Washington, Asharq Al-Awsat- Within the proximity of the US Capitol building where Congress meets, since the beginning of September, there lies a coffin containing the body of an American soldier who served in Iraq. The coffin is draped by an American flag and is surrounded by smaller flags, crucifixes, military boots as well as banners criticizing the American President, George W Bush. These posters also convey prayers for soldiers who have died in Iraq and demand that all American soldiers are returned to the USA.
The symbolic coffin was placed in front of the US Capitol building by Camp Democracy, which encompasses organizations against the American war in Iraq such as Veterans for Peace, Stop the War Coalition and Military Families Speak Out.
Geoffrey Millard, an American soldier who fought in Iraq told Asharq Al Awsat, with the US Capitol building behind him, “We do want freedom for Iraq but this is something the Iraqis ought to achieve for themselves. The Iraqis did not ask us to occupy their country and to establish freedom there.” Millard wore the same military attire that he wore in Iraq that carried his name and the number of his regiment. However, in addition, he wore a traditional Arab “koffiya” (scarf) and a black t-shirt that bore the words “We will not be silent” in Arabic and English.
Millard told Asharq Al Awsat, “I worked for one year in Iraq and learnt some Arabic words and phrases. The best phrase that I learnt was ‘We will not be silent’. The Iraqis would not have suffered the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein if they had renounced their silence and Bush would not have occupied Iraq if the American people did not remain silent towards his actions.”
Millard stated that he deliberately wore the black t-shirt for the demonstration against the war as he learnt that in Iraq black is the colour of protest. Legally, Millard explained that it is prohibited for him to wear the military uniform since he had left the armed forces. He added, “I’m a rebel and a rebel does whatever he wants!”
Millard had not witnessed or taken part in military operations in Iraq as he was an assistant to the commander of the 42nd Infantry Division that was sent to Iraq from the National Guard base in New York. This division was responsible for guarding the Iraqi town of Tikrit for one year. However, Millard revealed that many of the killings of the Iraqi people at the hands of American soldiers take place out of fear of Iraqi civilians and that many of these attacks take place at checkpoints. American soldiers opened fire on many occasions such as when Iraqi citizens refused to stop at checkpoints, when cars would rush towards the soldiers, when citizens refused to get out of their car, when citizens would take their hands out of their pockets (as soldiers feared that civilians were armed) and when Iraqis would insult, slap or spit at American soldiers. Millard nevertheless, was against the war even before he was dispatched to Iraq. He says, “I was against the invasion of Iraq because it is illegal. Primarily, it was against American law as Congress did not declare war and it was against international law because the Security Council did not approve it.” However, Millard added that he is not against the concept of war; he is not a “pacifist”, he is not a “conscientious objector” and he is not “against any religious creed”, (American law takes into consideration those who oppose military enlistment based on these reasons). He added, “I believe in war if it is just and the Iraq war cannot be considered just.”
Charlie Anderson, another American soldier who participated in the invasion of Iraq told Asharq Al Awsat that he, like Millard is proud of military action and war if it is fair. He stated that he joined the armed forces for two reasons. “Firstly, I am very patriotic and I am proud of the United States and I believe that it is the best country in the history of the world.” The second reason, he continues, “is that I was raised as part of a poor family that could not pay for my university fees but the armed forces would cover these expenses for any recruit.” Like Millard, Anderson wore his military attire is a disorderly manner. He had a small American flag on his head that moved whenever he spoke. Anderson stated that he entered Basra with the American forces at the beginning of the invasion as a member of the military aid division with Marine Corps second tank battalion. He witnessed the “murdering of thousands of Iraqis” during the invasion and the expansion of American control of Iraq. He did not participate in the killings because, as he explains, “I was part of the medical team and we followed tanks and armored vehicles. I treated the wounded and gathered corpses when battles had ended. I could not do anything. I changed my opinion of the war.”
Camilo Mejia was dressed in ordinary clothes perhaps because he had already experienced his share of rebellion and was imprisoned as a result. Mejia was the first American soldier to resist the invasion of Iraq. He said that he saw Iraqi captives “barefooted, with paper bags on their heads and bound by electric wires. We would deprive them of sleep for two or three days, threaten to kill them, put guns to their heads and detonate fake bombs next to them to see their reactions.”
