Outtake: Scott Olsen, who almost died for Occupy

Eight years ago this week, a NYPD riot at New York’s Zuccotti Park evicted the last remaining Occupy Wall Street activists. That year had seen an incredible amount of movement-building, with organizing from coast to coast–including by dissenting veterans.  Below, a vigil for Iraq vet Scott Olsen at Occupy Oakland.occupyoaklandvigil

In 2011, Obama’s Afghanistan “surge” came and went without accomplishing its goals, making the projected 2014 end date of the war feel questionable. The exit of troops from Iraq set the stage for a far-more-developed debate about services for veterans, and Iraq Veterans Against the War initiated its first “Project Recovery” campaign, demanding that a PTSD diagnosis automatically preclude a return to the war zone. They also linked up with local social-justice struggles, such as Occupy Wall Street and its “Occupy” off-shoots—including Marine Scott Olsen, whose treatment at Occupy Oakland by that city’s police would make the latter notorious and deepen Olsen’s commitment to dissent.

Olsen had joined IVAW soon after coming home: His doubts about the war had begun in his first tour, at the border town of Qay’im, after “conversations with other Marines, and with some Iraqis, through “witnessing some of our actions and inactions, through putting my life on the line and seeing my brothers lose their lives that they had put on the line—for what? Where are these liberated Iraqis? Where is their democracy and right to self-determination? What have we done? And what are we still doing here?” His second tour, as part of the troop-withdrawal phase, made him close to cynical, since his Kilo Company had one specific assignment: the opening of Al-Anbar Province’s massive K3 Oil Refinery. Joining IVAW, “it felt good to know that I wasn’t the only Iraq vet who felt betrayed, ripped off, or used.”[i]

Olsen kept in touch with IVAW when he moved to San Francisco to take a software job. Rather than immerse himself in Northern California’s tech scene, Olsen found himself also drawn to Occupy San Francisco, one of a dozen such encampments that had sprung up after the takeover of Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan on September 17, 2011.

Created to protest rising income inequality, Occupy had from its start been welcomed by the more left-leaning soldier-dissenters. Vietnam veteran Bill Perry had traveled from Philadelphia to join the original, growing encampment at Zuccotti Park, and stayed there until the encampment was evicted by the NYPD around Thanksgiving; by then, the Occupy movement had metastasized, with similar encampments from coast to coast. The San Francisco camp, with its collective breakfasts and speak-outs, was regularly evicted. Across the Bay Bridge, a more militant, diverse group occupied Oakland’s City Hall and regularly threatened to close the busy Port of Oakland.

None of which had escaped the national-security state; the Department of Homeland Security was publishing a weekly national “intelligence report” with FBI-generated data on encampments from Boston to California. Police chiefs across the nation held conference calls to share strategies on how to combat the smelly, not-quite-violent masses. Police departments deployed their most militarist riot gear when evicting protesters—as Scott Olsen learned in Oakland, on October 26, 2011.

The resulting scene, immortalized on cell phone video, would be used as evidence in Olsen’s lawsuit against the City of Oakland. Between the wall of helmeted police and the mass of blue-jeaned Occupiers was a steel police barrier in front of two IVAW members: Jose Sanchez, in Navy dress whites, and the less-imposing Olsen in a Marine Corps fatigue jacket. As the sun set behind them, police warned the remaining protesters to disperse or else. Then the video shifts as protesters scatter and begin to scream, “[Olsen]’s been hit!” They carry the young man, bleeding from the scalp, to the side and wait until paramedics arrive.

Olsen had been hit and nearly killed by a tear gas canister thrown by police. When released from hospital he was, for a long time, unable to speak. But he did recover, and stayed involved with IVAW; I met him in 2014 at the group’s tenth-anniversary gala, not long after the City of Oakland agreed to a $4.5 million settlement in his case. I told him about the book, and the likelihood he was in it; I’m still sad that my editor’s very smart cuts included his story.    When I come to the Bay Area, I hope he’ll join me in honoring his role in an important movement.

 

Old soldiers, new century

biercememAgain with the cutting-room floor — this time with a section I’d worried was superfluous when I wrote it, but had been irrationally seized with wondering how my two Civil War storytellers had reacted to the beginning of the 20th century.

Old Soldiers in a New Century

The morning of August 18, 1906, is seasonably hot for West Virginia; Lewis Douglass is glad to take off his shoes and walk the rest of the way.

