|ISSUE 57 SUMMER 2008
US law recognizes the right to conscientious objection only on grounds of opposition to war in any form. Many are therefore unable to seek discharge from the army on grounds of objection to the Iraq War. Other similar cases where US soldiers have sought to register their conscientious objection and apply for non-combatant status have been turned down.
In 1971 some 125 Vietnam veterans representing every major combat unit to see action gathered at a hotel in Detroit. For many this was a risky event; they came to talk about the atrocities they had committed or witnessed in the presence of officers in southeast Asia. They spoke against the wrongs of the war and the brutal training that had made them capable of unthinking violence. They were spurred on by the court martial of Lt William Calley, who had ordered the infamous My Lai massacre, and wanted to change public opinion, and demonstrate that the execution of hundreds of innocent villagers in 1968 was not an isolated incident as so many believed.
A collective of filmmakers captured their testimony and some of it is still available on DVD. A few months after that meeting and following protest in Washington, John Kerry (Presidential nominee of the Democratic Party in 2004) accused the United States military of committing massive numbers of war crimes in Vietnam before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. This was cited as one of the many reasons why he was not fit to be President.
In March this year there was a second Winter Soldier gathering. Organised by the protest group ‘Iraq Veterans Against the War’ and ‘US veterans ‘of Iraq and Afghanistan since the 9/11 servicemen will testify about their experiences. They will present photographs and videos, recorded with mobile phones and digital cameras, to back up their allegations – of brutality, torture and murder.
The veterans are not against the military but they aim to shine a light on what they see as the bigger picture: that the Abu Ghraib prison regime and the Haditha massacre of innocent Iraqis are not isolated incidents perpetrated by ‘bad seeds’ as the military suggests, but evidence of an endemic problem. They will say they were tasked to do terrible things and point the finger up the chain of command, which ignores, diminishes or covers up routine abuse and atrocities.
While we should welcome this testimony we should note that there is an even bigger picture, which such a process inadvertently perhaps, obscures. Namely that it is the institution of war that allows such things to happen and that none of this is new. In the final attack on Germany, (the best and noblest of all war we are often told) for example 500 American servicemen a week were charged with rape while torture was routinely practiced on German POWs at the secret interrogation centre in the heary of London.
The original Winter Soldiers and a dramatization of the Battle for Haditha can be seen at CO Resource Center (call to make an appointment). The Winter Soldiers: Iraq and Afghanistan testimony can be seen at ivaw.org
Some, as others did during the Vietnam war, sought refuge in Canada, which while not being part of the coalition of the willing has been, unlike during the Vietnam war, willing to return deserters to the US.
Following a recent campaign the Canadian Parliament passed an historic motion on June 3, that calls on the Canadian government to make a program to allow US war resisters to apply for permanent resident status in Canada and to cease all deportation and removal proceedings against US war resisters. We will have to wait to see if this will come to pass. [update]
Some US military personnel who have refused to go to Iraq or Afghanistan due to their conscientious objection to US policy and practice in the ‘war on terror’ have been imprisoned solely for their beliefs.
Some of these conscientious objectors have been court-martialled and sentenced despite pending applications for conscientious objector status; others were imprisoned after their applications were turned down on the basis that they were objecting to particular wars rather than to war in general.
Resistance to any war is good and should be applauded but resistance to war is really what we need. Given the grim experiences and views expressed by many military personnel particularly those who refuse to participate in any further military activity it is surprising that so few appear to develop an objection to the institution of war and become truly anti-war. Conscientious objectors appear to be an endangered species. A reason for this, in Britain at least, may be that so few know that the right to conscientious objection exist for Britain’s military personnel.
Despite £89 million having being spent on recruiting in 2006 the army continues to shrink as more leave than the MoD is able to recruit. We can guess at some of the reasons why 25,000 personnel left in 2007 but is it likely that none of them developed a ‘conscience’ against war? Does it matter if we do not know? For those of us working to rid the world of war surely it does. It matters for the same reason that the PPU has the CO project; it matters because such knowledge challenges the dominant view that a state must have the capacity to destroy, maim and kill any number it deems necessary.
Most of us are brought up to believe in a self-contained ‘war package’ containing both a generalised problem to which there is a generalised solution. Inbuilt is a template for an ‘enemy’ which is readily activated and invariably calls up a plan of attack. A public rejection of war such as conscientious objection from within the military could be is not going to cause the MoD to collapse but it will surely encourage a few more people to countenance the possibility of managing without £40 bilion institution devoted to destruction.
The Advisory Committee on Conscientious Objectors has not sat during the period of Britain’s latest wars; it might be instructive to find out why.
You can write to HH Judge M.Harris, Chair of ACCO c/o Main Building, Whitehall London, SW1A 2HB and ask for his view on this surprising matter. Let us know of any answer you might get.
The common theme among the soldiers who did serve is that once they were in Iraq, they saw the futility of the war and felt as if they were just there killing innocent civilians for no reason at all. One of the most disturbing elements of the soldiers’ accounts is how similar they are. The soldiers were sent to Iraq where they saw their fellow ‘freedom fighters’ killing innocent civilians without compunction. They saw right away that there were no weapons of mass destruction, or even many weapons at all. They saw that the US-led coalition was there raping and pillaging a very poor country that has virtually no means to defend itself. They saw the futility, the rage and the hopelessness in the Iraqi people we were supposedly liberating, so they variously and for various reasons decided to get out.