The weakness of strategies based on Lowest Common Denominatorism was in full evidentiary blossom during the 1991 bombardment of Iraq, re-packaged as “the Gulf war.” “Support Our Troops, Not the War!” insisted the National Campaign for Peace in the Middle East, which grew out of the old National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam and later would morph into United for Peace and Justice — the same politics, the same dependence on lowest-common-denominator Coalition-building, the same loyal opposition to the 2-party system, and, in fact, the same people. The underlying assumption: Support “our” troops for imperialism but not theirs (note the shift: we’re no longer talking about “people,” now, but “troops”). And whatever you do, don’t say anything about Palestine or Israel!
Across the country — indeed, throughout the world — independent, enraged antiwar protesters, including a number of AWOL soldiers and seafarers from other countries, acted directly to resist the war. They blocked or sabotaged shipments of munitions to the Gulf. In one incident, a German-owned container vessel, the Eagle Nova, staffed by German officers and crew members from the Philippines, refused to deliver military goods to the Saudi Arabian port of Dammam on the Gulf. In another case, 27 Moslem crew members on the Banglar Mamata, a Bangladesh vessel, jumped ship in Oakland, California, rather than continue on to deliver their cargo of ammunition to U.S. troops. Unionized Japanese officers and crewmen on container ships and tankers chartered by the U.S. also refused to transport U.S. military cargo to the war zone. International working class direct actions against the war build-up were, in fact, so widespread that officials worried that “supply disruptions could become frequent enough to affect U.S. front-line fighting ability in a long war.”
Between Aug. 2, 1990 and March of the following year, more than 13,000 U.S. soldiers resisted the war’s drumbeat directly. Hundreds were imprisoned, and tens of thousands of others went AWOL — many of them Black or Latino — a far greater proportion than during the Vietnam War. In one incident, 67 National Guard members from Louisiana went AWOL as a group from Fort Hood, Texas, in early February to protest inadequate training, unfair leave policies and racism, in the shadow of the war. Tod Ensign, a staff person for Citizen Soldier, termed it “the largest known act of mass military resistance” during the Gulf war.
On Dec. 9, 1990, a Vietnam veteran, Tim Brown — described by the Associated Press as “a genial, upbeat person who lived alone on a houseboat and rarely discussed politics” — died after setting fire to himself in Isleton, California, to protest the US military build-up in the Gulf. In leaflets he’d placed on nearby car windshields, he’d written: “I, Tim Brown, Vietnam veteran, declare that my act of self-immolation is a direct protest of American war policy in the Middle East. America, do not go to war. America, do not repeat the mistake of Vietnam. Don’t wait for the war to start and then protest. Protest now while there is still time.” On February 17, 1991, at the height of the U.S. bombing of Iraq, Gregory Levey, a former UMASS student and special education teacher, set himself on fire while carrying a peace sign. He died on the Amherst Commons in Massachusetts, in protest of the US bombardment and the murder of innocent civilians there. “No Blood for Oil!” and “Hell no, we won’t go, we won’t die for Texaco!” became the battle cries of the burgeoning anti-war movement.
Unlike the self-immolation of Buddhist monks during the Vietnam war, these courageous and heart-wrenching acts received virtually no publicity in the mainstream media. Only one or two papers picked up the AP story on Tim Brown’s act. But our own media, including WBAI radio in NYC and the Pacifica network across the U.S., The Guardian, and newly formed groups like Hands Off! (see below) got the word out and helped to stir an already growing unrest within the military. Military resisters began appearing everywhere, in and out of uniform, speaking out against the war despite threats of court-martial and imprisonment.
While held captive in Iraq as a prisoner of war after his plane was shot down, Lt. Jeffrey Zaun of New Jersey was a media hero, much like Jessica Lynch a decade later. TV and newspapers plastered his picture all over their pages. But that hero worship lasted only until he got back, and Zaun offered his views on his experiences in the Gulf: “This country didn’t see the cost of the war. I did. People think we went in there and kicked ass; but they didn’t see the Iraqi mothers get killed. I don’t want to kill anybody again.” The press buried his statement, as the U.S. military used bulldozers to bury alive tens of thousands of poorly armed Iraqi working class conscripts in the desert sands.
Those who tried to persuade their fellow National Guard members to resist were deemed “ringleaders” and court-martialed. Sgt. Robert Pete received a six-year prison sentence while Dwayne Black and Derrick Guidry received a year each. All three additionally received dishonorable discharges. And many of the approximately 2,500 U.S. soldiers who filed for conscientious objector status during that time were held on serious “desertion” charges; they faced long prison terms for their public anti-war stance.
In addition to those court-martialed here at home, over a hundred anti-war GIs in Germany were still being held by military authorities as late as March, 1991, or were forced to go into hiding. Soldiers returning from Saudi Arabia reported hundreds more GIs being held there.
In a steaming packed courtroom on the Marine Corps base at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, court-martial proceedings against dozens of Marines who resisted the Gulf War went on all through the summer, with nary a word in the corporate press.
Captain Yolanda Huet-Vaughn, an Army doctor, refused orders to be shipped to the Gulf. When Huet-Vaughn denounced the war on the nationally-syndicated Sally Jessy Raphael TV show and remarked that some of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons were made by U.S. companies, Sally Jessy lost it. She came storming up to the doctor, got her face about seven inches from her and screamed: “Get out! Get off my show!,” reported WBAI’s Amy Goodman, who was also a guest at the taping. Huet-Vaughn claimed that, as a doctor, her training was to heal people, not to murder them. At Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, Capt. Huet-Vaughn, a Mexican-American, was confined to the base 24 hours a day, forced to call-in her whereabouts every 4 hours, and prevented from seeing her children in private (they had to remain outside at all times when they visited her). Fifty to 60 supporters packed all of her hearings, refusing to allow the government’s machinations to be hidden behind closed doors.
