The RW Interview

Gulf War Resister Jeff Paterson:
Up Against the War Machine

"I will not be a pawn in America's power plays for profit and oil in the Middle East."

Revolutionary Worker #1087, January 21, 2001, posted at

The RW Interview is a special feature to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music, literature, science, sports and politics.

The views expressed by those we interview are, of course, their own, and they are not responsible for the views expressed elsewhere in the Revolutionary Worker and on this website.

photo of Jeff PatersonOn August 7, 1990, 22-year-old Marine Cpl. Jeff Paterson refused to board a military plane in Hawaii heading to Saudia Arabia. He was the first active-duty military resister in the U.S.-led attack on Iraq. The photo of Jeff Paterson sitting on the airstrip, bravely defying orders to go fight in the Gulf War, made TV and newspapers around the world. On the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the U.S. bombing of Iraq, the RW asked Jeff Paterson to recount his story for readers of the RW.

RW: January 2001 is the 10th anniversary of the start of the U.S. war in the Persian Gulf. Many long-time readers of the RW remember the stand you took in 1990, as the first GI to refuse orders to fight in the war. But newer readers may not have heard about this. Could you run down what happened to you?

JP: Ten years ago the U.S. launched a protracted bombing campaign against Iraq, but for me the war began four months before that. In the days following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait a small number of troops were already being prepared for deployment and I was part of that deployment force of Marines. At that point I had been in the Marine Corps for almost four years of my four-year enlistment. I only had a couple of weeks left, and I was looking forward to getting out in a couple of weeks and signing up for community college and getting on with my life.

I came from a small rural town in northern California. I lived on a ranch outside of town. My mom could barely make ends meet. We had one car. There was no bus to get into town. The only real option was being a ranch hand, and the Marine Corps seemed like a good alternative to that. I liked punk music, I thought it was kind of in your face. At the same time I thought the Marine Corps mystique was kind of in your face too.

I found myself stationed in Okinawa, Japan, isolated on a small island, where, for reasons unknown to me, the local population despised us. Many of my so-called friends, their main thing in life was getting drunk and purchasing prostitutes. I was really feeling down. I couldn't relate to anybody or anything.

About that time I decided to check out the base library. On a dusty bottom shelf there were books about El Salvador and Nicaragua. During this time I was in an artillery unit and Central America was headline news. We were mainly training and preparing to help overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, or to "save" El Salvador from the FMLN rebels. I started checking out those books and reading about the armed struggles taking place in those countries and the peasants organizing and standing up against U.S. intervention. I didn't understand all the politics at the time of those particular groups but I dug what they were doing--fighting U.S. intervention. I came to have more sympathy for them than the organization I was a part of.

The U.S. military, particularly the Marine Corps tells you there's no point in talking to anyone about what you've been through because they could just never understand. What are they talking about? About how we fucked over all the people in the countries that we were in. How it's perfectly acceptable to purchase a woman for a week or give their parents a dishwasher in exchange for a servant and a sex slave. How it is perfectly fine to blow up somebody's house with a 155 mm Howitzer artillery--which we did a couple of times--and then pay off these peasants with canned foods from our mess hall. They told us that people on the outside wouldn't understand all this. [laughs] They're right.

All this really laid the basis for a couple of years later when I was ordered to pack my bags for Saudi Arabia. I put all of the pieces together: what I saw in Okinawa, Japan, how we treated people and how we were looked at by the local people as an occupying force, being stationed briefly near Subic Bay in the Philippines, in South Korea. I started to see that all of these things are not the exception but the rule. Although I had never been to the Middle East, I was rather certain that what we were going to do there would not be in the interests of the people there, but more of the same--controlling the resources of these countries for U.S. interests.

I was serving out the last months of my enlistment in Hawaii when I checked out the scene around the university to better understand what was really happening in Central America, and the bigger picture of what the U.S. was up to in all of these places around the world. I soon hooked up with activists around the university--Refuse & Resist!, CISPES, and others--who turned me on to the struggle of the Hawaiian people against the destruction of their homeland. While I was in Hawaii I was ordered to be part of a bombing campaign against one of the islands there called Kahoolawe, similar to what's going on in Puerto Rico right now in Vieques. Connecting all these experiences with the activist scene around the university gave me the strength to take a stand against this war.

