Anna Quindlen / Last Word / Newsweek – 2007-06-21 22:51:14
(June 25, 2007 issue) — In 1965, Henry H. Howe Jr. marched through a park in Texas carrying a sign that read END JOHNSON’S FACIST AGGRESSION IN VIETNAM. He regrets, he told a reporter not long ago, that he did not spell “fascist” correctly. That’s saying a lot, since in exchange for his moment of protest at a rally in El Paso the active-duty reservist wound up in jail.
Although Lieutenant Howe was off duty and out of uniform, several soldiers recognized him, and by the end of the day, he had been arrested. He spent three months in Leavenworth after being court-martialed under a provision that bars officers from “contemptuous words against the president.”
There’s something essentially discordant in the symbiotic relationship between the armed forces and American democracy. On the one hand, there’s a form of government that is supposed to glory in free speech and support it zealously, even when it incites or offends. On the other, there is the organization designed to protect democracy from its enemies, with one of its guiding principles a monolithic devotion to duty that seems antithetical to individual opinion.
But with an increasingly unpopular invasion dragging on in Iraq, a volunteer Army that signed on to what has been sold for years as a patriotic trade school and an enormous cadre of reservists who have civilian expectations of self-expression, you now have a blueprint for an entirely new level of dissent in the service. It’s difficult to imagine any soldier being imprisoned today for simply expressing some version of the sentiments on Lieutenant Howe’s protest sign without a civilian uproar that would slide the Pentagon sideways.
It’s true that a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War was recently accused of violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice for wearing his camo uniform, insignia removed, during a mock-patrol protest at the White House. But a military panel decided merely to recommend a general discharge.
Some service people have faced harsher penalties, but that’s because their objections to the Iraq mission took the form of desertion or failure to deploy. Lt. Ehren Watada has become the first officer to face court-martial for refusing to return to Iraq. “My participation would make me party to war crimes,” he said at a news conference. Others have applied for conscientious-objector status, including one young decorated combat veteran who described being approached by an elderly Iraqi, who asked, “Why are you still here?”
He could easily have responded, as so many have before, that he was just following orders. That one sentence, and its powerful resonance, explain why dissent within the ranks has become increasingly accepted by both the public and political leaders. Unflinching and unthinking obedience may be ideal for commanders, who need soldiers to do what they’re told no matter their own opinions.
But civilians have learned that it can lead to the worst sort of atrocities. Following orders was the defense in the My Lai massacre, and in the prisoner-abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib. It’s now commonly known as the Nuremberg defense because it was used at trial by defeated Nazis.
The Allied forces were ready with the rejoinder that following orders is no defense against war crimes. Conscience can determine criminality, however, and when the United States found itself embroiled in Vietnam, some service people insisted the conflict itself was criminal. The military no longer knew precisely how to deal when veterans were tossing their medals away at antiwar rallies and setting up counseling offices to help deserters get to Canada. Underground military papers with names like The Ultimate Weapon sprang up on bases.
What was once underground is now in-your-face, with Web sites like that of Iraq Veterans Against the War, which derides “corporate profiteering” from the conflict and says it “is based on lies and deception.” As tours of duty have been extended and progress in some areas has remained elusive, soldiers in Iraq have routinely expressed doubts about their mission.
On “60 Minutes” Scott Pelley profiled a National Guard battalion from Iowa, following it for two years. One young man said before his deployment that he was going to Iraq to help those who lacked “the freedoms that we are afforded every day.” Two years later he said Americans had “a lot of misconceptions” about the war, adding, “They’ll just say ‘freedom.’ They’ll just spout … something they’ve heard that’s easily repeatable.” Reminded of his own earlier words, he described himself as having done “a 180.”
So, of course, have many Americans. The difference is that they don’t have to pick up a gun and climb into an armored vehicle on a mission they’ve concluded is senseless, endless and just plain wrong.
There are those who argue that such a conclusion is above the pay grade of anyone but the commander in chief, and that discipline overrides dissent. But it’s the guys in the field who are best able to judge whether the mission is right and just and is working on the ground. They are the ultimate embeds.
As one man said on a posting to the IVAW Web site, “When the people who fought the war are speaking out against it … maybe you should listen.”
© 2007 Newsweek, Inc.
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