Bayard Rustin had class: a story from Todd Gitlin

bayardrustin_drtrmhoward_civil_rights_rally_may241956Which disguised his radicalism only occasionally.

A story the invaluable Todd Gitlin told me a few years back, which I likely can’t include in the book, but don’t want lost:

In the beginning of March 1965, Rustin met with former SDS president Todd Gitlin, who was considering a protest at Chase Manhattan Bank to explore potential for multi-racial, innovative organizing. Dressed to the nines and in his trademark stentorian voice, the civil-rights leader and executive secretary of the War Resisters League had an unusual message for the earnest young students. Despite his suspicion of SDS’ hard-left allies such as the the US Communist Party’s student “W.E.B. du Bois Clubs,””1 the elder organizer also told Gitlin that SDS needed to be more radical in what they sought. “He said we weren’t being militant enough,” Gitlin remembered. “We saw him representing the seamlessness of Gandhianism — and he was saying that with a week of sit-ins at Wall Street and the banks, we weren’t risking enough.”

I can almost hear the man singing.

 

 

45 years ago, people learned what had happened in My Lai

mylainewsweekAnd all  earlier drafts of my book included a sort of big-picture retelling of those events, focusing on signature dissenters like Hugh Thompson and Ron Ridenhour. Now that I’ll be referring to those events ONLY in a leaner, character-based narrative, I wanted this blog to have this version, of which I am pretty proud.

I do wonder now who’s followed up with the quieter dissenters – the guys who said no. Any miilitary reporters want to tell me?

But these are human beings, unarmed civilians, sir”

At the end of 1969, reports flooded the U.S. newspapers about an incident not dissimilar to what had apparently happened at Liberty Bridge, bearing color photos by Army photographer Robert Haeberle, taken on March 16, 1968 in the hamlet of My Lai.

Nowadays, the name “My Lai” evokes Auschwitz, calling to mind images with which the mind has trouble coping, and Nurnberg, the small city where Nazi war ctiminals were put on trial. But the story of My Lai is often also a story of a string of dissenters.

Warrant officer Hugh Thompson didn’t plan to be one, flying over the province in support of Task Force Barker, 1st Infantry of the Americal Division. Formed in 1942 to defend the South Pacific island New Caledonia, Americal was remembered at Guadalcanal, Papua New Guinea and Quang-Tri.

The week of March 15, Task Force Barker’s mission was relatively straightforward: to wipe out the Vietcong 48th Infantry. “The operation was to commence at 0725 hours on 16 March 1968 with a short artillery preparation, following which C/1-20 Inf was to combat assault into an LZ immediately west of My Lai (4) and then sweep east through the subhamlet.”i

Despite the copies of the Geneva Conventions soldiers were instructed to carry, the Division was also operating under orders that which exempted “hot spots” like My Lai from the Conventions’ protection. Directive 525-3 from the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), “Combat Operations: Minimising Noncombatant Battle Casualties,” carefully noted that “Specified strike zones should be configured to exclude populated areas, except those in accepted VC bases.ii

As he flew over the area, Thompson knew that Charlie Company had just lost 34 men in a single grenade attack. He also knew that orders since Tet named women and children as possible Vietcong. But Thompson and his crew were still astonished at what they saw from their helicopter on the 16th: “Everywhere we’d look, we’d see bodies. These were infants, two-, three-, four-, five-year-olds, women, very old men, no draft-age people whatsoever.”iii As one platoon turned their guns full force on a farmer, U.S. Army photographer Haeberle was horrified: “”They just kept shooting at her. You could see the bones flying in the air chip by chip.” Haeberle carefully photographed those corpse-filled huts in full color, even before Thompson arrived.

