The story of the widespread (and, today, hard to believe) resistance of working class kids in the U.S. military to the 1991 Gulf War.
The weakness of strategies based on Lowest Common Denominatorism was in full evidentiary blossom during the 1991 bombardment of Iraq, re-packaged as “the Gulf war.” “Support Our Troops, Not the War!” insisted the National Campaign for Peace in the Middle East, which grew out of the old National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam and later would morph into United for Peace and Justice — the same politics, the same dependence on lowest-common-denominator Coalition-building, the same loyal opposition to the 2-party system, and, in fact, the same people. The underlying assumption: Support “our” troops for imperialism but not theirs (note the shift: we’re no longer talking about “people,” now, but “troops”). And whatever you do, don’t say anything about Palestine or Israel!
Across the country — indeed, throughout the world — independent, enraged antiwar protesters, including a number of AWOL soldiers and seafarers from other countries, acted directly to resist the war. They blocked or sabotaged shipments of munitions to the Gulf. In one incident, a German-owned container vessel, the Eagle Nova, staffed by German officers and crew members from the Philippines, refused to deliver military goods to the Saudi Arabian port of Dammam on the Gulf.1 In another case, 27 Moslem crew members on the Banglar Mamata, a Bangladesh vessel, jumped ship in Oakland, California, rather than continue on to deliver their cargo of ammunition to U.S. troops.2 Unionized Japanese officers and crewmen on container ships and tankers chartered by the U.S. also refused to transport U.S. military cargo to the war zone. International working class direct actions against the war build-up were, in fact, so widespread that officials worried that “supply disruptions could become frequent enough to affect U.S. front-line fighting ability in a long war.”3
Between Aug. 2, 1990 and March of the following year, more than 13,000 U.S. soldiers resisted the war’s drumbeat directly. Hundreds were imprisoned, and tens of thousands of others went AWOL — many of them Black or Latino — a far greater proportion than during the Vietnam War. In one incident, 67 National Guard members from Louisiana went AWOL as a group from Fort Hood, Texas, in early February to protest inadequate training, unfair leave policies and racism, in the shadow of the war. Tod Ensign, a staff person for Citizen Soldier, termed it “the largest known act of mass military resistance” during the Gulf war.4
RUFUGEES ON THE UNARMED ROAD OF FLIGHT
On Dec. 9, 1990, a Vietnam veteran, Tim Brown — described by the Associated Press as “a genial, upbeat person who lived alone on a houseboat and rarely discussed politics” — died after setting fire to himself in Isleton, California, to protest the US military build-up in the Gulf. In leaflets he’d placed on nearby car windshields, he’d written: “I, Tim Brown, Vietnam veteran, declare that my act of self-immolation is a direct protest of American war policy in the Middle East. America, do not go to war. America, do not repeat the mistake of Vietnam. Don’t wait for the war to start and then protest. Protest now while there is still time.” On February 17, 1991, at the height of the U.S. bombing of Iraq, Gregory Levey, a former UMASS student and special education teacher, set himself on fire while carrying a peace sign. He died on the Amherst Commons in Massachusetts, in protest of the US bombardment and the murder of innocent civilians there. “No Blood for Oil!” and “Hell no, we won’t go, we won’t die for Texaco!” became the battle cries of the burgeoning anti-war movement.
Unlike the self-immolation of Buddhist monks during the Vietnam war, these courageous and heart-wrenching acts received virtually no publicity in the mainstream media. Only one or two papers picked up the AP story on Tim Brown’s act. But our own media, including WBAI radio in NYC and the Pacifica network across the U.S., The Guardian, and newly formed groups like Hands Off! (see below) got the word out and helped to stir an already growing unrest within the military. Military resisters began appearing everywhere, in and out of uniform, speaking out against the war despite threats of court-martial and imprisonment.
While held captive in Iraq as a prisoner of war after his plane was shot down, Lt. Jeffrey Zaun of New Jersey was a media hero, much like Jessica Lynch a decade later. TV and newspapers plastered his picture all over their pages. But that hero worship lasted only until he got back, and Zaun offered his views on his experiences in the Gulf: “This country didn’t see the cost of the war. I did. People think we went in there and kicked ass; but they didn’t see the Iraqi mothers get killed. I don’t want to kill anybody again.” The press buried his statement, as the U.S. military used bulldozers to bury alive tens of thousands of poorly armed Iraqi working class conscripts in the desert sands.
Those who tried to persuade their fellow National Guard members to resist were deemed “ringleaders” and court-martialed. Sgt. Robert Pete received a six-year prison sentence while Dwayne Black and Derrick Guidry received a year each. All three additionally received dishonorable discharges.5 And many of the approximately 2,500 U.S. soldiers who filed for conscientious objector status during that time were held on serious “desertion” charges; they faced long prison terms for their public anti-war stance.
In addition to those court-martialed here at home, over a hundred anti-war GIs in Germany were still being held by military authorities as late as March, 1991, or were forced to go into hiding. Soldiers returning from Saudi Arabia reported hundreds more GIs being held there.6
In a steaming packed courtroom on the Marine Corps base at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, court-martial proceedings against dozens of Marines who resisted the Gulf War went on all through the summer, with nary a word in the corporate press.
