This article is about the difficult moral and legal circumstances that United States soldiers find themselves in during the occupation of Iraq. I want to start by discussing the general circumstances that ordinary soldiers find themselves in during war and military action, and then reflect on the dilemmas that soldiers confronted during the Vietnam war and compare those with the circumstances today in Iraq. In the process I'll explore the general problem that war as a human institution presents: its moral and political legitimacy, the difficulties soldiers confront on the ground, and their psychological and political responses.
James M Skelly is senior fellow at the Baker Institute for Peace & Conflict Studies, Juniata College, Pennsylvania
This article is based on a public lecture he delivered at the University of Lincoln, England, on 5 April 2006
The death of a mother, father, close friend, sibling or child is always a challenge to our sense of the meaningfulness of life and can leave us psychologically disoriented for a long time. For most people, religion provides support by attempting to give meaning to death and enable those left behind to carry on. For some people, religious or otherwise, no help will be sufficient, and they will sink into despair and cease to be functioning members of society.
War, with its organised killing, also calls into question the meaningfulness of life and the societies we live in. Like no other collective activity that a society can engage in, war challenges the core values and norms that guide us in our daily lives, and it has the capacity to undermine the fundamental structures and institutions of society. (Because of this the founders of the United States would not allow the president to declare war by himself, but required that the Congress do so.)
When we are authorising the killing of large numbers of people including some whom we consider "our own" it is right that a significant majority must believe it is meaningful and legitimate. And that belief must be held most strongly of all by those who will carry out the killing, and who may in turn be killed: the soldiers.
A question of legitimacy
Much of the initial legitimacy that a war carries comes from the myths we create about war. In his book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, former New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges argues that "in mythic war we imbue events with meanings they do not have"; this includes the view of "ourselves, our people, as the embodiment of absolute goodness" while the enemy is demonised. Hedges cites the distinction that the psychologist Lawrence LeShan made between "mythic reality" and "sensory reality" in wartime: "In sensory reality we see events for what they are. Most of those who are thrust into combat soon find it impossible to maintain the mythic perception of war. They would not survive if they did."
For this reason, most soldiers wind up fighting for their buddies. Hedges quotes a United States marine corps lieutenant-colonel, just before they crossed into Kuwait at the start of the first Gulf war in January 1991, who said: "Just remember that none of these boys is fighting for home, for the flag, for all that crap the politicians feed the public. They are fighting just for each other, just for each other."
In his book Home from the War, the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton summed up the sentiments of soldiers who had realised the absurdity of their situation in Vietnam. The basic response was: "I don't know why I'm here. You don't know why you're here. But since we're both here, we might as well try to do a good job and do our best to stay alive."
Thus, soldiers become primarily concerned with their own survival, physically, and if possible, spiritually. But the physical survival of soldiers too often seems to necessitate actions that are morally and legally dubious. In some cases the tensions this causes are too great to bear. In 2003 a CNN documentary called Fit To Kill explored the experiences of soldiers who had killed in three different wars.
Charles Sheehan Miles, a veteran of the first Gulf war, remembered engaging two Iraqi trucks that caught fire. As one of the occupants ran ablaze from the truck, Miles fired his machine-gun and instantly killed him. His immediate response was, he said, "a sense of exhilaration, of joy", but a split second later he felt "a tremendous feeling of guilt and remorse". The image of the man on fire, running and dying, stayed with him "for years and years and years," he said. His unit returned home amidst great celebration and he was awarded a medal, yet he felt, in his words, "probably the worst person alive".
Subsequently, Miles went to the military chaplain and told him that he didn't think he would be able to kill again. "It's not that I couldn't, it's that I knew I could. Because it was it was so easy to pull the trigger and kill people. Yes, I was afraid of what would happen. I was afraid of what it would do to me. What kind of person I would become."
For some soldiers the challenge to their principles is so great that the animal that lurks beneath our humanity comes to the fore. As Chris Hedges remarks, "Fundamental questions about the meaning, or meaninglessness, of our place on the planet are laid bare when we watch those around us sink to the lowest depths. War exposes the capacity for evil that lurks not far below the surface within all of us."