Thompson also left the task of investigating what had happened to his superiors: the command, he reasoned, “didn’t need me there to court-martial these renegades.”iv One of Calley’s sergeants, Michael Bernhardt, said that they were expecting an investigation, but “Some colonel came down to the firebase where we were stationed and asked about it, but we heard no further.” v The action’s official post-operation Army communique made no mention of civilian casualties, numbering the Viet Cong body count at 128 and noting that Charlie Company had recovered two M-I rifles, a carbine, a short-wave radio and enemy documents. vi

As for Charlie Company, “[Capt. Ernest ]Medina …called me over to the command post and asked me not to write my Congressman,” said Bernhardt,vii said one of a handful of Charlie Company soldiers who had not taken part in the massacre. The “lawful disobedience” practiced by this group was as varied as the war itself.

Sgt. Bunning told his squad leader that “I wasn’t going to shoot any of these women and kids.” Stephen Carter refused to shoot a woman holding a baby coming out of her hut. Paul Meadlo, who did participate when pressured by Calley, was described as “sobbing and shouting and saying he wanted nothing to do with this.” viii A year later, Meadlo told reporters who asked how: “From the first day we go in the service, the very first day, we all learned to take orders and not to refuse any kind of order from a noncommissioned officer.” Their roles that day appears to have been influenced by multiple factors including their age, whether their MOS had them were carrying light, trigger-easy M16s, their proximity to the actual giving of the illegal orders, and their personal perspective on the issue of war crimes.ix

But even the refusers never told the outside world to what had happened. It took a year before that year-long embargo was broken.

Spc. Thomas Glen, from the 11th Light Infantry, had tried in late 1968, writing the staff of Gen. Creighton Abrams that such behavior “cannot be overlooked, but can through a more firm implementation of the codes of Military Assistance Command Vietnam and the Geneva Conventions, perhaps be eradicated.”x Abrams never responded, but his assistant Major Colin Powell reprimanded Glen for speaking so vaguely, and added that “There may be isolated cases of mistreatment of civilians and POWs, [but] this by no means reflects the general attitude throughout the Division.” Just as Powell was writing, Corporal Ron Ridenhour was preparing to prove him wrong.

Ridenhour had learned the news from an old friend who had joined Charlie Company a few months earlier: “ Hey man did you hear what we did at Pinkville?…. Men, women and kids, everybody, we killed them all….We didn’t leave anybody alive, at least we didn’t intend to.” xi

Seized by “an instantaneous recognition and collateral determination that this was something too horrible, almost, to comprehend and that I wasn’t gonna be a part of it,” Ridenhour tracked down members of Charlie Company one by one. “They couldn’t stop talking,” Ridenhour said later. “They were horrified that it had occurred, that they had been there, and in the instances of all of these men, that they had participated in some way.”

In March 1969, Ridenhour wrote a letter as specific as Glen’s was vague, naming every soldier he’d interviewed and detailed their accounts, including that Capt. Medina had warned soldiers never to speak about My Lai. “I remain irrevocably persuaded,” he told the Joint Chiefs, the President and every TV network, ‘that … we must press forward a widespread and public investigation of this matter. “xii

At the closed set of hearings that resulted, Hugh Thompson and others identified the man directing the massacre as Calley. Calley insisted that he was implementing the mission set forth by his commander Captain Medina, but he was still the only one indicted for the murder of “one hundred and nine Oriental human beings.”

A freelance Pentagon reporter named Seymour Hersh soon saw the indictment. “My first thought was not wow this will end the war, but What a story!” When he went to Fort Benning to find Calley, Ron Ridenhour “gave me a company roster, and I began to find the kids.”

The resulting interviews and photos ran nationwide — the week of the moon landing in July 1969. So it took some time for all of us to get this glimpse of what we know now was standard operating procedure during that war.

It certainly didn’t get mentioned during all the laudatory moon-shot retrospectives. But attention still, I think, must be paid.

