Monday, November 23, 2009

Jamail Celebrates U.S. Military’s “Will to Resist” in Iraq, Afghanistan


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Resistance within the U.S. military to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan hasn’t reached anywhere near the level it did during Viet Nam, largely because there isn’t a civilian peace movement of comparable size and power either. But individual servicemembers in both U.S. occupations are refusing orders, requesting discharges, filing for conscientious objector status and taking whatever other actions are available to them to stop participating in a war they’ve come to reject. That’s the message independent journalist Dahr Jamail came to tell the Peace and Democracy Action Group at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church November 13.

The Will to Resist

In his talk, and in his book The Will to Resist, Jamail chronicles the slow breakdown of morale in the U.S. military in both occupations, the pointlessness of most of what the servicemembers are ordered to do and the simmering anti-war activism within the military. “First,” Jamail said, “the occupations are abject failures, and when soldiers see what they’re being used for — and the corruption — they turn against them.” Jamail began his talk by reading a long passage from his book dealing with U.S. Army medic Eli Wright, who on the first day of his Iraq deployment was sent to a detention facility in Ramadi and told by his battalion surgeon, “Anything that you see in there, inside those walls, stays in there. You don’t talk about any of it after you leave that place.”

Wright’s account of what he did see and experience in there was so intense Jamail devoted over two pages of the book to what Wright told him. “It was the scent of blood that hit me immediately,” Wright said. “It was a sort of old, stale scent of blood that had just permeated that place for a long time. And they walked us inside and there was one prisoner in there, completely naked except for a small little cloth tied around his waist, and he was standing up on top of a cinderblock that was placed on end. … He was being interrogated by several men who were just grilling him. They said he had been up for three days in this interrogation process. He had not slept. He had been standing on this cinderblock for most of the time. They had this bucket of water, which they would splash on him whenever he dozed off.”

According to Wright, “Our task was more or less to see if the guy was stable, to ascertain if he was in any condition to continue his interrogation.” The servicemembers running the detention camp took the prisoner off the cinderblock and stood him against a wall so Wright and his team of medics could check him out. “I didn’t even know where to begin,” Wright told Jamail. “He was covered in bruises, his face was all busted up and bleeding. … He was complaining of pain on the side of his chest, on his back. He had a lot of bruising on his ribs, so the medic started feeling his ribs, and he pressed on a couple of his ribs and the guy just screamed in pain and sort of buckled. They picked him up and slammed him back against the wall.” After Wright had examined the prisoner’s chest and found he had some broken ribs, the other medic felt around the ribs for more fractures and “then suddenly he cocked his fist back and punched him right in the broken ribs. And the guy just dropped and screamed.”

Wright told Jamail he turned against the occupation right when his fellow medic’s fist connected with the detainee’s broken ribs. “Seeing a medic, a fellow care provider, violate our code of ethics, which is first and foremost to do no harm … I think it just kind of destroyed my perception of us doing anything good there for these people.” Wright said. “That’s when I realized that we weren’t there to help anybody. Nothing that we could do would be good.”

“This is what soldiers are experiencing in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Jamail said after he finished reading Wright’s account. “Morale in the military is low. It’s seeing destroyed infrastructure, suffering people and fellow soldiers suffering as well. “ And the soldiers’ suffering doesn’t stop when their deployments end and they come home, either. According to Jamail, a returning servicemember seeking help from the Veterans’ Administration has to wait an average of 179 days. He cited an April 2008 report by the RAND Corporation — a military-affiliated think tank and hardly an antiwar source — stating that 300,000 servicemembers who have served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan — almost 20 percent of the total involved in both wars — have reported symptoms of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), though only slightly more than half have sought treatment.

Military Suicides Up

Indeed, Jamail said the occupation is taking such a psychological toll on its participants that more U.S. servicemembers are killing themselves than are dying in combat. He cited the annual Army Suicide Event Reports (ASER’s), which documented 102 Army suicides in 2006 (more than one-fourth of whom were on active duty in Iraq or Afghanistan when they killed themselves), 115 in 2007 and 128 in 2008. The authors of the 2008 ASER estimated that 20.2 of every 100,000 soldiers killed themselves — higher than the comparable civilian suicide rate for the first time since Viet Nam. The rate for suicides in the Marine Corps in 2008 was 16.2 per 100,000, the highest since the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. What’s more, a reported 24 servicemembers killed themselves in January 2009 alone, “the highest monthly total since the Army began tracking suicides in 1980,” Jamail explained. “If all these are concerned, this suicide count would exceed the number of soldiers killed in both Iraq and Afghanistan during the same period.”