Captain Yolanda Huet-Vaughn, an Army doctor, refused orders to be shipped to the Gulf. When Huet-Vaughn denounced the war on the nationally-syndicated Sally Jessy Raphael TV show and remarked that some of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons were made by U.S. companies, Sally Jessy lost it. She came storming up to the doctor, got her face about seven inches from her and screamed: “Get out! Get off my show!,” reported WBAI’s Amy Goodman, who was also a guest at the taping. Huet-Vaughn claimed that, as a doctor, her training was to heal people, not to murder them. At Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, Capt. Huet-Vaughn, a Mexican-American, was confined to the base 24 hours a day, forced to call-in her whereabouts every 4 hours, and prevented from seeing her children in private (they had to remain outside at all times when they visited her). Fifty to 60 supporters packed all of her hearings, refusing to allow the government’s machinations to be hidden behind closed doors.
Sam Lwin was a student at the New School for Social Research in New York City. Just twenty-one years old, he faced seven years in jail for organizing his Marine Corps reserve unit, Fox Company, at Fort Schuyler in the Bronx to resist. He had filed for Conscientious Objector status before the unit was activated in November, 1990. Lwin, along with seven other COs from his unit, refused the call-up. Sam faced 7 years in jail, a dishonorable discharge, and loss of all benefits including health care and pension for refusing to kill. His fellow students at the New School formed the group Hands Off Sam!, which soon took on the cases of other resisters, went national, and became, simply, Hands Off! (Lwin ended up serving 4 months in prison, a reduced sentence thanks largely to the widespread support organized by his fellow students.)
Ronald Jean-Baptiste was one of the first of the Gulf war resisters. He spoke publicly at the first anti-war rallies as a Haitian-American, saying: “They won’t let me donate my blood to help people because I’m Haitian, but they want me to shed it for them and to kill people. I won’t do it.”
Stephanie Atkinson of Illinois was court-martialed out of the Army Reserve for refusing to fight in the Gulf. Upon leaving the military, she became an outspoken critic and went to work with the War Resisters League defending other resisters.
THEIR FACES HIDDEN AS THE WALLS WERE TIGHTENING
Why don’t we remember their names, these resisters, these direct action heroes of humanity, who faced such terrible personal consequences and yet still refused to kill for U.S. imperialism? Why have their actions been written out of the accounts of the resistance within the military to the Gulf War? These were resisters who refused to be pawns killing other poor people for oil, profits and empire. They acted with great moral courage, saying: “This is what’s right, this is what’s not, no power on earth can move me from this spot.” Nor should we forget what they were up against, these kids — for that’s what most of them were. They were thrown out of the military and into jail, lost their scholarships, their jobs, sometimes their families and friends. We often hear how much we owe to veterans who fought in this country’s wars. But we owe far more to those who refused to fight, our anti-war veterans, for putting their bodies against the wheel of the war machine and causing it to slow down, and sometimes to stop.
Remember Kevin Sparrock, a student at New York City’s School of Visual Arts; Erik Larsen, a student at Chabot Community College in California; and, Tahan Jones. They were among the most visible of the resisters because they helped organize anti-war demonstrations across the country. They were accused of desertion during a time of war. The government filed briefs against them calling for the death penalty.
Remember Eric Hayes. He was the president of the Black Students Association at Southern Illinois University, and a Marine Corps reservist. Eric was dragged out of his dormitory room in the middle of the night in December, 1990, handcuffed by military police and hauled off to the brig at Camp Lejeune a thousand miles away for failing to report when his Illinois unit was activated. (Eric was eventually sentenced to 8 months in jail.)
Remember Marine Corps Cpl. Jeff Paterson. On Aug. 29, 1990, he refused orders to board a military transport plane for deployment to Saudi Arabia. When his staff sergeants attempted to push him onto the aircraft, Jeff sat down in the hangar and refused to move. (Jeff became a leader of the anti-war movement, and worked with Refuse and Resist!)
Remember Demetrio Perez and James Summers, both students at Santa Fe Community College in Florida, and John Isaac III, a student at City College of New York. They were charged with “Desertion with Intent to Shirk Hazardous Duty” and “Missing Movement” for resisting orders to ship off to the Gulf; they were court-martialed and found guilty. (Perez was sentenced to 15 months, Summers to 14 months, and Isaac to 8 months at hard labor.)
As it became evident that more and more military personnel were none too eager to fight for the Emirocracy and the expansion of the American oil empire, the U.S. military began kidnapping resisters and forcing them onto planes headed to the Gulf. In one case, Sgt. Derrick Jones, a medic, filed an application as a conscientious objector and left his unit for several days. Through his lawyer, he negotiated with his commander, Capt. Cloy, to return to his unit, and was promised that he would not be charged with missing movement as he waited for his CO claim to be processed. But when Jones returned to his unit in Germany, he was immediately taken into custody, handcuffed, dragged onto a plane and flown to Saudi Arabia against his will.
