About Face Reviewed in Z Mag
by Gerry Condon and Helen Jaccard
They are known as “war resisters,” “GI resisters,” and “conscientious objectors.” That is what their friends and supporters call them. They are called many other names too, like “cowards and traitors.” But who are they really? Why did they join the military in the first place? What changed their minds about going to war?
About Face is a collection of moving personal stories told by the resisters. They were compiled by members of Courage To Resist, the Oakland, California-based collective that has taken the lead in publicizing and supporting the legal and political struggles of today’s military resisters. Sarah Lazare’s introduction and her interview with Noam Chomsky addresses some misconceptions about resistance within the military. “The truth is that GI resistance is happening not despite a so-called all-volunteer force, but because of it. In order to understand this, two false assumptions must be dispelled: the assumption that recruits are not coerced into today’s military and that those who sign up voluntarily cannot change their minds and decide to take a stand against the war.” While each story is unique, there are common threads:
• economic pressures that led them to enlist
• lies of military recruiters
• the brutality of military training
• discovering the truth about war and occupation
• making the decision to resist
• the difficult struggle to survive the consequences of that decision
Samantha Schutz had been “In an inpatient program in my local hospital for deep depression…my recruiter had told me not to put that stuff on the application…. Just the first week, I was experiencing a lot of the same depression I dealt with for about five years solid before I got into the military.” Samantha tried repeatedly to be discharged but ended up in Iraq and subsequently going AWOL, multiple times. She is now discharged but denied all veterans benefits.
Kimberly Rivera experienced extremely aggressive recruiting at her high school. “When they get your rosters from school, they start calling your home; they start setting up their tables again in the lunchroom, continuing to do their spiel on you over and over and over.” After testing, “They gave me three choices of what I could do. So I chose a job, but not knowing that when I chose my job I was actually signing a military contract.” Soon Rivera found herself in Iraq, apart from her husband and two children, and wondering what she was doing there.
Ryan Johnson “wanted to serve my country, but I didn’t want to be taking people’s lives in the process…. I requested a job that would be mostly clerical…. They told me I’d be in a warehouse in the United States ordering parts.” Although they said he would be a supply clerk, he found out he was to be sent to Iraq to man a machine gun on a Humvee. So Johnson went AWOL.
Tim Richard signed up with the National Guard, thinking he would be doing disaster relief. “They had actually promised a lot more money to me when I joined.”
Johnson would not go to Iraq. Kimberly Rivera would not return to Iraq after returning home on leave. Both eventually fled to Canada, where they have applied for political refugee status, a long uphill struggle with no encouragement from Canada’s Conservative government.
Tim Richard’s father was Canadian, so he had an easy time claiming Canadian citizenship for himself. All three soldiers have received support from the War Resisters Support Campaign in Canada, and are working to help some of the estimated 300 U.S. war resisters in Canada.
Robin Long also went AWOL to Canada but he was less fortunate. The Canadian government deported him back to the U.S., where he was court-martialed and sentenced to 15 months in prison.
Starting to See Things Differently
André Shepherd graduated from Kent State University with a degree in computer science. “The problem was, I graduated when the dot-com bubble burst...so I couldn’t get a job.... Mentally, I felt like I not only had let myself down, but I’d let my family down, too, because I had a set goal in life—to complete college, have a house, have a family, and to actually do something that would make the world at least a little bit better place and show my parents that I can live life on my own. And since it didn’t work out that way, it was pretty distressing.”
Shepherd ended up living in his car before running into an Army recruiter. “All I had to do was sign up for a few years and I would have all of these benefits.” Shepherd joined the Army and was trained to maintain Apache helicopters before being sent to Iraq in September 2004.
“When I was in Iraq, the first thing that I noticed was when the local population would come into our post. When you liberate a people, they are usually overjoyed to see you. They’re happy that you want to help them and they welcome you with open arms. When I would see the Iraqi population in the morning on my way to work, they didn’t look like they were in any way happy to see us. They looked like they were either afraid of me—like I was going to hurt them—or if I turned my back without my weapon they would probably want to kill me. So that started me thinking, ‘Okay, what’s going on here because I thought that we were supposed to be the good guys and everybody’s looking at me like I’m crazy.
“So I started to do research...and I started to see little inconsistencies in what I was reading, you know, between what the Bush administration was telling everybody and what was actually happening.... Once I pretty much figured out the truth, that this was basically nothing but a fraud, not only on the American people, but on the entire world, I resolved that I would not go on another deployment to Iraq.”
André Shepherd went AWOL in Germany where he has become a cause celebré as the first U.S. soldier of this era to seek political asylum in Europe. He is now married to a German woman and is back in school studying to be a computer network administrator.
