Honoring Our Gulf War Resisters
— Betsy Esch
Airplanes don't fly, tanks don't run, ships don't sail, missiles don't fire unless the sons and daughters of Americans make them do it. It's just that simple. —General Norman Schwarzkopf, West Point, 1991
FACING THEIR GREATEST recruitment crisis since at least the passage of the 1985 Montgomery G.I. Bill, and perhaps since the creation of the so-called "all volunteer" Army in 1973, the U.S. Armed Forces have gotten hip to the persuasive power of popular culture.1
Ricky Martin brought thousands of Puerto Rican youth into the streets of New York City in a show co-sponsored by the Army, and two years ago Spike Lee signed a multimillion dollar, six commercial deal with the Armed Forces Recruiting Office to sell the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines to kids on TV. Clearly targeted at African American and Latino youth, these recruitment tactics will likely have some effect.2
Yet neither sophisticated ads by Spike Lee nor patriotic appeals from Ricky Martin can obscure this important fact: In spite of promises for education, computer training, jobs and opportunity—promises made by virtually no other institutions in U.S. society—young people are not enlisting at the rate the state requires. Beginning to understand why this is happening can help us imagine the potential that exists among working-class youth, especially African Americans and Latinos, for resistance to the world order they have inherited.
When Clarence Davis was nineteen years old a judge gave him a choice: Go to jail or enlist. Having spent the better part of his childhood in and out of a variety of juvenile "homes," Davis opted for the Marines. It was peacetime, the Cold War was over, the "threat" of communism had been exterminated and, besides, he already knew what jail was like. The Marines at least represented the possibility of skills, money and mobility.
Less than six months later, in August, 1990 the Iraqi army invaded Kuwait and the United States began preparations for the tragedy that would come to be known by some as Operation Desert Storm. Just five months after that, Davis was among the first 500,000 U.S. troops deployed to the Persian Gulf.3
After arriving in Saudi Arabia, Davis decided he would not participate in the allied campaign against Iraq. In a letter he wrote, "I can never support the same country or thought that killed millions of Native Americans, Vietnamese, Japanese, Africans, Iraqis, Panamanians etc. I can never support the same thought that does not include me in the Constitution that I supposedly enlisted to uphold and defend . . . I am not a Muslim but another reason for my refusal to fight came from the immorality of killing a Muslim brother or sister."
Davis turned himself in to his Commanding Officer; at that time he didn't even know he had the right to apply for Conscientious Objector (CO) status. Davis was immediately locked up and held in a military prison until his court martial, where he was found guilty of desertion and refusing to obey a direct order. Though military law requires that a civilian lawyer be made available to soldiers charged with military crimes, Davis was denied this right on the grounds that it was too expensive to fly someone in for the trial.
About the court martial he wrote, "Being scared was indeed the only prerequisite . . . imagine a full bird Colonel and three officers all telling you that you are facing death or a life of long hard labor and ain't nothing you can do about it. It was basically an experience that will never leave me." Some months later, Davis was returned to the States and sent to the brig at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, where all the Marine resisters were incarcerated.
By January, 1991 more than 2500 people had applied for Conscientious Objector (CO) status. In spite of the Gulf War's popularity, more people applied for CO status during the build up and war than in any other four-month period in the century. Though ultimately less than ten percent of those applications would be accepted, the intervening months saw one act of courage after another from the resisters—who faced far harsher treatment than those who refused to serve in Vietnam.
In October, 1990 Army headquarters created a rule requiring that those who had applied for CO status be deployed even though the processing of their applications was incomplete. Even after Danny Gillis (who now goes by the name Kweisi Raghib Ehoize) had applied for CO status he was called up for active service.
Ehoize refused to board the bus that would take his division to the air strip. While the families and friends of young soldiers being shipped out looked on, Ehoize was beaten by two white Marines who tried to force him on the bus. Though he had broken no laws, Ehoize was handcuffed and taken to the brig by the military police.4
In a blatant act of harassment, Jody Anderson, a Marine who aided Ehoize during the attack but who then did ship out to Saudi Arabia with the unit, was arrested after the war and charged with mutiny, inciting to riot, assaulting an officer and disobeying a direct order. All told, Anderson faced life imprisonment plus forty-four years, ultimately serving two years in prison.5
Between the end of the war in Vietnam and the Gulf War, numerous changes to military law and policy had been implemented to limit the spread of antiwar sentiment and make it harder for GIs to resist. Troop rotations, leaves and discharges were ended (many of those who refused during Vietnam did it while on leave or rotation); GIs stationed in Saudi Arabia were strictly isolated from the Saudi people (one of the acknowledged factors that contributed to the rise of antiwar sentiment among Americans in Vietnam is that they lived among the Vietnamese people).
