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Veterans Speak Out
K elly Dougherty, an MP in the National Guard from Colorado, and Mike Hoffman, a lance corporal in the Marine Corps from Pennsylvania, are co-founders of Iraq Veterans Against the War, IVAW (www.ivaw.net). Founded in July 2004 at the annual meeting of Veterans for Peace, IVAW now has 150 members. Recently, Military Families Speak Out (www.mfso.org) helped bring them to Boston for a series of talks at high schools, universities, and churches. I spoke with them on February 6, 2005.
MIKE HOFFMAN: I joined the Marine Corps in 1999 for a lot of reasons. I wasn’t doing anything. I wanted to travel and the military promised adventure. I wanted to get out of the small town I grew up in, where my father worked for Bethlehem Steel and my mother drove a bakery truck.
By early 2001, things started to change. I was just back from Okinawa and I started listening to punk rock. I read Chomsky for Beginners . Some friends introduced me to the work of the comedian Bill Hicks. I was open to new ideas and somehow that period made me ask: “Why did I join the military? What am I doing?” I talked extensively with five or six good friends. During our second tour of duty in Okinawa, we had nothing to do. We just sat around on the base all day talking about politics. We all had different reasons for being open to new ideas. One friend had done so many drugs in high school and felt like he was outside the accepted norms. Another friend was part Native American and so he was pretty well acquainted with the whole history of U.S. exploitation of peoples and resources.
Two days before I was supposed to be able to leave the military, my commanding officer called me in. “I’m sorry Hoffman, but a ‘stop-loss clause’ has just been put into effect. You’re going to Iraq.” Two days before that my girlfriend had broken up with me. My friends told me, “Don’t worry, Mike. You might survive this. You might not get killed.”
I had already packed up my computer to be shipped home, so I went to use my friend’s. I wanted to look up information on being a conscientious objector. He looked over my shoulder and saw what I was doing and he said, “Hey, Mike, you can’t leave us now.”
And I realized it was true. I couldn’t leave my friends. We had been together in our unit this whole time and I couldn’t abandon them. I wanted to go to Iraq with them to do what I could to make sure they would come home safe.
My officer sat us down and said, “Look. You’re not going to Iraq to be heroes. You’re not going because of weapons of mass destruction. You’re not going for the purpose of taking out Saddam Hussein. You will be going to Iraq for one reason and one reason only: oil. But you are going to go for two reasons: because you signed a contract and because your friends are going.”
And that was about the whole truth. A sense of community is what the military sells you on. They promise that you’ll feel pride, commitment, and a sense of family. But this is also something that can backfire. You realize you don’t want to watch your friends die.
I was lucky enough to come home. Others weren’t. I feel I have to speak for them and I have a lot of feelings about what we’ve done to the people of Iraq. We owe them reparations. We can’t make good on that until we’re out of there.
KELLY DOUGHERTY: I was in Iraq near the city of Nasiriya. The troops around me experienced so many negative effects—marriages collapsing, missing the first years of their children’s lives, not receiving full salary—which already was only a fraction of what they were earning as civilians. [Dougherty served with the National Guard.] Families at home could not make ends meet.
It was difficult for me to be there. I was opposed to the war, but once I had to go, I hoped that maybe we would at least be helping to bring democracy to a people that had suffered so much in recent years. But I had to let go of that illusion as well. My father, a Vietnam veteran, sent me books and articles from the independent media, which helped me understand the war. He sent me the Progressive , Z Magazine, and books by Greg Palast, Jim Hightower, Al Franken, and Noam Chomsky.
I sat around with two other people from my unit and watched a DVD called What I’ve Learned about U.S. Foreign Policy: The War Against the Third Word by Frank Dorrel. It turns out the U.S. doesn’t have much of a knack for bringing democracy anywhere— in fact, the opposite is true.
It was hard to read that stuff and learn about U.S. history while I was over there. It made me feel crazy. There was just no outlet for expressing yourself. We weren’t allowed to say anything honest to the media. Mostly, people resorted to scrawling graffiti on the port-a-potty walls.
HOFFMAN: It’s not true that reporters couldn’t get the real story about what troops in Iraq thought about the war. All they had to do was go in and read the messages in the port-a-potties.
