Mark Dearden chooses his words with extreme precision. And not just with the deliberateness of a 36-year-old with a BA from Brigham Young, an MA in public health from Tulane and an MD from
Nor should he. Just a few weeks ago Dearden took the dramatic step of signing a petition to Congress--what's being called by its organizers an Appeal for Redress--opposing the war in
Dearden has indeed joined the most significant movement of organized and dissident GIs seen in
The Appeal was posted as a simple three-sentence statement on a website managed by a Navy seaman:
As a patriotic American proud to serve the nation in uniform, I respectfully urge my political leaders in Congress to support the prompt withdrawal of all American military forces and bases from
The Appeal comes as the natural culmination of previous flickerings of military discontent with official
Therein resides the power of the Appeal for Redress. Its signers don't marginalize themselves as lawbreakers, resisters or deserters. Potential signers have been assured they are sending a communication to Congress protected under the Military Whistleblower Protection Act and will not be subject to reprisal. The result has been electrifying. In the two months since it surfaced, almost three times as many people have signed it as are members of the two-year-old Iraq Veterans Against the War. Almost three-quarters of the signers are active duty (the rest are reserves), and include several dozen officers, of whom a handful are colonels.
Interviews with more than two dozen signers, both in
This Martin Luther King holiday weekend, members of the Appeal will appear on Capitol Hill to formally present the petition to Congress to press their case. For an all-volunteer force, says Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, "it's simply unprecedented."
The genius of the Appeal resides not only in its simplicity but also in its nonconfrontational tone. "This is not about resistance. This is about working inside the democratic process," says lawyer J.E. McNeil, who helps run the GI Rights Hotline and who has helped advise the Appeal organizers. "This is about being proud of being a soldier, an airman or a marine, about being proud of your duty without giving up your rights as a citizen."
This was certainly the attraction for Dearden and for many other signers interviewed. "I love the military," Dearden says. "I was thrilled to find this legal outlet for what I felt. If more active duty knew there were legal and respectful ways to make their opinion known, they would eagerly join."
The inspiration to create the Appeal came to 29-year-old Seaman Jonathan Hutto earlier this year while he was floating off
As the war in
Hutto immediately contacted Cortright and started talking over the idea of the Appeal with a few close friends. Last June Hutto organized a Friday night screening of the antiwar documentary Sir! No Sir! at the local YMCA just off the
One of those who attended the talk was 22-year-old Liam Madden, who had joined the Marines in 2002. "I was visiting a friend in
Hutto, Madden, Cortright and a few others moved ahead with the idea of the Appeal. On October 29 Hutto published an op-ed piece announcing it in the Navy Times. Three days earlier the Appeal had appeared on the Web.
"Amazing," is how Cortright describes the chain of events that grew out of that YMCA meeting. "That encounter alone was one of the most fascinating moments of my last thirty-five years," he says over lunch in
Cortright sees an enhanced if not central political role for the rising active-duty movement. "They have been there and seen it, seen the disaster," he says. "It's much more real for them than for others in the peace movement. MoveOn and other groups got focused on the election while vets, families and active-duty folks are still suffering the burdens of the war." He adds, "Some of our liberal friends will again soon start focusing on the '08 election. So these active-duty folks over the next two years could become a key force in pushing for withdrawal."
The most compelling voices among the active dissenters who have signed the Appeal are those of troops still on the front lines in
Now, Frank says, he sees no point in the war, and no end. His Iraqi unit is 97 percent Shiite and is sympathetic to the extremist militia of fundamentalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. "We are merely being used as military pawns in a political struggle for
Frank says he can pinpoint the precise moment when he turned against the war: last June 23. He was on patrol with his Iraqi unit when they came upon an illegal checkpoint set up by Sadr's Mahdi militia. The militants were using ambulances taken from the Ministry of Health to block the roads, thereby preventing American troops from maneuvering. He was flabbergasted when the Iraqi Army troops refused not only to take down the checkpoint but also returned to the militia a number of automatic weapons that had been seized from them by the army.
This sort of depressing reality is what prompted Frank to sign the Appeal. "I proudly joined the Appeal for Redress out of the sense of hopelessness that I had inside for what we are actually doing here," he says. He's angry with both the Bush Administration and the top brass in
That sentiment was, indeed, echoed by an Army officer and signer of the Appeal who wanted to be identified only by his real last name. Lieutenant Smith, a 24-year-old Kansan deployed with an infantry unit in Baghdad, joined up six years ago not only because he saw the military as a route to pay for college but also because he felt it was an obligation to "pay back" America for the opportunities it affords. His doubts about the war, strong from the beginning, only hardened. "I became very angry after two friends from college were killed, both in their 20s," Smith says. "I started to wonder what they had died for. Both were killed by roadside bombs near the area where my unit operates now. And when I found out about them before I deployed, my outlook changed. I started to lose any sense of satisfaction with what I was doing for the Army because what I was doing was in some roundabout way supporting what had just killed two friends."
