Monday, May 28, 2012

The Courage to Resist

War is on our minds this Memorial Day weekend, even if that is not the implicit theme of the various parades and observances. Yet, through the long weekend’s honoring of soldiers and military veterans, we are essentially condoning the wars they fought in.

The familiar refrain repeated during the Memorial Day observances is the veterans honored died “fighting for our freedom.” This facile assertion, so readily accepted even by those who oppose war in general, flies in direct contrast to the myriad legislative rollbacks of our right to privacy, due process, and to peaceful assembly to name just a few. Whether any of the United States’ major wars (not to mention, our current ones) have truly made us freer as a nation is, indeed, a debatable point.

Often overlooked in the Memorial Day festivities are the soldiers who refused to fight. These are the conscientious objectors who did not agree with the war, with killing in general, or who did enlist only to later regret their involvement.

My grandfather, David Dario Marletta, was one such conscientious objector. He spent World War II in an Italian prison because he refused to fight in Mussolini’s army. He emerged at the war’s end, according to my grandmother, extremely weak and emaciated. He and my grandmother emigrated to Scotland, and later America, shortly after.

My grandfather (“Nonno” to me as a young boy) was a lifelong pacifist. While he despised Mussolini’s fascist regime, he later claimed, anecdotally, he would not have fought alongside the Allies, either. My grandfather hated war, and would not even entertain the thought of killing another human being—no matter how “noble” or “righteous” the cause.

My grandfather’s story is similar to that of Aaron Hughes, an Iraq war veteran who, since returning from battle, has come to regret his military service.

Hughes now works with the peace group, Iraq Veterans Against the War, and took part in the NATO summit protests last week in Chicago. During the protest, Hughes and a group of veterans-turned-peace-activists publicly returned their service medals as a show of their opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was profiled in a recent episode of Democracy Now!

Hughes served in Iraq and Kuwait and was in the Illinois National Guard from 2000-2006. In the piece, he explains how he slowly became disillusioned with the Iraq war, and the overall “War on Terror.” Hughes recalls the presence of young children on the Iraq-Kuwait border who would steal supplies and food from the U.S. military convoys that would travel through. Initially, Hughes thought, “These are the kids I’m going to help. These are the kids I’m here to help build a democracy for.”

But as the war waged on, he was dismayed to find the children did not abandon the post. They remained in desperate need of supplies. That was when Hughes began to doubt the war’s stated humanitarian intentions.

He tells host Amy Goodman:

[O]n my last convoy out of Iraq I watched my squad leader…cry. He kept saying, “What have we been doing?” That’s something that haunts me every day. What have we been doing? I ask that of everyone, seriously. What have we been doing? A decade-long war, what have we been doing? And the individuals that have to carry those mistakes on a daily basis are the communities in Afghanistan and the service members, that then return to a society with…high unemployment and very little care for them when they return.

Hughes goes on to note, despite the lofty rhetoric of “democracy” and “liberating civilians,” he and his fellow soldiers spent precious little training time focusing on such themes. He says:

…We’re trying to win the hearts and minds when that’s something the military has never been trained to do. When I went through basic training, I never once learned about democracy… When I got deployed to Iraq, we got about a 24-hour briefing on the culture of Iraq. You know people spend years studying democracy, studying political science, studying different cultures, in order to have a better understanding. We spend nine weeks learning how to kill people. And that’s the reality. That’s what you’re asked and that’s what you’re trained to do.

There are then, always a handful of soldiers, like Aaron Hughes, who find the courage to resist. Or, conscientious objectors, like my grandfather, who refuse to fight in the first place. These few understand that no political rationale, no threats to world security or supposed stockpiles of dangerous weapons, can justify the immorality of war. They understand, as Chris Hedges explains in his bestselling War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, that war “dominates culture, distorts memory, corrupts language and infects everything around it.”

During this weekend’s Memorial Day observations, we will be reminded of the bravery and heroism of the men and women of the armed forces. I would argue it also takes a certain kind of moral bravery not to fight, not to take another human’s life. We should honor those Americans as well. 

Members of Iraq Veterans Against the War hurl their service medals at the NATO protest in Chicago.

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