Gulf War Vets: Resisting and Telling the Truth

Part 2

by Michael Slate

Revolutionary Worker #1191, March 16, 2003, posted at

Dave Wiggins is an emergency room physician in North Carolina these days. A long time ago he was a West Point honors graduate destined for a career in the U.S. Army. He was proud of that, thought it was the best thing he could do with his life. After graduating from medical school, he was assigned to an Apache helicopter combat unit at Fort Hood, Texas. His next stop was the Gulf War.

"I was a conscientious objector during Desert Storm. It didn't start out to be that way. I originally joined the army thinking that I was going to defend the country against the `Evil Empire' rather than the `Axis of Evil' we have today. When the [Berlin] wall came down I was quite disillusioned when, as a country and a world, we didn't have a more peaceful environment--we proceeded to invade Grenada and invade Panama. And then after that I applied to be discharged from the army as a conscientious objector.

"However, while my application was pending approval by the Department of the Army--after I had already been approved for discharge as a conscientious objector--Iraq invaded Kuwait. My whole situation became entangled in that situation. The army put out an order called `Stop Loss,' which meant nobody could get out of the army, including me. I subsequently was ordered to deploy to Saudi Arabia as part of the combat unit I was assigned to.

There is an army regulation which basically describes how an application to be a conscientious objector is supposed to be handled. There was an investigation where I was interviewed along with my family, friends and other military officers I worked with. The result of that investigation was the recommendation that I was `sincere'--which is the only thing they have to determine. And given that I was sincere, the army regulation stipulates that I should be discharged from the army. At that point the paperwork has to go through my chain of command, and that's where I started to run into some resistance. In spite of the recommendation of the investigation, the chain of command pretty uniformly said, `Well yes, we understand this but we don't agree with the concept of conscientious objection in general and therefore we deny the application.'

"I told my commanders that as part of this whole investigation and interview process that--in the theoretical event that my application was turned down--I would basically cooperate during the application but that would end at the time I felt there was a problem. I also said that I would never voluntarily fight because of the reasons I laid out during my application. I was subsequently ordered to go to Saudi Arabia, and at that point I started a fast as a way of resistance and protest. I started going public in my opposition to the war on TV and radio. Yet I did not refuse to go Saudi Arabia. I went because the army had attempted to make my case appear to be one of cowardice--which it certainly wasn't.

"When I was deployed they treated me as though I was a danger to the unit. A few of the officers came up and in some bizarre sort of way suggested that I was endangering the unit by the position I was taking. They actually had armed guards they called `Black Hats' guard me all the way into Saudi Arabia.

"I continued to do my job in a certain sense. I was in a war zone, and I was actually deployed there before any hostilities started. I took medicine with me, and if somebody was hurt or injured I certainly did not refuse to take care of them. However, at other times I refused to show up at my place of assignment. I wrote letters and posters while I was in Saudi Arabia and posted them on the mess hall. I did interviews with media saying that I still opposed the war. And I was still fasting all the time. I volunteered to work for the International Red Cross since the army was trying to make the case that I didn't really care about the people who would be sick or injured. I did that because I felt that taking care of any injured soldier-- whether it be Iraqi or U.S.--would be equally just. However, that was turned down as well. They ended up putting me in a hospital and force feeding me to break the fast.

"I was initially sent to the front lines in a place called King Khalid Military City, about five miles from the border with Iraq. We were in a tent city there with the forward units that were going to invade Iraq since I was in a helicopter unit. It was pretty well signaled as to the day that the war was going to start. And at that point I knew that it was basically a matter of acting upon my beliefs. So I decided to resign my commission.

"In my mind I had a picture of the gentleman in Tiananmen Square [in Beijing, China] who held his hand up to the tanks. I decided to do something similar. I went to the main intersection in King Khalid Military City where the heavy armor was heading towards the front lines. I stood there and held out my hand and blocked all the traffic heading to the front lines. While I was doing that I took off my uniform and signed a resignation. It was about 15 or 20 minutes before some soldier dragged me off to the side of the road. They tell me that the traffic was backed up for 15 or 20 miles at that point.