The same thing happened to David Owen Carson, Robert Chandler and dozens of other military resisters. Bryan Centa, a medic stationed at Lee Barracks in Mainz, Germany, had also filed an application for a conscientious objector discharge. Centa was handcuffed and put in leg irons and “dispatched” to Saudi Arabia. The U.S. Attorney General failed to file a single complaint against the military in any of the dozens of kidnappings, or acknowledge the racism involved in many of those incidents.
This being America, how could racism not have played a very prominent part in the government’s attitude towards the resisters? Sometimes it came out in stupid but relatively innocuous ways, such as a military superior’s explosion when a white French reporter, Judith Weiner, embraced and kissed Sam Lwin, a native of Burma, during a recess at one of his hearings. Sergeant Richmond, a white man and Lwin’s platoon troop-handler, ordered Sam into the hall and screamed at him: “You’re not supposed to show affection while in uniform.” Since all across the country troops were seen on nationwide TV coming home hugging and kissing while in uniform, Richmond’s explosion was clearly triggered by the fact that Lwin, an Asian, was kissing a white woman.
Or, take the case of Danny Gillis. Gillis, a Black man from Baltimore, was court-martialed on charges stemming from a racial attack on him. He faced seven years. Along with Jimmy Summers, another of the resisters, Gillis had been held in solitary confinement in a cell measuring six feet by eight feet.
Gillis became a Moslem after he had enlisted in the military; he filed for conscientious objector status in November 1990. On December 17, Gillis’ unit was ordered to Saudi Arabia, and he refused to go.
As the rest of the unit boarded the bus, Gillis sat down on the concrete and refused to get on. Staff Sgt. Schillumeit, who is white, ordered him onto the bus. Gillis again refused. Unable to get him onto the bus, the sergeant called four white Marines to tie Gillis’ hands behind his back and beat him up.
Meanwhile, two Black Marines, passing by, saw four whites punching and kicking a tied-up Black man and came to Gillis’ defense. Officers as well as enlisted men standing- by entered the fray on both sides according to their race. The fight continued until a colonel ordered everyone to “clean it up.” At that point, Schillumeit called for a van with wider doors, and Gillis was thrown into it. A minute later, however, he managed to jump out, run about ten feet, and collapsed, screaming: “You’re prejudiced. I’m going to get all of you…on grievances.” Gillis was arrested and thrown into the brig for 41 days. In addition to “missing movement,” Gillis was charged with disrespect of a superior officer for saying “You’re prejudiced,” willfully disobeying a lawful [sic!] command, disorderly conduct, and wrongfully communicating a threat for saying “I will get all of you.”
Facing seven years in prison before Judge Oulette, Gillis, like many of the others, felt he had no choice but to accept a plea bargain arrangement; the prosecutor consolidated all the charges into one offense, and asked for a 12-month sentence. Oulette, in a vicious act, rejected the agreement between Gillis and the prosecution and sentenced Danny Gillis to an additional half-a-year in jail on top of the 12-month agreement.
Gillis required an operation on his shoulder due to injuries received during that fight. Meanwhile, one of the Marines who came to Danny’s defense during the fight, Jody Anderson, did go with his unit to Saudi Arabia. Jody, like virtually all the Marines, never saw combat despite all the hoopla; but the Marine Corps did wait for the war to be over before arresting Jody on charges of mutiny, inciting to riot, three counts of assaulting an officer, threatening officers, and disobeying a direct order. All told, Jody faced life imprisonment plus 44 years.
“This was clearly a political decision on the part of the military,” said Melissa Ennen, of the New York City-based Hands Off!, who organized support for the resisters at Camp Lejeune and who now runs a movement space in Brooklyn known as The Commons. “The government,” she asserted, “was trying to conceal the extent of anti-war activity within the military, isolate those it considered the ringleaders and crush those who had the courage to resist.” More soldiers deserted or went AWOL for political reasons during the build-up and course of the Gulf war than in any similar period this century, including the Vietnam years. No wonder President George H. W. Bush felt such a need to “finally overcome the Vietnam syndrome.”7
And yet, most of the non-governmental organizations that made up the Campaign for Peace in the Middle East — one of the two nationwide anti-war hierarchies — deserted the deserters. Was it because of the challenge to national chauvinism, not wanting to appear unpatriotic? Or perhaps it was because unlike the majority of visible resisters in the 1960s, most of the Gulf war resisters were African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans? At any rate, The Campaign went AWOL on this issue.
Small grassroots organizations like Hands Off! did heroic work in defense of the resisters, filling the void as best they could. Due to shortage of funds, military resister Jody Anderson was forced to retain one of the non-movement lawyer sharks, who totally botched his case. Where was the National Conference of Black Lawyers? How about the National Lawyers Guild? For the period of the Gulf war these two erstwhile progressive formations didn’t lift a finger for the military resisters! The National Lawyers Guild feigned involvement by putting up stickers around military bases with a “hot line” for resisters to call, and hired their own secretarial staff at $10 an hour to answer the phones. But when soldiers called, they were told the NLG had no trained lawyers available and that they should call Hands Off! or the War Resisters League.
