Podcast (GW-E04): “It was a real snarl” – David Wiggins
In late 1990, Captain David Wiggins, MD, had his application for conscientious objection denied by the Army. The West Point grad was quickly sent to the Middle East. There, he refused to participate in the quickly escalating Gulf conflict. David went on a hunger strike, publicly resigned his commission, and eventually stopped obeying all orders.
“I’d remembered Tiananmen Square, and there was that guy who stood in front of the tanks. I thought that was a pretty good idea, I did that. I went into that intersection. I stood there and blocked all the traffic and took off my uniform and said, “I resign,” and just stood there in my underwear in the middle of the intersection. So it just, it stopped military traffic for miles. It was a real snarl.”
Gulf War @ 30
This Courage to Resist podcast was produced to mark 30 years since the U.S. aimed its imperial sights squarely on the Middle East. These are the voices of veterans who’s lives were transformed by that ongoing war. Interview and edit by Matthew Breems. Jeff Paterson, Executive Producer.
“If you disobey the orders, you’re going to go to jail. If you obey the orders, you’re going to basically show everybody that more or less you weren’t really sincere when you made that statement.”
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I’d remembered Tiananmen Square, and there was that guy who stood in front of the tanks. I thought that was a pretty good idea, I did that. I went into that intersection. I stood there and blocked all the traffic and took off my uniform and said, “I resign,” and just stood there in my underwear in the middle of the intersection. So it just, it stopped military traffic for miles. It was a real snarl.
This is the Courage to Resist podcast. Since 2005, Courage to Resist has worked to support military resistance to illegal and unjust wars, counter-recruitment, draft resistance, and the policies of empire. This episode features a guest with 30 years of current U.S. military intervention in the Middle East.
Former Army Dr. David Wiggins is the podcast guest today. After having his application for conscientious objection denied, David was sent to the Middle East nevertheless. There, he refused to participate in the quickly escalating Gulf conflict. David went on a hunger strike, publicly resigned his commission, and eventually stopped obeying all orders.
Well, David, thanks for taking the time to do the podcast today. I’m very interested to hear your experiences in the Gulf War. Like many young men growing up in America, you decided to go the way of the military. What caused you to make that decision for yourself personally?
I think it was just the political milieu, that I was brought up in it. I grew up in Upstate New York, which is actually quite rural and very conservative area of the country. It’s what Hillary Clinton called the deplorables. Basically, I grew up on the border of Pennsylvania and those mountains that cut across the State of Pennsylvania.
So as I was growing up, everybody’s opinion was that West Point or one of the military academies would be the most prestigious college that you could go to, and that military service would be sort of like one of the most prestigious professions. I did well in school, so I applied to the United States Military Academy and I got in.
I remember when I was accepted, they had a special intermission. I was on the basketball team in high school and it was in the winter, I guess, when I was accepted, because they had a special intermission in the basketball game just to announce that I was accepted to the United States Military Academy.
I really didn’t have any reason at that point in my life to question anything political. There wasn’t really an opposing point of view, so to speak, in my region. It’s that conservative, pro-military, nationalistic sort of attitude was really the only attitude. That’s pretty much what led me to… Apply to West Point, the United States Military Academy. I’m a physician now, but I didn’t really plan on being a physician when I went there.
You were in the medical branch of the U.S. Army when you went to school at West Point, correct?
When I graduated. In West Point I was at the top of my class, and they allowed 10 students out of the graduating student body to go to medical school. I was one of those top 10 people that got permission to go. I think even at West Point, though, see, when I went in there, I was going to be a general in the infantry or something like that, and I didn’t really think about things all that much.
Once I got to West Point, with the attitude that everything that I was going to be ordered to do would be okay and the right thing to do, I was disabused of that even while I was in the United States Military Academy. It’s like it became clear to me, as a young guy who was growing up from 18 to 22 years old, that when I was there, that there was a lot of stuff that was political. You basically did what you were told, even if it wasn’t really the right thing or the best option or anything, because that’s what kept you from getting punished and got you ahead, basically. That’s what I was getting trained to do at West Point, was basically to follow orders without question.
The way I always put it is like people are pretty intelligent there, but they use that intelligence as a way to justify whatever course of action they’re ordered to do. They don’t think objectively in terms of whether or not something’s right in terms of orders. They accept the order as what’s right, and then use their intelligence to create some sort of argument to justify it, basically. I wasn’t like that. Even at West Point, I was like, “That just doesn’t seem like that’s the right thing to me.” I was quite religious at the time. I was Catholic and I went to church pretty much every day, and I didn’t like that.
