The transition from pride to shame was a common theme among the more than forty veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who publicly hurled their medals in the direction of the NATO summit in Chicago on Sunday as part of a reconciliation ceremony. One by one, they explained their decision, many describing themselves as remaining proud to have served with what they considered courage, integrity and selflessness until a sense of unease about the missions' aims and tactics set in, making them now regard their participation in the wars as reprehensible, dishonorable and cause for remorse.
Greg Miller, an infantryman who served in Iraq in 2009, said, "The military hands out cheap tokens like this to soldiers, to service members, in an attempt to fill the void where their conscience used to be before they indoctrinate it out of you. But that didn't work on me."
Christopher May, a Mohawk on his head and tattoos on his arm, said, "I left the army as a conscientious objector. We were told that these medals represented democracy and justice and hope and change for the world ... These medals don't mean anything to me and they can have them back."
Maggie Martin, an Army sergeant who served two tours of duty in Iraq, said, "No amount of medals, ribbons or flags can cover the amount of human suffering caused by these wars. We don't want this garbage. We want our human rights. We want our right to heal."
Jason Hurd returned his medals "in solidarity with the people of Iraq and the people of Afghanistan. I am deeply sorry for the destruction that we have caused in those countries and around the globe. I am proud to stand on this stage with my fellow veterans and my Afghan sisters. These were lies and I'm giving them back."
Steve Ashton returned his "for the children of Iraq and Afghanistan. May they be able to forgive us for what we've done to them, may we begin to heal and may we live in peace from here until eternity."
Matt Howard, a Marine twice deployed to Iraq returned his "for all my brothers and sisters affected with traumatic brain injury, military sexual trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder."
Scott Olsen, who was nearly killed by riot police at Occupy Oakland last fall, held four medals in his hand. "These medals, once upon a time, made me feel good about what I was doing. They made me feel like I was doing the right thing. But I came back to reality and I don't want these any more." Then he threw them into the street.
As the veterans marched away in formation, a group of protesters linked arms and, in a bloc, began chanting, "Shut down NATO," and proceeded slowly forward up to where the Chicago Police Department's (CPD) battalion stood. The CPD were all clad in armor and weaponry, so that they more resembled commandos occupying a war-torn country than officers of the law in a supposedly liberal American city.
An elderly woman placed herself in front of the protesters and pled with them not to proceed. En masse, they decided to circumvent her. As they reached the police's front line, the officers began to put their weaponry to good use. All around me, chaos broke out. Police officers shouted at the protesters to move back, some police using their clubs for pushing, others swinging them ferociously, badly bloodying the heads of at least four people in my immediate vicinity.
"Medic!" their comrades would shout and, by some miracle, word would get to ad hoc medics who were able to part the sea of tightly packed bodies and come to the rescue. A team of protesters formed a protective barrier around the elderly woman, who demanded to go up to the front line as a sanity check on the police, who ignored her and continued to shove and beat protesters.
Some in the black bloc attempted to strike back, insofar as was possible, by throwing empty water bottles, flags and sign-posts into the police's ranks, projectiles which the CPD's state-of-the-art armor was more than sufficient to repel. One cop was allegedly stabbed in the leg, as Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy tearfully reported to the press. No official tears were shed, however, for the hundreds upon hundreds of nonviolent protesters who became caught up in the one-sided battle.
Perhaps, members of the CPD will someday admit, as the veterans yesterday did, that their service conduct was in error. Perhaps, someday, they will regard their memories of bludgeoning dissidents' heads with remorse and object to the damage this weekend did to their consciences. Perhaps, they will even someday discard their honors and begin to question the righteousness of a heavily militarized police force's violent repression of dissent.
But yesterday was not that day.