Refusing to go to Afghanistan

Holly Lewis reports on a military resister who hopes his public opposition to the war in Afghanistan will encourage more people to question the "other" U.S. war.

April 28 2009 at 11:46 am:
Victor Agosto can no longer live a double life
.

Victor AgostoVictor Agosto

ALTHOUGH IT read like the first line of a novel, everyone knew the Facebook post was nothing less than Army Spc. Victor Agosto's declaration of independence. His friends at Under the Hood, an antiwar coffeehouse for soldiers in Killeen, Texas, knew what the sentence meant: Victor was going to refuse to deploy to Afghanistan.

But his plan went far beyond excusing himself from what he considered to be another imperialist occupation. Victor would remain on base. He would become a model of resistance, an example to other GIs who might be willing to make a principled stand against an unjust war.

Agosto enlisted in August 2005 after two years of study at Miami Dade College. "I joined for the usual reasons," explained Agosto in an interview. "All the things they tell you about America when you're growing up. But mostly, I was tired of sitting in classrooms. I wanted to do something. I wanted to see the world."

Despite his patriotic upbringing, Victor had become skeptical of the war in Iraq even before his 14-month tour of duty in 2006. "It took me a while to be against Afghanistan though," says Agosto.

Agosto insists that his stand against the war is not related to his personal experience as a communications specialist at Qayyarah Airfield West, a forward operating base with a 12-mile security perimeter located 200 miles north of Baghdad. "I didn't have any traumatic experiences in Iraq," says Agosto. "I don't have PTSD. I don't have any injuries at all. I was never in any danger."

Agosto takes every opportunity to ground his resistance in a commitment to justice and a desire to take responsibility for the damage already done. During his 24th birthday celebration at Under the Hood café, Agosto explained his feelings about his role in the war:

My job in communications, its effect on human suffering could be even greater than the actions of a combat soldier. My job is to maintain communications infrastructure so troops can complete their missions. Combat soldiers are only responsible for the people they kill. It's difficult to quantify the effects of my actions, how much suffering I've helped make possible.

The animated young woman sitting beside Victor, also a communications specialist, laughs and nudges him. "Man," he says, "I was just worried about getting the job done and getting the hell out of there! Did you really think about all that in Iraq?" Victor's voice is quieter than usual. "I thought about it every day."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

FORT HOOD sits against a mesh of strip malls, take-out joints and patriotic billboards that comprise the city of Killeen. Set more than 80 miles northwest of Austin, the military installation and the city it sustains are isolated by miles of brush and wildflowers, by rolling pastures that eventually crash into the concrete ribbon of Route 35. If Killeen is remote, Fort Hood is another galaxy.

Cynthia Thomas, the manager of Under the Hood, underscores the problem of troop isolation when she courts supporters across Central Texas. "Come visit even if you don't know anything about the military," she says. "We just need civilians to talk with the active-duty soldiers. Many of them have PTSD and traumatic brain injury. They just need to be reminded they're human."

Victor maintains that it is the antiwar movement and the support of his "family" at Under the Hood that ultimately helped him find the courage to resist. But it was the books he read on war and imperialism that gradually changed his understanding of the world and his place in it.

A copy of his Army counseling statement dated May 1, 2009, reveals his transformation. Defying a direct order from his company commander, he stated on record, "There is no way I will deploy to Afghanistan. The occupation is immoral and unjust. It does not make the American people any safer. It has the opposite effect."

Spc. Agosto's clarity of thought may prove to be as beneficial to the antiwar movement as the strength of his conviction. Most resisters, through circumstance or self-preservation, go absent without leave, or AWOL, to get civilian help or avoid incarceration. Victor is still on base.

"My superiors pretty much want me to go AWOL," he explains. "Going AWOL allows them to demonize the absent soldier. If you go AWOL, you lose the ability to defend your resistance. Nobody really knows for sure why you left, so they can just tell everyone you're a coward."

But no one can call Victor a coward. Not only does he refuse orders from his superiors almost daily, he has refused conscientious objector status because it undermines his public critique of the war. "I'm not a pacifist," explains Victor. "I just won't take part in another imperialist occupation."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

AGOSTO'S COMPOSURE, intelligence and reserved humor make him a formidable fighter. Before he was a model of resistance, he was a model soldier. In 2008, the army awarded him a medal for good conduct. He even sympathizes with the sergeants swamped by the paperwork produced by his resistance. "I have no vendetta against my superiors," he says. "I just want to be an example for other soldiers."

Victor doesn't refuse all orders, only those aiding the war effort. He does not refuse orders involving "company beautification," minding the barracks or sweeping the motor pool line.

But on April 30, Victor told his commander that--"Sir! No, sir!"--he would not be deploying to Afghanistan. On May 11, he informed his company commander that he would refuse all orders supporting his unit's deployment to Afghanistan.

On May 14, Victor refused to do administrative maintenance on trucks going to Afghanistan. On May 19, when Victor's first sergeant ordered him to attend SRP (Soldier Readiness Processing) to prepare his paperwork and receive the preventative medical treatment necessary for deployment, he refused in front of his entire company.

On May 22, he received his first disciplinary "reading" under Article 15 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. He was charged with disobeying orders from a non-commissioned officer and with disrespect to non-commissioned officers. Victor objects. "The disrespect charge is totally bogus," he says. "When I called out my first sergeant on this, he said, 'You disobey my orders, you are disrespecting me.'"

Agosto is well aware that he may be sent to jail any day now. His refusal presents an obvious--and "unforgivable"--challenge to a political and military establishment poised for a massive escalation of the war in Afghanistan. The Democratic Senate has just approved a $91.3 billion bill backed by Barack Obama to expand the campaign against Afghanistan. The House has already passed similar legislation, and the two bills must now be reconciled before Obama can sign it into law.

"Politicians aren't going to stop this war," says Victor, who explains that he's not afraid of being punished for refusing to facilitate the slaughter of civilians. "It can only be stopped at the grassroots level. Soldiers are the going to be the ones who have to end it. But community support is crucial. It's difficult to make a stand in solitude."

Back on base, a platoon sergeant warns Victor to "stay away from his soldiers." If the higher-ups at Fort Hood seem nervous, it's for good reason. "People have been supportive," says Victor. "People who disapprove of what I'm doing haven't mentioned it to me." Victor has added an update to his Facebook page. While walking around base, a private asked to shake his hand: "I want you to know that I really look up to you."

This week, a staff sergeant in the same battalion gave him more than compliments: he also refused an order to deploy to Afghanistan, citing Victor as his inspiration.