To Serve or Not to Serve?

Being an activist for social justice is not an easy task. You seldom get paid and often lose partners, family, friends or your job when it is discovered that you equate the welfare of others with your own. This somehow makes you a pariah, a target for derision.

So why do it you ask?

I believe that if you see injustice and fail to act, then you are just as guilty as the perpetrators of the injustice. I bring this up now because our nations ‘volunteer’ armed services are being forced, not asked, to continue the perpetration of injustice on the people of Iraq. An injustice all the more because it has nothing to with liberation of people but liberation of natural resources for exploitation. U.S. servicepersons are forbidden to choose whether or not they will facilitate or actively engage in this slaughter of innocent civilians for the interests of the oil barons, I mean national security. They, mostly poor African American, Latino and White enlisted men and women enticed by the promises of education, medical benefits and ‘job’ training, are bound by oath to obey the orders of their arbitrarily appointed superiors and ‘elected’ officials even when those orders result in the commission of war crimes which they and not there chain of command or political masters can be charged with and convicted of. Our refusal to join the world court ensured this. My recruiter never revealed that information to me. To be fair I never asked because I never thought that I could be in such a situation.

Having recently read “Up Against the Brass”, the story of Pvt. Andy Stapp, who founded the American Servicemen’s Union in 1967 to support GI’s in opposition to the war in Vietnam and to fight the hypocrisy of the Military in general, I decided to try and carry on this endeavor in a small way by relaying my own experiences and offering reasons why our men and women in uniform and those pondering enlistment should oppose this war and resist serving in it by all means necessary.

In August of 1999 at the ripe ‘old’ age of 29, I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. Why? The truth is, to this day I really do not know the answer to that loaded question. Maybe I was deluded in to thinking that I was championing the cause of freedom and democracy. Perhaps I felt I was serving my fellow Americans by ensuring their safety. The heroic deeds of General Smedley Butler and many other war ‘heroes’ are methodically drilled into your head during Marine recruit training. Their names and accomplishments are recited by boots while waiting in the endless lines for hair cuts, toiletries, forced vaccinations, urination and chow. This is done to ensure that each and every Marine feels pressure to aspire to greatness in battle and bring honor to their country and themselves.

Sadly, I came across General Butler’s enlightening ‘War is Just A Racket’ speech after being discharged from the Corps. This, the most important of the General’s accomplishments is conveniently left out during ‘indoctrination’ even though it was delivered in 1933!

Being the police protection for big business in the third world is neither honorable nor just. If the rank and file service members knew whom they really represented, I have no doubt that they would refuse to do so. Boot camp is like the first day at a new school with all the fear and anxiety of being alone in a foreign place except in this school the teachers control your every waking moment. You are admonished never to call the drill instructor a drill ‘sergeant’, that’s the nasty Army terminology and Marines are superior to all other branches, or look them in the eye for any reason. You do not speak unless spoken to and in the case that you need to urinate, permission must be requested in the proper military manner. I witnessed more than one boot piss on himself at the position of attention because he failed repeatedly to request permission in the proper military manner. This is truly a proud moment in someone’s life. It doesn’t pay to have a stammer or nervously mix up your words. It also doesn’t ‘behoove’ you to stand to close to a drill instructor. It is made clear to you at the beginning of training that if an instructor feels ‘threatened’ by a recruit he or she may respond with extreme force and violence in ‘self-defense’. Lets say that some kids never heard this because I saw a few black eyes while I was there.

The only words that make the loneliness, the physical torture, the verbal abuse, the humiliation, the gas chamber, the group punishment for individual mistakes, the endless hours of make your bunk, unmake your bunk worthwhile are, “It gets much better at your next duty station”. The School of Infantry, I assume from the word ‘infantile’, was my next duty station.

It does not get any better. When in formation you must stand at attention and keep your eyes straight. One of our Sergeants used to take great pleasure in walking up to a Marine and asking him, “Do you know what my favorite city in Thailand is?” When the Marine, without moving, answered no, the Sergeant would slap him in the genitals and exclaim, “Bangkok!” After a few rounds of this we learned to answer correctly while shielding our groins.

