of them were killed--their bodies were stripped and left on the street. They wanted us to do the same thing--to go on the same route, but have backup at some distance. They wanted us to draw the fire, call in the backup and then wipe them out.

We were tasked to do this because the other platoons were headed by officers, and since we had our officer position held by an enlisted man, he was outranked, so it became our job.

I was outspoken about what I thought from the start. I straight out told everyone that I don't feel good about this mission, I don't like it, I don't want to go. And this spread within the platoon. Everyone was huddled in groups, debating--should we do this, should we not. I kept on pushing and said that we should tell them we're not going to go.

Finally, the mission was supposed to go down at 1 p.m., and it was 12:45, and we weren't even geared up because everyone was still debating. We basically came to a consensus that we weren't going to go. The platoon sergeant saw what was going on, and he left and spoke to the gunny, and then the gunny spoke to the CO.

At this point, we were all scared. We didn't know what was going to happen, but we knew we didn't want to go. It was a revolt--we were refusing to go, and that can mean big trouble.

The gunny came back just five minutes before we were supposed to head out, and still no one has their gear. And he tells us that the CO has changed his mind, and we're going to do another mission at an Army base.

Everyone was so relieved. If the gunny came and said you need to get your shit together because we're going to do this, we weren't going to go, but it never came to that.

WHAT HAPPENED in the incident where you were injured?

I WAS with a weapons company, and we drove Humvees with weapons on top. We were out early morning, and we were doing sweeps and searches in a particular area of the city. We stayed in one house for five or six hours, and the house had five or six families living in it.

I spoke to one family, a really lovely family. They spoke some English, and I spoke in my broken Arabic. And an Iraqi woman was asking me for some basic medicine they didn't have--over-the-counter stuff like Tylenol and throat lozenges.

Now published in Arabic
U.S. War Crimes in Iraq and Mechanisms for Accountability

"This report on the war crimes of the current administration is an invaluable resource, with a meticulous presentation of the evidence and an astute examination of international law."
-- Howard Zinn, historian, playwright and social activist

This report was published in October of last year by 10 organizations, including Socialist Worker, to document the terrible conditions in Iraq caused by the war, and detail the direct responsibility of the U.S. in creating insecurity and humanitarian crisis. Now this report has been translated into Arabic in the hopes of reaching a new audience and broadening the struggle against the war.

Download the Arabic edition

Download the English edition

 

She was telling me about her 3-year-old boy, and she showed me his arm. He had IV punctures because he was suffering from leukemia. She told me that they couldn't finish his course of treatment because they didn't have the necessary medical supplies, and that he was going to die. That really hit home. And she had an older son who was about nine, and he suffered from some other illness. I gave him my watch because he was obsessed with it.

There was another platoon in the area that day, and I had a lot of issues with that platoon. To put it bluntly, they were just murderers. Two Marines in their platoon had been killed, and they just went crazy. They were notorious. Everyone knew they killed a lot of innocent people because they would brag about it.

They were in a souk, an Iraqi marketplace, they got engaged while they were doing some patrols, and they just opened up on the whole marketplace. It was midday, people were trying to do their shopping.

We reacted to that incident--we were their support. We left the houses and hauled ass to meet them at the souk, and I remember holding position in the souk for a little bit, and seeing shattered glass everywhere on the street, and bloodstains everywhere, and I remember a guy who was lying on the sidewalk.

A lot of innocent people died that day. They said that the mujahadeen were in a cemetery next to the souk, and so we got in our vehicles and got right outside the cemetery. I was in the third vehicle, and we're all geared up with Kevlar.

We're there less than 10 minutes, and then I hear a shoosh sound, and there's a huge explosion. I fell forward, the whole vehicle lifted up in the air, there's dust and debris everywhere.

Luckily, everyone was fine. I asked everyone if they were okay, and they said yes. And then I felt something trickle down my back. And this is two weeks before we're supposed to leave Ramadi, and we hadn't any serious casualties for a while. I reached back, and my hand was drenched in blood, and the pain hit me, and I started yelling, "I'm fucking hit."

All my Marines got out and pulled me out, and a big firefight started. I had trained my Marines how to do some basic medical treatment in case I wasn't there, or was wounded, and they were able to help me and control the bleeding. An RPG had blown out the back tire and the back of the vehicle, and the metal came in and penetrated my armor and went into my back. I'm lucky to still be able to walk.

They medivacced me to a huge Army base in Ramadi called Junction City, and then I was airlifted to Baghdad, where I had my first surgery. Then they flew me to Landstuhl, Germany, and then back to the States for my final surgery in San Diego.

In a matter of 10 minutes, my whole world changed. I was completely cut off from my Marines, who I'd been with for six months.

I wasn't able to speak to my mother until after my surgery in Germany. She still hasn't recuperated, because the Army called her in the middle of the night to tell her that I got shot, and that my condition was unknown. My mom thought I was dead until I called her three days later from Germany.

GIVEN YOUR experiences from two years ago about the debates within your squad and the mini-revolt, what do you think is going on now among U.S. soldiers?

WHEN I went to Iraq, I thought I was the only one who was against the war. I felt isolated, given my opinions. But when I recuperated and finished my last year in the Navy, I went on my final deployment on a ship to Okinawa, and did a tour of southeast Asia, and I saw that there was more dissent than there was with the guys who went to Ramadi with me.

I remember talking to guys before we went on the last deployment who were still pro-Bush, and right after the deployment, a lot of the same guys were completely against Bush, and they didn't agree with the war. But they didn't know what they could do, other than listen to what they were being told. They didn't have any examples of encouragement, other than what I told them.

People are pissed off in the ranks. I have two friends who are stationed in western Iraq, and they've been there over seven months. The day after Bush proposed the surge of 21,500 additional troops, I got an e-mail from them saying how they were just cussing out the president. Their tour has been extended three months beyond what it was supposed to be.

The longer this war gets, the more people are going to rebel within the military, and there will be more people deserting, going AWOL and filing for conscientious objector status.

At the beginning, people thought the war was for freedom, but as time goes by, they realize it's not about that. The soldiers and Marines are going over there with one idea--to come back home. They want to bring themselves and their buddies back alive.

We don't hear about this kind of stuff in the mainstream media, though. Whenever journalists go to Iraq to interview people, the command handpicks the Marines to speak to, and they tell them this is what you can talk about, and this is what you can't talk about. They censor any information a journalist gets, and they have officers sitting in on the interview just in case somebody tells the truth. If someone does that, they usually cut off whoever's speaking, and that person will probably get in trouble.

So they keep a lot of news about combat refusals or resistance internal, so people don't hear about it. Because they know if word got out, this kind of behavior will spread like wildfire within the ranks.

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