As author, columnist and war correspondent Chris Hedges wrote, war “gives [Americans] purpose, meaning, a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of our lives become apparent.”
Mourning the loss of loved ones, honoring those who are deployed in an unending global war, and convincing one’s self of the glory and sacrifice of those loved ones’ involvement in conflict is part of a war culture that appears in advertising, movies and television, at sporting events, and in the mecca of war memorials, Washington, DC. Support rituals ensure a faction of people does not grow in its ability to oppose and obstruct US government war policies.
Exactly one week ago, a group of military veterans with great integrity stood on stage outside. At the end of a march from Grant Park, they stood just outside McCormick Place convention center where the NATO summit was happening, and spoke out in opposition to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries, which NATO member countries have supported. Each veteran who spoke threw at least one medal they had earned during the “war on terror” away after speaking.
The medal ceremony was quite a moving experience. Democracy Now! was there and recorded the ceremony for a segment.
US Army Sergeant Alejandro Villatoro, who served in Iraq during the 2003 invasion and in Afghanistan in 2011, opened the ceremony:
At this time, one by one, veterans of the wars of NATO will walk up on stage. They will tell us why they chose to return their medals to NATO. I urge you to honor them by listening to their stories. Nowhere else will you hear from so many who fought these wars about their journey from fighting a war to demanding peace. Some of us killed innocents. Some of us helped in continuing these wars from home. Some of us watched our friends die. Some of us are not here, because we took our own lives. We did not get the care promised to us by our government. All of us watched failed policies turn into bloodshed. Listen to us, hear us, and think: was any of this worth it?
Here are a few examples of statements made by the veterans on stage:
…IRIS FELICIANO: My name is Iris Feliciano. I served in the Marine Corps. And in January of 2002, I deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. And I want to tell the folks behind us, in these enclosed walls, where they build more policies based on lies and fear, that we no longer stand for them. We no longer stand for their lies, their failed policies and these unjust wars. Bring our troops home and end the war now. They can have these back…
…SHAWNA FOSTER: My name is Shawna, and I was a nuclear biological chemical specialist for a war that didn’t have any weapons of mass destruction. So I deserted. I’m one of 40,000 people that left the United States Armed Forces because this is a lie!
STEVE ACHESON: My name is Steve Acheson. I’m from Campbellsport, Wisconsin. I was a forward observer in the United States Army for just under five years. I deployed to Sadr City, Iraq, in 2005. And I’m giving back my medals 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…
…MICHAEL THURMAN: Hello. My name is Michael Thurman. I was a conscientious objector from the United States Air Force. I’m returning my Global War on Terrorism Medal and my military coins on behalf of Private First Class Bradley Manning, who sacrificed everything to show us the truth about these wars…
…SCOTT OLSEN: My name is Scott Olsen. I have with me today—today I have with me my Global War on Terror Medal, Operation Iraqi Freedom Medal, National Defense Medal and Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal. 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. And I came back to reality, and I don’t want these anymore.
The above is just a sample of the military veterans, who chose to powerfully challenge the culture of war in America on May 20.
These soldiers compel us to question statements made by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta ahead of Memorial Day like the following:
…I think all of us have to be constantly vigilant that whatever battle we engage in, that we not only achieve the mission but we make damn sure that we do everything possible to ensure that every life was lost for a cause that we still commit ourselves to… [emphasis added]
The Americans who have served in Iraq completed every mission they were given. They defeated a regime that had terrorized its people. Together with Iraqis and coalition partners who made huge sacrifices of their own, our troops fought block by block to help Iraq seize the chance for a better future. They shifted tactics to protect the Iraqi people, trained Iraqi Security Forces, and took out terrorist leaders. Because of our troops and civilians — and because of the resilience of the Iraqi people — Iraq has the opportunity to embrace a new destiny, even though many challenges remain. [emphasis added]
I recognize that many Americans are tired of war. As President, nothing is more wrenching than signing a letter to a family of the fallen, or looking into the eyes of a child who will grow up without a mother or father. I will not keep Americans in harm’s way a single day longer than is absolutely required for our national security. But we must finish the job we started in Afghanistan and end this war responsibly.
My fellow Americans, we’ve travelled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war. Yet here, in the pre-dawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon. The Iraq war is over. The number of our troops in harm’s way has been cut in half, and more will soon be coming home. We have a clear path to fulfill our mission in Afghanistan, while delivering justice to al Qaeda. [emphasis added]
The missions were and continue to be illegitimate if not outright criminal. As leaders “drawdown” in Afghanistan and continue to “withdraw” from Iraq, the impact on populations will be sidelined by the declared commitment by US officials to “deliver justice” to al Qaeda.
This is what each and every soldier who stood on the stage knew as they professed their opposition to their role in the “war on terror.” The wars have never been about liberating any people. They have never been about bringing security to a people. The mission has failed in all respects to help humanity in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, the missions have made these countries’ populations more poor and further amplified sectarian tensions between factions in the countries.
Finally, one soldier took his declaration of opposition a step further. He dedicated the statement to the real forefathers of freedom in this country:
VINCE EMANUELE: My name is Vince Emanuele, and I served with the United States Marine Corps. First and foremost, this is for the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. Second of all, this is for our real forefathers. I’m talking about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I’m talking about the Black Panthers. I’m talking about the civil rights movement. I’m talking about unions. I’m talking about our socialist brothers and sisters, our communist brothers and sisters, our anarchist brothers and sisters, and our ecology brothers and sisters. That’s who our real forefathers are. And lastly—and lastly and most importantly, our enemies are not 7,000 miles from home. They sit in boardrooms. They are CEOs. They are bankers. They are hedge fund managers. They do not live 7,000 miles from home. Our enemies are right here, and we look at them every day. They are not the men and women who are standing on this police line. They are the millionaires and billionaires who control this planet, and we’ve had enough of it. So they can take their medals back.
These veterans stood tall a week ago and offered a counter-narrative to militarism that the leaders of America suppress and ignore daily.
Typically, the veterans Americans listen to or claim to listen to in this country are ones who appear on television and at government ceremonies. They are soldiers or veterans manipulated or pushed into telling stories pre-packaged to fit the “war on terror” agenda.
Americans don’t listen to the soldiers that conflict with this narrative. Americans don’t listen to soldiers that are consumed by pain and suffering and are trying to heal as a result of acts they feel guilty for committing. And, when soldiers engage in acts of profound resistance—whether they be the throwing away of medals, conscientiously objecting and exiling one’s self from America, or allegedly leaking the truth of wars like Pfc. Bradley Manning—these acts, which are a message to complacent and obedient citizens, often go unheard because US citizens become disgusted that soldiers would put “national security at risk” and show them the truth.
There is nothing wrong with remembering the fallen, but Americans should remember all of the fallen. Remember the children, the women, and the innocent civilians that are “collateral damage.” Remember the activists who have marched through the streets of America to call for an end to these wars, since 2002 and beyond. Remember these people along with the soldiers, who lose their humanity in war and return to America with mental health issues that are likely to drive them to suicide because of the killing they were asked to do in America’s name.
Here’s the video of the veterans throwing away their medals:
Democracy Now! aired a more complete version of the throwing away of the medals ceremony. It aired as part of a special “Honor the Dead, Heal the Wounded, Stop the Wars” Memorial Day edition, which you can watch here.