Historians Against the War (HAW)

Electronic Newsletter No. 2, March 2005



HAW News

       Rusti Eisenberg, HAW Opposes New Funding for Iraq War

Steering Committee, Updated HAW Statement 

Margaret Power, HAW Elects New Steering Committee

       Carl Mirra, God and War at Yale

Reports from the Field 

Van Gosse, HAW at United for Peace and Justice, Second Assembly

          Marvin Gettleman, Anti-War Education

          Marc Becker, World Social Forum


          Marilyn Young, “Teaching the Vietnam War in a Time of War

          Anna Kasten Nelson, “Collateral Damage to Historical Research from the ‘War on Terrorism’”

          Staughton Lynd, “The New Conscientious Objectors


The Newsletter is intended to provide members with updates on HAW activities, reports on the movement against war and empire, and thought-provoking historical analysis of current events.  Members are invited to contribute current news items on HAW activities by submitting notes to news@historiansagainstwar.org.  In addition, you can contact HAW at http://www.historiansagainstwar.org/contact.html.  Op-eds and other pieces for the Newsletter should be sent to jim.obrien@umb.edu.  This issue was edited by Alan Dawley.






[ This issue of the newsletter appears on the heels of protests in the United States and around the world marking the second anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq.  Despite discouragement over failure to end the US occupation, the need for an organization like HAW is as great as ever.  In fact, HAW has taken on new energy in recent months as reflected in the reports below. ]



HAW Opposes New Funding for Iraq War

by Carolyn Eisenberg


Historians Against the War is urging its members to strongly and quickly register opposition to the $82 billion Supplemental sought by the White House.  Most of the expenditures specified in the bill are for the continued war and occupation of Iraq.


In the aftermath of his re-election, it is apparent that the President has no intention of leaving Iraq under any conditions.  Peace organizations across the country are mobilizing to build opposition in Congress.  The goal is to make it increasingly difficult for the Bush Administration to gain the funding that it needs.


Many legislative leaders are now fearful of voting against new appropriations, fearing that they will be seen as undermining the troops.  United for Peace and Justice, of which HAW is a member, is working closely with Military Families Speak Out and Iraq Veterans Against the War to convey the message that the best way to support the troops is to bring them home!


The immediate goal is to get largest number of Senators to vote “No” on the Supplemental and to support amendments calling for an American exit strategy.  Because the House has already passed the bill, all efforts are focused on the Senate, which is expected to vote sometime in April.


Historians can contribute to this effort by phoning, faxing or e-mailing your senator, setting up a meeting with the Senator or a staff member, writing for the local press, and participating in protests outside Senatorial offices.


For the future, Historians Against War is forming a Legislative Action Network so that we can respond more rapidly to emerging issues.  If you wish to participate, contact Carolyn (Rusti) Eisenberg at hiscze@aol.com or Van Gosse at van.gosse@fandm.edu.




Updated HAW Statement

HAW Steering Committee

Adopted early February 2005


When alarms about weapons of mass destruction proved to be hollow fabrications, the Bush Administration resorted to claims about democracy and freedom to justify its occupation of Iraq.  But freedom is won in revolt against empire, not in accepting foreign domination.  As a throwback to colonialism, the U.S. occupation may very well go the way of other failed empires—Ottoman, British, French—but in the meantime, it is causing great harm.  It has led to shameful acts of prisoner abuse, severely damaged America’s moral reputation, transferred Iraqi resources to foreign corporations, made the Middle East more dangerous, and increased the threat of global terrorism.  Moreover, it has provided an excuse for subverting cherished democratic freedoms and for shifting ever more resources from human needs to the already bloated military-industrial complex in the United States.


We believe the unconditional withdrawal of foreign occupying forces is the precondition for peace and reconstruction in the Middle East and a step toward redressing the imbalance of military and civilian power in the United States.  Therefore...


We call upon the United States government to immediately cease all military operations in Iraq, begin the prompt withdrawal of all U.S. troops, and allow Iraqis to develop their own security arrangements free from foreign coercion.  In addition, we call upon the United States to abandon plans for new military bases, forgo special privileges for foreign corporations, cease its threats to Iran, Syria, and others in the region, and otherwise begin to dismantle the infrastructures of empire.




