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Resistance in the ranks

September 14, 2007 | Pages 6 and 7

U.S. SOLDIERS have seen and experienced the brutality of the U.S. occupation in Iraq firsthand--and a growing number are becoming open and vocal opponents of the American war machine, setting an example for the antiwar movement as a whole.

After a recent meeting at the Different Drummer Café, a GI coffeehouse in Watertown, N.Y., near Fort Drum, three antiwar soldiers--two veterans and one active-duty--sat down for a roundtable discussion about the occupation of Iraq and the antiwar movement inside the U.S. military.

PHIL ALIFF is an active-duty member of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) who deployed to Iraq in 2005 and is now stationed at Fort Drum in upstate New York.

ELI ISRAEL told his commanders while stationed in Iraq that he would no longer participate in an illegal war and was released from the military last month after a court-martial.

CAMILO MEJÍA is the first U.S. soldier to go public with his refusal to continue fighting the U.S. war for oil and empire in Iraq. He served seven months' confinement for his act. He is the author of Road from Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Mejía.

Phil, Eli and Camilo talked to Socialist Worker's BRIAN LENZO and KYLE BROWN.

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.

Camilo Mejía's book, Road from Ar Ramadi, provides an eyewitness account of the brutality inflicted by the U.S. in Iraq--and how Mejía made the decision to take a stand against it.

For an excellent history of the GI rebellion during the U.S. war on Vietnam, read David Cortright's Soldiers in Revolt, 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.

 

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THE BUSH administration keeps telling us that things are getting better. While you were in Iraq, did you see progress?

Phil
We ended up in Abu Ghraib City, which is a suburb of western Baghdad, under the shadow of Abu Ghraib prison. We were told we would be there for three months, and then hand over control to the Iraqi army.

We went into the city and took it over using Gestapo methods. Attacks dropped for a period, but as we were leaving, attacks rose to such a level that even the main camp outside of our area of operations was being mortared and rocketed heavily every single day.

When we moved west toward Falluja, we saw that we were essentially chasing down the people we had driven out of Abu Ghraib, and now we were just driving them out again.

Camilo
Even as I deployed to Iraq with a political opposition to the war, I guess part of me still believed that we could still do good things through military action.

One of the most striking things that I remember about my time in Iraq was the time that we protected the al-Haditha dam. We came into contact with a lot of people who were professionals--electrical, industrial and chemical engineers.

I remember telling them that you're going to be set now that we're here and American corporations are going to take over, and because you guys speak English and are engineers with a lot of experience, you're going to be making a lot of money.

And I actually believed that, but now I'm ashamed of my ignorance. When the contractors finally came in, I remember that we had geologists, engineers and physicists doing construction work for $5 a day. The jobs that really required a certain level of trust weren't given to Iraqis but to third-country nationals.

The way that we conducted our missions, with disregard for the lives of Iraqis, going out of our way to do missions near mosques and hospitals, infuriated people. Because we weren't protecting civilians, this was creating a bigger resistance.

When I came home and surrendered to the military and went public with my criticism, the attitude in the military was not to investigate my claims about torture or killings of civilians, but to quiet me and make me look like I was the criminal--that I had done something wrong.

The military doesn't pay attention to the people on the ground who actually know what's going on. And the attitude in the military makes the situation unwinnable, not only because we went there under false premises, but also because of the attitude we have--it's not about spreading democracy but ravaging the country and taking their natural resources.

The strategy isn't working because it's flawed from the beginning--Iraqis know damn well why we're there, and the delusion of sending more troops only makes the situation worse.

Eli
The Iraqis don't want us in their country or in their neighborhoods, and we're not respecting them as people. We're going into neighborhoods where no one wants to kill us, and six months later, everybody does. And there are reasons for that.

It has to do with our fundamental perspective on the war, the way we maintain a stranglehold on the country, and the way we impose our "assistance" on Iraqis against their will.

A lot of what we are doing is counterproductive and destructive to them as a society. It's not just disrespectful. It's destroying lives because our interests--not their interests--are our primary concern.

I don't say that because I think it may be true, I say it because I know it to be true. I've seen it with my own eyes. And I have evidence, which I'm forbidden from being able to tell you, to back this up.

If we try to define "terrorists" in the way that they want us to define terrorists, we'll never really have any clearly defined enemy. "Insurgents," "al Qaeda"--these are terms that they use freely to define anyone that they want to.

