Iraq: As the Resistance grows, so does the Demoralization of the Troops
- By Derek Seidman
As the situation in Iraq spirals into evermore chaos for the occupying forces, there are some telling letters coming home from America's bravest:
"What are we getting into here? The war is supposed to be over, but everyday we hear of another soldier getting killed. Is it worth it? Saddam isn't in power anymore. The locals want us to leave. Why are we still here? (Anonymous Sgt., 2th Infantry Division).
"We're more angry at the generals who are making these decisions and who never hit the ground, and who don't get shot at or have to look at the bloody bodies and the burnt-out bodies, and the dead babies and all that kinda stuff" (Spc. Anthony Castillo, Third Infantry Division).
"I've got my own "Most Wanted" list. The aces in my deck are Paul Bremer, Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush, and Paul Wolfowitz" (Anonymous Sgt., 2nd Battle Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Brigade, Stationed at BCT's HQ). 1
Journalist Robert Fisk, stationed in Iraq, tells of this scene:
"When I suggested to a group of US military police near Abu Ghurayb they would be voting Republican at the next election, they fell about laughing. "We shouldn't be here and we should never have been sent here," one of them told me with astonishing candor. "And maybe you can tell me: why were we sent here?""2
According to Fisk, the occupying forces are facing up to 35 attacks daily in Baghdad, 50 outside the city. The military paper Stars and Stripes has reported that one third of stationed soldiers are suffering from low morale-and we can assume this is a conservative figure. Cases of AWOL are sharply on the rise. The suicide rate of soldiers has increased threefold-there have been 23 reported suicides already in Iraq. Soldiers from all but two states have been killed. The (reported) death toll is creeping up to 400, with many more injured in combat.
The euphoria over a victorious invasion has quickly vanished as the occupation of Iraq becomes a living nightmare. The reality of the situation is setting in more firmly with every reported death and without any legitimate sign of progress or possible exit. Soldiers' days and nights are mostly devoted to the transferring of convoys along extremely hazardous routes where they are in constant danger of being shot at or of running into a deadly roadside bomb. Amidst the sweltering heat and the air sticky with debris, with deferred hopes of returning home anytime soon, some soldiers' worlds must be beginning to lose their sense of time and space, beginning and end. They face water shortages, and many have to buy needed supplies using their own pay (which barely squeaks past the official poverty line in the first place). The realization must be setting in: they have been lied to by their government, their presence is not desired by those they are occupying, and they face a pointless death at any moment. The notion of the government "supporting the troops" becomes a much more difficult illusion to cling on to. Crushed beneath the emotional weight of all this, some soldiers will surely lapse into a state of primitiveness, viewing every Iraqi as a blood enemy and committing Vietnamesque acts of brutality and murder. Others will begin to criticize the occupation and to actively oppose it.
Meanwhile, the administration has reiterated the order that the media not cover the increasing number of incoming coffins home. A New York Times headline of November 5th reads "Issue for Bush: How to speak of Casualties? The White House is struggling with the political consequences for a president who has said little publicly about the mounting casualties of the occupation in Iraq". It appears the president, pity him, is caught up in a humdinger of a contradiction: "expressing sympathy for fallen soldiers without drawing more attention to the casualties by commenting daily on every new death". It seems the Iraqi resistance took the president's invitation to "Bring 'em on" too literally. Yet, however much this administration tries to alleviate (read: manipulate) reality for the benefit of the poor American masses, it is becoming as futile an effort as hiding the image of fallen soldiers. It is what is one everyone's mind. The media, grudgingly and by force of events, is beginning to give more coverage to the reality that defies government assurances with each new body bag. Military families are speaking up, organizing, even rioting at family military centers. They realize they were lied to, and their patience in getting their family members back home is running out.