HAW Elects New Steering Committee


A new Steering Committee was elected at the January AHA meeting in Seattle.  The new Committee is larger, more geographically diverse, and includes more women and high school teachers.  As a result, it’s more reflective of social reality and will enable us to expand our work.  Following is a list of the new Steering Committee.


Ben Alpers, University of Oklahoma;

David Applebaum, Rowan University, Glassboro, NJ;

Marc Becker, Truman State University;

Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, St. Scholastica Academy, Chicago, IL;

Ron Briley, Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque NM;

John Cox, Univ. of North Carolina-Chapel Hill;

Alan Dawley, The College of New Jersey;

Carolyn “Rusti” Eisenberg, Hofstra University;

Rosemary Feurer; Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL;

Jerise Fogel, Marshall University, Huntington, WV;

Marv Gettleman, Brooklyn Polytechnic University, Emeritus, New York City;

Van Gosse, Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, PA;

Nicole Kief, Open Society Institute, New York City;

Staughton Lynd, Worker’s Solidarity Club of Youngstown;

David Montgomery, Yale University, Emeritus, New Haven, CT;

Carl Mirra, SUNY College at Old Westbury;

Jim O’Brien, College of Public and Community Service, U.of Mass., Boston;

Enrique Ochoa, Cal State, Los Angeles;

Margaret Power, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, IL;

Andor Skotnes, The Sage Colleges;

Kathryn (Kathy) Sukites, American University, Washington DC




God and War at Yale

by Carl Mirra


A distinguished panel of Yale alumni will discuss the legacy of anti-war resistance at Yale, a legacy that is of pivotal importance in our turbulent times.  Panelists include Staughton Lynd, Warren Goldstein (who will read a statement prepared by William Sloane Coffin and place it in context), David Mitchell (served 2 years for draft resistance on the grounds that the US violated the Nuremberg principles in Vietnam), Michael Ferber (1960s anti-war activist who was part of the Boston Five trial).  Yale chaplain Frederick Streets will chair the panel.  Co-sponsors include Reclaiming the Prophetic Voice, Yale Alumni for Social Justice, and the Yale Peace Coalition.  Date: April 28, 2005/11am-3pm.  Location: Battell Chapel, Yale University.







HAW at United For Peace and Justice, Second Assembly

by Van Gosse


Historians Against the War was well-represented at the Second National Assembly of United for Peace and Justice in St. Louis, February 19-21, 2005.  Co-Chair Margaret Power (Illinois Institute of Technology) and Steering Committee member Marvin Gettleman (Brooklyn Polytechnic, emeritus) were our voting delegates, while SC members Rusti Eisenberg and Van Gosse were also present and very active (Gosse served as chair of the Assembly Planning Committee, and was re-elected to the UFPJ Steering Committee, representing HAW).  Our presence was even noted in The Nation’s on-line report, as evidence of how broad UFPJ has become.


HAW supported UFPJ’s new Strategic Framework, which focuses on ending the occupation of Iraq as the linchpin of a larger strategy to oppose the doctrine of pre-emptive war and a militarized society.  We were struck by the diversity of this vast grassroots meeting, with people from 38 states, though noting the insufficient numbers of people of color and youth.  HAW was notably the only organization present that networks among progressive academics—a surprising lack, given how many antiwar activists there are in disciplines besides history.


For detailed reports on the decisions voted at the Assembly, go to http://www.unitedforpeace.org/article.php?id=2675




Anti-War Education

by Marvin Gettleman


I. Anti-War Education at the United for Peace and Justice Assembly, St Louis, Feb 19-21, 2005


After the Strategic Framework (see report by Van Gosse above) was overwhelming endorsed, I went to the mini-plenary labeled “Iraq: Education.”  There, several proposals were presented, none by HAW.  The leading proposal originated jointly by the Institute for Policy Studies and by Global Exchange called for a “Grassroots Education Campaign: Building and Connecting with New Allies and Constituencies to Bring the Troops Home.”  Invoking the “fantastic media hook” provided by the 40th anniversary of the 1965 Univ. of Michigan anti-Vietnam War teach-in, the IPS-GE proposed a March 24, 2005 (!!!) New York City teach-in, to be organized by UFPJ.  Clearly favored by the facilitators of the mini-plenary, this proposal got merged with two other proposals made during this mini-plenary, a UFPJ proposal “Say No to Empire: End Occupation; End Corporate Globalization” and a Los Angeles proposal for “Peace Caravan and Community Outreach” that emphasized “simple messages” and “talking points.”


