Sunday, October 07, 2007

Random Thoughts on Supporting GI Resisters

by Gerry Condon, Soldier Say No / Project Safe Haven

Clinton, Obama and Edwards Would Leave Troops in Iraq (video)

GI and Veteran Resisters Speak Out (video)

I wrote this memo last week and sent it out to several friends and contacts on my email list. I didn’t expect it to receive wide circulation but it has. So I have belatedly taken the time to correct some typos, to add information I received from the Military Law Task force of the National Lawyers Guild, and to acknowledge the excellent hard work of a number of organizations that are reaching out to GI’s and/or supporting war resisters (see final section). Thanks to all who have responded with positive feedback or further distributed my memo. Obviously, this is a conversation that interests many people. That in itself is a good sign.

-- Gerry Condon, October 1, 2007

Sometimes I am impatient,
with myself and the antiwar movement of which I am a part. When will we get real about supporting GI resisters? I’m not just talking about the odd Conscientious Objector or AWOL soldier. I’m talking about building a support movement for GI resistance. I’m talking about reaching out to the troops and telling them they should not fight in an illegal, immoral war. I’m talking about challenging deeply embedded societal concepts concerning patriotism, fulfilling ones’ military “duty,” and being bound by the military “contract.”

I’ve been to meetings where counter-recruitment activists and war resister advocates have announced that their son or daughter will be deployed the following week to Iraq. And I ask myself: why are they not standing in their way, why are they allowing their children to be sent off to a war that they know is wrong? And I have talked to parents who se children have been killed in Iraq who say they didn’t agree with their children’s decision to enlist in the military but that they had tried to respect their right to make that decision, to respect that they were now adults (barely). Now they deeply regret that decision.

Sometimes I think we are running out of time to really build the kind of resistance movement, civilian and GI, that will be needed to end the Iraq War. But then I read that Hillary Clinton, the probable next president, will not promise to have the troops out of Iraq by the end of her first term. Neither will Barak Obama. Neither will John Edwards. (See the video clip above). Why? Because the president of the United States must be the executive director of U.S. imperialism. The Democrats want that Iraqi oil as much as the Republicans. Both parties are controlled by the uber-rich ruling class. Both parties believe that it is the U.S. destiny to dominate the world’s resources, markets and people. They debate strategy and tactics only.

Well, the Congress finally united this week to do something concerning the Iraq War. Both houses of Congress overwhelmingly condemned the anti-war ad of that dared to challenge the credibility of General Petraeus, the latest shill for Bush’s failed war. The Senate vote was 72-25 and the House vote was 341-79. These are the kind of numbers that should be ending to the war and impeaching President Bush and his entire war cabinet. But that ain’t going to happen.

It would appear, then, that the antiwar movement has been focusing its precious energies in the wrong direction. Four years of focusing on the U.S. Congress has achieved no meaningful results. There is no democracy in Washington, DC. Arguably, those who have been doing counter-recruitment work have had more impact, although that is hard to measure. The Iraq War has been the greatest counter-recruiter of all. African Americans, in particular, are enlisting in historically low numbers.

David Zeiger did the world a great service when he made the film, Sir, No Sir! This film uncovered a profound historical truth that is hard for many people to comprehend: Widespread resistance within the military was the final nail in the coffin of the Vietnam War. Rap groups. Coffee houses. Black Power meetings. GI newspapers. “Search and avoid” missions. Massive desertions. Sabotage. Refusal to fight. Refusal to fly. Refusal to train. “Fragging” of gung ho officers and NCOs. Withholding of intelligence data. Deserter and draft resister exile bases in Europe and Canada. Campaigns to unionize and democratize the military.

These acts of GI rebellion and organizing were organic, both spontaneous and planned. The antiwar movement cannot will them into being. They also took place within the context of a political awakening in the U.S., the rise of anti-imperialist, socialist and Black Consciousness movements, and a “cultural revolution” of youth. In other words, they took place within a revolutionary climate. Perhaps that is what we are lacking now, more than anything.

GI resistance organizing must come from the GI’s themselves. However, it is somewhat unique in requiring lots of “outside” help from civilians. Some of this work must necessarily be clandestine, but much of it can be done in the open.

One can assume that any effective efforts at reaching out to GI’s or supporting their organizing will bring serious attention from various police and intelligence agencies. GI organizers will most likely be infiltrated by government agents, as will their civilian supporters. The government spies will be there to provide intelligence, to provoke disputes, to incite violence, to isolate and entrap leaders, and, in general, to attempt to undermine the resistance.

