I want to discuss Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), but first a little background on you. Can you tell us about your service in Iraq? When were you in Iraq?
I served as a medic in a tank battalion in Iraq from March to November of 2004. I went over there with the North Carolina Army National Guard’s 30th Brigade Combat Team and we were assigned to the regular Army’s 1st Infantry Division. I had two main jobs while I was there. I was either working in our clinic where we saw everything from the cold and flu to sports injuries and gunshot wounds, or I was going out with platoons on patrols of towns, roads, or to get supplies
Were you critical of the war before you were sent to Iraq? How did your feelings toward the war and occupation change while you were there?
I was definitely critical of the war before it began and I protested it during the build up, after it started, and until I left. When I first got to Fort Jackson (South Carolina) in October of 2001, I was meeting all of these people being called out of the Individual Ready Reserve and they were telling me that an invasion of Iraq was next. I was skeptical at first, but when it hit the papers I realized that those people warning me had honestly known.
Once I got there, what I saw was a lot worse than what I could have ever imagined. All of the things we had been told that we were going there to do were shown unequivocally to be lies. We were told we weren’t supposed to treat Iraqi civilians unless they were about to die and only if that injury was a result of an attack directed at us or inflicted by us. Our supervisor told my platoon that “the Geneva Conventions don’t exist in Iraq and that’s in writing if any of you want to see it.”
He really said that? What did he mean? How did this make you feel?
Those were his exact words in front of about eight soldiers. I think it caught us all initially by surprise, that someone in command would say such a thing. Obviously, he wasn’t coming up with that on his own. He’d been instructed that it was the policy in place and to make sure that it was followed.
He wanted us to put aside any reservations we had about doing things that violated the Geneva Conventions, our roles as non-combatants, or our ethics. Again, this stuff isn’t something a sergeant just makes up laying in his bunk at night. This is coming from the top on down, and it’s a shame that the people responsible for propagating these policies will never be held accountable. Hearing it said openly and publicly definitely didn’t make me feel comfortable with my leadership or with the direction that the military was headed in.
You could have been held accountable for violating the rules of the Geneva Convention. Had you ever thought about reporting what he said so he — or whoever made that policy — could be held responsible?
Of course, I thought of reporting him, but who would I turn him in to? His boss was telling him to say that. I think that when you look at these things, they are coming from the Secretary of Defense and probably higher. I decided that I wasn’t going to do anything that I wasn’t comfortable doing and take note if I witnessed anything that I believed to be illegal. I think that’s all someone can do in that kind of a situation.
Did you have other experiences that had a similar disillusioning effect on you?
My unit got to our base inside Iraq almost a year to the day after the war started. I think that for most of us the WMD issue had become a joke at that point. I was repeatedly told that we were going there to help the Iraqi people. Shortly after getting there, we were told that we weren’t to treat Iraqi civilians unless they were about to die and that their injury had been caused by an attack or perceived attack on US forces — things like people being shot at checkpoints, roadside bombs meant for us that injured civilians, or car bombs meant for us that injured civilians. Some captain isn’t making these rules up in his tent; these come from the top and have been Department of Defense policy since day one.
Civilians were turned away at our gate and told to go use their own facilities. Once you see these facilities, it’s readily apparent why they’re not being used. The hospitals in my area had only one type of antibiotic, no glass in the windows, little if any functioning diagnostic equipment, reused surgical instruments without proper sterilization, and on and on.
Even when on patrol in towns, we were expected to turn civilians away. Our leadership would have informal investigations if they thought any medicine was missing and had been given to civilians. They kept basic life-saving medical equipment under lock and key in a shipping container. I was really sickened by the total lack of value they had for any life, American or Iraqi.
The events of 9/11 were especially tragic for you — your aunt and uncle were killed in the World Trade Center. How did this personal tragedy affect your views on the war and what you were made to do in Iraq?
I certainly felt that it was misguided and a total misallocation of resources. What really bothered me, though, was hearing people in the military say that that was why we were there or that weapons of mass destruction had been found. All of the misconceptions that the American public has are repeated by some of the people there that should know better. There are certainly those within the military that believe that we are there for some kind of revenge. I don’t think that this country needs any more enemies in the world, and that’s all we’re creating by being in Iraq. To see the children being radicalized by what they were seeing and the way that they were living gives me pause when I think about how the world will look in twenty years.