There was no opportunity at the mini-plenary to critique these proposals, which, endorsed, went up to the main Level #1 plenary on Sunday.  I spoke for the proposal, despite its dumbing-down pedagogy, despite its total neglect of a historical perspective, and despite the lack of any attempt to examine the Vietnam War-era teach-in movement (on which, see M. Gettleman, VIETNAM [1965], pp. 389-409) to see what we can learn from it 40 years later.  As a participant in this movement, I remember the eagerness to find out how the U.S. got involved in Vietnam—the main historical question requiring some knowledge of East Asian history.  Current anti-war education should have—and, given the complexity of Middle Eastern history, must have—a component that explains how that region became a main target of western, and then American domination.  I expressed the hope that UFPJ would make use of its affiliate Historians Against the War in carrying out this proposal, which won enthusiastic support from the plenary.



II. Educators to Stop the War, East Coast Regional Conference, Hunter College High School, New York City, March 3, 2005


The sessions on anti-war pedagogy and the battle against military recruitment were informative and valuable.  Elementary and secondary school teachers seem to have a far more sophisticated understanding than instructors of college-age students and adults on how to transmit pacific and non-warlike values.  Far too many on our side seem to believe that vehement expression of forceful opinions alone will bring recalcitrant folk around to our wisdom.  Ah, if were only that easy….


Any HAW member may request a copy of the program of the Hunter High School conference by sending a SASE to Marv Gettleman, 771 West End Ave., New York, NY 10025.


P.S.  David Applebaum, a member of steering committee of Educators to Stop the War, reports that some 750 people attended and laid plans for a “day of action” on April 20th.




World Social Forum

by Marc Becker


Over the past five years, the World Social Forum (WSF) has quickly grown into the world’s largest gathering of civil society.  With the twin themes of challenging corporate-led globalization and opposing Bush’s wars of imperialist aggression, 155,000 people gathered in Porto Alegre, Brazil at the end of January to debate alternatives and to present proposals to create another world.


A series of panels on “Breaking Down the Ivory Tower” examined the role of universities in supporting civil society, democratizing knowledge, and opposing neoliberalism on campus.  Participants created a transnational network of scholars and activists to promote collaborative actions that challenge militarism and economic exploitation.


At another meeting, activists gathered to share their experiences with organizing social forums in North America.  Bringing a model of mobilizing civil society against war and neoliberalism from the south to the heart of the empire, one participant observed, is a fundamentally subversive and profoundly radical activity.  Plans are in process to hold a United States Social Forum during the summer of 2006.


These initiatives open up a potential for collaborative work with other scholar-activists in the United States as well as around the world.






Teaching the Vietnam War in a Time of War

Marilyn B. Young, New York University


If you happen to be teaching a course on the Vietnam War and you happen to read the newspapers regularly, opportunities to connect the past to the present without undue risk of presentist violations abound.  You can, for example, lead a class through a close examination of the analogies in constant play in the press.  A recent dispatch by John Burns channeled Vietnam movies and the war dispatches of that era’s newspaper greats.  All that was missing, somehow, was Iraq.  The story bore the headline:  “Shadow of Vietnam Falls Over Iraq River Raids.”  As the Marines moved upriver (the Euphrates, not the Mekong) in Surcs (Small Unit Riverine Craft, rather than the Swift boats the enemies of John Kerry made famous), Burns wrote, “there were snatches of dialogue from “Apocalypse Now.”  One marine described the landscape as “a Vietnam theme park.”  The layers of connection and disconnection are striking:  the Marines in Iraq talk to each other in the language of a Vietnam movie made before they were born (1979).  One of them sees the country he is really in, Iraq, not so much as Vietnam (a place he has anyhow never seen) but as a theme park—a Vietnam theme park.  That is to say, he apprehends—or rather fails to apprehend—his own reality through the representation of a reality he has never experienced.  What he knows, his world, is to some degree comprised of video games, movies and reality TV shows—neither history nor the present.  Of course, at any minute he can die from encountering a world he cannot grasp—and at any moment, in that world, he is prepared to kill, does kill, for real.


