Gene Sharp, a leading nonviolence educator and author of The Politics of Nonviolent Action, teaches that change is possible when a movement adopts a strategy that undermines a regime’s “pillars of support.” The Bush regime’s pillar of support in Iraq is the military. The peace movement’s adoption of a strategy that reduces first time military enlistments and the number of current service members willing to serve in Iraq could make the occupation unsustainable.
Only by involuntarily extending service contracts, activating guard or reserve personnel (many of whom haven’t served for years), and lowering the standards for new recruits can the military maintain its present capability. In reality these stopgap measures are limited in their efficacy and the signs of a strained military are starting to show.
Approximately 5,500 service members have been classified as deserters since the invasion of Iraq. Some have fled to Canada and three of them are engaged in high profile immigration hearings as they plead for asylum. Conscientious objector applications are up, some branches aren’t meeting recruiting quotas, and re-enlistments aren’t meeting ideal levels. The Pentagon is tapping the Individual Ready Reserves for critical skills, such as those in the medical field.
In December reports surfaced about service members refusing to deploy to Iraq, a soldier publicly challenged Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about vehicle armor, and lawsuits were filed by reservists against the military for involuntary extensions of their active duty. Military family members are steadily organizing to get their loved ones home. We’ve read stories of veterans being maltreated by the military and VA after getting wounded or separating from the service, and homeless advocates are now sounding the alarm about Iraq veterans showing up in homeless shelters.
All the above is gradually encroaching on the consciousness of the American public. Students and peace groups across the country are discussing and planning what to do in the event of a draft, and even the lax corporate news media have taken some notice of the deterioration of our military and the situation in Iraq.
If the peace movement organizes and pursues a specific strategy to reduce the recruitment and retention of men and women available for military service, the sustainability of the occupation will reach a tipping point. Of course this will take time, and anger patriotic-minded people. There will be charges of treason and endangering the troops. However, this illegal war and occupation itself is treason, and our troops are already endangered.
To be effective this strategy must reach two populations: the military and youth under 24.
Peace and justice groups should mobilize to assist military members in applying for conscientious objector status, and arrange legal assistance for military members who are prosecuted for refusing to serve or deploy. We should dedicate ourselves to helping military personnel and their families leave the country to avoid deployment or continued military service.
We must also encourage military members to examine the occupation and question why we’re there, and help them understand that our presence in Iraq involves war crimes (e.g. the invasion, destruction of Falluja, Abu Ghraib). We can help soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen become aware of their obligation to refuse orders that violate international law – including orders that deploy them to support the occupation.
By appealing to youth susceptible to recruitment we can help them refuse to enlist in a military that’s being used illegally and immorally. In the process they can become active citizens who realize that we’re all responsible for the bloodshed in Iraq. By appealing to the compassion of our youth we can penetrate apathy and denial, persuade them that supporting our troops means getting them back home, and convince them that opposing the occupation is a moral act.
As we employ tactics such as letters to the editor, leafleting, op-ed writing, pickets near recruiting offices, and organizing in every high school and college, we will seek to generate sympathy for those who refuse to enlist and those who refuse to serve in Iraq. As more men and women find the courage to refuse the peace movement can “frame the debate” in favor of immediate U.S. withdrawal. Should there be a draft the incidences of refusal will escalate dramatically. Soon every American will confront the consequences of our foray into Iraq and ask if it’s worth the price.
The end of the occupation can then begin.
Mike Kress is an Air Force veteran (87-94) who served in the Persian Gulf (Operation Southern Watch) and left the military as a conscientious objector. He is the vice chair of the Spokane Human Rights Commission and sits on the steering committee of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane (www.pjals.org).