Veterans Speak Out




K

elly
Dougherty, an MP in the National Guard from Colorado, and Mike Hoffman,
a lance corporal in the Marine Corps from Pennsylvania, are co-founders
of Iraq Veterans Against the War, IVAW (www.ivaw.net). Founded in
July 2004 at the annual meeting of Veterans for Peace, IVAW now
has 150 members. Recently, Military Families Speak Out (www.mfso.org)
helped bring them to Boston for a series of talks at high schools,
universities, and churches. I spoke with them on February 6, 2005. 


MIKE
HOFFMAN: I joined the Marine Corps in 1999 for a lot of reasons.
I wasn’t doing anything. I wanted to travel and the military
promised adventure. I wanted to get out of the small town I grew
up in, where my father worked for Bethlehem Steel and my mother
drove a bakery truck. 


By
early 2001, things started to change. I was just back from Okinawa
and I started listening to punk rock. I read

Chomsky for Beginners

.
Some friends introduced me to the work of the comedian Bill Hicks.
I was open to new ideas and somehow that period made me ask: “Why
did I join the military? What am I doing?” I talked extensively
with five or six good friends. During our second tour of duty in
Okinawa, we had nothing to do. We just sat around on the base all
day talking about politics. We all had different reasons for being
open to new ideas. One friend had done so many drugs in high school
and felt like he was outside the accepted norms. Another friend
was part Native American and so he was pretty well acquainted with
the whole history of U.S. exploitation of peoples and resources. 


Two
days before I was supposed to be able to leave the military, my
commanding officer called me in. “I’m sorry Hoffman, but
a ‘stop-loss clause’ has just been put into effect. You’re
going to Iraq.” Two days before that my girlfriend had broken
up with me. My friends told me, “Don’t worry, Mike. You
might survive this. You might not get killed.” 


I
had already packed up my computer to be shipped home, so I went
to use my friend’s. I wanted to look up information on being
a conscientious objector. He looked over my shoulder and saw what
I was doing and he said, “Hey, Mike, you can’t leave us
now.” 


And
I realized it was true. I couldn’t leave my friends. We had
been together in our unit this whole time and I couldn’t abandon
them. I wanted to go to Iraq with them to do what I could to make
sure they would come home safe. 


My
officer sat us down and said, “Look. You’re not going
to Iraq to be heroes. You’re not going because of weapons of
mass destruction. You’re not going for the purpose of taking
out Saddam Hussein. You will be going to Iraq for one reason and
one reason only: oil. But you are going to go for two reasons: because
you signed a contract and because your friends are going.” 


And
that was about the whole truth. A sense of community is what the
military sells you on. They promise that you’ll feel pride,
commitment, and a sense of family. But this is also something that
can backfire. You realize you don’t want to watch your friends
die.


I was lucky enough
to come home. Others weren’t. I feel I have to speak for them
and I have a lot of feelings about what we’ve done to the people
of Iraq. We owe them reparations. We can’t make good on that
until we’re out of there. 


KELLY
DOUGHERTY: I was in Iraq near the city of Nasiriya. The troops around
me experienced so many negative effects—marriages collapsing,
missing the first years of their children’s lives, not receiving
full salary—which already was only a fraction of what they
were earning as civilians. [Dougherty served with the National Guard.]
Families at home could not make ends meet. 


It
was difficult for me to be there. I was opposed to the war, but
once I had to go, I hoped that maybe we would at least be helping
to bring democracy to a people that had suffered so much in recent
years. But I had to let go of that illusion as well. My father,
a Vietnam veteran, sent me books and articles from the independent
media, which helped me understand the war. He sent me the

Progressive

,

Z Magazine,

and books by Greg Palast, Jim Hightower, Al Franken,
and Noam Chomsky. 


I
sat around with two other people from my unit and watched a DVD
called

What I’ve Learned about U.S. Foreign Policy: The
War Against the Third Word

by Frank Dorrel. It turns out the
U.S. doesn’t have much of a knack for bringing democracy anywhere—
in fact, the opposite is true.