I was sure that I wasn’t always going to be ordered to do the thing that was the most proper thing. A lot of the stuff was political and expedient. I had some misgivings at the time and I was smart enough to get into medicine, so I figured being a medical doctor would be the way to address that issue, that doubt that I had. I figured if I was a medical doctor, then I wouldn’t really be part of that process where I might be ordered to do something that’s what I considered to be morally wrong or unjustified.
While you’re in the Academy, this is while the Iron Curtain is collapsing, the Soviet Union is collapsing. Is that correct?
Yeah, that’s right. That was 1990s. I graduated in 1984, so it wasn’t, really. I went to West Point thinking I was defending the country against the Soviet Union. That was my reason for being there, basically. I pretty much accepted the sort of received wisdom at the time that communism was evil, the Soviet Union’s mission in life, so to speak, was to destroy the United States, and that we had to be vigilant and defend ourselves and the world against the Soviet menace, so to speak.
I was getting more mature and exposed to different ideas and things. I realized for sure that I wasn’t always going to get orders that were just like a white knight in shining armor. It was certainly a lot more political than that, being able to completely trust the military to order me to do only the right thing, even at that time. My decision to go to medical school wasn’t really about the Soviet Union coming apart, but that did come later.
If we fast-forward a few years here, and we’re in 1990 and we’re coming up to the eve of the first Gulf conflict, what started to transpire that was really making you change your opinion about wanting to be involved in the military in any capacity?
I mean, it was a gradual process. I probably would’ve come to that eventually anyway, but my time in the historical timeline of world politics and U.S., it was a time there was a lot of change, but I think I would’ve come to it anyway. I mean, between going to West Point, which certainly wasn’t that much of an open-minded place, I was still kind of sheltered there. Once I got to medical school, that was an entirely different scenario.
I went to New York Medical College and was in school with a whole bunch of really intelligent people. It was the first time in my life that I was like, “Man, these dudes are a lot smarter than me.” They certainly weren’t 100% nationalistic or pro-military in many cases. I mean, in medical school, my eyes definitely got opened to a lot of a lot of issues, and it raised some doubt in my mind.
After I did my internship at Walter Reed, I was assigned to an air cavalry unit in Texas, in Fort Hood, Texas. I was with a combat air cavalry unit. That is when I really started to develop some doubts. Being in an attack helicopter unit, it was totally regimented and one thought process. Then, then the Soviet Union started falling apart, and my whole reason for being in the military evaporated.
Then the United States invaded Panama, and then the United States invaded Grenada. I was thinking to myself, “This is not why I joined the military. This is exactly what I do not think is necessary.” After my experiences at West Point, learning about this and that in medical school, and then the experience of totalitarianism in the air cavalry unit, it’s like I saw Panama, I saw Grenada.
I was like, “This is wrong, and it looks like this is where things are heading. I don’t want to be some kind of guy that just gets sent off as a mercenary to invade little countries for dubious reasons that I’m not even really certain of when I go there. That’s not it.” I was going to defend the world against the Soviet Union, and I realized that I was even wrong about that. It’s like I totally lost my motivation to be in the military at that point.
There was a very excellent chance at that point that I would definitely be ordered to participate in some conflict that I was opposed to, so I applied to be discharged as a conscientious objector. It was peacetime. I explained that. I wrote up an article. There’s a whole government regulation on how to apply to be a conscientious objector. I tried to follow the rules as much as I could. I went to my unit chaplain and handed him that, and that’s how the whole process got started, basically.
What was your main reasoning or thesis or thought process in your filing for a conscientious objector? What were you saying to the military was your reason for wanting to leave?
Right. By the regulations of the Army, you have to state, based on moral beliefs … which who defines that, the military ultimately is the one who gets to define that … based on your moral beliefs, you could not participate in war in any form, or words very similar to that. That’s what you have to … that’s your case, basically. I had to explain it to them, which I did. I thought I did a pretty good job. I turned it in to my unit chaplain. He said, “You sound sincere to me,” but then that initiates the government regulation which leads to an investigation at your unit, and then the results of the investigation get forwarded up through the chain of command.
I was approved by the … everybody thought I was sincere. My unit thought I was sincere. The chaplain thought I was sincere. Went up through the chain of command, got to the commanding general of Fort Hood, and Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. I had bad luck. That’s right when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
The commanding general of Fort Hood, who he wasn’t even familiar with me, I’d never spoken to him. He took the recommendations of the commander and the chaplain and the investigating committee, which recommended that I be discharged as a conscientious objector, and he said, “No, I don’t believe it. I disagree.” He did it on no new basis. There was no new information. There was no new investigation.