I still am not sure what this sort of ‘training’ was preparing us for. After 3 months of learning how to kill ‘Luke the gook’, ‘Jackie the Iraqi’, and ‘Joe rag head’ with all means available and reciting cadences like ‘Napalm sticks to kids’ and ‘We’re gonna rape, kill, pillage and burn’ while we ran on the streets of the base, I began to really question what the hell I was doing in the Marine Corps. Why were we de-humanizing these people? Does racism make the job of killing them easier? That certainly couldn’t be what this was all about. Could it?

The most sobering experience, even for the hard-core would-be killers in my class, was Urban Combat training. When it was learned that a 30% casualty rate was expected in house to house fighting more than a few of them regretted signing the ‘contract’! Imagine that, at least 3 out 10 GIs will DIE when they invade Iraqi towns and cities. Haven’t were learned from Viet Nam that people will fight furiously to defend their homes? Wouldn’t you?

Another duty station and nothing changed. This time I was enrolled in electronics school at 29 Palms. My career in Infantry had thankfully been scrapped after an injury during Reconnaissance training and due to much pleading on my own behalf to be out of the combat ‘arts’. Who knows, I might have gone on to protect former Unocal Oil spokesman and now President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, from his own brethren. More than likely, I would still be in the brig for refusing to crash wedding parties.

Marine Corps Base 29 Palms is just about the most desolate and bizarre piece of real estate in the country. Located in the high desert outside Palm Springs, it is hard to believe you are not on Mars. Morale here is said to be the lowest of any duty station in the Corps. If my new superiors were any indication, the reason is clear. Every morning before class the platoon would get into formation for inspection. They look at your uniform, your haircut and most importantly, your shave. One of the young Corporals in charge of our class liked to pace up and down the ranks and indiscriminately swat an unsuspecting Marine in the crotch. Non commissioned officers seem to have an affinity for this in the Marine Corps. Was this the secret to defeating your enemy? Why do they fight so hard to exclude homosexuals from military service? I think they have a lot more respect for fellow soldiers than this.

One particular morning stands out in my memory. A few Marines had been found to have, in the class Sergeants opinion, unsatisfactory shaves. Protests and verbal abuse, including threats of bodily harm and death, over the situation caught the attention of our instructors, two Staff Sergeants. One of them produced a pink lady bic shaver and handed it to Corporal ‘slaps your nuts’. Brimming with satisfaction he ordered the offending parties to dry shave right there on the spot. I was pissed. After a few moments one of the instructors ordered them into the head so as not to attract attention. Death threats and sharing a lady’s razor because of poor hygiene? I could see that the only battles we were being trained for were among ourselves. When one human being believes they are above another then they become their own enemy. Needless to say, I vowed then and there to get out any way I could.

I was losing weight. I was unable to eat without severe stomach cramps and diarrhea. I missed almost all of my physical training sessions due to weakness and the frequent visits to the hospital for dehydration. More than once I needed I.V. fluids. Their solution to ‘my’ problem was not the discharge that I sought but the idea that I buck up and get with the program. They even suggested putting me on anti-depressants! I told them under no circumstances was I going to medicate myself in order to put up with this shitty existence. And I certainly wasn’t going to engage in the universal military pastime of drunkenness in order to deal with it.

After seeing a shrink on base it was determined that I was suffering from a ‘personality disorder’ and should be let go. It was the best news I had heard in a long time.

My Master Sergeant, however, was not going to let me go. “My wife has been bi-polar for 22 years. We are all depressed. Get over it.” he shouted. I wasn’t quite sure how his unhappiness with his wife or her illness had anything to do with me.

My memory flashed back to Recon training. I had witnessed three Marines attempt suicide because they felt they had no other way out. They requested discharges and were denied and given orders to fleet combat units. This had so devastated their moral that they traveled to Mexico and bought a large amount of Valium in their desperation. Lucky for them Valium is a poor choice for poisoning. The dose one would have to take is almost impossible to swallow. They were groggy as hell for the first few days and spent at least a week in the psych ward for observation. I won’t forget having overheard one of their instructor’s remark that they should have died because they were pussies. Semper Fidelis!

I can only imagine what the parents of these young men must have gone through. I was just glad that they had survived and would be on there way home in a few short weeks.

In truth I was jealous. I could not bring myself to even think about taking my life. After all, I had so much to live for. But I knew I had to get away from this demoralizing machine.

I decided, after a letter I wrote to my commanding officer failed to get the ball rolling, to go U.A. That’s the Marine Corps version of AWOL.

After five days, in which my mother was pressured and frightened to divulge my whereabouts, I contacted legal counsel and turned myself in.

