Thursday, July 14, 2011

Building the Campaign to Defend GI Resisters

Is It Time To Call for Amnesty?

by Gerry Condon

This article was published in the June 2011 issue of ON WATCH, the newsletter of the Military Law Task Force of the National Lawyers Guild. It continues the discussion of GI resistance in recent On Watch articles concerning AWOLs, the Coffeehouse movement and the case of Bradley Manning. Further articles and letters on the topic are welcome.


Ten years after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, nearly 100,000 U.S. troops remain there, with a roughly equal number of “contractors,” or mercenaries. The Taliban insurgency has grown, along with broad, diverse resistance to the U.S./NATO occupation, and large majorities of people in Afghanistan, the U.S. and Europe think it is time for all foreign troops to leave. In Canada, popular opposition has forced the hawkish Conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, to pledge that all Canadian combat troops will soon be withdrawn. The same goes for Britain, where another Conservative prime minister has promised to withdraw British troops. Similar pressures are being felt by all the European governments that have contributed troops to the occupation of Afghanistan.

Responding to strong public opposition to the costly U.S. occupation of Iraq, President Obama, who campaigned for the presidency on a platform of ending the U.S. war there, has committed himself to withdraw all but a small residual force from Iraq by the end of 2011. However, sustained insurgencies in both Afghanistan and Iraq are giving the U.S. security establishment pause – and/or an excuse – to extend the timetable for withdrawal. Furthermore, the construction of large permanent U.S. military bases in both Iraq and Afghanistan have raised doubts about the ultimate intentions of the U.S. Nonetheless, a variety of external and internal pressures – including the pending U.S. presidential election in 2012 – may lead to an actual winding down of both U.S. occupations.In the wake of the U.S. assassination of Osama bin Laden, 52% of adults in the U.S. believe it is time to pull out of Afghanistan, per a June 8, 2011 BBC World News America poll (35% believe the US should stay according to exiting plans, but only 14% are confident that U.S. policies in Afghanistan will be successful, per the same poll).

The White House and Pentagon are now involved in a very public debate about just how fast to draw down troops. President Obama has pledged to begin a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan beginning in July of this year (2011), with all troops to be withdrawn by the end of 2014. The President is said to be considering deeper cuts, but Defense Secretary Gates is publicly calling for a more gradual reduction, so as not to lose the very tenuous gains that the U.S. military is claiming.


These unpopular U.S. occupations have taken a heavy toll on the U.S. military, particularly on the largely working class men and women who have been sent to fight against entrenched resistance movements. Over 6,400 U.S. troops have been killed and well over 40,000 have been wounded, many with critical, life-altering losses of multiple limbs, eye-sight, and hearing, as well as serious brain damage.

These numbers do not include hundreds of thousands of active duty GIs and veterans who suffer from the psychological trauma of the violence of war and/or undetected brain injuries from the explosion of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), the weapon of choice of anti-occupation resistance fighters. According to the RAND Corporation, over 330,000 veterans of the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from seri-ous Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Roughly an equal number suffer from Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), with a large number suffering from a combination of the two, many of whose symptoms are similar. It is widely understood that neither the U.S. military nor the Veterans Administration is providing adequate care to these wounded troops and veterans, and that the social conse-quences of alcohol and drug abuse, broken families, violence and suicide are rampant.


Acts of antiwar resistance within the military have been widespread, if not necessarily reaching the levels that were seen during the Vietnam War. The military has been careful to hide this resistance and much of it also covert in its nature, so it may well be years before we know its extent. What we do know from talking to veterans of these occupations is that many GIs, after experiencing the vio-lence and futility of war, have sought to minimize their contact with the armed resistance by refusing to carry out dangerous missions, by refusing to kill innocent civilians, by refusing to go “outside the wire” (leaving the relative safety of their fortified bases), and by purposefully carrying out safe patrols, what soldiers in Vietnam called “search and avoid” missions. The primary motivation of the GIs in these occupations – why they fight and why they avoid fighting – is often stated as getting them-selves and their buddies home safe.

Returning veterans, disgusted by U.S. military operations in Iraq and Af-ghanistan, have been organizing to oppose these occupations and to help address the unmet needs of active duty GIs and veterans. In 2004, some of these veterans founded Iraq Veterans Against the War, with assistance from Veterans For Peace and others. GI coffeehouses have been established near several military bases, most notably Fort Lewis, Washington (Coffee Strong) and Fort Hood, Texas (Under the Hood), two of the largest Army bases from which tens of thousands of troops have de-ployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq Veterans Against the War is now conducting Operation Recovery, a “campaign to stop the deployment of traumatized troops.”

