The growing peace movement among US service men and women

by Elizabeth Quick

The second anniversary of the beginning of the United States’ war on Iraq is approaching – March 2005 will mark two years since the “shock and awe” bombings began in Baghdad by order of George W. Bush. As I write the US expects to have 150,000 troops in place for Iraqi elections scheduled for late January. More than 1300 US troops have been killed in Iraq, with thousands more wounded, and an uncounted number of Iraqi civilians dead.

As the war continues, reports of military members resisting the war are on the rise. Some soldiers have refused to be deployed to Iraq. Some have fled to Canada. Others have applied for Conscientious Objector (CO) discharges or reclassification. In early December, the Pentagon reported that more than 5,500 men and women have deserted from the US military since the beginning of the Iraq war. The GI Rights Hotline receives 3000 to 4000 calls each month from military members seeking help and guidance.

Resistance in Viet Nam
During the Viet Nam war, military resistance played a key role in causing the US to withdraw. Sgt. Martin Smith, of the Traveling Soldier veterans advisory board, writes that while he believes that individual war resisters are “true heroes,” he believes that resisters who stay in the military and work together could have a greater collective impact. He recalls tactics used during Viet Nam: “Troops formed ‘rap groups’ within their platoons that discussed the immorality of the war; they used graffiti and sabotage to deadline military vehicles; soldiers led mutinies that included whole companies….Acts of resistance became so widespread that the military often failed to punish the offenders out of fear that retribution might incense the troops and lead to even greater discontent.” He concludes, “Overall, the collective action by troops opposing the war was a significant factor in bringing an end to the ground war in Viet Nam.” The government took notice, admitting forces had become “unreliable” and that the troops were “disintegrating.” Today, as resistance against the war in Iraq escalates, we can only imagine the impact such resistance will have in the movement for peace.

Refusing to be Deployed
Increasingly, soldiers are refusing to be deployed to Iraq. Some try to stay under the radar, but others have publicly opposed the war. “Democracy Now” recently interviewed 23 year-old Pablo Paredes, a Navy sailor who refused to board the ship that would transport him to the Persian Gulf this past December. Paredes, who faces prosecution,” shared in an earlier interview that he joined the Navy because of lack of options and because “this military guy [kept] calling me.” Paredes enlisted at 17, which he now thinks was “crazy….Nobody is ready to make that decision at 18….We are not ready. We don’t know what the world is about.” Since joining, he has come to see the world in a new way, and has learned that war is “not something [he’s] about.” In his “Democracy Now” interview, Paredes said his decision to refuse deployment was “based on principles, not fear.” He’s willing to face the punishment his refusal of conscience may bring. On December 18 Paredes surrendered to Navy officials. He’s working on his Conscientious Objector package.

Pablo Paredes, Jeremy Hinzman and Camilo Mejia (left to right) are among the soldiers refusing the return to Iraq and speaking out passionately for peace and social justice. Photos: [], Mark Laking and []

Conscientious Objectors
Camilo Mejia joined the Army in 1995, looking for a way to pay for his education, after exhausting his federal financial aid options. After three years in the Army, he joined the Florida National Reserve, seeking continuing support for his education. He was completing his last semester of college when his unit was ordered to active duty. Almost immediately, Mejia was concerned about training for his unit that seemed solely designed to make them “deployable,” nothing more. In April 2003, Mejia and his unit were deployed to Iraq.

Not long after he arrived, Mejia became uncomfortable with what he saw as a focus on killing enemies despite risky situations for US soldiers. And he was bothered by the second-class treatment that activated reservists received over active duty GI units. “When I saw with my own eyes what war can do to people,” Mejia said, “a real change began to take place within me. I have witnessed the suffering of a people whose country is in ruins and who are further humiliated by the raids, patrols, curfews of an occupying army. My experience of this war has changed me forever.”

For Mejia, these feelings led him to refuse deployment to Iraq in October 2003 after returning home from leave. He surrendered to authorities on March 2004, applying for CO status. In May 2004, however, he was sentenced to the maximum penalty for desertion of one year of imprisonment. Mejia was the first US soldier to publicly refuse further service in the war on Iraq.

Jeremy Hinzman joined the military in 2001. He began to have doubts as early as basic training. “There is a strong, innate predisposition against killing,” Hinzman says, “and the military breaks that down.” Hinzman applied for CO status in May 2002, writing in his application packet, “Although I still have a great desire to eliminate injustice, I have come to the realization that killing will do nothing but perpetuate it.” He was told his application was lost. He reapplied right before being deployed to Afghanistan, where he was assigned to noncombatant duty.

In April 2003, at his CO hearing Hinzman was asked if he would ever use violence to protect himself. When he said he would not always refrain from violence, he was denied CO status based on this response. The law distinguishes between using violence in interpersonal conflict and in war, but objectors’ rights are often overlooked or misunderstood. Hinzman’s conscience kept him from going when his unit was re-deployed to Iraq. Instead, he went to Canada, where he and others are seeking refugee status.

Asylum in Canada
Juergen Dankwort was a Viet Nam war resister who fled to Canada rather than respond to his draft summons — one of between 30,000 and 90,000 young men who did so. He remained in Canada, and now works to ensure that people wishing to avoid fighting in Iraq can receive the same refuge in his adopted home. Some Canadians have been reluctant to welcome those seeking asylum from serving in Iraq, noting that “the would-be refugees are deserters, not draft dodgers refusing military conscription.” But Dankwort and other former resisters and peace activists are working to encourage hospitality. “Having been helped myself, it’s an opportunity to help someone else....As more Americans decide they cannot participate in an illegal, immoral war, the demand for sanctuary will increase,” Dankwort says.

Hinzman argued for refugee status before Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board in early December. A decision is expected in February. Two other deserters are waiting for their hearings. How Canada will respond remains to be seen. On the one hand, the Board has rejected Hinzman’s argument that the US war on Iraq is illegal, saying the issue is “irrelevant” to his case. Yet, in a recent interview, Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin said, “In terms of immigration, we are a country of immigrants and we will take immigrants from around the world. I’m not going to discriminate.” He indicated he was not speaking about any individual case, but his words provide hope.

How to Help

Learn More

To learn more about your rights as a member of the military, check out [] or call the GI Rights Hotline: 1-800-394-9544.

For information about registering as a Conscientious Objector, check out The Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, [] or The Center of Conscience and War, [].

How can we help military resisters? First, we can help young people know their options before they join the military. For many teenagers, the promises of education and income from joining the service appeal when alternatives seem lacking. Help young people who are making decisions that will impact their future. Encourage people in and out of the military to seek CO status. Those most likely to be granted status are those who can document their position as an objector. Current military members are also permitted to apply. Objectors need letters of support from people who know their views – volunteer to write such a letter for any objectors you know. Give out the GI Rights Hotline number (see box above) to people in the military so they can call for help. Finally, take the phrase “support our troops” to heart. People in the military are there from many paths and for many reasons. You can support military members by helping them see and embrace the many options for resistance.

We can make a difference.

Elizabeth is a United Methodist pastor serving a congregation in Oneida, NY.