As the casualty figures climb in Afghanistan and dip in Iraq and support for those wars plummets, the question of troop resistance remains on the table. According to US military estimates, desertion and AWOL rates have climbed since the resistance in Iraq began its armed campaign against the US occupation. In addition, recruitment numbers dropped drastically, although they have began to climb since the economy began its collapse in Fall 2008. Soldiers and Marines have been stop-lossed and their tours of duty in the combat zones were extended. In addition, many troops serve not one, but two or three consecutive tours with as little as one month stateside between tours. All of these phenomena have created increased levels of stress and depression among the troops, leading to one of the highest known suicide rates among veterans and active duty troops ever.
Many readers know at least one man or woman who has done time in Iraq or Afghanistan. Although most vets seem to adjust to civilian life once they are through with their military duty, many others do not. indeed, even those who appear to be adjusting just fine often cause concern among their friends and relatives because of changes in their behavior. The Veteran’s Administration (VA) is notoriously inept and callous in its treatment of vets, despite the best efforts of some individuals within the organization that struggle against the overwhelming bureaucratic odds and inadequate funding endemic in the agency. Newspapers run stories regularly about veterans lacking care, lashing out at family members or others, and most tragically of all, killing themselves. Yet, the Pentagon continues to push for an escalation of the war in Afghanistan while carrying on what appears to be a heated debate over whether or not to withdraw from Iraq.
Meanwhile, the US antiwar movement founders in the wake of a substantial part of its membership giving their collective soul to the Democratic Party. Since November 2008, it’s as if the bloodshed perpetrated by US policy in Iraq and Afghanistan is okay because Barack Obama is leading the charge instead of George Bush. Besides the National Assembly’s call for local and regional protests against the Iraq occupation and Afghan war in October, there has been barely a peep from other national antiwar organizations. This is despite the fact that Congress and Obama have approved several more billion dollars for the wars and the size of the US force in Afghanistan has nearly doubled while the promised withdrawal of US forces in Iraq has not even begun.
It is the opinion of many antiwarriors that veterans have a key role to play in any organized resistance. After all, it was their presence in the movement against the Vietnam war that shook the conscience of the US public in that war’s later years. However, as Dahr Jamail and his subjects point out again and again in The Will to Resist, the strength in numbers and the political power of the GI movement against the war in Vietnam was directly related to the strength of the greater antiwar movement. So, despite the commitment of today’s GI and veteran resisters profiled in Jamail’s book, that commitment is limited by the weakness of the antiwar movement as a whole.
Jamail highlights the various organizations organizing GI resistance, from the Iraq Veterans Against the War to the group Courage to Resist. He also commits a chapter to theach of the primary forms of resistance and reasons for that resistance. He describes instances of individual resistance and the refusal of entire units to carry out missions. He also explores the nature of the sexist culture of the military and the immorality of the wars themselves. One of the most interesting chapters in The Will to Resist is titled “Quarters of Resistance.” It describes the mission and interior of a house in Washington, DC run by a couple veterans. The purpose of the house is to operate as a sort of clearinghouse for the GI resistance movement. At times, the house has provided shelter for veterans and GIs attending antiwar activities in DC. It is also a place that the founder of the house, Geoffrey Millard, calls a “training ground for resistance.” In addition to these quarters, Jamail discusses the beginnings of a coffeehouse movement slowly developing outside major US military bases.
Jamal’s book is also about his learning to understand and appreciate the humanity of the US soldier. Originally inclined to consider them all killers without conscience, his conversations and other interactions with the young men and women who have gone to Iraq and Afghanistan to kill in America’s name have led him to understand that many of these folks struggle with their souls on a daily basis. With this growing understanding of folks who are essentially his contemporaries, The Will to Resist becomes more than just another collective biography of troops who discover their conscience under the duress of war.
If the current commander of US troops in Afghanistan has his way, there will be more than 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan by the end of the summer in 2010. Already, Barack Obama has approved adding 20,000 more active duty troops to the 1,473,900 already on duty. Without public protest, the escalation of the war in Afghanistan is certain to continue. In addition, General Odierno in Iraq insists that US troops remain in that country, as well. Furthermore, the likelihood of combat against other foes chosen by Washington increases. Resistance is never easy, as the men and women in The Will to Resist can tell us. However, if the people who poured into the streets to protest Bush’s war are truly opposed to war, then they should also make an appearance in those same streets now that the war is Obama’s.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org