Steve Hesske: Distant Voices Calling Me

The Iraq combat refusal involves British troops, but it seems worth mentioning for a couple of reasons. First, the Britons are America's only significant ally in Iraq with close to 5000 troops in country. Supposedly the U.S. and U.K. are working in synch to bring down Saddam's regime. Therefore, it must be troubling for the so-called Coalition (of two?) when Vincent Moss, writing for the March 30th web edition of the British paper The Mirror, informs us, "A pair of British soldiers...told officers they would not take part in a war in which innocent civilians were killed." The two men from Britain's 16 Air Assault Brigade, involved in the heavy fighting around Basra in southern Iraq, were sent back to their barracks in Colchester, Essex to await court martial. They each face two years in jail.

The first prosecution for combat refusal by an American in Vietnam occurred in 1968, three years after the U.S. had escalated its involvement. And now the first recorded combat refusal by Coalition soldiers has happened on day nine of the Iraq travesty.

According to U.S. military records there were 82 convictions for combat refusal by Americans in Nam in 1968, 117 in 1969, and 131 in 1970, the last year such statistics were recorded. Overwhelming anecdotal evidence indicates that by 1970 combat refusal in Vietnam had become so prevalent that court martials, and even non-judicial punishments for such offenses, had all but been abandoned.

As early as mid-'69, an entire company of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade sat down on a battlefield. Later that year a rifle company from the 1st Air Cavalry refused--in front of CBS TV cameras--to move down a reportedly dangerous trail. There's a famous photo (home.mweb.co.za/redcap/vietcrim.htm) from around the same time depicting another group of a dozen or so 1st Air Cav grunts at Fire Base Pace who have just refused combat orders.

Some of the troops in the photo told Pacifica Radio journalist Richard Boyle that they objected not only to the needlessly perilous mission, but also to the war itself. One of them said, "I always did believe in protecting my own country, if came down to doing that. But I'm over here fighting a war for a cause that means nothing to me."

While there are no officially recorded incidents of combat refusal for the '91 Gulf War there is an interesting, recurring rumor that during President George Bush 41's visit to the theater, enlisted troops had their rifle and handgun ammo confiscated. Perhaps the brass had been anticipating a less passive form of combat refusal?

Occurrences of friendly fire, such as fragging and combat refusal, have happened in every war since the beginning of recorded history, but as with the other two phenomena, the term friendly fire was popularized in Vietnam.

The oxymoronic term "friendly fire" (also called "blue on blue" by the Brits and fratricide by others) is the term used when troops of one nation or coalition force kill or wound their own. The term gained widespread usage, probably, with the book of the same name by C.D.B. Bryan and the 1979 TV movie of the same name (starring Carol Burnett and Ned Beatty) that recounted the tragic true tale of the Mullen family who had lost their son to friendly fire in Nam, but were stonewalled at every turn by the Pentagon when they tried to find out what actually had happened. Hundreds, if not thousands, of typical American families experienced the same frustrations from 1965 to 1972.

In typical hogwashian fashion, the U.S. military, up until '93, tried to float the crap that about 3% of all casualties in Nam were from friendly fire. The Pentagon finally conducted a more reasonable study that indicated anywhere from 15 to 20% of all Vietnam casualties were the result of so-called friendly fire. But even that figure is probably low. Check member.aol.com/warlibrary/wffd.htm where combat veterans have meticulously compiled extraordinarily documented numbers that yield astounding figures. For example, according to this site, there were over 6,000 U.S. friendly fire casualties in Nam in 1970 alone.

Many of Vietnam's friendly fire casualties happened when idiot field commanders, safely ensconced in a helicopter gunship or in a headquarters bunker miles away from the battle, ordered air support or artillery right on top of the very troops they were supposed to be commanding. I've spoken with at least 10 combat vets with specific stories of such incidents.

In the '91 Gulf War, 35 of America's combat deaths were the result of friendly fire. The well-publicized Blackhawk Helicopter incident in Northern Iraq accounted for 26 of these deaths, when two 'copters were shot down by American missiles. Believe it or not, a seemingly thorough investigation revealed that this one really was an accident. To me, that makes the Blackhawk case an atypical instance of allegedly friendly fire.

A much more representative example of friendly fire is the most recent one that happened this past Friday when an American A-10 Thunderbolt "Tankbuster" chewed up a five-vehicle British convoy, destroying two Scimitar light tanks, wounding three British soldiers and killing one. The Brits seem anything but friendly in the aftermath of the attack; an attack that entailed two low flying passes by the "Tankbuster."

According to The Age, an Australian newspaper, "Troops wounded in Friday's attack accused the A-10 pilot . . .of 'incompetence and negligence' while others privately called for a manslaughter prosecution."

