|Every so often, discussion of the atrocities of the U.S. in its so-called war on terror sparks a debate as to the culpability of the soldiers. Some, fed up with the unprovoked invasions, the "shock and awe" mass bombings, the drone murders, the rape of women and torture of detainees, go after the soldiers with a vengeance, demanding that they account for their crimes against the peoples the United States invades. Others prefer that we focus our blame on the leaders of the U.S. given that they're the ones who initiate the wars, and the ones who give the soldiers their marching orders. As far as they're concerned, there's no point in blaming the soldiers, as they have no power, nor do they determine when, where or whether an invasion takes place. "Criticizing the soldiers" they tell us, "affects nothing in the outcome of the U.S.'s wars."
I often find myself wondering what those who hold such opinions know about the war in Vietnam, and how the Anti-war Movement of that period dealt with the conduct of the soldiers. I was 13 years old in 1968, when the demand in the united states for troop withdrawal from Vietnam had reached such a fevered pitch, the authorities could not control it, even by resorting to repression.
During that period, the massive and militant protests against the war in the U.S. and the determination of the Vietnamese to rid themselves of their invaders, served to erode the soldiers' morale on the ground. The military was being demoralized because fortunately, the Vietnamese were dealing them defeat after defeat, outmatched as they were in the weapons department, and the soldiers were confronting the disgust and rejection their crimes were provoking at home and elsewhere.
Though the defeats and losses the Vietnamese were able to hand their invaders were crucial to that withdrawal, continued support for the soldiers might have lengthened the U.S.'s stay in Vietnam. If the American population would have kept suckling those soldiers, supporting what they did, sending them cookies, telling them that they were not responsible for the whole sale slaughter of the Vietnamese, the war would have lasted longer. The U.S. might have been emboldened to commit even more heinous crimes, such as nuking Vietnam, which they at times considered doing.
What forced the U.S. out of Vietnam were not the letters and calls to congress today's anti war movement seems to think work wonders, but a fight for withdrawal, in Vietnam and at home which gave the war mongers no quarter.
The streets of the major cities of the U.S. became virtual armed camps, as people tried to interfere with the movement of military supplies and other war related business, and the u.s. had to employ more and more security to get their business done. Draft boards were unable to keep writing to potential soldiers to inform them they had been drafted, because anti-war activists were entering those offices and destroying draft cards and records. The ROTC was unable to operate in a lot of schools and college campuses, to the point where they had to be removed from some campuses altogether. Most importantly, the soldiers were made to account in the court of public opinion for the crimes they were committing against the Vietnamese people.
In Vietnam, the U.S. had the better weapons, but the convergence of the Vietnamese people's resistance and the resistance to the war at home made that war unwinnable. Therefore, the soldiers lost morale, and with it, the will to maintain the occupation of Vietnam.
The U.S. left Vietnam, not because they'd managed to subjugate the Vietnamese people, but because the Vietnamese resistance and the militancy against the war at home brought them political and economic costs which were greater than the profits they'd expected from the invasion.
I think the Anti-war Movement of that period understood something which today's Anti-war Movement often fails to recognize: that how one addresses the conduct of the soldiers is crucial in a struggle to end an occupation. That's because the soldiers are the most important cog in the wheel of the war machine. If the soldiers don't fight, don't bomb, don't torture, don't rape, don't brutalize the invaded, the war doesn't get prosecuted, no matter how many marching orders a president issues.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, any second thoughts soldiers might've had about their presence in those countries, or about the legitimacy of their actions, have come not as a result of the Anti-war Movement's work, but as a result of consequences the Afghan and Iraqi Resistance were able to visit on their invaders. The Anti-war Movement was too busy competing with the U.S.government over who supported the troops more.
The invasion of Iraq is the most glaring case in point. Rather than staying at home to interfere with the criminal invasion of that country, representatives of the Anti-war Movement were traveling to Iraq, to try to convince the Iraqis to abstain from fighting their invaders.
While Iraq was overrun by invaders who were torturing and slaughtering its citizens, raping the women, plundering their homes and institutions, desecrating their religious centers, stealing their oil, stealing their oil revenues and handing them out to U.S. corporations in juicy contracts that did nothing for Iraq, members of the Christian Peace Teams for instance, were trying to steer Iraqis away from their resistance. Instead of struggling with their own soldiers to refuse to participate in the slaughter of Iraqis, they were distracting the Iraqis with boycotts and other passive activities that still left them as sitting ducks to the violence of their invaders.
As if that weren't disturbing enough, they were sitting with occupation forces, not to dissuade them from participating in the occupation, but to counsel them on how to avoid the Iraqis' hostility, so as to strengthen their security in the country. They were advising those forces on how to involve Iraqi citizens in the design of the occupation's "justice" system. In short, they were counseling them on how to normalize the occupation, something which only facilitated The American plunder of Iraqi resources, and their ability to remain in the country for as long as they wanted. In this respect, the Christian Peace Teams acted more like missionaries facilitating the occupation of Iraq, than allies of the Iraqis in their struggle against their invaders.
