Refusing to Comply
To this day, troops in Iraq continue to be plagued by equipment and manpower shortages, and work long hours in an extreme climate. In addition, their stress levels are regularly raised by news from home of veterans returning to separations and divorces, and of a Veteran's Administration often ill-equipped and unwilling to provide appropriate physical and psychological care to veterans.
While no broad poll of troops has been conducted recently, a Zogby poll in February 2006 found that 72 percent of soldiers in Iraq felt the occupation should be ended within a year. My interviews with those recently back from Iraq indicate that levels of despair and disappointment are once again on the rise among troops who are beginning to realize, months after the Obama administration was ushered in, that hopes of an early withdrawal have evaporated.
With the Afghan War heating up and the Iraq War still far from over, even if fighting there is at far lower levels than at its sectarian heights in 2006 and 2007, with stress and strain on the military still on the rise, dissent and resistance are unlikely to abate. In addition to small numbers of outright public refusals to deploy or redeploy, troops are going AWOL (absent without official leave) between deployments, and actual desertions may once again be on the rise. Certainly, there's one strong indication that despair is indeed growing: the unprecedented numbers of soldiers who are committing suicide; the Army's official suicide count rose to 133 in 2008, up from 115 in 2007, itself a record since the Pentagon began keeping suicide statistics in 1980. At least eighty-two confirmed or suspected suicides have been reported thus far in 2009, a pace that indicates another grim record will be set; and suicide, though seldom thought of in that context, is also a form of refusal, an extreme, individual way of saying no, or simply no more.
According to Sergeant Simpson, here's how a feeling of discontent and opposition creeps up on you while you're on duty: the part of the war you're involved in, interrogating Iraqis in his case, "doesn't make any sense. You realize that the whole system is flawed and if that is flawed, then obviously the whole war is flawed. If the basic premise of the war is flawed, definitely the intelligence system that is supposed to lead us to victory is flawed. What that implies is that victory is not even a possibility."
After finishing his tour in Iraq, Simpson joined the Reserves because he believed it would grant him a two-year deferment from being called up, but he was called up anyway. In his own case, he says, "I thought to myself, I can't do this anymore. First of all, it's bad for me mentally because I'm doing something I loathe. Second, I'm participating in an organization that I wish to resist in every way I can.
"So," he says, "I just stopped showing up for drill, didn't call my unit, didn't give them any reason for it. I changed my telephone number and they did not have my address." Eventually, he reached the end date of his contract and managed to graduate from Evergreen State University in Washington. "I don't know if technically I'm still in the reserves," he told me. "I don't know what my situation is, but I don't really care either. If I go to jail, I go to jail. I'd rather go to jail than go to Iraq."
Unready and Unwilling Reserves
Sergeant Travis Bishop, who served fourteen months in Baghdad with the 57th Expeditionary Signal Battalion--the same battalion as Agosto, who served north of the Iraqi capital--recently went AWOL from his station at Fort Hood, Texas, when his unit deployed to Afghanistan. He insists that it would be unethical for him to deploy to support an occupation he opposes on moral grounds.
On his blog, he puts his position this way:
I love my country, but I believe that this particular war is unjust, unconstitutional and a total abuse of our nation's power and influence. And so, in the next few days, I will be speaking with my lawyer, and taking actions that will more than likely result in my discharge from the military, and possible jail time...and I am prepared to live with that.... My father said, "Do only what you can live with, because every morning you have to look at your face in the mirror when you shave. Ten years from now, you'll still be shaving the same face." If I had deployed to Afghanistan, I don't think I would have been able to look into another mirror again.
I spoke with him briefly after he turned himself in at his base in early June. He said he'd chosen to follow Specialist Agosto's example of refusal, which had inspired him, and wanted to be present at his post to accept the consequences of his actions. He, too, hoped others might follow his lead. (He and Agosto, now in similar situations, have become friends.)
Agosto, whose hope has been to set an example of resistance for other soldiers, sees Bishop's refusal to deploy to Afghanistan as a personal success and says, "I already feel vindicated for what I'm doing by his actions. It's nice to see some immediate results."
His actions, he's convinced, have affected the way his fellow soldiers are now looking at the war in Afghanistan. "The topic has come up a lot in conversation, with soldiers on base now asking, 'What are we doing in Afghanistan? Why are we there?' People feel compelled to bring this up when I'm around. Even the ones that disagree with me say it's great what I'm doing, and that I'm doing what a lot of them don't have the courage to do. If anything, the people I work with have now been treating me better than ever."
On May 27, rejecting an Article 15--a nonjudicial punishment imposed by a commanding officer who believes a member of his command has committed an offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice-- Agosto demanded to be court-martialed.