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July 12-18, 2006

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Peter Laufer

Soldiers' Story: North Bay journalist Peter Laufer documents dissent.

Telling Tales

Peter Laufer chronicles transitions, courage in opposition to war

By Patricia Lynn Henley

Author, broadcast journalist and documentary filmmaker Peter Laufer, 56, believes deeply in what he does. "I think it's a privilege to be a witnessing participant of history, and to be able to bring an interpretation of events to an interested public is a dream job," he says while commuting from his Sonoma County home to his Marin County office. "I've never wanted to do anything else."

Laufer's latest book is Mission Rejected: U.S. Soldiers Who Say No to Iraq ($14; Chelsea Green), profiling members of the American military who have risked their careers and their freedom because they are morally unwilling to fight in Iraq. He appears on July 17 and 21 in Sonoma County.

"These are horrific stories that illustrate the bankruptcy of U.S. policy in Iraq. They also make clear the heroism of those soldiers who are rejecting the mission. They are on the front lines of the battle for our nation's integrity, for our nation's moral and ethical soul," Laufer says.

In Mission Rejected, he details how this nation's volunteer army is an economically based draft built on the lies recruiters use to lure in poor and often na‘ve young men and women with few other options in their lives. The book uses their individual stories and voices to illustrate the way a war built on deception twists and tears at frontline military personnel. One man, a soldier named Ryan Johnson, told Laufer that he enlisted when he was 20 because there were no jobs available in his small California home town.

"I thought we were rebuilding in Iraq. I thought we were doing good things. But we're blowing up mosques. We're blowing up museums, peoples' homes, all the culture," says Johnson, who eventually ended up going AWOL in 2005. Now he's living with his wife in Toronto and waiting for the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board to hear his case.

Other individuals' memories recorded in Mission Rejected include such disparate scenes as an inadvertent--and deadly--assault on a wedding celebration and a group of GIs kicking decapitated heads around like soccer balls.

"By reading the stories of these soldiers and what they saw and what they did, it begins to be possible to understand how events have escalated out of control the way they have in Iraq," Laufer says.

The book is a natural evolution of Laufer's career and of his beliefs. Asked if he is an activist, Laufer replies, "I think any one of us who doesn't consider himself or herself an activist should examine themselves carefully. We all ought to be activists perpetually. Otherwise we are just bumps on the proverbial log."

Laufer has wanted to be a writer since working on his grammar school newspaper in Sausalito; he began his radio career while attending Mill Valley's Tamalpais High. He was an antiwar activist during the Vietnam era, and went on to become an NBC News correspondent. Laufer has amassed a long list of credits and awards. He presented the first nationwide live radio discussion of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and spotlighted the problems of malnutrition, illiteracy and ongoing problems faced by Vietnam, as well as countless other challenging topics.

Currently, Laufer anchors the radio program National Geographic World Talk, and is co-anchor of Washington Monthly on the Radio. He has published more than a dozen books, giving a close-up look at the difficult lives of immigrants, the rape of a mentally retarded schoolgirl by a gang of her classmates, the fall of Communism in Europe, the sufferings of Americans incarcerated in other countries and more.

"I'm driven by that which reflects our social structure and stories where I feel a spotlight on problems can help us find solutions," he says. "I'm really motivated and moved by stories of migration and lives in transition."

Which is what brought him to the difficult task of gathering the tales found in Mission Rejected.

"I think that it's the job of each of us to decide for ourselves how to most effectively work against the war. I'd like to think that I do that effectively with a pencil and a paper. Others may do it effectively with political organization. And certainly right now I am awed by the courage of those in the military who do it by jeopardizing their careers and their futures with the rejection of what they perceive to be illegal and immoral orders."

As an example, Mission Rejected profiles Joshua Key, a recruit following his conscience instead of his orders to return to Iraq. Married, Key enlisted when he had two children and a third on the way, in order to get a job with health insurance. The recruiter promised him a "nondeployable duty station" and training as a "bridge builder." After basic training, Key was shipped to Iraq, where he became convinced that the war was morally wrong.

"That's the problem with war--your president, your generals, they send you off to go fight these battles," he tells Laufer. "And all the way down to your commanding officers, they don't go out there with you. They send you out there to fight and do the crazy shit and the dirty stuff. You're the one who has to live with the nightmares from it."

After eight months of fighting, Key was given two weeks home leave before being assigned another tour of duty in Iraq. He went AWOL with his family, eventually ending up in Canada. He continues to suffer flashbacks and nightmares. Key misses his relatives back in the States and blames the Bush administration.

"You can lie to the world; you can't lie to a person who's seen it. They made me have to do things that a man should never have to do, for the purpose of their gain."

Mission Rejected provokes fascinating responses from readers, Laufer says.

"No one is without an opinion, and no one is unmoved by these stories, even if they disagree with the motives and the actions of these soldiers. One thing that I think really validates the project is that the almost universal response I get is, 'There are soldiers opposed to the war? I didn't know that.'"

Peter Laufer reads from and discusses 'Mission Rejected' on Saturday, July 15, at North Light Books. 550 E. Cotati Ave., Cotati. Noon. Free. 707.792.4300. He also appears on Friday, July 21, at the Sonoma County Peace and Justice Center. 467 Sebastopol Ave., Santa Rosa. 7:30pm. Free. 707.575.8902.

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