by Michael Slate
Just about every guy I knew when I was a teenager ended up in Vietnam. The draft board buses used to load up outside the steel mill, and they were packed full--week after week, year after year. Everybody just staring out the window, no smiles, no laughs, sometimes a few wet eyes.
A whole lot of the guys never came back. Some came back with no legs or missing arms. And many came back to our streets consumed by day-long nightmares.
And still many others came back to oppose the Vietnam War and to speak out so that everyone could know the truth about the war.
America always claims its wars are just and noble, all about freedom. Some folks still buy the okie- doke on this, but a whole lot don't. Because of their experience as soldiers in an imperialist military fighting an unjust war, vets have a special ability and responsibility to speak the truth to the rest of us.
Lots of youth join the military today because they're looking for a job, college money, a way to see the world while they figure out what they're gonna do with their lives. They didn't think they're going to war. And a lot of people figure that even if they do end up in war, the TV news showed how clean and neat the 1990-1991 Gulf War was--a video game war with smart bombs and precision missiles. But many of the vets who fought the war--not to mention the Iraqi people who were the victims of the war--know all too well that this is a horrendous lie.
Almost 700,000 U.S. troops served in the Gulf War between August 2, 1990, and July 31, 1991. As many as 100,000 of these troops suffer from what's known as the Gulf War Syndrome. They were exposed to repeated low levels of chemical warfare agents, including sarin, cyclosarin, and mustard gases. Eight thousand troops received botulinum toxoid (Bot Tox) vaccine and 150,000 got the anthrax vaccine as part of some human experimentation routine. At least 436,000 soldiers entered into or lived for months in areas contaminated by more than 315 tons of toxic waste from radioactive depleted uranium from U.S. ammunition. Almost all of these troops had no awareness about the dangers, no training or protective equipment, and no medical evaluations.
On the Iraqi side, somewhere around 100,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed by Operation Desert Storm. More than a million Iraqi civilians have died since the Gulf War--from the effects of the bombings and the economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and its allies. Many more could die in a new U.S. war on Iraq.
U.S. military veterans who fought in the Gulf War know the real story behind the official American story. They live with what they saw and what they did. As U.S. imperialism rushes toward another war on Iraq, many of these vets feel compelled to tell what they experienced, first-hand, about U.S. crimes in Iraq. And some of the vets tell the story of how they resisted during the Gulf War. They feel a responsibility to help build the anti-war movement today--and to help the soldiers facing a new Gulf War do the right thing.
Andrew McGuffin is quiet and calm these days. He says it took him a long time to get there. He started out dirt poor in Beckley, West Virginia. He's a lawyer now, a far cry from the penniless youth who stood alone in San Diego more than 12 years ago--no high school degree, no job, no nothing. He was a kid when he joined the Marine Corps, and he hoped it would turn his life around. Today he talks about how he was drafted by poverty.
"I went to Marine combat training and then to School of Infantry. While I was in School of Infantry, about 12 days before I graduated, the Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait. Four days after I graduated, I was on my way there.
"We really didn't know that it was going to be Iraqis until August, and by that time there were only a couple of weeks of training left. But it was immediately impressed upon me that [the Iraqis] were sub-humans, through various epithets about their head attire or whatever. There were all kinds of pejorative terms that were used to describe anybody of Muslim or Arab descent.
"There was this one song that we used to sing as we ran. It was, `Gonna rape, kill, pillage, and burn. Gonna rape, kill, pillage, and burn.' And that's something that we sang quite a bit. And we talked about `Blood makes the grass grow, we make the blood flow.'
"The Marine Corps went from Saudi Arabia into Kuwait. We infiltrated in the night through various minefields, concertina wire, and obstacle belts. When I got there I saw the fires from the oil wells, smoke filling the sky, fires 50, 75, 100 feet in the air, and people dying. People dying from mines, from automatic weapons fire, from our planes killing them, from us killing them with machine guns and mortar fire and artillery fire.
"It was horrific. It was non-stop horror. It just wasn't covered in the U.S. media because the government didn't want the American people to be fully informed about what we were doing there or what was happening to the troops.
"I had the knowledge of an infantryman that depleted uranium tank shells could easily penetrate the armor of Iraqi tanks. I didn't have the knowledge that depleted uranium would cause lifelong illness to the people who were exposed to the particles that are airborne from firing depleted uranium shells. I didn't know that the bombs that were being dropped by our aircraft or by our artillery were coated in depleted uranium. I didn't know that countless thousands of Iraqi children would be dying from depleted uranium illnesses.
