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Page 35
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<< 34. Serving Your Health After Serving Your Country: How To Stay Healthy As A Military Veteran36. Back From Nam (poem) >>

Walking Through Fire

By Staughton Lynd (reviewer)

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Walking Through Fire: Iraqis' Struggle for Justice and Reconciliation
Peggy Faw Gish

(Cascade Books, 2013)

The subject matter of this book is ostensibly different from Nick Turse's authoritative survey of the Vietnam war. Peggy Gish first went to Iraq in October 2002 and was in Baghdad when the United States invasion began in 2003. Her account of many subsequent years of dangerous "accompaniment" of Iraqi civilians (Summer 2004-Spring 2006, Summer 2006-Fall 2012) at first glance concerns an occupation, not a war.

But as one reads, the similarities multiply and the distinction between "war" and "occupation" breaks down. The underlying subject of both books is the same: How the United States military conducts itself in countries inhabited by brown-skinned persons who have done nothing to threaten or harm Americans but whose government, in the unilateral judgment of American decision makers, threatens United States interests.

Consider what Peggy Gish tells about the United States assault on Fallujah. She offers a chilling account of the refusal of occupation authorities to attempt negotiation before devastating this city of 400,000 in 2004. Reportedly using 2,000 pound bombs and white phosphorus rounds, United States forces caused deaths in the many thousands and, according to the Iraqi Red Crescent, 6,000 detentions. Gish writes:

One of the first things US troops did was to occupy the Fallujah General Hospital. They claimed that the casualty figures it gave out were inflated, and so considered the hospital a "center of propaganda" against the coalition forces.
A member of the hospital staff later told us, "US soldiers forced sick or injured patients to lie on the floor handcuffed. . . . Air strikes on another medical clinic killed twenty doctors and dozens of civilians." This countered Geneva Convention agreements that stipulated that civilian hospitals should not be the object of attack and that medical personnel caring for or transporting wounded and sick civilians should be respected and protected.

To be sure, American activity in Vietnam descended to lower levels of hell. Everything else aside, measurement of success by body count ensured that when faced with the need to distinguish friend from foe, United States soldiers were likely to kill everyone.

Nevertheless, I believe these two books show how the arrogance, racism, and casual use of violence to solve all problems that characterized the American military in Vietnam were still at work, essentially unchanged, more than a quarter century later in Iraq.

Gish tells how Paul Bremer, President Bush's disastrous choice to head the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, attempted to enact an "interim constitution" that would permit Iraqi authorities to privatize public assets and allow foreign investors to acquire such assets and take the proceeds out of the country. "Advisors" to each of Iraq's twenty-six new ministries would have veto power over the decisions of indigenous ministers. Before leaving Iraq, Bremer signed an order giving immunity to Western defense contractors that were alleged to have violated Iraqi law. According to Gish, American officials imposed a justice system that "lacked due process of law."

As to racism, I have a memory of my own from an improvised citizens' "parallel court martial" proceeding in Tacoma, Washington. Lt. Ehren Watada was being court-martialed for his refusal to deploy to Iraq and the citizens' hearing permitted witnesses who were not allowed to testify at the official trial to offer evidence. The civilian witnesses, beginning with Daniel Ellsberg, were most impressive. But the witness who blew me away was a veteran of the occupation force, Geoffrey Millard.

Millard sought to rebut the common perception that officers were more enlightened than ordinary soldiers. He described the problem facing servicemen at check points as they were approached by a variety of vehicles. The soldiers did not understand the language or hand signals of Iraqi drivers. One 18-year-old private chose to press the "butterfly trigger" of his machine gun. Moments later a husband and wife together with their two children, aged three and four, were dead.

The unit held a meeting that evening to talk about what happened. The highest-ranking officer in the room ended the meeting by saying, "If these fucking hajis learn[ed] to drive, this shit wouldn't happen."

In Iraq, as in Vietnam, there has been an increase in cancer, leukemia, and birth defects resulting from the use of toxic chemicals and depleted uranium. Gish and her colleagues spent a great deal of time seeking to assist the families of persons who had been detained by the American military. As at Guantanamo, the American approach seemed to be that if there was a possibility that a man had aided the enemy, he could be imprisoned indefinitely without charges. There were endless complaints of soldiers needlessly kicking in doors, destroying home furnishings, taking money and other valuables, and incarcerating any male in sight without evidence.

But if the American MO of death and occupation continues, so too does the so-called Vietnam syndrome, a diffuse popular determination in the United States to avoid the repetition of anything like the Vietnam war. Again a personal experience comes to mind. As the invasion of Iraq was about to begin in 2003, a group calling itself Labor Against the War held a founding meeting in Chicago. Two Youngstown friends and I made the trip. To my astonishment a local union of the Teamsters had offered its hall for the occasion. I found a couple of stewards and asked them how in the world a union not known for anti-war sentiments had offered this hospitality. "It was the Vietnam vets," I was told. "They hit the mic at a local union meeting and said that they had seen this movie before."

What, then, is to be done to maintain and strengthen the Vietnam Syndrome? Here are two suggestions.

First, we must not lose hope in the possibility of solidarity with our so-called enemies. Peggy Gish tells a remarkable story. At times when Ms. Gish traveled to Iraq her husband Art often went to Hebron, in the occupied West Bank, to offer support to Palestinians at the mercy of aggressive Israeli soldiers and settlers. On one occasion, as Israeli tanks were destroying a Palestinian market in which cartloads of country vegetables were offered for sale, Art placed himself in front of a tank and spread his arms wide, like the Chinese protestor at Tiananmen Square. Someone took a photo, and Peggy had a copy in her wallet.

It happened that Peggy, together with an Iraqi driver, an Iraqi interpreter, and a co-worker, were kidnapped in northern Iraq. In an effort to establish communication with a young man guarding them, they showed him the photo of Art and the tank. The guard left the room and in about fifteen minutes returned, smiling. Release of the entire group followed within a short period of time.

My second proposal is that anti-war groups and individuals attempt to revise the current law and military regulations governing Conscientious Objection. These understandings were negotiated at the onset of World War II by representatives of pacifist groups such as the Amish, Mennonites, Church of the Brethren, and Society of Friends or Quakers (to which my wife and I belong). These groups are so small that the government could accommodate them without risking a shortage of military manpower. Conscientious Objection as thus defined requires an objection to participation in "war in any form," which is to say, to all wars, on the basis of "religious training and belief."

Very few combatants in an all-volunteer army will be able to meet these requirements. As Camilo Mejia indicates, they volunteer for a variety of reasons, some of them economic, and some having to do with representing their country. Then their experience in the particular war in which they find themselves causes them to become unwilling to continue to commit what they have come to perceive as war crimes. But they don't know what they would do in a war other than the one in which they are fighting. And whatever they conclude is likely to be based not so much on religious training and belief as on traumatic experience.

At the end of World War II, in Nuremburg and Tokyo, the United States and its allies sentenced Axis commanders to death for their conduct in a particular war. Similarly, a soldier must be able to refuse further combat in the only war that soldier has experienced. As the little girl in Carl Sandburg's The People, Yes says when watching her first military parade, "Sometime they'll give a war and nobody will come."

Staughton Lynd is an historian and a lawyer. During the period of the Korean war he received an Undesirable Discharge along with several others, based on allegations about his political beliefs and associations made by unnamed informants. The United States Supreme Court upgraded all these discharges to Honorable. He was an early protester against the Vietnam war. Since early 2003 he has been a member of the steering Committee of Historians Against War (HAW).

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