Speaking of the situation in Iraq, what can you tell us about the effects of war and occupation on Iraqis?
I didn’t see any improvement in the situation for the locals during my time there. The most I saw being done for the civilian infrastructure was the paving of some roads. The real construction and real money are going to build large military complexes, so that the US military can set up a permanent presence in Iraq. We were eighteen months into the war and the Iraqi hospital still didn’t have glass in some of its windows and only one type of antibiotic.
When did you join IVAW and what made you decide to join?
I joined IVAW at their first formal national meeting here in Philly in January 2005.
I got back to the states two days before Thanksgiving in 2004. At a Thanksgiving party I met Jim Talib, who was a member of IVAW. It was a strange night, and neither of us really wanted to talk about the war. It’s easier to try and put all that behind you and try to get on with your life. But, at the same time, you realize that you can’t remain silent because it will continue and get stronger. My main motivation has always been to stop other servicemen and women from having to go through what I went through. My job as a medic was to look out for soldiers’ morale, welfare, and safety. It’s a job I took very seriously, and I’m doing more towards that end now than I ever did in the military. The leadership of the military and politicians has abdicated that responsibility, and I think that, if ever our men and women in the military needed an advocate, it’s right now.
But you were hesitant to get involved at first. Why was this? How did you actually get active? Where did you begin?
It’s not easy for vets to get out there and become active, and I think people in the movement need to appreciate that a lot more than they do. They have to deal with a lot of issues like PTSD, and some are still in the military and subject to harassment, being made to feel anti-troops and so on. People that have been there and witnessed what’s going on have the most powerful voice to inform the American public at large of the realities of this war.
Jim Talib actually signed me up for a talk without telling me. He said that people really needed to hear my story. So, two days before this talk, he calls and tells me about it and says that I should probably start writing notes. I definitely wasn’t ready for it and it was difficult. I’d never spoken publicly before, and to add that to only being home for about a month, it was tough. That first night I spoke out about the war was at a library in a suburb of Philly to a full house, and the local media even turned out and heavily covered it.
You mentioned PTSD. A lot of noise was made about the recent 2,000th death amongst US soldiers in Iraq, but this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Well, I think you have a lot of issues any time that you talk about the casualties from this war. The first issue is that only soldiers who die in Iraq or Kuwait are counted on the killed-in-action lists. That’s to say that soldiers that die of injuries days, weeks, or months later in Germany or the US are not counted as having been killed by the war.
The second issue being the “wounded” of this war. Soldiers are surviving injuries that they never would have in the past and are expected to return to society with horrific disabilities. I was just reading a Washington Post article about a soldier that was a triple amputee and had a traumatic brain injury. Also, those with mental health issues from this war are not counted. I think that they are some of the most dangerous injuries because of the difficulty in diagnosing and treating them.
Did you experience any form of PTSD upon your return, and do you still?
I did have some problems when I first got back. I think that it’s hard for anyone who has been in that environment to switch back to the way they were before they went at the snap of a finger. That’s why I think that it’s so important for the men and women coming back to get in touch with other vets and to know that they’re not alone in the things that they’re going through. I was very lucky to meet a lot of guys shortly after I got back and it helped me out a great deal.
Do you think there are a lot of returning soldiers who are against the war and occupation, but that carry the same kinds of fears, doubts, and sense of isolation that you initially had when you returned from Iraq?
I absolutely believe that that’s the case. The overwhelming desire is to put all of that behind you and to get on with your life. It’s not fun to dwell on some of those things, so school, work, and other things become a distraction that you need. It takes most people a while to digest what they’ve seen and to decide where they want to go with it.
You mentioned before that you believe some soldiers are hesitant to speak out for fear of being seen as “anti-troops.” What do you think of the “support the troops” rationale? How do you think IVAW can challenge this?
Maybe it’s a little jaded, but I look at it this way. When I was over there, I didn’t want to get stale brownies or a five-minute phone card in the mail. I wanted the American people demanding to know why hundreds of soldiers are dead for lies. Because they were sent into a country that was no threat to this one, without basic equipment, ammunition, training, or even so much as a plan. The only way that you can support the troops is to demand answers and to hold people accountable.
Do you think the example of soldiers and vets like yourself speaking out helps increase the confidence of others who feel uneasy about their experiences in Iraq?