Jamail also said that the VA “has undertaken extraordinary efforts to hide the magnitude of the crisis.” He praises the staff members who actually work with servicemembers, but said the VA’s leadership, “weighed down by the lack of adequate funding and support from the government, appears to be more interested in obfuscating the truth.” It’s gone so far that, according to Jamail, psychologists at VA hospitals have been ordered to reduce the number of PTSD diagnoses “because too many vets were pursuing government disability payments for the condition.” Other independent journalists have charged the VA with attempting to diagnose veterans as having suffered, not from PTSD, but from mental illnesses they supposedly had before they served — which would let the VA and the government in general off the hook for their medical expenses.

“When you’re not sleeping, having flashbacks and self-medicating, you’ll wait six months for a VA appointment and 4 1/2 years if you file for disability, they deny it and you appeal,” Jamail explained. “If you get a valid discharge, you’re supposed to be entitled to VA benefits for life. In 2008, 1,867 veterans died before the VA heard their claims. More than 300,000 veterans have filed. In Viet Nam, 58,000 American soldiers died in combat — and 70,000-plus Viet Nam vets have committed suicide since. We’re seeing the same thing happening now in Iraq and Afghanistan. They fight wars and then, when they come home, they have to fight the VA.”

Inevitably, Jamail mentioned the recent shootings at Fort Hood, Texas — in which an Army psychiatrist is alleged to have shot 13 people on base and wounded many others — as an example of how the U.S. military is increasingly broken and unable to take care of its own. Jamail suggested the shooter may have suffered from “secondary PTSD” — caused by his hearing the horror stories of the servicemembers he was taking care of. (Jamail was himself diagnosed with PTSD from having worked in Iraq as an independent journalist in 2003-2005.) Jamail interviewed a military psychiatrist who told him that he and his colleagues “are hearing so many horror stories, they are going to need counseling.” He also pointed out that there is only one military therapist per 1,250 soldiers, not enough to deal with the low morale among servicemembers who return from Afghanistan or Iraq.

“Covert Dissent”

Jamail readily admitted that the current resistance among servicemembers in Iraq doesn’t compare to what was going on in Viet Nam, “where up to 10 percent of soldiers wouldn’t follow orders.” What we have now in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, is “covert dissent that’s spreading,” ranging from so-called “search-and-avold” missions (units go out, ostensibly on patrol, but actually park in a safe place and spend the day out of harm’s way, sometimes sending back falsified GPS data to make it look like they’re moving) to simply walking away. The rate of absences without leave (AWOL) is up to 4,000 per year, Jamail said.

“I accidentally happened on this topic two years ago,” Jamail said. On a tour to promote his previous book, Beyond the Green Zone — an account of his two years covering the U.S. occupation of Iraq as an unembedded journalist for his own blog — he met Phil Aliff, who had served in Iraq with the 10th Mountain Division, supposedly training Iraqis to take over their own security. Aliff told Jamail that the Iraqis they were supposedly “training” almost never showed up. Instead, Aliff said, they just got sent out on endless patrols — 300 between August 2005 and July 2006 — and about all they did was drive around the city and hope they could avoid being blown up by the improvised explosive devices (IED’s) used by the Iraqi insurgents. “He said morale is low because they don’t have a clearly defined mission,” Jamail recalled. “They don’t know when they’re going to leave or what ‘victory’ looks like.”

Jamail’s book details various forms of resistance antiwar servicemembers are practicing, both within the military and once they get out. One group called the Combat Paper Project — depicted in a half-hour film called Iraq, Paper, Scissors shown as part of the program with Jamail’s speech — encourages servicemembers to make art as a way of exorcising the traumas of serving in Afghanistan or Iraq. In the film, veterans are shown cutting up their uniforms and cloth patches indicating rank, pulping them and turning them into handmade paper — “combat paper” — on which they create artworks. Others, particularly women veterans, are challenging the military’s relentless sexism, including rape: VA statistics indicate that one out of every three U.S. servicewomen are raped or sexually assaulted while in the military. Still others are actively doing counter-recruitment, seeking out opportunities to talk to high school students about the down side of enlisting.