The Vietnam precedent
This capacity for evil was graphically displayed in a series of stories in 2003 in the Toledo Blade newspaper in Ohio about Tiger Force, a unit of the US army's 101st airborne division in Vietnam in 1967. The reporters, who won a Pulitzer Prize for their work, drew on documents from a long-suppressed US army investigation and interviews with surviving members of the unit, to show that Tiger Force was responsible for atrocities that left hundreds of civilians dead. They executed and tortured unarmed people, decapitated a child, and made necklaces from the ears of their victims.
The deeper problem for American soldiers in Vietnam was that the war had lost its mythic status. As Lawrence LeShan notes, such wars "are doomed to failure, for war is exposed for what it is organized murder". However, the political and military leadership during Vietnam did everything they could to maintain that this was not what the conflict was about. In his book, Rumor of War, Philip Caputo wrote about his experience in Vietnam as a platoon leader charged with the murder of two civilians by the unit under his command. The army wanted to try him as a common criminal because, Caputo argued, the civilian deaths could not be revealed as the inevitable product of the war itself. Caputo believed the truth could not be spoken of because it would have raised "the question of the morality of the American intervention in Vietnam."
So many responded to this crisis of meaning by avoiding combat and resisting the war effort, that it eventually became clear that the war could not be won. In 1971, in an article in Armed Forces Journal titled "The Collapse of the Armed Forces", marine Colonel Robert Heinl wrote that by mid-1971 there had been 4,400 active-duty applicants for conscientious-objector status; at any given time 10% of active-duty personnel had either deserted or were absent without official leave; between 1966 and 1971 the Pentagon reported over 500,000 "incidents of desertion" (meaning that soldiers were absent for more than thirty days).
Soldiers were also refusing to go on patrol, and officers who ordered them to undertake dangerous patrols were putting their own lives at risk. In three and a half years, according to Heinl, there were 551 reported incidents of "fragging", the practice of throwing fragmentation grenades into the tents of officers thought too demanding. These attacks killed eighty-six and left 700 wounded.
With this avoidance of combat went political resistance. A government-sponsored survey found that 25% of the lower ranks participated in what were called dissident activities and 79% were open to such activities. In 1970 and 1971 there were ninety underground anti-war newspapers published by soldiers, twenty-six anti-war coffee houses located near military bases, as well as several anti-war organisations for active-duty military personnel (such as the Concerned Officers' Movement in which I was involved).
Vietnam and Iraq: differences
There are both similarities and differences between soldiers' experience in Vietnam and Iraq, which have consequences for the reaction of soldiers both American and British today. The Iraq war of 2003 and subsequent occupation has been a much smaller military operation than the Vietnam war in terms of numbers. However, the Iraq war is more ambitious politically, aiming to install a friendly government rather than merely protect one as in South Vietnam.
The nature of the conflict is also different. In Vietnam the United States sided with an artificial entity, South Vietnam, in an effort to turn back an insurgency with broad support throughout Vietnam, north and south; in Iraq it launched (with Britain's support) a pre-emptive attack on a sovereign state (however heinous its leadership). In Vietnam it was constrained by the cold-war context and the risk of expansion of the war in ways that might involve China and the Soviet Union; today, as the sole superpower, the US has no significant external constraints to temper its use of force in Iraq.
Two further important differences have to do with the nature of the soldiers. First, the troops serving in Iraq are less representative of the American people than their equivalents during Vietnam. There are few if any rich, well-educated kids doing military service in Iraq instead, soldiers tend to be undereducated, poor, and from rural America. True, in the Vietnam war there was a form of conscription, but it would be a mistake to think that today's US forces are entirely composed of volunteers. Under the Pentagon's "stop loss" policies, for example, more than 7,000 active-duty soldiers and 3,000 guardsmen and reservists have been kept in military service longer than they expected when they signed up.
Second, a study by the Triangle Institute for Security Studies in North Carolina and other research finds that the political sympathies of the officer corps have shifted significantly to the right. In 1975 the officer corps was evenly split between Republicans, Democrats, and independents, but today there are nearly ten times more Republicans than Democrats.
Vietnam and Iraq: similarities
The similarities between Vietnam and Iraq have to do with general questions about the legitimacy of the war, the difficulties of distinguishing between peaceful civilians and insurgents, the lack of understanding of the local culture by US troops, and the problem of human-rights abuses as soldiers often find themselves in ambiguous situations. British troops in Iraq are also facing these difficulties and responding badly.