The most common analogy made between Vietnam and Iraq is topographic:  Vietnam was/Iraq is, a quagmire.  At a press conference in the summer of 2003, Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld had a hard time with the word.  He had opened with an analogy of his own, comparing the growing insurgency in Iraq to, of all things, the situation in the US immediately after the American Revolution.  “There was rampant inflation and no stable currency.  Discontent led to uprisings, such as Shays Rebellion, with mobs attacking courthouses and government buildings… “  He added that the “transition to democracy is never easy” and seemed unaware or indifferent to the logic of his analogy which left American troops in Iraq in a rather anomalous situation.  A reporter wanted to know whether the Iraqi resistance could be called a guerrilla war and whether the US might not have landed itself in a quagmire.  Rumsfeld flatly replied that it was not a guerrilla war.  As for “Quagmire.  We have had several quagmires that weren’t thus far… Why don’t I think it is one? Well, I opened my remarks today about the United States of America.  Were we in a quagmire for eight years?  I would think not.  We were in a process.  We were … evolving from a monarchy into a democracy.  If you want to call that a quagmire, do it.  I don’t.”  So there.


The locus classicus of the term “quagmire” seems to have been David Halberstam’s 1964 book, The Making of a Quagmire and what he took quagmire to mean was that the U.S. was somehow caught in situation not of its own making, a swamp that was dragging it down to destruction and from which it could not seem to extricate itself.  In his book, The End of Victory Culture, Tom Engelhardt reflected on how the word functioned in the Vietnam war.  “For Americans,” Engelhardt wrote, “the benefit of the word quagmire was that it ruled out the possibility that the U.S. had committed acts of planned aggression.  The image turned Vietnam into the aggressor….”  If Vietnam was a quagmire; if Iraq is a quagmire, then Americans, not Vietnamese or Iraqis, are the victims of war. 


A subset of the quagmire analogy is the notion that, however terrible the situation, the U.S. cannot leave.  In the case of Vietnam, the prediction was that the departure of US troops would lead to a bloodbath.  In Iraq the language is no less sanguine.  Politicians and journalists insist the US must remain to set things right.  Having broken Iraq, as Secretary of State Powell famously warned, the US has now bought it.  A class on Vietnam must examine closely exactly what the bloodbath argument entailed, its logic, its relation to the military and political situation at the time.  As for Iraq, I think the British reporter Simon Jenkins put it best:  “No statement about Iraq is more absurd than that ‘we must stay to finish the job.’  What job?  A dozen more Fallujahs?  The thesis that leaving Iraq would plunge it into anarchy and warlordism defies the facts on the ground.”


Along with analogies, there has been a wholesale reappearance of what one could call Vietnam-era key words and phrases:  hearts and minds, friend from foe, political versus military solutions, destroying the town to save it.  There are, as yet, no free-fire zones in Iraq.  But there are “weapons free” zones, which does not mean what the words imply—an area in which weapons are absent—but rather one in which weapons can be used on anything that moves.


The appeal to direct combat experience continues to characterize much of the writing on Vietnam (and to tempt many men, among them mature historians, to claim Vietnam service they never performed).  What, exactly, do troops on the ground experience?  Chatting recently with a filmmaker and a freelance writer, two American soldiers passed around their digital pictures of dead Iraqis and commented on them:  “These guys shot at some of our guys, so we lit ‘em up.”  Two died and the third lived.  “His buddy was crying like a baby.  Just sitting there bawling with his friend’s brains and skull fragments all over his face.  One of our guys came up to him and is like:  Hey!  No crying in baseball.”  The soldiers acknowledge the humor is sick but “humor is the only way you can deal with this shit.”  The reporter insists, (hopefully?  defensively?) that below the humor is rage.  As in Vietnam, the target of that rage is not government policy but rather the people to whose country the American soldiers have been sent.


Recently, Thomas Friedman advised his readers to “gauge Iraq” by listening to the soldiers.  “Readers regularly ask me when I will throw in the towel on Iraq,” Friedman wrote.  “I will be guided by the US Army and Marine grunts on the ground.  They see Iraq close up.  Most of those you talk to are so uncynical - so convinced that we are doing good and doing right, even though they too are unsure it will work.  When a majority of those grunts tell us that they are no longer willing to risk their lives to go out and fix the sewers in Sadr City … then you can stick a fork in this one.  But so far, we ain’t there yet.  The troops are still pretty positive.”  He seems not to have spoken with Corporal Daniel Planalp, one of many soldiers who have complained to reporters that they do not know why they are there.  “This is Vietnam.  I don’t even know why we’re over here fighting.  We’re fighting for survival.  The Iraqis don’t want us here.  If they wanted us here, they’d help us.”