Debbie Roath, a mother of five from Marshall, Missouri, whose husband is in Iraq, voted for Bush in 2000. She is now a vocal critic: "Our husbands' and our soldiers' lives are being put in danger, and I don't see any reason for it except greed". After hearing that the government broke its promise and extended her husband's tour of duty, she told her children: "They cried and they were angry. They don't understand why the military and our president lied to them".3
Why were they lied to? With no WMDs discovered, and no proven Al-Quada links, the soldiers and their families must be left with a sickening sensation in their stomachs. As they struggle to believe the lives of their comrades and family members weren't lost in vein, that they have sacrificed for something noble, the bitter truth sets in. They have been used as fodder to pursue the nefarious motives of the United States government. The ill-prepared mission to make a strategic move in conquering the world's most economically vital region, an effort to assume supremacy in geo-political competition, is becoming the feared bloodbath that was inevitable.
Tim Predmore, who is stationed in Mosul with 101st Airborne Division, has this to say:
"There is only one truth, and it is that Americans are dying. There are an estimated 10- to 14-attacks on our servicemen and women daily in Iraq. As the body count continues to grow, it would appear that there is no immediate end in sight.
"I once believed that I served for a cause: "to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States." Now, I no longer believe; I have lost my conviction, my determination. I can no longer justify my service for what I believe to be half-truths and bold lies. My time is done as well as that of many others with whom I serve. We have all faced death here without reason or justification.
"How many more must die? How many more tears must be shed before America awakens and demands the return of the men and women whose job it is to protect them rather than their leader's interest?" 4
While Predmore's words must surely be resonating more and more with stationed troops as the days anxiously flow by, it is not the case that Americans dying is the "only truth". The corpses of US soldiers are piling up, though not nearly as quickly as the resentment of ordinary Iraqis resisting the occupation of their country. This resistance comes not out of a vacuum, but is fueled by the experience of a carnage that US troops are just getting a taste of. A decade of sanctions that killed hundreds of thousands, sandwiched by wars and bombings that ripped apart the lives of millions: this is the modern Iraqi experience. Each Iraqi having a family member or friend who has been killed or mangled by American forces, slashed by the shrapnel of a cluster bomb, deformed by the poisonous radiation of depleted uranium, sickened due to a deliberately destroyed water system now seething with contamination: this is the Iraqi reality. And now the unrepentant perpetrator of these crimes comes in to officially occupy your land, posturing as your Liberator while he guns down civilians in the streets, perpetuates civil disorder, and displays the most offensive type of cultural insensitivity. While some American soldiers are coming to grasp this reality, to understand it, we must begin our understanding of the conflict from the inescapable premise that the Iraqi people have suffered more, died more, cried more, than these occupying troops will ever have to. This is, in fact, the greatest truth: the need to oppose US imperialism.
The US is deeply ingrained in its imperial arrogance. On the part of most ordinary people, this assumes a type of imperial naivete. People don't understand what's going on in the rest of the world, and don't see the need to. They believe, due to an immensely powerful propaganda machine deployed by the ruling class, government, and media, that our foreign ventures are inspired and imbued with noble intentions. Thus, the growing criticism and/or opposition to the war and occupation is not based on an understanding of the deplorable motives and goal of US foreign policy, nor should we expect to be.
What is turning the domestic tide is the death of American troops. The admiration for the troops runs deep in the social and emotional fabric of our society. This is for the most part not because ordinary Americans consciously cheer on US imperial ambitions. It is because the troops are the mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, and sons and daughters of the working class. People support the troops because they want to give their family and friends their love and support. Many people admire the troops because they view them as putting their life on the line to defend the noble ideals they mistakenly believe the US stands for. But as soon as it starts to become clear that they are dying for senseless reasons having nothing to do with freedom and democracy, people begin to realize that supporting the troops doesn't mean supporting US imperialism, but opposing it.
To the rest of the world, the "troops" are a force that reaps intimidation and destruction on the globe, the military weapon of the USA's imperial pursuit. To ordinary folks in the US, they are real people who we care about and don't want to die or come home injured and traumatized. Some on the Left object to using slogans such as "Support the Troops-Bring Them Home" on the basis that we shouldn't "support" the sword of imperialism. While well-intentioned, this type of thinking displays a real lack of understanding for the dynamics of struggle today in the US.