 


It
was hard to read that stuff and learn about U.S. history while I
was over there. It made me feel crazy. There was just no outlet
for expressing yourself. We weren’t allowed to say anything
honest to the media. Mostly, people resorted to scrawling graffiti
on the port-a-potty walls. 


HOFFMAN:
It’s not true that reporters couldn’t get the real story
about what troops in Iraq thought about the war. All they had to
do was go in and read the messages in the port-a-potties. 


DOUGHERTY:
I once ran into a reporter from Texas in the bathroom. There were
no officers around so I figured maybe she’d ask me something
substantive. I even threw her an opening. “Gee, it must be
hard to get the real story when you can’t talk to soldiers
privately.” She just smiled at me and nodded. She didn’t
ask me a single thing. 



Talking to Young People 


DOUGHERTY:
Kids have a lot of questions. What is the military really like?
We give a different viewpoint from the movies and the video games.
We talk about what the realities of the benefits in the military
are. The way military recruiters attract students is by saying,
“Join us and we’ll pay for your college tuition.”
Yet look at me. I have thousands of dollars of student loans. Things
are working out very differently from what I was told. 


The
advertising slogan for the National Guard is something to the effect
of, “Stay at home; serve your country.” But now we’re
being used to fight a foreign war—a war that isn’t serving
our country either. 


It’s
important for someone being recruited to talk not just to a recruiter,
but to someone who’s been to Iraq. I can’t tell people
what to do. Young people need to make their own decisions. But they
should have full information about what is going on in Iraq, and
they should have access to alternatives. I tell the kids, “Make
your guidance counselors work. Find help.” There are a lot
of services available that go unused because people don’t know
about them. 


HOFFMAN:
Recruiters are salespeople. They pick and choose what they talk
about according to whether it will help them sell their product.
Their product is the military. I try to balance that by giving the
kids additional information. It’s incredibly unfair that some
kids can go to college without having to worry about it and other
kids have to join up and risk their lives for the chance. Then that
even turns out to be a false promise. Why should the less affluent
have to shoulder the burden of the military? 


One student approached
me after I spoke at an inner-city high school in Boston. He said,
“I was thinking of joining the military, but since I heard you,
I’ve changed my mind. The problem is…my friend just got
killed here on the streets in Boston. So I feel like choosing not
to go to Iraq just means staying home and getting shot.” 


I
told him, “There’s an old Jewish proverb: when you’re
given two choices, take the third.” 


The
IVAW supports creating more alternatives. We want to mount political
pressure to shift military spending to meeting domestic needs. So
many of these kids are perfectly poised to join a widespread movement
against the war and for shifting spending priorities at home. 


When
I talk at suburban schools, the first thing they ask me about is
the draft. They know that’s something that might affect them.
The kids in inner-city schools never ask me about the draft. In
a sense, the draft is already in effect for them. It’s the
poverty draft and their number has already come up. 


DOUGHERTY:
I was part of the military police. We were supposed to police the
Iraqi people even though we couldn’t speak their language,
had no interpreters, knew little about their culture, and just fundamentally
weren’t trained to do the job. We searched people’s houses
and couldn’t even speak to them. They might be desperately
trying to communicate and we didn’t know what they were saying. 


I’m
not proud of what I did there. One of the things we had to do was
guard contracted vehicles that had broken down, mostly KBR fuel
tankers. KBR stands for Kellogg Brown and Root, a Halliburton subsidiary,
so we were basically guarding Halliburton. The military didn’t
want the Iraqis to get access to what was on the trucks—whether
it was fuel or food. We would spend hours guarding these vehicles
and keeping hundreds of Iraqis at bay. Usually, the military would
decide the vehicle could not be fixed or towed so we were told to
burn or abandon the vehicles. I’m not proud of burning fuel
trucks. I’m not proud of burning flat bed trucks filled with
food while hungry Iraqis looked on. I’m not proud of burning
ambulances. 


During
one of these guarding episodes, my commanding NCO [non-commissioned
officer] told me to shoot the next Iraqi that tried to cross the
street. I said, “Wouldn’t that be against our rules of
engagement, sir?” He replied, “Sergeant Dougherty, are
you having a hard time following orders?” He assigned me to
go sit in the truck and monitor the radio. 