Policy included a refusal to acknowledge any resistance (reporters were regularly told that the rate of applications for CO status had not increased, though it had in fact multiplied exponentially); and the centralization of all imprisoned resisters at Camp Lejeune during their application period (making it nearly impossible to gather evidence and witnesses for their trials, or to organize mass-based community support.)
One of the most beautiful acts of solidarity in resistance to the war was the November, 1990 refusal by seven Marine reservists in the Fox Company, the Bronx. Twenty-one year old Sam Lwin, a Burmese-American student at the New School for Social Research, was the first to refuse. Joined by dozens of students organized into the group Hand Off Sam!, Lwin leafleted and demonstrated regularly in front of the Marine armory in the Bronx, eventually persuading six of his fellow reservists to join him in refusing.
Trinidad-born Colin Bootman was one of the seven. At a public speakout in New York he said, "My aunt, a leader in the New Jewel movement [in Grenada] was assassinated as a result of political turmoil. My family encouraged me to leave the Marines because they saw no future in waging wars."
Another Fox Company resister was African American reservist Keith Jones. At the time he began school, Jones did not support the antiwar and activist student organization at City College. After performing in two plays written by Vietnam veterans, though, he began to see things differently. "If I'd known then what I know now, I wouldn't enlist. This is insane."
Like most other Marine resisters, the Fox Company Seven faced severe punishment. Confined at Camp Lejeune in a barracks that was isolated from the rest of the camp (termed "the yellow barracks" by the pro-war Marines), the resisters had to stand night shifts while still working all day, were regularly strip-searched, told they were cowards and forced to scream "I'm shit" at the top of their lungs.
At Sam Lwin's court martial the government's key witness, Corporal David Patrick Conley, admitted that he had bragged that the last good thing he would do for the Marines before being discharged would be send Sam Lwin to jail for twenty years.6
Nineteen year old Marine reservist Tahan Jones from Oakland refused to report in when he was called up for active duty service in the Fall of 1990. After being declared absent without leave (AWOL) and charged with desertion in a time of war, which carries a death sentence, Jones became one of the most visible and active war resisters.
Along with the white Marine reservist Erik Larsen, who also faced a death sentence for desertion in a time of war, Jones spoke at antiwar demonstrations across the country. "I had an obligation to take a stand," he said. "I felt if I kept quiet I would never look at myself in the mirror again. Now when I look in the mirror I'm proud of what I've done."7
After being AWOL for nearly six months, Jones and Larsen turned themselves in during the Spring of 1991. The cruelty of the campaign against them was revealed when, after holding the threat of death over their heads for months, the Marine Corps dropped the charges. Because the United States had never actually declared war against Iraq Larsen and Jones could not be charged with wartime desertion.
Of course, this technical detail had not stopped the U.S. military from bombing Iraq "into submission" and it wasn't going to stop it from sending Jones and Larsen to prison. They then were charged with "desertion with the intent to avoid hazardous duty and shirk important service." Lieutenant Colonel David Beck (retired), a Marine Corps military judge during the Gulf War, remarked that he'd never known about this law but, sure enough, after he saw the charges against Jones and Larsen he looked it up and it was real.8
Aimee Allison became a Marine reservist after her parents told her there was no other way they could afford to send her to Stanford University, where she had been admitted. In describing boot camp she said:
We were all standing around in the red soil in South Carolina, about 300 women, and I was the youngest. I was barely seventeen. There was a range of women, all different races and ages. We're all standing out there in our battle dress fatigues with M-16s with bayonets attached to the end . . . They yell "attack position" and we yell "ugghh". . . I was standing there not being able to say anything and they yell "what makes the grass grow?" And we are forced to yell "Blood. Blood makes the grass grow, Marines make the blood flow". . . And the woman next to me was just crying, holding her M-16, realizing what the words meant.9
Allison, who applied for CO status while she was the student council president at Stanford, was never incarcerated. She became an antiwar activist after hearing Erik Larsen speak at a rally. About Larsen she said, "He was the first person in the military I ever heard say political things—he was unabashedly unafraid. That's when I decided to go public, to fight, and I decided that even if the military throws me in jail there is no way I would participate."
