Putting the war in Afghanistan on trial

August 10, 2009

Holly Lewis reports from the court-martial of war resister Victor Agosto, who won even before his trial for refusing to deploy to Afghanistan began.

Through the looking glass

THE MORNING sun beat down on the entrance to Fort Hood, the Army base in Killeen, Texas, where Spc. Victor Agosto faced a summary court-martial for refusing orders to deploy to Afghanistan. Carloads of antiwar activists passed through the checkpoint despite warnings from base officials that only a handful would be permitted inside the courtroom.

While the checkpoint clearly marks the line between the civilian world of Killeen and the militarized zone of Fort Hood, there is no abrupt shift in consciousness after crossing the barricade. In fact, the base seems like any generic working-class suburb in Central Texas; what most distinguishes it from the civilian world is its almost total prohibition against intensity. Everything--from the buildings to the combat gear to the dying grass--is the color of concrete, sand and mud.

Spc. Agosto's court-martial was scheduled to take place at 9 a.m. on August 5 inside the offices of the 41st Fires Brigade. Antiwar activists and reporters stood around the parking lot smoking cigarettes and chatting on cell phones, fanning themselves in the baking sun. As Victor suddenly arrived in an unmarked white van, his supporters raised their fists in solidarity. They offered hugs as he walked toward the courtroom. The sergeant accompanying him frowned at the activists, saying, "Well? Don't I get a hug too?"

We support war resister Victor Agosto!
We support war resister Victor Agosto! (Mahesh Brown | SW)

The summary court-martial itself was already a win for both Victor and the antiwar movement. When he decided to become a public resister against the war in Afghanistan, Victor was fully prepared for a long sentence. What's more, Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch, head of Fort Hood's command, seemed eager to meet Victor's expectations of harsh treatment: he ordered a special court-martial where Victor would face up to a year in prison and a bad conduct discharge.

But as Victor and his civilian lawyer, James Branum, prepared to publicly put the war itself on trial, Fort Hood decided to cut a deal. Victor was offered a lesser, summary court-martial with the maximum penalty of 30 days in jail, two-thirds reduction of pay, reduction of rank and an "other than honorable" discharge.

"Thirty days in jail?" Victor Agosto seemed incredulous. "Basic training is longer than that."

The show

THE PRESS and Victor's supporters were herded into a cramped conference room that had windows for walls and an American flag sagging in the corner. The soldiers assigned to the trial made small talk with antiwar activists as Fort Hood's public relations officer stood quietly on the other side of the glass, monitoring the situation.

Capt. Theresa Santos entered the room, followed by two officers and the prosecutor, Capt. Kuskie. Forget cinematic images of stern, graying men saluting one another in their Class A dress uniforms. The event was remarkably casual, with everyone dressed in standard-issue digital camouflage combat gear. No one on the judicial team seemed much older than Victor himself.

Capt. Santos explained that she would be Victor's judge, prosecutor and defense--proving that the summary court-martial was little more than military theater. Victor's actual lawyer, James Branum, was present only as an advisor; he was not permitted to intervene on Victor's behalf.

After answering a battery of procedural questions, Victor pled guilty as charged. There was nothing to deny. He has, indeed, refused orders to deploy to Afghanistan.

Every now and then, Capt. Santos and the other officers interrupted the proceedings to whisper among themselves about court-martial protocol. When most confused, they flipped through the 1,000-page legal tome on the table in front of them--even as more supporters filled the hallway and stared at the prosecution through the glass walls.

Because Victor pled guilty, he was allowed to call witnesses to testify to his character. He chose to call Cynthia Thomas, manager of Under the Hood, an antiwar coffeehouse for GIs.

Thomas, a military wife of 17 years, trembled a little as she read her statement on Victor's behalf. "I have not met a soldier with more integrity than Spc. Victor Agosto," she said. "I have seen him struggle with the question that plagues many of our soldiers and family members: whether the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are just."

Her face red with tears, she continued: "The suffering of the Iraqi and Afghan people, as well as the suffering of the American troops, would finally come to an end if more soldiers had Victor's courage and conviction."

Thomas looked up from her script and stared straight into the eyes of the judge and prosecuting officers: "Present company included."

The war on trial

THE JUDGE called a five-minute break, ostensibly to change rooms in order to accommodate the growing number of supporters in the hall, but perhaps also because someone inside the court-martial was spotted with a recording device. The trial resumed with a poster image of the patron saint of field artillerymen hanging on the wall in a cheap plastic frame above Victor's head.