Absolutely, I think that, if we didn’t have the guys in VVAW (Vietnam Veterans Against the War) to set an example for us, many of us wouldn’t have come out publicly. The military is a strange place when you start to question the party line. You feel ostracized and you start to wonder if you’re the only one that feels the way that you do. So, I think it’s important that members of the military know they have a place to go, that they will be welcomed (mostly), and that they see that the American public wants to know the truth. We’re not a partisan organization; we talk about the issues that aren’t being addressed and are costing people their lives.
I went into the military as a medic because I wanted to be a part of taking care of the health, safety, and morale of soldiers. I realized while I was in Iraq that I could do a lot more towards that end outside of the military than I ever could inside it. Really, there are two wars going on right now; one to end the actual war and another one to get the men and women that return the care that they deserve.
How would you articulate the basic mission of IVAW?
IVAW has a three part platform: one, an immediate withdrawal of all US forces. Two, real aid directly to the people of Iraq to rebuild that country. And three, real healthcare (including mental) for the veterans of this conflict. A lot of our members also work on other issues as well, such as radiological munitions, educating kids about the realities of military service, educating members of the military on the conscientious objector process, and setting up sessions where vets of the Iraq War can get together and talk about the war.
How big is the organization right now? How do you view IVAW’s future prospects for growth? What are some of the biggest obstacles towards growth (in size and influence) for IVAW?
IVAW was founded by six people in July of 2004 and has grown to three hundred members in just fifteen months. Vets are definitely looking for a way to get involved in stopping this war, and as soon as they find out we exist, they join and get active. As time goes on, we will get stronger and stronger because resentment is building within the military. The biggest obstacle we face is just getting our name out there and letting vets know a focused voice exists for them to help stop this war. We are almost completely funded by donations, so we can’t afford expensive advertisements in the mainstream media. We rely on word-of-mouth and face-to-face meetings at protests and other antiwar events.
Do you work with other antiwar military-related organizations like Military Families Speak Out (MFSO), Gold Star Families for Peace (GSFP), and Veterans for Peace (VFP)? How do you see IVAW’s relationship to these organizations?
We work with MFSO, GSFP, and VFP quite often. I think that vets and their families have the clearest and strongest voice to speak the truths about this war. My wife joined MFSO shortly after I left for Iraq and members of my unit’s Family Support Group cursed at her. She actually sent me an email while I was still there about IVAW’s first forming.
How do you see antiwar soldiers and veterans being able to affect public opinion on the war and occupation?
I think that those of us who have been there and our families are the most qualified to talk about this war. We’ve seen the inner workings and felt the consequences. We speak in a clear voice about the issues and largely put aside the politics. To me, this isn’t about politics — it’s about principles. The principle that as Americans the only values we should be exporting to other countries are peace and social justice. The principle that those responsible for this criminal misuse of the military must be held accountable, so something like this never happens again. It’ll definitely be a long fight, and I would beseech everyone out there to get involved. Many organizations need your help and would be grateful to receive it. Dr. King said it best, “Our lives begin to end when we stop speaking out about the things that matter.” As someone who took an oath to do so, I will continue to defend this country and its Constitution against all enemies — foreign and domestic.
As someone looking to organize vets against the war and occupation, how responsive has the civilian antiwar movement been? Any criticisms?
I know that the Rolling Stone article about the antiwar effort didn’t enthuse a lot of people on the far left, but I thought that it was right on the money. We have to start looking at how to get the average American involved and on our side. Having a protest that is supposed to be only about getting us out of Iraq and then letting it get hijacked by a bunch of political opportunists does nothing to keep the people from Middle America at their first protest coming back. But, that’s always been the case, and it’s why the movement isn’t taken seriously and never goes anywhere. Too many egos get in the way, and people do offensive things that turn people off. A lot of the stuff in D.C. on the weekend of September 24th was just beyond the pale, it was disrespectful to the reason that I was there.
You have to unite people around a cause like the war that they already agree with you about, and then get them thinking about how their government behaves in other areas. The Right was able to tie together all of their disparate movements and fringes and agree on basic principles to advance their overall agenda, and that’s why they’re winning right now. It’s a shame that we can’t do the same and get to work on accomplishing some of the things that we care about so deeply.
Derek Seidman lives in Providence, RI. He co-edits the radical youth journal Left Hook. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.