Many GI’s, having witnessed the horrible violence of modern warfare, including the routine killing of civil-ians – men, women and children – have declared themselves to be Conscientious Objectors and sought discharges or re-classification to non-combat duties. Many other GIs have sought medical discharges due to their PTSD or other physical injuries. The U.S. military, desperate for warm bodies to staff multiple occupations, has been very stingy about granting such discharges, leading many GIs to leave the military of their own volition and without official permission (AWOL from the Army: “Away Without Official Leave,” UA from the Marines: “Unauthorized Absence”).

Since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, tens of thousands of U.S. troops have gone AWOL or UA. This has been the most visible and quantifiable form of resistance. While perhaps the majority of these AWOL troops have returned to military con-trol, it is safe to say that thousands remain at large and in legal jeopardy.

Thousands of AWOL troops are liv-ing “underground” in the United States, some of them quite openly. Generally speaking, the policy of the Army and the Marines is not to aggressively pursue them. Many have been captured after being stopped by the police for routine traffic viola-tions, and many more have chosen to turn themselves in to the military to get their situations resolved. The first choice of the Army and Marines has been to re-integrate returning AWOL’s into their units and to return them to war. If that is not feasible, the military’s second choice has been to administratively discharge the returning AWOL’s with punitive “other than honorable” discharges.
But returning AWOL GIs who left the military when facing orders to deploy or re-deploy to war, or who have spoken publicly against the occupations, have been court-martialed for desertion and refusing orders, and given prison sentences ranging from six months to two years.


Beginning with the January 2004 arri-val in Toronto of conscientious objector Jeremy Hinzman, hundreds of AWOL troops have fled to Canada. A popular campaign calling on the Canadian government to grant sanctuary to Iraq war resisters has won majority popular support among Canadians (64%). But the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which is particularly hostile to U.S. war resisters, has refused to do so. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has publicly called them “phony refugees.” The Conservative government has succeeded in deporting several war resisters back to the U.S., where they have been court-martialed for desertion and imprisoned for up to two years.

The War Resisters Support Campaign in Toronto estimates that be-tween 200 and 300 GIs, mostly young men and a few young women, are currently seeking sanctuary in Canada. More than fifty have applied for political asylum. None has yet to win this status, but their legal appeals continue, including attempts to re-main in Canada on “humanitarian and compassionate” grounds. In the meantime, a number of the war re-sisters are successfully immigrating to Canada via marriage.

The Conservative government of Canada has now won three consecutive national elections, and recently achieved a majority government for the first time, leading to fears of accelerated attempts to deport U.S. war resisters. However, the New Democratic Party (NDP), which has given solid support to U.S. war resisters, tripled its seats in the Parliament in the recent election, and has for the first time become the official opposition. It is hoped that the NDP will be an effective counter-balance to the Conservatives and will continue to fight effectively for sanctuary for U.S. war resisters, but the Conservative majority will be in power for the next four years.

While the Conservatives have been unfriendly to U.S. war resisters, the Canadian people have been providing them with sanctuary. The War Resisters Support Campaign has provided the resisters with material support, including housing and modest weekly allowances, as well as legal, political and moral support. Many war resisters have been empowered to speak out publicly against the wars and on behalf of their own sanctuary. As mentioned above, some resisters have been able to gain residency through marriage. Others have found at least a temporary haven in Canada – several months or years when they were neither at war nor in prison. This has been especially valuable to those who are raising young families.

Many of the resisters are combat veterans – they were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and went AWOL only after being ordered back to war. Thus, many war resisters are also suffering from PTSD.

Rodney Watson, an African American veteran of the Iraq occupation, was ordered deported from Canada in September 2009. In an extraordinary act of resistance, he sought sanctuary in the First United Church in downtown Vancouver, BC, where he has been living, along with his wife and young son, for almost two years. Rodney, who converses online with his many Canadian and U.S. supporters, can be contacted at his Facebook page, War Resister in Sanctuary.

It should be mentioned that the Canadian sanctuary campaign is specifically for Iraq war resisters, and not for GIs who refused to deploy to Afghanistan. This reflects the political reality in Canada, which still has its own troops in Afghanistan, despite the steady opposition of most of the Canadian people. Nonetheless, several Afghanistan war resisters are known to be living in Canada, and legal help is available to them as well.


Many U.S. peace groups have provided legal and political support to war resisters, especially AWOL GIs and those seeking discharge from the military. Oakland, California-based Courage To Resist has done an outstanding job publicizing the struggles of GI resisters and providing them with political and material support (see

Courage To Resist is currently spearheading a remarkable campaign in support of Bradley Manning, an Army intelligence analyst who is accused of releasing classified information to Wikileaks. Manning is charged with releasing an Army video showing U.S. soldiers in an Apache helicopter gunning down unarmed civilians, including two Reuters reporters and two young children, in Baghdad, Iraq. The infamous Collateral Murder video has been viewed over 11 million times on YouTube. Army prosecutors have also charged Manning with releasing U.S. military diaries of the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations, and thousands of cables from U.S. embassies around the world.

