It’s hard even to remember anymore the true state of the U.S. military as the Vietnam War ground toward its bloody end. By the late 1960s, the statistics flowing back to Washington about the American war machine were enough to give any general nightmares. Drug-taking was rampant. (By 1971, up to 60% of returning soldiers admitted to some use.) Desertions stood at seventy per thousand, a modern high; small-scale mutinies or “combat refusals” were at critical levels; incidents of racial conflict had soared; and strife between officers (“lifers”) and soldiers (“grunts”) was at unprecedented levels; reported “fraggings” — assassination attempts — against unpopular officers or NCOs had risen from an already startling 126 in 1969 to 333 in 1971, despite declining troop strength in Vietnam. According to military count, as many as 144 underground newspapers were then being published by, or aimed at, soldiers. (“In Vietnam,” the Ft. Lewis-McChord Free Press typically wrote, “the Lifers, the Brass, are the true Enemy, not the enemy.”) And the country was experiencing the largest political exodus of potential soldiers, AWOLs, and deserters since large numbers of Tories left the country two hundred years earlier, after the American Revolution.
In 1971, Colonel Robert D. Heinl, Jr. reviewed the evidence for Armed Forces Journal in an article entitled “The Collapse of the Armed Forces,” and concluded: “[T]he foregoing facts point to widespread conditions among American forces in Vietnam that have only been exceeded in this century by the French Army’s Nivelle mutinies of 1917 and the collapse of the Tsarist armies [of Russia] in 1916 and 1917.” Hardly less threatening to military cohesion at the time, active-duty soldiers in relatively small numbers as well as significant numbers of Vietnam veterans were by then beginning to organize against the war.
If you want part of the explanation for why the Vietnam War ended and all of the explanation for why the draft that once did result in a genuine citizen’s army was abandoned for an all-volunteer military, look no further than this traumatic set of events. And it’s been true that, whatever the problems — and they’ve been multifold — staffing an overstretched volunteer military to fight two increasingly unpopular wars without end in Iraq and Afghanistan, Vietnam-style unrest in the military has been slower to grow. But there’s nothing like a losing war in an alien land among an increasingly hostile populace to throw one’s worst acts into strong relief. So, despite the obstacles, small but growing numbers of American soldiers — like Lieut. Ehren Watada, “the Army’s first commissioned officer to publicly refuse orders to fight in Iraq on grounds that the war is illegal” — have stepped forward to challenge the Bush administration, its war-making, and the military. Their often lonely acts of resistance reflect an extra degree of courage in comparison with the Vietnam era — and where it’s been difficult for them military families as well as parents of the American dead in Iraq like Cindy Sheehan have heroically stepped into the void.
Former federal prosecutor, Elizabeth de la Vega, whose new book U.S. v. George W. Bush et al. will be published this December (and highlighted at this site), considers one of these new military resisters in her own unique way. If you want to look for “profiles in courage” in the age of Bush and Cheney, this is certainly a good place to start. ~ Tom
Move Over G.I. Joe and Han Solo: Sgt. Ricky Clousing, Peace Action Hero
By Elizabeth de la Vega
I look forward to the day when Mattel makes a Sgt. Ricky Clousing action figure.
As the mother of sons born eight years apart, I spent nearly half my adult life surrounded by — and stepping on — action figures. They were everywhere: a phalanx of tiny knights in shining armor on the windowsill; Batman and Robin frozen in an ice tray; and GI Joe guys in camouflage among the hosta. One Christmas, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo even ended up in the manger scene along with Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, two cows, three sheep, and several Ewoks. My kids spent hours and hours in a fantasy world populated by villains and heroes of every description except one; there were no peace heroes.
I met a peace hero at Camp Democracy in Washington, D.C. not too long ago: Sgt. Ricky Clousing. He will not remember me, but I will not forget him. On a brilliant, blessedly unhumid day, Ricky sat on a makeshift platform within shouting distance of the Lincoln Memorial and told a story that was simultaneously agonizing and inspiring to hear.
On September 11, 2001, Ricky was working in an orphanage and “building some roads and stuff” in Thailand. When his stint as a volunteer ended, he made his way to Germany where he met American soldiers returning from Afghanistan. Caught up in the wave of post-9/11 patriotism, he decided he would join the Army rather than return to college in his native Seattle. That way he could serve his country and have money for his education when he got out. Two years later, having completed basic training and intensive language instruction at the Monterey Defense Language Institute, Sgt. Ricky Clousing found himself in Baghdad, an interrogator with the 82nd Airborne Division out of Ft. Bragg, North Carolina.
As a tactical interrogator assigned to question detainees at the scene of infantry raids, Ricky did not witness the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. What he did witness, however, was hardly less horrifying: American soldiers indoctrinated to view Iraqis as less than human, as “ragheads” or worse; American soldiers out on the streets of the Iraqi capital ramming the cars of Iraqi civilians for sport; American soldiers laughing as they slaughtered the livestock of local farmers; and American soldiers shooting an Iraqi teenager who had simply made a wrong turn.