(Photo: Stephen Carter and My Lai, Newsweek)

is

ii Via Gareth Porter, “ My Lai Probe Hid Policy that Led to Massacre.” Interpress Service, March 15, 2008.

iii From remarks at “My Lai 25 Years After: Facing the Darkness, Healing the Wounds,” Tulane University, 1994. Accessed via University of Missouri (Kansas City) digital resource, “Famous American Trials: The My Lai Courts-Martial,1970.” http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/mylai/mylai.htm, December 2008.

iv Fall 2003 Lecture, Center for the Study of Professional Military Ethics, United States Naval Academy, Annapolis MD.

v Seymour Hersh, Hamlet Attack Called “Point-Blank Murder”. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 20. 1969.

vi Seymour Hersh, “Lieutenant Accused of Murdering 109 Civilians.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 13, 1969, p. A1.

vii Hersh, November 20. op. cit.

viii Peers final report….

ix Rives Duncan, “What Went Right at My Lai: An Analysis of Habitus and Character in Lawful Disobedience.” Ph.D. diss., Temple University, 1992. I owe Major Duncan full credit for use of the term “lawful disobedience,” here and elsewhere.

x Via Robert Parry and Norman Solomon, “Colin Powell and My Lai.”Consortium News, October 1996.

xi “My Lai 25 Years After,” op.cit.

xii Ibid.

a bridge for Memorial Day

(The guy who sang the song above didn’t serve, but his dad Ernest sure did, spending the rest of his life in nightmares.)

The piece behind yesterday’s photos went up today at the Inquirer, with a small amount of reader mail. Ak of the latter (so far) was respectful, and some of it was of the sort that reminds one why this profession is worth something.  More than one was from people who were themselves soldier-dissenters —  some others local Quaker types, one of whom writes:

I really like your commentary.  It makes me feel better, more patriotic about Memorial Day.  It’s the sort of thing that’s needed annually to bridge us to those of us who oppose wars of choice and support defense with those who feel all wars we fight ought to be supported.

I guess that’s the point: you can say “Happy Memorial Day” if you note the huge losses the day was meant to honor.

Have a great weekend.

On Memorial Day, remember these priests, poets, politicos and pranksters!

That’s how I’ve tended to characterize the huge, diverse and boisterous movement working to stop the U.S, war against Vietnam, 1963-1975. I should have written an essay here about them last month, for the anniversary of the 1975 evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, but I could barely fit them in a chapter for the book.

A surprising number of the above, though, were recent veterans of World War II, who then popped into mind during the anniversary of V-E Day; so I wrote something that will run tomorrow in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Given space constraints, I’m informed there won’t be a photo: so here’s a photo preview of those included in the piece, which wasn’t even all of those in the movement. An honor roll of some for whom Memorial Day was an open wound, in their hearts every day:

 

 

Rev. William Sloane Coffin, greeting POW Americans in North Vietnam.

Rev. William Sloane Coffin, greeting POW Americans in North Vietnam.

 

  • Former Army intelligence officer William Sloane Coffin, founder of the hugely influential Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV).

 

 

 

 

  • howardHoward Zinn, whose long career as an historian, organizer and inspiration to us all was preceded by the young (already anti-fascist) bombardier seen at right.

 

  • Burning draft cards in Catonsville. Md.

    Burning draft cards in Catonsville. Md.

    Philip Berrigan, survivor of the Battle of the Bulge, shown here in prhaps the moment symbolizing his work during Vietnam — one of the first stops in a lifetime of anti-militarist  civil disobedience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • William_Kunstler_Former Army cryptographer William Kunstler, who followed his Pacific service by co-founding the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represented war resisters from Berrigan, above, through the years to Gulf War objector Colleen Gallagher in 1991. In  1968, his face and voice became inescapable during the trial of the Chicago Seven, as at right.

 

 

 

 

  • Kurt-Vonnegut-US-Army-portrait (2)And this skinny little private was Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, captured in the Battle of the Bulge, he became a prisoner of war — and turned that exoeriene into one of the strongest anti-war novels ever written.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ll post the link tomorrow, which includes more on all of these. There are so many more who I couldn’t squeeze l into 750 words: not Lew Ayres and the other World War II COs, not Rev. Paul Moore, who found his pacifism after the abbatoir of Guadalcanal. But I still think this is a fine Memorial Day tribute to those lost in all our wars.

