People who have seen active duty in the US “forever wars” are more and more speaking out. One of them, West Pointer Eric Edstrom, said in Paths of Dissent, the “War on Terror strip-mined my soul. My time in Afghanistan, from May 2009 to June 2010, was defined by the horror of watching good people getting mutilated and dying terrible deaths. It was filled with intense moral anguish… It strained my relationships, destroyed my notion of patriotism, eroded my support for American foreign policy… and made me deeply sad.”
Moral injury has been a killer. Edstrom says “suicide has been deadlier than combat for the military. There have been over thirty thousand suicides among US service members and veterans of the post-9/11 wars” – nearly five times the roughly seven thousand service members killed in them. Right after 9/11, Edstrom asked himself “what will I do about it? My answer then was to join the military. My answer now is different: dissent.”
Jonathan Hutto was a student leader and president of the Howard University Student Association before graduating in 2003. His plans to become a teacher fell through. “A navy recruiter spotted me… promising me ‘a new lease on life.’ When he got to the part about the Navy repaying student loans, I began to listen…”
Hutto was a reluctant recruit. “My unwillingness to serve as cannon fodder connected directly to the tradition of Black resistance to the Vietnam War.” He said he found that “despite the military’s supposed inclusivity…, it offers no escape from racism and white nationalism. And this racism is directly connected to the acts of aggression and even war crimes committed by the US military overseas.”
Aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, Hutto encountered overt racism at all levels, including name calling, a hangman’s noose, and intense punishment when he took his concerns up the chain of command. After he’d had enough, he went AWOL and headed to Washington, DC. He contacted civil rights icon John Lewis, “who represented the Georgia congressional district where my parents resided.” He also reached out to David Cortwright, author of Soldiers In Revolt, the landmark history of GI resistance during the Vietnam War. Cortwright had become a professor of peace studies at Notre Dame University and president of the Fourth Freedom Forum. He helped Hutto prepare to fight back. Together they made history, as Hutto developed an Appeal for Redress from the War in Iraq, which gathered thousands of signatures from GIs around the globe and caused a major stir in the halls of Washington and in national media. Read the full story in Antiwar Soldier: How to Dissent Within the Ranks of the Military.
Joy Damiani “needed money for school; a recruiter got me.” He got her home phone number from a community college list and asked what she wanted to study.” When she said “journalism” he told her “I can get you a journalism job in the army!” She thought “that couldn’t possibly be journalism,” but she went for it, and got a journalism MOS. She called it “a propaganda of omission… We painted only the pictures the generals wanted the troops to see… our team’s task was to tell the story of victory.”
In Iraq, Joy said, “the more I saw the more I realized what the government was doing to its soldiers; I thought we couldn’t possibly be doing anything good for anyone else. I became very bitter.” After her discharge, “people thanked me for my service; I felt sick.” She thought “I’m dying on the inside because you’re not paying attention.” She became aware “the US government has been running a gaslighting operation on the US people. It says we’re united when we’re not. We’re not a democracy, we’re an oligarchy… No money to keep people alive but plenty for killing people.”
About a year after returning from her final deployment, Joy chanced to meet Sonia, another woman vet, who asked “have you ever heard of Iraq Veterans Against the War?” As “neurons exploded” in her head, Joy asked “There’s a group?” A few nights later Sonia brought her a pile of papers. “Words jumped off the printed pages – illegal… unjust… occupation – that I’d rarely heard other soldiers say out loud.” After a few years she said “it finally sank in for me: we are a nation founded on genocide and slavery. We can’t claim the moral high ground.” Once she got involved in activism, she had a community of other traumatized veterans. “But it’s a hard community – people are always killing themselves.” Still, she says “I can never not be a veteran – that’s your identity forever. You’re going to think of that experience every day until you die. It’s hard walking around in this brain.”
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When asked what can be done to reduce the trauma, she answers “abolish the military. There’s no way to stop the trauma – we are all suffering because of this oligarchy we live under. Get out into the streets and…! Every time I go out to protest, the riot cops are out, and the soldiers are out. I see confused teenagers like me, attacking us – we’re all on each other’s side… We have to be individual revolutionaries. We have to realize the system isn’t broken, that’s how it was designed to work. It’s always been control the many by the few. It’s basically a war on poor people – it’s always been that way. I would be more comforted if I heard more people talking about it.”
