Vietnam veteran Tim Origer describes the US government’s insouciance to the troops who are injured while “serving the homeland” but without addressing the fact that the troops are violating international law and morality in killing Iraqis and destroying their country.
The treatment of the vets is atrocious. The appalling cruelty and disdain shown to yesteryear’s Bonus Army veterans and, more recently, to the veterans who suffer from Gulf War Syndrome adduces that the current mistreatment of veterans is not a historical aberration. That the troops are just pawns and cannon fodder and that their “patriotism” and “heroism” are not actually valued by the government demands widespread criticism. But there are higher principles to honor than just securing proper medical care for the professional destroyers of people and their country.
Previously, with B.J. Sabri, I co-wrote a five-part series, “American Violence in Iraq: Necrophilia or Savagery?” (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) that opened with a quotation from Chris Hedges’ book, War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning (Anchor Books, 2003): “War is necrophilia. And this necrophilia is central to soldiering, just as it is central to the makeup of suicide bombers and terrorists. The necrophilia is hidden under platitudes about duty or comradeship.”
Sabri and I departed sharply from the equivalency Hedges drew between unprovoked imperialist aggression and resistance to the aggression, but found merit in his definition of violence in a military setting as necrophilia but in other than the sensual connotation.
The aggressors must bear preponderant culpability for the violence they wreak. Consequently, Sabri and I argued, “[R]esolutely, there should be no sympathy for any aggressor, or any empathy with the aggressor’s pain and suffering. This is an important tenet of natural law that, by its force and logic, no one should deny or denigrate. Incidentally, the same tenet exists in many American courts, where a cold-blooded killer could receive a death sentence without regret.”
Origer was 19-years-old when he lost his leg fighting in Vietnam. He also suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, from which it took years to recover. Origer is dedicated to helping veterans who are victims of their government.
Origer’s compassion runs deeper than just helping the veterans. The following is an interview conducted by e-mail.
Kim Petersen: Care for the veterans is important. But what about the citizens of Iraq? It has now been estimated that there are over one million excess mortalities since March 2003. Given that the aggression -- which, according to the Nuremberg Tribunal, is the “supreme international crime” -- of Iraq was predicated on a lie, how does this reflect on Iraqi veterans? What is the responsibility of the servicemen and women?
Tim Origer: Let’s begin by calling the excess mortalities what they are: civilian dead. They are not collateral damage nor accidental deaths, they are civilians caught between or in the periphery of military combatants.
We could begin an assessment of American aggression and accountability with 4 million Native American deaths right here over the short span of our history, or perhaps more relevant to Nuremburg, 200k civilian dead in Germany added to 900k innocent, non-combatant Japanese. 2M more in my war in Vietnam and another 1M in Afghanistan. All totaled, the list of those who have died at the hand of the United States military extends beyond 40,265,000. Although we haven’t quite hit the totals attributed to Stalin, it hardly seems imaginable that we’re finished with the killing. Iran, Korea, South America and China all wait on our paranoid horizon.
We (the United States) are signatories to numerous international treaties and conventions, which if applied retroactively would hold us accountable for crimes and atrocities in nearly every military incursion in which we have participated. So where are the voices speaking out? Where are the coalitions of the just or the victimized calling us to task? Over the course of our illegal occupation of Iraq we have seen literally millions, here and throughout the world calling for an end to our illegal war. With all those voices what has changed? Among those who have spoken out there are a few like Ehren Watada or Camilo Mejia who have done so from within the ranks of the military but at this point they are and for some time will remain, the extreme exception to the rule.
In my experience, if not driven by a vacuous employment environment, or a deficient educational history, the individuals who volunteer to enter military service do so of a well intentioned desire to serve a community greater than themselves. Why they would choose the military over the peace corps or Americorps goes back again to the culture in which we reside. We are hero worshippers. We are individuals. We are selfish. We are idealists. We are greedy. We are aggressive. We are unlimited in the scope of our possible achievements. And the military has a billion dollar budget to exploit both our adolescent altruism as well as our cultural vices. Soldiers are brainwashed and conditioned to respond to war. War has nothing in common with human compassion, rationality, or any remotely civilized human behaviors. The singular and solitary purpose of a combat soldier is to kill and thereby prevent themselves and those around them from being killed. With the first report of a weapon the landscape is reduced to targets and cover. There is no time to ponder ethics or ideologies, if you sense a threat you fire, in that your hesitation may translate into your final human action.