At 66 years old, Douglass is far from the only veteran here. Among the 45 marking “John Brown Day” on the third day of the Niagara Movement’s first U.S. conference, a few other U.S.Colored Troops have made it, along with some “buffalo soldiers” and Philippines vets. Douglass has mostly kept quiet this week, listening as a youngish firebrand named du Bois argued for hope amid the nadir of black-white relations since Emancipation: “Our enemies, triumphant for the present, are fighting the stars in their courses, but justice and humanity must prevail….We will never give up, though the trump of doom finds us still fighting.” Today, Douglass looks away as the younger men thunder “Thank God for John Brown! Thank God for Garrison and Douglass!”

Now, as the heat rises, the crowd leaves behind their fans and parasols for the sacred walk to John Brown’s fort. Walking beside Douglass is a writer for the newspapers of Osvald Garrison Villard — grandson of the Garrison who so often hosted John Brown.. She describes carefully the now-barefoot scholars and activists singing “John Brown’s Body, ‘ just as George Garrison did with the Massachusetts 55th so many years earlier.

Before they get to the fort, someone switches the words to those Julia Ward Howe drafted for the war: He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored… Standing in front of the aging buildings freshly trimmed of weeds, it gets louder for His truth is marching on. Douglass doesn’t mind the light morning rain.

By the time of that second Niagara meeting, Lewis Douglass had already suffered a stroke, which hadn’t quite silenced the voice that had reviled McKinley’s war. As one of the original mavericks blowing the whistle on American racism, he wasn’t prepared to let the new century repeat this original sin. Other Civil War vets were also not quite done reminding the country about that sin, and about the traumas inherent in war.

A few months after that gathering, Douglass editorialized:“Our people must die to be saved and in dying must take as many along with them as it is possible to do with the aid of firearms and other weapons.”i He was responding to a wave of lynchings – the freelance ‘executions’ of Blacks by whites, often for the alleged crimes of others.ii Douglass’ war, fought against the nation’s second original sin, was nowhere near over. And like other Civil War vets , he knew he was moving against the nation’s insanely popular president, Theodore Roosevelt.

Ambrose Bierce, whose newspaper had bred the Spanish-American War, was sniping at Roosevelt in his new book The Cynic’s Word Bookiii: “The President of the United States was born so long ago that many of the friends of his youth have risen to higher political and military preferment without the assistance of personal merit.”iv Mark Twain, who like Bierce had been invited to the White House as a national humorist, told his biographer that Roosevelt, though “perhaps the most popular man he had ever met,” was also “far and away the worst president we have ever had.” But America seemed giddy with certitude.

President Roosevelt, “the hero of San Juan Hill,” had also kept America’s international profile high, including brokering peace in 1905 between established empire Russia and the emerging colossus of Japan. Mark Twain hadn’t been impressed, calling the peace treaty the most conspicuous disaster in political history,” because Russia could now more successfully quash dissent before it turned into revolution. But most of the nation was on board, seeing it all a product of Roosevelt’s Progressive manifesto: all the worlds problems could be solved by smart people.

That Russo-Japanese treaty led to one of the very first Nobel Peace Prizes for Roosevelt, The Nation hoping that Roosevelt might “modify his own conventional ideas about the necessity of being armed to the teeth.vi” Perhaps, the magazine mused, the same Progressive energy that had built railroads could help “reliev[e] the poor of Europe from the crushing burdens of militarism.” Thus was the Spanish-American War recast in glowing terms, as a kind of pact with the future. Some of the old vets had fallen in love with the Progressive cause, which had helped doom the always-shaky Anti-Imperialist League. Twain couldn’t get his work published anymore, after his searing “To the Person Sitting in Darkness”: Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief …. for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! Twain had specifically targeted the general who’d “won the Philippines”:

Dewey could have gone about his affairs elsewhere, and left the competent Filipino army to starve out the little Spanish garrison and send it home, and the Filipino citizens to set up the form of government they might prefer, and deal with the friars and their doubtful acquisitions according to Filipino ideas of fairness and justice — ideas which have since been tested and found to be of as high an order as any that prevail in Europe or America.