As a result of lawyer incompetence, Jody Anderson was sentenced to two years in jail. Anti-war resisters rallied to Jody’s cause; his trial and sentencing created a real bond between many of the soldiers who went to the Gulf and those who resisted, which allowed them to organize in the brig.
In a similar travesty of justice, the army reneged on a plea-bargain deal with Sgt. John Pruner at Fort Riley, Kansas, that would have limited his incarceration to 6 months. According to Tod Ensign of Citizen Soldier, “Pruner was one of two soldiers who exposed the Army’s changed policy on COs. The policy made it more difficult for Saudi-bound GIs to win conscientious objector status.” Pruner faced 6 years in prison. As Pruner’s court-martial began the army, foreshadowing what would be applied to all defense lawyers a decade later, denied security clearance to his lawyer and prevented him from reviewing documents needed for his defense. Nothing in the corporate press!
Even full-scale race riots went unreported. One soldier, returning to New York from the Gulf, told The Guardian that race battles within the U.S. military in Saudi Arabia were common. “White commanding officers regularly gave ‘on site’ promotions to white Marines; when Black Marines complained, wholesale battles between whites and Blacks took place,” he said. The military simply covered it up. Some racial “incidents” in the military did make it into the press. But, in general, they have been “whitewashed.”
Take the case of Cpl. Anthony Stewart, a Black soldier who at first was reported to have committed suicide. Under pressure from Stewart’s family and others, the military revised its version to say he had “accidentally” killed himself. As more and more pressure was put on the military, including charges of racism and cover-up, the Marine Corps again altered its version, and put on trial Lance Cpl. Steven Quiles, a white soldier in Stewart’s platoon, for “accidentally” killing Stewart while cleaning his M-16. Quiles was sentenced to 15 months at hard labor, even as others reported that Stewart’s death was intentional and racially motivated. Quiles didn’t serve a single day in prison for the murder. In addition, his bad conduct discharge was revoked, and he returned to the good graces of the military. Stewart’s parents, meanwhile, are still demanding a full investigation.
FOR EACH AND EVERY UNDERDOG, SOLDIER IN THE NIGHT
The military’s fabrication of the events around Stewart’s case is eerily reminiscent of its “spin”, to put it nicely, around football star Pat Tillman’s death in Afghanistan 12 years later. Although not racial, Tillman was killed “accidentally” by soldiers in his own platoon. Sports writer Dave Zirin fills in the blanks: “Pat Tillman is the only NFL player — or professional athlete — to die in the theater of war since September 11th, 2001. He walked away from millions of dollars to join the U.S. Army because of the way 9/11 shook his system. On 9/12/01, Tillman gave an interview where he said, “My great-grandfather was at Pearl Harbor and a lot of my family has gone and fought in wars, and I really haven’t done a damn thing.”
Twenty-two months after enlisting, Pat Tillman was dead. His memorial service was aired on national television. The Army awarded him a Silver Star for his “gallantry in action against an armed enemy.” They said Tillman’s convoy had been ambushed in Afghanistan. They said Tillman charged up a hill to protect his men but was shot down by the Taliban. Responding to this heroic story, the National Football League, as they are quick to mention, created statues and memorials in his honor.
… [But] the Pentagon’s official story, the very story the NFL initially embraced, is an awful lie. Tillman actually died in friendly fire, a fact that was criminally hidden from his family, his fans, and to the greater public. Tillman also began to turn against the war before his death, telling friends in the Rangers that he believed th war in Iraq was “illegal.” A voracious reader, he started reading anti-war authors in an attempt to wrap his head around how he had become the most famous solider in an endless conflict.
After the Bush administration finally revealed the truth, Tillman’s shocked family and friends did the only thing they could do: fight to find out the real facts of his death. They went public with the narrative of a Pat Tillman that was inconsistent with the Bush administration and NFL’s. They put forth a Pat Tillman that was an intensely iconoclastic atheist, turning against war.
The misrepresentation of Pat Tillman’s death speaks to the lies used to sell war, and to the way people’s rage and grief was exploited in the wake of 9/11. But thanks to the tireless work of his family, and the creators of the documentary The Tillman Story, his true story is now public knowledge. As Pat’s mother Mary said in The Tillman Story, “I think they just thought, if they spun the story and we found out … we’d just keep it quiet because we wouldn’t want to diminish … his heroism or anything like that … but, you know, nobody questions Pat’s heroics. He was always heroic. What they said happened, didn’t happen. They made up a story, and so you have to set the record straight.”8
The Gulf War military resisters’ depositions are filled with reports of abuses, many of them racial, that began once they applied for CO status. They were subjected to endless harassment. One of the most common complaints was that they were regularly ordered to perform extra night-time duty, which meant they could sleep no longer than three hours in a row, night after night. Florida native Doug DeBoer testified that he had been intentionally deprived of sleep by being forced to stand excessive night watches. “I have had night watches virtually every night of the week for three weeks in a row … During the day I am like a zombie, and have become sick because of sleep deprivation,” DeBoer said, as he received a 15-month sentence.