The political dissent among US soldiers in Iraq is not anywhere near the scale we saw in Vietnam, but it is growing. Joshua Keys recently asked for asylum in Canada claiming that he had seen atrocities while serving with US forces in Iraq, including soldiers kicking a severed head around like a soccer ball. He and his comrades were not trained in the Geneva conventions and were told that international law governing armed combat was just a "guideline", he said: "It's shoot first, ask questions later. Everything's justified."
Around 9,000 US soldiers have deserted since the war began three years ago (compared with more than 30,000 deserters and draft resisters took refuge in Canada during the Vietnam war). An estimated 400 of them have fled to Canada; Keys is one of only twenty or so who have formally applied for asylum there.
The British army is also beginning to see dissent, and an increase in unauthorised absences and desertion, amongst its troops. The air-force doctor, Flight-Lieutenant Malcolm Kendall-Smith, refused to serve in Iraq because he believes the war is illegal. Kendall-Smith studied the laws governing armed conflict after reading one of the opinions of Peter (Lord) Goldsmith, the attorney-general, which questioned the legality of invading Iraq. In a preliminary hearing, Kendall-Smith's barrister argued that neither George W Bush nor Tony Blair could be trusted to tell the truth about the legality of the war. Kendall-Smith was jailed for eight months.
The argument that the British prime minister and others lied to the public about the war, presented by former SAS soldier Ben Griffin, who served in Iraq, is unlikely to go away. Griffin, who was discharged last June with a testimonial that noted he had "the courage of his convictions", argues that "I didn't join the British Army to conduct American foreign policy." In an interview that he gave to the Daily Telegraph newspaper less than a month ago, Griffin also criticised the conduct of American forces in Iraq:
"The Americans had this catch-all approach to lifting suspects. The tactics were draconian and completely ineffective. The Americans were doing things like chucking farmers into Abu Ghraib or handing them over to the Iraqi authorities, knowing full well they were going to be tortured." They had "a well-deserved reputation for being trigger happy. In the three months that I was in Iraq, the soldiers I served with never shot anybody. When you asked the Americans why they killed people, they would say 'we were up against the tough foreign fighters'. I didn't see any foreign fighters in the time I was over there."
The number of British troops who have deserted from their units has trebled since the war began nearly 400 soldiers in 2005. The government is so concerned that it has submitted a bill to parliament that would make the penalty for desertion life imprisonment.
The shock of war
Instead of a great wave of political and moral dissent, what we are seeing are more individualistic responses among soldiers who are suffering from low morale and a general sense of alienation and anxiety about the war's justification. Instead of the armed forces collapsing, as Colonel Heinl described in Vietnam, the collapse today tends to be psychological and manifests itself among individual soldiers, American and British.
Stars and Stripes, the newspaper for the US rank-and-file, found in autumn 2003 that 34% of soldiers rated their personal morale as "low" or "very low" and 35% said their military mission was "mostly not clear," or "not clear at all". The paper highlighted one comment "Our mission has changed more than the president changes his underwear." A poll by the Zogby organisation in February 2006 found that 72% of American troops serving in Iraq think the US should exit the country within the next year, and over one in four say the troops should leave immediately. Only 23% said they should stay "as long as they are needed".
Instead of a rise in dissent has come an increase in suicides and psychiatric problems. The rate of suicide among soldiers in Iraq is nearly a third higher than the US army's historical average. At least twenty US army men and women have committed suicide in Iraq since the war began, and seven others killed themselves after returning home. "I haven't killed anybody here and I hope I never have to kill anybody", one soldier, a father of two, wrote to his mother from Baghdad a few days before killing himself.
As of the end of January 2005, more than 600 US soldiers had been evacuated from Iraq for psychiatric reasons. One such soldier, who had injured himself in a suicide attempt, had apparently sought psychiatric assistance, been seen for five minutes by medical personnel and told to go back to his unit where, he said, he was "humiliated and made the subject of jokes." Although civilian psychiatrists diagnosed him as bi-polar with post-traumatic stress syndrome, he was court-martialled for malingering and self-inflicted injury.
British troops have manifested similar problems. Of the just over 100 British deaths in Iraq, five are suspected suicides. Additionally, thirteen soldiers are believed to have taken their lives after returning from Iraq according to the ministry of defence, and another three after they left military service. The story of one of these former soldiers, detailed in a recent issue of the Observer Magazine is particularly poignant. Private Peter Mahoney, who was part of the initial invasion force in 2003, was haunted by the vision of a little Iraqi girl who had been lynched by a crowd because she had accepted sweets from a soldier. Fifteen months later he committed suicide.