Beginning in January, 1991, Captain Yolanda Huet-Vaughn, a physician, became a regular speaker at antiwar demonstrations and at press conferences after her medical unit at Fort Riley, Kansas had been activated. The highest ranking officer to refuse, Huet-Vaughn turned herself in at an African American church's peace rally in Kansas City. She was arrested and, like Jones and Larsen, charged with desertion with intent to shirk hazardous duty.
Huet-Vaughn was the first resister to base her legal defense on international law, arguing that she had not just the legal right but the duty to refuse given that war crimes could be reasonably anticipated. This argument was built on evidence provided by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who had visited Iraq in the midst of the bombing campaign and returned with footage documenting the systematic destruction of hospitals, schools and apartment buildings.
Huet-Vaughn's attorneys also relied on the Nuremburg Code, which forbids experimentation on people without their consent. In the Gulf, thousands of GIs were inoculated without their consent with experimental vaccines for botulism and anthrax, allegedly to protect them from Iraqi weapons. As a physician Huet-Vaughn would have been expected to inject soldiers in violation of the principles established at Nuremburg.10
While the cases of Jones, Ehoize (Gillis) Allison and Huet-Vaughn were well known among antiwar activists, numerous others went unpublicized and unsupported. Though there was never any evidence against them, twenty-two year old James Moss and twenty-one year old Adbul Shaheed, both Muslims, were accused of encouraging sailors on their ship, the U.S.S. Ranger, to sabotage the aircraft launch system and to kidnap the skipper. Without giving any reason, the Naval Command dropped the charges against them in 1992.
Fanon Wilkins recalls hiding his friend Michael Bostic, a Marine reservist, in his dorm room at Morehouse College after Bostic had been called up for active service in the middle of the semester. Charged with being AWOL, Bostic was arrested by military police who were in his dorm room when he went there to get clean clothes. Bostic was incarcerated with the others at Camp Lejeune.11
In February, 1991, sixty Black National Guard members at Fort Hood, Texas, protested inadequate training and inequitable leave policies. Though more than forty white Guard members had gone AWOL the previous day over similar grievances and where not charged, three of the African American men involved in the protest were court-martialed for conspiracy to lead a strike and soliciting others to strike. Robert Pete was sentenced to six years in prison, Dwayne Brown was given one year, and Derrick Guidry, the only one of the three represented by a civilian attorney, received no jail term but was given a "bad" discharge.12
When the African American resisters talk about their experiences the similarities among them are undeniable. Though most were not antiwar when they signed up, neither do any of them tell a story in which patriotic idealism figured in their reasons for enlisting. "When I graduated high school I didn't want to work at MacDonalds," was the way Kweisi Ehoize said it. For Aimee Allison and Tahan Jones it was a way to school; for Clarence Davis a possible route to job training and out of jail.
Economics shaped the decision for white youths, too, though white resisters describe a process that was much different than their Black peers. Erik Larsen, a former Eagle Scout who had been recruited by his Scout troop leader, described himself as having been a "very motivated recruit:" "I loved that shit. Even the songs we sang in boot camp, I enjoyed singing, `ready to fight, ready to kill, ready to die but never will.'"13
David Wiggins, a white Navy Captain and West Point graduate who stood in a major traffic intersection and stripped off his uniform after applying for CO status and being forced to deploy, remembers that everyone in his hometown congratulated him on his acceptance to West Point, that he got a standing ovation in the middle of his high school basketball game.14
Studying Black history and tradition had a huge impact on all of the resisters. Tahan Jones said, "I read a book called Black Awakening in Capitalist America where they talked about how the system just sucks money out of the Black community . . . I thought about Oakland and how it is underdeveloped and predominantly Black, I thought about my high school . . . all these books just energized me."
For Allison it was the tradition of non-violence that she was studying in Black history classes at Stanford. "This amazing power that I was just starting to understand . . . in contrast to my weekends where I shot M-16s and did all kinds of training where I learned to do exactly the opposite of what I was learning was valuable . . ."
Of course, many of those who resisted weren't student reservists. But even for Marines like Ehoize and Davis, their study of Black and African traditions shaped their critique of the military and their decision to refuse. Ehoize was developing an analysis of the military's propaganda machine that contributed to his decision to become a Muslim while in the brig.
In the military there is nothing you see that makes you think of war. If you walk past an aircraft or a tank all you think is "I hope no one makes me wash it, I hope no one makes me fix it." You don't see anymore that this tank can actually have a round that will annihilate a whole city block.
