Veterans Who Dissent

It’s always worthwhile to read Chris Hedges, whether he’s writing about poverty in America, outrages against our civil liberties, or our dysfunctional romance with war. And I’m especially glad when he gives voice to American soldiers and veterans who raise troubling questions about that romance.

Many of the comments his article received reflect a dual prejudice against veterans who speak out against war—a prejudice that my reporting has shown to be all too common. First, many commentators (including Hedges himself) seem to conclude that no one chooses to serve in the military for its own sake. Instead, they do so because they’re looking for economic opportunities or because they are bedazzled by patriotic fantasies. And second, many commentators (but not Hedges) seem to believe that once soldiers make their Faustian bargain and sign on the dotted line, they aren’t entitled to object to what transpires. 

On the contrary, what these veterans have to tell us is far more complex than we expect or want to believe. They aren’t dupes. They aren’t some rare malcontents, exceptions to a mass jingoistic force plowing forward without complaint. Their reasons for joining are as multifarious, nuanced, and human as their experiences while serving.

When I tell people I’m writing a book about soldiers and veterans who dissent, the reaction is often similar to the comments below Hedges’s piece: those who have voluntarily enlisted in the armed forces aren’t entitled to dissent or to question the American policy they were hired to enforce. I heard that even before our post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,when I staffed the GI Rights Hotline. It wasn’t true then, and it’s not true now. 

Some veterans did, indeed, join for economic opportunity. But most also joined to become part of something bigger than themselves. Each took seriously their branch’s honor code and embraced its values as worth upholding: Honor, Courage, Commitment (Marines/Navy); Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage (Army); Integrity First, Service Before Self, Excellence in All We Do (Air Force). Many I’ve interviewed can recite them, often with as much pride as irony.

When such men and women step away from that role—when they seek discharge or desert, when they leak information or help others doing so —they don’t see themselves as breaking the oath they’d sworn to defend or as betraying the values they were taught to uphold. Often, they act because they see their commanders or political leaders as having violated those values. Whether the wrongs they witness are obvious, like torture at Abu Ghraib, or complicated, like the checkpoint killings described by Perry Jeffries and Geoff Millard, veterans who speak out make an important contribution to our democracy.

Veterans often recite their military branch’s honor code with as much pride as irony.

Such contributions have marked this country’s history from its beginning, when some troops refused to invade Canada in the War of 1812. Soldier-dissenters often diagnose something wrong at the country’s heart and bravely confront it, whether it be genocide (Silas Soule stopping the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864) or racism (World War II veteran Medgar Evers). Having been trained to save their country, they don’t lose the habit easily.

Whether it’s Jessica Goodell in the mortuary, Millard being told “‘If these fucking Hadjis learned to drive, this shit wouldn’t happen,” or Aidan Delgado creating The Sutras of Abu Ghraib, to tell the story of soldier-dissenters is to witness a process of horrible experiences being transmuted into something positive.

In her landmark book Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman calls the process “survivor mission”:

These survivors . . . transform the meaning of their personal tragedy by making it the basis for social action. While there is no way to compensate for an atrocity, there is a way to transcend it, by making it a gift to others.

Think of how Philip Berrigan’s lifelong peace activism followed his joyful participation in the World War II Battle of the Bulge or how Ambrose Bierce shared his grief over the Civil War with a nation, fueling generations of antiwar sentiment—Bierce’s self-destructive end tells us that the transformation doesn’t always save the soldier involved.

It was Vietnam-era dissenters who spurred recognition of the role of combat stress and our contemporary understanding of trauma; some military PX’s carry T-shirts that say “PTSD – DON’T LEAVE IRAQ WITHOUT IT.” Dissenters find their own idiosyncratic ways to bear witness, whether in poetry and song, organizing support networks or, yes, political campaigns.

This generation is working with an arsenal of 21st century tools, from Twitter to YouTube, to lead the public to more sophisticated understandings of trauma. For example, Specialist Wray Harris, a leader in Iraq Veterans Against the War who just published his story, makes a striking connection between the damage caused by the Iraq occupation and the domestic violence he witnessed as a child. The early trauma especially enables him to identify with those rendered powerless by institutional violence, and declares his unwillingness to be a part of it.

Hedges correctly charges that America’s addiction to war is an atrocity. I don’t know whether the veterans he quotes can help us break it, but their dissent is essential to our national dialogue about war.