Breaking the Code of Silence

BY Nan Levinson

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When members of the Army’s 343rd Quartermaster Company refused orders in Iraq last month they considered too dangerous, it didn’t surprise Michael Hoffman. He had expected something like this. Hoffman, 25, went to Iraq with the Marines, then returned to help found Iraq Veterans Against the War this past July.

“When [soldiers] are asked to put their life on the line for no clear reason. …” he says, breaking off. “They’re still human beings and they still have a breaking point.”

The national conversation about the war largely has taken place absent those who are fighting it. The military makes it hard for its members to speak independently. In a culture that prizes obedience, loyalty and duty, no one is rewarded for breaking rank. Further, the Bush administration over the past three years has sent the message that dissent is un-American.

Because dissent is discouraged, the extent of it is hard to pin down. Yet resistance has been there since the war began, and signs of dissent are now popping up with increasing frequency. Calls to the GI Rights Hotline (1-800-394-9544) also spiked, and now hold steady at about 2,800 a month.

From 2002 to 2003, according to military records, conscientious objection (CO) applications tripled for the Army and quadrupled for the Marines, the two branches most involved in combat in Iraq. The actual number of applications, however, is probably much higher. Official numbers reflect only those applications that make it to headquarters. CO applicants complain they find it hard to get accurate information about the process and are discouraged from applying once they do. Military counselors estimate that several hundred are in the works.

As hundreds, perhaps thousands, are quietly trying to avoid being shipped to Iraq, at least six soldiers have fled to Canada, where they are petitioning for refugee status. A handful of resisters have made their protest public, and one received punishment harsh enough for Amnesty International to adopt him as a prisoner of conscience.

Not only is the military finding it hard to retain troops, but some branches are having trouble attracting new members. The National Guard acknowledged missing its recruitment goals for the first time in 10 years, and two National Guardsmen filed lawsuits challenging the stop-loss provision that allows the military to extend enlistment terms involuntarily. An anonymous poster to the blog of Operation Truth (www.optruth.org), a nonpartisan Web site that bills itself as a “voice of the troops,” reported from an emergency “recruitment summit” this summer that reenlistment and recruitment rates for the Army Reserves are falling well below targets.

Disquiet also appears among soldiers in Iraq, where 52 percent of troops rated their morale as low or very low in a 2003 Army survey. And a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in July found that about one in six returning infantry soldiers, most of whom had seen combat, suffered from mental disorders.

A number of organizations have been founded that support the soldiers but not the war. One of these, Military Families Speak Out has grown from two families in 2002 to more than 1,800 members. Nancy Lessen, a Military Families founder, reports that for the first time she is hearing from entire units that say, “We served in Iraq and we don’t want to go back.” One soldier told her, “If any reporter needs to understand how we feel about the war, all they need to do is come to Iraq and read what’s on the walls of the outhouses.”

Much of the evidence of opposition within the ranks comes up in one-on-one conversations. Army Sgt. Fred Bemis (not his real name) a 30-year-old Army sergeant, is among them.

Bemis joined the Army in 2000. His father and grandfather served in the military, and he wanted benefits for his family. Of his first time there, Bemis says, “There was death all around. I damn sure don’t want to go back to that. I was thinking of reenlisting. If it wasn’t for this war, I might have.” His enlistment was supposed to end early next year, but he got, “stop-lossed” and is about to be redeployed to Iraq. Bemis says he’s now considering joining an antiwar group when he gets out.

“When I went [to Iraq] to begin with, there was a mission,” he says. But when the reasons behind the mission proved to be false, he felt betrayed. “I don’t trust the people sending me over there. I have to stay focused, give it 100 percent. I just don’t agree with it. The war cannot be won. It won’t be won, not now, not ever. We’re getting maimed for bullshit.”

Soldiers opposed to the war frequently voice that sentiment, and the word itself, in a kind of all-purpose sneer that in the tradition of underground protest betrays much and little. The speech rights of soldiers are limited by regulation and tradition. Punishment for breaching that limit can range from ostracism to court martial. “There’s rights and then there’s the climate,” says a military counselor. Or, as a GI e-mailing from Kuwait last year noted wryly: “There’s this invisible line. If you cross it, you could do a lot of dishes.”

Military men and women making political statements while in uniform are particularly vulnerable. Drew Plummer, a young petty officer in the Navy, attended an antiwar demonstration while home on leave as the war began. He was convicted of making disloyal statements and demoted for telling a reporter there that he was in the military and that he opposed the war. Plummer has been absent without leave since August, and his father says he has no idea where his son is.

Punishment and threat of punishment aren’t the only reasons soldiers’ voices often go unheard. While in combat zones, they speak to the American public through the filter of journalists, if at all. Before being sent to Iraq, Bemis says, GIs attend a mandatory “media awareness” session where they’re taught to avoid saying much of anything to reporters.

“Military people feel their opinion doesn’t matter,” John Hustad said in March 2003, explaining why he and fellow Army reservist Todd Arena wrote “An open letter from the troops you support.” Published on punkplanet.com and various blogs, they urged “citizen-soldiers” to question the war and to speak out.

Soldiers bellyache all the time, but only a minority turn complaint into defiance.

Maybe what’s most noteworthy about resistance within the military is that, against the risks and inertia and considerable odds, it exists.

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Nan Levinson, a Boston-based journalist, is author of Outspoken: Free Speech Stories. Her next book, War Is Not a Game, is about the new GI resistance movement. She blogs at www.moreoutspoken.blogspot.com.

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