The iniquity of the U.S. occupation of Iraq came home to me yet again this week as I watched a BBC report on the aerial bombardment of Samara. There was a helmeted American colonel, smilingly telling the camera that the residents of this city of 200,000 were “happy” at the bloody liberation of their home. The wailing Samarans filmed by the BBC didn’t look particularly filled with joy as they dug through the rubble of residences destroyed by the U.S. gunships’ rockets. The baby boy in swaddling clothes they dug from that rubble, who was covered from head to foot in dust, did not look “happy” either — he looked dead. The baby also did not look like a terrorist.
As I saw these latest pictures from this unhappy war, the thought came to me that this week was the anniversary of one of the most famous documents in French history — the Manifesto of 121 against France‘s colonial war in Algeria.
At the height of that other war, which saw French soldiers ordered to torture, rape and kill Algerian men and women (whether they were combatants in the Algerian FLN or not), the 121 writers, intellectuals, and artists proclaimed — 44 years ago this week — their support for the right to desert from an Army guilty of degradingly inhuman, criminal conduct. “We respect, and consider justified,” they said, “the refusal to take up arms against the Algerian people.”
Among the signatories of the Manifesto of 121 were some of France’s most prominent talents: Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, of course, but also Pierre Boulez, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Vercors (the heroic writer-fighter of the French Resistance to Nazism), Marguerite Duras, Simone Signoret … and more, all of whom risked a great deal, including indictment, for signing this incitement to desertion. When Signoret and other actors were banned from appearing on state-owned radio and television for signing the Manifesto, all the other players in France‘s most popular broadcasts went on general strike in solidarity with the banned.
The links between France‘s conduct in Algeria then, and the United States actions in Iraq today, are rather concrete. Gilles Pontecorvo’s award-winning 1965 docudrama, “The Battle of Algiers” — detailing the illegal repressive tactics by the French — has been used as a how-to-do-it training film for the U.S. counter-insurgency forces in Iraq. The 2001 memoir by the head of French intelligence in Algeria, General Paul Aussaresses — “Special Services, 1955-57,” in which the General justified and recounted in detail the kidnapping, torture, and murder his self-described “death squad” employed — has been used, too, as a training manual, notably for the intelligence officers deployed to the torture prison at Abu Ghraib, where teenage boys were raped. (General Aussaresses was indicted in France for publishing this apologia for “crimes against humanity” — actions which French President Jacques Chirac qualified as “atrocities” when he ordered the General stripped of one France’s most prestigious decorations, the Legion of Honor, for his published confession.)
On October 20, Canada will hold its first hearing to determine the fate of an American Iraq-war resister in uniform: Jeremy Hinzman, who has applied for refugee status after refusing combat duty in Iraq. Hinzman, an Iowan, enlisted when he was just 17, when his father took him to the recruiting office, in part because of a promise of money for his education.
Hinzman also told Canadian television, “I also had a vision in my head of being a big guy and fighting for just causes.” With the revelation that the reason for the U.S. invasion — Saddam’s pretended Weapons of Mass Destruction — was a lie, Hinzman decided the war was “a crime against humanity.” That, he says, “is not part of defending your country and it’s not something I’m willing to kill someone else or lose my own life for.” Hinzman applied for conscientious objector status after he received orders to go to Iraq, but was rejected while he was still serving in Afghanistan. He went to Canada while on leave.
Hinzman is not the only war resister in uniform to have sought refuge in Canada. Brandon Hughey, 19, fled to Canada from Fort Hood, Texas, in March because he doesn’t believe the U.S. war in Iraq is legal or moral; he has since become a prominent speaker at anti-war rallies there. Hinzman, Hughey, and the rest of the half-dozen uniformed war resisters seeking refugee status could face stiff prison terms if Canada returns them to the United States.
A petition has been launched in Canada in support of these G.I. War resisters. This appeal to the Canadian government has received important support from the Canadian labor movement. The petition recalls that, “during the period of 1965-1973 more than 50,000 draft-age Americans made their way to Canada, refusing to participate in an immoral war. At the time, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau said: ‘Those who make the conscientious judgment that they must not participate in this war … have my complete sympathy, and indeed our political approach has been to give them access to Canada. Canada should be a refuge from militarism.’ … We call on the Canadian government to demonstrate its commitment to international law and the treaties to which it is a signatory, by making provision for U.S. war objectors to have sanctuary in this country.”
The War Resisters Support Campaign in Canada is anxious to have as many Americans as possible sign this petition. I have done so — in part because, whatever the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, nothing is going to deflect the U.S. from continuing to occupy Iraq. John Kerry has proclaimed he is just as committed as George Bush to that American occupation, which even he says could last at least as long as four more years. (And that rhetorical deadline, of course, depends in part on Kerry’s chimerical dream of recruiting troops from U.S. allies — even though France, Germany, and other NATO members have already made clear that under no circumstances will they send their soldiers into harm’s way after the tortures at Abu Ghraib have inflamed most of the populace against the occupiers.)
I expect little from a Kerry administration except an end to the assaults on the Constitution, science, and queers — although I’ve said that is more than enough to command an urgent vote for the Democrat in order to defeat George Bush. But it is precisely because I have urged others to support a candidate whom I know is committed to the continuing American occupation of Iraq that I feel compelled to do all I can to help these war resisters, who have shed the uniform of my country in protest of this cruel and unnecessary war and its honor-destroying aftermath.
In particular, those of us who are intellectuals on the left, and who have signed petitions for an effective Anybody But Bush vote, betray our own values if we do not support the principled deserters from service in Iraq. Especially since, in doing so, we risk far less than did the signatories of the Manifesto of 121 against that other dirty war. In this anniversary week, let us pay homage to the courage of the 121 then, and sign the Canadian petition by the War Resisters Support Campaign now — which you can do easily by clicking here.
This is, after all, a question of conscience.
Doug Ireland, a longtime radical journalist and media critic, runs the blog DIRELAND.