In the Shadow of the RNC, War Resisters Convene to Stop the War
This past weekend, as Republicans prepared for their national convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, a more somber gathering was taking place, a few miles away. At a Ramada hotel in Minneapolis, Veterans for Peace along with Iraq Veterans Against the War held a convention calling for an end to the U.S.-led war and occupation of Iraq. These are the soldiers who are called on to fight the war that their government chose to start. While the Republicans continue to celebrate the so-called "War on Terror" and the success of the "surge" in Iraq, the veterans have a different story to tell about carnage, destruction, and physical and mental wounds that have yet to heal.
The five-day conference included workshops on various topics: healing the victims of torture, G.I. Resistance against war, sexual assault in the military, and the illegality of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Veterans of past wars teamed up with younger veterans to share their experiences organizing in the G.I. peace movement, and strategize how to leverage their voices to help end the war.
I had the privilege of interviewing Harvey Tharp, an early member of IVAW and the first officer to publicly resign in opposition to the Iraq war. Harvey shared his thoughts about the conference, the war, and the blossoming G.I. resistance movement against war and occupation in Iraq.
Sarah Lazare: What significance do you think the 2008 Iraq Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace conferences have?
Harvey Tharp: Hopefully with the protest actions that have been scheduled we can get national media to pay attention to the fact that Iraq Veterans Against the War exists. The more publicity we get, the name says it all. Getting people to know that there is a group called Iraq Veterans Against the War changes the dynamic.
SL: What do you hope will come out of this conference?
HT: The "support the troops" mantra gets intentionally misconstrued (to mean) supporting the war. People should know that they can support the troops and want to end the war.
SL: How long have you been involved with Iraq Veterans Against the War?
HT: I have been involved for four years. I was on active duty when I first got involved. Six Iraq veterans went to the Veterans for Peace conference in 2004. I read about them on the Internet. As soon as I heard, I knew I had to sign up. I was an officer at the time, and I was the first officer to join. I am the only Iraq veteran who resigned in protest over the war rather than return. That was mid-November, 2004.
I had been a judge advocate lawyer, and they were going to transfer me to intelligence. At first I was happy about it, because I wanted to go to Afghanistan and be part of the fight against Al Qaeda. In Iraq, it was early on, and a majority of the people wanted us there. I was in a city that had majority support. But then I came back and Abu Ghraib scandal broke. At that point, 70 to 80 percent of people wanted us out. Going into Iraq when they didn't want us there felt like breaking into someone's home.
When I was in Iraq, I was project officer. I had two-dozen Iraqis working for me. They were my support structure while I was there. They we were a great help to me. I have so much appreciation for Iraqis and the effect of their religion on their lives. That was one of the things that made it impossible for me to go back to Iraq. One of the things the U.S. military wants you to do is dehumanize Iraqis. I couldn't do that.
SL: Did you get in trouble for refusing to go back?
HT: I had a two-month waiting period where I didn't know whether they would accept my resignation, or whether they would refuse and send me back to Iraq. I was in a mindset that my choice was to go to Iraq or go to jail. But I never had to make that decision, because they let me resign. That is why I have so much respect for people who resign and do the time rather than go over and fight.
SL: What was the turning point for you that made you realize you were against the war?
HT: While I was there, it became clear there were no weapons of mass destruction and that we had been lied to about Iraq being a threat to us. It became clear in summer 2004 that we weren't helping Iraqi people; they were not benefiting from our presence. I could not come up with a moral justification for me to return to Iraq.
I was always against the war. When it came up, I thought it was a terrible idea. During the summer of 2003, I was debating another officer about the war. I said I thought we are going to lose. I said, "look at what is happening to Baghdad and the chaos all over Iraq." I was reading everything I could. There was one general who asked, "how is it supposed to end?" It just seemed like a disaster.
I didn't spend a lot of time with soldiers. I spent most of my time with Iraqis, but I read that 70 percent of soldiers want the war to end.
SL: How has life been since your return?
HT: Life has been tough. When I came back, I knew there was something wrong with me. I was barely functional as a naval officer. I just wanted to go backpacking in Thailand or take a trip or something to de-stress. It was too late. I have bipolar disorder. That usually only comes out in adolescence or young adulthood. Other than that, has to be induced by an extremely stressful experience. My mild case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) triggered bipolar disorder. I have had two different instances where I have been bipolar and had to be hospitalized for a few days.
When I left Iraq, I had a mild case of PTSD. I was in a very mild traffic accident a few weeks ago. It created an incredible stress reaction. I talked to the doctor at the VA. He said that is what is to be expected in stressful situations. With my condition, I can have anxiety attacks days after a stressful event, and it can last for weeks.
SL: What has your experience been organizing with Iraq Veterans Against the War?
HT: Being in Iraq Veterans Against the War is an honor to me. I am pleased that they accepted me, because it was an enlisted person's organization, and I am an officer. Only a dozen officers in the military have resigned in protest of war. When I was in officer training school, our company commanders said if you are alone, you are probably wrong. If you are the only one taking a position, you are probably making a mistake. But not this time. It's a difficult fight, and even if it is a losing fight, it is worth it and has to be fought. We do have a unique role to tell the public we were over there and this is what it was like.
Some people from Iraq Veterans Against the War do this street performance called Operation First Casualty, where they patrol city streets in the United States in the same way they would in Iraq -- mimicking weapons, and roughing up volunteers. It is an attempt to take the reality of the occupation home to the American people.
SL: What message do you hope McCain receives from the presence of Iraq Veterans Against the War over the next few days?
HT: I don't know that he'll listen to us at all. He said he's ok with American forces staying in Iraq for 100 years. It just shows how out of touch he is.
SL: What are your thoughts about the Iraq Veterans Against the War protest in Denver last week at the Democratic National Convention?
HT: It was excellent. I was really proud of what our members were able to do. Rage Against the Machine and thousands of people marched behind the Iraq Veterans Against the War, who stayed up front to confront the DNC and confront Obama.
I don't necessarily think Obama will pull out of Iraq voluntarily. McCain will never do it. Obama might be a useful political tool for getting us out of Iraq, if he is forced to.
SL: Is Iraq Veterans Against the War growing?
HT: From winter soldier and all the publicity we got from that, we went from 800 members to 1300 members. During the Vietnam War, there were half a million troops and draftees. We are an all volunteer, and still we have 1,300 members out of 150,000 people in Iraq. 75 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan vets are still on active duty. Many are against the war but afraid of what going public would do to their careers. They are also afraid to get involved in social movements.
I wear my Iraq Veterans Against the War shirt most days in Cincinnati, and I have never had someone say something negative to me. One day I was at a locksmith, and the guy making my key turned to me and said, "I am right there with you." It turned out that he had also been to Iraq.
SL: If you have one message to send to active GIs, what would it be?
HT: Speak out. Iraq Veterans Against the War is a perfectly legal organization for you to join. The war is not going to end until the American people become fed up with the war and realize the troops are against the war. We need to all lend our voices to make this war stop.