5500 US deserters : We won’t fight in Iraq

5500 US deserters : We won’t fight in Iraq

Doug Lorimer

14-03-2005

Green Left Weekly

On February 25, US Army officials at Fort Stewart, Georgia, announced that Sergeant Kevin Benderman, a 40-year-old army mechanic who refused to deploy to Iraq for a second tour of duty, will be court-martialed on desertion charges. If convicted, he faces up to seven years in prison.

After having spent 10 years in the US military, Benderman missed his unit’s deployment flight to Iraq on January 7. Ten days earlier, he had given his commanders notice that he planned to seek a discharge as a conscientious objector, saying he had become opposed to the war after having served eight months in Iraq in 2003.

Benderman joins a growing number of soldiers who are protesting the Iraq war by refusing orders, going AWOL, fleeing to Canada or speaking out. CBS News reported on December 8 that the Pentagon has admitted that at least 5500 US military personnel have deserted since the war started in Iraq.

Furthermore, Steve Morse of the GI Rights Hotline says that the number of calls they have received has grown from 17,000 in 2001 to more than 32,000 in 2004. He says that about 30% are from soldiers who are AWOL or are thinking about deserting.

“Many people don’t [desert] lightly, and they would like to do right by the country. But they see what’s going on, and they can’t do it”, Morse told the February 20 St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

That is what motivated 39-year-old US Army veteran Carl Webb to desert. “I won’t kill if I feel I’m on the wrong side. This is a war about oil and profits”, he told the St Louis Post-Dispatch.

Unemployed and facing eviction from his home in Austin, Texas, Webb enlisted in the Texas National Guard in 2001, after a seven-year break from the US military. He expected to serve for only three years. But in July 2004, less than two months shy of his service completion date, the military told Webb that under the “stop-loss” program he would serve 525 more days and that his unit was being deployed to Iraq.

The “stop-loss” program, which made its first appearance in the Gulf War of the early 1990s, keeps US soldiers scheduled for deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan from leaving when their term of service ends. “This policy is practically an unofficial draft”, Webb told the February 10 Workers World weekly. “It is conscription against a person’s will.”

Webb said he had ruled out seeking conscientious-objector status because he couldn’t meet the military’s criteria for such status - basically, opposition to all wars. “I’m not a pacifist... I’m refusing to go to war because I do not believe the US is on the right track. I think this war is not about liberating people, it’s about oppressing them.”

When his National Guard unit reported for training in August, Webb stayed away. He did the same when the unit left in January for Iraq. He is now a fugitive with a federal warrant out for his arrest.

“My case is different from some of the other soldiers who have deserted, either because they just don’t want to go, or because they think these ‘stop-loss’ orders are illegal”, Webb told Workers World. “I tell people that even if there was no stop-loss policy, even if the government wasn’t illegally using the reserves and National Guard and retirees as they are, I would still be opposed to this war. I don’t think it matters what category of service you’re in - whether you’re in the reserves, National Guard or the regular army - I think all military personnel should oppose fighting in this war of imperialism.”

An anti-war soldier who has attracted international attention is 28-year-old Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia, who was released on February 15 after being sentenced to one year in a military prison for refusing to return to Iraq.

Mejia joined the US Army in 1995. Following a three-year stint with the regular army, he joined the Florida National Guard partly because he was promised tuition assistance at Florida’s state universities.

Mejia’s National Guard unit was called up for active duty in January 2003, and then deployed to Iraq in April 2003. He spent six months in combat in Iraq, then returned for a two-week furlough to the US. In March 2004 he turned himself in to the US military and filed an application for conscientious objector status, declaring that his experiences in Iraq had convinced him the war was illegal and immoral.

“The justification for this war is money, and no soldier should go to Iraq and give his life for oil”, Mejia told the New York-based Citizen Soldier anti-war website. “I have witnessed the suffering of a people whose country is in ruins and who are further humiliated by the raids, patrols, curfews of an occupying army. My experience of this war has changed me forever.

“One of our sergeants shot a small boy who was carrying an AK-47 rifle. The other two children who were walking with him ran away as the wounded child began crawling for his life. A second shot stopped him, but he was still alive. When an Iraqi tried to take him to a civilian hospital, army medics from our unit intercepted him and insisted on taking the injured boy to a military facility. There, he was denied medical care because a different unit was supposed to treat our unit’s wounded. After another medical unit refused to treat the child, he died.

“Another time, my platoon responded to a political protest in Ramadi that had turned violent. My squad took a defensive position on a rooftop after some protesters started throwing grenades at the mayor’s office. We were ordered to shoot anyone who threw anything that looked like a grenade.

“A young Iraqi emerged from the crowd carrying something in his right hand. Just before he threw it, we all opened fire, killing him. The object turned out to be a grenade, which exploded far from everyone. I know that the man we killed had no chance of hurting us - he was too far away. My platoon leader later told us that we killed three other Iraqis during this same protest although I didn’t see them die.

“Going home on leave in October 2003 provided me with the opportunity to put my thoughts in order and to listen to what my conscience had to say. People would ask me about my war experiences and answering them took me back to all the horrors - the firefights, the ambushes, the time I saw a young Iraqi dragged by his shoulders through a pool of his own blood, the time a man was decapitated by our machine-gun fire and the time my friend shot a child through the chest.

“Coming home gave me the clarity to see the line between military duty and moral obligation. My feelings against the war dictated that I could no longer be a part of it. Acting upon my principles became incompatible with my role in the military and by putting my weapon down I chose to reassert myself as a human being.”

While there are not as many deserters and anti-war soldiers as during the peak of the US movement against the Vietnam War in the early 1970s, soldiers and their families are organising against this war much earlier on than their counterparts did during the Vietnam War. Thus, Iraq Veterans Against the War was founded in July 2004, a little over a year after the war began. Vietnam Veterans Against the War was created in April 1967, about five years after the US war in Vietnam officially started.

And unlike the Vietnam War, military families have been at the forefront of demonstrations against the Iraq war. More than 2000 families belong to Military Families Speak Out, which was formed in November 2002, four months before the US invaded Iraq.

Stan Goff, a former career soldier with the US Special Forces, whose son is an army mechanic in Iraq, has played a prominent role in the organisation of antiwar military families through the Bring Them Home Now ! movement. “We’re not saying bring the troops home because they’re suffering hardship and danger”, he told In These Times magazine in September 2003. “Most soldiers know that hardship and danger are part of their job. What we’re saying is bring the troops home because they are facing hardship and danger in a war that is immoral and illegal.”

From Green Left Weekly, March 16, 2005.