We must stand ready to grab the Person Sitting in Darkness, for he will swoon away at this confession, saying: “Good God, those ‘niggers’ spare their wounded, and the Americans massacre theirs!” […..] And to show him that we are only imitators, not originators, we must read the following passage from the letter of an American soldier-lad in the Philippines to his mother, published in Public Opinion, of Decorah, Iowa, describing the finish of a victorious battle: “WE NEVER LEFT ONE ALIVE. IF ONE WAS WOUNDED, WE WOULD RUN OUR BAYONETS THROUGH HIM.”

Not surprising, perhaps, that when Twain submitted his newest antiwar essay, “The War Prayer,” to his home magazine Harper’s Bazaar, it was rejected as being unsuitable for the ladies. He didn’t even try to publish his “Comments on the Moro Massacre (March 12, 1906)”, written after 994 Filipinos were killed in a counterinsurgency operation led by U.S. Army general Leonard Wood. Twain knew that while the Philippine War was officially over, the occupation was proving just as lethal. vii

Twain’s satiric praise for General Wood alternates with headlines from U.S. newspapers: DEATH TOLL NOW NEAR 900; IMPOSSIBLE TO TELL SEXES APART IN FIERCE BATTLE OVER MOUNT DAJO. “I was never so enthusiastically proud of the flag till now!”viii He knew that this new pax Americana, this pact with the future, hadn’t been signed by those charged with enforcing it. Many of that war’s combatants, home but still in uniform, and a little worried about this new “world leader” stance.

That included some of the African-American “Buffalo Soldiers,” many of whom had been in Cuba with Roosevelt. Eighth Infantry chaplain and poet Charles Frederick White said so in books of blank verse; the lyrical Plea of the Negro Soldier was followed by a bitter successor The Negro Volunteer, which described both battles and foul mistreatment by white commanders.

White’s verses would have fit in well with accounts collected by W.E.B. du Bois, who’d already made dissent his life’s work; soldiers were definitely included in du Bois’ quest to change the realities that had replaced slavery for African-Americans. And his Movement, a few days after that second meeting of in West Virginia, responded en masse after the “Brownsville Affair,confronting President Roosevelt on behalf of of the 25th Infantry’sBuffalo Soldiers.”

On August 13, just as du Bois, Lewis Douglass and the others were gathering in West Virginia, a shooting at a bar in that Texas town had led whites to blame the black soldiers newly relocated to Brownsville. Despite confirmation by their (white) commanders that all of the soldiers had been in their Fort Brown barracks that night, Roosevelt had ordered that all three companies – 167 men, six of whom had been awarded the Medal of Honor – be discharged “without honor,” ineligible for veterans benefits. Roosevelt had refused to reconsider his decision even after a plea from Booker T. Washington, the biggest booster of black enlistment and supporter of Roosevelt’s wars. du Bois’ Niagara Movement—organized partly as a radical alternative to Washington, who du Bois called “The Great Accomodator”—sprang into action after Brownsville.

Du Bois brought in his dear friend Major Charles Young, the third Black graduate of West Point and a Niagara co-founder, as members lobbied Congress. They caught the attention of Senator Robert Foraker, an ambitious politician who was also a Union Army veteran. Foraker led a call for a Senate investigation and fought for the battalion’s reinstatement; by January, Roosevelt had rescinded the part of the order, though full reversal would take a century. Foraker, for his part, “merely felt the same about the Constitution in 1906 as Private Foraker had felt in 1862” and would later campaign for president under the slogan “Remember Brownsville.”

Fellow Civil War vet Mark Twain didn’t speak out about Brownsville, but his late-career writings came from a similar sense of mission, and he also knew that that war hadn’t come close to abating that original sin. He’d considered a book-length history of lynching and even wrote the introductory “The United States of Lyncherdom,” before deciding (perhaps wisely) that such a book couldn’t come from a white Missouri writer. (Elisha Bliss, his publisher, told him that he “shouldn’t even have half a friend left down there, after it was issued from the press.”) Still, Twain had started 1906 with a Carnegie Hall benefit for Tuskegee University alongside anti-lynching activist Fanny Garrison Villard. The latter, William Lloyd’s daughter and ally of du Bois, was also one of the co-founders of the Anti-Imperialist League.