Thirty-three Catholic bishops, from 23 states, called on President Bush to “stop the military’s prosecution of conscientious objectors” and to grant them amnesty and honorable discharges (although as a group they said nothing about the war itself). Many French Green Party delegates to the European Parliament expressed their indignation at the treatment of the resisters in letters to the U.S. military, citing “deprivation of sleep, isolat[ion] in special cells, [and] censure of mail.” And the Canadian branch of Amnesty International sent an observer to the trials of Demetrio Perez and Jimmy Summers, and adopted several resisters as prisoners of conscience.
One resister who attempted to apply for Conscientious Objector status was told by his white commanding officer: “Blacks can’t apply for CO.”
“Why not?” his mother asked.
“Because of their culture.” His mother sought clarification. “Because Blacks are from a violent culture.”
Such stories of racism in the military are not isolated instances, any more than they are in civilian life. On one occasion a North Carolina judge intoned: “I’ll have none of this talk about Black or white in my court. It’s irrelevant whether the officers are Black or white. There is no racial prejudice in North Carolina.” The spectators could only laugh. “He apparently could not understand what we found so pathetically funny,” one said.
Sam Lwin reported being called “Chinaman” and “gook” throughout bootcamp. “I was ordered to count from one to ten in Burmese and to sing in Burmese by my sergeant, in front of other drill instructors,” he told me. During his conscientious objector hearing, Lwin was stereotypically asked if he knew kung-foo or karate. One drill instructor told Lwin directly, “I don’t like you because you’re oriental.”
Lwin was the first resister to come to trial at Lejeune. At his court martial the government’s star witness, Cpl. David Patrick Conley, admitted under cross-examination that he had bragged: “The last good deed I do for the Marines [before being discharged next month] is to send Sam Lwin to jail for 20 years.” Lwin’s commanding officer, Capt. Gaspar, admitted that he had berated Lwin for applying to be a conscientious objector and gave him a rough time, but considered his harassment “advice”.
Marquis Leacock, an African-American resident of New York City, said that the resisters were “the only ones who have eight platoon sergeants to take care of 14 of us. We are called names such as ‘communist pig,’ ‘traitors’ and degrading references to our race and culture.” Leacock received a 1-year sentence.
One of the sergeants “enjoyed ordering us to line up and chant ‘I am shit’ over and over,” said one. In the brig, they were not allowed to read political literature. Authorities monitored diaries and artwork, and censored outgoing and incoming mail. Resister Demetrio Perez reported that military officers tried to force them to sign documents against their will and without approval of their attorneys.
James Summers recounted, “When I arrived at the brig, the guards immediately started making fun of me and my CO status. They put me in leg irons, handcuffs and chains around my waist, and locked me in my cell for five days. I was taken out once a day for five minutes to take a shower.” Enrique Gonzalez, a student at Nova University School of Law in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, told of being denied transportation and of being forced to walk up to 12 miles a day back and forth to work, unlike the other soldiers.
The resisters’ supporters packed the courtroom every day and set up a “peace camp” around 20 miles away. Their presence made a crucial difference in the trials. Before packed courts the resisters began to win important pretrial motions against the Marine Corps, challenging the overwhelming mistreatment and harassment. One judge ruled that their confinement to barracks was illegal and permitted them to leave the base. Most importantly, he recognized that the harassment they underwent was not made up of isolated incidents but was systematic and illegal, opening the way for class action suits against the military.
Many of the resisters wrote movingly in their Conscientious Objector applications about the development of their anti-war beliefs while in the military. Why did they, whose backgrounds are really not very different from other soldiers, choose to buck the military’s ideological stampede and retain a semblance of humanity in the face of jackboot patriotism and brutal, murderous authority?
Marcus Blackwell, of Brooklyn, N.Y., a student at the Boro of Manhattan Community College when he resisted the call-up, wrote: “Universal love should be the basis of man’s action and this should be apparent in his deeds. I respect other people and live by that rule. War destroys more than just property or landscape. It also destroys human beings and the human soul.
“When I joined the military, fighting a war was the farthest thing from my mind. Some people may say that my thinking was very muddled. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t even picture myself being on the front line in a war. Well, my thinking was muddled. I looked at joining the military as a job. I thought that being in the military was one way to be a successful person.
“But when I was sent to the School of Infantry in Camp Lejeune, my eyes were really opened. I was exposed to various types of weapons that can be used against a person, like the .50 calibre machine gun, the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon and the AT-4 Rocket Launcher. Learning how to invade enemy grounds and throwing hand grenades made me wonder, ‘Is this really me that is doing this?’
“So now I was able to shoot and kill a person from 500 yards, destroy whole families and villages and kill people through the air. But who was I really harming? I was harming myself. I was harming my spirit, disrupting that inner peace and harmony that holds me together…. The job I was doing may have been good for the Marine Corps, but it was not for the good of man.”
Blackwell was sentenced to 17 months at hard labor in a military prison.
