An Antiwar Soldier Gets Promoted to Sergeant: Was it Willful Ignorance?
Sergeant Ronn Cantu -- who signed a petition to Congress demanding the U.S. withdraw from Iraq and gave interviews to the news shows "60 Minutes" and "Democracy Now!", as well as IPS detailing his opposition -- has seen his rank upgraded to staff sergeant. Some observers say Cantu's promotion shows the military is now so stressed by the ongoing war it is finding it difficult to crack down on dissent within the ranks.
Few members of the Armed Forces have made their disgust for the war in Iraq more public than Ronn Cantu. The 30-year-old Los Angeles native began speaking out during his second tour in Iraq, launching an online forum for antiwar GIs at Soldiersvoices.net, signing petitions against the war, and giving interviews to major U.S. media outlets while still stationed in Baghdad.
Now, as a staff sergeant, Cantu says he'll teach the soldiers under him to follow the Geneva Conventions and other laws of war.
"There's a lot of soldiers out there who wouldn't recognize an unlawful order if it bit them on the behind," he said. "So I'm going to make sure the nine guys under me are very aware of the laws of armed conflict. I just want to make sure that they keep their ethics and moral standards and keep out of trouble should anything happen."
Cantu hopes the soldiers under his command will behave differently than his unit did during his first tour in Iraq.
"We had a policy of 'making a statement'," he told IPS. "If a bomb went off on our convoy, all of the guns would go off and we'd pretty much just pass punishment on the area we were in: windows, cars on the side of the road, farm animals, sheep. It was a revenge thing."
Most service members who speak out are not given the same treatment Ronn Cantu got. Like Cantu, Former Marine Corps Sergeant Liam Madden signed the Appeal for Redress, an online petition to Congress from active-duty service members demanding an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq.
After co-founding the Appeal, Madden began holding workshops about the politics of the war on his base at Quantico, Virginia, bringing down the wrath of his chain of command.
"Basically, they just gave me a lousy jobs and told all my peers they were not allowed to talk to Sergeant Madden," he said. "It was a pretty lonely time."
"All the peers that I had met and become acquainted with were basically shut off and if any of them were to talk with me in the barracks or off duty they were very nervous about it," he added.
Many observers believe the Army is unable to effectively punish soldiers like Cantu and Madden because it's close to its breaking point. Last month, top Army officials told the Senate Armed Services Committee that it is under serious strain and must reduce the length of combat tours as soon as possible.
Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of Staff, said, "The cumulative effects of the last six-plus years at war have left our Army out of balance."
"There are certainly reasons for the military to overlook many issues today," said Jeff Paterson, the project director of Courage to Resist, which helps troops speak out against the war from within the military. He says the depleted state of the Army has military brass increasingly reluctant to expel soldiers who oppose the war. So people who work within the rules -- like Sergeant Ronn Cantu -- are promoted.
"In recruiting, they're overlooking whether you have a high school diploma, they're overlooking whether you have a criminal history, and once you're in the military, they're overlooking injuries -- and now apparently they're even overlooking people who speak out against the war," Patterson said. "So long as you do your job, there's a basis for the military to say 'We need your body in Iraq' regardless of whether we do or don't like what you're saying."
Cantu's said his superiors told him he was being promoted because he's served close to 10 years in the military and has met all training requirements. It's unclear whether Cantu slipped through the cracks or the army purposefully overlooked his activist work.
"I was pretty surprised," he told IPS, laughing. "It doesn't make much sense. I'd say honestly I just slipped through some bureaucratic cracks."