As long as there has been a U.S. military, people have been leaving it. That choice has never been more appropriate than today. Individuals who signed up to defend the United States are engaged in a war that was sold on the basis of lies, was entirely unnecessary, is making us less safe, has nothing to do with defending anyone, and which involves the horror of slaughtering men, women, and children by the hundreds of thousands. The majority of Americans want the war to end and just voted accordingly in the Congressional elections. The majority of Iraqis want the war to end. The majority of American service men and women in Iraq want the war to end. And taking part in this war is illegal, whether you are ordered to do so or not.
Approximately 6,000 Americans have refused to report for duty or deserted in order to avoid taking part in this war, or to avoid taking further part in it. Many have objected to the stop loss program that requires them to serve longer than they had agreed to. Others have objected to the rationale behind the war and the horrors that are part of it. Many are best able to support their families by avoiding military service that is poorly compensated. In the cases we know the most about, one motivation for desertion that is clearly absent is cowardice. While quiet desertion tends not to result in any penalty, public opposition and resistance often means prison.
Lt. Ehren Watada, the first U.S. military commissioned officer to publicly refuse to fight in Iraq, has said that he will not obey an illegal order. He faces court martial on February 4, 2007, for obeying the law. Sgt. Camilo Mejia was one of the first Iraq War vets to publicly refuse to return to Iraq for which he served 9 months in prison. Mejia objected to the war as based on lies and to the murdering and torturing of civilians that he witnessed. Sgt. Kevin Benderman is serving a 15-month sentence for the crime of applying for conscientious objector status and refusing to serve any longer in Iraq. Marine Corps reservist Stephen Funk was the first enlisted man to publicly refuse deployment to Iraq, and he spent 6 months in prison as a result. He said: "I will not obey an unjust war based on deception by our leaders."
Dan Felushko enlisted as a Marine after September 11, 2001. When ordered to Iraq he deserted, commenting: "I didn't want 'Died Deluded in Iraq' over my gravestone. I didn't see a connection between the attack on America and Saddam Hussein."
Some who have deserted and been AWOL for months or years have decided that it is their proper duty to turn themselves in and face court martial. Ricky Clousing has done this. He explains why in this video.
Agustin Aguayo has done the same and faces charges with a maximum penalty of 7 years.
In many cases, turning yourself in is not easy. Pvt. Kyle Snyder, who spent Thanksgiving helping restore houses in New Orleans with Iraq Veterans Against the War, is currently AWOL and says that his lawyer has tried to contact the military 75 times.
The Army used to pay bounties for turning in deserters. Now the U.S. military leaves deserters alone but requires the troops who don't desert to serve longer than they agreed to. (These days we even elect deserters president. Bush was AWOL during the Vietnam War, and Clinton too avoided serving.) This is a break with the past, but much about resistance to the military has changed little since 1776.
Robert Fantina has just published a careful survey of past wars titled "Desertion and the American Soldier, 1776 2006." During the Revolutionary War, he tells us, one reason for desertion was the corporal punishment endured in the military. Men were often given 100 lashes. When George Washington was unable to convince Congress to raise the legal limit to 500 lashes, he considered using hard labor as a punishment instead, but dropped that idea because the hard labor was indistinguishable from regular service in the Continental Army. Soldiers also left because they needed food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and money. They signed up for pay, were not paid, and endangered their families' well being by remaining in the Army unpaid.
During the Mexican-American War, in a tribute to a future president, soldiers were branded on the face with a "W" if for some reason they were deemed worthless. This sort of treatment, as in the Revolutionary War, was one reason for desertions, but another reason played a large role and would play an increasingly prominent role in desertions through the course of later wars: lack of belief in the cause.
Through the course of recounting the types of desertions prevalent during the various U.S. wars and peace time, Fantina slowly begins to make a case for reforms in the military that he believes would reduce desertions. By the time he's discussing World War I he's arguing as follows: "Without fundamental change that allows a man or woman to be, first and foremost a human being, and a soldier only by chosen occupation, the military will continue to struggle with desertion."
But if, as Fantina proposes, soldiers are permitted to resign at any time, will we not see mass resignations? If troops now serving in Iraq could legally choose to quit, wouldn't many of them do so?
Fantina lists the various rights that soldiers die fighting to supposedly protect but which, as soldiers, they are denied. He views this as hypocrisy and injustice. But is it not necessary in order to get people to kill each other?
Fantina describes cases in which deserters have been executed, deserters whose desertion put no one at risk, whose desertion was arguably justified, whose current lives were a threat to no one. "One can only wonder what good such [executions] accomplish," writes Fantina. But those who make war don't wonder much, I think. Does Fantina not see that he is calling into question the entire logic of war?
In the book's final pages, Fantina writes: "The following list of military reforms was suggested in 1903: over 100 years later, most of them are yet to be implemented, yet they would certainly contribute to a more stable military force:
1. Private soldiers to receive a substantial increase in pay.
2. The employment of trained cooks.
3. Recognition of the right of all soldiers of whatever position to engage in criticism and in free speech at all times and under all circumstances.
4. All the food a soldier wishes to eat, instead of being limited as at present, to an inadequate 'ration'.
5. Absolute amnesty to all deserters from the army and navy.
6. The erection of modern sanitary buildings at all places where troops are quartered.
7. Service in the army to be limited to two years.
8. Abolition of military salutes and all other imbecile and servile practices.
9. Thorough practice in mobility, rapid field movements, quick concentration, with special attention to supplying the troops promptly and regularly with abundant, wholesome nourishing food.
10. All soldiers and officers, whatsoever, to eat exactly the same food, and to be housed or quartered alike at all times and in all places.
11. Prohibition of all forms of torture and violence."
Of course, Fantina is right. It is a disgrace the way we mistreat those who risk their lives for us. But would rectifying this produce a more stable force or a force likely to collapse when ordered to kill innocent people for power-mad cowboys and their oil profits?
Then again, would that be such a bad thing? Does anyone doubt for a minute that if the United States were actually threatened soldiers would sign up to fight proudly in its defense? Many did so following September 11, 2001. Many of them have since deserted. And rightly so. They, the deserters and resisters, are the ones to whom we owe the most gratitude.