Let me end on another soldier’s statement, published in the New York Times on Memorial Day.  On March 18 of last year, Sgt. Christopher Potts, 38, of Tiverton R.I. wrote to his wife describing his journey from Kuwait into Iraq:  “The first leg of the trip through the desert was really bad.  There were children of all ages from God knows where begging for food and water.  The dust was blowing all over them, and some had torn outgrown clothes, and some were barefoot.  I looked over at my driver and we were both crying after a few miles.  I said to him, You know, this is why I’m here, so that my kids won’t ever have to live like that.  Then we just drove in silence for a while.”  Sgt. Potts was killed on Oct. 3, 2004. 


Sgt. Potts believed what the government wished him to believe—what John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson and Richard Milhous Nixon all wanted the men they sent to war to believe:  that somehow, by killing people over there, they would protect us, over here.  How Sgt. Potts came to believe what he did and what its relation might be to the reasons his government sent him to kill and be killed is what we and our students need to understand better.  This task is the more urgent in that it just may be that Sgt. Potts got it right:  that the national interest as currently defined by the country’s leaders, does require Sgt. Potts to kill and to die in Iraq.




Collateral Damage to Historical Research from the “War on Terrorism”

By Anna Kasten Nelson, American University


The penchant for secrecy on the part of the Bush Administration, plus the traumatic events of 9/ll, has set back access to historical information by more than two decades.  Any attentive American has heard about the failure to open information for the 9/11 Commission and the Congressional Intelligence Committees but few realize the impact of the Bush Administration and their wars, both against terrorism, and for “democracy” in Afghanistan and Iraq.  War always expands the power of presidents and this president has used some of his power to draw the curtain on past information as well as the present.  It may seem irrational but fears developed from current events invariably are reflected in the closing of documents from the past.  Even the Congress is not immune.  Concern over the “loss” of secrets at Los Alamos stimulated the Kyle Amendment in October 1998 which mandated a second look at documents previously declassified.  It was an expensive, time consuming venture which further delayed responses to FOIA.  Over time, declassifiers looked at 1.3 million pages.  They found 365 pages that should not have been declassified under their new guidelines.  Most of these pages were concerned with nuclear facilities abroad.


If we examine the litany of new restrictions on information, we can see how little they relate to current problems.  Long before 9/ll, Attorney General Ashcroft reversed the Clinton guidelines on FOIA requests.  Whereas Attorney General Reno had informed the agencies that they were to declassify when in doubt, Ashcroft instructed the agencies to classify unless there was a clear reason to declassify.  He even went one step further to assure them that the Justice Department would defend their actions.


Then, on November 1, 2001 part of the group of decisions that seemed caused by events of the previous September, Bush issued an Executive Order to “clarify” the Presidential Records Act of 1978.  This Act (the PRA) finally placed reality into a law that turned presidential papers into federal records.  Starting with Reagan, presidents could no longer hold title to their records.  It was an unambiguous act that clearly stated a timetable for release of records and did not need clarifying.  The new Executive Order, in fact, muddied the water.  Now, before documents from presidential advisers (which were presumably given in confidence) can be released, both the PAST PRESIDENT AND THE CURRENT PRESIDENT must agree on their release.  This provision could allow Bush to keep back papers involving his father on Iran-Contra from the Reagan years and details on the incursion into Panama, for example.  Considering that presidential papers tend to slowly open over a 20-30 year period, any number of ramifications can be foreseen.


Another act of “clarification” came with the promulgation of the Executive Order on national security documents.  Clinton’s order had set a date of 25 years for automatic declassification.  He then gave the agencies an additional 5 years to implement the order.  Proudly declaring that unlike other presidents, the Bush administration did not establish a brand-new executive order, the merely changed the Clinton order.  First it gave the agencies another 3 ½ years to automatically declassify.  Agency heads can delay another five years if needed (and if history holds, it will be needed).  Microforms can take another 5 years and another 3 years can be allowed if other nations have an interest in the record and send it through their declassification staff.  Finally, no file will be declassified until the most recent document is 25 years old.  At least one person who approved this executive order had no idea that some files in the State Department may run for 20 years.  When all the 5,3, and forevers are added up, some files will clearly be closed for 50 years.