HOFFMAN:
You might wonder why soldiers don’t defy their orders more
often. You have to remember the pressures. You are asking them to
abandon their friends and to do something that will have lifelong
legal and economic ramifications. It could mean jail time and the
loss of all your veterans’ benefits. 


If
you want soldiers to be able to resist the military on the inside,
you have to build a strong movement on the outside. We can’t
just protest the war, but we have to say to the soldiers, we don’t
want you to needlessly waste your life. 


You
lose a part of yourself when you go to war. I came back. I have
all my fingers and toes. But I have to carry with me in my mind
what we did over there. I can never be pleased with that, but I
am pleased with what I’ve become and with the work I’m
doing now. 


I’ve
learned a lot from talking to Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
They’ve taught me about what happened when they were organizing.
The big marches were important, but so were the individual acts
of defiance. A squad would be sent out on some mission in Vietnam
and they would just set up camp somewhere and send in false radio
reports. One battery made a Declaration of Peace and negotiated
a truce with the North Vietnamese they were engaged in battle with.
There were hundreds of underground base newspapers. One of them
at a naval base was called, “All Hands Abandon Ship.” 


There
were four guys on this one base that were doing a lot of organizing.
The military split them up and sent them to different bases, thinking
that would undermine their work. But instead, they helped multiply
those efforts. Each of the four guys organized at their new base
and started a new core group of activists. When they got split up,
they multiplied even further. These acts of resistance and defiance
are going on now in Iraq. 


We
heard from one guy that his whole unit organized to vote for Kerry.
Another guy insists on calling everyone in his chain of command
by his first name. One of our members is writing under a pseudonym
about what’s really happening in Iraq. Those guys who refused
to drive their unarmored vehicles into dangerous territory took
a big risk. That was an important act of defiance. 


I’d
say something like 60 percent of the troops are against the war
and it is growing. People are still afraid to speak out though. 


When
I was traveling in Britain, I heard about a British corporal who
said in front of his troops that Blair was a mad man. There’s
dissension all through the ranks. 



People Can Make Enormous Changes 


HOFFMAN:
I believe in organizing people starting with where they’re
at. Organizing—working collectively —can make change,
but the media and the schools and lots of our institutions work
to make people feel marginalized and invisible. I got excellent
grades in history when I was growing up, but I never once heard
about the general strike that closed down Pennsylvania for a whole
week in 1877. 


IVAW
is focused on Iraq right now. If we succeed in ending the occupation,
we’ll work with veterans on the issues they face at home—their
benefits, their health care. We’ll work on reparations for
Iraq. 


It’s
frustrating to do this kind of work, especially when you see how
much energy gets sucked into the Democratic Party. Somebody once
said that the Democratic Party has been the graveyard of so many
social movements. We have to stop relying on the Democrats. Grassroots
pressure—not electoral politics—will change what the government
does. 


DOUGHERTY:
Even though I was opposed to the war, I hadn’t gotten active.
I didn’t know what to do. People think, “Even if we demonstrate,
it’s not going to make a difference.” Our government relies
on that. People don’t know their history—that ordinary
people have made enormous changes many times in history. I realized
that by not speaking out, I was complicit. It helped a lot to meet
other Iraq veterans against the war and to connect with Military
Families Speak Out. It has made me realize that I’m not alone. 


HOFFMAN:
I’d like to see what Smedley Butler [a Marine Corps general
at the turn of the century] called for. He said the only way we
could have a sane foreign policy was for the first born of every
elected official to serve in the military and that all those elected
to office could earn only as much as the lowest-paid enlisted soldier. 


I’d
like to get rid of the national selfishness that leads us to exploit
other people’s resources. And I’d like to redistribute
the enormous wealth that some people seem to enjoy. What is the
point of all that wealth? Haven’t they heard that you can’t
take it with you? 


I
know I’m getting near the “s” word here and that’s
dangerous territory in this country. We’re still dealing with
the remnants of McCarthyism in this country. In the U.S. people
are afraid to espouse alternatives to capitalism. And that works
for elites. They don’t have to worry about the threat of a
good idea.





Cynthia Peters
is a frequent contributor to



Z

. She is a community activist
and labor teacher and organizer.