When in combat, to respond as you were trained to respond is your ultimate and solitary responsibility. Through enlistment you have surrendered your rights to participate in determining the course of your future actions. In combat, refusal to obey a lawful order can be punishable by immediate execution. In the moment of combat there are no courts to determine the legitimacy of orders. You act and react as a soldier and are left alone when all is done to live with the ghosts and consequences of your actions. Historically, responsibility for actions taken within war moves up the chain of command to those who have issued the orders. Unfortunately, as has been the case in Iraq as in previous conflicts, guidelines which seem clear when applied to the enlisted ranks become increasingly ambiguous as they move up the chain of command.
KP: For accuracy, “excess mortalities” is a term used by researchers to distinguish deaths as a normal consequence of life from deaths due to other causes, in this case civilian deaths caused by the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
TO: Thanks for the clarification re: “excess mortalities.” I grow fatigued by a government which “spins” our language to bleed its meaning into anything they choose.
KP: As you stated, possibly many are attracted to the military by “well intentioned desire.” Certainly, there is much societal indoctrination at play as well. But many military personnel have been to Iraq and are fully aware of the horrors that are being meted out to Iraqis. I assume that most of the troops know that they are in Iraq based on a lie. As you said, some are speaking out, but why are not more or all troops speaking out? What happened to the “well intentioned desire”?
TO: Regarding the horrors of war, they are universal, the trauma, the inhumanity, the waste of human life and resources, whether one child or a village all bear the same weight on the scales of global conflict. The deaths of innocents or comrades, experienced first hand, burn the same indelible scars upon the psyche of all combatants, regardless of ideology. The magnitude of these horrors, are something which, like childbirth on the flipside of the coin, must be experienced first hand to truly be understood or appreciated. Most of America, including those who are about to go to war, remain sincerely clueless as to the consequence of what is done in their names. When has war last touched us here? On September 11, 2001, two “targets” were “hit” by “terrorists” -- a quasi-public event which six years later remains shrouded in speculation, inconsistency, and uncertainty. In spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, large numbers of Americans still believe there is a connection to 911 and Iraq otherwise, the truth of what we have done there would be far too difficult to assimilate. Polls have shown that half the troops on the ground in Iraq still believe Saddam was somehow responsible. We are a violent and aggressive culture nursed and weaned in the multi-media experience. Our media both liberates, as in the case of mediums such as this and enslaves us.
The military is a far more narrowly defined hierarchal model of our culture. The individual and perspectives beyond the status quo are not encouraged. In a war zone, dissent and thoughts outside the “official” point of view are often considered a “threat” to the possible success or failure of a mission. These limits are rigidly defined and enforced within the parameters of military law. A non-combatant soldier with the free time to ponder the moral and ethical aspects of war is severely limited by law and peer pressure with regard to nature of his or her expression. Within the landscape of war, the time and desire to examine one’s actions rarely exists.
In Vietnam, like Iraq, we did as we had been trained to do, moving as if through a horrible dream in an unfamiliar and often hostile landscape. Labels of friend or enemy changed from moment to moment where a smiling Grandmother or simple farmer suddenly became Viet Cong or NVA. We learned not to trust the outward appearances of what seemed to be real, always looking for the danger we sensed to lay beneath the surface of our perceptions. In many cases lines of definition were too imperceptible to be seen and we were forced to rely on those further along in our chain of command to guide and direct our actions. For many soldiers in combat, the corpse of a Grandmother turned VC by momentary definition, still looked like the corpse of a Grandmother. When these soldiers returned to the world it was a grandmother not a VC who visited them in their dreams. Other than those who have shared this experience, there is no one through whom these events might be processed. The traumas of death, dismemberment, or human atrocity never leave those who have experienced them. In America, cost not long term consequence guides our treatment of those we send to war. Drugs, legal and illegal, become the most expeditious path of avoidance as we encounter our memories outside the theater of war. Again and again, I have found seemingly aware veterans clinging to patriotism and the party line when discussing their personal positions in relation to war. We do this to justify our deeds and thereby justify our lost humanity to ourselves. We do this to buy the time necessary to return from an immersion in madness to which our culture has delivered us. Combat veterans rarely speak, on many occasions for decades, of their experience to those outside their experience. It takes that long to come home. The “well intentioned desire” has been obscured by the lies of a culture which has sent us to war to kill “enemies” who we in turn have discovered were merely other humans like ourselves. The enormity of the lie is often too much for us to comprehend.