The “war” on terrorism has also brought with it a new category of records to be removed from public perusal.  These are “records of concern.”  They are not classified records but aren’t exactly declassified these days either.  For the most part they relate to the country’s infrastructure.  These records may not seem important to many researchers but they are often crucial to the work of public historians and even urban historians.  In addition, removing records sets a dangerous precedent for the future.  Ultimately, we may find another ambiguous category of records.  Some meetings in Washington now require all participants to agree (swear?) not to reveal what was said in the meeting.  Are the resulting records going to be classified or only withdrawn.


Withdrawing records—but not reclassifying them—is another prevalent technique to keep information out of public hands.  This was recently illustrated by the response of the CIA to the current volumes of the State Departments Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS).  After examining the documents chosen for inclusion in the volumes, they set off for the National Archives to withdraw documents.  The documents were not reclassified nor taken from the Archives.  They were simply withdrawn and placed in a kind of no mans land with no indication as to when they would be released from custody.


Even in the best of times, our declassification system is Byzantine.  The structural problem behind document release results from the assumption that the US can tolerate no risk, not one slip up.  A zero risk policy is responsible for the re-examination of millions of nuclear energy documents, withdrawal of over thirty year old CIA documents and of the lack of trust between declassifiers in different agencies.  No policy is without risks, not even one that is obsessed with overcoming them.


Several times Bush and his spokesmen have indicated that they won’t need to worry about history’s evaluation of their administration.  One nameless official even indicated that they wouldn’t be around in 80 years to see the results.  Well, Mr. President, we have news for you.  The next president may cancel your executive order and after 12 years your papers will be available for research.  Even Henry Kissinger is facing his past these days.  You can plan on the first book with footnotes from your records in about 20-25 years.  History may not make governments honest but it has an uncanny ability to illuminate the dishonesty.




The New Conscientious Objectors

by Staughton Lynd


Everybody knows the conscientious objector.  We recall the Quaker wife in “High Noon,” who objected to all killing until her husband supposedly showed her that sometimes violence is the only way.  Or we think of the Amish elder in “Witness” who spoke with horror of persons who use a “gun of the hand,” or handgun.


Conscientious objection is defined in United States military regulations as objection to “war in any form,” based on “religious training and belief.”  Conscientious objection thus defined is tailored to the subculture of certain small—and thus politically unimportant—Protestant groups:  Quakers, Amish, Mennonites, members of the Church of the Brethren, Hutterites.  (Viewers of “Matewan” will remember the tale of Hutterite objectors to World War I who were chained to the bars of their cells at Fort Leavenworth, where two of whom died.)  African American Jehovah’s Witnesses also practice conscientious objection.


Conscientious objectors in a voluntary military are self-evidently something different.  If they come to object to war in any form, it will be on the basis of their firsthand experience in a particular war in which they have been asked to take part.


At the Nuremberg trials, after World War II, United States prosecutors including Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson made it clear that in the future American soldiers like all others would be expected to refuse orders to commit war crimes.  But exactly how are servicemen expected to refuse?  How can they do so in the midst of combat without endangering not only themselves, but the lives of their buddies as well?


Sometimes there are practical ways to say No.  In the late 1960s, Hugh Thompson, from Stone Mountain, Georgia, was in command of a helicopter assigned to do reconnaissance over the village of My Lai.  When he and his crew saw what was happening on the ground beneath them, they violated orders, landed their helicopter, and trained their guns on United States troops until a number of children, women, and elderly persons could be evacuated.  In Iraq, Sergeant Kevin Benderman’s unit was ordered by their commanding officer to shoot children who were only throwing rocks.  None of the soldiers in the unit obeyed.


More often, as Sergeant Camilo Mejia puts it, when you are in combat it is possible to think only about survival.  Both Mejia and Benderman became conscientious objectors when they had the opportunity to return to the United States from Iraq and to reflect on their experience away from the stress of combat and the pressure of peers.  Both refused redeployment.  Mejia was court martialled, convicted, and is serving a year in confinement at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.  Benderman awaits court martial at Fort Stewart, Georgia.




Unlike the traditional conscientious objection of members of radical Protestant sects like the Quakers, the new conscientious objection may become a mass phenomenon.