Many thousands of individuals in the U.S. and around the world have contributed funds for the legal and political defense of Bradley Manning, and also have demonstrated their support in the streets. Veterans For Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War have rallied in support of Manning. Civil disobedience actions at the White House and at the Marine Corps Brig at Quantico, Virginia, were instrumental in Manning’s transfer from Quantico, where he had endured near-torturous conditions. Manning is now being held at the military prison at Leavenworth, Kansas, where his treat-ment is reported to be more humane.

The charges against Manning include “Aiding the Enemy,” a capital offense that can be punished by life in prison or even the death penalty. His court martial is expected to take place in December of this year, by which time he will already have been imprisoned for 19 months.

For information on how you can join the campaign to support Bradley Manning, contact the Bradley Manning Support Network at

Less dramatic but also very impressive is the longstanding counseling support that the GI Rights Hotline has provided to GIs who are AWOL, who wish to be discharged from the military, or who have other griev-ances with the military – such as sexual harassment and assault. Leading groups in this effort include the Center on Conscience and War, the Military Law Task Force of the National Lawyers Guild and the War Resisters League, among many others

Legal resources for returning or captured AWOL GIs are scarce, however, or prohibitively expensive. There is a great need for qualified lawyers who are willing to work for not much more than their expenses. There is also a great need for a more muscular political campaign to support GIs who are facing court martial. As more AWOL GIs return from Canada or surface from underground in the U.S., the current level of legal and political support will need to be substantially increased.


As President Nixon began to withdraw U.S. troops from Vietnam in 1972 and 1973, a campaign was launched calling for unconditional amnesty for all Vietnam war resisters, including draft resisters, deserters, veterans with less-than-honorable discharges and all those who had been arrested for pro-testing against the war. National and local peace groups, churches, civil liberties organizations and veterans groups (e.g. Vietnam Veterans Against the War), joined together to form a broad coalition, the National Council for Universal and Unconditional Amnesty (NCUUA).

After several years of persistent organizing, the amnesty campaigners won widespread support, including from mainstream, grassroots Democrats. In 1976, Jimmy Carter ran for president on a platform of pardon-ing draft resisters, and he fulfilled this pledge as his very first act as president in January 1977. President Carter then ordered the military to establish a program that would allow AWOL GI’s to voluntarily return to military control and to be discharged in an atmosphere of leniency. Carter even ordered a case-by-case review of Vietnam-era less-than-honorable discharges.

While Carter’s program fell far short of the movement’s demand for “universal, unconditional amnesty,” it was still a remarkable achievement that allowed many resisters to legalize their status and normalize their lives. Might this be the right time for the peace movement to launch a similar campaign?

Because there is no draft, and the lives of middle class sons and daughters are not on the line, we would expect less support for amnesty from middle class America and the Democratic Party. We could probably expect a less broad and less muscular campaign. Nonetheless, the Vietnam amnesty movement and the Carter pardon are strong precedents for us to call upon, and many progressive organizations would likely rally to the cause.

An amnesty campaign could bring further awareness of the plight of our GI resisters and more legal and political resources would become available to them. It would also provide a contextual framework for all the work that is being done on behalf of GI resisters.

Different political approaches would probably exist side by side, as they did during the Vietnam amnesty move-ment. Some of us would take the moral high ground and argue that it is right – and legal – to resist an unjust war, as thousands of GIs have done. While others would say it is time to get these wars behind us and to reconcile the nation. But we would all be calling for an end to the punishment of war resisters. This could create a climate once again of treating returning AWOLs leniently, with or without an order from the president to do so.

Much more discussion is needed of this and other possible approaches to supporting our GI resisters. We can also tap into the impressively broad support that is being manifested for Bradley Manning, the accused Wikileaks whistleblower. We can appeal to people to show the same concern, to take the same kind of political action, and to give the same kind of generous contributions.

We must also continue reaching out to active duty service members, reservists, and National Guard troops with much needed information and support. Nobody can do this better than veterans, especially recent veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations.
Arguably, we could send no stronger message to would-be GI resisters than to mount a campaign for amnesty for all those who are currently in jeopardy for resisting unjust wars and occupations.

In 1968, Gerry Condon refused Army orders to deploy to Vietnam, for which he was court-martialed and sentenced to 10 years in prison and a Dishonorable Discharge. But Gerry was able to escape from Fort Bragg, North Carolina and leave the U.S. For six years he lived in Sweden and Canada, where he organized against the war and for amnesty for all war resisters. Gerry is an active member of Veterans For Peace and co-chair of its GI Resistance Working Group. He serves on the steering committee of the Bradley Manning Support Network.