Twain’s fellow veteran/humorist, Ambrose Bierce, never wrote about Brownsville; his first biographer said that while he’d fought to end slavery, he “loathed” black people in their postwar form. None of which had changed his 1864 revelation that Black soldiers had been his equal back at the battle of Nashville, when they “did not hesitate a moment: their long lines swept into that fatal obstruction in perfect order and remained there as long as those of the white veterans on their right. And as many of them in proportion remained until borne away and buried after the action. It was as pretty an example of courage and discipline as one could wish to see.”

But Bierce had by now stopped writing that“War Topics” column, and had left the Examiner. It was Cosmopolitan Magazine that now bore his signature mix of misanthropy, trauma and magic. His clearest commentary on the ‘race problem’ appeared in this black-comic definition: “NEGRO n.The piece de resistancein the American political problem. Representing him by the letter N, , the Republicans begin to build their equation thus: Let n=the white man. This, however, appears to give an unsatisfactory solution.”

This droll observation. the closest Bierce ever got to acknowledging the effects of white supremacy, was a far cry from the 30ish columnist who’d written whole stories in the 1880s ridiculing black speech. But Bierce was nowhere near joining Twain and du Bois in challenging Jim Crow. If du Bois, Twain and Lewis Douglass were trying to build a more equitable future, Bierce’s attention was draw more to the past, including the war they had all shared.

Bierce revisited his life as a lieutenant in 1863, setting one story in his brigade’s raid on Confederates at Woodbury and another on executions he’d overseen as provost, one for desertion and the other for killing civilians, “a particularly atrocious murder outside of the issues of war.”xiii For Cosmopolitan Bierce used his signature vivid details and spooky framing, for “Two Military Executions” and “A Baffled Ambuscade.” Then, in “What May Happen Along a Road,” he remembered his last battle, in Franklin, Tennessee:

After resetting their line the victors could not clear their front, for the baffled assailants would not desist. All over the open country in their rear, clear back to the base of the hills, drifted the wreck of battle, the wounded that were able to walk; and through the receding throng pushed forward, here and there, horsemen with orders and footmen whom we knew to be bearing ammunition. There were no wagons, no caissons: the enemy was not using, and could not use, his artillery. Along the line of fire we could see, dimly in the smoke, mounted officers, singly and in small groups, attempting to force their horses across the slight parapet, but all went down. Of this devoted band was the gallant General Adams, whose body was found upon the slope, and whose animal’s forefeet were actually inside the crest. General Cleburne [pg 326]lay a few paces farther out, and five or six other general officers sprawled elsewhere. It was a great day for Confederates in the line of promotion.

For many minutes at a time broad spaces of battle were veiled in smoke. Of what might be occurring there conjecture gave a terrifying report. In a visible peril observation is a kind of defense; against the unseen we lift a trembling hand. Always from these regions of obscurity we expected the worst, but always the lifted cloud revealed an unaltered situation.

Bierce had begun to revisit his old battlefields, spending time at Shiloh and Murfreesbro and Stone’s River. He described these travels in letters, both to his editors as well as his niece Lora. One of his last pieces for Hearst was the gothic “A Resumed Identity,”in which an old veteran is revisited by the soldier he once was. Then, severing his ties with Hearst, Bierce kept moving south, headed toward the newest war: Mexico, whose recent revolution had inspired an insurgency led by Pancho Villa. His dispatches from south of the border read like a prose poem, or one of his Dictionary definitions.

December 13, 1913.might do for a listing under “Nationalism”: Ridden in four miles to mail a letter. Ride from Juarez to Chihuahua hard—nights cold, days hot. Allusion to Jornada del Muerta (journey of death) of thousands of civilian refugees, men, women and children. Train load of troops leaving Chihuahua every day. Expect (next day) to go to Ojinaga, partly by rail. Mexicans fight “like the devil”—though not so effectively as trained soldiers. Addicted to unseasonable firing, many times at random. Bierce’s note doesn’t mention Pancho Villa, but Bierce was hoping to meet this new wild card of Mexican politics, and had written to friends that he was headed to Ojinaga, which became site of a massive New Years battle between federales and Villa’s guerrilla force. xv Whether Bierce died there, or somewhere else, has been debated ever since.xvi

That battle of Okinaja actually included U.S troops, there to support the federales and the government of Victoriano Huerta. If Bierce had lived to write about it, he might have wondered if history was rhyming. Afterward, with Bierce, Twain and Lewis Douglass all dead, a new generation of storytellers would be required. So would new types of dissenters.