Active Resistance

Then there are the active resisters, the ones who put themselves on the line and face prosecution, ostracism, scorn and even threats to their lives by refusing orders to deploy to Afghanistan or Iraq. Jamail talked about Lieutenant Ehren Watada, the highest-ranking member of the military who refused service in Iraq. “The judge blew the trial, and they let him sit at a desk for two years and then discharged him,” Jamail explained. “Another famous individual is Camilo Mejía, the first conscientious objector to the Iraq war. When people stand up, they’re labeled as ‘cowards,’ ‘unpatriotic,’ etc., by all the pro-war groups, including all the corporate media. But according to the United Nations Charter, there are only two reasons a country can wage a just war: a Security Council resolution or self-defense. That clearly doesn’t apply to Iraq — and it doesn’t apply to Afghanistan either because it was neither the nation nor the people of Afghanistan who attacked the U.S. on September 11, 2001.”

Jamail cited a less well known “refusenik” than Watada or Mejía: Agustin Aguayo, who came forward on May 1 this year and refused an order to deploy to Afghanistan after having already served three years and nine months in the Army, including 13 months in Iraq. “He was tired of the corruption and the contribution to human cruelty,” Jamail said. “He had six weeks to go on his enlistment, after serving four years, when he was hit by ‘stop-loss,’ like about 6 percent of soldiers in both occupations — more than 200,000 troops since 9/11.” “Stop-loss” is a provision in the military contract that allows the service to extend it unilaterally if there’s a war in progress or basically for any reason whatsoever.

When the military used “stop-loss” to extend Aguayo’s enlistment, Jamail explained, “he was ordered to a ‘soldiers’ readiness facility’ to deploy to Afghanistan. He said no. He was given a counseling statement — a preliminary step the Army uses to start the case for prosecution — to sign that he disobeyed an order. He signed it, and added a note that read, “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.”

“Ten days later,” Jamail said, “they ordered him again, he said no again, and this time he said, ‘I will not obey any orders I believe are immoral or illegal.’ People who do this know that they’re going to be put in jail and get a discharge without benefits. I asked if he was sure, and he said yes. He told me, ‘The wars are not going to be ended by the people at the top. The only way to take responsibility is if the soldiers don’t fight.’ The next week Travis Bishop, after a 15-month deployment in Iraq, filed for conscientious objector status and the military court-martialed him. He’s serving one year in a brig.”

Jamail told another story of resistance: Alexis Hutchinson, a specialist with the Army’s Third Infantry Division, Third Combat Aviation Brigade and a single mother with an 11-month old son. She wasn’t even a principled opponent of the war when she turned down a recent order to deploy to Afghanistan. All she wanted was to make sure there’d be someone to look after her son while she was gone. She thought she had someone — her own mother — but mom backed out at the last minute because she was already taking care of several children in the family, some of them with ongoing health problems and other special needs.

“So Alexis’s mother brought the girl back to her, and Alexis went to the military and asked for an extension,” Jamail said. “They said O.K. at first — and then yesterday [November 12] they told her, ‘We’re revoking your extension. You’re going this Sunday. We think you’re trying to get out of this deployment.’ So they threw her in jail, and put her kid in county custody, and they’re going to ship her to Afghanistan and court-martial her there.” A November 17 dispatch from the Associated Press said that she was being confined to base at Savannah, Georgia and that commanders were “investigating” why she was being deployed when ordinarily a single mother without a child-care arrangement would not be sent overseas. This story also said that her son only spent a day in county custody before Hutchinson’s mother took him back.

Asked about how civilian anti-war activists can connect with people in the military, Jamail said, “The corporate media have sanitized the wars and dehumanized not only the people in Iraq and Afghanistan but the U.S. military as well. So many veterans and active-duty servicemembers say people are afraid to talk to them when they come home. When you come back from a war zone, you feel unsure, and people literally won’t talk to you. The first thing soldiers need to do is talk. One thing people can do is talk to them. ‘Supporting the troops’ is not getting a yellow Chinese-made magnet for the back of your SUV. I talked to a man in Ventura who was working on getting veterans referrals to Alcoholics Anonymous and driving them to VA appointments. That man isn’t getting any media coverage.”