Sam Lwin was a student at the New School for Social Research in New York City. Just twenty-one years old, he faced seven years in jail for organizing his Marine Corps reserve unit, Fox Company, at Fort Schuyler in the Bronx to resist. He had filed for Conscientious Objector status before the unit was activated in November, 1990. Lwin, along with seven other COs from his unit, refused the call-up. Sam faced 7 years in jail, a dishonorable discharge, and loss of all benefits including health care and pension for refusing to kill. His fellow students at the New School formed the group Hands Off Sam!, which soon took on the cases of other resisters, went national, and became, simply, Hands Off! (Lwin ended up serving 4 months in prison, a reduced sentence thanks largely to the widespread support organized by his fellow students.)
Ronald Jean-Baptiste was one of the first of the Gulf war resisters. He spoke publicly at the first anti-war rallies as a Haitian-American, saying: “They won’t let me donate my blood to help people because I’m Haitian, but they want me to shed it for them and to kill people. I won’t do it.”
Stephanie Atkinson of Illinois was court-martialed out of the Army Reserve for refusing to fight in the Gulf. Upon leaving the military, she became an outspoken critic and went to work with the War Resisters League defending other resisters.
Why don’t we remember their names, these resisters, these direct action heroes of humanity, who faced such terrible personal consequences and yet still refused to kill for U.S. imperialism? Why have their actions been written out of the accounts of the resistance within the military to the Gulf War? These were resisters who refused to be pawns killing other poor people for oil, profits and empire. They acted with great moral courage, saying: “This is what’s right, this is what’s not, no power on earth can move me from this spot.” Nor should we forget what they were up against, these kids — for that’s what most of them were. They were thrown out of the military and into jail, lost their scholarships, their jobs, sometimes their families and friends. We often hear how much we owe to veterans who fought in this country’s wars. But we owe far more to those who refused to fight, our anti-war veterans, for putting their bodies against the wheel of the war machine and causing it to slow down, and sometimes to stop.
Remember Kevin Sparrock, a student at New York City’s School of Visual Arts; Erik Larsen, a student at Chabot Community College in California; and, Tahan Jones. They were among the most visible of the resisters because they helped organize anti-war demonstrations across the country. They were accused of desertion during a time of war. The government filed briefs against them calling for the death penalty.
Remember Eric Hayes. He was the president of the Black Students Association at Southern Illinois University, and a Marine Corps reservist. Eric was dragged out of his dormitory room in the middle of the night in December, 1990, handcuffed by military police and hauled off to the brig at Camp Lejeune a thousand miles away for failing to report when his Illinois unit was activated. (Eric was eventually sentenced to 8 months in jail.)
Remember Marine Corps Cpl. Jeff Paterson. On Aug. 29, 1990, he refused orders to board a military transport plane for deployment to Saudi Arabia. When his staff sergeants attempted to push him onto the aircraft, Jeff sat down in the hangar and refused to move. (Jeff became a leader of the anti-war movement, and worked with Refuse and Resist!)
Remember Demetrio Perez and James Summers, both students at Santa Fe Community College in Florida, and John Isaac III, a student at City College of New York. They were charged with “Desertion with Intent to Shirk Hazardous Duty” and “Missing Movement” for resisting orders to ship off to the Gulf; they were court-martialed and found guilty. (Perez was sentenced to 15 months, Summers to 14 months, and Isaac to 8 months at hard labor.)
As it became evident that more and more military personnel were none too eager to fight for the Emirocracy and the expansion of the American oil empire, the U.S. military began kidnapping resisters and forcing them onto planes headed to the Gulf. In one case, Sgt. Derrick Jones, a medic, filed an application as a conscientious objector and left his unit for several days. Through his lawyer, he negotiated with his commander, Capt. Cloy, to return to his unit, and was promised that he would not be charged with missing movement as he waited for his CO claim to be processed. But when Jones returned to his unit in Germany, he was immediately taken into custody, handcuffed, dragged onto a plane and flown to Saudi Arabia against his will.
The same thing happened to David Owen Carson, Robert Chandler and dozens of other military resisters. Bryan Centa, a medic stationed at Lee Barracks in Mainz, Germany, had also filed an application for a conscientious objector discharge. Centa was handcuffed and put in leg irons and “dispatched” to Saudi Arabia. The U.S. Attorney General failed to file a single complaint against the military in any of the dozens of kidnappings, or acknowledge the racism involved in many of those incidents.
This being America, how could racism not have played a very prominent part in the government’s attitude towards the resisters? Sometimes it came out in stupid but relatively innocuous ways, such as a military superior’s explosion when a white French reporter, Judith Weiner, embraced and kissed Sam Lwin, a native of Burma, during a recess at one of his hearings. Sergeant Richmond, a white man and Lwin’s platoon troop-handler, ordered Sam into the hall and screamed at him: “You’re not supposed to show affection while in uniform.” Since all across the country troops were seen on nationwide TV coming home hugging and kissing while in uniform, Richmond’s explosion was clearly triggered by the fact t