The Answer to Cindy Sheehan's Question

Cindy Sheehan has asked President Bush an important question: Exactly what “noble cause” did her son Casey die for in Iraq? It’s a question that some Ohio parents whose children were recently killed in Iraq are also asking. It’s a question that every American should be asking.

I couldn’t help but be somewhat mesmerized reading about the attitudes of the young Ohio Marines who recently died as well as the diverse reactions of their families to their deaths. The accounts brought to mind the deep range of thoughts and feelings that I experienced as a student at the Virginia Military Institute from 1968 to 1972, during the height of the Vietnam War. I would like to share some of my personal experiences at VMI during those tumultuous times.

VMI is a four-year military college in which every student is required to be a member of the corps of cadets. When I was there, everyone was also required to sign a commitment to serve in the military forces for at least two years. During my senior year at VMI (1971—1972), however, given that U.S. forces were withdrawing from Vietnam, the Army offered graduating seniors a 3-month active-duty, 8-year Reserve commitment in lieu of the 2-year active-duty commitment; it was an offer that I accepted without hesitation.

During my freshman year (1968—69), when I was 18 and 19 years old, I was a “gung-ho” supporter of U.S. intervention in Vietnam, much as is the case with many young soldiers today in Iraq. I was fully prepared to travel thousands of miles away to “fight for my country” and for “freedom” by killing “communists” in the rice paddies of Southeast Asia. I was innocent and nave, never once thinking that federal officials would lie to the citizenry, especially not about something as serious as war.

In my sophomore year (1969—70), the administration promoted me to corporal within the VMI cadet corps. During my junior year (1970—71), I was a member of VMI’s elite Ranger military unit, and the administration promoted me to sergeant. The next step would ordinarily have been promotion to officer status within the corps of cadets during my senior year.

Alas, it was not to be, for it was during my junior year that I — along with lots of other VMI cadets — broke through to the truth and realized what other college students around the nation were discovering — that the Vietnam War was based on U.S. government lies, falsehoods, and deceptions. It was during that year that many of us at VMI began asking the same question that Cindy Sheehan is asking: What were U.S. soldiers dying for?

Some of my most memorable experiences during my four years at VMI occurred periodically during supper in the mess hall, whenever a cadet officer would make a certain special announcement over the public address system. I don’t recall the exact words but they were something along the following lines, and they always caused an immediate hush of silence to sweep across the 1,000 students in the hall: “Attention to orders, October 28, 1969, Republic of Vietnam. [Pause, followed by complete silence across the mess hall.] Lt. John Smith, VMI Class of 1967, killed in action this day.”

By the time I finished my junior year, I knew the answer to the question that is now bedeviling Cindy Sheehan, and it’s not a painless one: Those VMI graduates, along with all the other soldiers who were dying in Vietnam, were dying for nothing.

As I reflect back on those years and on recent political events in this country, there is no doubt in my mind that people such as George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Paul Wolfowitz had asked themselves the same question that Cindy Sheehan is asking today and that they had come up with the same answer that I and others had, which is precisely why they did whatever was necessary to avoid service in Vietnam. In retrospect, in my opinion they were the smart ones. Those who went, such as John McCain, John Kerry, and Max Cleland, who have suffered the insults, contempt, and scorn from those who did not go, were in my opinion the chumps.

An Ohio mother, Rosemary Palmer, whose son was recently killed in Iraq, observed that there are lots of parents who oppose the war but who “are afraid to speak out, believing their children will be punished by their commanders.”

Ms. Palmer has no idea how right she is. Permit me share a couple of examples, again from my experience as a young cadet at VMI.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that during the Vietnam War, the VMI administration, which was headed by a no-nonsense Marine general, strongly aligned itself with the federal government, especially the Pentagon, and thus supported Lyndon Johnson’s and Richard Nixon’s war in Vietnam.

One day, a group of VMI cadets requested the school administration to grant them permission to attend an anti-war rally at Washington and Lee University, which is situated adjacent to VMI in Lexington. To everyone’s surprise, the administration granted the request, with the proviso that no cadet attending the rally could wear his VMI uniform. (Ordinarily, wearing civilian clothes in town was a violation of VMI regulations and entailed a severe penalty for breach.) The most probable reason the request was granted was that the administration, aware of the pressure-cooker environment that the war was engendering within the student body, figured that letting the anti-war crowd at VMI attend the rally would help to release some of that steam.

I didn’t attend the rally, but I can tell you what happened to the cadets who did. As they were returning to barracks, there was a VMI tactical officer waiting for them, who recorded each of their names and then imposed a ludicrous penalty on them for having “long hair.”