DOUGHERTY: I once ran into a reporter from Texas in the bathroom. There were no officers around so I figured maybe she’d ask me something substantive. I even threw her an opening. “Gee, it must be hard to get the real story when you can’t talk to soldiers privately.” She just smiled at me and nodded. She didn’t ask me a single thing.
Talking to Young People
DOUGHERTY: Kids have a lot of questions. What is the military really like? We give a different viewpoint from the movies and the video games. We talk about what the realities of the benefits in the military are. The way military recruiters attract students is by saying, “Join us and we’ll pay for your college tuition.” Yet look at me. I have thousands of dollars of student loans. Things are working out very differently from what I was told.
The advertising slogan for the National Guard is something to the effect of, “Stay at home; serve your country.” But now we’re being used to fight a foreign war—a war that isn’t serving our country either.
It’s important for someone being recruited to talk not just to a recruiter, but to someone who’s been to Iraq. I can’t tell people what to do. Young people need to make their own decisions. But they should have full information about what is going on in Iraq, and they should have access to alternatives. I tell the kids, “Make your guidance counselors work. Find help.” There are a lot of services available that go unused because people don’t know about them.
HOFFMAN: Recruiters are salespeople. They pick and choose what they talk about according to whether it will help them sell their product. Their product is the military. I try to balance that by giving the kids additional information. It’s incredibly unfair that some kids can go to college without having to worry about it and other kids have to join up and risk their lives for the chance. Then that even turns out to be a false promise. Why should the less affluent have to shoulder the burden of the military?
One student approached me after I spoke at an inner-city high school in Boston. He said, “I was thinking of joining the military, but since I heard you, I’ve changed my mind. The problem is…my friend just got killed here on the streets in Boston. So I feel like choosing not to go to Iraq just means staying home and getting shot.”
I told him, “There’s an old Jewish proverb: when you’re given two choices, take the third.”
The IVAW supports creating more alternatives. We want to mount political pressure to shift military spending to meeting domestic needs. So many of these kids are perfectly poised to join a widespread movement against the war and for shifting spending priorities at home.
When I talk at suburban schools, the first thing they ask me about is the draft. They know that’s something that might affect them. The kids in inner-city schools never ask me about the draft. In a sense, the draft is already in effect for them. It’s the poverty draft and their number has already come up.
DOUGHERTY: I was part of the military police. We were supposed to police the Iraqi people even though we couldn’t speak their language, had no interpreters, knew little about their culture, and just fundamentally weren’t trained to do the job. We searched people’s houses and couldn’t even speak to them. They might be desperately trying to communicate and we didn’t know what they were saying.
I’m not proud of what I did there. One of the things we had to do was guard contracted vehicles that had broken down, mostly KBR fuel tankers. KBR stands for Kellogg Brown and Root, a Halliburton subsidiary, so we were basically guarding Halliburton. The military didn’t want the Iraqis to get access to what was on the trucks—whether it was fuel or food. We would spend hours guarding these vehicles and keeping hundreds of Iraqis at bay. Usually, the military would decide the vehicle could not be fixed or towed so we were told to burn or abandon the vehicles. I’m not proud of burning fuel trucks. I’m not proud of burning flat bed trucks filled with food while hungry Iraqis looked on. I’m not proud of burning ambulances.
During one of these guarding episodes, my commanding NCO [non-commissioned officer] told me to shoot the next Iraqi that tried to cross the street. I said, “Wouldn’t that be against our rules of engagement, sir?” He replied, “Sergeant Dougherty, are you having a hard time following orders?” He assigned me to go sit in the truck and monitor the radio.
HOFFMAN: You might wonder why soldiers don’t defy their orders more often. You have to remember the pressures. You are asking them to abandon their friends and to do something that will have lifelong legal and economic ramifications. It could mean jail time and the loss of all your veterans’ benefits.
If you want soldiers to be able to resist the military on the inside, you have to build a strong movement on the outside. We can’t just protest the war, but we have to say to the soldiers, we don’t want you to needlessly waste your life.
You lose a part of yourself when you go to war. I came back. I have all my fingers and toes. But I have to carry with me in my mind what we did over there. I can never be pleased with that, but I am pleased with what I’ve become and with the work I’m doing now.
