by Mitchell E. Potts
I am a Navy Veteran. I served on the U.S.S. Yosemite, and in 1991 was deployed to the Persian gulf as a part of Operation Desert Shield. I received an honorable discharge in March of 1993.
At some point during my service in the U.S. military, I realized that my own patriotism was being used against me to do the bidding of the rich elite that had intentionally set in motion the circumstances which led to the Persian Gulf War. I didn't figure that out all at once, but little by little I saw evidence that my own government has often had a hand in creating our own enemies. I like to imagine that had I known at the time, when I was ordered to sail to the Middle East, the extent to which the United States government had empowered and armed Saddam Hussein's Iraq, I would have chosen to be a conscientious objector. However, I can't be sure about that, because I am certain that in 1991 I truly believed I was playing a role in defending my country.
Because of my own experience, I have great empathy for those Americans serving in uniform who take pride in their role as a member of the United States armed services; I honestly believe they are mostly unaware that their patriotism is misplaced. Although, from the conversations I have had with some of them lately, I can see that they question many of their actions in fighting this endless War On Terror.
Now, I am an anti-war/peace activist. I have been spending quite a bit of time in Washington DC demonstrating against my own government's policies of war for profit. In doing so, I have been in a position to meet and talk with many people from across America that were visiting the capitol city; some of them have been individuals who have fought in Iraq.
On March 20th 2005, I played a part in a week long 24 hour a day vigil at the White House, sponsored by DC Anti-War Network, to mark the two year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. One night during that week, I had a very interesting conversation with a young man who was in the Air Force. He told he had flown in a B-2 Stealth Bomber during the initial invasion, and that he had personally dropped a lot of bombs on Iraqi cities.
Trying to withhold my judgment of his actions, I asked him the first question that came to my mind... "How did that make you feel?"
I was quite shocked by his answer. He boldly proclaimed, "I enjoyed it!" However, before I could respond, he amended his remark... "Actually, that's not exactly what I meant," he said in a much more somber tone, "I got a rush from it... and that is what I enjoyed."
"Oh," I replied; without informing him, I instantly starting to pray for this misguided person, as well as praying for all those affected by his actions.
A couple weeks after the DAWN vigil had ended, I was sitting at the White House Anti-Nuclear Vigil giving Concepcion, who has been there talking to the tourists everyday since 1981, a short bathroom break. In no time at all, I was surrounded by a large group of high school kids who seemed very interested in what I had to say. Before long, another young man, who identified himself as an Army soldier, entered into the conversation and said he was proud that he had been in Baghdad fighting for my right to Free Speech.
Ignoring his comment about defending my freedom, I started asking him about what it was like on the ground in Iraq. The majority of the students remained silent and listened as he and I engaged in a fairly polite dialogue. After he described the conditions he was subjected to during his service, I asked him if he knew about the Depleted Uranium that the U.S. military uses in armor piercing munitions. He said he knew about the low level radioactive material, and admitted that he was often in environments that he thought were probably contaminated with DU. He went on to tell the stunned crowd of students that, although there were official requirements for protection in such circumstances, he and his fellow soldiers seldom used the protection as it impeded their ability to fight; he vividly described trying to breathe while choking on the combination of smoke and sand he was forced to inhale while fulfilling his duties. I responded by telling him and the students what I knew about Gulf War Syndrome. He didn't say a word in response when I detailed the increased cancer and birth defect rates among veterans who had been exposed to DU in Iraq and Kosovo. I then asked him if he had any children. When he told me that he did not have any yet, I replied that I sincerely hoped that any children he might have in the future would not be affected by his exposure. You should have seen the depressed look on his face as he weakly uttered that he hoped so too.
My most intense conversation with soldiers who have taken part in the Iraq War, was outside Walter Reed Army Hospital at the Code Pink vigil that takes place every Friday night to shed light on the enormous amount of wounded soldiers that are brought onto the base under the cover of darkness. One night at the beginning of May, Media Benjamin, Nancy Shia and I were talking to a couple of young men who were at the hospital recovering from their wounds; they came out to confront us about why we were there.
Mostly, we just listened to them. We stood silently as a soldier, who said he had been involved in the Battle of Falluja, described his experiences there. After showing us the scars that indicated where a bullet had entered into the front of his throat and had exited from the back of his neck, he explained how he had felt that his buddies in his squad were like family to him; he said that he missed the feeling of camaraderie he had felt.
I asked him if they ever prayed. He laughed out loud at that. He said they did not ever pray that he could remember. When I asked him if he felt like the members of his squad were played the role of God in that they were the omniscient eyes and ears that served to help each other stay alive, he agreed with that.
The part of this particular conversation that stands out in my mind the most is when he described the day to day routine of his actions in Iraq. He told me some things that I have not heard reported in the so called "liberal media".
He described how they would often raid schools, even more than mosques, because that is where many of the insurgents would hide out. He also told me that the one thing he felt the worst about his actions in Iraq was that the U.S. Soldiers would routinely round up the kids and use them as human shields. I asked him why they did that, and he replied that it was because the Muslims would not shoot their own children. He repeated that he did not feel good about doing that, but said that it was the only way for him to survive sometimes.
About that time, another soldier who had been listening piped in and told me that he didn't mind us protesting because they had fought for my freedoms. I didn't ignore that comment this time; I told him I was a Navy veteran who had spent time in the Persian Gulf the first time around, and I did not need him to fight for me. Furthermore, I informed him that my status as a veteran is not what gives me the right to Free Speech, and that everyone was entitled to that as an inalienable right. He intensely listened to me as I went on to explain that I felt those of us who were demonstrating and protesting were actually the ones who were securing his freedoms, and that if it were not for people like me, then the soldiers who are fighting in foreign countries would return home to America to find that they had no rights or freedoms left.
When he questioned me about this, I detailed my own recent experiences demonstrating in DC. I told him how I was arrested simply for peacefully kneeling on the steps at the U.S. Supreme Court. I told him about the numerous times I have heard Secret Service and Park Police blatantly lie to me and other protestors in regard to the regulations at the White House. I told him about how police in DC and NYC had arbitrarily swept up peaceful protestors and innocent bystanders alike in an attempt to suppress Constitutionally protected Free Speech. He seemed dumbfounded; I think I gave him a lot to think about.
I must note here that each of the young men I have included in this essay have told me they would go back to fight for freedom again if asked to do so. One thing I can say about all these conversations, is that the soldiers involved were all polite and able to maintain a dialogue without any macho self-righteous undertones. I feel that the people who have actually been a part of the Neo-Con's perpetual war are much more respectful than the average right wing zombies that yell and scream at me about how I am committing treason for exercising my First Amendment rights.