RW: On August 16, 1990 you had a press conference where you said, "I will not be a pawn in America's power plays for profit and oil in the Middle East." You said you would refuse to board the plane and if dragged out to the Saudi desert you would refuse to fight. What was happening at that point and what was the response of the authorities to that?

JP: All this happened very quickly. In early August Iraq invaded Kuwait and 48 hours later Bush was on TV saying we couldn't let this stand. 48 hours after that I was told to pack my bags and be ready to catch a plane within 48 hours. I was not sure what to do. I asked friends. Most of them said the situation sucks but what can you do, you have to go. But there were a handful of friends, one in particular from Refuse & Resist!, who said, "Just do what's right." That's what made me seriously consider what I was going to do. For four years I had followed orders, done what I was told to do. But now for the first time I was being challenged to do what was right and that was something very new to me.

Once I knew that I had a small core of people who were going to take up my case, help me, or at least visit me while I was in jail, that gave me strength to do what was right. Once I decided to do what was right, all my feelings for the last three or four years--all the stuff that I had seen that was so fucked up came to the surface. I decided I wasn't going to go. What I said at that first press conference was those four years of pent-up frustration and anger--to make amends for all the things I participated in as part of the military.

One night I was introduced to a well-known activist lawyer, Eric Seitz, who, during the Vietnam War, had defended many GI resisters. The next day, instead of reporting for regular duty, I wrote a statement and held a press conference in his office. I returned to the base that evening and ran into a guard who was watching the barracks. He told me that everybody had seen me on TV and the officers had a big meeting and they were saying that they needed to make an example out of me so other people won't have crazy ideas.

I came back the next morning to my unit--160 Marines. The commanding officer was giving a speech and saying that he could understand why people might want to kick my ass and rip off my head but that would be illegal and technically people shouldn't do that but if anybody did do that he could understand that too.

After that day there was a whole month of back and forth with the military. The military was telling people on the outside, in response to my support committee, that I wasn't going to Saudi Arabia, they would never make anybody go, that I was a coward, that I was bad, that I would be thrown in jail or whatever. But all the while the military was telling me that there was no way they could let me not go. If other Marines got the idea that they could choose what's right and wrong, that was something they couldn't stand for. They told me they were going to make me go, even if I was just going to dig ditches or peel potatoes.

And all during that time there were at least two sides--officers and what we called lifers, people who actually believed all the propaganda vs. the huge number of people in the military who joined just like me, confused 18-year-olds who didn't know what they wanted to do with their lives, young Black men escaping the inner cities of Chicago or Compton, poor white people from Louisiana who didn't want to live their father's life on the farm. Most of them didn't understand what I was saying politically about the situation in the Middle East but I struck a chord with them. They looked at me as someone who was going up against the military. For years we sat around drinking beers and talking about how everything was fucked up. They saw me as going up against all the stuff that we'd talk about over beers, bringing it out into the open.

RW: What was your situation after the press conference? Did they throw you in the brig?

JP: Not yet. They were undecided about what they wanted to do with me. There was a train of thought that the best thing that could happen was that I would just go along with the program. They thought that even if people saw me on TV saying that I would not go, they could turn that around if they had movie footage showing that I went after all.

There was a three week period of dealing back and forth. I filed to be discharged as a conscientious objector. I stated that there was no conceivable war that this military would fight that would serve any good for mankind. On questioning, I refused to put down those people around the world who were resisting the same war machine. They used my refusal to condemn those just armed struggles as the basis to deny my discharge.

During those three weeks I went on a hunger strike. The military was telling the whole world that I was not going to be forced to go to Saudi Arabia but I knew the opposite was true. So I stopped eating as a way of saying that even if they forced me to go I would be more of a burden than an asset.

During this time my case gained more publicity. Some of the rebellious Black Marines kind of took me under their wing and gave me some cover. There were a couple of rednecks--goons--they came to get me and said something like "Your n****r friend ain't going to help you." And that made things a lot easier for me because the battle lines were clearly drawn.

During this time I was under room arrest so I wouldn't "infect" other people with my ideas. One night, in the middle of the night, these four guys climbed through the window and woke me up poking me with broomsticks and one guy was playing with his bayonet. I was half asleep and I heard them say something like "We're going to kill you, motherfucker." And my response was, "Why? What's the reasoning behind that?" Their response was, "You're a chicken shit coward, motherfucking faggot, that's why."