Joy Damiani has become a songwriter and performer, and has a new book coming out, If You Ain’t Cheatin’, You Ain’t Tryin’ and other lessons I learned in the Army. A recent hit song is “It’s alright to not be OK.”
While growing up in Indiana, Vincent Emanuele “watched and rewatched Rambo, Commando, Navy Seals, Missing in Action, and every other war movie in the hypermilitarized American culture. He “didn’t know the first thing about resistance,… didn’t know anything about the modern antiwar movement.” He learned quickly during his first deployment to Iraq, which ended in 2005. Following a second deployment in 2014, he realized the “Iraqi resistance fighters were always going to control their country – no matter how long US forces stayed, no matter how brutal our attacks became. The Iraqis were fighting for their families, their land, their pride, their dignity. American troops were only in it for healthcare, college money, steady housing, or ideological nonsense. Almost none of us actually believed the people we encountered posed a threat to our homeland. And those who did believe that were absolutely out of their minds, as history has shown.”
Emanuele landed in a two-month VA inpatient drug and alcohol rehab program. “The doctors tried their best to convince the command that I should stay home, but my commanding officers disagreed and forced me to return… Back home, my father and uncle started writing letters to every Senate and House Armed Services Committee member. Soon after, letters, phone calls, and inquiries poured into our unit’s commanding officers.” Still, Marine commanders and NCOs “talked to me about ‘the mission’ and ‘American freedom’ and all the rest.” Emanuele “kept repeating ‘I will not go to the armory, and I will not board an airplane.’ They were going to have to drag my unconscious body to Iraq if they wanted me to deploy a third time.” But “eventually the command acquiesced and offered me a ‘general discharge under honorable conditions.’… They would rather lose a seasoned gunner than allow me the opportunity to bring down unit morale.”
There’s a lesson here. Emanuele tells of traveling most of the country with IVAW from 2006 to 2008. He gave antiwar speeches at union halls, religious services, universities, community centers, town halls, libraries, street corners, parks, and protests. He was interviewed “by every media outlet under the sun, culminating in the 2008 Winter Soldier hearings, when hundreds of veterans converged on Silver Springs, Maryland, for several days of testimony about US war crimes, sexual assaults in the military, drug abuse, and much more. Later that year, about a dozen of us officially testified before the United States Congress.”
Emanuele has remained very active, writing, speaking and organizing both locally with PARC (Politics Art Roots Culture Media), Organized & United Residents of Michigan City, Indiana, and nationally with Veterans For Peace.
Kevin Tillman is Pat Tillman’s brother. Both became professional athletes – Kevin with the baseball Cleveland Indians franchise, and Pat with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals. They enlisted together in the wake of 9/11, seeing action in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Pat never made it home. He was killed by “friendly fire,” a story related by fellow veteran Rory Fanning in Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger’s Journey. Kevin says “belligerent US foreign policy not only creates victims in other countries while getting our soldiers killed and injured but inevitably reverberates at home – with violence and corruption replacing political process and the rule of law; with reality subverted by false narratives; with a flourishing of fear, ignorance, and hate. War dissenters understand this, historically and conceptually. That’s why war dissent is reasonable, necessary, and morally sound. In some cases, depending on your ethical framework, it is even obligatory.”
Tillman acknowledges that “if the dissenter has the power to sway public opinion, or provides damning evidence against the US administration, then the price to be paid can be very real. Such people can find themselves classified as ‘enemies of the state.’ This can mean government-backed discrediting campaigns, harassment, and imprisonment.” He mentions whistle-blowers Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning and Daniel Hale, and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who has languished in a British prison awaiting extradition to the US on espionage charges for publishing information about US war crimes in Iraq.
All evidence suggests that we as a nation remain a long way off from fixing our foreign policy,” Tillman says. “We are likely to keep reading courageous, clarifying, and insightful pieces of war dissent while American soldiers die, vulnerable nations get destroyed, and the moral rot spreads at home.” But he thinks “in the long term… sustained progress can and will be made, and war dissent will reach critical mass both in America and around the globe – tipping the scales in favor of peace, diplomacy, and accountability… Until then, let us hope war dissenters continue their courageous work of providing transparency, honesty, and optimism to us all.”