Davis, who was the only GI court-martialed in Saudi Arabia for refusing to serve, developed an intense interest in Black and African history while in the brig. He was particularly interested in the so-called "Malcolm/Martin" debate and felt powerfully about the need to understand Black freedom struggles in a class context. In a letter from prison he wrote, "If you desegregate a lunch counter but don't take care of the unemployment problems, too, then the same people for whom the lunch counters were desegregated and stores were desegregated can't even eat there or shop there because they have no money."15
The war resisters' analysis clearly connected U.S. imperialism to racism at home. Like generations of African American soldiers before them, the Gulf War resisters wrote and spoke about the contradictions of fighting for democracy when they were denied it here at home. They understood well what it meant that the rank and file of the armed services is twenty-five percent Black even though Black men represent only about seven percent of the population.16
Depositions from resisters documented the racist abuse that was directed at them once they applied for CO status. Sam Lwin was called "Chinaman" and "gook" and was made to sing in Burmese in front of his drill instructors. One resister who attempted to apply for CO status was told by his white commanding officer that African Americans couldn't apply for CO status because they are from a violent culture.17
Many of those who resisted had enlisted with the idea that most Americans shared in 1990: The Cold War was over, it was peacetime. Upon being called up they learned, as had their sisters and brothers before them, that the Cold War in fact was often hot for most of the world.
One hundred-thirty wars were fought in the world between the end of World War II and the beginning of the Gulf War, all but four of them in the third world and virtually none free from U.S.-Soviet imperial entanglements. By 1990, the U.S. controlled forty percent of the share of the global arms market.18
For the white resisters as well as the resisters of color, refusing to fight was a statement against not just the war but against the powerful culture that supports and reproduces American racism in the service of imperialism.
A popular slogan several resisters remember from the war, "I'd fly 10,000 miles to smoke a camel," appeared regularly on posters and t-shirts in the Middle East and the United States. Speaking at an antiwar rally Erik Larsen said that he spent ". . . three months in boot camp to learn to view human beings as targets, as rag heads, as gooks, and I'll be damned if I'll be part of this racist, militaristic feeding frenzy. I refuse to face another human being through a gas mask."
Since the Vietnam War, war resistance has occupied a more significant place in our understanding of Black liberation. Yet a variety of forms of resistance to war have been used by African American soldiers and would-be recruits in every war since the Revolutionary War. In his dissertation Gerald Gill demonstrates the long tradition of opposition to war on spiritual, political and democratic grounds that Black people have sustained since the beginning of U.S. history.19
By expanding his examination of Black opposition to American wars beyond the realm of organized protest, Gill reveals the constancy of Black protest. Writers Claude McKay and Richard Wright, musicians John (Dizzie) Gillespie, B.B. King, Eddie Boyd, Jimmy Witherspoon and Charlie Parker, and of course Malcolm Little (X) are among those who found a way out of being inducted when called to sign up, even as none were then part of structured antiwar movements.
Vietnam war resister Donald Simons wrote, "I was lucky; the war I opposed was, by the end of it, despised by everyone. At the very least it was viewed as a mistake, a matter of poor judgement on the part of five Administrations. The Gulf war, by contrast, was a `popular war,' so that its resisters required twice the courage. Moreover, most were in the military at the time of their resistance, where the penalty for disobeying the government's, and the military's orders, was painfully clear."20
By mid-1991 almost all of the Gulf War resisters had been given "bad" discharges and sentenced to various terms in jail. Though some were not incarcerated after their court-martials, or were given suspended sentences, most nonetheless had remained locked up for the duration of their CO hearing, a condition not imposed on soldiers during Vietnam. Many were incarcerated through the end of 1992.
June Jordan described the national euphoria at the war's end as "a crack high: intense, but short-lived." Almost immediately, cynicism replaced patriotism as people traded in their yellow ribbons for bumper stickers that read, "Saddam Hussein still has a job, do you?"
The movement against the war, which had grown more quickly and broadly than any antiwar movement in this country, ended just as abruptly, as the United States and its allies pulverized Iraq in a matter of weeks, killing 1,250 Iraqis for each American death. Thousands of people in this country were transformed by this experience, yet the institutions of our society remained unchanged. The resisters left prison perhaps more transformed than anyone, though without a movement that could sustain the level of hope their resistance had sparked.
On February 8, 1994, almost exactly one year after he was released from prison, Clarence Davis took his own life. Though we cannot know why he felt he had to end his life, we should not fail to learn the lessons that Clarence's short life can offer us.
