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Prosecution or Persecution?

Punishing Deserters

by ROBERT FANTINA

Lance Corporal Ivan Brobeck, Sergeant Ricky Clousing, Sergeant Kevin Benderman, Sergeant Camilo Mejia: each a veteran of the Iraq war, and each charged with desertion. Mr. Benderman, Mr. Mejia and Mr. Clousing were convicted, sentenced and have completed prison time. Mr. Brobeck is currently serving an 8-month sentence. Yet with government studies indicating that thousands of soldiers have deserted during the Iraq war, why are only a few charged, while so many others are basically ignored?
This is not a new phenomenon. As communication has improved over the two centuries of America’s life, the ability for war resisters to reach a wider audience has greatly increased. The four brave men listed above demonstrated their courage first on the battlefield. They then not only further showed their bravery by leaving the U.S. military–a tremendously brave act in and of itself–they went the additional step of speaking out publicly against the war. This, it seems, is what brought down the wrath of the U.S. government upon them.

One of the cherished precepts of the U.S. Constitution is freedom of speech, and it is one of the precious privileges that soldiers risk their lives to protect. Yet it is a freedom they surrender upon entering the military system of the United States. It is more than a little ironic–an irony lost on military and government leaders–that such a basic right is not granted to those who risk their lives for it. But the experiences of so many war resisters–men and women who desert the U.S. military–provide ample evidence of its truthfulness. This deprivation of basic civil rights within the military is not new.

During World War II approximately 12,000 men were classified as conscientious objectors, and they served in some other capacity, often through Civilian Public Service (CPS). However, a small number of conscientious objectors refused to participate in the war in any way. Their refusal was based on a variety of reasons. Said one:

"I was influenced by my exposure to the lies and failures of World War I and the examples of persons who fought in that war or went to prison for resisting it. A second influence included my visits to Nazi Germany in 1936 and 1937 when I was anti-Nazi and the US government, banks and major corporations were supporting Hitler."

Harvard graduate and conscientious objector Charles Butcher alleged that the CPS was operated by the military rather than under civilian control as provided by law; therefore his participation would have been military related. After his arrest he was placed in leg irons.

These men, like so many today, took a principled stand against the war, spoke out publicly and paid the price. One reported that during his imprisonment, he was confined to ‘the hole.’ This was a bare cell, with a floor drain for a toilet, no furniture and no reading material. Each evening he was given a blanket, which was taken away the following morning.

In this war there were an estimated 20,000 deserters, most of whom received no greater punishment than a dishonorable discharge. Yet for men who refused on principle to participate in the war, and spoke publicly against it, leg irons and deprivation in a prison cell were the consequences. Many of them were even denied conscientious objector status, futher eroding their rights.

During the Gulf War, Marine Eric Larsen deserted and requested conscientious objector status. His request was rejected by five levels of command. Said Mr. Larsen: "Each recommendation reflected the same opinion that I was too political." Somehow, it seems, the government dismisses the conscientious objection to war that a soldier with political opinions holds.

Another soldier who deserted during the Gulf War was Captain Yolanda Huet-Vaughn, a physician. Capt. Huet-Vaughn claimed a legal right and duty to refuse participation in a war where war crimes could be reasonably anticipated. This was based on evidence showing the American bombing of hospitals, schools and residential buildings. Capt. Huet-Vaughn, as a physician, would also be expected to inject soldiers with experimental vaccines without their consent, in violation of the Nuremberg Code. While these objections may or may not have been sufficient to warrant court-martial, Capt. Huet-Vaughn also spoke out publicly against the war. Like Mr. Larsen and many others before and since, Capt. Huet-Vaughn was court-martialed.

This persecution of those in uniform who exercise their right to free speech includes soldiers of all ranks. In 1966, as the Vietnam War dragged on, retired Admiral Arnold True, an outspoken opponent of the war, was summoned to the office of Rear Admiral John E. Clark, commandant of the Twelfth Navel District in San Francisco. Mr. True was told that if he continued to speak out against the Administration’s Vietnam policies, "the next interview might not be pleasant." Despite the obvious threat–Mr. True interpreted it to mean possible court-martial–he continued to speak out publicly and forcefully. Deputy Defense Secretary Cyrus R. Vance is credited with intervening to prevent any further ‘unpleasantness’ for Mr. True.

Refusing a second tour of duty, Mr. Brobeck said this: "I was not willing to go back and fight a war that I did not believe was right, and I didn’t want to put myself in a situation where I would possibly kill an innocent civilian." It must be remembered that he had been there; he’d seen first hand the war in Iraq. However, statements such as his are seen as inflammatory by the military. Said Erik Larsen:

"Any time you put something in writing talking about your objections to war or militarism, it’s a threat to the Marine Corps. It’s a threat to people who make a career out of killing, waging war."

Mr. Larsen wrote this in 1991; it appears that the same mentality exists today.

As the U.S. continues to embark on imperial adventures, and to trample the rights not only of foreign peoples but its own citizens as well, more and more soldiers will say ‘enough.’ Their courage in speaking out and exposing the harsh realities of imperial wars will be a major factor in preventing them.
ROBERT FANTINA is author of ‘Desertion and the American Soldier: 1776 – 2006.