To my knowledge, not a single civilian was prosecuted during the Vietnam War for “aiding and abetting” AWOL GI’s or for stirring up resistance within the military. Why this is the case, I do not know. Perhaps government and military leaders did not want to bring attention to the GI resistance. There are certainly laws on the books they could use. In the age of Homeland Security, anything is possible. But until the government begins to aggressively pursue those who are supporting GI resisters, we should consider this activity to be relatively low risk.

There is a taboo in the antiwar movement against actually calling on the troops to resist. Only Iraq Veterans Against the War have begun to cross that line (see video above). What is behind this taboo? I believe there are a number of factors. One is fear of the perceived legal jeopardy. As I addressed above, this is somewhat of a myth. Nobody has been prosecuted for encouraging GI’s to resist, not during the Vietnam War and not since.

[Since I first wrote these Random Thoughts, friends at the Military Law Task Force of the National Lawyers Guild have informed me of several Vietnam era prosecutions of civilians who were working with antiwar GI’s, not for aiding and abetting, but for various other trumped up state and local charges.]

Another part of the taboo against calling on the troops to resist is that many antiwar organizations, especially the larger and more established, are organized as nonprofit organizations (501c3) for purposes of receiving tax-deductible organizations. They fear they might lose their nonprofit status if they advocate actions the government would consider illegal. To my knowledge, this has not happened. But nonprofits’ boards of directors tend to be pretty conservative about such matters. Many of them also wrongfully believe that their nonprofit status will be jeopardized if they engage in any advocacy or support legislative proposals.

Then there are the moral and ethical concerns. Some activists say that civilians don’t have the right to tell GI’s what they should be doing. Others say we should not put the moral burden for ending the war upon the soldiers. These concerns are worth exploring.
To me, the most compelling concern is this: If we encourage GI’s to resist, are we going to be there for them when they do? If they are court-martialed, will we bring legal and political support? If they go to jail, will we remember them? If they go AWOL, will we help them? Can we provide them with housing and money? Can we help them get to a safe haven outside the U.S.? Can we provide them with sanctuary within the U.S.? These are the very capacities that some of us are working to develop.

Underlying many of these concerns, I believe, is a very profound question: If we ask GI’s to take the risks involved with resisting within the military, or going AWOL, are we willing to share those risks? Not everybody is in a position to do so. And relatively few people are committed enough to risk the potential disruption of their lives, up to and including political persecution and possible imprisonment. In other words, if we aren’t ready to put our lives on the line, how can we ask these young soldiers to do so?

Well, some of us are willing to put our lives on the line. But this is more easily said than done. Most activists have families, jobs, careers and recreational activities that are important to them. They may be struggling financially or with health concerns. It is hard enough to attend meetings or to go to demonstrations. Even relatively tame civil disobedience actions will give many people pause. This is understandable, but should it mean that we do not call on GI’s to resist?

I do believe it is important for those of us who encourage GI resistance, directly or indirectly, to be prepared to come to the aid of those who heed our call. On the other hand, I do not believe that GI’s face any greater risk from resisting the war than they do from being part of the war. GI resisters do not generally risk their lives, their limbs, brain damage, PTSD, their ability to love their families, etc. But all of these horrible things are epidemic among those who go to war.

What does a GI actually risk by resisting? A lot. Persecution by military superiors. Disapproval and rejection by fellow GI’s. Disapproval and rejection by some family members. Self-doubt and loss of self-esteem. Jail time. The stigma of a less-than-honorable discharge. The inability to support their family. Jeopardy to educational and career goals.

And AWOL soldiers risk the trauma of prolonged separation from their families (but the war does that too). Those who leave the country may not be able to return without facing prosecution. And they face an uncertain future in their new country. There is plenty of stress and trauma, for sure. But how does that compare to the risks and trauma and moral consequences of going to war? GI’s who refuse, in one way or another, to go to war, are actually decreasing the risks to themselves – physically, psychologically and morally.

I believe it is time for the antiwar movement to relocate to the gates of every military base in this country, and abroad. Democracy has failed in Washington. Seventy percent of the U.S. people want the troops out of Iraq as soon as possible. But the Congress says no way. And the leading presidential candidates of both parties say no way. In this election cycle, the antiwar movement should not spend one ounce of its energy backing any candidate who is not credibly committed to ending the war and giving Iraq back to the Iraqis.

