Support the troops - bring them home now!

By Hamish Chitts

[The following article is based on a speech given on behalf of the war veterans group Stand Fast at a public meeting in Rockhampton on July 10 as part of the Peace Convergence protests against the bi-annual joint Australian and US Talisman Sabre war rehearsals that occur in and around environmentally and culturally sensitive Shoalwater Bay. Talisman Sabre ’09 occurred between July 6-26 and involved 30,000 Australian and US troops. — Ed.]

Stand Fast is a group of veterans and former military personnel who oppose the current wars of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Our members include veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the first Gulf War, East Timor and the current occupation of Iraq. We who have borne arms denounce these wars because they are about money, power and fear.

Stand Fast seeks to add weight to the antiwar movement in Australia through organising veterans to speak out against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and by debunking the myth that “If you’re against the war, you’re against the troops”. We are also encouraging current serving members of the Australian Defence Force to inform themselves about what is really happening in Iraq and Afghanistan. We will provide advice and support for those who may question serving in either of these wars.

During the Vietnam War, an antiwar movement grew within the US military and by 1970, the US Army had 65,643 deserters — roughly the equivalent of four infantry divisions. In an article published in the June 7, 1971 Armed Forces Journal, Marine Colonel Robert D. Heinl Jr., a veteran combat commander with over 27 years experience in the Marines and the author of Soldiers Of The Sea, a definitive history of the Marine Corps, wrote:  “By every conceivable indicator, our army that remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non-commissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near mutinous. Elsewhere than Vietnam, the situation is nearly as serious … Sedition, coupled with disaffection from within the ranks, and externally fomented with an audacity and intensity previously inconceivable, infest the Armed Services ...”

In 1972, there was fear among some US generals that the majority of their armed forces would mutiny and take control if the Vietnam War did not end soon. Of course,  we should recognise that ultimately it was the determined resistance and courage of the Vietnamese people that ended the war there.

Stand Fast also draws inspiration from the US-based group Iraq Veterans Against the War. Through IVAW, many have heard public testimony of the horrors of Iraq and Afghanistan across the US. Hundreds of IVAW members travel to schools, universities and demonstrations to speak out against these wars. Their testimony is having a strong pull on people in the US to protest against these wars, and their organisation is growing amongst the US armed forces. In the past few years, tens of thousands of US soldiers have resisted the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan in a number of different ways — by going AWOL, seeking conscientious objector status and/or a discharge, asserting the right to speak out against injustice from within the military, and for a relative few, publicly refusing to fight.

While there are those who would like to dismiss war resisters as “cowards”, the reality is that it takes exceptional courage to resist unjust, illegal and/or immoral orders. For many resisters, it was their first-hand experiences as occupation troops that compelled them to take a stand. For others, “doing the right thing” and acting out of conscience began to outweigh their military training of blind obedience.

When an Australian soldier dies everyone is made aware of it, but there are Australian casualties occurring everyday in Iraq and Afghanistan that no one sees or hears about. Through my own experiences as a former infantry soldier and through those of my mates, I can tell you no-one who sees active service comes back the same. Recent figures from the US have shown that troops coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering three times more Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder than their counterparts did on return from Vietnam.

Military personnel are risking their minds as well as their bodies. But for what? For what are Iraqi and Afghan civilians paying with their bodies and their minds? It is being done for oil, in the interests of multinational corporations and it is being done for strategic real estate for the US military. Most people recognise this about Iraq, but not everyone knows that the same reasons have brought about the occupation of Afghanistan. In 1998, Californian company Unocal withdrew from negotiations with the Taliban government after failing for several years to be allowed to build a gas pipeline from gasfields in Turkmenistan through western Afghanistan to Pakistan and the Indian Ocean.

One of the negotiators for Unocal was a fellow named Zalmay Khalilzad. As a special adviser to Bush, Khalilzad was involved in planning the US invasion of Afghanistan, and afterwards it was named US ambassador to the puppet regime installed by the occupation forces. That regime, headed by Hamid Karzai, is comprised of warlord thugs and opium barons who are no better to the people of Afghanistan than the Taliban thugs they replaced. But the pipeline project is back on track.

Apologists for these invasions try to frame them as some form of self-defence, as if the thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians who have been slaughtered by these invasions had the capability or even the desire to attack countries like Australia or the US. Anyone who has any illusions that these wars are about stopping terrorists should look at the current deals being done between the Karzai government, the Taliban and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Hekmatyar, who is on America’s “most wanted” terrorist list, is the leader of Hezb-i-Islami, which has been fighting NATO troops alongside the Taliban.

Karzai has said that he would bring members of the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami into peace negotiations (including offers of government positions and regional governorships) and include them in a tribal council. The US has voiced its opposition to this but, in what is becoming the defining character of the Obama administration, it says one thing and does another. The US administration has agreed to fund an Afghan government department to conduct negotiations with Hezb-i-Islami and the Taliban. It has agreed to kick in nearly US$69 million to offer sweeteners to win over the Taliban and other resistance forces.

Kevin Rudd has called Afghanistan a “good” war. It is not. It is no better than the war in Iraq and it is being fought for the same reasons. Many people thought Rudd and his party were antiwar. When they voted they hoped to end Australian involvement in these occupations. Many are still sitting at home hoping, but after two years and an increase in Australian involvement, it is clear this hope is an illusion. There are still almost 1000 ADF soldiers and sailors in the Iraq war zone, allegedly to assist operations in Afghanistan.

The majority of people in this country oppose the occupation of Iraq. The majority of people in this country oppose the occupation of Afghanistan. We can’t rely on Rudd anymore than we can rely on any other politician. That is why we need to keep building a movement against these occupations. We need to build a movement that can unite dissenting soldiers, peace activists, antiwar activists, political groups, community groups and unions. To do this we need to campaign for demands like “Bring the troops home now!” — demands that all these diverse groups can rally behind.

This weekend is a good example. There are many different people protesting for many different reasons but they are all here rallying behind the demand “Stop the Talisman Sabre war games!” We need to build this movement to show real support for the people in the armed forces, to show our real support for the people of Iraq and Afghanistan by demanding from the Rudd government a true and complete troop withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan immediately.

Both the ADF and the US military describe Talisman Sabre as, “focusing on operational and tactical interoperability through a high-end, medium intensity scenario involving live, virtual, and constructive forces. Includes combat operations transitioning into peacekeeping or other post-conflict operations.” Now if you cut through the military jargon, this means the Australian and US militaries refining their ability to conduct future Iraq and Afghanistan-style invasions and occupations of sovereign nations. This is one of the reasons I’m here representing Stand Fast in protest against these invasion and occupation rehearsals. Support the troops — bring them home now!