Most of the insurgents and militants are the equivalent of an armed neighborhood watch. They're doing no different than you and I would probably be doing if tanks were rolling through our city, if people were kicking in our doors without probable cause, if our little sisters were getting killed "by accident."

This isn't the war we're being told it is. Once we realize that, it changes everything.

A lot of people say that the war in Iraq is about oil. I think that's a side issue. I personally, through my experience, have come to the conclusion that it's about control.

You rob somebody's home, and you can say that you're mainly interested in jewelry, but someone robbing a home will probably take anything of value. What we're doing in the Middle East is about control--militarily, politically, environmentally and in every other way possible forcing our will on another people.

WHAT EFFECT do you think the surge is having?

Eli
Militarily, you can't fight "terrorism" by browbeating "terrorists." You can't terrify terrorists into not attacking you.

And let's throw out the word "terrorists." You can't browbeat people into not attacking you. Believe it or not, most people want to live in peace. Believe it or not, most Palestinians and Israelis want to live in peace.

I've changed my perspective on the world in so many ways because of what's going on in Iraq. To think that they would continue this situation forever without us doing the things we're doing is ridiculous.

We're creating people to attack us tomorrow. The doors that are getting kicked in, the people who are being harassed, the children who are crying, the women who are seeing their houses torn apart in front of them, the men who are being shot while defending their own families, the neighbors who are being interrogated with Tasers to turn in their neighbors--all of those people are going to hate us for what we're doing.

When are we going to accept responsibility?

Phil
This idea that we can kill all evil until evil is dispelled--it's not created with an understanding of the subjugation that the Iraqi people are going through right now.

They've put all these extra troops in Baghdad, but look at the violence that's happened outside of Baghdad. Look at a car bomb in northern Iraq in August that killed 500 people--it's the worst car bomb in the history of the war. And this happened during the surge.

Diyala province has lots of fighting. Ramadi is as bad as it's ever been if not worse. You can put extra troops in Baghdad, but the problem is that Iraq as a whole has been torn open to violence.

And we're not addressing the real reasons Baghdad is so violent--which are the sectarian divisions that the U.S. has whipped up to keep domination over the country, bringing radical Shia groups into the political process, empowering Sunnis to fight against al-Qaeda, empowering the Kurds to fight against Arabs.

Look at the city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, where you have a very strong Kurdish movement that's looking to take over Kurdistan. The Americans are being wedged between the Arabs and the Kurds because this is a very oil-rich part of Iraq.

The Bush administration can talk about how well the surge is working, but they really aren't answering the real questions about why the violence is happening--why there are still sectarian killings every day, and why Americans are still dying every day at the same or worse rate as before.

Camilo
I like Eli's analogy about going into someone's home to impose your will on them, and they want you out. It's not a matter of how do we get out or when do we get out, or let's talk about a timetable.

Look at the surge within the context of that analogy. How will you solve the problem by bringing more people into a home that's not yours, and where they want you out?

PEOPLE SAY there will be chaos if the U.S. just leaves. How do you respond to that?

Phil
I think it's inherently racist to think that the Iraqis can't rule their country. The fact of the matter is that before the war, Iraq had some of the best scientists and doctors in the region. In terms of people that had technical skills and knowledge, Iraq was a leading country in the Middle East.

Now, more than 2 million people have left the country, and another 2 million have been internally displaced.

Camilo
The Pentagon says that 80 percent of the attacks are targeting coalition troops or entities that work for coalition troops, such as militias under radical clerics. By withdrawing from Iraq, a lot of this violence would end.

It's also racist to think that Iraqis are happy to be invaded and occupied, and what's happening is all these other countries are fighting, but Iraqis are sitting on their butts and waiting for others to fight for their sovereignty.

By and large, what's happening is a popular uprising in response to an occupation, so the first step that we need to take is to remove all troops from Iraq.

Eli
The Johns Hopkins report says we've killed somewhere between 600,000 and 800,000 Iraqi civilians since we've been there. That's more than wee lost in our own Civil War.

Proportionally, that's equivalent to wiping out the entire Eastern seaboard of the United States. How in the world can we look at this and say we know what's best for you, you don't, and we're going to help you figure it out? It's obnoxious and absurd.

WHY DID you choose to resist?