Sgt. David Bobbitt, of Staten Island, New York, also believed that his experiences in the Marine Corps prompted him to examine his beliefs on war. During infantry training, he wrote, “I saw a man fall from a helicopter to his death. It was very hard for me to accept that he had died, and even harder still to comprehend the casual attitude toward his tragic death by the other Marines. Are we really the superior beings on earth? And if so, is it because we can destroy and maim everything on this planet?
“My military occupational skill is 0311; what that comes down to is rifle man. My job was to learn all about weapons and how to use them effectively. It sounded very intriguing at first; after all, I enjoyed hunting for animals. After boot camp, I found out what my job really was; it was no longer so intriguing. For that matter, neither was hunting for animals.”
Bobbitt was sentenced to 14 months in jail; along with Blackwell, he received a dishonorable discharge.
Meanwhile Dick Cheney, Stephen Solarz, Dan Quayle, Newt Gingrich, William Bennett, Rush Limbaugh and a host of feverish warmongers all somehow managed to avoid having to troop off to the Vietnam or Gulf war themselves, but they had no compunction about sending others, economically poorer and powerless, to kill and to die in the Gulf — or to send resisters to wither away the best years of their lives crushing rocks in prison.
For most of the resisters, their experiences upon joining the military were far different than what they’d been taught to expect. As one of the resisters, (former) Lance Corporal Colin Bootman, explained: “I was born in Trinidad, West Indies, and immigrated to New York when I was seven. After receiving my green card and education in America [I joined] the military during my second year at the School for Visual Arts. I immediately felt alienated from the military mentality expected of me. I felt like I was supposed to be proud, but I wasn’t. I kept denying this, thinking maybe I could grow to like it. Every drill I saw guys walking around with knives tied to their breast or hip and I thought, How come I don’t feel like they feel?
“After serving two years in the Marine Corps my feelings toward training began to consciously change. An important influence on my thinking were the enlightening conversations I had with members of my family who were involved in Grenada. My aunt Jacqueline Creft was the former Minister of Education in Grenada and a leader of the New Jewel Movement. She was assassinated as a result of the political turmoil. In addition, one of my cousins lost his leg trying to escape the full impact of a blast. My family told me that no one knows exactly how damaging and cruel war can be until it happens. Aside from losing lives and limbs, many people lost their homes and land. My family encouraged me to leave the military because they saw no future in waging wars.” Bootman served a 2-year jail term for refusing to kill.
For (former) Lance Corporal Keith Jones, the “poverty draft” was also very real. He was born on Hunter Air Force Base in Savannah, Georgia, and moved to New York City when he was four. His father served in the Air Force for twenty years, including in Vietnam. When Keith began attending City College of New York, the Marine Reservist recruiter offered him a steady paycheck of $140 a month for three years, special college loans, as well as the less tangible but equally important emotion-bolsters of honor and pride.
At first, Keith said, he felt proud of his achievements at boot camp. He was “close-minded” to anti-war organizations on campus. But a little bit later, after acting in a play written by Vietnam veterans, he decided that the abstract language of Infantry Training School, such as “You will take many casualties,” served to hide the real physical mutilation of young men’s bodies in war. Keith was, at that time, studying advanced weaponry; he was learning what it was capable of doing. He refused to fight, and joined a Buddhist temple committed to world peace. Keith was sentenced to 16 months in prison, where he hammered out license plates.
The paths by which each individual came to reject the military were varied and multi-faceted. They don’t fit neatly into behaviorist Skinner boxes; resistance to oppression takes many forms, and contrary to some, greater oppression does not necessarily imply greater resistance as though human beings are rats in a maze pressing the bar at the end for cheese. We do not fall comfortably into “politically correct” niches, coming to consciousness only in ways approved by the bastions of moral rectitude. But there are certain common elements that provide the soil that nurtures resistance and fosters the courage to take enormous risks. Especially important are strong community ties which encourage and support their humane sentiments, and serve as counterweights to the false “community” offered by the military.
Still, many in the peace movement refused to take up the cause of the resisters. “What did they expect? That’s what the military is for. It’s not a jobs program” was a common sentiment. Many in the peace movement accepted the U.S. government’s demonization of the Iraqi “enemy”. They wrapped themselves in yellow ribbons and American flags, pretending that they did so in order to “reach” the American people and not out of their own desires to be accepted by the country they criticized. Such opportunism tied liberals in moral knots; they were unable to “reach” even their own checkbooks to defend those in the military who refused to kill for big oil and the exigencies of U.S. imperialism, or to understand why so many people, particularly Blacks and Latinos, felt compelled to join the military.
“Few people thought they’d be sent off to kill people and die when they joined the military, or to bomb the hell out of civilians and have none of that reported on the news; in fact, the military’s advertisements hardly made mention of war or killing at all,” Hands Off! coordinator Melissa Ennen argued. “Although there was no compulsory legal draft, there was, in effect, an economic one. Working class kids saw no jobs and no future for them in civilian life. The military presented itself as a ‘way out’ of the cycle of poverty.”
