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Bringing the impact of the war home to NYC

June 8, 2007 | Page 6

ONE AFTERNOON, my sister and I were waiting at a bus stop when a squad of nine U.S. soldiers in desert fatigues came upon us. The squad started barking irate orders at us, running up to us and others at the bus stop, and pointing their M-16 rifles.

"What's happening?" I yelled, after which one soldier ordered me to lie down on the ground, and not waiting for me to comply, forcibly shoved me to the concrete. What followed was confusion: the soldiers were all over the crowd; men and women were screaming; everyone was being forced to the ground, with their hands behind their heads.

I turned my head to see my sister's hands being tied behind her back with plastic ties. "We didn't do anything!" I cried out.

A soldier immediately pointed his M-16 at my head and screamed, "Turn your head the other way!" I did, and the soldier screamed again, "I said turn your head. Don't look up!" Confused, I turned my head again--what could I do when a M-16 was pointed at my head? Someone grabbed my hands and tied them, then a sack was forced over my head. Blinded, I could only hear the commotion all around me.

What you can do

For news and updates about war resisters and other initiatives by antiwar veterans and active-duty troops, go to the Iraq Veterans Against the War Web site.

The Citizen Soldier Web site is an excellent resource for active-duty soldiers looking for news and advice about resistance. Soldiers can also contact the GI Rights Hotline Web site, or call 800-394-9544 from the U.S. or 510-465-1472 from outside the U.S.


Sounds like a scene that might play out inside U.S.-occupied Iraq, right? This encounter happened on Brooklyn's Fulton Mall shopping district. My "sister" and I were actually civilian antiwar activists taking part in a street-theater event called Operation First Casualty, put on by Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW).

On the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, these intense encounters were repeated at several populated areas across New York City, including Central Park, Rockefeller Center, Times Square and at Battery Park, where throngs of people stood in line to see the Statue of Liberty. At each location, a scene was played out (with imaginary rifles, of course), while IVAW members and antiwar activists blanketed the surrounding crowd with cards explaining what the action was about.

The reaction of the crowd was typically stunned silence, followed by much support for the cause. As the IVAW cards explained, the point of the action was to bring the frightening reality of occupation back home to the U.S., showing both what it's like for Iraqis living under U.S. occupation, as well as the pressure U.S. soldiers are under, being trained to see ordinary civilians as possible "insurgents."

This last point was made evident during one scene in Union Square, where I and others simulated a legitimately angry crowd of occupied people. Shouting "Go home now!" and "We don't want you here!" the civilians clearly outnumbered the squad of soldiers--an uneasy situation for the soldiers, which often happens in Iraq.

The event was a success, with much press coverage and over 4,800 IVAW cards handed out. IVAW launched Operation First Casualty in Washington, D.C., this March and plans to continue in other major cities, including Chicago in June. This brilliant and creative set of street-theater actions was inspired--according to an IVAW member during the training session--by symbolic actions taken by antiwar vets during the Vietnam War, and thought up by a couple of IVAW members over beers one night after a protest.

The inspiration from GI resistance during the Vietnam War is important, because that antiwar resistance within the military was one of the key components that forced the U.S. to pull out of Vietnam. Today, discontent within the military has a similar potential to turn into resistance and force the U.S. out of the Middle East.

Far from being a "Let's wake up ignorant America" type of action, the IVAW cards made clear the unjust situation being forced upon Iraqi civilians and U.S. soldiers, then urged people to communicate with soldiers that they know and encourage them to get involved with IVAW.

At one site, IVAW members encountered four National Guardsmen who were to be shipped to Iraq the following week. They were against the war, but ultimately felt they had to obey orders. An active-duty IVAW member later told me, "The difference between us and them is that we don't think you should obey orders when you know the war is wrong. At least they have our Web site now, so they can check out what our members have to say."

All of the people playing soldiers in Operation First Casualty were Iraq War veterans, so reliving the experience of being the occupiers was psychologically straining. As one IVAW member told me after the training session, "I can't wait to take this uniform off."

Particularly moving were the scenes at the World Trade Center site, where IVAW members gathered in formation to pay respect and leave flowers, and the final scene at a war memorial in Grand Army Plaza. There, IVAW members paid respect to fallen soldier comrades, then one by one ceremoniously removed their military shirts and cast them into a pile, casting away the role that they had to relive that day.

The street-theater experience took a toll on antiwar activists who played civilians, too. Seeing fellow activists getting roughed up was unnerving and initially caused both tears and anger. The experience was particularly upsetting for those who had friends and family who had served in Iraq, having now had a taste of what the experience was like and what psychological baggage soldiers must carry.

While afterwards activists voiced anger and frustration that the war has continued for over five years, there was a collective sense that helping build GI resistance is of utmost importance for the antiwar movement in the long run.
Mitch Day, New York City

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