Camilo
I got tired of being afraid. I realized that with everything that happened in Iraq--and a lot of messed-up shit happened, from the torture of prisoners to the killing of civilians to the unnecessary exposure of our own troops--and the inability to stand for what I believed was the right thing to do, and being there with the political conviction that the war was wrong, freedom really has nothing to do with not being in shackles or chains but with your own ability to do what you believe in your heart to be the right thing to do.

I had to overcome my fear. I knew all along what the right thing was but I hadn't had the freedom to act upon that belief.

It got to the point where I could no longer conciliate my conscience with my military duty, and I decided that whenever being a good soldier and being a good human being came into conflict, the right thing to do was be a good human being.

Eli
Primarily, I learned to have a respect for the Iraqi people. I went over there completely convinced of that we were being told about who the Iraqis are, where they've come from, what they believe and what they believe about me.

I'm Jewish, and from a Jewish perspective, to go into a Muslim country was a hurdle I had to overcome. I thought that they all hated me because I was Jewish, and a lot of them thought I hated all of them because I was Jewish. But that's simply not the way it is.

I learned that many Iraqis were very intelligent, kind people, who didn't need to be ruled and told how to live their lives because they were perfectly capable of living their own lives in a way that made them happy.

HOW HAVE other soldiers in the military reacted to you resisting?

Eli
Most people agree. I'm still looking for the droves of supporters for this conflict--they're just not out there. The closest thing I've run into as far as actual support for the occupation has been sincere, good-hearted people who really think that we just need to trust our leadership to be telling us the truth.

That's sincere-hearted naiveté. And I know enough and I've seen enough to know it's not just naïve--it's stupid, and it's dangerous, and people are dying because of it. But our losses are nothing compared to the losses of the people whose country we're occupying.

Camilo
It's worth remembering that I resisted in 2003 and went public in 2004, and the war and the president still had a lot of approval. But even then, I still received a lot of support from members of the military. I did get called a "coward" and "traitor" a couple of times, but mostly by people who had not been to Iraq.

I talked about the politics, the illegality and the immorality of the war, but I also touched on the issues that dealt with the hypocrisy of "support the troops" while active-duty soldiers here still have equipment from the 1980s.

So I spoke against the war on many different levels, and I think people coming from different perspectives were able to see eye-to-eye with me on a lot of those issues.

Eli
The closest thing I've encountered to any significant level of disagreement from military personnel would be what I considered to be resentment, because most people agree--if you get them off the topic that I signed a contract and all this other stuff they've been brainwashed into thinking.

If you get them to the point where they actually discuss with you what they think is right, they agree. The vast majority of those who have taken part in this occupation agree that we don't need to be there. And it's not just that we don't need to be there, it's that we need to not be there.

How do they deal with us? That's where a lot of the anger and hostility directed toward me came from among those in my chain of command. It was a recognition that both sides of this issue are not going to be able to come out of it looking good.

So what side do you fall on? Do you fall on the side of those who are taking a stand against it or those who are continuing to justify it to themselves because it's the only way they sleep at night?

That's what I was stuck doing for a period of months in Iraq. I got to the point of questioning what was going on and having serious doubts that what I was doing was moral, and then having to justify to myself every day that maybe it's for the greater good or because I signed a contract. Those justifications last for a while, but they eat you up inside.

The lashing out is toward those who have the conviction and the guts to say I think it's wrong, and I'm not going to have anything to do with it. This isn't about a contract. This is about life and death, this is about truth, and it's not based on a piece of paper or other symbolisms we're supposed to honor--honor, courage, commitment, duty, loyalty. Those are human, moral qualities.

The oath to military service that we took was an oath of moral conviction. It was not an oath to freedom from it.

PHIL, YOU have a unique situation working with the IVAW chapter in Watertown and the Different Drummer Café. How do soldiers respond when they come here?

Phil
It's interesting. When we have events here, you can see a transformation. I hate to generalize, but it's true that a lot of soldiers come in, and they're hesitant. They don't agree with the war, but they wonder if we're on the fringe. They don't know what to expect.

But when they hear what we have to say, when they hear us talk about our experiences, it's such a universal idea that anyone in the military can wrap their head around it--if they can get past that wall that's been built up, which Eli was talking about.

You see the transformation once they're leaving. They're ready to take that step forward--to speak and say the things they have to say against the war and against the injustices of the occupation, against veterans coming home and not being taken care of.