No #47traitors here;The Logan Act’s namesake just wanted peace with France

If you’ve been following national politics some, you may have heard, from both the left and the right, people naming the “Logan Act” as a way to penalize those Republican senators who sent a letter to Tehran behind Obama’s back. This isn’t the site for it, so I’ll leave it to Charlie Pierce to  explain the atrocity.

What I can do, however, is make “Logan Act” less of a partisan mantra – and explain why we care about it over here. It’s actually an oooooold amendment to the Sedition Act: not the 1917 Act, whose buddy the Espionage Act is currently being used to prosecute whistleblowers, but JOHN ADAMS’ 1798 version. Trying to make like George Bush and get on with a sorta-war with France, Adams had to contend with two soldiers, a current Army medic and one veteran-chaplain-poet, neither of whom thought the newborn nation they’d fought for should take on naval kabuki as its first order of business.

220px-GeoLoganThe ink was barely dry on the Constitution when the first of America’s Wars for Unclear Purposes began: the naval duel with France known as the Quasi-War. By the time the latter ended in 1800, two soldier-dissenters had tried to prevent it—Quaker physician/militiaman George Logan {left} and former Continental Army chaplain Joel Barlow—while Matthew Lyon, now “the asp” of colonial politics, was imprisoned for publishing his objections , calling President Adams names, and publishing “confidential” memos meant for the elite.

The two who tried to prevent it were both Francophiles. Logan, whose grandfather had been secretary to William Penn, was a physician who had spent the war attending medical school in Switzerland and traveling in Europe; upon his return, he hobnobbed with his local militia and began serving in the Pennsylvania legislature.

Fluent in French and something of early enthusiast for the French Revolution, Logan watched closely as Adams responded to French naval maneuvers, made uneasy by unresolved treaty obligations and a new U.S.-Britain treaty. Also watching closely was Yale poet Barlow, veteran of the Battle of Saratoga, now living in France, having rushed to help the French with their Revolution. Barlow wrote home and encouraged Madison to send commissioners to meet with Talleyrand, horrified when said envoys were unable to get him that appointment.  As naval insults continued and anti-French sentiment was high in Congress, Logan took it upon himself to go to France, to see if he could possibly talk to the Directory and test the waters for peace.

While Logan was taking the Quaker path and listening, back home Adams had secured new funds for the U.S. Navy and recalled General Washington in preparation for a ground war. He also acted to crack down on the Federalist press, which in classic 18th-century flavor was a flood of insults to the “tyrant” Adams. Congress then passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, the latter of which made it a crime to criticize the President. Fines were set of up to $2,000 for any person convicted of uttering, writing or printing any “false, scandalous and malicious statement against the Government of the United States; or either House of the Congress of the United States, with intent to defame… or to bring them […] into contempt or disrepute.”

There was a special Logan Amendment added to the Act, written especially for George Logan, whose freelance diplomacy was regarded as traitorous. Logan had, however, met with Talleyrand; after securing the release of some captured U.S. sailors, he sailed for home in August carrying a list of possible terms for peace negotiators. When he arrived in November, he was immediately, if briefly, arrested.

Thinking about all this is enough to turn me into Alanis – as in, “Isn’t it ironic…” To rail against GOP senators who love war against Iran by threatening to use legislation meant to stop an enthusiastic Quaker from preventing a war – that’s jujitsu of a worthy sort.

96-year-old outtake: fort leavenworth goes on strike

Even when you’re mistakenly thinking you’re taking advice from William  Faulkner. it’s not so easy to kill your darlings. I learned about the riot at Fort Leavenworth early in my natterings at the Swarthmore Peace Collection, and it’s taken a long time to declare the riot less relevant to Ain’t Marching’s story than I thought.  Most of what’s below has been now excised from the text, but you might be as compelled as I was. Drawn on a magazine story by Winthrop Lane, buddy of Emma Goldman, for its dialogue:

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Leavenworth_View_of_Building_caThe steam hissed through the pipes, but not enough to warm the prisoners at Fort Leavenworth.