Smith says it was his stateside father-in-law who directed him to the online Appeal. Smith had heard about another Army lieutenant, Ehren Watada, who has been resisting deployment to
Some within the ranks have been more outspoken about that discontent, mostly as a product of accelerated politicization and radicalization while in uniform. Take the case of 28-year-old Californian Ronn Cantu, an Army sergeant stationed at
After serving out his contract, Cantu re-enlisted in March 2003. "I was in junior college studying journalism but couldn't re-adjust to civilian life. And as a journalism major I was constantly watching and reading the news, and I got totally sold that
Next thing he knew, Cantu was attached to an infantry unit in
A few of the antiwar dissidents lean more toward resistance than re-enlistment. Marc Train, 19, is an Army grunt stationed at
Some of his comrades in the Third Infantry Division are scheduled to deploy to
Asked whether he will refuse duty if not given the discharge he seeks, Train answers: "That's a very strong question for me, a very strong consideration. Right now, I'm about 70 percent leaning toward not going."
Some expert observers of military affairs, like Robert Hodierne, senior managing editor of Army Times Publishing, argue that the numbers of active-duty soldiers and sailors who have signed on to the Appeal and expressed some sort of public dissent aren't impressive. "Dissent of that nature represents but a small percentage of the people in uniform," Hodierne says, pointing out that 1.4 million serve in the armed forces. "What we are sensing is a great deal of disenchantment with the way the war has been fought, not whether it is or is not an unjust war."
But Kelly Dougherty, co-chair of the board of Iraq Veterans Against the War, who served with the Colorado Army National Guard in
Commander Chris Sims, spokesman for the Atlantic Fleet Naval Air Force, says that Hutto violates no military regulations if he's off-duty when speaking out. And Pentagon spokesman Maj. Stewart Upton, when asked about the Appeal, said: "Members of the armed forces are free to communicate with Congress in a lawful manner that doesn't violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice."
Lawyer J.E. McNeil at the GI Rights Hotline is convinced that the benign response from the higher command reflects the level of doubt that currently permeates the military. "There are enough people in the military who agree with these guys is why they are not getting much flak," she says. "I think there's a lot of sympathy among officers. We talk to them all the time. And while a lot of them don't want to stand up publicly, we know they admire those who have signed the Appeal. Admire them and support them."
One barometer of discontent is the sheer number of calls and inquiries that keep pouring in to the GI Rights Hotline, holding steady for the past year at about 3,000 a month. From the National Lawyers Guild Military Law Task Force comes a similar report. "There's no let-up, we're swamped all the time," says San Francisco-based co-chair Marti Hiken. "And whenever a reserve unit is activated, our phones begin ringing off the hook. We hear from people who didn't even know they were still in the reserves and can't understand what's happening to them."
That so-called backdoor draft, the mobilizing not only of National Guard and Army reserves but even of the Individual Ready Reserve (the IRR was called up for the first time since the Gulf War) has been a major catalyst for the military antiwar movement. It helped fuel the founding of Military Families Speak Out (MFSO) four years ago and has since helped it grow to include more than 3,000 families.
Two years before the media focused the spotlight on Cindy Sheehan, the Gold Star mother who camped out for weeks at a time near Crawford, Texas, trying to confront George W. Bush on the reasons for her son Casey's death in Iraq, Nancy Lessin and her husband, Charley Richardson--with a son in the Marines--began publicly campaigning against the war. One of the organizations sponsoring the Appeal, MFSO brought a few dozen military families to the Washington Mall on Veterans Day weekend to lobby for a meeting with Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. By the time their plane touched the ground, however, Rumsfeld had been dumped and instead they met with a representative of incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Lessin, who works as a safety and health coordinator for the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, describes that meeting as cordial but unsatisfying. She expresses fear that even with an incoming Democratic Congress, or maybe as a result of it, there will be too much room for distraction. Whether it moves toward impeachment or the convening of protracted hearings or endless debate over the Baker-Hamilton report, Lessin argues it's all beside the central point. "What we are looking for from Congress is action, not words," says Lessin. "We're worried the Democrats will focus the headlines on hearings, on how bad the management of the war has been--but we know that already. To the politicians who say we need two or three months to consider this or that plan, we ask: What do you say looking in the eye of one of those whose child is killed in those two or three months?"
Soon, some of those Congress members will have the opportunity to look in the eyes of not only the parents but also the troops. Appeal organizers, working on the Martin Luther King Day appearance on the Hill, are hoping to help galvanize Democratic support for a more explicit pro-withdrawal position. So far, only veteran antiwar Congressman Dennis Kucinich of
Phil Waste, a 67-year-old retired elevator repairman turned activist with MFSO, with three sons and two grandchildren who have served or are currently deployed in Iraq, thinks the window of opportunity for Democrats to take up the call of organized active-duty dissidents is narrow. If the new Congressional majority dawdles over the war, the Democrats will become targets of the antiwar protesters. "I think those who say they oppose this war have to act now, not months from now," he says. "And I am most definitely talking about the Democrats. This past election was a referendum on the war, and that mandate better be heeded. If not, two years from now they will be out on their butts. And I along with everyone else I know will work my ass off to see that happen."