The “false advertizing” of the military lured working class and poor youngsters to enlist. The glamor of Hollywood’s popular “clean war” macho films like Rambo, and a desire to “be all you can be” and “serve your community,” played a significant part in the resisters’ defense during their court-martials. It is no coincidence, they argued, that over 30 percent of the U.S. troops deployed to Saudi Arabia were people of color, double the percentage of the U.S. population as a whole. 46 percent of the women stationed there were Black, while only 6.7 percent of the officers in the military are Black or Hispanic. And, as many Black and Latino people have been finding out, in the military racial polarization is not overcome in the face of a “common enemy” but is dramatically intensified … and the horrible results covered up.
Some of the resisters were undoubtedly confused. They had not thought out all the ins and outs of imperialism. They did not issue long tracts on political economy — they were not guerrillas of “thesis warfare protracted,” firing wordy salvos from their tenured ivory tower perches (although many of them were students). But many of those refusing to support the military resisters also tended to reduce youngsters’ motives for joining the military solely to economic needs and a “poverty draft” — again, rats in a maze. They missed a fundamental point about youngsters’ desperate socio-psychological need in this society for community and to be meaningful. Thus, they led the anti-war movement in pursuit of false strategies. Prior to the Gulf war, high school students who used the subway station near my apartment told me of their disgust with the “me-first-ism” they felt all around them, the lust for gold chains and material greed. They wanted something more communal, more artistic from life. Many said they would volunteer for the military (the so-called “economic draft”) “to serve their country,” not, as most liberals believe, primarily to get out of desperate economic straits but to find some higher purpose, some philosophy of collectivity and idealism. They often quoted John Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” to explain their feelings. (Hard to believe that many of us once upheld such liberal notions as a virtue!) They tragically believed they could find such higher purpose and community in the military.
Where was the peace movement for these kids? Why didn’t it help them develop true alternative communities to the one they wrongly believe existed in the military? Each night, I ripped down recruiting posters on the train station near my apartment and tried to talk high school students out of joining the military. But there was little to offer in its place. Where were the anti-war movement’s sports teams, political clubs, alternative discussion groups, community centers, draft counseling? It was not until high school students themselves organized groups like Students Against War, Students for Social Justice and Food Not Bombs that kids were able to find some alternative to the pseudo-community they expected from the military — a crucial component and overlooked function of Occupy Wall Street. Those kids 20 years later “got it”.
War Resisters League organizer Michael Marsh observed the same frustrations: “During the Gulf War, countless soldiers told me how they had joined the military because they felt out of control of their lives and needed discipline. Others enlisted seeking to replace feelings of hopelessness with meaning. Still others joined in search of self and community. As shocking as it is to think that someone might join an institution based on killing to find community, it shouldn’t be all that surprising either. Our country is being filled by a moral vacuum and increasingly younger children are finding themselves alone in this space.”9
The government’s response in countering the power of community was and continues to be to try to isolate and stampede the individual, making the price of anti-war resistance so high economically, psychologically and physically that resisters would be driven to plea to lesser charges for things they didn’t do and forgo their political and moral stances in exchange for “getting it over with” and lighter sentences.
In spite of feelings of despair, frustration and sadness that all of us in the anti-war movement fall into (not surprising given the never-ending stream of murderers running the country), in actuality there is an enormous source of hope here: In the courage of the resisters who, against all odds and with no liberals trying to “raise their consciousness,” found ways to resist; in the new, creative tactics invented by affinity groups during the war, and the emergence of new communities of support when the larger, more established umbrella organizations failed; in the new alternative press networks and dynamic high school groups; and, in the realization that, no matter how sad and desperate the situation, people always find ways to refuse to “only follow orders.”
Groups like Hands Off!, Citizen Soldier, the War Resisters League, the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, Storm Warning!, Vietnam Veterans Against the War and many local activists become mainstays of support for resisters; and, indeed, the communities of local resistance that sprang up around them made all the difference in the world. New groupings took responsibility for each other and began projecting a different, healthier and more revolutionary vision than the organizations they supplanted. That organizing became a factor in the early release of many of the resisters who had applied for conscientious objector status.
Yet, at the time, the war’s liberal opponents refused to support resisters in the military. With the exception of notable work done by the War Resisters League and such groups as Hands Off! and Citizen Soldier, the “Campaign” — striving to keep its mainstream membership organizations in fold — supported “our” troops but, beyond token efforts, failed to support our resisters.
Iraqi draftees and civilians were not deemed worthy of even that consideration. They were treated as demons sent by the “insane” and “worse than Hitler” Saddam Hussein to “destroy our way of life.” “We should support sanctions and a trade embargo against Iraq,” said one leader of the Socialist Party at that time (a member of the Campaign),10 a theme echoed by many of the Campaign’s leadership; in fact, that was its official position. It was as though the people of Iraq, whose lives were being devastated by the trade embargo as well as the bombing, needed to be punished and it was our moral responsibility to do so — with much the same sanctimony as those who have taken it upon themselves to finger someone throwing a rock at a demonstration to the police.
Solidarity groups like the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador forgot to express their solidarity with the people of Iraq. The anti-war Military Families Support Network, made up of the relatives of those sent to the front, waved U.S. flags at every opportunity and never put a human face on those whom their children were being sent to murder.