There are some good people in the Marine Corps. One of them spoke up on my behalf at my adjudication proceeding. My Master Sergeant, on the other hand, advised punishment to the fullest extent allowed. My commanding officer agreed. I received 45 days restriction to barracks and 30 days extra duty to run concurrent. I was also fined half a months pay for two months. More importantly, and as I greatly desired, they were processing me for discharge.

During this period I came into contact with all the ‘mal-contents’ that were in various stages of separation or legal limbo. I found most of them on the whole to be decent, hard working individuals and we all had one thing in common; we were not going to be broken and used to propagate the degradation and cruelty of militarism.

Some take to military life very well. Especially senior NCOs and officers. The enlisted however live in constant anxiety. The pay is low, racism and sexual harassment are rampant and domestic violence is a harsh reality. Fort Bragg has recently come to everyone’s attention because of the number of murder suicides that have taken place there. Vaccinations that are FDA approved for experimentation only are routinely given to U.S. soldiers with the threat of court martial for refusal. Ground troops are in constant danger from ‘friendly fire’ by USAF pilots. These pilots are given amphetamines to increase their stamina for longer missions and downers when they land to allow them to sleep. Could the Canadian unit in Afghanistan have been bombed as a result of this criminally negligent policy?

Times have changed little. Soldiers in Vietnam were given speed to increase there killing efficiency. This gives a new meaning to the ‘War’ on drugs. Not only do troops have to be wary of there own forces but now civilian contractors almost outnumber them on the battlefield. According to a recent report, the Army does not have any idea how many contractors they employ! Many new combat systems are totally dependant on civilian maintenance. What’s more, they are upset because in their words, “You can shoot a soldier when he fails to show up, but you can’t shoot a civilian contractor”.

A soldier is expendable. Remember that. 167,000 veterans of the last war in Iraq are being denied benefits because the government refuses to acknowledge Gulf War Syndrome. They also deny that Depleted Uranium is hazardous. Many U.S. and allied soldiers still pass uranium in there urine! Still others deliver hideously deformed children or watch as seemingly normal ones die of rare cancers. Be all that you can be: Do Not Go To Iraq.

I guess the reason why I joined the Marine Corps was so that I could speak to others on this subject and have them listen. My work, as an activists with A.N.S.W.E.R., Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, and the International Action Center, afforded me the opportunity to be in Washington D.C. on October 26th with the rest of the over 200,000 civilians and veterans of previous wars who came to show their opposition to this unjust military aggression.

Helping to organize this important event will always be one of the greatest achievements of my life. I spoke with veterans from Korea, Vietnam and the first Gulf War. They all had the same thing to say, “No War On Iraq”. To those who are currently enlisted and those thinking about it I say this, Iraq is not a threat to this country. There is no proof that Iraq sponsors terrorism or has any connections to those that do. They are barely able to feed themselves or treat their sick. Why would they provoke even more devastation than has already been visited upon them?

The U.S. government used Saddam while he was capable of ‘punishing’ Iran. Donald Rumsfeld was present in Iraq when the Kurds were being gassed with technology that the U.S. government provided and said nothing! Our ambassador to Iraq told Saddam we would not interfere in Iraq’s conflict with Kuwait. A conflict that was about territorial integrity and the illegal pumping of oil from Iraqi fields.


The first Gulf War reduced Iraq from the most industrialized, educated and progressively secular nation in the Middle East to beggar status. Sanctions and daily bombing for nearly 11 years have killed over a million innocent people without one loss of an American life. Now that Saudi Arabia is becoming more and more non-cooperative with the U.S., the oil companies need to gain access somewhere else. Iraq just happens to possess the second largest oil reserves in the world and by coincidence is a militarily weak and ostracized country.

If they could defend themselves effectively, say like China, then would the U.S. be so bold? The U.S. corporate media thoroughly demonizes Iraq and grossly mis-reports the demonstrations against this war that are taking place in this country and around the world on a daily basis. George Bush is using fear and patriotism to justify the restriction of civil liberties, racial profiling and Imperial aggression on behalf of corporations. Save yourselves.

Don’t become thugs for big business. Instead use your talents to help alleviate the conditions that breed terrorism in the first place. Stand up and be counted among the majority that say, “Money for Jobs, Education, Health care and Housing, not for War!”

SCOTT COSSETTE can be reached at: