Will to Resist Review in The Ember

From the Australian online magazine The Ember.

Winter Soldiers — The Will to Resist

The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan
by Dahr Jamail.
Haymarket Books, 2009.

Soldiers who refuse to fight have a type of moral authority which, oddly enough, a pacifist who refuses to fight will somehow always lack. Experience is a compelling authority. A pacifist is always struggling against implications of cowardice and self-interest, but soldiers who’ve seen action, who’ve taken lives and risked their own, are in a much better position to face down such insinuations. As Chris Hedges puts it in his foreword to Jamail’s book, “These returning veterans know the essence of war, which is death, and have been maimed by the trauma of industrial warfare.” I don’t know the essence of war – I hope I never will. Somewhere in between the soldiers who refuse to fight and the people like me, there are people like Dahr Jamail.

When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, Jamail was incensed by what he saw as the complicity of the embedded corporate media with the Bush administration and their objectives in Iraq. Determined to offer an alternative vantage on the invasion, he travelled to Iraq and began reporting via his own website, and through writings for the Inter Press Service, The Nation, The Asian Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, The Independent and the Guardian. Introducing The Will to Resist, Jamail explains that he had been raised to admire the U.S. military, but when exposed to the indiscriminate violence of war, his outrage quickly transformed into an anger which he directed at the occupying forces. Jamail bore witness to a brutal and unethical invasion and returned to the U.S. feeling dehumanised and ashamed by the actions of his country’s armed forces. Jamail began giving lectures and attending forums on U.S. involvement in Iraq and in the course of these began meeting soldiers and veterans and discovered that many shared his anguish. Having shared the conditions and experienced at first hand the endless varieties of devastation unfolding in Iraq, Jamail came to feel a solidarity with the soldiers.

“I realized a desire to meet more of these veterans who had been placed in an untenable situation and examine the roots and implications of their resistance to what was happening in Iraq. Through conversations, I learned quickly that there was active resistance within the ranks to what the troops were being ordered to do in Iraq.”

In The Will to Resist, Jamail is primarily conducting an American conversation, but when it comes to military matters and foreign policy American conversations will always repay a bit of outsider eavesdropping. And to the extent that this conversation on the morale of the United States’ all-volunteer army in Iraq and Afghanistan no doubt anticipates conversations that will take place in kind throughout the Coalition of the Willing, anyone living in any of the conspicuous member countries of that coalition should be willing, if not eager, to tacitly participate in this debate.

Before we meet the soldiers, Chris Hedges’ introduction provides a bit of big-picture context amid some rousing polemic: “The poison of war courses unchecked through the body politic of the United States.” The ‘War on Terror’ has been used to justify conflicts which, morally and financially, the U.S. can not afford, and now “the costly forms of death we dispense on one side of the globe are hollowing us out from the inside at home.” America’s “most dangerous enemies,” Hedges concludes, are “not Islamic radicals, but those who promote the perverted ideology of national security … ‘our surrogate religion’.”

From there, Jamail takes up the reins and the focus tightens considerably. Jamail is an advocate of resistance. The invasion of Iraq contravenes international law and has evolved some rules of engagement that defy the Geneva convention. He opposes the motives behind the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and the character of the military occupation. Jamail’s rhetorical strategy is mostly indirect, there is little editorialising, little direct argument. Mostly, Jamail stands to the side – he guides the reader from topic to topic, introduces his subjects (soldiers, veterans and activists) then lets their stories speak.

Among these stories, Jamail has woven in considerable statistical evidence of the morally and psychologically debilitating character of current U.S. operations in the Middle East. It’s the stories that convey the rational integrity and the measured conviction of Jamail’s subjects, but his statistics can administer some sort sharp shocks. Even so, making sense of statistics can be a confounding art – will 20 percent of returned soldiers in every war report symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or is that specific to the conflict in Iraq? Does the fact that in 2008 more soldiers killed themselves than were killed by enemies reflect a drop in combat fatalities or a rise in suicide? Either way, the raw statistic is a disturbing measure of a malfunctioning military. Jamail’s real concern, though, is how members of the rank and file are choosing to confirm this state of malfunction and to disown its consequences.

I brought to my country and to the Marine Corps what was, to me, a very noble, kind of sacred commitment. And it was based on a contract. And the written contract that I signed, which includes my willingness to give my life for our constitution, this country, and its people; to always follow lawful orders; and to never follow unlawful orders. And the stated part of the contract is that I’ll be willing to give my life for you. I will dedicate myself as a marine to standing up for the principles of my country, and the unspoken part is that you will never use my blood for money. – Lance Corporal Jeff Key

While tallying up the gradual disillusionments of the many soldiers he speaks with, Jamail addresses the discrimination, homophobia, sexism and sexual assault which continue to blight modern military culture. In addition to the trauma they face during combat and in the field, many troops are under constant pressure from the values and culture of their own military system.

Haymarket Books (which also published Jamail’s first book: Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq) is a proudly left-wing publishing house; a nonprofit book distributor and publisher drawing inspiration for their active pursuit of social justice directly from Karl Marx. The press is named after the Haymarket Martyrs, who were hung for their role in the 1886 struggle for the eight-hour work day. Jamail’s goal in this book is to facilitate a kind of galvanising sympathy between military resistance and civilian dissent. For this reason, the fact that most of his readers will already sympathise with the ideals, attitudes and politics of the book is probably beside the point. The point is to provide a conduit between two pools of resistance that have mostly developed in reticent isolation from one another.

For soldiers to resist is not an easy task, but it is of utmost importance if they hold themselves responsible for their actions and remember their civic duties and supersede the ideologies of their leadership. … They must know that resisting an authoritarian government at home is equally important to fighting a foreign aggressor on a battlefield. Finally, those wearing the uniform must know beyond any shadow of a doubt that by refusing immoral and illegal orders they will be supported by the people not with mere words but with actions. – First Lieutenant Ehren Watada

Realistically, those who are ideologically opposed to Jamail’s thinking are unlikely to engage with The Will to Resist, and that’s a shame. Jamail’s collection is polemical in intent and he undeniably concentrates on the bad consequences and the worst repercussions of military service. Jamail’s curatorial decisions put the disastrous repercussions of warfare very plainly in the foreground. But even those who support the war and its objectives should be willing to acknowledge and respond to these kind of repercussions. The accounts of disillusioned soldiers are unlikely to confirm the grounds of any hawkish justifications for the continued presence of occupying military forces in the middle east, but nevertheless those who maintain these justifications are obliged, surely, to familiarise themselves as thoroughly as they can, with every cost of the actions they support. When a politician, or anyone for that matter, speaks of their nation’s best interest justifying a prolonged period of military conflict, they are obliged to balance these interests against the full range of costs. That goes for the public too – getting rid of Saddam Hussein was a goal that had a certain worth. Those who support the actions that made that possible and who believe the still unfolding consequences are justified by that goal, should be willing to place every consequence of the conflict in the balance against that certain worth. Perhaps the perceived gain will continue to outweigh the losses (civilian and military casualties, damage to property and international reputations, high rates of psychological trauma among veterans), perhaps gains will fall below losses, or losses will rise above gains. This is a balance each individual can strike in their own conscience. At any level though – be it among politicians, the military or the public – it is simply gross to approve of conflict if that approval is founded on any kind of avoidance or diminishment of the costs involved.

In the early days of these interviews and discussions, Jamail learned that the greatest obstacle faced by the G.I. resistance movement was a perceived absence of civilian support. There are reasons for this. On the soldiers’ side, the all-volunteer army is less prone to radicalism than say the conscripted forces of the Vietnam War – they are on the whole less educated, less organised and more likely to engage in individual passive resistance than organised dissent. Consequently, suggests Jamail, resistance in Iraq and Afghanistan has been a more reticent and in-house affair.

On the civilian side of things too, there are inhibiting factors. It may not be entirely exemplary, but the situation in a polite and prosperous country like Australia gives some snapshots of some of the psychic tampers that have been used to dull dissent against the war on terror. Polls taken at the time of Prime Minister Howard’s commitment to participate in the invasion of Iraq showed that 70 percent of the country opposed military involvement. Once the troops were sent, though, active dissent melted slowly but surely into air. This sense of resignation was contributed to in part by a perception that the government was impervious to public opinion on humanitarian or ethical matters, but there was also a bi-partisan stance among politicians which amounted to a kind of emotional blackmail of the public in the name of the soldiers. The blackmail worked, would-be-dissenters were shamed into silence. Criticism of the military commitment, Howard’s government implied, amounted to criticism of the individual men and women who had undertaken to protect the nation’s interest at the potential cost of their lives. In the context of the global war on terror, the emotional blackmail of a populace easily embarrassed by its high standard of living seemed to do the job, and the prospect of a persisting, strong opposition was undermined by the idea that our troops were on a mission to ensure our safety and prosperity. If we had partaken of these good things, we should accept our complicity with the undesirable actions required to sustain them. Objecting to the invasion, therefore, and to Australia’s role in it, was made to look like a kind of hypocrisy and moral cowardice. Furthermore, individuals who had taken up a career in the active armed forces had accepted risks and sacrifices so that we, the uncomfortable, not-in-my-name citizenry, could continue to indulge our pangs of liberal conscience. You don’t have to be a Quaker to believe war of any kind is wrong, but when it comes to justifying pacifist inclinations, being able to call on sectarian religious convictions will stand you in much better stead than a reasoned and strongly felt aversion to the essence of war (which is strategically inflicted violence, terror and death) and to every aspect of warfare.

This is why Jamail’s characterisation of resistance from within the military is so valuable. For every soldier that is inhibited by the perceived lack of civilian support, there are just as many (probably many more) dissenting civilians who feel they haven’t earned the moral authority, even the right, to proclaim their opposition. This is one of the main reasons the military is always so uncomfortable about soldiers, or veterans, participating in peace marches in uniform. If the peaceniks and the soldiers are seen to embrace the same cause, the public might start to see that opposing particular conflicts does not amount to denigrating the armed forces or the individuals who are fighting in their name. They might begin to question whether the interests of those individuals, and the ideals they ostensibly uphold, aren’t much better served by public opposition to their deployment rather than by acquiescent support.