First of all, it is plain illogical to claim that posing the two connected ideas of supporting the troops and bringing them home is somehow supporting US imperialism. One could perhaps argue this if the only slogan was "Support the Troops". But by making the fulfillment of this idea predicated on fulfilling the demand of bringing the troops home, it is objectively anti-imperialist. In this context, supporting the troops equals bringing them home, which equals a defeat for US imperialism.
Further, as Stan Goff says (see my interview with him at www.lefthook.org), people for the most part are not moved by abstract morality, but by what actually, physically affects them. While it would indeed be nice if mass opposition to the war and occupation sprung up initially from a moral repulsion towards US imperialism, this is wishful thinking. In order for most people to get to this stage they need to be forced to confront reality by actual circumstances. The form that these actual circumstances are taking right now is the dying of US troops, which is beginning to jolt people into opposition to the war due to their bare interest of not wanting their family members and friends to get killed. Once this step is taken, the natural questions are asked to oneself: Why are the troops really there? Why were we lied to? Who's benefiting from all this? Why would our own government get into something like this? In seeking answers to these questions, people begin to think critically. They become much more able to absorb and embrace the radical ideas that provide the answers to their questions because these ideas are no longer abstractions. Thus for some, "supporting the troops" is the natural gateway into developing a radical opposition to an unjust order.
It is in the objective interest of the world for us to cater to the growing sentiment against the war, on whatever level it may be developing. The stronger the resistance to the war at home, the greater the blow to imperialism on a global scale, the greater empowerment of those resisting it.
The changing sentiment within the ranks of the armed forces is also a vital development. The troops, after all, are mostly working class youth, disproportionately poor and of color. They joined up for economic reasons, or because they fell victim to the carpet-bombing of advertisements that the armed forces deploys in order to pull in susceptible, alienated youth. Once the troops begin to realize the scope of what they have been ordered to do, that the bloody reality they are participating in is at odds with the proclaimed ideals of the mission, many will begin to resist. Many will come to recognize that they have been lied to and that their lives are being used as pawns in the ruling class' imperial game. They will come to realize, as in Vietnam, that not only do they not want to die for that game, but that it is unjust and morally wrong to go into another country, occupy it, and oppress its people who desire self-determination.
In coming to terms with this reality, we should hope that many other people will go through this same learning process. What we as anti-war activists need to do is create and cultivate an environment where this type of consciousness can be achieved, where people who are becoming critical of the war will be welcomed and given a friendly space to learn, on their own and with honest help, the truth. This is the only way that a real movement to end the war and occupation can formed.
Last weekend on the evening news, amidst tending to the mangled bodies of those injured in the deadly crash of the Chinook helicopter, a military doctor turned towards the camera and blurted sarcastically: "End of all major combat hostilities... right".
We are only beginning to sense an inkling of what is to come. The US armed forces are not wiping out the remnants of a clever group of Baathists and Al-Qauda followers. They are engaged in an escalating war of popular resistance to occupation. The troops are being used in a war they have no interest in fighting. It is only a matter of time until more of them come to this realization. This war is going to become one of the defining issue of our generation. It is our duty to resist the occupation with all of our strength and energy, and to create an environment where every soldier and person feels more comfortable in stepping over to our side to criticize the war and learn more about what's going on. There is nothing more crucial.
Derek Seidman, 23, is a co-editor of the radical youth journal Left Hook (www.lefthook.org). He is currently living in New York City. He looks forward to your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. The Indypendent, #40, Oct 25-Nov 11, 2003. Quotes taken from www.traveling-soldier.org
2. "One, Two, Three, What Are They Fighting For?", Robert Fisk, The Indepedent, Oct 26, 2003
3. The Indypendent, #40
4. Peoria Journal Star, August 24, 2003