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About Face | The Nation

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About Face

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The most compelling voices among the active dissenters who have signed the Appeal are those of troops still on the front lines in Iraq. Among them is a thirtysomething Army major, a Distinguished Military Graduate from a prestigious Southern university. Now on his second tour, "Major Frank," as I will call him, was first deployed to Baghdad just weeks after the 2003 invasion. "I believed wholeheartedly in the mission to oust Saddam Hussein," he says, "and would have been proud to die liberating Iraq from the evil dictator, because at the same time I felt I was protecting my country and my family [from] weapons of mass destruction."

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Marc Cooper
Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, is an associate professor of professional practice and director of...

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At the biggest Democratic event of the campaign season, Obama argued that the coming election is a choice between the past and the future rather than a referendum on his first two years in office.

He'll probably fend off J.D. Hayworth, but in order to win he's lost most of his principles.

Now, Frank says, he sees no point in the war, and no end. His Iraqi unit is 97 percent Shiite and is sympathetic to the extremist militia of fundamentalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. "We are merely being used as military pawns in a political struggle for Iraq," he says. "So, yes! I am opposed to our brave men and women dying every day for nothing because we cannot control this civil war."

Frank says he can pinpoint the precise moment when he turned against the war: last June 23. He was on patrol with his Iraqi unit when they came upon an illegal checkpoint set up by Sadr's Mahdi militia. The militants were using ambulances taken from the Ministry of Health to block the roads, thereby preventing American troops from maneuvering. He was flabbergasted when the Iraqi Army troops refused not only to take down the checkpoint but also returned to the militia a number of automatic weapons that had been seized from them by the army.

This sort of depressing reality is what prompted Frank to sign the Appeal. "I proudly joined the Appeal for Redress out of the sense of hopelessness that I had inside for what we are actually doing here," he says. He's angry with both the Bush Administration and the top brass in Iraq. "They sit behind their desks in the Green Zone and filter reports to their bosses. No one wants to admit that we are failing." Frank says he's quite open about his views, and finds overwhelming support for them among his fellow soldiers. "Yes, yes, yes," he says, "My entire team feels the same way I do. And the other battalion [trainers] that I have come across feel that way, including my commanders.... In fact, I have not had one person in the last five months disagree with me. The typical response is, 'I know what you mean.'"

That sentiment was, indeed, echoed by an Army officer and signer of the Appeal who wanted to be identified only by his real last name. Lieutenant Smith, a 24-year-old Kansan deployed with an infantry unit in Baghdad, joined up six years ago not only because he saw the military as a route to pay for college but also because he felt it was an obligation to "pay back" America for the opportunities it affords. His doubts about the war, strong from the beginning, only hardened. "I became very angry after two friends from college were killed, both in their 20s," Smith says. "I started to wonder what they had died for. Both were killed by roadside bombs near the area where my unit operates now. And when I found out about them before I deployed, my outlook changed. I started to lose any sense of satisfaction with what I was doing for the Army because what I was doing was in some roundabout way supporting what had just killed two friends."

Smith says it was his stateside father-in-law who directed him to the online Appeal. Smith had heard about another Army lieutenant, Ehren Watada, who has been resisting deployment to Iraq on the grounds that the war is unconstitutional and who now faces court-martial [see sidebar page 14]. But that was not a route he wished to travel. "I have an antiwar history from college," Smith says. "But I hate what Lieutenant Ehren Watada did and the way he did it. I wanted a way to say I thought the war was wrong without looking like a coward." At the same time, however, Smith says that he wants his voice to be heard. "I hope the Appeal will cement in the mind of Congress growing unrest about the war," he says. "Congress got a mandate from Americans that the war was not popular, and now they can get an official mandate from troops serving abroad that we feel the same way but are limited in the way we can express it."

Some within the ranks have been more outspoken about that discontent, mostly as a product of accelerated politicization and radicalization while in uniform. Take the case of 28-year-old Californian Ronn Cantu, an Army sergeant stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. Both his grandfathers served in the Army, his father was drafted into Vietnam and Cantu himself enlisted in 1998 as a self-described "Bush conservative."

After serving out his contract, Cantu re-enlisted in March 2003. "I was in junior college studying journalism but couldn't re-adjust to civilian life. And as a journalism major I was constantly watching and reading the news, and I got totally sold that Iraq was a threat, that it had WMD, that it was going to erase America off the map."

Next thing he knew, Cantu was attached to an infantry unit in Iraq. In charge of ammo, and after making more than 300 harrowing convoys, he had seen enough. He voted against Bush in 2004 and now strongly opposes the war. While still on active duty he has not only signed the Appeal but has joined Iraq Veterans Against the War. On its website he's a contributor of pointed essays bucking Bush Administration policy. He's also started his own website--soldiervoices.net--where he's running his own freewheeling online GI forum. A firm supporter of troop withdrawal, Cantu has nevertheless enlisted for three more years and is currently preparing for a second tour of Iraq. "I'm going back with a job in military intelligence. It's a job that I think can help end the war," he says. "Working in human intelligence, I will be able to talk to Iraqis and that way find and hear the truth."

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