I thought that I better wake up quickly [laughs] and engage these guys. I ran down all the things that I had read about. I asked them if they knew about how Iraq had gassed the Kurdish people, while the U.S. continued to supply them with arms, how the U.S. played off Iraq and Iran during their war. What exactly was this dictatorship in Kuwait that we were protecting? Their response was like, "Nobody had ever told us what was really going on." After a couple of hours of this, at least it seemed like a couple of hours, they declared that they were not going to kick my ass because I was doing this for a reason and I wasn't a coward after all.

Two days later one of the same guys came up to me in the hallway and he snuck me this funky looking leaflet that he had done on his office computer. He had taken my photograph from the newspaper and scribbled "Free Jeff Paterson." He told me that he made a few copies and that he spread them around the PX and the commissary. I asked him why he did this and his reply was that he wanted to "blow their minds." He said, "The general will shit when he sees this."

I thought that incident was pretty amazing. I think at first they thought they were rebelling against the stated official policy of "hands off the coward," but they saw that there was something bigger to rebel against and they dug that even more.

Almost every day something like that happened. One of the charges brought against me was "giving away classified information to potential enemies." This was supposedly my statement that I was going to be deployed to the Middle East because I had a classified security clearance due to my training in nuclear weapons. For some reason they dropped that charge. Later I learned from a clerk in the general's office that he shredded my clearance files to get back at the fucking general who made his life miserable.

RW: The picture of you sitting on the tarmac, refusing to fight in the Gulf War, made national headlines. Did you have a sense of the kind of impact your case was having more broadly outside the military?

JP: At the time I didn't really have a sense of how things would develop. I thought there would be a headline in the local paper that said 10,000 troops deployed and at the bottom it would say one guy says no. I thought that would be a great success. People would know that one guy protested.

All this was in August, four months before the actual bombing began. But from where I was at the bombing was imminent, it was going to happen, all the talk about negotiated settlement that was not real. We were loading our cannons onto the boats and we weren't doing it for a show. We were doing it to kill a lot of people. One of the things that really moved me was when the colonel gathered our battalion on the base. People were worried; they wanted to be home by Christmas. And his reassurance was that if anything goes wrong we're going to let loose the 'silver bullet'--which was what I was trained to work with, artillery fired nuclear warheads--and "nuke those fucking rag heads." And just hearing that pushed me a long way toward refusing to have any part of that war.

RW: Then you were ordered to go to the Middle East. How did that come down?

JP: A week into my hunger strike on August 30 my unit was gathered and my commanding officer said we need a dozen volunteers that would be leaving immediately. About a third of the lifers and others raised their hands. A lot more people volunteered than they needed but the CO made a point of "volunteering" me. We were told to pack our bags, that we would be leaving immediately.

They let me leave the base to store my car off the base. And the person they had to escort me was a close friend of mine who let me contact my supporters and set up a press conference. So, upon returning to the base, I participated in a large press conference at the gates to the air station. The press asked me what I was going to do. I hadn't thought about what I was going to do if they actually tried to put me on a plane. I said I would have to sit down or something. And a few hours later, that's exactly what happened. I was ordered onto the transport plane and I sat down on the runway and watched people that I knew get on the plane.

While I was sitting there on the runway, various lifers--my master sergeant, CO, and a naval investigator--jumped around me yelling shit about me being chicken shit, that they would hunt me down when they got back from the war. I just sat there, ignoring them, looking straight ahead. That just pissed them off more.

RW: After they removed you from the runway what happened next?

JP: I was taken to the military brig at Pearl Harbor to await my court-martial trial which began in late November. The prosecution was asking for five years in Leavenworth. I was thinking about what people around the world go up against to oppose the U.S., and what the people of Iraq were facing. My personal sacrifice didn't seem that big in comparison.

As the trial started we took every opportunity to publicize my case and use it as an organizing means, not just to challenge the charges against me but to also mobilize against the war. Every day my trial went on people protested outside the gates, people chained themselves to the gate, people hung banners over freeways leading into the base. One day the judge was an hour late and he was joking about how there was a "Free Jeff Paterson" banner blocking the freeway and he had to sit in the tunnel for a half-hour choking on fumes because of that.