1,400 British soldiers who served in Iraq have so far required counselling for trauma. The clinical director of Combat Stress, the charity formed by the wives of soldiers who suffered so-called "shell shock" after the first world war, says that normally it takes fourteen years for cases to develop from past conflicts, but "we're already seeing them from Iraq." In the US, the expectation is that at least 20% of the soldiers who have served in Iraq will require treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Friends, foes, innocents
Soldiers in Iraq face a difficulty well known to their predecessors in Vietnam: an inability to tell friend from foe. This is exacerbated by the lack of understanding of the local culture, especially among the Americans. As a consequence, a significant number of Iraqi civilians have been killed in questionable circumstances.
One very interesting report puts the problem down to the culture of the US military. In an article in the Military Review (November-December 2005), published by the US army war college, the British Brigadier, General Nigel Aylwin-Foster, argues that from his experience, and the experience of other non-Americans who served in Iraq, the fundamental problem is that the US army "was too 'kinetic'". By this he means that US soldiers were "too inclined to consider offensive operations and destruction of the insurgent as the key to a given situation, and conversely failed to understand its downside."
Aylwin-Foster noted that the US forces tended to remain in war-fighting mode during the post-combat phase of operations in Iraq, and that US commanders argued that "reluctance to use force merely bolstered the insurgents' courage and resilience, whilst demonstrating Coalition lack of resolve to the domestic population, thus prolonging the conflict." He went on: "It was apparent that many considered that the only effective, and morally acceptable, counter insurgency was to kill or capture all terrorists and insurgents; they saw military destruction of the enemy as a strategic goal in its own right."
Even Pentagon studies support this analysis. The quadrennial defence review released in February 2006 shows that only 6% of 127 "pacification" operations undertaken in the two years to May 2005 "were directed specifically to create a secure environment for the population." Instead most of the operations "were reactive to insurgent activity seeking to hunt down insurgents." These operations "had a strong focus on raiding, cordon & search and sweep operations throughout: the one day brigade raid is the preferred tactic." They preferred "large-scale kinetic maneuver" and "focus on killing insurgents, not protecting the population."
Brigadier-General Aylwin-Foster noted that generally US military personnel "had a strong sense of moral authority" and they believed fervently in the underlying purpose of their mission "the delivery of democracy to Iraq." However, he argues, this "also encouraged the erroneous assumption that given the justness of the cause, actions that occurred in its name would be understood and accepted by the population, even if mistakes and civilian fatalities occurred in the implementation."
He cites the US military's response to the murder and mutilation of four US contractors in Fallujah in April 2004 as an example of how "moral righteousness combined with an emotivity that was rarely far from the surface, and in extremis manifested as deep indignation or outrage could serve to distort collective military judgement." The killing of the contractors, Aylwin-Foster notes, was a classic tactic in insurgency doctrine: "almost certainly a come-on, designed to invoke a disproportionate response, thereby further polarising the situation and driving a wedge between the domestic population and the Coalition forces. It succeeded because the US military commanders "became set on the total destruction of the enemy."
Aylwin-Foster's account corresponds with that of former SAS soldier Ben Griffin, and with other reports. Human Rights Watch (HRW), for example, said in a 2003 report that civilian deaths in Iraq "reveal a pattern by U.S. forces of over-aggressive tactics, indiscriminate shooting in residential areas and a quick reliance on lethal forces." More recently, as the US expands the air war against suspected insurgents, HRW called on the US to exercise "all feasible precautions to minimize civilian casualties." Marc Garlasco, the group's senior military analyst, said: "All too often civilians pay with their lives when American bombs fall in Iraq. The U.S. military has in the past launched 'decapitation' strikes aimed at top leaders but based on bad intelligence, and also used cluster munitions in populated areas of Iraq."
An enormous number of Iraqi civilians have died since the invasion. Researchers for the British medical journal, The Lancet, found that mortality during the period from January-September 2004 (eight to seventeen monts after the invasion) had increased by approximately 100,000 people compared to the period from January-September 2002 (fourteen to six months prior to the invasion). The risk of death from violence in the period after the invasion was fifty-eight times higher than in the period before the war.
