Each Sunday morning, Veterans for Peace place crosses at Arlington West on the Santa Monica beach in remembrance of U.S. war dead in Iraq now 1,150 and counting. It is a deeply moving memorial. As one Vietnam veteran stated, “No matter what one’s political beliefs no one can deny the need to honor those who have lost their lives.”
Santa Monica’s memorial is not a nationalist remembrance of “our” dead, as witnessed by a statement acknowledging the Iraqis who have been killed thus far in the conflict more than 100,000 according to a recent British report. This loss of life, however, is dramatically less than the estimated one million Iraqis who have died as a result of the U.S.-led U.N. sanctions enacted in 1990, supported by both major parties and Presidents Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II. In the desire to oppose this conflict and the Bush regime, we may forget that far more people died in Iraq under the Clinton administration from those cruel sanctions than from the current invasion and occupation and the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
Santa Monica’s memorial takes me back to July 26, 1969, when I an antiwar activist stood with others as my Vietnam veteran brother presented an American flag “on behalf of a grateful nation” to the mother of his best friend who was killed in the war. My brother had escorted his friend’s body home from Vietnam to Rochester, New York. The mother and her daughters are part of my extended family; therefore, the dilemma of supporting the troops is not simply an intellectual exercise.
I remain deeply conflicted by a “support” view, however, that avoids confronting the cause in which they fight and die, such as the unnecessary and unjust war that at the moment has left Fallujah in ruins with thousands dead and hospitals and mosques destroyed. What are we to think about U.S. soldiers who fought in other wars, e.g., the genocidal campaign against American Indians? How would we support those who served with General Sullivan in 1779 as the Revolutionary War leader attacked the Cayuga Nation in a scorched earth campaign that left crops and villages burned and thousands dead? What about U.S. troops in 1890 that took part in the last massacre of original Americans at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, where hundreds of Lakota men, women and children were killed? Historian David Stannard tells us “the survivors were tracked down for miles around and summarily executed. Women and children accounted for more than two-thirds of the Indian dead” (American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World, p. 126).
In the 1960s and ’70s, what did it mean to support the troops in a war that left some 2.3 million dead, 3.2 million wounded, and 14.3 million refugees throughout Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos? What about U.S. aggression in Central America, the Caribbean and Southern Africa? In these and other U.S. wars, did support for the troops help “justify” the policies of powerful Washington elites who are the ultimate war criminals in these unnecessary human tragedies?
How do we support U.S. soldiers who execute policies condemned by the Nuremberg Tribunal in language that clearly places individual responsibility above merely following immoral and illegal orders? Troops who reject illegal orders are harshly punished by authorities, however, as we see from the handful of decorous soldiers being court-martialed for refusing to kill in Iraq and the thousands who resisted during the Vietnam War. If we take the Nuremberg code to heart, however, should not the courageous soldiers who refuse unjust orders be the ones we support?
If the war against Iraq is an atrocity, how do we support the Marine Corporal, one of a group of US snipers that killed hundreds of Iraqis in Falluga, who coldly stated: “Sometimes a guy will go down, and I’ll let him scream a bit to destroy the morale of his buddies then I’ll use a second shot.” With 24 “confirmed kills” to his credit, this Marine concluded: “I couldn’t have asked to be in a better place. I just got lucky: to be here at the right time and with the right training” (Los Angeles Times, 4/19/04). “Supporting the troops” is not some abstract slogan but a belief that must confront the actions of the Marine quoted above and others who stated: “We had a great day today. We killed a lot of people”; “The Iraqis are sick people and we are the chemotherapy.”
It means supporting thousands who appear to embrace this mission as well as the antiwar veterans and their families in the Bring Them Home Now movement that oppose the conflict and are organizing against it.
In the words of writer Arundhati Roy, this mission “will surely go down in history as one of the most cowardly wars. in which a band of rich nations, armed with enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world several times over, rounded on a poor nation, falsely accused it of having nuclear weapons, used the United Nations to force it to disarm, then invaded it, occupied it and are now in the process of selling it” (“Sydney Morning Herald,” 11/4/04).
Millions in the U.S. who oppose this war nonetheless claim to support those who carry out the terror it necessarily entails. Such a position appears to rest on the principle that U.S. soldiers’ lives are more precious than Iraqis’ a view that cannot be defended on any philosophical or religious grounds. We must acknowledge that these soldiers have not truly made a free choice given the class nature of our economic draft, and the Marine quoted above and others like him are trained to become uncritical warriors. However, it appears that most in Iraq are executing their orders faithfully rather than refusing those that violate U.S. and international law. Conscience and law, therefore, obligate us to oppose both the war and the warriors who embrace it, to see the conflict for what it truly is: a crime against humanity.
JOHN MARCIANO is Professor Emeritus at SUNY Cortland and co-author of Teaching the Vietnam War. He lives in Santa Monica.