"Immediately afterwards they threw me in the back of an ambulance. Their initial response was that this person must be insane. So they actually packed me up and took me to the hospital where I stayed overnight, and then when they determined that I wasn't insane they tried to tell me to go back to work, to forget about it and do what I was told."

Dave refused to do what he was told. He refused to go to work or to wear his uniform. He again volunteered for the International Red Cross, saying he would care for anyone injured, civilian or soldier, Iraqi or American. The Army rejected this and eventually court-martialed Dave and convicted him of Failure to Repair (not showing up for work) and Conduct Unbecoming an Officer and a Gentleman (for taking off his uniform as a sign of resignation). The judge ordered that he be discharged from the army.

Since then Dave has felt a special responsibility to speak out on the dangers of blindly following unjust orders.

"I feel sorry for the troops. I think they are being unjustly ordered to do something and being taken advantage of by a government that is supposed to represent them. I feel sorry for their families be- cause they're losing their loved ones for a certain amount of time if not forever if they get killed. On the other hand, I don't agree that they should be going off and killing people just because they are ordered to. The excuse that `I was just following orders' has never carried that much weight whether it applies to Cambodia or the Nazis, and I feel this applies equally well to U.S. soldiers. If you're going to take it upon yourself to take someone else's life, I think a person has a moral responsibility to make sure that they actually believe in it and are not just following orders.

"We live in a world that is getting smaller all the time. You can travel anywhere in the world in less than a day. We have weapons that can totally render the human race extinct--nuclear weapons, bio- logical weapons. What one nation does can affect the whole world as well as the citizens of the nation. In our own selfish sense as American citizens and in a more noble sense as world citizens, we need to act in our own best interests, and that may often involve acting against the interests of our government who doesn't always represent the best interests of the citizens."


Alan Gunderson is quiet and calm these days. He teaches in South Central L.A. In 1989 he joined the Marine Corps and stayed in for the next four years. Alan joined because they promised him a career, tours of the world, and money for college. He got the Gulf War and a job as a combat engineer in the 1st Marine Division. Alan cleared paths through minefields so the invading troops could advance. Through all this, Alan learned a whole lot of truth about the United States and its role in the world.

"It's gotten a little bit easier to talk about it. I've been speaking about it a lot since they've been talking about going to Iraq.

"There was something that hit me before we even got to the Gulf. We loaded up on ships, and it took us 45 days to get to the Gulf. We stopped at Hawai'i and the Philippines and the next stop was the Persian Gulf. The Philippines was interesting. We spent five days there and two days was training and the next few days were to relax and enjoy the last bit of freedom you had until the big war happened. We were going to practice firing our weapons and shooting off some explosives. We marched around the base and we had our equipment with us for a long hike.

"We walked through this village. It was the poorest--the only experience I knew of this was watching a Vietnam movie. People were just dirt poor--living out of cardboard shacks, kids with rags on, dirt floors. I'm walking through this, and I was just in shock. It's not a movie, it's real, and you're looking at it right there. I threw an MRE cookie and a cracker at a couple of the kids, and they ran into each other and fought for it. I just couldn't believe it. Here I am with all this military equipment on, all this expensive equipment, all these rounds, billion-dollar ships, the base--we're using their land. And then right outside the base is utter poverty. This made no sense to me; I didn't understand it. That was the first instance of really starting to question what are we really doing.

"Our plan was we were going to attack the beach and go in through Kuwait. We were a diversion, but they didn't let us know that. So we had a lot of time on our hands. We sat around counting down the days until the air strike happens, like counting down to the last day you're gonna live. Only a day before we actually left the ship did they let us know that we were going to be landing in Saudi and following the rest of the guys who went into Kuwait.