Although some have contested these figures, Iraq Body Count estimates that 38,000-42,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq as a result of coalition military action, by military or paramilitary responses to the coalition presence (e.g. insurgent and terrorist attacks), and excess civilian deaths caused by criminal action resulting from the breakdown in law and order which followed the coalition invasion. US-led forces were directly responsible for over a third of these deaths.
A variation on the problem of who is friend and who is foe has arisen with the training of the new Iraqi security forces. In a strong echo of Vietnam, US troops now suspect that working alongside the members of the Iraqi National Guard they are training is like "sleeping with the enemy."
One report in the Daily Telegraph described the situation at the US marines' Karmah barracks near Fallujah. "The marines are convinced", the report said, "that many, perhaps most, of the 140 members of the Iraqi National Guard (ING) they share the camp with are double agents working on behalf of the insurgents holding Fallujah." The marines claim that they have found Iraqi guardsmen laying mines, and if their joint patrols come under attack, the guardsmen refuse to fight. Of the 140 ING based at Karmah only between forty and sixty show up on any given day. One marine said that he and his US comrades always know when their post is about to come under mortar attack because the Iraqi national guardsmen have disappeared.
The myth and the reality
The difficulties that the soldiers are facing on the ground in Iraq are, of course, exacerbated by the problem of the war's legitimacy. An enormous number of people throughout the world, as well as a significant number in the US, opposed the war. Amongst the experts on international law an overwhelming number argued, and continue to argue, that it was illegal under international law. The failure to find weapons of mass destruction, the principal justification for the war, has increased this sense of illegality. This is what soldiers like Ben Griffin and Malcolm Kendall-Smith, as well as many of the US troops who've deserted, understand as well.
Tony Blair has still not released the full text of the legal reasoning by which Peter Goldsmith came to the conclusion that the war was legal under international law. There is significant evidence that the British attorney-general was forced to change his opinion on the matter. In 2005, Britain's top military officer at the start of the war, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, acknowledged that he had demanded in writing what he characterised as "unequivocal legal top cover" from the attorney-general before allowing British troops to go into battle. He feared that without such an assurance British troops could be prosecuted for war crimes. Boyce received that piece of paper just five days prior to the start of the war.
When the ambiguous legal status of the war is coupled with increasing revelations about the pre-ordained political motivations for the war among influential members of the Bush administration (the Downing Street memos, for example), one can only wonder when resistance among rank and file soldiers will become widespread.
Shortly after the war began the mother of a soldier stationed at Abu Ghraib prison wrote me of her concern for her son's welfare. She said that she was "very upset and angry with my son for what he is becoming, his growing callousness toward Iraqi people, even though I can rationally understand that this is the result of the deterioration of his mental state. And he certainly is not the worst of them "
A few months later she forwarded an email from him in which he said: "The media and the government are betraying us, the soldiers and those who want truth in what's going on over here." He went on: "The government contractors are making billions off my life and my friends' lives. If I die tomorrow, I hope I will be protecting someone's way of life rather than making someone richer." Soldiers often find themselves working next to private-security contractors who can earn up to $200,000 a year, compared to the $25,000 earned by the average enlisted service member. This is bad for army morale.
The mythic reality of the Iraq war has clearly disappeared. Most ordinary soldiers, immersed in the sensory reality of their circumstances, are doing the best they can trying to do good, trying to survive, hoping their buddies will survive, and longing to come home. In 2004 a friend forwarded to me an email that had come from a young woman serving in Iraq as an air-force investigator at a base near Fallujah. Here's some of what she said:
Its not that I am down ... I am just really ... I dont know ... there are some things that I have seen that I wouldn't wish on anybody and that kinda bothers me. All these awful things are happening for no reason and you know how I am. It's crazy ... that girl didn't deserve it. And I keep thinking that it could be me. The horrible aftermath. The phone call to the Nok (Next of Kin) ... the sorrow the familes endure ... the whole package. The "ultimate" sacrifice. I DO NOT want to die here and I am sure every one who has didn't want to die here. If you want to get technical about it no one wants to really be here ... except upper managment. And they aren't on the "front lines" per se.
The Iraqis are CRAZY!!!!!!! I mean really and truly CRAZY!!!! And they hate us with such malice. You want to hear something crazy. When they see one of us injured they gleefully smile. Like yah we got you. Their hate is taught to them with such intensity!! They have jump rope rhymes about killing Americans. Killing an Americans is a great thing to them! It is like there birth right. It's drilled in them like us going to college.
