Open Letter To US Soldiers in Iraq

Two Ex-Soldiers: An Israeli & an American Refuser, 9/29/2003

Open Letter To Soldiers Who Are Involved in the Occupation of Iraq

We write this letter because we have both been military officers during conflicts that descended into a moral abyss and from which we struggled to emerge with our humanity intact. We know the moral dilemmas that some of you have begun to confront. Those of you now in Iraq may have begun to wonder about the purpose of the war, the occupation that has followed, and why so many of the Iraqi people want you to leave as soon as possible.

It is clear that many of you have been propelled into situations that may haunt you for the rest of your lives. You undoubtedly did not expect to be killing Iraqi civilians as now happens on a regular basis because of the difficulties you face in an occupation that was so poorly planned by those in authority above you. We understand the difficulty in distinguishing between friend and foe in tense situations like the one that led to the killing and wounding of a number of policemen near Fullaja earlier this month.

You have undoubtedly begun to feel rage at the seemingly senseless deaths of your comrades, and your inability to distinguish who is the enemy among the civilians you have come to 'liberate.' From time to time we're sure that some of you may want to take revenge for the deaths of your fellow soldiers.

We urge you to step back from such sentiments because the lives of innocent people will be placed at further risk, and your very humanity itself will be threatened. Political leaders who think a certain number of your deaths are 'acceptable,' as are a larger number of Iraqi civilian deaths, have placed you in these hellish conditions. Remember, they are ultimately responsible for putting you in the situations you face on a daily basis. As you know, despite what the Pentagon told everyone prior to deployment, armed conflict in Iraq is likely to continue for much longer despite the 'victory' George Bush seemed to declare when he landed on the USS Lincoln.

Some of your fellow soldiers may not experience any moral dilemmas as a result of what they are doing. As with the US soldier who was pictured on the front page of a British newspaper soon after the initial invasion with "KILL 'EM ALL," in red paint to look like blood on his helmet, there are some who may be enthusiastic about killing. If you have doubts about the actions you are ordered to undertake, you will probably be tempted to keep them to yourself in such an environment. Should you voice your doubts, you are likely to be met with verbal or physical harassment, and even formal disciplinary procedures.

In these circumstances, there are a number of things that you should know. Most people in the world understood that Saddam Hussein was a tyrannical dictator who had killed and debased significant numbers of people who lived under his rule. However, most people throughout the world also understood that the method the US government chose to remove Saddam was without international sanction, was informed by other less lofty motivations, and has resulted in the killing of significant numbers of innocent people. There were more pacific alternatives.

We were opposed to the war, and the armed occupation that has followed, not only because so many innocents continue to be killed, but because it is creating greater insecurity throughout the world. The war has further undermined an international order based on the rule of law and has fostered a global regime of disorder in which the indiscriminate use of force is often the arbitrator. Just as the occupation of the Palestinian territories by the Israeli army has contributed to greater insecurity throughout Israel, so too is the occupation of Iraq creating greater threats to security through out the world, including the United States.

You should also be aware that people all over the world, and a significant number in the United States as well, will understand your actions as truly heroic should you say "No!" to further participation in both the murderous occupation that you and your comrades now face and the murky moral swamp that the war has wrought. It is now clear that the justifications for war that political leaders in the US and Britain used had little basis in reality and they had been advised that intelligence indicated that war was likely to create more terrorism in the world, not less.

In addition, you should know that a substantial body of legal opinion argues that the invasion of Iraq was illegal under international law, and at least theoretically, the leaders of the United States and Britain could face war crimes charges in the future. Although this is probably unlikely to occur because of the power of their positions, should the killing of civilians become so widespread that it presents a political problem for them, you can be assured that you or some of your comrades will be brought up on charges for what will be defined as 'crimes.' It may or may not happen with regard to the killing of the policemen in Falluja, but our guess is that it will happen soon following another unfortunate incident.

Philip Caputo, who wrote "Rumor of War" about his experience in Vietnam as a platoon leader, was brought up on murder charges for the killing of two civilians by the unit under his command during his tour in Vietnam. The Army wanted to try him as a common criminal - a murderer - because the civilian deaths could not be revealed as the inevitable product of that war for to do so would have revealed much more. Caputo came to understand that the truth could not be spoken of because it would have raised many moral questions including "the question of the morality of the American intervention in Vietnam." As with that war, you should have little doubt that any actions that you engage in during your tour in Iraq that are politically problematic for the US government will be blamed on you, because the morality of what the government is engaged in through its invasion and occupation of Iraq cannot be allowed to be challenged. In other words, you should "watch your back!"