He actually sent that back to the Judge Advocate General of Fort Hood. Somebody slipped me the paper showing where the Judge Advocate General at Fort Hood actually wrote back to him saying, “No, he pretty much deserves to be discharged,” and the commanding general just said, “No, I don’t care. No.” That’s how it went.
Then it went to the Secretary of the Army with that, and the Secretary of the Army of course said no also. We took it to the district court, and the district court, which was in Waco, Texas and was also very conservative, said, “Yeah, we agree with your commanding general. We think that the investigation was wrong.” This was based on no further investigation and no one even talked to me, but then I basically ended up it was refused at that point, then my unit got orders to go to Saudi Arabia.
Then I was in the position where I had already made a public statement and took the position that I was opposed to war in all forms, and I had orders to go to war. That puts you in somewhat of a moral dilemma. If you disobey the orders, you’re going to go to jail. If you obey the orders, you’re going to basically show everybody that more or less you weren’t really sincere when you made that statement. I had to be willing to back up my statement with my actions, which I tried to do in such a manner that didn’t get me in jail. I had no great desire to go to jail. I just wanted to live a life that I was morally in tune with, so to speak.
I went down to a rally at the state capitol in Austin, Texas. I was one of the main speakers, and stood up there in my uniform and basically announced that I was going to go on a hunger strike. That was how I was going to try to fight the Army’s orders to deploy me to Saudi Arabia and take part in the war. That blew up into a big thing. I was on The Today Show. All the main newspapers had articles about what I was doing. Other people at Fort Hood started becoming conscientious objectors. There wasn’t a whole lot of objectors like me, so I guess I got a lot of attention that way. I continued my fast until I was deployed. I think it was on the 17th of December.
Then I understand when you got deployed over to Saudi Arabia, they more or less had you under guard the whole way.
Yeah. They had Special Forces sort of guarding me. I mean, I went with my unit just like everybody did, but my unit got treated a little bit differently. Every place the planes landed, there was literally soldiers dressed in black. I don’t know what they were, but they had black uniforms on. Then once I got out there, it was like, “Okay, now get to work.”
Everybody treated me just like a regular person again. When I was fasting, they wanted me to just play along and be the doctor. The funny thing is, the people in my unit respected me. They understood what was going on. They were in a sense opposed to it. Although they would never make any meaningful gestures to help me, if no one was looking, they’d voice words of encouragement.
Time went by, and it was obvious that we were going to invade Iraq. I was in a base on the border of Saudi Arabia and Iraq called Kink Khalid Military City, just a few miles from there. I was on the front. I could see the tanks and the artillery moving towards the border.
It just so happened that this military base on the border had one road that was leading to Iraq, just a few miles down the road, and there was two other main roads that joined it so it was like a Y. I didn’t know what to do. I was still fasting at the time. I wasn’t arrested, because I hadn’t really disobeyed any orders. There hadn’t been a war yet.
I felt at that point that I hadn’t really acted in contravention of my beliefs, so to speak, but I knew it was going to happen. The war was going to break out tomorrow or something. I had applied to work for the Red Cross, but that was denied. I had applied for a branch transfer to the Coast Guard, which is considered to be non-military. That was also denied.
I just figured I’d have to resign my commission and let the chips fall where they may, but I’d remembered Tiananmen Square. Now I remember this, and there was that guy who stood in front of the tanks. I thought that was a pretty good idea, so I did that. I went into that intersection, the two roads leading into one road that went to Iraq.
I stood there and blocked all the traffic and took off my uniform and said, “I resign,” and just stood there in my underwear in the middle of the intersection. They wouldn’t run me over. I guess maybe they would kill a lot of people, but they weren’t going to run me over in the intersection. It stopped military traffic for miles. It was a real snarl. Artillery pieces, tanks, all that stuff just got all backed up.
Finally, some sergeant, like a master sergeant, came out and came with a couple of other people. He tried to convince me. I told him I wasn’t going to move, and then I just quit talking because it didn’t seem like it was getting anywhere. They got about three or four people and just lifted me up and carried me out of the intersection. That’s how that whole situation wrapped up. They put me in a psychiatric hospital for several days, determined I wasn’t crazy, and they put me back to work.
