Reflections of a Transformed Warrior

Hart Viges is a 30-year-old peace activist and Iraq veteran whose antiwar organizing has carried him from classroom presentations in Texas high schools to Camp Casey near President Bush's ranch, from street protests in New York City and Washington, D.C., to a joint march of solidarity between Iraq veterans and Hurricane Katrina survivors along the Gulf Coast.*

Viges just came back from a whirlwind, two-week speaking tour across Ireland on behalf of Iraq Veterans Against the War, which concluded earlier this month, as well as demonstrations at the national meet-up for Halliburton shareholders.

WireTap Magazine spoke to Viges about his transformation from a warrior to a peace activist, and what he thinks supporting the troops should mean today.


WireTap: Why did you enlist?

Hart Viges: I enlisted because of 9-11. You know, a threat was imminent on American soil, and I needed to be part of its solution.

WT: Where did you serve during those 11 months?

HV: I served with the 82nd Airborne Division out of Fort Bragg, N.C. My time in Iraq I spent in As Samawah, a couple of weeks in Fallujah and the remainder of that time in Baghdad.

WT: Why do you think you, among tens of thousands of others, were shuttled off to Iraq by our government's leaders?

HV: Why? For money, and that's the pure truth of it. War really doesn't help anyone out -- it's not helping out the Iraqis, it's not helping out the soldiers that are going over there. It's just more money gained for a strategic hold in a region of the world that we're all dependent on -- and that's oil. It's business.

WT: Were there moments in Iraq when you questioned your mission?

HV: I didn't feel I had much of a say in it. I didn't see an escape while I was there. Basically just do my job and make sure everyone comes home safely. I remember in Kuwait for the first month we were there, waiting for the order to go in, I go to the porta-potty and write, "Of course Saddam has weapons of mass destruction -- we gave them to him."

I came back, and there were at least 20 other comments, 'Fuck you,' 'What are you, some crazy liberal?' and 'Russia gave them the weapons of mass destruction' -- that was my favorite one. I really didn't question it -- at the time I didn't really care if they had weapons of mass destruction or not.

When we came into Iraq, they were cheering us, 'Yes, Bush! No, Saddam! Yes, Bush! No, Saddam! Having guys come up to our position with no ears because they refused to fight in Saddam's army and just seeing the poverty of that country, I felt we were actually doing a good service for them by disposing of that leader. But those cheers faded after a while, when I guess they realized we weren't leaving and no changes were really coming into view for them.

WT: When did you start to oppose the war in Iraq?

HV: When I came back home, I was planning on going out for Special Forces. I wanted to be a more useful tool in fighting the war. I saw the regular Army not doing hardly anything to help the situation in Iraq, so I wanted to switch up to a more specialized unit, but when I came back home on leave, after serving a year in Iraq, I just remembered how it was here. It was a culture shock because being over there, I just really forgot what it was like in America. To see how we lived as opposed to how people live in Iraq. This is a choice. These are choices we make that can either bring us this peace or that war.

That kind of struck me pretty hard. And then I met my current girlfriend, and she basically questioned me -- she confronted me pretty harshly at first. When we first met, we just argued, argued and argued. What she really laid into me was -- question why. Are you really looking at the big picture here? Again, I was still holding on to "we got rid of Saddam." But as a soldier, you're given an order and you do it. You don't think about it. That's hesitation, and hesitation can kill you, so that was pretty much stripped out of me.

Once I got a little more history of what the United States government has done and why, through questioning, it raised my eyebrows and started me on a path towards this [opposition to war]. Then I saw "Passion of the Christ," and I consider myself a Christian, and everything Jesus said has no justification for war whatsoever. That really catalyzed my beliefs of what am I doing in the military as an infantry guy with my core beliefs being "love your enemy", "turn the other cheek", and "pray for those who persecute you." That was a turning point, those two weeks when I got back from Iraq.

WT: Were there moments in Iraq when you felt that what you were asked to do contradicted the purported ideals of the United States?

HV: Absolutely. We ran into some guys with some RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) near a water treatment plant outside of Baghdad, and they got away. So we went back in with some reinforcements asking questions. When Saddam was in power, if you had a problem with your neighbor, you just told the police that this guy said something bad about Saddam, and they'd come arrest him with no proof, and they'd take him away and torture them.

Well, when we were in this village asking where the people were with RPGs, we get led to this little farming house. And we get out, myself and another soldier, to check their little huts and see if there's any RPGs, explosives, multiple AK 47s -- anything that would denote armed resistance towards what we were doing there.

The only thing I found was this little .22 pistol, probably something to scare off thieves. Nothing to go up against the United States Army, yet we still arrested these two young men of that family with no proof. I told my sergeant, "Sergeant, I don't think these are the guys. I know. I had my sights on one of them. I saw his face." He was like, "Oh, don't worry. These are other bad guys."

It just didn't seem right. It didn't seem right at all. Their mother was crying hysterically. She was at my feet, trying to kiss my feet, kissing my cheeks and my face -- just pleading. It just wasn't right. I don't see any difference between what we did that day and what happened when Saddam was in power: just going into a house on just some words said by a guy who probably has something against this family, having no proof, arresting them on no proof, and they probably ended up at Abu Ghraib or some other prison where they were abused by some asshole MPs (military police). I don't see any difference.