The soldier-dissenters at Oceti Sakowin.

https://www.democracynow.org/embed/story/2016/12/5/as_thousands_of_vets_descend_on

How could I not be paying attention when #VetStand was happening?

It broke my heart not to trek to Cannonball, North Dakota, as did Col. Ann Wright, Vince Emanuele and so many others. But I did manage to report long-distance for Guernica Magazine: “We Are the Cavalry!” has many voices familiar to this page as well as many more.

That piece doesn’t include my first thoughts as the protests at Standing Rock evolved: that Bayard Rustin would be proud.

Luckily, I’m about to write for Philly’s NPR outlet about that.  A few opening quotes for me, if not the article:

We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers. Our power is in our ability to make things unworkable. The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them in places so wheels don’t turn.”

The second quote is not from Rustin but from Daniel Berrigan, who with his brother Philip took those principles to heart.  NYTimes columnist Eric Martin cited these words in connection to Standing Rock:

Someone, as a strict requirement of sanity and logic, must be willing to say a simple thing: ‘The machine is working badly.’ And if the law of the machine, a law of military and economic profit, enacted by generals and tycoons, must be broken in favor of the needs of man, let the law be broken. Let the machine be turned around, taken apart, built over again.”

By the time this piece is done, Tolstoy. . Berriganand Silas Soule will be side by side.

Ron Kovic’s Convention speech

Kovic at Florida Memory

Which no one ever heard, because the networks had stopped filming in 1972. (They’d already wrecked the candidacy of WWII veteran Edmund Muskie. ) We’ll never know if that speech might have rocked the world of Richard Nixon.

Now, thanks to Studs Terkel’s chat with Hunter S. Thompson, you can hear it starting at minute 36.

The rest of the discussion is worth listening to, especially the conversation about “objective journalism.”

Many thanks to the vets who corrected my initial mistaken impression that this was the Democratic Convention. This was just as Kovic was starting out as an activist, long before we all knew his birthday.

 

 

Friday news dump, belated

AintMarchincoverbyAlexAs what one writer has called “this insult of a month” comes to an end, a baker’s half-dozen to keep us warm:

  • Famous Veteran: Leonard Nimoy. As many of us mourn the guy who made smart cool, IVAW’s Geoff Millard points out this Military.com Q&A in which Nimoy offered vets tips on making their dreams real.
  • One dissenting soldier interviews another: at CounterPunch, a dialogue between Vincent Emanuele, who’s been writing up a storm 6+ years since his mesmerizing Winter Soldier testimony, and Kourtney Mitchell of Deep Green Resistance, who emerges as a feminist environmentalist while still officially an Army AWOL.
  • In case you thought the end of DADT and Prop 8 meant equality for queers in the military: Texas VA told this Iraq vet and her wife that their marriage didn’t exist.
  • Thank you for your service, VVAW’s Jan Scruggs, who made the Vietnam Wall real and is now stepping aside as his foundation’s president. You deserve the time off,
  • At Foreign Policy, Tom Ricks’ thoughts on the moral-injury concept. Between him and David Brooks, you’d think the idea was nonpartisan or something.
  • And to finish off with Hollywood (where we sorta began), the LA Times on Edward Snowden as a movie star, now that Joseph Gordon-Levitt is playing him in an Oliver Stone movie.

About VASECMcDonald: it’s not Brian Williams redux

When I first heard the news about VA secretary Robert McDonald‘s calling himself a Special Forces vet, I had two thoughts: 1) “Wow, SOF is kinda like the French Resistance.”  2) “Brian Williams, Bill O’Reilly, now this?” But looking a little more closely at the actual gaffe, it’s perhaps more forgivable than claiming to have taken RPG fire in Iraq or mortars in the Falklands. If you were sitting down w/homeless vets, CBS News watching, and a homeless vet looked up at you and said “I was special forces,” how would _you_ sum up a decade jumping out of parachutes for the 82nd Airborne and keep his attention? Maybe “82nd Airborne parachutist, went to Ranger school” doesn’t roll off the tongue at the bread line,

None of the articles about this, on Tues. a.m., have quoted the homeless vet in question. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the only interview that matters here. Maybe “82nd Airborne parachutist, went to Ranger school” doesn’t roll off the tongue at the bread line?

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.)