Peter the Resister: Former NBC News correspondent Peter Laufer resisted the Vietnam War and went on to write a number of books on conflict and migration.
Just Say No
Soldiers who refuse to continue fighting in Iraq get their say
By Laura Mattingly
Six and a half years into America's "war on terror," a length of time surpassing the span of U.S. involvement in World War II, post-9/11 fervor is finally giving way to a more realistic assessment of the actual experiences of U.S. soldiers who have gone to the Middle East. Author Peter Laufer, a former NBC news correspondent and Vietnam War resister, has spoken to dozens of soldiers who, after doing what they were ordered to do, have ended up deciding that the entire war venture has been for nothing. Laufer presents their firsthand experiences in his newly released book, Mission Rejected: U.S. Soldiers Who Say No to Iraq.
The majority of soldiers interviewed for Laufer's book have been to Iraq, and when on leave in the States, decided not to return to war. They then went AWOL, many seeking refuge in Canada, following a tradition of 60,000 U.S. draft dodgers and deserters who relocated to Canada during Vietnam. Though without the support of a cohesive antiwar movement at home, AWOL soldiers of the Iraq war face intense social stigmas, sometimes even from family members, labeling them as "unpatriotic" and as "cowards." Even Canada is not sure it wants them: the country's immigration policy for draft resisters is more lenient than policy for AWOL soldiers.
Laufer's book explores all of these topics from the soldiers' personal perspectives. But more than anything, Mission Rejected demonstrates the many ways in which these soldiers exhibited courage and strength in making decisions in line with their conscience, rather than in line with military orders.
"One of the hideous aspects of the way this war was prosecuted by the Bush administration was to create this hysteria of fear in the culture, especially following the attacks on Sept. 11, and unfortunately they were successful up until recently at manipulating that fear into a perverse definition of patriotism," says Laufer. "And so those of us who were opposed to the war from the beginning, and especially those soldiers who were brave enough, courageous enough to stand up and say no to what clearly were wrong orders, were marginalized. And that is a testimonial to their bravery in that they were able, individually, to stand up to the monolith of the U.S. government and the peer pressure of being a member of the military and say, 'No, I'm not going to do this because it's wrong.'"
Many of the soldiers interviewed could not be considered pacifists, in that they're not against war in general. They're against this war. The majority consensus of those interviewed is that they were asked to do things while oversees that were against the law.
"I was told in basic training that, if I'm given an illegal or immoral order, it is my duty to disobey it," says Specialist Jeremy Hinzman, U.S. Army. "I feel that invading and occupying Iraq is an illegal and immoral thing to do."
One soldier admitted to Laufer that, after receiving the news that there were no weapons of mass destruction, he sat down and cried.
Joshua Key (see excerpt), a U.S. former soldier from Oklahoma, questioned whether the Iraqis acting out against U.S. occupation deserve being labeled as "terrorists." During his time in Iraq, Key was ordered to raid roughly 100 civilian houses, searching for weapons and terrorists. During the process of these raids families were traumatized and the houses wrecked. In none of these raids did Key find anything he was told would be there.
"I'm thinking: What the hell? I mean, that's not a terrorist. That's the man's home we killed. That's his son, that's the father, that's the mother, that's the sister. Houses are destroyed. Husbands are detained and wives don't even know where they're at. I mean, them are pissed-off people, and they have a reason to be pissed off. I would never wish this upon myself or my family, so why would I do it upon them?"
But punishment for those who leave the military before their term is completed results in months of jail time. And though no manpower is dedicated specifically to seeking out and retrieving AWOL soldiers, many people are detained when stopped by officers for other offenses. Those who flee to Canada live in a state of exile, alienated from friends, family and the country they served, many suffering the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder without veterans' benefits to access the help they need.
Laufer is emphatic about the need for exposing soldiers' experiences to the general public, and for the public to receive the soldiers at home with a sense of understanding.
"I think it's incumbent upon those of us who are in the civilian population to welcome as heroes those soldiers who have been strong enough to say, when they come back from the war in Iraq, this is wrong, or, when they're ordered to Iraq, say, 'No, I'm not going to go because it's wrong,'" says Laufer. "We have to look at them as being essentially in the front line of the most important battle of their careers and the most important battle for the rest of us, and that is a battle against the kind of government-sponsored criminal activity that's put us in the position that we're in now. And at the same time we have to look at the rest of those soldiers, those who haven't come to that conclusion yet, and we have to remember that there've been over a million soldiers who've gone through the Iraq and Afghanistan war theaters. We have to look at them with compassion."