My case was becoming such an issue and point of debate that eventually the military decided that they had a war to fight and it was in their interest to get rid of me as quickly as possible. So they just discharged me. One day I was facing five years. Then, because of our strategy of mobilizing as many people as possible around my case and against the war, 48 hours later I was back in California. And a few days after that I was part of the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of people in the SF Bay Area and the bigger movement to stop the war.

During a so-called "victory parade" in San Francisco I was arrested for climbing on a five-ton truck while others disrupted the parade. A week later I was arrested for trying to chain myself to the turret of a tank during the Oakland parade. I shared a cell that day with dozens of activists who unmasked that parade of shame.

RW: Can you talk about other GI resisters during the Persian Gulf War?

JP: People told me of the legacy of resistance among GI's during the Vietnam War --organizations like Vietnam Veterans Against the War. I got calls from Vietnam veterans like Brian Willson who had his legs cut off by a train during a protest against U.S. intervention in Central America. So I had some frame of reference. I was able to get some strength from feeling a part of that legacy.

After my initial press conference, my support committee began receiving calls from other people around the country who were reservists in the Army or Marine Corps, active duty Air Force. People put me in touch with dozens and later hundreds of people who were going through the same decision that I had gone through regarding what to do and what was right. There was a committee set up in New York City that defended dozens of people, most of them from just one military reserve unit based there. There were news articles, hidden in the press, about two or three people refusing to fight and being put in the brig in Arizona. Here in the SF Bay Area there were local reservists who refused to fight, held press conferences and were imprisoned by the Marine Corps for two years each. The Marine Corps took a lesson from my case. They saw I was able to get support in the surrounding community, which made them uneasy. They began identifying resisters and sending them to places where they thought they could isolate them from their community, from their base of support, or from lawyers who might take up their cases.

After the war I spent two years publishing a newsletter called The Anti-Warrior. It gave voice to these resisters. It was a way they could have their stories and poems published so people knew what was going on.

One hundred fifty people in the military publicly made statements against the war. Over 100 of those were sentenced and did some time in prison. Several did a year or more at Leavenworth prison. The military released numbers indicating 7,500 GIs officially filed for discharge as conscientious objectors during the Gulf War. Beyond that, I heard numerous accounts of commanding officers tearing up these petitions in front of a GI.

RW: For 10 years the war against the people of Iraq has continued. Could you talk about that?

JP: There's no doubt that the war has never ended against the people of Iraq. UN studies show that 1.5 million Iraqi people have died, not mainly from the war, but from the U.S. sanctions, from malnutrition and preventable diseases. They are dying from contaminated water supplies after the U.S. deliberately and systematically destroyed Iraq's water treatment facilities. The U.S. continues to pound Iraq, during some periods averaging a bombing every other day. And this hardly makes the news.

A couple of years ago the U.S. was again threatening a large scale bombing of Iraq. I had just spoken at a protest rally when a Marine Corps vet, Andrew McGuffin, told me about some of the shit he was a part of in Iraq during the war--the burned bodies, miles and miles of smoldering cars, flesh cooking. He said, back then, I thought people like you were a big wuss--but those smells have changed me forever. I pushed him up to the microphone at that rally and we did a radio show together in Berkeley that night. Tens of thousands of Gulf War vets are now suffering from Gulf War Syndrome, and the reality that they are disposable is setting in. One in seven Gulf War vets have already filed for disability. That's twice the rate of the Vietnam War or World War II!"

Recently I signed on to "A Call From Veterans: End the U.S./UN Sanctions--Stop the U.S. War Against the People of Iraq!" petition which is being circulated by Vietnam Veterans Against the War Anti-Imperialist.

Ten years later, the U.S. war machine continues to pound the people of Iraq. The same things that jarred me awake while I was in the military are still happening. But people around the world are seeing what this U.S. new world order-globalization is all about and people are fighting back, like the Seattle WTO meeting being shut down. Like in the Philippines, where I was stationed, there is an armed struggle and the New People's Army is fighting against U.S. imperialism. In Peru, the People's War is continuing. I've been reading about the Maoist revolution in Nepal, like the great series that Li Onesto did in the RW. All of this can't help but give people hope for the future. Many of us who have been in the military, especially Vietnam vets, know better than anyone else that the U.S. war machine can be defeated.

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