Temperatures that normally averaged just at freezing, for January in Kansas, hovered nearer the ten-degree mark. Which meant that the steam pipes kept banging and whistling, trying to keep up, and none of it cooled the blood of the 3,560 men packed together like tightened gears.

Two months after the Armistice, the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth was full to bursting. Workers on the 75-year-old sandstone fortress, on 12 acres surrounded by a 40-foot concrete wall, had built more barracks a mere two years ago, in 1917, so that it could hold 1,500 men — soldiers convicted of theft, murder, deserting the Great War. But the War itself had brought all sorts of new offenders to the prison, many of them dumped by other military installations who’d found they couldn’t handle them. In late January, if the Barracks were a person, it would have been obese, with a high fever and a case of nervous exhaustion.

Certainly Colonel Sedgwick Rice, the prison’s commandant, was trying to prevent such a state that month, when the prisoners went on strike.

The rebellion had begun with a melee after a card game between black and white soldiers, who weren’t used to being in such close quarters. Rice could deal with that. But then they’d started to refuse to work. The real problem, Rice thought, was those troublemaking conscientious objectors, who claimed to “oppose war” and simply refused to do anything. He knew some of them were from the peace churches, but others were more political, probably communist agitators. Like that Evan Thomas guy, brother of a buddy of President Wilson’s: The brawl over the card game had started after Thomas and 112 other objectors were released with $400 in each man’s pocket. Now all work had stopped: no one was cooking, or cleaning the toilets, or painting the new training grounds across the way. Now, everyone was claiming to be “on strike.”

On the morning of January 29, five days after the melee over cards, Sedgwick made his way down to the boiler room, where the strike organizers were doing their work. A large man with a relaxed bearing, he spoke matter of factly to the skinny “objectors” and tired workmen, who looked at him with a mix of rage and fear. “Who here thinks he has a grievance?” A slender young man with cheeks flushed by cold stood. Something about him, about the way he held his cigarette, told Col. Rice that the guy was a Red.

  1. Austin Simons stood carefully, for the colonel’s inspection. A poet and sometime journalist, he knew better than to be surprised when the older man asked: “Are you with the I.W.W. [International Workers of the World]?”

Simons could barely make himself heard over the steam pipes. “No, sir,” he said carefully. He knew a lot was at stake here – right now, his ability to bargain on behalf of the other soldiers. “I never belonged to that organization.”

Rice also asked if Simons was a “constitutional objector – one who objects to all forms of government and order.”

“No, sir, I do not.”

“Well, most Socialists do,” said Rice.

Others in the group approached with complaints ranging from their individual sentences to the “rotten” meat served the prisoners. “The war is over,” cried W. Oral James, a small-bodied man shivering in his thick raincoat. “The government has already released 113 of our fellows. Has it had time to investigate the justice of other claims?”

After three agonizing days, as Rice negotiated face-to-face with the prisoners and sent telegrams to Washington, the various “strike committees” assembled on February 1. Holding a telegram from the capital in his hand, Rice tried not to look as cold as he felt. He read aloud a statement from Secretary of State Dean Baker, which promised that each of their cases would be reviewed. “I fully appreciate that the cessation of hostilities and the return of conditions approximating those of peace,” Rice intoned on Baker’s behalf, “render it just and proper that clemency should now be exercised.”

It’s not recorded, even by journalist Winthrop Lane, who followed the strike carefully, whether the prisoners cheered at the words. Or whether they laughed bitterly, since the author of the statement was the chief architect of “the present war” – without which none of them would have been crowded within these walls to begin with.

Long after the Armistice was signed in November 1918, open rebellions continued to startle military authorities, including the conglomeration of deserters, CO’s and malcontents that stuffed the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks . While the uprising at Leavenworth was covered by major newspapers, especially the Chicago Tribune, the most detailed account was Winthrop Lane’s “The Strike at Fort Leavenworth,” published in the February 1919 issue of the left-leaning Survey Magazine.