I’ve learned a lot from talking to Vietnam Veterans Against the War. They’ve taught me about what happened when they were organizing. The big marches were important, but so were the individual acts of defiance. A squad would be sent out on some mission in Vietnam and they would just set up camp somewhere and send in false radio reports. One battery made a Declaration of Peace and negotiated a truce with the North Vietnamese they were engaged in battle with. There were hundreds of underground base newspapers. One of them at a naval base was called, “All Hands Abandon Ship.”
There were four guys on this one base that were doing a lot of organizing. The military split them up and sent them to different bases, thinking that would undermine their work. But instead, they helped multiply those efforts. Each of the four guys organized at their new base and started a new core group of activists. When they got split up, they multiplied even further. These acts of resistance and defiance are going on now in Iraq.
We heard from one guy that his whole unit organized to vote for Kerry. Another guy insists on calling everyone in his chain of command by his first name. One of our members is writing under a pseudonym about what’s really happening in Iraq. Those guys who refused to drive their unarmored vehicles into dangerous territory took a big risk. That was an important act of defiance.
I’d say something like 60 percent of the troops are against the war and it is growing. People are still afraid to speak out though.
When I was traveling in Britain, I heard about a British corporal who said in front of his troops that Blair was a mad man. There’s dissension all through the ranks.
People Can Make Enormous Changes
HOFFMAN: I believe in organizing people starting with where they’re at. Organizing—working collectively —can make change, but the media and the schools and lots of our institutions work to make people feel marginalized and invisible. I got excellent grades in history when I was growing up, but I never once heard about the general strike that closed down Pennsylvania for a whole week in 1877.
IVAW is focused on Iraq right now. If we succeed in ending the occupation, we’ll work with veterans on the issues they face at home—their benefits, their health care. We’ll work on reparations for Iraq.
It’s frustrating to do this kind of work, especially when you see how much energy gets sucked into the Democratic Party. Somebody once said that the Democratic Party has been the graveyard of so many social movements. We have to stop relying on the Democrats. Grassroots pressure—not electoral politics—will change what the government does.
DOUGHERTY: Even though I was opposed to the war, I hadn’t gotten active. I didn’t know what to do. People think, “Even if we demonstrate, it’s not going to make a difference.” Our government relies on that. People don’t know their history—that ordinary people have made enormous changes many times in history. I realized that by not speaking out, I was complicit. It helped a lot to meet other Iraq veterans against the war and to connect with Military Families Speak Out. It has made me realize that I’m not alone.
HOFFMAN: I’d like to see what Smedley Butler [a Marine Corps general at the turn of the century] called for. He said the only way we could have a sane foreign policy was for the first born of every elected official to serve in the military and that all those elected to office could earn only as much as the lowest-paid enlisted soldier.
I’d like to get rid of the national selfishness that leads us to exploit other people’s resources. And I’d like to redistribute the enormous wealth that some people seem to enjoy. What is the point of all that wealth? Haven’t they heard that you can’t take it with you?
I know I’m getting near the “s” word here and that’s dangerous territory in this country. We’re still dealing with the remnants of McCarthyism in this country. In the U.S. people are afraid to espouse alternatives to capitalism. And that works for elites. They don’t have to worry about the threat of a good idea.
Cynthia Peters is a frequent contributor to Z . She is a community activist and labor teacher and organizer.
Z Magazine Archive
HUMAN RIGHTS - The U.S. Human Rights Network will celebrate its 10th anniversary with the Advancing Human Rights 2013 Conference, December 6-8, in Atlanta, GA.
Contact: 250 Georgia Avenue SE, Suite 330, Atlanta, GA 30312; firstname.lastname@example.org; http:// www.ushrnetwork.org/.
AFRICAN/SOCIALIST - The Sixth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party USA will be held December 7-11, in St. Petersburg, FL.
Contact: 1245 18th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33705; 727- 821-6620; info@aps puhuru.org; http://asiuhuru.org/.
SCHOOLS - The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) will host a workshop on the DSC “Model Code on Education and Dignity: Presenting A Human Rights Framework for Schools” at the Mid-Hudson Region NY State Leadership Summit on School Justice Partnerships, December 11 in White Plains, NY.
Contact: http://www.dignityin schools.org/.
ANARCHIST/BOOKFAIR - The Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair will be held December 14, in Eureka, CA.
