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Support Our Troops

Monday, 22 June 2009 11:55 By Leslie Thatcher, Truthout Book Review and Interview | name.

Support Our Troops
Conscientious objector Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia, quoted in "Rules of Disengagement": "If you want to support the troops, you cannot support the war." (Artwork: Gregory Moore www.gregmooreart.com/portraits.html)

"Rules of Disengagement:
The Politics and Honor of Military Dissent"
By Marjorie Cohn and Kathleen Gilberd
Poll Point Press, Sausalito, 2009.

    "As you know, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time."

    - Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at a town hall meeting with US troops in Kuwait, December 8, 2004

    Although regular Truthout contributor, National Lawyers Guild president and Thomas Jefferson School of Law professor Marjorie Cohn and longtime activist co-author Kathleen Gilberd conceived "Rules of Disengagement: The Politics and Honor of Military Dissent" as "a practical guide, not an abstract analysis" and have certainly produced a primer on the available legal and honorable means for redress of the many grievances the US military may suffer, they have also authored a deeply suggestive meditation on the military "we have" and how it may have come to be the source of so many and such varied grievances.

    Their crucial insight - which runs counter to the complete anti-military bias of some in the anti-war movement - is that "Poor healthcare, poor gear, poor safety conditions, poor training, and the use of racist stereotypes and sexism are not inherent in a military - rather they are inherent in a military fighting illegal and immoral wars and ignoring basic rules of engagement ..."[1] Cohn and Gilberd are on the side of US service members who didn't check their conscience - and their sense of honor - at the door when they signed up.

    "Rules of Disengagement" provides a brief history of service member challenges to illegal war based on the Nuremberg Principles and Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) which establish a duty to disobey unlawful orders. The authors determine that while US military judges have been largely unwilling to rule that US military engagements per se are unlawful, they have sometimes been open to using such arguments to mitigate sentencing of service members who resist or refuse orders on the basis of their illegality.

    A chapter on conscientious objection highlights specific cases and focuses on clarifying the actual law and means for redress while debunking some of the stereotypes about conscientious objectors that prevent service members from applying for that status when it covers their situation. The authors maintain that a large number of service members who could be eligible to be conscientious objectors go AWOL, unaware that they might qualify as COs. They also helpfully point out that the chances of achieving CO status are enhanced when the belief system used as the basis for the application is religious, i.e. NOT political.

    Once objection to all war or a specific war is covered, the authors move on to the law of war which requires that the US promulgate rules of engagement (ROE) for its military "that place limitations on the use of force to ensure its lawful use," most notably that all possible measures be taken to protect civilians. They cover the Winter Soldier Investigation in 1971 and 2008, showing the devastating long-term impact on service members themselves resulting from the military's failure to communicate and/or respect ROE in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. "Rules" also highlights the risks and rights of service members who testify publicly concerning war crimes they witnessed or participated in.

    Cohn and Gilberd cover the various forms of dissent available to members of the military and "examine the military's heavy-handed response to even the most legal forms of dissent." And although, as they illustrate, even the most protected forms of dissent may provoke informal and illegal or extra-legal reprisals, service members' courage, imagination and ingenuity in devising new and legal forms of dissent maintain and enlarge the space for freedom of speech and belief among active duty military, and even ultimately change the laws and rights that apply. Both authors (see interview below) feel that dissent by GIs and their families is critical to military disengagement from Iraq and Afghanistan and to preventing future wars of aggression.

    "When soldiers cannot be motivated by patriotism and the belief that they are fighting for a just cause, other basic motivating concepts must be found to replace them. Sexism, racism, and homophobia are coldly and manipulatively used to get soldiers to fight." Racism is used to objectify the enemy and make it easier for troops to kill. Sexism, including sexual assault, is part of a training process that intentionally uses sexual images and sexual brutality. These attitudes, inculcated for use against "the enemy," backfire in the harassment of and assaults on US armed services members by US armed services members Truthout has reported on extensively. Although one might imagine that this blowback would be so damaging to troop morale and necessary camaraderie the military would revise its training and retool its culture, Cohn and Gilberd document how deeply entrenched racist and sexist attitudes are in the military, how they are used - and what recourse is available to troops who have been victimized.

    Someone not following the news might also imagine the military would assure the best medical treatment available for its own: Gilberd and Cohn cover the now all-too-familiar territory of biased misdiagnoses of PTSD, the prevalence of suicide among GIs and vets and the continuing failures of the veterans' health care system, while offering valuable advice about how service personnel and their families can push the system into more responsive - and responsible - directions.

    "Rules" also covers the other types of discharge available to military personnel, as well as the roadblocks to be expected and the resources to get around or through those roadblocks, the importance of military families as advocates and the parallels in "mission and condition" between the military and society. The authors document how troops and their families become radicalized when the military fails to take care of its own and blatantly disregards its own rules. Finally, for those who read "Rules" as the primer it is designed to be, the Appendix offers a list of resources for service people and their families who find themselves in any of the situations the book describes.

    While most of the many individual examples Cohn and Gilberd reference will be familiar to Truthout readers, there is great power to the overall perspective "Rules" conveys of a military that treats its own troops like the "disposable weapons" it presumably wishes they were (how else to explain all the research and development devoted to drones, predators and robots?) and the heroic refusal of so many troops to become so objectified. While the men and women the authors describe discover that the meaning, order, security and purpose they hoped to find in the military were illusory, their own idealism and persistence create higher order meaning; order, security and purpose, and refine their own characters as well as the character of the military and society itself. While sometimes dispiriting, ultimately "Rules of Disengagement" is an inspiring document that challenges each of us to act with dignity to assert the inalienable worth of every member of society, to reimagine a society from which "the military that we want" could arise.