WT: Why do you think other veterans should be involved in organizing for peace?

HV: If you get in touch with your conscience, and you know what you've done, getting involved in peace and justice is, in a sense, redeeming. It's therapy. It allows you to vent your frustrations. It gives you a voice because people are going to listen, and talking is about one of the best things you can do to heal yourself.

WT: What do you feel are the strengths of the antiwar movement?

HV: It's growing. More people are coming out when they see acts of courage like massive rallies or a grieving mother outside of a ranch in Texas.

I think we can end the war in a month. It would just take the choice of everyone -- everyone who is against the war -- to go to D.C., or their respective capitols, and jump up and down. Everyone. And not leave the place. Over half the country is against this war.

I love to talk about this scientific experiment with these schools in California where they had every kid in elementary school get up from their desks and start jumping up and down, all at the same time. This sent tremors that were felt in Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, all throughout California, of course -- from little kids jumping up and down. And if everyone against the war came to one place, if everyone against the war took a week off and went to D.C. and jumped up and down in front of the capitol, or in front of the White House, it would fall down and we'd create change.

This is a fight. This is a battle that we are engaged in, in the peace movement. It is the tools we use that make it different -- of what the results will be at the end. They use weapons and fear, we use courage and words.

You have to make a sacrifice. You have to understand that you are connected with everyone on this planet, and you are apart of it. Your silence will not protect you. We can stop this.

WT: What have you learned from talking to students in the high schools?

HV: That they think 9-11 had something to do with Iraq. We have these polls and people put stickers on whether they think we should get out of Iraq or stay in Iraq. Last time about 36 students put "get out." At first, six put "for the war." When people put "for" I would ask them, "Why should we stay in Iraq?" And a lot of them said, "So they won't bomb us again."

But there are a number of students who also are about making some change and talking about issues. It's just a matter of getting recruiters out of schools. If you can't trust a kid under 21 to drink alcohol and yet you can put a gun in their hand, it's pretty ridiculous. And for any 17-year-old kid to be harassed by recruiters when they really don't have a full world view in their heads yet … they are easily intimidated by a big old recruiter wearing a uniform, swaggering around. It's bullying on ignorance. It's just really, really sick.

When we (Veterans for Peace) were marching down the Veterans Day parade, a group of about 30 junior high kids -- all black and Latino -- were wearing desert camouflage, marching, as part of their ROTC program. My god, man. And we got on to Saddam for having the junior Fedayeen, his kid army. He was recruiting kids from junior high-level and training them. He actually had them with assault rifles and mortar systems. But really, what's the difference?

Here, you still have the mentality for them to have that assault rifle and mortar system, but when they get out of high school. It's just really, really sick militarizing our kids like that.

My sister just had a kid. They are thinking of having some of my toys be given to him. And I have a bunch of GI Joes. "Maybe he would like playing with these when he's older?" (imitating his sister). And I'm like, "Fuck no! This is a gun. This is a tank. But do you know what this does to a human being? Do you know what this 50 caliber does to a human body? And to play with that?"

I'm not saying ban GI Joe -- I don't think you'd solve anything by making it illegal, but just understand the implications of putting a toy gun into the hands of a kid. What are you telling him? What's he learning by going "bang, bang" at his friend? You know I did that, and I'm not going to blame my life on GI Joe, but it was definitely indoctrination into the military.

The last nightmare I had, that I remember, it was horrible -- my nephew was all grown up and he was going into the Army. I've thought about that for a couple of days now, and I've fantasized about how I would go about it if I got a call from my sister saying your nephew has decided to join the military. God forbid my nephew is going to serve in the military. No, no. I'll drive up there and rip his body out of the arms of those recruiters. I'll go straight into that center and I'll wear my colors, my military jacket, let them know that it ain't gonna happen. My nephew is not joining up, no way.

WT: What are some of the objectives of the group Vets for Vets?

HV: Vets for Vets is nonpolitical. Who cares if you are for or against the war; it's just a place for Iraq veterans and Afghanistan veterans to talk and say whatever you want. We'll listen. Everyone takes their turn talking. If you want to talk, great. You don't have to talk if you don't want to. Everyone listens. No one judges. No one tries to recruit you to one point of view or the next. It's just a place for veterans to talk to other veterans because everyone, even myself, comes back here and finds themselves disassociated with everyone here. They feel like they can't talk to them about what they experienced. They feel alone. Vets for Vets is a place where they can come and talk.

Not every guy or girl can tell their parents or their friends stories from Iraq. They won't understand. Or they don't want them to know what they did. And it's really rough. It's really rough for veterans to come back and find themselves, and especially when they're out of the service or even when they're in. You are like the alien. You have your own type of language. Even still, at work, I'm around all these people, and they're not like me. They don't understand.

WT: What does it mean to you to "support the troops?"

HV: Well, it's not leaving them out there to die. It's taking care of them. It's nurturing compassion that I see as support, and that includes fighting for the right to not be used in a war that's based on lies. It's fighting for them to come back home to their families and friends, and eat home cooking, to be with their wife or girlfriend or husband or boyfriend. Those are the people that take care of them the most. The Army doesn't. To them they're just property of the United States government.

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