Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Mutiny Is The Conscience Of War

Fahrenheit 911 may have failed in its intended aim of toppling the Bush administration, but its certainly had reverberations within the US Military. "Everyone's watching it…It's shaping a lot of people's image of Bush" was how one Corporal described it. Before the elections an enlisted solider in Najaf moaned "nobody I know wants Bush…this whole war was based on lies."

A catalogue of discord can be uncovered with just a few clicks on Google. In March last year two British service men were sent home from the Middle East after refusing to fight in the war. Across the Atlantic, many like Abdul Henderson who appeared in Fahrenheit 911 are refusing to return to Iraq. Jimmy Massey, a Staff Sergeant with the U.S. Marines and a self-described "good old boy", followed his example, describing the invading force as behaving like "a bunch of pit bulls loose on a cage full of rabbits." Quite a proportion of these dissenters have been sentenced to jail time and have had their cases taken up as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International and two have even claimed political asylum in Canada.

The refusal of a direct order to engage in a ‘suicide mission’ by 19 members of a US Army Reserve platoon last month focussed media attention on dissent among occupation forces in Iraq. Yet the most vivid manifestation of such opposition occurred early in the occupation when a Muslim soldier, rolled three grenades towards the tents of his commanding officers after being disciplined for insubordination. The next day George Heath, spoke from the unit's Fort Campbell, Kentucky headquarters, "incidents of this nature are abnormalities throughout the Army.’ For Steve Hessk, a Vietnam Era Vet the event ‘rekindled memories that are not that distant.’

Much of the popular imagination around the Vietnam era dismisses the social movements, that developed in opposition to the war as idle dreamers who’d over done it on the blow and sampled too much of the electric kool aid. We end up presented with the afro as a nice cultural artefact for fancy dress, but never with the politics of the Black Panther’s which often accompanied it. Riots across campuses and cities that relied upon the National Guard and shootings for their suppression, become simply a momentary backing video to cheesy Ben and Jerry clones hawking some collection of sixties pop on infomercials. Music the rioters probably scorned in the same way we do boy bands today. When we iconize a moment in history it’s oft at the expense of the meaning and conflict that generated it to begin with. Usually it’s at the added expense of a consumer tapping into packaged clichés of kitsch radicalism.

So the counter culture is now viewed as simply a culture. But subversion and ‘dropping out’ within the US Military in Vietnam has been politically rather than aesthetically etched onto the surface of popular culture dealing with the conflict. Think of the poster for ‘Full Metal Jacket’, ‘Born to Kill’ scrawled on a helmet with an accompanying peace symbol. Then there’s the vacuum of authority and disorder throughout ‘Apocalypse Now’ with its acid munching grunts going chemically AWOL. Indiscipline within the military isn’t as easily sanitised for mass consumption as indiscipline on the campuses - so much of the cinema dealing with it really bears a punch. This popular image is not without a historical base.

While it has become easy for ‘hippiedom’ to be co-opted, marketed and squeezed of its radicalism. The potent force of the counter culture, the black movement and the social movements spiralling around them, when translated into the military through the drafting process hit like a hand grenade in a rabbit hole. Arising as they did at one of the most precious props to the social system: the military might enforcing the authority of the elites. From 1968 on in Vietnam, the command structure was increasingly threatened; soldiers defiantly wore anti-war t-shirts and pins. Illegal cafes were opened up on bases where advice could be received on ‘search and evade’ missions and sabotaging the war effort.

