Veterans Resist: Deploying Art to Oppose Militarism

It took me a long time to find words to describe the US-orchestrated injustices that I witnessed and participated in while in Iraq. I’ve now been out of the Army for over a decade, and for nearly half of that time I told few people I had even been in the military.

Like many veterans, I didn’t know how to talk about war when I came home. People wanted to thank me for my service but they didn’t want to hear how disillusioned I had become with my country. Returning to college, I found that many students weren’t paying attention to the wars. Perhaps most frustrating, I found the frame of reference provided by Hollywood to be a grave distortion of what I had seen and done. I, like most veterans, hadn’t been a sniper, I didn’t defuse bombs, nor had I been in Special Forces. Major films like American Sniper and Zero Dark Thirty only served to confuse the conversation about why the US was occupying Iraq and Afghanistan and what the day-to-day deployment routine really looked like. Ultimately, I repressed my guilt and stayed quiet.

It wasn’t until I joined Iraq Veterans Against the War (now called About Face: Veterans Against the War) that I learned about the history of the veterans’ anti-war movement, simultaneously gaining a vocabulary that corresponded to what I had experienced. Now I had a frame of reference that made sense. I could see how my own war experience fit into the systemic corruption of the military-industrial complex. Finally, I began speaking out against US militarism.

Every year, especially as Veterans Day rolls around, people from across the political spectrum offer veterans and service members a multitude of platforms for us to share our opinions and stories, soliciting our speeches, poetry readings and op-eds. Too often, however, these spaces become sites used to echo clichéd military adventures and trauma narratives. How might veterans better use these opportunities instead to intervene in the United States’ terrible need for endless war?

Two arts organizations that took root in Iraq Veterans Against the War — Warrior Writers and Combat Paper — finally helped me better recall and describe what I had experienced in Iraq, providing me tools to counter the cultural ignorance and racism perpetuated by US militarism. Warrior Writers encourages veterans and service members to use creative writing to process and understand their military experiences, while Combat Paper teaches them how to turn military uniforms into handmade paper to make visual art. Through projects such as these, I learned that veteran anti-militarist narratives can be an effective means for exposing and interrupting the myriad ways that war deceives us.

A Formative Memory of Injustice in Iraq

As I went deeper into this work of writing, speaking and listening, one memory kept coming up again and again. After looking at it from different perspectives — as a poem, as a short story, as a silkscreen print — I realized what I had was a lesson in resiliency and how to maintain human decency in the face of extreme hardship and profound injustice. My teachers were a group of Iraqis, one of whom probably wasn’t yet 15 years old.

In 2005, I got assigned to guard Iraqi day laborers at Camp Anaconda, an enormous airbase near Balad. With a 12-mile perimeter, the camp’s size made it an easy target for insurgent mortars and rockets. Anaconda got hit daily; however, because it had so much vacant land, the projectiles mostly hit dirt. On rare occasions, however, a mortar would drop into a housing unit, killing a soldier.

My sergeant major decided our units, which were essentially cargo containers, ought to be sheltered with a 2-foot-thick layer of sandbags, elevated by a jury-rigged metal support system and plywood. This would take a lot of work as our units covered an area the size of two football fields. He put in a work order through Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR), the defense contractor notorious for poisoning soldiers with contaminated water and toxic burn pits, and work began.

Daily, Iraqis would come to the gate of Anaconda looking for jobs, sometimes a hundred or more. If chosen for a project, they’d first enter a holding area (a large cage) where they’d get searched, fill out paperwork, then get released to American guards. Pay for the men was about 50 cents an hour, and some of them, like a boy named Gabir, seemed younger than the legal American working age. Eight guards, including myself, made up our team. Every day for about a month, we’d pick up 20 or so men and drive them to the work site. Over the next month, they would fill thousands of sandbags and weld hundreds of rusty steel beams, hand-carrying them up ladders, in some cases with no shoes on their feet.

Lunch break is when I got to know the men. We’d sit and converse in broken English and pantomime. KBR didn’t include food in the deal, so the men brought their own. They always shared. They offered me chicken, flat bread, tea — whatever they had. Military training said not to eat the food; it could be contaminated or poisoned. I nibbled the bread tentatively, and sipped the tea. How could I refuse?

Gabir, the boy, was a comedian. One day he grabbed a broken camping seat from a trash pile and sat down as if it were a throne. He pretended to puff on a cigar, chuckling nefariously, then began admonishing the other workers. Several of them joined the theatrics, shielding themselves. “Saddam!” one yelled. Groans and boos erupted. “Bush!” yelled another. At this, the men turned to us, the American guards, for our reaction. Most of us were disillusioned by the war by this point. Who could articulate why we were there? Most of us laughed along with the men.

As the days passed and I got to know the Iraqis better, I became ashamed of my rifle. It became less a tool of protection, and more a symbol of oppression. It was a barrier. To quiet my conscience, I began bringing the men food from the dining facility, against regulations. After a couple weeks of giving them to-go boxes stuffed with chicken patties, cornbread and desserts, they gifted me a keffiyeh, a red (or black) and white checkered Arab scarf. I was astonished and grateful. Despite the devastation surrounding them — the suffering — their humanity had not slipped away.

The sandbag project never got completed. The sergeant major’s attention turned to other concerns and the Iraqis moved on to other work. When the winter rains came, the sandbags split and bled down the walls of our housing units. Mortars kept landing on Anaconda; outbound artillery kept firing in the direction of the men’s hometown, Balad. I continued following orders, now assisting with counter-fire operations, sacrificing more of my humanity in the process.

The Real War Heroes Are the Dissenters

In an illegal war, the real heroes are the dissenters: the conscientious objectors, the whistle-blowers, the war resisters. Pressure to follow orders in the military is enormous, and the consequences for not doing so can be harsh. Soldiers who resist are not cowards, as the military establishment often portrays them. I’m anything but a hero. I followed orders and deployed to Iraq — twice. But I like to think I came away having learned something about the racket of war and how it destroys us. I’ve got the rest of my life to reflect on that. I don’t think I have a choice in the matter. I’ve also got the rest of my life to wonder where those men I guarded are now. Are they dead? Refugees?

How can we humanize those who have been demonized in this politically tumultuous moment? Veterans often talk about doing “healing” work in an abstract sense (usually they mean healing oneself). But using the opportunities afforded to veterans to bring attention to the plight of those most affected by the US war machine – including, but not limited to, Iraqis, Afghans and Syrians — is one thing we might offer. This is something real we can do.

I’m inspired to see that more veterans today (and a growing number of service members) are turning destructive energy and military training into acts of creative resistance. Veterans no longer want to sit at Legion hall bars telling war stories. They’re starting community gardens in impoverished areas, training others in organizing and direct action, speaking out and making provocative art. There’s never been a better time for veterans to get involved and use the platforms society has afforded them as a force for good.