Contact: humboldtgrassroots @riseup.net; http://humbold tanarchist bookfair.wordpress. com/.
CLIMATE - The World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities is hosting a follow-up event to the 2012 Rio de Janeiro symposium. The gathering will be held in Qatar on January 28-30, 2014.
Contact: http://environment.tufts. edu/.
LABOR - The United Association for Labor Education (UALE) will host Organizing for Power: A New Labor Movement for the New Working Class in Los Angeles, March 26-29. Proposals are due December 15.
Contact: LAWCHA, 226 Carr Building (East Campus), Box 90719, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0719;lawcha @duke. edu; http://lawcha.org/.
MEDIA FELLOWSHIP - The Media Mobilizing Project is seeking applicants for the first annual Movement Media Fellowship Program. The Fellow will work with MMP to produce the spring season of Media Mobilizing Project TV. MMPTV is a news and talk show that tells the stories of local communities organizing to win human rights and build a movement to end poverty.
Contact: 4233 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104; 215-821- 9632; milena@media mobilizing.org; http://www.media mobilizing.org/.
RACE - The 7th Facing Race: A National Conference will be held in Dallas, TX November 13-15, 2014. Organizers, educators, artists, funders and everyone interested in racial equity is invited to exchange best practices and learn about innovative models and successful organizing initiatives. Proposals must be submitted by January 24, 2014.
Contact: Race Forward, 32 Broadway, Suite 1801, New York, NY 10004; 212-513-7925; media @raceforward.org; http://race forward.org/.
VETERANS - They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars - The Untold Story, by Ann Jones, is about the journey of veterans from the moment of being wounded in rural Afghanistan to their return home.
Contact: Haymarket Books, PO Box 180165, Chicago, IL 60618; 773-583-7884; http://www.haymarketbooks.org/.
LIBYA - Destroying Libya and World Order: The Three-Decade U.S. Campaign to Terminate the Qaddafi Revolution, by Francis A. Boyle, is a history and critique of American foreign policy from Reagan to Obama.
Contact: Clarity Press, Inc., Ste. 469, 3277 Roswell Rd. NE, Atlanta, GE 30305; 404-647-6501; email@example.com; http://www. claritypress.com/.
CHILDREN - Fannie and Freddie by Becky Z. Dernbach is about two bumbling villains who gamble away the savings of the people of Homeville.
Contact: fannieandfreddiebook @gmail.com; http://fannieand freddie.org/.
PROTEST/COMIC - Fight the Power!: A Visual History of Protest Among English Speaking Peoples, by Sean Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson is a graphic narrative that explains how people have fought against oppression.
Contact: Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts Street, New York, NY 10013; 212-226-8760; info@ sevenstories.com; http://www. sevenstories.com.
CHILDREN - Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet is the true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history.
Contact: http://www.harpercollins childrens.com/Kids/.
FESTIVAL - The 2014 Queer Women of Color Film Festival will be held June 13-15 in San Francisco. The festival is currently accepting submissions until December 31.
Contact: QWOCMAP, 59 Cook Street, San Francisco, CA 94118-3310; 415-752-0868; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.qwocmap.org/.
IRAQ/REFUGEES - Ten years after the U.S.-led war in Iraq, thousands of displaced Iraqi refugees are still facing a crisis in the United States. The Lost Dream follows Nazar and Salam who had to flee Iraq in order to avoid threats by Al- Qaeda-affiliated groups and Iraqi insurgents that consider them “traitors” for supporting U.S. forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Contact: Typecast Films, 888- 591-3456; info@type castfilms. com; http://type castfilms.com/.
HUMAN RIGHTS - Lyrical Revolt! III will be held December 4 in Syracuse, NY. The event will feature hip-hop musician Anhel whose album Young, Gifted, and Brown was just released. The event is sponsored by ANSWER Syracuse, Liberation News, and SyracuseHip Hop.com. Performers and artists are encouraged to send submissions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.answercoalition.org/syracuse/.
FOLK - Musician Painless Parker has released his album Music for miscreants, malcontents and misanthropes featuring “Fuck Yeah, the Working Class.”
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://painlessparkermusic.com/.
COMEDY - Political comedian Lee Camp’s new album Pepper Spray the Tears Away has been released.