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The Duty of Dissent

October 11, 2009

They teach a lot of things at the US Military Academy at West Point, but one thing they don’t teach is the honorable duty of dissent, a vital element in a democracy. I was reminded of that while reading a new book about the latest crop of veterans protesting military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. A long time ago, I resigned from West Point and joined the campaign for ending the war in Vietnam, where I learned more about democracy as an activist than I ever did as a soldier.

“I have been impressed by the courage and inspired by the persistence of these veterans,” journalist Dahr Jamail writes in "The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan" (Haymarket Books, 2009). The contrast he makes between fed-up soldiers who became activists and others who die in despair is startling.

Jamail’s probing into causes for the steep rise in suicides among soldiers and recent veterans sparked this thought: The best way to prevent suicides in the military and at home after a war tour might be quite simple—encourage and enable soldiers to speak out about their concerns and get a responsive hearing.

Testifying last year before an ad hoc Congressional committee convened to put on the public record war criticisms by members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, former Army Captain Luis Carlos Montalvan said he wanted to register not only his own concerns from two tours in Iraq, but also call attention to a particularly chilling death in the war. That was the June 2005 death of Army Colonel Theodore Westhusing, who officials said shot himself shortly before his tour in Iraq was to end, leaving a bitter suicide note addressed to his commanding generals.

“I cannot support a msn [mission] that leads to corruption, human right abuses and liars. I am sullied -- no more,” Westhusing, who was 44 and due to return to teaching at West Point, wrote. “I didn't volunteer to support corrupt, money grubbing contractors, nor work for commanders only interested in themselves. I came to serve honorably and feel dishonored.” Westhusing’s wife told Army investigators, according to an extensive report in The Texas Observer, that he’d conveyed similar concerns to her. “I think Ted gave his life to let everyone know what was going on,” she said.

The Texas Observer plumbed this tragic story in a March 2007 feature article. “The disillusion that killed Ted Westhusing is part of the invoice that America will be paying long after the United States pulls its last troops out of Iraq,” wrote reporter Robert Bryce. “Some 846 American soldiers died in Iraq in 2005. Of those, 22 were suicides. Westhusing’s suicide, like nearly every other, leaves the survivors asking the same questions: Why? And what was it that drove the deceased to such despair? In Westhusing’s case, the answers go far beyond his personal struggles and straight to the heart of America’s goals in Iraq.”

A lot of other soldiers have sent a similarly anguished message, as they’ve been committing suicide in record numbers. How to stop an epidemic of soldiers killing themselves in greater numbers than are dying on battlefields has baffled military leaders.

Yet there is an alternative way of handling disillusionment and despair. The alternative is the action that Captain Montalvan and other veterans have undertaken—to speak out in public about military experiences that haunt them. That’s the focus of Jamail’s book, which profiles a variety of outspoken soldiers.

One of those profiled in "The Will to Resist" and in "Rules of Disengagement: The Politics and Honor of Military Dissent" (PoliPoint Press, 2009), is Camilo Mejia, a former National Guard staff sergeant who refused to return to Iraq a second time and served nine months in prison. Mejia did his time, wrote a memoir and hit the lecture circuit, crisscrossing the country as a leader of Iraq Veterans Against the War. Mejia’s lawyer as he faced a court-martial to challenge the legality and conduct of the war in Iraq was Louis Font, a West Pointer who refused to serve in Vietnam.

Perhaps Col. Westhusing and many others might still be alive, if West Point—and indeed, the entire US military—provided a civics course in Military Dissent, with case studies of officers and soldiers who spoke out about troubling military actions. Such a course could start off with a discussion sparked by this quote: "Here in America we are descended in blood and in spirit from revolutionists and rebels - men and women who dare to dissent from accepted doctrine. As their heirs, may we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion." (Dwight D. Eisenhower, West Point grad, in a speech in 1954 as president of the United States.) It could survey any number of current military critics, including members of West Point Graduates Against the War, Veterans for Peace and the star-studded list of generals who protested Bush administration’s policies that violated the Geneva Conventions and other international prohibitions against torture of prisoners.

"Rules of Disengagement," by National Lawyers Guild activists Marjorie Cohn and Kathleen Gilberd, offers a handbook on dissent against a variety of military practices and policies. “Service members who fought in Vietnam, and recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, have challenged not only the rules under which they operated but also the very propriety of American engagement in those wars,” they write. “We offer service members practical guidelines for dissent and disengagement, from political protest to requesting discharge from the service.”

In whatever forum or format, speaking out can be vital for a soldier in anguish, as well as for the public to understand what’s going on that’s so upsetting to many military veterans. “Kids grow up wanting to be GI Joe and save lives. But military policy is dictating that people do terrible things, things that violate their conscience, and then have the psychological burden of carrying that around, because the military says you can’t talk about it. Soldiers live with it and die with it,” Perry O’Brien, an Afghanistan vet, said of why he helped organize the “Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan” hearings at the National Labor College in Maryland last year.

“It’s not going to be easy to hear what we have to say,” Kelly Dougherty, a former National Guard sergeant who served in Iraq, said at the Winter Soldier hearings, as recounted in "Rules of Disengagement." “It’s not going to be easy for us to tell it. But we believe that the only way this war is going to end is if the American people truly understand what we have done in their name.”

For more information:
http://ivaw.org/publicdocuments/Transcript_WS_on_the_Hill.txt
http://www.texasobserver.org/article.php?aid=2440
http://www.westpointgradsagainstthewar.org/index.htm

Selected Works

Poetry
A tonic spray of poetry, verses that a Vietnam war veteran lives by.
Prose
A pragmatic, common-sense handbook for civic action at the community and international levels.