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Lest we forget: anti-war soldiers

Jesse McLaren

November 11, 2010

Every great anti-war movement has included the soldiers themselves, who through their own experience begin to question the war and then refuse to fight.
Wold Wars
The First World War sent previously unimaginable numbers of young people to die in the trenches of Europe, in a competition between colonial powers. This produced resistance within the army as early as Christmas 1914, when 100,000 British and French soldiers disobeyed orders and fraternized with their German counterparts, singing carols and meeting in no-mans-land to exchange gifts. The high command restored “order” but by 1917-18 refusal to fight escalated into mutinies and revolutions. In the French army 30,000 soldiers mutinied after the disastrous Nivelle offensive, and the high command responded by arresting thousands of soldiers and executing dozens. Russian soldiers joined their 1917 revolution to dissolve the eastern front, while German soldiers joined their 1918 revolution that forced the signing of the armistice on November 11. It was young men and women, refusing military service and joining socialist revolutions, that ended WWI and gave us Remembrance Day.
The Second World War made the barbarism of trench warfare pale in comparison—with the holocaust, the atomic bomb, and the firebombing of cities. At the same time the “war for democracy” denied basic rights for women, blacks, aboriginals, gays and lesbians sent to fight abroad. During WWII one in six inmates in US federal prisons were war resisters, and the end of the war saw the beginnings of liberation movements for oppressed groups.
During the Vietnam War, rank and file US soldiers discovered they were being sent to kill poor people like them. One soldier described the brutalizing effect of war on both Vietnamese and US soldiers themselves, used as cannon fodder for industrialized war: “As the value of Vietnamese life went down in your estimation, so too did the realization start to sink in that hour body and your life was really of very little importance to the men and the machines who ran the war. The machine would not care that a man had died, only that another part of its inventory had been lost and would require replacement, like the destroyed tank. And like the totaled tank, the Army would simply put in another order at another factory—a boot camp, where your replacement was being tooled and trained on a different kind of assembly line.”
Others returned home injured to find those who sent them to fight did not care about their health, and began asking questions. As Ron Kovic wrote in his famous memoirs, Born on the Fourth of July: “The wards are filthy. The men in my room throw their breadcrumbs under the radiator to keep the rats from chewing on our numb legs during the nights…the sheets are never changed enough and many of the men stink from not being properly bathed. It never makes any sense to us how the government can keep asking money for weapons and leave us lying in our own filth…I still tell people, whoever asks me, that I believe in the war. But more and more what I tell them and what I am feeling are becoming two different things. The hospital is like the whole war all over again”
As a result many soldiers and veterans killed themselves (more than were killed in combat), and many escaped into drugs. But many also organized to bring down the military from within. In his inspiring book A People's History of the Vietnam War, Jonathan Neale provides a detailed account of the mass anti-war movement that grew within the military—from 245 different antiwar newspapers distributed on bases, to 200,000 draft dodgers who refused to go to Vietnam, to those who threatened or killed their own officers. In 1971 marine Corps historian Colonel Heinl warned that “the morale, discipline and battleworthiness of the US Armed Forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at any time in this century and possibly in the history of the United States. By every conceivable indicator, our Army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non-commissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near mutinous…conditions among American forces in Vietnam that have only been exceeded this century by the French Army’s Nivelle Mutinies and the collapse of the Tsarist armies in 1916 and 1917”.
Afghanistan and Iraq
With the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, US imperialism tried to prevent Vietnam-style troops resistance through the military doctrine of “force protection”. As the Guardian explained upon the release of the Iraq War Logs by wikileaks, “Known since 2001 as force protection, it puts a high premium on minimising all conceivable risk by permitting troops to bypass traditional methods of detecting friend from foe in favour of extreme pre-emptive action.” Joshua Key, who served a tour in Iraq before becoming coming to Canada as a war resister, explained the results on the ground: “The running procedure was ‘Shoot first, ask questions later.’ We had no regard for the lives of the civilians around us. That was pretty evident in day-to-day actions, as well as the way we raided their homes and did everything else. There were no repercussions, no questions.”
“Force protection” does reduce the number of US casualties, but by doing so on the bodies of Iraqis and Afghanis it does nothing to reduce the psychological trauma of soldiers, which affects up to one in five returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, we’ve seen the emergence of the same elements that brought defeat in Vietnam: local resistance, a global peace movement, and anti-war opposition from within the military—as evidenced by the massive military leaks.
Resistance within the military
Even before the Iraq War a global anti-war movement emerged to expose the lies behind the war, drain support from the US-led invasion, and promote the formation of Iraq Veterans Against the War and the War Resisters Support Campaign. Opposition to the Afghanistan war from within the military took longer to emerge but is now accelerating.
This year, Veterans’ Ombudsman retired colonel Pat Strogan blew the whistle on the government’s treatment of veterans, declaring that “I was told by a senior Treasury Board analyst that it is in the government’s best interest to have soldiers killed rather than wounded because the liability is shorter term.” Then the mother of the first female Canadian soldier killed in Afghanistan, Nichola Goddard, went public with her doubts about the war, while her father disagreed with the extension.
For Remembrance Day week, rank and file veterans organized protests across the country against the Harper government’s plan to cut their pensions. Gary Best of the Canadian Peacekeeping Veterans Association echoed Ron Kovic’s words: “We have people serving in Afghanistan that are coming home with amputations, and these people, when they get hurt, they figure their fight’s over. When they get home, they realize it’s just starting.” Then the mother of a Canadian soldier killed in Afghanistan blasted the extension, declaring that “It’s time to bring these troops home...they’re aged beyond their years, any fool can see that. What’s wrong with our government? We’re burying our kids left, right and centre here. For what? It’s time for them to stand down.”
Support the troops, bring them home
Amidst the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, Harper is cutting veteran pensions and denying their physical and psychological injuries, while planning to put 1000 troops for more than 1000 more days into a bloody and futile war that is opposed by the majority of Canadians and Afghans. It is only a matter of time before more Canadian soldiers start questioning the war, and possibly joining the peace movement. Through the combination of Afghan resistance and a mass anti-war movement, we can offer soldiers an alternative to war, and provide the experience Ron Kovic felt when he first joined the peace movement:
“I was never going to be the same. The demonstration had stirred something in my mind that would be there from now on. It was so very different from boot camp and fighting in the war. There was a togetherness, just as there had been in Vietnam, but it was a togetherness for a much different kind of people and for a much different reason. In the war we were killing and maiming people. In Washington on that Saturday afternoon in May we were trying to heal them and set them free.”

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