"Another one of the things that really disturbed me while I was there was just seeing the massive destruction of the landscape, the harm to the environment. But most of all it was burning people around the highways, around Kuwait City, the infamous `highway of death'--those people who were just annihilated. There can be no doubt in anybody's mind who sees the pictures from what happened there that that was a crime against humanity, a war crime.
"It still affects me to this day. The smell of burning people is very much like the smell of burning hair. But of course, most people who smell burning hair only smell it in small doses. And when it's people, it's much more prominent and disturbing. It's a smell that I don't think anybody can ever forget once they've smelled it. I had to go in for oral surgery at some point, and something was cut out of my mouth with a cauterizing gun. I smelled that, and it immediately took me back to Kuwait and what I experienced there. It's just the most horrible smell. And almost immediately you know what it is.
"Not only are there the smells, but also the visions of the wrecked and bombed vehicles being mashed into the road, mashed into craters, or just incinerated with people incinerated around them. Or seeing the dead who have died from gunshot wounds who are just really, really messed up. The firepower of an automatic weapon or a heavy machine gun will really, really destroy a human body, and it's not a pretty sight.
"It not only changes your mind, but it makes you carry a burden of shame and guilt about participating in those things for the rest of your life. I think it's a sadness that I'll bear with me for the rest of my life.
"The things that I was participating in was our units' killing people in trench lines across the minefields and taking a lot of prisoners--or not taking them. There was an incident where we took an Iraqi officer prisoner and turned him over to our intelligence officer. From my understanding, [the Iraqi officer] wanted to have his troops be able to surrender to our forces. But because of the emphasis on moving forward and getting to Kuwait City and being on the attack, the intelligence officer apparently just called artillery on these people and blew them up.
"A lot of the people that we encountered who were prisoners of war, our prisoners, were people who were starving, who had been bombed for a month, who were barely holding onto their sanity, and were very much like me. They were poor people. They were uneducated by and large. They were not really wanting to be there for any personal reasons but having been told by their government that they were there for the right reasons. They perhaps felt compelled to be there--either conscripted or whatever their situation might be.
"I think that the concept of `supporting the troops' is such a lie. I think that when I got back and there were all these parades and people treating me like I was some war god, it really confused me more than anything--because I felt like what I had done wasn't necessarily right."
Glen Motil describes himself as a Marine Corps Gulf War Veteran for Peace and Social Justice. He grew up in a small Pennsylvania town, and he was 17 when he joined the Marines with a self-described great desire to serve his country and to defend democracy. The military has been a long tradition in his family, and there was never any question whether he would do his four years. Glen joined in 1987 and got out in late 1991. In those four years Glen began to change his views. He ended up in the Persian Gulf War, but by the time he got there his views had begun to change.
"I immediately began to question my decision when I arrived in boot camp. Boot camp itself was a culture shock to begin with. In the Marine Corps boot camp, you're trained to be a killer, basically. There's no nice way to put it. Ingrained in that is a lot of racism and a lot of things that were against values that I was also taught growing up. So I was taught to respect the military, but I was also taught various religious and moral values. I believe that what I was experiencing in boot camp was counter to those values. So it was an immediate contradiction. I felt that contradiction throughout my time in the service.
"After boot camp I began reading American history, seeing films about the Vietnam War era, and learning about the anti-war movement of that time, studying history that we didn't learn in high school. It seemed that American history always ended with World War 2 and there was never enough time at the end of the year to cover what happened after World War 2. Even that history was uncritical and just handed down to us from the point of view of America was always `the shining city on the hill' kind of perspective.
"So by the time the Gulf War came around, by the beginning of 1990 even, I was settling into somewhat of an anti-war position, even at that time. I was studying Vietnam and thinking that this kind of thing would never occur again or could never occur again now that our country has been through that.
"In August, with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and then the military buildup, I was dismayed and I was in disbelief that this was happening again. I always felt that somehow it would stop. At the time I wasn't anti-war as I would say I'm anti-war today. I was not taking a pacifist position. I believed that there were still things worth fighting and dying for, such as democracy, human rights, and so forth, protection of my family and my way of life. I call it an evolution of my political thinking over the past 15 years.
"In the military itself, there's people with all different opinions. I found myself drawn to people with similar opinions that came from either lower socio-economic backgrounds or minority groups. They seemed to have a more critical point of view from the start, so I was drawn to people like that. There were several of my fellow Marines who had some college experience, and I enjoyed hanging out with them because I could express these kinds of thoughts. And I did express this even to my direct supervisors and so forth. I had a fairly liberal unit--so I was fortunate for that--where that kind of thing was not looked down upon.