Then, he began his self-defense:

I have a good conduct medal. I have never before refused an order and I have only refused orders relating to my illegal deployment. I believe that this war is a direct violation of international law. The people of Afghanistan have not attacked us and this war has not been authorized by a United Nations Security Council resolution.

Victor then submitted a petition with the signatures of more than 2,000 people, as well as a letter of support from renowned U.S. foreign policy critic Noam Chomsky, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with more than 30 honorary doctorates.

"Many soldiers feel the same way I do," explained Victor. "But instead of honestly coming forward, they smoke marijuana in hopes of getting discharged." Capt. Santos nodded her head, almost sympathetically, as Victor spoke. "If I were resisting this war through becoming a pothead, I would almost certainly be leaving with an honorable discharge." Santos continued to nod. "But because I am being honest and forthright about my convictions, I am facing a jail sentence."

Capt. Santos presented no evidence against Victor Agosto and began a brief cross-examination. It was illegal for her to do so, but in the convoluted world of military justice, if a civilian defense attorney objects to a judge's violation of military procedure during a summary court-martial, the defendant is punished with a criminal record.

Regardless, Santos' cross-examination did not serve the prosecution well. She inquired into Victor's formal date of release from the military. Victor, like so many other soldiers, had been "stop-lossed"--in other words, compelled to stay in the military beyond the date that his enlistment was due to expire. He was actually scheduled to separate from the Army two days before the court-martial itself.

Then, Santos asked a seemingly unscripted question that baffled many in the room: "Spc. Agosto, did you bother to tell your superiors that you felt this way about the war?"

Victor answered that, yes, he informed his superiors about his deep conviction that the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan are illegal and immoral. Santos did not pursue the question any further.

After a short recess, Santos returned to announce her decision. Claiming that Victor has presented no mitigating criteria to reduce his sentence, she awarded him the maximum punishment possible.

Victor responded by ripping the rank off his uniform. He stared at the judicial team. His face bore no trace of anger, yet he seemed thoroughly repulsed--perhaps at the mindlessness of it all.

Fort Hood's public relations officer then attempted to misdirect the press, announcing, "They're taking [Agosto] out the back door to avoid publicity." Most of the antiwar activists ignored the PR official and waited in the lobby by the front door.

Cynthia Thomas wondered whether they would take Victor out in shackles. "I've seen it with other GIs," she said. "They immediately put handcuffs and leg irons on them. Sometimes they have to physically lift them into the van. I don't know if they take the shackles off at the hospital when they do their examination."

Active-duty members of the new Fort Hood Chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War confirmed Thomas' experience. "They always put the shackles on."

Victor, however, was taken out the front door, closely flanked by guards but without restraints. He turned around to wave goodbye, but one of the guards shoved him angrily, saying, "Move it!"

Cameras rolled as he took a seat in white van. Supporters raised their fists in solidarity.

Victor gave a peace sign through the darkened window. Or perhaps it was a "V" for "Victory."

A rally in small-town Texas

MEANWHILE, A protest rally was being organized at the East Gate entrance to Fort Hood. A crowd of about 50 people chanted: "They're our brothers, they're our sisters, we support war resisters." Children in bright colors waved banners and active-duty troops in black T-shirts held up signs reaching out to other GIs who also might be questioning the war.

An underground antiwar newspaper, written by local vets and active-duty soldiers, was circulated through the crowd. Passersby joined the protest, and drivers waved and honked their horns in support. Even a local police officer slowed his cruiser to surreptitiously flash the crowd a peace sign.

At the end of the rally, James Branum read a prepared statement by Victor:

I have learned that nothing is more frightening to power than a direct and principled challenge to its authority. The truth is on our side and those who have incarcerated me know it. This is something that no amount of pro-war propaganda can change.

My only regret is that I did not begin refusing orders sooner. My only apologies are to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. I hope that someday they can forgive me for my contributions to their distress...

I am humbled by your demands for even greater concessions by the United States Army. I am completely content to spend a month in jail for the sake of my conscience. But it seems that reducing my sentence from a year in jail to 30 days in jail is just not enough for you people. This dedication to justice is something that draws me to people in the peace movement...You have treated me with a compassion and kindness that I do not deserve. Your dedication to the cause inspires me to continue struggling for world peace.

Further Reading

From the archives