Asked why Mejia did not refuse to take part in such acts, he replied, “I was scared and others were participating too. Perhaps they had the same feeling as me but I did not know at the time.” He said that he later discovered that the so-called interrogation camp was in fact where captives were tortured. One year after the invasion, Mejia returned to the United States and refused to return to Iraq. He declared his position and disappeared for a few months after which he surrendered himself to his military base where he was trialed and imprisoned for one year and was released from prison last year. Mejia said, “Some people call me a traitor whilst others call me a hero. I guess I am somewhere in between the two. I am not a traitor and I am not a hero. I do not believe in heroes.”
Contacting Ricky Clousing, a friend and colleague of Mejia, proved a difficult task and like his friend, he too disappeared after objecting to the Iraq war. Clousing also surrendered himself to the military base of Fort Bragg which is based in North Carolina and is awaiting trial. Asharq Al Awsat questioned Clousing through his lawyer Laurence Hildes, however he stated that Fort Bragg refused to allow him to answer these questions.
Hildes stated, “I expect that Clousing will be tried and imprisoned for one year like his colleague, Mejia.” At the entrance of Fort Bragg and before turning himself in, Clousing addressed reporters saying, “I was disappointed by the Iraq war as I realized that it was a war against Iraqis.”
Clousing quoted Martin Luther King, the black reverend and leader of the American civil rights movement who forty years ago said, “Cowards ask: will this opinion protect me? Opportunists ask: is this a politically acceptable opinion? Those with a conscience ask: is this the correct opinion?” From time to time, the Pentagon announces the names of soldiers who have left the military. However, it does not explain whether they left because their term has ended, whether they are in protest [to military action] or if they fled the army.
Chuck Fager, director of Quaker House, a center that represents soldiers in protest against or who have escaped the war and which is located near to Fort Bragg told Asharq Al Awsat newspaper, “One thousand American soldiers leave the forces everyday, however we do not know the percentage of those who leave in protest or escape.”
Joshua Casteel who fled the army, said that the turning point in his life was when he interrogated a Saudi man imprisoned in Abu Ghraib. Casteel asked the prisoner, “Doesn’t your religion prohibit you from killing,” to which he replied, “Didn’t Jesus Christ also prohibit killing?” Casteel continued, “I thought about what the prisoner said a lot because I am a devout Catholic.”
Ehren Watada was the first US officer to refuse to take part in the Iraq war. Watada has stated in the past that the war “is not only a terrible moral injustice but a contradiction of the Army’s own law of land warfare.”
Suzanne Swift also refused to return to Iraq after she was raped and sexually harassed by three of her commanding officers. She visited the United States on vacation and refused to return to Iraq as her superiors had refused to investigate the incident. Swift is currently being held at Fort Lewis in Washington.
So is there a resemblance between conscientious objectors of the Iraq war and those who were against the Vietnam War thirty years ago? Chuck Fager answers Asharq Al Awsat saying, “It is not similar in the sense that soldiers who fought in Vietnam were recruited compulsorily whilst those in Iraq had volunteered. It is similar in the sense that these volunteers are now fleeing the war in Iraq, so were they recruited by force?”
A recent opinion poll directed at American soldiers showed that 70% want American forces to withdraw from Iraq within one year and 30% of American soldiers want immediate withdrawal. The opinion poll was conducted before George W Bush delivered his speech on 9 September 2006 to mark the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, in which he clearly stated that the war in Iraq is part of the war on terror. The American president said, “Despite that mistakes have been made in Iraq, the biggest mistake would be to withdraw.” He added, “The security of the United States depends on the ongoing battles in the streets of Iraq.” That very morning however, a number of soldiers who fought in Iraq demonstrated in front of the Pentagon and distributed leaflets against the war. The protestors were surrounded by military police and were even arrested including Geoffrey Millard. After his release he told Asharq Al Awsat, “What kind of war is this when American soldiers are arresting fellow American soldiers?”