Gulf War Vet Speaks Out for Iraqi People

Revolutionary Worker #948, March 15, 1998

Eric Gustafson, a Gulf War vet, was one of the speakers at the February 28 protest in Chicago. Last summer he took part in a Voices in the Wilderness delegation that defied U.S. law to bring much-needed medical supplies into Iraq. He is now working with Global Exchange, which he describes as an effort to promote links between "communities here at home with communities around the world." He spoke with an RW correspondent about his experiences.

Seven years ago, Eric was assigned to an engineering unit that built military hospitals, roads and prisoner of war camps while U.S. bombs dropped on Iraq. He was stationed 100 miles from the front lines and did not directly see the war's impact on the Iraqi people. And he does not suffer from the Gulf War Syndrome that has made many vets ill.

Eric had questions about the war at the time. But, "I didn't have access to a lot of the critical information that I needed to come up with my own judgement. When you're in the military, you're a tool of the government, plain and simple. You have no rights. You're government issue, you're government property. So, it's a very disempowered atmosphere...

"There was a media blackout, so I knew very little about the anti-war movement across this country. There were hundreds of thousands that marched on Washington--never heard anything about it. There were people outside Fort Lewis, Washington, which is where my base was. I never knew there were people at the gates, because we had a lockdown, we couldn't leave our unit."

As Eric explained, "I wasn't alone, there was a lot of soldiers that had reservations. And we did really understand that what we were going over there for was oil. We knew that. We weren't stupid. So there were a lot of deep reservations that many of us had. But it was an incredible challenge for anybody in the military to stand up and oppose that war and refuse to board the planes that were going to the Gulf."

Eric's story makes it clear what Jeff Paterson and other Gulf War resisters had to go up against when they refused take part in the U.S. war of shame.

A year after his discharge, Eric attended a program on Indonesia's 1975 invasion of East Timor. Over 100,000 Timorese were killed by the Indonesian military--backed and mainly supplied by the U.S. He compared Washington's silent approval of this invasion to the U.S. response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait--and saw an "incredible double standard."

Eric also met vets who were sick with Gulf War illnesses. "It was devastating. They were suffering, not only themselves, but their children had birth defects... The Gulf War continued for them, and they had to live with it every day."

Through contact with Voices in the Wilderness, Eric also learned about the deadly consequences of the war and the economic sanctions on the lives of the Iraqi people. He made a decision to "honor and help the people of Iraq as much as I could, as well as other veterans that were suffering."

Eric says that "nothing could have prepared me for what I saw" during the Voices in the Wilderness trip to Iraq last year. "It was frightening. I literally saw hospital wards filled with children dying from things as simple as dysentery. They didn't even have rehydration tablets to treat dehydration. Children dying from curable diseases. The hospitals were filled with dying children...

"The Saddam Medical Teaching Hospital, the largest and most modern hospital in the entire country, is in collapse. They don't even have light bulbs. There's flies in the air. You can smell the sewage. No plumbing. These are the conditions they have to work under. The doctors and nurses don't have adequate medicine, so sometimes they're in a position of playing god--choosing who lives and who dies because they only have one vial of antibiotics, and they have 20 cases where they need to give antibiotics."

Eric said that many of the buildings and roads have been repaired, but much of what lies underneath is still a total mess from the Gulf War bombing. The sewage system is a case in point--unable to be repaired because the sanctions prevent Iraq from getting the foreign exchange needed to purchase replacement parts. "Raw sewage, as we speak, is being dumped into the Tigris River. It's been dumped that way from Baghdad, a city of over five million people, for over seven years. The Tigris is now a dead river. And the only way we can begin to clean up the environment is to rebuild the sewage facilities. But they prevent those materials from coming into the country--because the United States claims they have a `dual military purpose.' So people continue to die from biological diseases. And to me, that truly is biological warfare right there."

Eric points out that it is "ludicrous" for the U.S. government to justify the sanctions by talking about Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction": "The real intention is to contain Iraq no matter how many Arab lives are lost. To really get Iraq to capitulate to Western interests. I think that's truly what is behind this policy... The real weapon of mass destruction is the sanctions. And the sanctions are a legacy that Iraq will have to suffer with for countless generations. In fact, the youngest generation will be permanently stunted and disabled...

"It's by far one of greater crimes against humanity in the latter part of this century. It's a crime against humanity that most people don't know. And it's a crime against humanity that is denied by the U.S. government."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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