"We ended up going out to the highway of death. It was an experience I'll never forget. It took us four, almost five, hours to drive from the base in Saudi to the area called the highway of death. It reminded me of a movie like Mad Max or some of these sci-fi movies. There were vehicles blown apart, black and charred vehicles all along this highway. I remember looking at a truck, it looked like some giant stepped on it. The wheels were up in the air, the belly of it was on the ground. Tanks and everything you could see was charred.

"The second place we stopped at was a large area with bunkers and a few tanks around it. So we stopped to take a look around. What I saw in the distance, after walking around a while, was something I definitely won't forget. I saw a lump, a black lump laying in the distance. The closer I got to it I realized it was a corpse. It was two corpses, actually, of Iraqi soldiers. They had been there probably a couple of weeks. They were in pieces, there were just pieces of them. I was just sitting there around them, and then the rest of the guys started coming around and looking. Death really silences everybody. We all looked at each other and at the dead bodies.

"The things that ran through my head was , What are we doing? What is this all about? Is this all about oil? All around us at that place we could see charred vehicles, dead charred bodies. And all around us were the oilfields. We saw the fire and the smoke. And during that time we were there the smoke got so heavy that it started to cover the sky. It looked like fog rolling in but it was smoke and it covered the sky. We were standing around these dead Iraqi soldiers, the sun turned from yellow to orange and then it changed from day to night. I thought, `Am I in hell, is this real, is it a dream?' This whole thing was surreal.

"When the ground war started we had no idea about what was going on. They wouldn't let us know anything. Now my job is to clear minefields so I should at least know what the Iraqis have, what I am up against. They wouldn't give us anything at all. But somehow, my sergeant knew somebody who was in intelligence and we were able to sneak down some secret diagrams and descriptions of the mines we were up against. We came to find out that we were going against our own equipment. I was like, What are they doing with U.S. mines? That's just one of the things that kept building up to change my mind about things."

Perhaps one of the sharpest things Alan learned in the Marine Corps was a strong sense of how this country is a class society and how the rulers care as little for the people on the bottom of this society as they do for the poor and oppressed around the world. There was one incident in particular that Alan cites as watershed moment in his life. In April 1992, Alan was in one of the Marine units that were mobilized for possible action against the rebellion that rocked Los Angeles after the acquittal of the cops who beat Rodney King.

"When I landed in Saudi, the day we left the ship, they gave us ten rounds, that's all they gave us. And then two weeks later they gave us 50 rounds when it didn't really matter cuz it was over. Then I was in the L.A. riots a year later, and what really turned my stomach was that they gave me ten rounds to go into Iraq but they gave me 20 rounds to come up to L.A. and kill Americans. When we were driving up it was like we were invading L.A. during the riots; it really made me ashamed to be in the military.

"There were just a number of things that built up in me. The highway of death was one but there were a number of others that built up altogether. It showed me that the people who make the decisions don't come from lower economic backgrounds, but most of the guys I was with were from lower economic backgrounds. There were a lot of people of color and so forth. We didn't see the politicians' kids sitting next to us. It was apparent that the lower class is not valued very much; it was really apparent when we went up to L.A. with twice as many rounds as we had to go to war with."

Alan has strong feelings about the thinking put forward by people during the 1991 Gulf War that once war started, everyone had to "support our troops." He talked about his own experience around this--and about what the troops being sent to the Gulf now really need.

"I got letters from my mom and I got pictures of yellow ribbons everywhere--it makes you think you're doing the right thing. But if you start getting news about disgruntled people protesting the war, then you start to think that maybe you're not doing the right thing. I don't think it would demoralize you. You'd just understand that what's going on isn't the right thing. And after the things that I saw in the Gulf, I started to question all those letters and pictures of yellow ribbons and all that support. The support was from people who were giving support for something they didn't really understand. I could see the hypocrisy.

"I think showing protesting and explaining why people are protesting shows support in a different way. I think that actually helps the troops more than keeping on waving the flags and yellow ribbons while many of the people in the Gulf are seeing something completely different, or have seen something completely different--and they don't buy it any more and they are wondering what's really going on. If you show them what's going on, and by protesting and explaining to them what's going on, I think that helps more than anything else."

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