Numbers are elusive.  The New York Times reports that nearly a third of the 950,000 persons from all branches of the Armed Forces who were sent to Iraq or Afghanistan have been ordered to deploy a second time.  CBS estimates that there have already been 5,000 deserters.  National Guardsmen and Reserves, few of whom expected to see active duty when they enlisted, make up about 40-50 percent of the 150,000 United States troops in Iraq.  According to USA Today, although many of them signed up for financial reasons, 71 percent of Guardsmen and Reservists have experienced no change in income (30 percent) or have lost money (41 percent) as a result of military service.  Already military personnel are vulnerable to the extension of their tours of active duty beyond the period for which they enlisted, under so-called Stop Loss orders, and beyond the twelve months in a combat zone which in Iraq, as in Vietnam, has thus far been customary.  Now they are also threatened with a rumored change in military regulations that would make possible more than twenty-four (24) months of active duty for any particular enlistee.


Numbers are hard to come by.  An article in the Los Angeles Times indicates that in the Vietnam war, there were 172,000 applications for CO status by draftees and 17,000 by active duty soldiers.  In the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, one can predict, there will be fewer such applications overall but almost all of them will be from active duty service personnel, based on their actual participation in war.


Accordingly careful attention is warranted to the experience of those persons like Mejia and Benderman who have thus far had the courage to apply for CO status.  Hugh Thompson, Camilo Mejia, Kevin Benderman, and David Qualls (the named plaintiff in a suit against Stop Loss by himself and seven John Does serving in Iraq) are all from the South.  The new conscientious objection is a “red state” phenomenon.  It may spread.




Mejia, who is from Florida, is a Catholic not a Protestant.  Indeed his father, Carlos Mejia Godoy, composed the “Missa Campesina” or “Peasants’ Mass” used as the liturgy in many Nicaraguan Catholic churches during the 1980s, and Camilo’s “religious training and belief” was in Catholic high schools in Nicaragua and Costa Rica.


Mejia joined the Army in 1995 at age nineteen when he (according to his application for CO status) “working full-time at a burger joint, making minimum wage.”  Hardly anybody he knows joined the military to go to war, Mejia says.  After active duty from 1995 to 1998, Mejia was honorably discharged and enlisted in the Guard so as to go to college.


In January 2003 Mejia’s Guard unit was activated to go to Iraq.  Before they deployed to the Middle East, the Lieutenant Colonel in command of the battalion told everyone that he was not going to return without a Combat Infantry Badge (CIB), awarded only after a unit has been under enemy fire.


What this meant became evident in Iraq.  On one occasion Mejia, a squad leader, was in charge of a unit that was ambushed as it returned to base.  Mejia ordered the vehicles to return fire and proceed at top speed.  No one in the unit was hurt, but base commanders chewed Mejia out for his failure to stand and fight.  Another time Mejia’s unit was directed to follow the same route to and from a checkpoint, night after night.  Officers were overheard saying that the purpose of this routine was to draw the enemy out.


During this second maneuver, there came a night when an explosion shattered one of the vehicles.  Soon after an “unsuspecting vehicle” approached.  One of the occupants was decapitated by machine gun fire from Mejia’s unit, but the Iraqi men turned out to be innocent.


The first assignment of Mejia’s unit in Iraq was at a prisoner of war camp.  “They told us we could not call it that, because the facility did not comply with the Geneva Convention.”  Interrogation was conducted by “three mysterious guys who did not give us their real names.”  Detainees were sorted into combatants and non-combatants.  Mejia and his men were ordered to soften up the supposed combatants by keeping them awake for up to 48 hours.  “The easiest way to do this, according to the soldiers we replaced, was to constantly yell at the detainees, make them move their arms up and down, make them sit and stand for several minutes.  When these techniques failed, we would bang on the wall with a huge sledgehammer or load a 9 mm. pistol next to their ears.”


Two incidents stood out for Mejia.  A squad leader shot a child who was carrying an AK-47 rifle.  A man stopped his civilian vehicle to help the dying boy.  Just as the man reached a hospital, he was intercepted by Army vehicles and directed to take the victim to an Army medical facility.  That facility, and then another Army facility, refused treatment.  The boy was then returned to the hospital where the Iraqi had wished to take him but by that time he was dead.