KP: Why do persons surrender their rights to determine the course of their future actions? Especially to a commander-in-chief who was a deserter? To a vice president who sought and received five deferments from serving in Vietnam?
TO: To surrender one’s rights is a condition of the contractual “benefits” of military service. In return, the one time “individual” who enters military service is granted, room and board, clothing, training, education, medical assistance and the possibility of advancement within career. What is not made clear at the time of enlistment is the fact that contractual agreements made with the agency of our Federal government while binding on the part of the individual, are not equally binding on the part of the government. In other words, they can “change the rules” as national security requires. When facing chronic unemployment, homelessness, or poverty what is offered often appears greater than that which is otherwise available. Once in the military and “trained” within the scope of its primary objective, that of killing people, those who complete their contractual time of service often re-enter the “World” to find these skills are not in great demand. In many cases these individuals will return to the military.
As for the commander-in-chief and the VP, again, this is a question not asked within the parameters of active service. Law has made the “president” the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, placing him at the top of a hierarchy wherein most combat infantry reside at the bottom. It is law and the threat of law that buys silence. I have not met a single combat veteran who holds the smallest modicum of respect for those who currently claim to rule. Our “rulers” are cowards and deserters who not only actively avoided their own service to country but have shown no respect for those whom they have time and again placed in harm’s way. The current administration should be held accountable and prosecuted under international law for illegal acts of aggression, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Yet, who but these dissenting voices is even paying attention?
KP: As for refusal to obey a lawful order, a demand arose from the Nuremberg trial: "Individuals have international duties which transcend the national obligations of obedience. Therefore [individuals] have the duty to violate domestic laws to prevent crimes against peace and humanity from occurring." It is not just a right to refuse to commit war crimes but a duty.
TO: As one of a growing body of veterans who have both been to war and had the time to process the full consequence of the experience, I have become familiar with both Nuremburg and the Geneva Conventions. As a veteran and activist, I speak out as part of my oath to “protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” As a fledgling student of my own history, I have come to discover that in the short duration of our National existence, the greatest threats to the freedoms we profess to foster are the political, economic and military interventions initiated by our own systems of industry and governance. But I am only one child of blue collar parents. It has taken me the forty years since my enlistment in the Marine Corps to reach this point in my awareness. Most active duty personnel have limited awareness at best of Nuremburg, much less what constitutes a lawful order. And it must also be remembered that within war’s landscape, law and the threat of law are often reduced to the bullet as it leaves the end of the barrel. In a war zone where the line between hostile and “friendly” fire is so easily crossed, the opinions of your peers become supremely important. When I speak to students in schools, I ask them to complete their education before they consider joining the military. I remind them that only in this way will they possess the knowledge of what is legally required of them and what is not.
I have no solutions, no alarm clock to awaken the consciousness of a sleeping America. I speak the truth of my experience. I hoped through my article to bring to light a few of America’s broken promises to its broken children. I had hoped the shortest distance between a capitalist and his or her heart was their bank account. If America was made to pay, even a fraction of what they had promised their veterans, little capital would remain for the spontaneous waging of war. Dissident Peace TEO
Tim Origer is a 100% disabled combat veteran of America’s War in Vietnam and currently works as an activist for peace and veterans’ issues in New Mexico. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kim Petersen, Co-Editor of Dissident Voice, can be reached at: email@example.com.
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