David Cortelyou, from Washington state, was getting nowhere in his search for jobs, so he joined the Army when he was 18 and soon found himself in Iraq. His unit was supposed to protect the Cavalry, but his battalion commander decided that his platoon was too valuable to lose on such a mission. “The cav scouts got mutilated…. I can’t remember how many memorial services I went to where I talked to the guys afterward and they told me about what was going on. Their commander was sending them down ‘black routes,’ which are roads where there is 100 percent chance that you’re going to get hit. Halfway to the objective, they’d have to turn around and come back because they were loaded down with casualties, dead or otherwise.”
Courtelyou continued: “About two months after returning from Iraq I started having nightmares and getting real tense and nervous and anxious about everything.... My platoon was, you know, the John Wayne handbook—tough skinned, gutsy, big burly guys, don’t cry, don’t talk about problems, and all that macho bullshit. So instead of talking to anybody about it, I started burning myself to feel human, because a lot of that shit that happened downrange wasn’t human.” A sergeant who saw the burns on his hands and wrists told Cortelyou, “Hey, man, did you know you can get in trouble for damaging government property?”
“I was pissed. I was furious. For one, I’m already having problems because I got this feeling like I’ve turned into a machine—a machine that can kill without second thoughts, a machine that can look at a dead person and laugh about it. So I’m already having a little bit of identity issues and now I’m told that I’m government property and I’m damaging it? If this is how you’re going to react to a soldier having a problem, I’m done. So I went AWOL . . . .for 29 days and turned myself in.”
Both the mental health specialist and the chaplain were very poor at listening and wanted him to go to the psychiatrist to get pills. “Pills for your insomnia, pills for your anger, your aggressiveness, your anxiousness, whatever . . . .I didn’t feel comfortable with pills because after I came back from Iraq . . . .I had attempted suicide hundreds of times by taking countless amounts of pills . . . and drowning them with bottles of vodka. If I wanted to get addicted to something to drown my sorrows, I could do it without the Army’s consent . . . But I can’t be in the military. It’s not that I don’t want to be, I can’t. I can’t stand being around people in uniform, I can’t stand being in uniform because every day it is a constant, 25-hour, 7-days-a-week reminder of not only what I did, but what I witnessed and kept my mouth shut too.”
He went AWOL again, this time for longer, turned himself in, and was finally discharged in April 2008. David Cortelyou plans to go to college without using the GI bill. He wants nothing to do with the military.
Desertion, Conscience Objection, Resistance
Skyler James joined the Army in 2006 at the strong urging of her family, despite being opposed to the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and despite being an out lesbian. “In basic training, I was being ridiculed for being an out lesbian. I was vaguely familiar with the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy. When I joined I thought that it wouldn’t be that big of a deal and that I wouldn’t get found out. There was one incident that still stings in my mind. I was in AIT (Advanced Infantry Training) and I was coming back from the bowling alley and somebody ran up behind me and screamed out ‘dyke.’ The next thing I know I got punched in the back of the head.... Later, I was receiving hate letters on my door, threatening to injure me and to come into my room at night and kill me. So I had a talk with another soldier who was in the same battalion and we both decided it would be best for us to leave.”
Skyler James contacted the War Resisters Support Campaign. “They were very helpful. If we had not contacted them, we probably would not be where we are right now. I’m allowed to work in this country. I have a job. I have a nice little apartment and so does my friend, and we’re both happy. . . . My sexuality has not been an issue at all in Canada. They have welcomed me with open arms.”
The issue of persecution due to her sexual orientation is being considered by Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board to which Skyler James has applied for refugee status. “In my opinion, my case could go either way. It’s like a pendulum. Like on one side of it, I’m relaxed and I’m enjoying a very comfortable lifestyle. And then on the other side, I could be deported at anytime, and I’m freaked out.”
Bradley Manning and Whistle-blowing
The final few sections of About Face offer some bonus gems, including one about Operation Recovery, a campaign launched by Iraq Veterans Against the War to save soldiers who are already physically or psychologically injured by war from being re-deployed. Another gem is editor Buff Whitman-Bradley’s compelling interview with Vietnam-era whistle-blower Daniel Ellsburg of Pentagon Papers fame, about the alleged Wikileaks whistle-blower, Army PFC Bradley Manning.
Josh Steiber and Ethan McCord, two soldiers who were part of the Collateral Murder operation, published an “Open Letter of Reconciliation and Responsibility to the Iraqi People.” The soldiers’ moving letters, re-published at the end of About Face, conclude: “Please accept our apology, our sorrow, our care, and our dedication to change from the inside out. We are doing what we can to speak out against wars and military policies responsible for what happened to you and your loved ones.”
We highly recommend this book. It is must reading for young people who are being targeted by military recruiters and for all who wish to better understand what led these young men and women to enlist and then to resist.
Gerry Condon & Helen Jaccard, members of Veterans For Peace, support U.S. war resisters who are seeking sanctuary.