As for me, once my attitude toward the war and the military changed, my military career at VMI was over. Rather than promote me to officer status my senior year, the administration demoted me to private. But that actually turned out to be a rather minor thing, especially since any VMI cadet will tell you that being a private during one’s senior year at VMI is not such a bad experience. Unfortunately, that wasn’t all they did to me.

In 1979, almost eight years after graduation and near the end of my eight-year Army Reserve commitment, I happened to take a look at my “Army 201” personnel file and discovered that prior to graduation (1972) a VMI official had stuck a notation in my file stating that I was “unsuited for military life.” Now, I don’t deny that the official was justified in reaching that conclusion given the fact that I had lost my “gung-ho-ness” about the Vietnam War and even the military during my last two years at VMI. But I still consider what he did to be quite a nasty thing to do to someone who was just starting out in life and who had just survived four years at what is arguably the most rigid military college in the country, especially since he knew that my 201 file would follow me to every duty station I would be assigned to for the next eight years, including infantry school at Ft. Benning, Georgia. I still wonder what they inserted into the 201 files of those cadets who attended that antiwar rally at Washington and Lee.

The unfortunate truth is that that is all too often a characteristic of the military mindset. It is resentful of people who think independently — those who don’t toe the official line, don’t believe the official lies, and don’t fully support whatever one’s government does with respect to war. That’s why such people identify patriotism with support of the federal government. That’s why they never questioned the U.S. intervention in Vietnam — and still don’t! It’s why they question the patriotism of those of us who have challenged the U.S. intervention in Iraq. They simply cannot understand how or why someone thinks independently of how federal officials think, at least when it comes to war.

Ironically, it seems that some things haven’t changed much since I graduated from VMI more than 30 years ago. About a year before the torture-and-sex-abuse revelations at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, I wrote an article entitled “Obedience to Orders,” which focused on and opposed torture by U.S. troops at the Pentagon’s base at Guantanamo Bay. I suggested that it was the duty of an officer not only to refrain from participating in such misconduct but also to do whatever was necessary to put an immediate halt to it, regardless of orders from his superior officers.

Despite the fact that my article praised VMI for producing higher caliber officers than West Point because of VMI’s emphasis on educating and training citizen-soldiers, who tend to be independent-minded, rather than blind-obedience, sycophantic professional soldiers that the military academies tend to produce, my torture article generated an unfortunate nasty email from the executive vice president of the VMI Alumni Association, one Paul Maini, to officials at West Point that “apologized” for my article, which, again, was both anti-torture and pro-VMI.

What many VMI officials such as Maini don’t understand is that while many in the VMI administration would like nothing more than to produce the types of officers that the professional academies tend to produce, by and large VMI fails in that mission. But in that failure lies the very success of the school and it’s what makes the school different, in a positive way, from the professional military academies. That is, that while VMI does produce some of the “Blindly obey orders and please your superiors” types of military officers that the professional academies tend to produce, that is normally the exception. The vast majority of VMI graduates are the independent-thinking types who will refuse to sacrifice personal integrity and right conduct for the sake of pleasing their superiors or blindly obeying their orders. My hunch is that that is a prime reason why non-commissioned officers (NCOs) usually prefer to serve under a VMI officer than a West Point officer.

The interesting “problem, ” however, is that the VMI administration — that is, the officials charged with setting and enforcing policy at the school — inevitably seems to attract an overwhelming abundance of officials with the standard military mindset, including both graduates of the professional academies and of VMI itself. This sets up an interesting dynamic, which I believe provides a key as to why the school is so much more successful than the professional military academies. Permit me to share with you an example of how things work inside VMI, especially compared to the professional military academies.

When I was at VMI, every room in barracks had a fat book called the Blue Book, which contained hundreds of rules and regulations governing the conduct of VMI cadets. Every cadet was supposed to read the Blue Book and be fully knowledgeable of its contents. More important, cadets were expected to fully follow all the rules and regulations whether they agreed with them or not.

It didn’t take long, however, especially in conversations with VMI upperclassmen, for VMI cadets to realize that at least 97 percent of the rules and regulations in the Blue Book were ludicrous and, therefore, deserved to be broken. Thus, the last three years at VMI were essentially a cat-and-mouse game between the cadet corps and the administration, with the cadets breaking the ridiculous rules and regulations and the administration’s officers trying to catch them and, when successful, imposing harsh penalties on them. I myself returned my junior year with a penalty of 10-2-and-10, which meant 10 demerits, 2 weeks of confinement, and 10 one-hour penalty tours for getting caught committing the grievous offense of wearing civilian clothes in barracks during finals weekend the previous spring. (Fortunately, the VMI official who caught me didn’t see me wearing them when I walked into barracks because, as previously noted, that would have entailed a much more severe penalty than the one that was imposed on me for wearing the clothes inside barracks.) Now, is that ridiculous or what?