"I was a field radio operator and I worked at a communication unit, 9th Com Battalion out of Camp Pendleton. When we went over there we were stationed at Camp 5 in Saudi Arabia. They already had barracks set up. Saudi Arabians have migrants come in to do a lot of the menial tasks from places like the Philippines. So they already had these camps set up, but we turned it into a military encampment. I provided radio watch for the troops that were in the front. Perhaps you've seen it in films when a radioman is with a platoon, say, and he's calling in for aerial bombardment or something and he calls the central command. I would be the person he was speaking to if I was on radio watch that evening.
"I didn't have a chance personally, and I thank God for this, to see the devastation. I know people from my unit who were actually on the Marine Expeditionary Force. Many of my friends, they just saw many, many dead bodies and charred bodies, the result of these bombs that fell. Any Iraqis they did meet were surrendering at the time. I don't know what my friends witnessed, but I've read reports of unarmed Iraqis being shot in half as they were trying to surrender. I just remember the looks on their faces after the ground war was over and they came back to Camp 5 before the transition home. These were guys that were happy-go-lucky guys, and I used to party with them and everything. And their faces were as if they had just seen a ghost. In many ways they had, I found out later--but they didn't want to talk about what they had just seen. They were visibly changed. I could tell just by looking at them.
"I can't speak for them, but what has gone through my mind since that time is questioning of, `How could this in any way be right?' How could my country that I love, that I agreed to serve, have participated in such devastation?"
Charles Sheehan-Miles also comes from a family with a long history of military service. They all just assumed that he would continue the tradition. He joined the Army in April 1990, about a year after high school. He finished boot camp about a week after Iraq invaded Kuwait. Charles went straight from basic training to Saudi Arabia. His time in the Persian Gulf changed his life, and ever since he has tirelessly spoken out against war and especially the coming war against Iraq.
"I was an Abrams tank crewman and during the war my unit, the 24th infantry division, we invaded Iraq from Saudi Arabia. We went up north as far as the Euphrates River Valley. I fought in a ground unit against the Iraqi troops. We were involved in a number of direct combat engagements against Iraqi forces.
"I felt like I was on Mars when I got back to the States and saw the TV coverage because it was all so pretty, clean, and precise. It was none of those things.
"Our first engagement was chaotic. It was crazy. We came out of a sandstorm right into a dug- in infantry brigade of Iraqis. It was relatively close quarters, close enough that we could see the Iraqi soldiers from 50 meters away as we shot at them and they shot at us. My unit took some casualties in that battle, a number of people were wounded. The Iraqis, I couldn't even guess how many were killed but it was many of them. They fought very hard, but they didn't have the kind of equipment we had. They didn't have the range. They didn't have the ability to fight back. It was by no means a balanced or even fight. I don't think military planners intended it to be. We went in there with overwhelming force and rolled over these people.
"The next morning, very early in the morning of February 26th, my unit was just over on the far side of the highway, approaching the river. There was a large logistics base or something for the Iraqis. I didn't really have a good feel for it; it was night, we were in our tanks and all I had was a picture of maybe 100 meters to our front. We were there waiting for fuel trucks and ammunition to catch up with us so that we could refuel and move on. I woke up--we took turns sleeping because we had been up two or three days at that point--I woke up hearing cries on the radio that there were trucks coming to our position. My platoon sergeant and I climbed up on top of our tank and we saw these two trucks. One of the tanks fired and hit one of the trucks and it was a fuel truck. It splashed burning diesel fuel all over the other truck. The other truck was a troop truck. Men ran out on fire; I don't know how many of them. We did what we were trained to do. We shot them all and killed them.
"The human thing to do when you see someone on fire isn't to shoot them. It's to help them out, to take a blanket and put out the fire. For me that was a real watershed moment because it changed the nature of the way you look at war in a very, very personal way. It took me years to be able to discuss that or to talk about what happened--or to really learn to live with myself.
"But the war went on. Before the sun came up we moved out and rolled on towards Basra. Not long after that we got into further engagements. Then there was a huge engagement two days after the ceasefire, which was mind-boggling to me. My division, the 24th Infantry Division, attacked and destroyed a retreating Iraqi division that was coming up north out of Kuwait. This was in the oilfields. The goal at that point, our orders were to destroy all the equipment--to destroy all the tanks and trucks. If we saw people we were to shoot them if they were armed or otherwise let them go. The devastation and chaos was literally indescribable. We were on this little two-lane causeway through this swamp and it was just packed with hundreds and hundreds of burning vehicles. It was crazy. The whole thing was indescribably chaotic. And you know, we killed a lot of people. There's no way around that.
"The reason I talk about that is because what got broadcast back in the States at the time was `Oh, look at this pretty smart bomb going down the shaft of this empty building in the middle of the night.' That's not what it was about."