Eli
I don't know how many people in the military know that the information that gets to them is being filtered.

If you go on a computer at the Moral Welfare Recreation center in Iraq or Kuwait, and I assume anywhere in the Middle East, and you type in a Google search or try to access directly sites such as ivaw.org or couragetoresist.org--organizations of veterans who oppose the conflict in Iraq--it's blocked. And it says that the reason it's blocked is that it's an advocacy organization.

The government itself is filtering out these organizations intentionally. They don't trust you to make your own decision--they don't want you to know. If you do have questions, they want to think that you're alone.

This isn't accidental. It's an intentional information war on the American soldier and on the American people.

WHAT STRATEGIES do you think are important in getting people in the military who are asking questions to take the next step towards resisting?

Phil
Going into the fall, the IVAW is trying to reach out to soldiers and potential military recruits in many ways. Some of it is through direct action and demonstrations, and some of it is through chapter building and building on military bases. As we did at Fort Drum, we're trying to create dedicated and politically educated organizers who are able to take those tools and reach out and find other soldiers.

And next spring, we're trying to recreate the Winter Soldier testimony organized during the Vietnam War. We're going to have soldiers come together--both active-duty and veterans--and testify about the war crimes that they've seen.

We want to give active-duty soldiers a voice and let them tell their stories about what's happening in Iraq, and show the world what's going on. And we want to work with other organizations on counter-recruiting, fall demonstrations and other efforts to build the antiwar movement and bring the IVAW more credibility in organizing GI resistance.

THE MAJORITY of this country opposes this war. What can civilians do to support soldiers who choose to resist?

Eli
We need to remind them that it's okay to use their conscience. It's okay to still weigh in their own mind and heart what's right and wrong. Because we're at a time in our country where we're being told that we don't have the right to do that. Our military specifically is being told that it's your duty not to do those things, and that's a lie.

We need to remember that we founded this country based on individuals using moral conviction and moral courage to stand up for what they thought what was right, and that's what we need to get back to.

This is going to tear our country apart if we let it, and it's going to tear apart our military--it is tearing apart our military. I don't even think those doing it think they can last forever. I don't know what they're thinking, but they're cashing in on it as long as they can.

But this PTSD stuff is not a result of simple trauma that happens in war. It's a result of not being able to reconcile what's going on in their hearts with what's going on in their minds.

Camilo
I think that education and information are key. Knowledge has to be shared.

For instance, people don't just go to ivaw.org and learn that the IVAW is going to launch a counter-recruiting campaign or that we're doing this Winter Soldier thing. We have to go out there and share the information with people. We have to let people know ways that they can help.

We need to send people to attend court-martials of resisters, and we need to raise defense funds for veterans like Adam Kokesh, whose right to free speech is under attack from the military.

The corporate media isn't going to spread this information, so we have to spread it ourselves.

When Eli resisted in Iraq, I got an e-mail about it from Kelly Dougherty at IVAW. After Kelly sent that e-mail, I got that exact same e-mail from about 20 organizations. Eli Israel was everywhere. That same day, I went to a conference in Portland, Ore., where I spoke about Eli, and one of the keynote speakers that night was Sen. Mike Gravel.

We had dinner with him, and I told him about the IVAW, and he said that if there's any way that I can help, I'd love to do that. I said there's this guy named Eli Israel, and he said we've already got attorneys ready to defend him.

This happened because Eli wrote a message on MySpace to a friend, and that technology was used to spread what was happening in Iraq within hours to people everywhere.

Phil
People should support the IVAW and other organizations supporting GI resistance, either monetarily or however you can.

One of the best ways to support GI resistance is to create a mass movement outside of the military--having workers strike, having students shut down their campuses. If you look at the bombing of Cambodia in the early 1970s, 4 million students shut down their campuses. That's incredibly signficiant.

People in the military see that. When they go home for leave and when they leave their bases, they see people out on the street, and they see the mass sentiment.

That's going to affect them. That's going to give them the courage to resist, and the knowledge and the tools to know exactly what they are getting themselves into when they deploy to Iraq.

So we need to make sure that outside of supporting GI resistance, we're building a grassroots movement--a broad movement of antiwar activists that's able to tie all these things together into one cohesive message: Bring the troops home now, end the occupation.

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