Instead of wasting our energy on the politicians, we in the antiwar movement should take democracy into our own hands. The slogan “Troops Out Now” should be directed at the troops themselves. We should encourage and assist our citizen soldiers to vote with their feet. As Bertold Brecht famously suggested, the war machine cannot function if the troops won’t fight. Even the drones and the robots require humans to direct and repair them.

This is somewhat of a revolutionary proposal. But it now appears that nothing short of a revolutionary movement will bring an end to the Iraq War. Nothing less than a revolutionary movement will prevent the next war. And nothing less than a revolutionary movement will finally put an end to the global warring that is a central component of U.S. imperialism.

I’m not saying we need to build a revolutionary party or prepare ourselves for armed revolution. But we need to think like revolutionaries and act like revolutionaries. We need to shed the illusion that we can end the cycle of U.S. war mongering though polite discourse with our congresswoman. We have to internalize the fact that we are, in fact, at war with our own government and system. We have to be willing to take risks. And we have to be willing to ask others to take risks, especially when it is in their own interests.

When we ask GI’s to take the risk of resisting, we will not be putting an unethical burden upon them. We will probably be saving their lives. And, yes, we must be there for them too. We must share the risks. Maybe we’ll be saving our lives too.

This is the context I see for supporting “war resisters.” Our goal should be to empower the soldiers to play their historical role in the worldwide movement to end to U.S. militarism. Not everyone will agree with me. But activists from many different perspectives and organizations can still provide war resisters with valuable support, be it counseling on their legal options, money, housing, transportation, political support, or helping them to make their voices heard.

It is one thing to oppose a war, it is another to actually resist it. Even many peace activists oppose actions that might violate the law. They consider it reckless to call for GI resistance, or even to tell GI’s they can go to Canada. What’s up with that? It’s time to change the paradigm.

Another thing that is holding us back is that hardly anybody really knows how to do this work. Few people have any relevant experience. And the mostly middle class and over-40 peace movement does not know how to talk to the poor and working class youth of today’s “volunteer” military. But it’s high time we started learning. By trial and error. For those of us in the Northwest, what better laboratory than Fort Lewis, one of the largest Army bases providing troops to the Iraq War. The local papers announce the deaths of Washington state GI’s almost daily. Where are we?

To be fair, there are groups in the antiwar movement who have been reaching out to GI’s and/or providing various kinds of support to war resisters. For example, Courage To Resist has publicized the cases of many war resisters and raised money for them online. Members of Iraq Veterans Against the War have been traveling to various military bases and talking one-on-one with GI’s. Citizen Soldier helped to establish the Different Drummer Internet Café, the first GI coffeehouse of this era, at Fort Drum, near Syracuse, New York. Not coincidentally, the first active duty chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War has been established at Fort Drum. The GI Rights Hotline has been providing much needed counseling to thousands of GI’s who are considering their options. The GI Special has been providing Iraq War news and views from the perspective of the GI’s.

In Canada, the War Resisters Support Campaign is providing housing and basic needs to U.S. war resisters while leading a campaign to press the Canadian government to allow them to stay. These groups deserve credit for their excellent work. I encourage people to check them out and to consider joining or supporting their work.

Courage To Resist,
Iraq Veterans Against the War,
Veterans For Peace,
Vietnam Veterans Against the War,
Military Families Speak Out,
Guerrero Azteca,
Citizen Soldier,
Different Drummer Internet Café,
Ehren Watada support campaign,
Catholic Worker/Jonah House,
GI Rights Hotline,
Military Law Task Force (NLG),
GI Special,
Soldier Say No / Project Safe Haven,

In Canada: War Resisters Support Campaign,

Many groups have also rallied around GI resisters facing court martials, such as Camilo Mejia (now co-chair of Iraq Veterans Against the War), Pablo Paredes (now working with the GI Rights Hotline), Kevin Benderman, who with his wife Monica, has just published a book about their experiences, Letters from the Fort Lewis Stockade.), and Ehren Watada, whose court martial at Fort Lewis, Washington has been re-scheduled for October 9. The excellent work of these organizations is a strong base upon which to build a movement supporting mass GI resistance to the U.S. wars against the people of Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran.
Gerry Condon

Soldier Say No / Project Safe Haven,
(206) 499-1220