Lane, who had visited Emma Goldman in prison and written famous investigations of Harlem poverty and the coal mining industry, had been hired by the National Civil Liberties Bureau to investigate Kansas jails. His perspective is thus explicit, but he was still trusted by Colonel Rice to witness their negotiations. Lane observed quickly that the prison population was singular: “In private life the soldier had been a clerk, a mechanic, a day laborer, a politician, a business man…He may have quitted his post for five minutes, he may have been absent without leave for a week, he may have intentionally deserted.”

They stood at attention or saluted when these officers passed. An unquestioning obedience was expected of them that is not expected of men in civil prison. Yet they organized themselves in the approved labor union way and presented their demands just as if they had the full power of collective bargaining.

H.A. Simons, one of the “elected representatives,” was a poet whose main obsession before the war had been whether his poems would be published in the Little Review. His educated manner helped Simons negotiate with Colonel Rice and others, but he still had to deny first that he had ever been a member of “the I.W.W.” . Pentagon sources, quoted in contemporary accounts, consistently blame the the International Workers of the World for the disturbances at Leavenworth, right up until they started blaming “the Bolsheviks.” The I.W.W., founded in 1905 and nearing the crest of its power with scores of affiliates, had long refused to endorse Wilson’s war.

Objectors were hardly immune to the time’s fervor. After the war, Simons would join his friend Wallace Stevens in writing for The Masses and for The Liberator, “the premier journal of American radicalism,” while Evan Thomas’ brother would be hailed in 1918 as “Comrade Thomas” by the “Queens Socialist Party,” having joined the Party in 1918 and just as his brother was released from prison.

Russia’s infant revolution was also exciting to some at Leavenworth, curious about “class war.” And thus began, perhaps, the nervous, complex love-hate romance between rebellious G.I.’s and the sectarian left that has lasted for nearly a century. Lane tells of the strikers’ “last soviet” with Simons, who said that one worker could be moved “but together, we are immovable.”.

The January strike was only the first in a series. The last ended in July 1919, after most of the conscientious objectors had been released and the remaining prisoners were demanding a full-fledged amnesty. Appropriate to the period, they’d nicknamed their barracks Lenine, Anarchia, and Internationale, according to contemporary newspaper accounts.

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If you’ve read this far, you may be struck by the fact that dissenting soldiers have been a tempting target for sectarian-left organizers for as long as both have existed. I still wonder how  this will end up in the book. Any suggestions?

On Veterans’ Day, some important voices on this new forever war

cropped-soldiersoccupyoakland.jpgThe commentary below was published today in shorter form on Al-Jazeera America, but I liked the whole thing enough to share it here.

Inherent Resolve? Try inherent blowback, say recent vets of Iraq war

Veterans Day this year falls almost exactly two months after Pres Obama announced an ongoing military campaign against the ‘Islamic State’ in Iraq and Syria.  This  new war/counterterrorism op/kinetic activity/forward deployment – “Operation Inherent Resolve”. as was finally named by the Pentagon – has already receded off the front pages. You have to look for news, which then brims with numbers and phrases familiar to any of the veterans we celebrate today:  U.S. Bombing Raid a Success, 150 Jihadists Killed. Kobani/Irbil/[fit region here] Crucial to U.S. Credibility. Allies Gain Momentum.

Last week’s headlines included: “U.S. readying plan to send advisers to Iraqis fighting ISIS in Anbar.” “Inherent Resolve Strikes Continue Against ISIL in Syria, Iraq.”

 

With each such headline,  former Navy lieutenant Fabian Bouthillette thinks about the surface warfare officers behind the numbers, those controlling the ships that carry the bombers. Michelle Wilmot-Dallochio thinks about her time with the Lioness infantry unit in Ramadi, a town lost to IS. And drone operator Brandon Bryant thinks about the families he watched die, accidentally lost forever in pursuit of “the bad guys.”