    Translation: Truthout French language editor This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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Interview with Marjorie Cohn and Kathleen Gilberd, authors of "Rules of Disengagement: The Politics and Honor of Military Dissent"

Monday 15 June 2009

    Leslie Thatcher: Marjorie Cohn, you dedicate "Rules" to your father and husband, both "veterans for peace." What was the impetus behind this book for you both?

    Marjorie Cohn: As a veteran of the anti-Vietnam War movement, I was mindful of the central role the GI movement played in helping to end that war. The resistance of soldiers and sailors to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars could also play a crucial part in ending those wars. I have testified as an expert witness in military hearings on the illegality of today's wars. There is a duty to obey a lawful order, but also a duty to disobey an unlawful order. An order to deploy to an illegal war is an unlawful order, so it is lawful to resist the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I've worked with Kathy Gilberd for many years in the National Lawyers Guild, and since she is a national expert on military administrative law, I thought it would be great to collaborate with her on this book.

    Kathy Gilberd: Two things compelled me to work on this. First, the rapid growth of dissent within the military, in its many forms, deserves recognition and support from those of us who share GIs' concerns about these wars and about basic human rights. The book provided a way to speak to dissenting service members, to let them know that support and legal assistance are available in the civilian community. "Rules" was designed to put service members in touch with civilian resources and with the very regulations that can protect them against the military. Second, these wars have angered me on a really visceral level. It is almost impossible to calculate the loss of life, culture, infrastructure and resources in Iraq and Afghanistan. And while the numbers are smaller, I am also appalled at the government's refusal to care for its own, to provide US service members with basic necessities - health care, psychological care, protection from sexual assault, etc. The decision to ignore basic human needs in order to maintain a flow of "manpower" and weaponry is evident in the stories of service members and veterans with whom we talk, some of whom will never recover from the devastation of the wars. The soldiers subjected to this abuse should have their stories told, and the American people need to know that government's promises to take care of its troops are simply empty.

    Leslie Thatcher: [1]A stunning passage that seems to go to the heart of your project suggests, in a theme you revert to throughout the book, that another military is possible. Can you describe that ideal military?

    Marjorie Cohn: When our troops are asked to fight in an illegal war where war crimes are being committed, that affects their morale, as it did in Vietnam. If our military were used in a defensive manner, instead of prosecuting illegal wars and occupations, our soldiers and sailors would be much more willing to serve. We must also stop using poison weapons like depleted uranium which, like the US military's use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, harm our troops as well as the people in the countries we are fighting.

    Kathy Gilberd: Currently, the military serves the interests of a small corporate portion of our society, rather than the interests and needs of the American people. But it is possible for the military to serve the whole of society, to reflect its wishes and needs. If it did, the military might undertake defensive wars, just wars, but not those designed to secure international resources that benefit only the corporate rich. While that sounds simplistic, it is possible to use a democratic system to decide national policy and national interests. In a military serving only those interests, it would not be necessary to coerce soldiers into fighting by dehumanizing and objectifying the "enemy" and desensitizing soldiers to violence. Without that training and motivation, problems such as sexual harassment and assault, homophobia, and racism, would not find such a comfortable environment to flourish in. And a military which did not serve exploitative purposes would not require the size and weaponry that bloat the military budget today, allowing a more rational allocation of funds for things like adequate medical care and proper equipment. A military reflective of democratic values in society would be more open and, to some extent, democratic, itself, allowing for redress of grievances without retaliation, allowing soldiers to bring the light of constitutional and international law onto their strategy and tactics. This doesn't require an army made up only of generals, but rather one in which the generals are accountable to the privates, and to the public.

    Leslie Thatcher: What do you consider to be the steps necessary to achieving "the military we want?"

    Marjorie Cohn: President Obama pledged to end the Iraq war, but he is continuing the occupation and it is doubtful that he will withdraw the US military bases from that country. Moreover, he has increased US military involvement in Afghanistan and stepped up the bombing of Pakistan. We must lobby Congress to cut off funds for the occupation of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan/Pakistan. That will force Obama to work diplomatically instead of pouring more lives and treasure into those illegal and ill-advised military involvements. Congress must also fund increased benefits for veterans and pressure the Veterans Administration to vastly improve the medical care it provides to our returning troops.

    Kathy Gilberd: This change cannot start in the military, but must originate in the government and the powers it serves. The government's view of itself as a global superforce carrying out a perpetual war to protect economic interests would need to give way to a more democratic and humane view. Only if our government steps back from this role, acknowledges the rights of other nations and the aspirations of other peoples, and allows real democratic choice in this country about foreign policy and warfare - only then can we make the changes in the military which would allow soldiers to serve their conscience and the requirements of constitutional and international law, and ensure that dehumanizing training does not pave the way for dehumanization of our own troops.

    In the short run, changes in the military can alleviate some of the problems soldiers face today. Conscientious objection needs to be expanded significantly to allow the many objectors who fall outside its requirements of total objection to qualify. Legal mechanisms can be set up to allow soldiers to raise and explore concerns about the violations of international law which we see so frequently in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, as with mechanisms to object to sexual harassment or racial violence, these need to be independent of the chain of command, and must include real protections against retaliation. If soldiers are allowed real redress of grievances, rather than the highly limited forms available under military law, the weight of their objections could have greater influence on military policy, and provide protection to individual soldiers faced with oppressive orders or practices.

    Leslie Thatcher: Marjorie Cohn and Kathleen Gilberd, thank you both for the interview and for your wonderful book.

Last modified on Monday, 22 June 2009 15:04