A vitriolic manifestation of this refusal of discipline was ‘friendly fire’ directed at unpopular superiors. Over three hundred anti-war newspapers flourished on US Bases, "In Vietnam," wrote the Ft. Lewis-McCord Free Press, "The Lifers, the Brass, are the true enemy." By 1970, the equivalent of four infantry divisions had deserted. After years of side stepping the issue, the Pentagon admitted in 1993 that there were 600 incidents of fragging, with 1400 ‘suspicious deaths’ of officers. In The Armed Forces Journal, Marine Colonel Robert D. Heinl Jr., described how "our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non-commissioned officers..." A New York Times article quoted an enlisted man saying, "the American garrisons on the larger bases are virtually disarmed. The lifers have taken our weapons away." With a ground army whose chief enemy was within, the Pentagon was forced to shift towards a policy of aerial bombardment and increased reliance on the Navy. Resistance to this re-structuring reached epidemic proportions as Sailors sabotaged their carriers so they couldn’t leave port. The House Armed Services Committee summed up the crisis of rebellion in the Navy: "The US Navy is now confronted with pressures...which, if not controlled, will surely destroy its enviable tradition of discipline. Recent instances of sabotage, riot, willful disobedience of orders, and contempt for authority...are clear-cut symptoms of a dangerous deterioration of discipline."

Temporarily the propaganda wing of the army responded by opening up Patriotic Cafes selling cheap coffee and alcohol. Heroin also became rife in the forces, devastating the radicalism just as it had in the ghettos Officers were encouraged to grow side burns and sat through popular culture classes in an effort to relate better to the yoof. After 1973, the Pentagon was forced to wholly restructure and create a professional technologically equipped army, one that would be most of all, loyal. Throughout much of the late seventies and eighties, US intervention in foreign spheres on behalf of its elites was left to the CIA and subversion from within. Exemplified by intervention against Allende with the CIA’s successful attempts to ‘make the economy scream’ and in funding the contras against the Sandinistas.

Stunningly enough the lessons drawn in Vietnam seem to have been lost. The Powell Doctrine that there be no large ground force intervention in the absence of large scale popular support and a clear exit strategy has been dismissed. American forces are chronically over-stretched across Afghanistan and Iraq. Last Junes ‘stop loss’ order’ that halted any demobilisation of the Reserves and National Guards has been described as a ‘back door draft.’ There may be no official draft, but there is an economic draft. Money spent on recruitment has doubled since the early nineties to $2.7b. The Pentagon has ventured into producing video games to target kids for recruitment, and hooked up with hip-hop magazine The Source in co-ordinated campaigns to recruit black youth. Buried deep in the 670 pages of the No Child Left Behind Act, public high schools are forced to give military recruiters access to and also contact information for every student at the threat of deprivation of federal funding. In the Village Voice, Nic Ferrer, a father and dedicated organizer against military recruitment describes how "they constantly cut funding from education and youth programs until our kids are left with no options to better their lives. That’s when the recruiters swoop down, aiming this PR campaign at our sons and daughters, tricking them into going from the frontlines of the war raging in our communities to the frontlines of the war in Iraq."

Speaking to Democracy Now! about feelings of discontent towards ‘Sergeant Major at the Base’ types, Paul Rieckhoff, an outspoken Iraq Veteran describes how ‘among the junior soldiers its very open. I mean, we're well aware of it. Its almost as if its become a consensus…the reservists and National Guard members who originally contracted for duty one weekend a month, and two weeks in summer, find themselves locked into active duty that in many cases is already in its second year.’ The historical ramifications of military insubordination appear glaringly on the surface of history, “Mutiny is the Conscience of War” was a common piece of graffiti scrawled by conscripts in the trenches of World War I, as they began to fraternize with the ‘enemy’ before turning their guns away from each other and absconding home to turn them against their own ruling classes in Germany and Russia. Contemporary implications are just as harsh, as Kidron one of the early Israeli refuseniks (nearly 2,000 Israeli conscripts refuse to serve in the occupied territories) believes, "the refusenik movement has a great deal of deterrent power, because the generals don't know how far they can rely on the army." Refusal is a "potentially contagious disease" he outlines, citing the example of an Israeli Air Force pilot who gathered 27 signatures on a letter refusing bombing missions in civilian areas. "The pilot told me he spoke with 100 pilots who agreed with him. Twenty-seven signed. The question is: When will the other 73 sign?"


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