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The Slumbering Ranks

08.01.2004 | POLITICS

Back in March, the Army released the results of a poll conducted to gauge frontline morale in Iraq. It was hardly a shocker to learn that most of those stationed there almost a year after the fall of Baghdad weren't very happy about it. Confirming an earlier study published by the military paper Stars and Stripes, the Army found that morale was "low or very low" among a slight majority of U.S. soldiers, while almost three-quarters felt that battalion-level leadership showed a "lack of concern" for their safety.

The report was a wake-up call for a military establishment still haunted by Vietnam. When the rank and file soured on that war, G.I.s didn't just shoot themselves--the Iraq poll was commissioned after a rash of suicides--they famously turned their guns and grenades upon their superiors. By 1970, "fragging" unpopular officers rivaled the mainlining of Burmese brown as a popular jungle pastime. Desertion shot way up; reenlistment way down. The breakdown of the U.S. war machine in Indochina was so complete that some observers called it the biggest military collapse since the Tsarist armies abandoned the Eastern Front. Writing in the June 1971 issue of the Armed Forces Journal, Col. Robert D. Heinl described the U.S. military as "drug ridden and dispirited where not near mutinous."

It took about six years to reach this boiling point in Vietnam. If more than half the troops in Iraq were losing faith after a single year of relatively few casualties, how could U.S. commanders expect to maintain the discipline, order and morale needed for the long haul? Upon the poll's release, a senior army commander told the Washington Post he was "extremely worried by the numbers," adding that they should "set off alarm bells."

It's now been four months since the Army released its study. One hundred and thirty-six thousand U.S. soldiers remain in Iraq; many are neck-deep in their second brutal summer. The one-thousandth American casualty is loosely scheduled for late August. There is no discussion of setting a date for U.S. withdrawal, even though the Bush administration's case for the war has already been judged and shredded by History. Yet disruptive manifestations of widespread discontent among the ranks have not materialized. As of this writing, there are still only four known cases of soldiers refusing to deploy. Instances of outright combat refusal in Iraq have remained few and far between. To the Pentagon's surprise and relief, the branches are hitting or nearing their expanded recruitment goals. It's three months before a presidential election in which both candidates vow to continue the bloody occupation, and the highest-profile symbols of anger in the military are a few pro-Kerry vets in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11.

What's wrong with this picture?

Tod Ensign, director of New York-based Citizen Soldier, a non-profit G.I.-rights advocacy organization, attributes the lack of public dissent to the relatively fresh wound of 9/11, which fueled patriotism and created an immediate sense of war that has been manipulated by the Bush administration. He also points to the economy.

"The thinking is, 'This really sucks, but it's all I've got,'" says Ensign. "They want the G.I. Bill, they want their college loans repaid. It's not like the late-60s, when you could walk down the street and get another job. The cost of refusing is very high."

Still, there are signs that more soldiers may be getting ready to take their chances. The G.I. Rights Hotline, which provides counseling to soldiers considering deployment refusal or conscientious-objector status, claims it is now handling 3000 calls a month--a 50 percent increase from what it received in 2003.

Another possible storm cloud over the now-quiet Iraqi front is the founding of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), which announced itself to the world at a July press conference in Boston. The IVAW advocates immediate withdrawal and seeks to create political pressure at home while encouraging active-duty soldiers, reservists and recent veterans to come forward and speak out against the occupation. The founding membership totals just 12--double the number that hatched Vietnam Veterans Against the War in 1967. Within two years that group had grown to more than 30,000 active members demanding an end to the war, including a returning Navy lieutenant named John Kerry.

Michael Hoffman, co-founder of IVAW, stormed Baghdad with a First Marine Division artillery battery and observed the early months of the occupation from Tikrit, an experience that confirmed his worst fears. Not only was the war based and sold on lies, he says, U.S. troops are the problem in post-Saddam Iraq--not the solution. Upon his return he began working with veterans groups opposing the occupation, activity that led directly to the founding of IVAW, which he hopes will provide an outlet for the widespread G.I. anger he believes is simmering in Iraq.

"The organization will fill a void," says Hoffman. "It's really hard for guys over there to express themselves. Any of their stories that we can relay is a big thing, because the picture we're getting is filtered. The guys with the lowest morale are the guys with the least access to computers--in Najaf, Samarra, Fallujah. The guys in Baghdad who have it the best have the access to the computers all the time. The ones who are pushed out to the other areas are getting the worst of it. Right now there's no outlet for anti-war feeling. We'll be a magnet for venting. I expect a lot of people to come out of the woodwork."

One of the groups Hoffman contacted upon his return from Iraq was Military Families Speak Out, until the founding of IVAW the closest thing to a megaphone for antiwar sentiment among the enlisted. MFSO began with two families in November of 2002; it now contains more than 1500 families with new members joining every day. Co-founder Nancy Lessin, whose stepson completed a tour of Iraq last year, says the organization's growth tends to follow the news, especially when the president says something callous or stupid. When Bush declared the end of major combat on May 1, 2003 ("We knew that it was such a lie," she moans), membership exploded. When Bush taunted, "Bring 'em on!" in the face of rising Iraqi resistance, the phone calls and emails poured in.

Even if a groundswell of public refusers does emerge out of the work of groups like IVAW and MFSO, Tod Ensign worries that the support network won't be in place to handle it. During the height of the Vietnam War, there was a developed ring of counseling centers and coffee houses entrenched around U.S. bases all over the world, agitating against the war and offering legal assistance. There is currently only one such center, near Fort Bragg, called Quaker House. "If 10 to 20 people came forward tomorrow," says Ensign, "it would enormously strain whatever resources are out there. These are very difficult cases."

IVAW's Mike Hoffman is sadly confident that the occupation will drag on, and that many more than 20 soldiers will soon come out against it, led by returning vets. "If the war continues the way it is," he says, "I expect something like what happened in Vietnam. They have a chance to pull out the troops, but if the government sticks to its guns, it's gonna happen."

Should John Kerry be in the White House when Iraq veterans start tossing their medals in its direction, the irony will be thick. We know Kerry the decorated veteran can throw, but can he catch?

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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