Laufer hypothesizes that one reason for the lack of cohesive antiwar movement in contrast to the movement responding to Vietnam is the lack of a formal draft.
"I'm continually frustrated by that question," says Laufer. "During the '60s and the '70s, the draft brought the war into stark focus on campuses, because the population was susceptible to being sent to Vietnam. And that's not the case now. Not just the Bush administration, but the war establishment, in ridding themselves of the burden of the draft, has at the same time made them somewhat immune from mass demonstrations against their activities. And that's an example of why representative Charlie Rangel's continuing insistence that the draft be reconsidered is something to be taken seriously. The elimination of the draft has allowed this war machine an extraordinary amount of freedom."
Again and again in the interviews included in Mission Rejected, soldiers claim to have only joined the service for the promise of escape from poverty, with no prior knowledge of the realities of the war, some never having read a newspaper.
"There's absolutely no question, those who are--I don't think it's pejorative to say--undereducated, those who are experiencing the ravages of poverty in our society, are not just susceptible to the recruiters, but the military is a refuge or last resort," says Laufer. "And consequently, the lies or even just the suggestions that the recruiters offer, words such as, 'Oh, you probably won't go to Iraq,' or, 'You probably won't see any shooting,' or, 'You probably can get trained in a trade that will serve you in civilian life,' or, 'You probably can get college tuition,' even if they're not overt lies, those who are hearing that who are desperate in their economic condition are understandably susceptible to that kind of salesmanship."
But for these soldiers, once in Iraq, all illusions of college tuition and a brighter future dissolved. Along with a conscience, many soldiers interviewed suffer the severe effects of PTSD, symptoms that Laufer describes as twitching, stuttering, insomnia, the inability of some soldiers to tell their stories in a linear fashion, their memories and thoughts continuously jumping around in time. Some describe gruesome nightmares; some describe graphic waking visions.
Many are angry, feel they've been lied to and now spend their time as political activists, attempting to educate the public about the things they've seen that have changed their lives, the things that aren't shown on the news.
"I think it's extraordinary what astute commentators and early news reporters these soldiers became, and they couldn't be deceived once they were there and they saw the reality," says Laufer. "And that is the saving effect. Lies only go so far. And when you have a million people coming home saying, 'This thing is wrong, and this is why it's wrong. I saw this, and I saw that,' the charade ends. And I think we're seeing that finally. Again, it's tragic it took six years, it's tragic it had to happen at all, it's tragic we so quickly forgot the lessons of Vietnam in this society."
Peter Laufer will read from his new book, 'Mission Rejected: U.S. Soldiers Who Say No to Iraq,' on Thursday, Jan. 4, at 7:30pm at the Capitola Book Café, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola; 831.362.4415.
The War at Home
The issue of soldiers refusing to go to war took on added resonance here in Santa Cruz, where, in December, the City Council passed a resolution supporting U.S. Army Lt. Watada in his public decision not to deploy to Iraq. At the time, newly elected City Councilmember Lynn Robinson voted against the resolution, expressing her opinion that it is the City Council's job to maintain a focus on local issues.
"I was just really focused on knowing that what I can make a difference at right now are the local issues that effect the city of Santa Cruz," says Robinson. She declined to comment on what her personal opinions are of soldiers rejecting the war.
In response to sentiments that the Santa Cruz City Council's responsibility is to think within the city's scope, Mike Rotkin makes the argument that the war affects the Santa Cruz community in casualties and therefore is the city's business.
Though recognizing that the first and foremost concern of the City Council is municipal issues, Rotkin says, "We didn't spend any money on this except for some postage." He further notes that the vote took little time out of the meeting. "I do think that these issues have a huge impact on our local community," adds Rotkin. "When you have stuff like the war in Iraq it has such national importance, and people from the community are being killed in that war, I think this is an appropriate issue for the City Council to speak out on. And I think we're amplifying the voices of the majority of people in our community." --L.M.
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