On another occasion, in Al Ramadi, Mejia was part of “onwatch security.”  He said, “Our platoon leader relayed the order to shoot anyone who threw anything that looked like a grenade.”  A young Iraqi emerged, carrying a grenade but too far away to have any chance of hurting the American soldiers.  They opened fire and killed him.


Mejia said, “I observed most of this event through the rear aperture of my M-16 sight, and with my left eye closed.  It is impossible to say exactly when I fired my weapon, I just know that I fired it.  This incident stayed on my mind for many weeks.  The image of the young man, killed by a rain of fire, is still fresh in my memory.  Many times I have told myself that maybe the bullets from my rifle only touched his leg, maybe his shoulder, that maybe I missed him completely.”


Returning to the United States for leave in fall 2003 “provided me with the opportunity to put my thoughts in order and to listen to what my conscience had to say.”  The next spring Mejia turned himself in, applied for Conscientious Objector status, and refused to redeploy.




Kevin Benderman is from northern Alabama and is 40 years old.  He has served honorably in the Army for 10 years.  His wife Monica has been an advocate for the elderly in Texas.


During a first tour in Iraq, Benderman was a mechanic who fixed Bradley armored vehicles.  He witnessed the same kind of incidents in Iraq that so much bothered Mejia.  He says in his CO application:


“I saw people whose only drinking water was from mud puddles at the side of the road.  I met a school teacher in Khanaqin who was supporting his retarded brother and his sister and her family.  His sister’s husband had been killed by war, and he was unable to marry and have his own children because of his responsibility to her and his brother.  This is what war does.  As my unit traveled to our destination, I could not ignore the little girl standing by the side of the road with her mother.  Her arm was burned to her shoulder, and she cried in pain.  [The officer in charge of the convoy said they could not use their limited supplies to help the girl.]  I had to look at that little girl, look into her eyes, and in her eyes, I saw my TRUTH.  I cannot kill.”


On January 7, 2005, Kevin Benderman is alleged to have refused an order to deploy with his unit for its second tour in Iraq.  At about the same time two other members of his unit attempted suicide rather than deploy, and an additional 17 soldiers in the 2-7 Infantry Battalion are said to have gone AWOL for the same reason.  Monica Benderman e-mailed me on January 31:  “We heard from four soldiers today who do not want to deploy, and are looking for information to begin CO applications.  [They] are from all over the country.”


One of Benderman’s superior officers called him a coward.  His company commander informed Benderman that he would recommend disapproval of the CO application without even reading the regulation, because it could only be a ruse.  A chaplain, after first refusing to meet with Kevin, said he should be ashamed of himself.  Benderman has been upbraided before members of his unit for articles on the internet for which he is claimed to have been responsible, and which were said to constitute “Disrespect to a Superior Officer” and “Disloyal Statements to the United States.”


On the other hand, Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney has written a letter supporting Benderman, and war hero Colonel James “Bo” Gritz profiled Benderman three days running on his radio show.


The process a CO applicant can expect is suggested by Benderman’s experience thus far.  He has been charged with:  1) Desertion with the intent to avoid hazardous duty, for which he could be imprisoned for five years; and 2) Missing movement by design, which carries a penalty of up to two years’ imprisonment.


The military hearing process begins with a pre-trial hearing called an Article 32 investigation, the purpose of which is to decide whether court martial is warranted.  The officer in charge, Lt. Col. Linda Taylor, has also served as chief military prosecutor at Fort Stewart.  She has declined to recuse herself.


In Meija’s case a hearing was held at Fort Sill, the hearing officer recommended disapproval of the application, and there is no definite answer yet.  In a departure from the procedure employed with Mejia, Benderman was summoned to a hearing on his CO application less than 24 hours after his Article 32 hearing ended.  The Investigating Officer was clearly hostile, not the detached, neutral, and impartial officer required by regulations.  Benderman’s appointed military counsel objected to the entire proceeding.


On February 10, 2005, Benderman’s commanding officer informed him that if the Article 32 hearing recommended that the charges should not go forward, Benderman would again be ordered to deploy.


Note.  Kevin and Monica Benderman are featured speakers at a rally against the war in Youngstown, Ohio on March 19, 2005.  The Kevin Benderman Defense Committee has a web site: 

http://www.BendermanDefense.org.  Contributions are needed in order to hire outside counsel should a court martial be ordered.