Should your moral doubts become so strong that you know, as each of us did with regard to Vietnam on the one hand, and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories on the other, that your very humanity is at risk, we urge you to consider refusing orders that you can no longer in conscience carry out. One of us refused to serve in the territories occupied by Israel because he knew he could no longer carry out military orders that had little to do with the safety of his country. He could no longer justify the use of indiscriminate military force in the name of unjust political policies, well disguised. He could not tolerate his country's use of himself as a means serving an unjust cause. He could no longer live with the outcome of his actions.

You probably know that as an American soldier, the Uniform Code of Military Justice requires that you obey only "lawful orders" of your military superiors. Consequently, it is within your legal rights to refuse "unlawful orders" - these provisions were put in the Uniform Code so that soldiers could not, as German soldiers did following World War II, try to absolve themselves of guilt for war crimes by saying that they were "just following orders." You can also apply for discharge by conscientiously objecting to war. Rather than serve in Vietnam, one of us refused orders by filing for discharge as a conscientious objector, and when the Pentagon refused the application, sued the Secretary of Defense in federal court for being illegally held by the US military.

Should particular military actions, or the over all conduct of the occupation, strike you as being of questionable legality, you also have other options. Following the analysis by Telford Taylor, chief US counsel at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunals following World War II, that according to the standards developed at Nuremberg, members of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff might be guilty of war crimes in Vietnam, one of us, along with other US junior officers, requested that the Secretary of Defense convene a Military Court of Inquiry to determine if the Joint Chiefs qualified as war criminals. We asked for this under Article 135 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Article 135 provides a legal mechanism that allows those subject to military law who believe that other military personnel have violated the Uniform Code to be formally investigated and ultimately brought to justice. Your superiors won't like it, to say the least, but it's perfectly legal and will encourage them to insure that their behavior does not descend further into the moral quagmire that has emerged in Iraq.

Finally, we would urge you to recognize that you are not alone with regard to the moral dilemmas that you are facing. Each of us initially faced our moral questions as individuals. But we soon realized that many of our comrades had similar qualms about what we were being ordered to do. We both were instrumental in helping to form organizations of military personnel who were opposed to the policies of our respective governments. Although opposition among US military personnel was a significant factor in ending the Vietnam War, and it still remains to be seen whether Courage to Refuse will help to end the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, such efforts do help to bring the moral and political issues involved into the clear light of day.

On a personal level, speaking to the truth of what we have seen as humans has helped to preserve our humanity in circumstances that conspired to deny it. Whatever you do, try to maintain a degree of civility with your buddies and superior officers. They are in this too. There are procedures to follow when you express moral concerns, which if they are professional soldiers, they will follow as well. If they act unprofessionally and verbally or physically harass you, recognize that it is probably a result of their own anxieties about the moral dilemmas that political leaders have forced them to confront as well.

It is our hope that you will be able to confront these dilemmas clearly and with the support of as many of your comrades as have courage similar to yours. Although we would disagree with it, you may decide that the morally correct course is to continue participating in the occupation. Regardless of what you decide, it is our fervent desire that your actions are chosen in the bright light of moral illumination and political understanding. We also hope that you ultimately return to your home with your humanity enriched, rather than diminished.

Biographical Notes: Guy Grossman is a graduate Philosophy student at Tel-Aviv University. He serves as a second Lieutenant in the Israeli reserve forces, was one of the founders of "Courage to Refuse", a group of now over 500 soldiers who refuse to serve in the Palestinians Occupied Territories for conscientious reasons.

James Skelly is a Senior Fellow at the Baker Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies at Juniata College, and Academic Coordinator for Peace & Justice Programs at Brethren Colleges Abroad. As a Lieutenant, United States Navy, he sued former Defense Secretary Melvin Laird in the US federal courts rather than comply with orders to Vietnam, and was a founder on the US west coast of The Concerned Officers Movement, and The Concerned Military.