 

As the new campaign proceeds, we’re hearing about it from the usual assortment of think tanks, politicians, and Pentagon press officials. With very few exceptions,  we’re not hearing from veterans of the most recent wars in the region, those charged with implementing the orders of the national security state.

 

Why are these voices important? Even with the presidential promise of “no boots on the ground,”  this war is still being waged by personnel. It took more than a few Navy and Air Force servicemembers to deliver the more than 1000 bombs dropped this past month (the George H.W. Bush alone has nearly 100 planes). Not to mention the more than 1,300 U.S. troops in the newly bolstered Iraq conflict — security personnel, staff at two joint operations centers in Baghdad and Irbil, and the constantly-growing advisory teams working with Iraqi units. For understandable reasons, current personnel can’t speak on their work, or wrestle publicly with its moral complexity— which makes these voices ever more crucial.

 

When OIR was first announced, I began  checking in with some of the Iraq veterans I knew. Almost all are watching closely, and very few were surprised that it has turned out this way. They spoke to me of what they saw and did; mused about what comes next; and described the work each war created, on both sides of the civilian-military divide. It feels as if their intelligence is in some ways better grounded than most,  and more mindful of unintended consequences — from wear and tear on personnel to international blowback.

Michelle Wilmot-Dallochio, former member of the Ramadi Female Engagement Team documented in the film Lioness, was frustrated: “It’s actually quite disgusting to see other combat veterans get into a war-hungry frenzy that was basically constructed by our own government.”  Dallochio, author of the 2013 memoir Quixote in Ramadi, wrote me that she watched as Ramadi was contested this summer with less surprise than anger. “I’m not trying to sound like an armchair know-it-all,” she wrote,  “but I know we were detaining and fighting 90% Saudi mujaheddin in Iraq and it was underreported. We were fighting a war in ‘Alice in Wonderland’” For example, “the way we were gaining intel was through paying people off.  If you had a vendetta against a neighbor in the face of $1000 USD cash, don’t you think submitting faulty intel would be tempting in the slightest? Alice just wanted to be in a world that made sense, and over there, nothing did.




 It felt heartbreaking, but I knew it was going to happen.”

 

So did former Marine Scott Olsen, who also served in the majority Sunni Al Anbar Province.  “It’s something I’ve been expecting,”  Olsen told me last month. “Al-Anbar Province is one of the places where the Islamic State has taken over. And the people there, the guys we were in charge of keeping ‘in control?’  They’re the ones that had the most grievances with the government we installed. It’s no surprise that it’s been easy to recruit for IS there – these people have legitimate grievances.” Olsen added that any blame thrown at the U.S. for the situation is far from unfounded: “In some ways the U.S. created this. Just cause we’re not there anymore – mostly – we’re still responsible. We uncorked the bottle, we released the genie. ….More military action is NOT the solution either,” Olsen said ruefully, though “it’s hard to say what is.”

 

One former infantryman was more blunt: After witnessing the IS takeover of Mosul, where he served a year,  “ It breaks my heart, my friends died for nothing. We spent over a year fighting and securing our sectors just so  they could throw it away,” he wrote.  This young vet, who preferred that his name not be used, added that during his time in Mosul and Baghdad,  his own perspective on the war shifted.  “When my unit got extended i refused to pull the trigger,” he wrote. “Silently: I was in fear for my life if my unit found out. But I had come to the conclusion that our presence over there was bullshit and what we were doing had nothing at all to do with democracy.” Of all the vets who talked with me, he was overall the most pessimistic: “We never should have been over there, we didn’t do any good, we left that place far worse off when the they nowere when Saddam was in charge,” he said.