They tried to put me back to work. They said, “All right, we’re going to assign you to this unit.” They took me out of the front line because they figured I was bad for morale. They sent me back to Riyadh and put me in another unit in Riyadh. They expected me to go back to work, but I refused to go to work. That’s what led to the court-martial at that point. It finally came down to me just refusing orders.
How’d the hunger strike end up? How did that end for you?
After like 27 days of that, I was on vitamin pills, drinking water, and I was getting skinny. They could see that I was getting thinner, so they put me in a hospital and plugged an IV in and started intravenously feeding me. That’s when I broke my fast. They were going to just do an IV in me and give me intravenous feeding anyway, so I started eating again at that point.
You started refusing orders after you got reassigned to a unit in Riyadh, and you got court-martialed. Walk us through that process.
Yeah, it’s funny. Nobody was in a big hurry. I still stayed with the same folks. They assigned me to this unit in Riyadh. They were a bunch of nice guys. We were all friends and everything, and they actually supported me. One or two of them supported me at the court-martial, but nobody was in a hurry. It was like it was not a priority for them. I just sat there and just sat things out.
Eventually after several weeks, they got around to setting up a court-martial, and I was assigned a Judge Advocate General defender. She was nice too. She supported me 100%, and we didn’t really have much of a case. I refused orders, but that was really all they could charge me with. I think they charged me with refusing orders, conduct unbecoming an officer … they considered the underwear thing to be conduct unbecoming an officer … and dereliction of duty, I think.
Two of those got combined into one, the dereliction of duty and the refusal of orders, because it was pretty much the same offense they were trying to make multiple charges out of. The judge was … actually, I have to say he was a decent guy, the judge who presided over the court-martial. I was guilty, of course. Everybody in the Army’s guilty. When they court-martial you, you’re pretty much guilty. You don’t get off. It’s just a matter of what kind of sentence they’re going to impose.
I got up there with the people I had met in the unit and made friends with and my defender, and we told the whole story just like I’ve told it to you. We told it to the judge. I was convicted, because I did do it. My sentence was discharge from the Army, basically, which was the whole thing I had applied for in the beginning. I got basically discharged.
The Army got to call it a dismissal rather than a conscientious objector discharge. I think they were happy with that. Some of the Judge Advocate General people explained it to me, and they wanted to make an example out of me because they didn’t want … when I had originally applied and spoke in Austin, and made a big thing on TV in the morning show and everything, a lot of people applied to be conscientious objectors, and they were trying to shut that down.
You were finally discharged. What did you do activism-wise from that point? Did you remain active and vocal or did you take some time for yourself, or what’d that look like?
About a year of my life was spent defending my actions and explaining it to people. When I got out, I didn’t really have a job, because my job had been in the military. I stayed in Austin with some of the American Society of Friends people, and I started giving talks about sort of like what I’ve had with you, only live in front of groups of people. I went all around the country doing that for about a year, while I was applying for state medical licenses and able to get back in to work.
I made a little mini career out of going around and talking about that, and trying to open people’s minds to the idea that military action is not necessary to change politics, basically. That can change in many different ways. In my opinion, it’s never the best way, because innocent people are killed, innocent people die, and the people who are fighting each other have more in common than the politicians on either side. If you just give things time, people will eventually change their government in the way that they want it. It’s happened all throughout history.
After a while that wasn’t a big issue anymore, because from 1991 until 9/11, there wasn’t really a whole lot of stuff going on that way. In 2003, I started writing articles. I got my website up and I wrote articles for some other websites, and some of them were published in college textbooks and stuff. I took it on myself to start that up again in 2003.
What is your website, David?
It’s called thescalpel.net, like T-H-E-scalpel, all one word, dot net. Basically I wrote essays describing my thoughts on most of that stuff and trying to convince people via the internet, which was then big, and it was pretty good. It made quite a bit of an impact. I had a lot of feedback, and so I thought that was helpful too.
Well, David, thank you so much for taking the time to speak today on the podcast. It’s really appreciated. Thank you.
This podcast is a Courage to Resist production, recorded and edited by Matthew Breems, with special thanks to executive producer Jeff Paterson. Visit couragetoresist.org for more information and to offer your support.
Bravo, Dr Wiggins! Leading by example is always effective. It made for a good story, too. A good interview.
I know what David Wiggins went through going through the chain of command. Although I never tried to get out of the army as a conscientious objector, I tried twice with hardship discharges, and I met the same fate that David Wiggins did. I had no trouble at the company, battalion, brigade, and division levels, but once I got to the Secretary of the Army, both my discharges got turned down, for no logical reason, other than they just didn’t want to let me out.