Bring The Boys And Girls Back Home

Bring the boys and girls back home

An American with a sister serving in Iraq explains why he and thousands of others want the troops out

by PATRICK LEJTENYI

Beth Arthur, a 25-year-old college student from West Virginia, was a semester away from graduating when, late last year, the 118th Medical Battalion told her to pack her things and say her goodbyes because she was going to war. Beth and the other soldiers of the 118th, her National Guard unit, are now in and around Baghdad and its airport, and will be for another estimated 15 months. What started out as a pre-9/11 part-time job that would subsidize her studies has, for her and thousands of other members of the Guard and the Reserves, landed her in the middle of a very real war.

Beth's older brother Stephen is worried about her, quite naturally. The 29-year-old systems analyst living in Baltimore is more than worried, however: he's outraged that she and the rest of the American military are in Iraq at all. The long-time critic of American foreign policy and global trade recently joined a group of concerned, anti-war relatives and loved ones of serving soldiers called Military Families Speak Out, formed in November 2002. Arthur will be speaking in Montreal on Saturday, March 13, at noon at Words Are Weapons: A Teach-In Against War, organized by local peaceniks Block the Empire. The event - a series of workshops and panels - is a lead-up to the March 20 mobilization, billed as a global day of action against the war in Iraq.

Pained family history

Arthur says he spoke to his sister a few weeks ago and reports that "She's doing fine, as good as can be expected." Setting up a clinic in the relatively secure area at Baghdad International, she isn't in a surgical unit and is at least partially shielded from the almost-daily parade of human carnage. But 15 months is a long time, and Arthur says his sister won't be allowed leave until she puts in eight.

"Beth hasn't been over there long enough other than to say that the food is crummy," he says. "But I do worry about my sister's safety, both physically and psychologically, because she's going to see a lot of horrible things."

The Arthur family is well acquainted with military service. Beth and Stephen's father served in the airborne in Vietnam, and returned with wounds that went deeper than modern medicine could heal. He became an alcoholic, divorced his wife when Stephen was 10 and, after years of silence, only spoke to Beth before she shipped out. Stephen's grandfather was drafted into World War II. His uncle was also drafted into Vietnam, and a cousin is currently serving. Stephen never had an interest in signing up. "My father's war stories ensured I never join," he says.

Arthur believes that the dubious justification for invading Iraq will encourage serving soldiers to either desert their units or go absent without leave (AWOL). The worst the military will do, he thinks, is give those reluctant warriors six months in the brig, as happened to 20-year-old Marine reservist Stephen Funk, recently released. "The military hasn't executed anyone for desertion since World War II," Arthur says. "Most of them are just summarily discharged. The military doesn't like to admit it, but there are 1,700 soldiers who either quit Iraq or didn't turn up for their service. But of the 3,800 soldiers who have deserted since 2002, 3,255 have been what's called ‘returned to military control.'" He cites the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO), an anti-war, non-profit organization created in 1948 dedicated to helping Americans avoid military service. Calls to the CCCO's G.I. Rights Hotline (1-800-394-9544) have reached 3,500 a month in October, a 75 per cent increase over the last three months, they report on their Web site (www.objector.org).

For Arthur, the equation is a fairly simple one. "The message we want to send is, a lot of people who have families in the military don't support the war and think we shouldn't get involved," he says. "The war isn't worth it, it isn't worth dying for, it isn't worth killing for, and the soldiers belong here at home, with their families."

Words Are Weapons' opening panel takes place on Friday, March 12, at 1710 Beaudry. The workshops and panels take place from 10am-6pm on Saturday, March 13 at UQÀM's Hubert-Aquin Pavillion (400 Ste-Catherine E.). For more info, call 409-2049 or e-mail bloquezlempiremontreal@resist.ca