Ricky was on patrol when he saw a boy, “probably 18 years old, a small maybe high-school age kid” turn down a road his unit was attempting to secure. The teenager, Ricky said, was quite visibly terrified at the sight of “a whole bunch of Americans with big weapons” staring him in the face. He started turning the car around, but didn’t get very far. This is how Ricky described what happened next:
“One of the soldiers in the turret of the humvee behind me just opened up fire on the machine gun on the vehicle. As the vehicle was turning away, all I heard above my head was “pop, pop, pop, pop.” This was my first deployment, my first combat experience was that moment right then, and just the sound of machine guns going off over my head. He popped about five or six rounds in the side of the vehicle. Myself and two of the other guys ran over to the vehicle, smashed the window, and pulled the guy out to provide first aid on him… I was looking down at this kid who had just been shot in the stomach for no reason really — he was trying to leave…I was still just standing there in shock, looking down at this kid, and he looked right up at me. And his mouth was foaming. His stomach was falling out in his hands… I was looking down at this kid, this young boy who was just trying to drive around town and took a wrong turn and tried to go the other direction, was shot at and killed, and I’m looking down at him now. And we made eye contact for about five seconds, and he just looked at me with the most empty, terrified look in his face that will never leave me in my whole life I’m sure.”
That Iraqi boy died on the way to the hospital. I think the boy in Ricky Clousing died that day as well, but what an extraordinary man he has since become. Deciding he would be haunted forever if he kept silent about such an egregious violation of the rules of engagement, Sgt. Clousing notified the unit’s Platoon Sergeant, who did not “take kindly” to his advice.
Clousing continued to object to American war crimes for the rest of his time in Iraq, though no one ever took kindly to his objections. When he returned to the U.S., he talked to his commanding officers, to the chaplain, to mental health workers and anyone else who would listen to his problems with the invasion and occupation of Iraq. He was told he could get out of the Army — if he said he was gay. But he couldn’t say that because he’s not gay. He was told to claim he had post-traumatic stress disorder, but he couldn’t do that because he didn’t think he had PTSD. He was told to file as a conscientious objector; but he couldn’t do that because he wasn’t against all war. He was told he could avoid going back to Iraq by taking an assignment in the United States. He couldn’t do that either because — and this is exactly what Ricky Clousing told us on that sunny afternoon in Washington:
“I felt that my involvement in the army, whether it be directly or indirectly, whether in Iraq or training guys to go to Iraq, I was still that piece of machine in the system that was still allowing this war to take place and still supporting that. My actions, whether or not they were on the front line or back safely at home, were still part of the body of the machine that’s occupying [Iraq]. So I ultimately felt that the only thing I could do was to leave, so I packed my stuff last June and I went AWOL.”
On August 11, 2006, the day he turned himself in, Sgt. Clousing made a simple statement:
“We have found ourselves in a pivotal era where we have traded humanity for patriotism. Where we have traded our civil liberties for a sense of security. I stand here before you sharing the same idea as Henry David Thoreau: as a soldier, as an American, and as a human being, we mustn’t lend ourselves to that same evil which we condemn.”
Ricky Clousing — now serving a three-month sentence in a military brig at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina — is not the only peace hero. Others are making themselves known in growing numbers and you can read about them at the Courage to Resist website. Although we have no way of assessing the numbers from here, I have no doubt that there are also soldiers trying to do the right thing in Iraq.
But when I read about a President who doesn’t know the meaning of “outrages upon human dignity” because he so clearly does not consider the very people he claims to have liberated human; when I read about a vice president who does not even have the courage to admit to the meaning of the words he uses (“dunk in the water,” “last throes“); when I read about a defense secretary who tells reporters to back off if the questions get too tough, then I think about Ricky Clousing.
Twenty-four years old, Clousing told the world in simple declarative sentences why he had to give up his college money, receive a dishonorable discharge, and go to jail to take a stand against the invasion and occupation of Iraq. He’d make a very cool action figure. Come to think of it, Sgt. Ricky Clousing — tattooed arms, Laguna Beach t-shirt, and all — would make an awesome shepherd in that manger scene. Han Solo and Luke Skywalker are just going to have to move over.
Tom Engelhardt [send him mail] is editor of TomDispatch.com, a project of the Nation Institute. He is the author of several books, including The Last Days of Publishing: A Novel, The End of Victory Culture, and most recently, Mission Unaccomplished (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews. His new blog is The Notion. Elizabeth de la Vega [send her mail] is a former federal prosecutor with over 20 years of experience. Her pieces have appeared in the Nation Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and Salon. She writes regularly for Tomdispatch and is the author of the upcoming book U.S. v. George W. Bush et al., a Tomdispatch project to be published by Seven Stories Press in late November.