Many in the anti-war movement failed to challenge Bush’s demonization of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi people, and Arab people in general. They rarely said a word about the tens of thousands of civilian casualties. Those were merely “collateral damage.” But when Saddam’s Scud missile attacks killed several Israeli civilians,11 the mainstream peace movement’s visible leadership launched diatribe after diatribe against Iraq — as though Iraqi citizens were responsible for their dictator’s war crimes and should be forced to pay the terrible price — providing political cover for the U.S. government’s murder of a quarter-of-a-million Iraqi people outright, and 500,000 more — many of them children — over the next decade (the Clinton/Gore years), a result of the embargo and ongoing bombardments. To quote Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright: “Yes, we think the price is worth it.”
As it turned out many of the Israeli civilians said to have been killed by Saddam’s Scuds were in actuality killed or injured by Israel’s use of defective U.S. Patriot surface-to-air missiles manufactured by the Raytheon Corporation. (Saying that does not excuse Saddam’s targeting of civilians in any way, but it does reveal the extent of the U.S. over-the-top propaganda effort.) The media echoed military officials and called those deaths “collateral damage” — when they chose to report them at all. Despite company officials’ prior knowledge of such defects, to this day no Raytheon executive has been indicted nor Raytheon factory bombed by B-52 airplanes.
“Peace activists who focused solely on the prospect of American deaths gave credence to the bombing strategy, resulting in a larger civilian death toll, but fewer casualties among American soldiers,” wrote then-Wisconsin activist Zoltán Grossman, referring to the Campaign’s strategy. “Either we accept Iraqi civilians — and soldiers, who are drafted involuntarily into service — as human beings, or we don’t. Either we defend them as we would our own families, or we acquiesce in their slaughter.”
But this the Campaign was unwilling to do. Mostly, the resisters in the military were people of color; they provided leadership and inspiration to the radical antiwar movement, which scared the hell out of the Democratic Party-oriented liberal donors — the “loyal opposition” — accustomed to calling the shots. The resisters’ shadows loomed large between the evil and the whitewash. Thousands of working class kids in the military courageously resisted the war. They dared to reclaim their humanity, in a season of robots. Only rarely did the Campaign’s marches confront the war-makers on the basis that the mass slaughter of Iraqis was wrong in and of itself. In the minds of many, Iraqis deserved to be starved by sanctions or bled by bullets.12
The Campaign certainly didn’t want to see radical fingers pointing at U.S. imperialism; it offered patriotic support for the U.S. government, pressing only to curtail some of the excesses of what its member organizations saw as a “democratic and just” government whose policies were a little bit too extreme. The Campaign condemned the policy decisions of both sides equally (“on the one hand / on the other”) as if the giant and the gnat are identical, or that the U.S. government’s murder of a quarter-of-a-million Iraqis, mostly civilians, was but an unfortunate and perhaps over-zealous (but justified!) act, and that the reports in corporate media could be trusted. Imperialism? “Don’t use such terms,” we were told. “It’ll just ‘alienate’ people.”
As Bradley Manning‘s trial begins this week, the anti-war movement seems to have finally learned its lesson and is organizing support for this hero, who stands on the shoulders of all these other heroes and sheroes who came before. And that is a very important development.
1American Maritime Officers Service, News Briefs, March 1991. The ship had been hired by American President Line for commercial feeder service between the United Arab Emirates and India.
2ibid. Once the crew jumped ship, the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command canceled its charter for non-performance, and the vessel’s owner suddenly came to the conclusion that the ship was “unseaworthy.”
4Mitchel Cohen, “For Each and Every Warrior Whose Strength is Not to Fight,” Guardian, May 1991 and also in Fifth Estate. Also, Mitchel Cohen: “Pentagon Ups Penalties for Military Resisters,” The Guardian, Feb. 6, 1991; “Gulf War is Not Over for Military Resisters,” The Guardian, May 29, 1991; “They Didn’t Follow Orders,” Fifth Estate; and, “The Real Heroes Series,” produced by Storm Warning, Vietnam Veterans Against the War Anti-Imperialist, 915 East Pine, #408, Seattle, WA 98122.
5Guardian, June 5, 1991.
6Ruth Turner, Military Counseling Network.
7This only touches the surface of the massive resistance within the military and outside of it to the Gulf War. So much has been forgotten or covered up. At the time, I and others at The Guardian newspaper in New York City carved out articles week after week while at the same time participating in the direct action arm of the resistance movement. See “Read My Apoca-Lypse: The Gulf War and the Mass Psychology of Fascism,” for much more on this subject.
8Dave Zirin, “Where was the Pat Tillman story on NFL Sunday?,” The Nation, September 12, 2011.
9Nonviolent Activist, Jan.-Feb. 1994.
10Currently, the Socialist Party, at least in New York City, has become much more radical under new, youthful working class leadership.
11Scud warheads weighed in at one-quarter of a ton in explosive power, compared with the tens of thousands of tons of explosives rained on Iraq daily by B-52 carpet-bombing.
12See, Mitchel Cohen, “Read My Apocalypse: The Gulf War and the Mass Psychology of Fascism,” Red Balloon Books, 1998.