When they were on base I use to hate them so much. I'd want to inflict harm on them some way ... and Mother I know it's not their fault ... I know its horrible to hate. But we are waging a war that we can not win. They fight for a cause that surpasses "democracy" they are fighting to kill each and every American. They want us extinct. And where will it stop? It won't stop. It's a never ending story, a battle that we cannot win yet we can not afford to lose.
It's just not fair. So many innocent people, children. And when I say that, I mean Americans, Iraqis and our coalitions forces. My own personal hell. The smell of death is all around me. As well as the devil waiting to claim my soul. Seeking God is hard when you are here doing "dirty work." How can you ask for God's forgiveness for killing kids, attempting to wipe out a generation? They say ask for forgiveness and you shall be granted it but how? How does it work? I am only me. I don't know. I just can't wait to get the hell out of here."
Also in openDemocracy:
Paul Rogers writes a weekly column tracking the "war on terror" in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the world
Keirón Allen presents a two-part photo-essay on the experience of American soldiers in Afghanistan
Nina Berman portrays wounded veterans of Iraq as they adjust to life back home
In search of humanity
In conclusion, it seems to me that most soldiers either suffer the psychological consequences of war, or in the best therapy available, they protest politically. Peter Kilner, a US army major who teaches ethics at West Point, has been arguing "that military leaders have an obligation to explain to their soldiers the moral justification for killing in combat." Kilner notes that although early research suggested that "combat exposure and participation in atrocities" was predictive of whether soldiers would or would not develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD), "the interpretation of this evidence focused on what had happened to the soldiers (e.g., experienced fear, witnessed dead bodies), not on what the soldiers had done (i.e., killed)." Now however, Kilner says, there is "a growing body of research that indicates that what soldiers do can lead to trauma".
Rachel MacNair used data from the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study (NVVRS) to compare soldiers who had killed in Vietnam to those who had not. The most telling finding was that "those who reported they had killed were much more likely to report having done something in the military that they will never tell, to have violent outbursts, to have intrusive nightmares, and to abuse alcohol." In other words killing another human was the definitive indicator of the development of PTSD.
My own protest against the war in Vietnam was motivated by an intuition about what would happen to my own fragile sense of humanity. I knew that if I went to Vietnam I would be eternally scarred psychologically. I understood that the character of the war in Vietnam would destroy my sense of hope and optimism. I knew that I would come home like so many young men did, deeply cynical about the possibility of a positive future for humanity.
This came into sharper focus four years ago when I met Guy Grossman, who helped to found Courage to Refuse, the group of Israeli soldiers who refused to serve in the occupied territories. His experiences there led him to the edge of his humanity. Like most young soldiers he initially believed in the policies of his government and did his best to carry out orders in circumstances that no one should confront. He shot and killed several people. He wounded, and probably crippled, a child of six. He led what are called "midnight arrests", which involved breaking into the residence of an extended family of ten to fifteen people.
Amid the shouting, manhandling and screaming, Grossman would order them to be quiet, and when they would not, he would grab the grandmother and put a pistol to her head. At this point the five-year old boy in the family would, according to Grossman, "shit in his pants."
If Grossman had continued his military service in the occupied territories, his humanity would have disappeared into the abyss from which humans emerged. In my own case, I knew intuitively that if I had complied with orders and gone to Vietnam, given my psychological makeup, my humanity would most probably have been destroyed. I had seen so many of my contemporaries who, after their experiences in the war, had come to resemble the human version of a bombed out church, a place where only the walls remain, where the human spirit has been eviscerated. If I had gone to Vietnam, I'm certain that upon my return I would most probably have chosen the "Irish solution" as solace, and been drunk and dead by 40.
So my protest, like the protest of Ben Griffin, Malcolm Kendall-Smith, Joshua Keys and the veterans who have formed Iraq Veterans Against the War, was a way to affirm my humanity in the face of an institution war that conspires to steal it from us forever. Only by affirming our empathy with those who suffer from war can we affirm our humanity. Two years ago Lieutenant-General William Odom, the director of the National Security Agency under President Reagan, said that the war in Iraq is "a huge strategic disaster, and it will only get worse. The sooner we leave, the less the damage." My sentiments exactly.