Mark Dearden chooses his words with extreme precision. And not just with the deliberateness of a 36-year-old with a BA from Brigham Young, an MA in public health from Tulane and an MD from George Washington University. Dearden is also an active-duty lieutenant commander in the Navy who joined in 1997 and is still considering the possibility of a lifetime military career. "So this was a very difficult decision for me to come to," he says in a quiet, thoughtful voice. "I don't take this decision lightly."
Nor should he. Just a few weeks ago Dearden took the dramatic step of signing a petition to Congress--what's being called by its organizers an Appeal for Redress--opposing the war in Iraq and calling for the withdrawal of US troops. When the Appeal is delivered to Capitol Hill in mid-January, all the names of its almost 1,000 uniformed endorsers will be seen by members of Congress, if they care to look. But with his Nation interview, Dearden is now going public. And while the military cannot take reprisals against those who have supported the Appeal, many of the signers agree that there are an infinite number of ways they can be punished, including internal evaluations, denial of promotions and harsh assignments or postings. "I'm expressing a right of people in the military to contact their elected representatives, and I have done nothing illegal or disrespectful," says Dearden, now an anesthesiology resident at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego. After two tours in Iraq attached to a Marine battalion, including participation in the initial 2003 invasion, Dearden says that signing the Appeal gave him "closure" on what he describes as very tough deployments. "It gave me peace," he says.
Dearden has indeed joined the most significant movement of organized and dissident GIs seen in America since 1969, when 1,366 active-duty service members signed a full-page ad in the New York Times calling for an end to the Vietnam War. The Appeal for Redress, surfacing only in late October, has taken anti-Iraq War sentiment that's been simmering within the ranks and surfaced it as a mainstream plea backed by the enormous moral authority of active-duty personnel. It's an undeniable barometer of rising military dissent and provides a strong argument that the best way to support the troops is to recognize their demand to be withdrawn from Iraq. While clearly inspired by the GI movement of the Vietnam era, it takes a much different tack. Instead of attacking or confronting the military, as the resistance movement of the 1960s often did, the Appeal works within the military's legal framework.
The Appeal was posted as a simple three-sentence statement on a website managed by a Navy seaman:
As a patriotic American proud to serve the nation in uniform, I respectfully urge my political leaders in Congress to support the prompt withdrawal of all American military forces and bases from Iraq. Staying in Iraq will not work and is not worth the price. It is time for U.S. troops to come home.
The Appeal comes as the natural culmination of previous flickerings of military discontent with official Iraq policy. The bogging down of the war, along with the Bush Administration's use of a "backdoor draft"--the extension of tours of duty and an unprecedented call-up of active and inactive reserves--has stoked the discontent. Two years ago, some two dozen Army reservists refused to carry out a supply mission in Iraq, complaining that their vehicles were unsafe. Twenty Florida National Guard members petitioned their commanders to bring the troops home. In Kansas, Army reserve family members collected 8,000 signatures on a website protesting extended tours. While figures are difficult to confirm, counselors at the GI Rights Hotline estimate that as many as 1,000 or more troops and reservists go AWOL every month, not wanting to serve in Iraq. About 200 to 300 have fled to Canada, according to military rights lawyers. And in a half-dozen or so high-profile cases, uniformed personnel are facing court-martial and jail for refusing deployment to Iraq.
Therein resides the power of the Appeal for Redress. Its signers don't marginalize themselves as lawbreakers, resisters or deserters. Potential signers have been assured they are sending a communication to Congress protected under the Military Whistleblower Protection Act and will not be subject to reprisal. The result has been electrifying. In the two months since it surfaced, almost three times as many people have signed it as are members of the two-year-old Iraq Veterans Against the War. Almost three-quarters of the signers are active duty (the rest are reserves), and include several dozen officers, of whom a handful are colonels.
Interviews with more than two dozen signers, both in Iraq and on domestic US military bases from Fort Stewart in the east to Hawaii's Hickam Air Force Base, reveal a movement that includes low-level grunts and high-ranking officers, as well as a rich diversity of racial, economic and educational backgrounds. The signers offered a variety of motivations--ideological, practical, strategic and moral--but all agreed the war was no longer worth fighting and that the troops should be brought home. As the debate on Iraq sharpens in the wake of the Baker-Hamilton report and as a new Democratic Congress is seated, the collective voice of active-duty opponents of the war is likely to add considerable clout to the antiwar movement.
This Martin Luther King holiday weekend, members of the Appeal will appear on Capitol Hill to formally present the petition to Congress to press their case. For an all-volunteer force, says Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, "it's simply unprecedented."