By almost any of the mainstream or academic standards by which people are measured and made into sociological truths, Clarence Davis was a bad kid, a failure, a gangster, the inevitable result of the culture that happens when work disappears. Yet everyone who knew him knew that Clarence was fascinated by the world's cultures, he wrote poetry, was a gentle and funny young man, a worker who always held down at least one job.
Clarence constantly searched for tools that would help him understand his own history and life, and create his own future. His very existence should serve as a powerful critique of the idea that Black youth are lost, either to society or to movements for social change.
As the Armed Forces Recruiting Division considers solving its recruitment problems by opening its doors to kids who haven't even finished high school, the battle for the hearts and minds and bodies of those youth who have been written off by all but the most coercive state institutions—prisons and the military—will continue.
We should take our cues from those who refused to serve in the Gulf, who joined the long tradition of African American resistance to the present in the name of a free future. The Gulf War resisters stood for the idea that they had the right to go to school; they had the right to refuse a war they didn't believe in and they had the right to the resources that they could only get by enlisting. Let us take our cues from them collectively, and from Clarence Davis, who wrote, "Next time let's talk about freedom—all types."
- The Montgomery G.I. Bill was passed in 1985 in respond to a recruitment crisis. Having increased the rate of pay and benefits in the early 1980s to no avail, this bill awarded college tuition, rather than cash, to students graduating high school. In exchange, students signed a contract obligating them to up to six years of military service. As reservists, the students spent weekends in training and boot camp. Due to a change in the status of reservists brought about by the 1973 creation of the "all volunteer" Army, reservists are now among the first called up for war, rather than the last.
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- In order to maintain a standing armed force of 3 million, 400,000 recruits must sign up every year. Since the creation of the all volunteer army and the elimination of the draft, recruitment has been an increasingly high priority. The Department of Defense recruiting budget was $2 billion in 1995 and supported the work of 13,000 recruiters who toured the country's malls, high schools and sporting events. For interviews with army recruiters see the excellent film "Blood Makes the Grass Grow," Media for a Safe and Sustainable Planet, the Video Project, 1996.
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- All information on Clarence Davis is taken from correspondence with the author between November, 1992 and January, 1993 and from interviews conducted by the author between January and June, 1994.
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- Tod Ensign, "Military Resisters in the Gulf War," in Cynthia Peters ed. Collateral Damage: the New World Order at Home and Abroad, South End Press, 1992, 281. Interview with Kweisi Raghib Ehoize, "Blood Makes the Grass Grow."
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- Mitch Cohen, The Gulf War, Part Five, www.iww.ca/news/iwwnews01238.html, 1.
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- All details on the Fox Company Seven in Ensign, 289.
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- Interview with Tahan Jones, conducted by the author, February, 1994. Also interview with Jones in "Blood Makes the Grass Grow."
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- Interview with Lieutenant Colonel David Beck, "Blood Makes the Grass Grow."
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- The Resister, September, 1991, published by the War Resisters League. Also Ensign, 293.
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- The Resister, September 1991, War Resisters League. Also Ensign, 293.
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- Interview with Fanon Wilkins conducted by the author, September, 1999.
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- The term "bad" discharge was created by resisters to the Vietnam war who were given what the military calls "dishonorable" or "less than honorable" discharges. Because of their belief that to resist was to act honorably they use the term "bad" to convey only the punitive character of the status assigned them by the military. Ensign, 294.
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- Interview with Erik Larsen, "Blood Makes the Grass Grow."
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- Interview with David Wiggins, "Blood Makes the Grass Grow."
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- Correspondence with the author, November 2, 1992.
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- Rachel Jones, "Minorities in the Military," in Collateral Damage, 238. Of course there are African American women in the military, but because there numbers are small it makes the comparison useful to consider the extraordinary disproportion of African American men in the ranks of the armed forces.
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- Cohen, 4.
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- Ruth Legar Sivard, World Military and Social Expenditures, Washington D.C., World Priorities Inc., 1989 and 1991 editions. Also Holly Sklar, Brave New World Order, in Collateral Damage, 7.
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- Gerald Gill, Afro American Opposition to the United States Wars of the Twentieth Century: Dissent, Discontent and Disinterest, unpublished dissertation, Howard University, 1985.
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- Donald T. Simons, "In Memory of Clarence T. Davis II," March 6, 1994, essay in author's possession.
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Betsy Esch is an editor of Against the Current, a member of Solidarity active in Palestine solidarity work, and a graduate student in the history department at New York University. She was active in the struggle against the Gulf War and a friend of Clarence Davis in the 1990s.
ATC 90, January-April 2001