 

Susanne Rossignol,  who also served in Mosul and in Tikrit, sees those same events from a more big-picture perspective. She quoted an interpreters she worked with: “He said that removing Saddam was like taking a plug out of bathtub that had spiders in the pipes [and] even though he didn’t support Saddam, removing him quickly let the other spiders come out.  I think anytime you have a power vacuum, there is an opportunity for a nefarious force to take advantage.” Rossignol, now a computer programmer, added that  “I’m not sure it was a product of having been in the Sunni triangle, but my understanding, on a macro level, is that the less infrastructure a country has, the more likely that the most aggressive force will come into power.”  She did derive some small hope from the recent participation of Kurdish forces: “Up until recent events, I was very hopeful that Kurdish peshmerga were going to be able to defeat ISIS independently,” she said, though mostly “I hope that innocent people can get out.”

 

But how much use is all this perspective on the past? What about the engagements we hear most about now, in or near Syria?

 

For that I turned first to Annapolis graduate Fabian Bouthilette, who served as a surface warfare officer on the guided missile destroyer U.S.S. WILBUR until 2005. Bouthilette told me that ever since Operation Inherent Resolve began, he’s thought about the officers operating the aircraft carriers. “We SWOs are the ones driving and maintaining the ships. All of them,” he said. Officers like him, he adds, thus wouldn’t be involved in the bombings but enabling them: “I wish  could tell them- even though they aren’t pulling triggers, I’d remind them that they are integral pieces of a war machine.” In any event, he added,  “ISIS may deserve what they’re getting, but where’s the long term plan for peace? Dropping bombs is easy, but it shouldn’t be done without long term plans for peace, and America has not demonstrated any capacity to organize peace.”

 

Full disclosure: Both Bouthillette and and Scott Olsen are both members of Iraq Veterans Against the War.. Olsen, in fact, first came to public attention when he was injured by police when part of an IVAW contingent at Occupy Oakland in 2011; Bouthillette followed his Navy service with three years as an IVAW activist before moving to Los Angeles and working for iconic author (and fellow Navy veteran) Gore Vidal, the latter chronicled in his new book Gore Vidal’s Last Stand. I first met both of them, as well as the others, while working on  Ain’t Marching Anymore, a book about soldiers and veterans who dissent –in which  category one might find any vet raising questions about the morality of Operation Inherent Resolve.

 

If “morality” feels a remote concept when you’re talking about an enemy parading beheading videos, it doesn’t to troops who’ve been charged with chasing down the evildoers. Brandon Bryant, a former drone sensor operator on missions over Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, ended his service with a certificate attesting to more than 1500 “kills” accomplished by his team, hunting the worst of the worst. But he  remembers watching one man bleed out in real time, saw whole families running from the sound of the Predator.  He’s also spoken since, he told me, with Pakistanis who reached out to him at events examining the effects of drone warfare: “That was hard. ” In the quiet, one mother who had lost her son “looked at me….with pity,” he said in disbelief.

 

Asked by The Intercept  about the war on ISIS, Brandon refused Obama’s statement that IS is ‘unique in their brutality.’ We’ve got prisoners in Guantanamo Bay that haven’t seen the light of fucking day. We’ve killed children. We’ve killed entire families getting at one or two people. ” Like many of the others I spoke to, Bryant also uses the newish term ‘moral injury’ when describing his own particular burden.

 

“I mean, I swore an oath, you know?” Bryant has said repeatedly. “I swore to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. And how do you feel if you can’t use “I obeyed orders” as an excuse? It’s ‘I obeyed the Constitution, regardless of lawful or unlawful orders.’ [But] lawful orders follow the Constitution.” Similar conflicts roiled many of the Vietnam vets treated by psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, who pioneered the concept of post-traumatic stress disorder but devised ‘moral injury’ to describe such attacks of conscience.

Bryant, Bouthillette and the others know well that Veterans Day was originally called Armistice Day, a day to celebrate the “day to end all wars.” This year, no doubt, we’ll hear much about the Greatest Generation’s war 70 years ago and the Vietnam conflict now passing into history.

But when it’s no longer ‘Veterans Day,’ Operation Inherent Resolve will still be with us. And the voices of these newer veterans will be crucial for any honest reckoning.

(Photo: The IVAW contingent at Occupy Oakland.)