(Note: All this applies only to the administration’s Blue Book and not to VMI’s student-run and student-enforced Honor Code, which is the most stringent and stringently enforced in the nation.)

Now that’s the difference between VMI and West Point. The West Point officer would never understand or countenance such rebelliousness, especially because it violates the cardinal principle of “please your superiors if you want to get rewarded or promoted.” In most cases, the VMI officer, because of the spirit of independent-thinking combined with a high sense of honor engendered at the school, will examine a rule or a policy or an order and will be willing and able to reach a quick decision on its propriety — and willing to break it or violate it if it is ludicrous, invalid, or illegal and willing to suffer the consequences for doing so. That’s why it would not surprise me to learn that West Point officers riddle the chain of command with respect to the torture, rape, sex abuse, and murder scandal at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib — and the subsequent whitewashes and cover-ups. I could be proven wrong, but I’d be very surprised if VMI officers are in that chain of command.

Rosemary Palmer is right. Generally speaking (there are always exceptions), the military mindset does not like or countenance people who think independently — people who question or criticize official U.S. government policy, even when it involves illegally and immorally invading and occupying foreign countries or violating constitutional provisions (such as the declaration of war requirement) or the Geneva Convention. And those who spend their lives toeing the official line will oftentimes do bad and nasty things to people who don’t. Just ask former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife, Valerie Plame. Or Sgt. Kevin Benderman, who was court-martialed and sentenced to serve 15 months in jail for following his conscience and refusing to return for a second tour in Iraq. Or Sgt. Carlos Mejia, who they sent to the jail for the same reason. Or even Cindy Sheehan, who is now the victim of a conservative and neo-conservative smear campaign.

But criticize and condemn federal wrongdoing we must when our government is deserving of such criticism and condemnation. That is the moral and political duty of every citizen. After all, if we fail to do so because we fear retribution or retaliation from government officials or even fellow citizens, then how can we consider ourselves different from people in foreign lands who have failed to speak out against wrongdoing by their governments?

If people want lies and deception about the Iraq War, then they should continue listening to the words that are spoken by federal politicians and bureaucrats, including those in the Pentagon, the CIA, and the Congress. They have trained themselves to lie, and they are very good at it.

If people instead want the truth about U.S. foreign policy, including the Iraq War, then they should read such writers as James Glaser (a Marine Vietnam veteran), Chalmers Johnson, Laurence M. Vance, Lew Rockwell, Robert Higgs, Karen Kwiatkowski, Ivan Eland, Congressman Ron Paul, Anthony Gregory, Charley Reese, Pat Buchanan, Eric Margolis, Paul Craig Roberts, Doug Bandow (also found here), Ted Galen Carpenter, Justin Raimondo, Sheldon Richman, and James Bovard, and regularly visit such websites as, The Cato Institute, The Independent Institute,, and The Future of Freedom Foundation.

The plain truth is that Iraq never attacked the United States and never even threatened to do so. Neither the Iraqi people nor their government had anything to do with the 9/11 attacks. Therefore, the U.S. government had no moral or legal right to invade Iraq and kill and maim the Iraqi people. That makes the United States the aggressor nation in this conflict. It is the invader. It is the conqueror. Don’t forget that aggressive war was punished as a war crime at Nuremberg and that it is barred by the UN Charter, to which the United States is a signatory. Don’t forget also that Bush invaded Iraq without the constitutionally required congressional declaration of war, making the war illegal under our own form of government.

And it was never about democracy, freedom, or the liberation of the Iraqi people. After all, if democracy was so important, would U.S. officials be embracing the military dictator of Pakistan as well as authoritarian dictators all over the Middle East? And if the freedom and well-being of the Iraqi people were so important, would U.S. officials have continued maintaining the sanctions against Iraq year after brutal year, despite the ever-growing number of deaths of Iraqi children?

It just doesn’t add up, does it? And the reason it doesn’t is that it’s all a lie — just as the supposed North Vietnamese attack at the Gulf of Tonkin, which President Lyndon Johnson and the U.S. Congress used as an excuse to expand the Vietnam War, which ended up killing 58,000 American soldiers and wounding countless more, was a lie.

To answer Cindy Sheehan’s question plainly and directly: Her son died for nothing. Or if she would prefer a diplomatic, polite answer, her son died not for a noble cause, as both President Bush and Vice-President Cheney have recently stated, but instead for an ignoble cause — regime change — hard-ball politics at the international level — the ouster and replacement of a foreign politician, Saddam Hussein, who fell out of grace with U.S. officials.

With all due respect, regime change, while important to U.S. politicians and bureaucrats, is nothing worth dying for and, for that matter, it’s nothing worth killing for.