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At the end of May, the third bloodiest month of his 50-month Iraq War, President George W. Bush, red-white-and-blue wreath in hand, staged a Memorial Day photo op at Arlington National Cemetery with its freshly dug graves.
“Now this hallowed ground receives a new generation of heroes,” intoned Bush. “Our enemies long for our retreat. They question our moral purpose. … Yet even after five years of war, our finest citizens continue to answer our enemies with courage and confidence.”
At the same time, across the country “our finest citizens” – members of Iraq Veterans Against the War – gathered with courage, confidence and moral purpose, to give truth to the lies of this one-time oil executive who conned the nation into war.
Forty years ago, a turning point in the Vietnam War occurred when veterans returned home and founded the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. They took to the streets to demand the war’s end. This past Memorial Day, some of those same vets and their modern-day counterparts, Iraq Veterans Against the War, gathered at the Vietnam War Memorial in Chicago. In a small park on the banks of the Chicago River in the north Loop they commemorated fallen friends and condemned failed leaders.
Vince Emanuele, in the vets’ trademark desert camouflage, was among those who spoke. Now 23, this former lance corporal from Chesterton, Ind., a steel town 40 miles east of Chicago, graduated from high school in 2002 and joined the Marines. Home on leave in 2003, he saw Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911. He returned to Iraq a vocal – and uniformed – opponent of the war.
In a quaking voice, he told the Memorial Day crowd how he had killed a man, and two days later saw his best friend die in a firefight. “I will be active in the antiwar movement until the day I die,” he told me the next day. “The war is a money-making machine. And it hurts to think of it that way. It hurts to know that you have been used.”
But knowledge is power, and armed with what they know, the Iraq Veterans Against the War are speaking out. Founded in 2004 and with a membership of about 500, the group is gaining 10 new members a week, a number bound to grow as soldiers who have served in Iraq opt not to re-enlist and return home, free to speak.
Standing in Arlington, cameras rolling, Bush told the nation, “Tens of thousands who have seen war on the battlefield volunteer to re-enlist.” He did not mention re-enlistment rates have fallen sharply. Indeed, the military now pays its soldiers rewards of up to $150,000 to convince them to “volunteer to re-enlist.”
Other soldiers go AWOL. In the last two years, desertions from the Army have risen 35 percent.
Luke, Leif and Leo Kamunen deserted on Jan. 2. Luke and Leif, 21-year-old twins, and Leo, their 20-year-old brother, are from the northern Minnesota town of Cloquet. Descendents of Finns, a famously independent ethnic group in the North Woods, the brothers came home on Christmas leave and, unbeknownst to each other, each decided not to return to base.
Leif, whose girlfriend had had a baby, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “Halfway through basic training, I didn’t want to be there anymore.”
Leo explained he met a woman he really liked. “I decided there was no way I could be apart from her for long periods of time when I didn’t feel so strongly about fighting for George Bush’s war.”
Luke said he overslept and missed his plane. “We saw each other a couple days later, and we’re saying, ‘What, you didn’t go back, either?’ “
For the Kamunens, blood is thicker than oil. And they are not alone in knowing that living at home beats dying in Iraq.
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Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.