Page 1 of 3 Marching out of step in the US military
By Dahr Jamail
(Research support for this article was provided by the
Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute.)
On May 1, at Fort Hood in central Texas, Specialist Victor Agosto wrote on a
counseling statement, which is actually a punitive United States Army memo:
is no way I will deploy to Afghanistan. The occupation is immoral and unjust.
It does not make the American people any safer. It has the opposite effect.
Ten days later, he refused to obey a direct order from his company commander to
prepare to deploy and was issued a second counseling statement. On that one he
wrote, "I will not
obey any orders I deem to be immoral or illegal." Shortly thereafter, he told a
reporter, "I'm not willing to participate in this occupation, knowing it is
completely wrong. It's a matter of what I'm willing to live with."
Agosto had already served in Iraq for 13 months with the 57th Expeditionary
Signal Battalion. Currently on active duty at Fort Hood, he admits, "It was in
Iraq that I turned against the occupations. I started to feel very guilty. I
watched contractors making obscene amounts of money. I found no evidence that
the occupation was in any way helping the people of Iraq. I know I contributed
to death and human suffering. It's hard to quantify how much I caused, but I
know I contributed to it."
Even though he was approaching the end of his military service, Agosto was
ordered to deploy to Afghanistan under the stop-loss program that the
Department of Defense uses to retain soldiers beyond the term of their
contracts. At least 185,000 troops have been stop-lossed since September 11,
Agosto betrays no ambivalence about his willingness to face the consequences of
Yes, I'm fully prepared for this. I have concluded that
the wars [in Iraq and Afghanistan] are not going to be ended by politicians or
people at the top. They're not responsive to people, they're responsive to
corporate America. The only way to make them responsive to the needs of the
people is for soldiers to not fight their wars. If soldiers won't fight their
wars, the wars won't happen. I hope I'm setting an example for other soldiers.
Today, Agosto's remains a relatively isolated act in an all-volunteer military
built to avoid the dissent that, in the Vietnam era, came to be associated with
an army of draftees. However, it's an example that may, soon enough, have far
greater meaning for an increasingly overstretched military plunging into an
expanding Afghan War seemingly without end, even as its war in Iraq continues.
Writing on his blog from Baquba, Iraq, in September 2004, Specialist Jeff
Englehart commented: "Three soldiers in our unit have been hurt in the last
four days and the true amount of army-wide casualties leaving Iraq are unknown.
The figures are much higher than what is reported. We get awards and medals
that are supposed to make us feel proud about our wicked assignment ...
Over the years, in response to such feelings, some American soldiers have come
up with ingenious ways to express defiance or dissent on our distant
battlegrounds. These have been little noted in the mainstream media, and when
they do surface, officials in the Pentagon or in Washington just brush them
aside as "bad apple" incidents (the same explanation they tend to use when a
war crime is exposed).
But in the stories of men and women who served in the occupation of Iraq, they
often play a different role. In October 2007, for instance, I interviewed
Corporal Phil Aliff, an Iraq War veteran, then based at Fort Drum in upstate
New York. He recalled:
During my stints in Iraq between August 2005 and
July 2006, we probably ran 300 patrols. Most of the men in my platoon were just
in from combat tours in Afghanistan and morale was incredibly low. Recurring
hits by roadside bombs had demoralized us and we realized the only way we could
avoid being blown up was to stop driving around all the time. So every other
day we would find an open field and park, and call our base every hour to tell
them we were searching for weapon caches in the fields and everything was going
fine. All our enlisted people had grown disenchanted with the chain of command.
Aliff referred to this tactic as engaging in "search-and-avoid" missions, a
sardonic expression recycled from the Vietnam War when soldiers were sent out
on official "search-and-destroy" missions.
Sergeant Eli Wright, who served as a medic with the 1st Infantry Division in
Ramadi from September 2003 through September 2004, had a similar story to tell
me. "Oh yeah, we did search-and-avoid missions all the time. It was common for
us to go set camp atop a bridge and use it as an over-watch position. We would
use our binoculars to observe rather than sweep, but call in radio checks every
hour to report on our sweeps."
According to Private First Class Clifton Hicks, who served in Iraq with the
First Cavalry from October 2003, only six months after Baghdad was occupied by
American troops, until July 2004, search-and-avoid missions began early and
always had the backing of a senior non-commissioned officer or a staff
"Our platoon sergeant was with us and he knew our patrols were bullshit, just
riding around to get blown up," he explained. "We were at Camp Victory at
Baghdad International Airport. A lot of the time we'd leave the main gate and
come right back in another gate to the base where there's a big PX with a nice
mess hall and a Burger King. We'd leave one guy at the Humvee to call in every
hour, while the others stayed at the PX. We were just sick and tired of going
out on these stupid patrols."
These understated acts of refusal were often survival strategies as well as
gestures of dissent, as the troops were invariably undertrained and
ill-equipped for the job of putting down an insurgency. Specialist Nathan
Lewis, who was deployed to Iraq with the 214th Artillery Brigade from March
2002 through June 2003, experienced this firsthand. "We never received any
training for much of what we were expected to do," he said when telling me of
certain munitions catching fire while he and other soldiers were loading them
onto trucks, "We were never trained on how to handle [them] the right way."
Sergeant Geoff Millard of the New York Army National Guard served at a Rear
Operations Center with the 42nd Infantry Division from October 2004 through
October 2005. Part of his duty entailed reporting "significant actions", or
SIGACTS - that is, attacks on US forces. In an interview in 2007 he told me,
"When I was there at least five companies never reported SIGACTS. I think
'search-and-avoids' have been going on for a long time. One of my buddies in
Baghdad e-mails that nearly each day they pull into a parking lot, drink soda,
and shoot at the cans."
Millard told me of soldiers he still knows in Iraq who were still performing
"search-and-avoid" missions in December 2008. Several other friends deploying
or redeploying to Iraq soon assured him that they, too, planned to operate in
Corporal Bryan Casler was first deployed to Iraq with the US Marine Corps in
2003, at the time of the invasion. Posted to Afghanistan in 2004, he returned
to Iraq for another tour of duty in 2005. He tells of other low-level versions
of the tactic of avoidance: "There were times we would go to fix a radio that
had been down for hours. It was purposeful so we did not have to deal with the
bullshit from higher [ups]. In reality, we would go so we could just chill out,
let the rest of the squad catch up on some rest as one stood guard. It's mutual
and people start covering for each other. Everyone knows what the hell's going