In October of 2004, a group of soldiers in Iraq staged a protest intended to call attention to the unsafe conditions in which they were being made to fight. They claimed they were lacking the necessary equipment to protect themselves against the attacks of the Iraqi Resistance, such as bullet proof vests and other protective gear. In a move to force their government to give them the equipment they wanted, they stayed in their barracks and refused to go out on patrol. Much of the Anti-war Movement hailed the protest as "courageous," anticipating perhaps that it marked the beginning of an anti-war resistance within the military. In all the hoopla no one mentioned the Iraqis. No one seemed to consider that if insufficient protective gear made the war unsafe for those invading U.S. soldiers, for the invaded and unarmed Iraqis experiencing their aggression the war was a hundred times worse. Had the Anti-war movement been less squeamish about offending soldiers, and more aggressive about making them see the wrongness of what they were doing to the Iraqis, the protest might've yielded the results they were hoping for. It might have marked the beginning of a resistance to end the occupation among the troops and the Iraqis, which could have ended the war sooner, and returned to the Iraqis control of their resources. But since supporting the troops became more important than undoing the wrong done to the Iraqis, the protest turned out to be nothing more than another expression of racism and American exceptionalism.
The end result of all this was that no matter what the soldiers did and witness in Iraq and Afghanistan, they were never forced to question the morality of what they were directly participating in; for at home they had support from the people that cheered those criminal wars, as well as from the people that were supposed to oppose them.
There are those who argue that many of the soldiers who participate in the U.S.'s wars are themselves members of oppressed and colonized communities, confronting social and economic disadvantages -- driven by racism and classism -- that make the military option inevitable. That is true. However, the victimization of one people can not justify their passing the bill onto others who had nothing to do with it. Oppression at home can not make war crimes abroad acceptable, and we're the only ones who can drive the point home to those soldiers.
We might feel that denouncing the soldiers' crimes will not be enough to dissuade them from participating in the U.S.'s invasions. We might feel that they'll need more support to keep them from turning to the military option. But we can still support them without colluding with aggression and plunder. Instead of traveling abroad to try to stay the hand of people who have no option but to fight their invaders, we could be raising funds and organizing to line up public and legal support for those who refuse to fight. We could build community-based institutions capable of providing educational and economic alternatives to the military.
The latter is not a pipe dream. In Chicago's Puerto Rican Community, the
Juan Antonio Corretjer cultural center has managed to build, over a span of 41 years, a variety of independent community-based institutions that do precisely that. They have an alternative high school, computer labs which make the youth technologically proficient, gardening projects that are turning into a food retail enterprise, educational programs for single mothers, an Internet radio lab, a center for poets and artists, a Puerto Rican art museum, a housing co-operative, institutions that promote the development of Puerto Rican businesses, and other self-sustaining projects that provide Puerto Rican youth with alternatives to prison or the military. They've even guided the design of university programs that support Puerto Rican and other Latino students who enter the campuses.
All this was started in a borrowed basement space with three classrooms, volunteer teachers and 16 students. The Juan Antonio Corretjer Center may not be able to keep every Puerto Rican out of the army, but they're still laboring to encourage our youth to honor the legacy of our resistance by not participating in the subjugation and oppression of others.
Whether or not we are able or willing to provide such alternatives, the bottom line is that unemployment, lack of access to education, poverty and discrimination, can not continue to be validated as acceptable reasons for engaging in the unprovoked invasion, plunder and slaughter of others.
U.S. citizens who ask not to be blamed for the actions of their government have to do more than wring their hands and say "It's not our fault because we disagree with our government." You must be more aggressive about impressing upon your soldiers the immorality of your government's policies abroad. You must do this, not only because of the wrongness of such slaughter, but because the American economy is fueled by the theft the U.S. perpetrates in other countries. Your cheap electronics, higher wages and comforts come courtesy of that exploitation of resources and labor elsewhere. That makes you direct beneficiaries of that theft. If you do nothing to stop it, you are as culpable as your government.
Those of us who have seen our lands invaded by the U.S. or who have become their internal colonies by way of the slave trade are no less exempt from accounting for our collusion with U.S. war crimes. We often demand solidarity from others for our struggle for independence and national liberation. It's only right that we try harder to keep our people from doing to others what has already been done to us, and that we stop using the "economic draft" as a reason for letting it happen.
Making soldiers accountable is not just about doling out a little payback by making them feel guilty, or furthering the agenda of ending an occupation. It's about Americans applying to themselves the judgments and consequences they're so quick to hand others. During the Nuremberg trials, the Nazis charged with war crimes and other atrocities were told that following orders would not be accepted as a valid reason for excusing their actions and exempting them from the consequences they merited. Americans were among the prosecutors and judges who made that determination -- a determination that many U.S. citizens seem to agree with. Yet when it comes to their soldiers' war crimes and atrocities, we're expected to withhold judgment and stay out of their way. If you behave like the judgments and consequences you issue against others don't apply to you, you can't blame the world for denouncing you as racists and exceptionalists.
If we're serious about staying the hand of the U.S. abroad, we need to make the military option unpalatable and uncomfortable for potential soldiers and those who have already joined. Often that means forcing them to face their own culpability in their government's atrocities abroad. It means imposing a social cost for the crimes they commit. It means that we can not let them slip back into their normal lives, pretend nothing happened, pretend they did nothing, and forget about the people whose lives they destroy. If we can't stop them from joining the military, we can at least be their conscience. If we don't do this, all our letters to congress, choreographed acts of civil disobedience, sit-ins, die-ins and marches won't make the slightest dent in the imperialist war machine.
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