Jeff Paterson grew up in the Central Valley of California. It's a place that plays a big part in feeding the rest of the country but can be like a prison for an 18-year-old looking for a future.
Jeff joined the Marines at 18 because, in his words, he wanted to be a "bad-ass fighting machine." Over the next four years as an artillery controller and traveling the world with the Marines, Jeff began to see the people of the world in a different light. By the time he was ordered to the Gulf War, Jeff was a changed man. He became the first active duty soldier to refuse orders to go to war in the Persian Gulf.
"I served my four years, and I was a few weeks short of my end of active duty service, looking forward to going back to school, when the Iraq war kicked off. And based on what I'd learned, how we were interacting with those peoples where I was at, and the things I'd heard from my buddies coming back from Central America--talking about helping out Contras down there--and stuff going down in Beirut, I came to the conclusion, with some help of friends, that it would be in the best interests of the people of the world for me to not participate in the first Gulf War.
"I basically came to the conclusion that whatever the military could do to me for refusing to fight that war, it would be pretty insignificant compared to what we were going to do to the people of Iraq. I sort of knew that first hand because I was trained as a nuclear warhead technician for our artillery unit. And we were promised that we'd get to `nuke the ragheads' if anything went wrong. My commanding officer, to make us more relaxed about going over there and make us not worry so much, promised me particularly that if anything went wrong, I would be able to assemble the nuclear warhead and `nuke the ragheads until they all glow.' That was his way of reassuring us that we'd be taken care of.
"So I held a press conference to get the word out, because I figured the military wasn't going to look kindly on my ideas and that they'd probably want to `disappear' me to the Middle East as quick as possible unless I got the word out. I threw together this press conference at the last minute, and basically I just tried to articulate how I felt and that I wasn't going to be a pawn in America's power plays for profit and oil in the Middle East. That's the way I looked at it, having tens of thousands and later hundreds of thousands of basically pawns going out there, being shot up with anthrax vaccines, and given toxic amounts of BP pills and botox pills and all these other things that are supposed to keep you safe, that obviously have contributed to the illness of 100,000 troops from the first Gulf War and 10,000 dying from Gulf War Syndrome.
"I went back and forth with the military about applying for a discharge as a conscientious objector, and that takes forever sometimes. In my case the military decided that I wasn't actually `sincere' enough to be a conscientious objector, denied my claim to be discharged, and ordered me on to the next outbound plane to Saudi Arabia.
"At that point, I actually just sat down on the runway and refused to get on the plane. Because of the publicity I had, they didn't just shackle me and throw me on the plane like they did to people later on as the war progressed and other people refused to get on the plane much like I did.
"I went to Pearl Harbor brig. I did a couple of months there. I was in the middle of a court martial because I was a `threat' to the national security of the United States. Probably today I'd end up in Guant?namo or something, but back then they kept me in Pearl Harbor. It was basically only because people protested outside the base--this was before the war actually kicked off--that the military decided that actually it wasn't in their best interest to pursue my prosecution. Instead of getting the expected five years in Leavenworth, they gave me an other-than-honorable discharge.
"One thing people ask me is how was it that I became the first person to publicly declare that that war was wrong from within the military. It was basically because one person challenged me to do the right thing. It wasn't `Go' or `Don't go.' It was actually, `Do the right thing.' For four years I'd spent my life not doing the right thing, but doing what I was told.
"As far as I'm concerned, I've never regretted for a moment what I've done. Any nightmares I have are about what if I actually just followed orders, if I just did what I was told, if I had to be part of the carnage that's led to the last 12 years of sanctions and 1.5 million Iraqi dead. That's the nightmare I have.
"I think people saw what it meant to `support the troops' during the last Gulf War. There is no way to put that as your primary political orientation. If you are starting from `support the troops,' `bring them home,' `we want peace,' then still when the troops are over there fighting the war, you are left with primarily supporting the troops. And that means supporting what they are doing.
"I am completely sympathetic and understanding of where people are coming from, but if you are actually going to be part of a worldwide movement to stop this war and other wars, we got to call out what's really going on. We have to support the troops who refuse to fight. That's not to say we dis the other troops or whatever, but it's more of a challenge to us to do the outreach, to let those troops know what the war is all about. They don't know, they've been indoctrinated to not think about those sort of things.
"And once we do that, then it's our responsibility to speak out in whatever way to help them along to do the right thing. We need to lay the foundation for people to step out in a bold way and say `Hell no, we're not gonna go. This war is wrong,' and call out other people to take the right stand against all this."
Revolutionary Worker Online RW resource page on resisting the juggernaut of war and repression