One of the wounded claims, "The Yank opened up. He had absolutely no regard for human life. He was a cowboy out on a jolly." The term "cowboy" has a clear link to those braying assholes in Nam who, from the safety of a gunship or a bunker miles away, consistently put their troops in jeopardy, often by calling in "close air support." Mind you, these were the days when no one even bothered to lie about surgical strikes or precision bombs. Anyone who's been in the general vicinity of a one-ton arc light bomb being dropped and detonated from a B-52 knows all too well the trauma of such an experience.

British enlisted man, Steven Gerard, said of the "Tankbuster" massacre, "I can command my vehicle. I can keep it from being attacked. What I have not been trained to do is look over my shoulder to see whether an American is shooting at me . . . I'll never forget that A-10. He was about 50 meters
off the ground. He circled because he can turn on a ten-pence."

Gerard claims that the A-10 pilot made two passes, firing his armor-piercing weaponry repeatedly even though there was a foot by foot and a half Union Jack affixed to the back of one of the convoy's trucks and an Iraqi child and some other civilians were about 20 meters from ground zero.

Scimitars are packed with hundreds of rounds of ammo for their own guns, along with rifle bullets, grenades and tanks full of flammable diesel fuel. Gerard continues, "I will never forget that noise as long as I live. It is a noise I never want to hear again . . .The next thing I knew the turret was erupting with white light everywhere, heat and smoke."

Another 18-year old wounded troop adds, "All the wagons have Coalition markings. I don't know why he shot a second time . . .he was . . . close . . . I think they are just ignorant. I don't know if they haven't been trained or are just trigger happy."

A wounded officer from one of the vehicles contributes, " . . . too many things suggest that it (the attack) was down to pure incompetence and negligence."

The driver of the Scimitar carrying the trooper that was killed notes, "I don't suppose they learned much from the first (Gulf) war. I can tell what an American tank looks like from every direction. How come somebody who is a top-notch Thunderbolt pilot can't tell what a British tank looks like?"

The wounded officer, happy to be going home relatively unscathed, concludes, "'Blue on blue' has always been one of my biggest fears. It is something that my friends and family joked about. 'Don't worry about the Iraqis, it's the Americans you want to watch. The proof is in the pudding really."

According to USA Today, during the first seven days of fighting in Iraq, accidents and friendly fire have accounted for nearly two-thirds of the deaths of Coalition troops. There have been 25 American and 20 British fatalities and of these 14 Americans and two Britons were killed by hostile fire. Accidents, ranging from helicopter crashes to drownings, have caused nine U.S. and 14 U.K. deaths and two Americans and four Brits have fallen to friendly fire.

In light of the "Tankbuster" incident and the statistics in the previous paragraph, can any sentient human being swallow U.S. claims of smart bombs, surgical strikes and the like? Or about how the Coalition is striving vigorously to prevent "collateral damage" (a post-Vietnam term, I believe)? Tell it to that carload of seven women and children who became confused at a Marine checkpoint as I was typing this. Oh wait, you can't tell them anything. They're all dead.

We recently learned that fighter pilots in Afghanistan were being dosed with methamphetamines before going on combat runs. As I'm sure at least some of you know, there's nothing like a good jolt of crank to improve your perception and clear your head at critical times, times of stress. This idea was demonstrated in Afghanistan when two wired up American fighter pilots blazed away at a Canadian convoy, killing four and wounding a few others.

Seriously, do you think this Thunderbolt yahoo is the exception that proves the rule for American pilots in Iraq? Or is he all too typical? Does the typical combat pilot in Iraq fly with the ghost of a cowboy field commander from Nam perched on his shoulder, whispering friendly fire advice to him?

The words of a Vietnam-era officer ring in my ears as if he said them yesterday, "Man, what a cluster fuck. Talk about a bunch of monkeys trying to fuck a football."

Finally, what of the slowly-fading-to-cipher who forged the first Vietnam-Iraq vocabulary connection? What of the alleged fragger, purported murdered of two, injurer of 14, Sgt. Hasan (formerly Asan) Akbar? He has been moved again, this time from Germany to an unknown stateside location, maybe Fort Campbell, Kentucky, home of the 101st. Maybe not. He has yet to be charged. Army officials issued a terse statement, "He is being held while preliminary legal proceedings take place."

But facts continue to surface. I was unaware, for example, that after a 101st Airborne officer had overpowered and handcuffed him, Akbar cried out, "You guys are coming into our country and you're going to rape our women and kill our children." Was he wrong?

And you ain't gonna believe this one. The '91 Gulf War featured another notable African American Muslim fragger whose case apparently flew under the radar. Alleged D.C. mass murderer/sniper John Allen Muhammad was with the Army's 84th Engineering company in the Middle East at the time of the Gulf War, when he lobbed a thermite grenade (less deadly than the fragmentation model) into a tent containing 16 soldiers, including his supervisor. There were no fatalities, only several minor injuries, but retired Sgt. Kip Berentson was so troubled by the incident--apparently Muhammad was shuffled to another unit for the pending court martial and Berentson and the other victims never heard the outcome--that he kept the infamous accused shooter's dog tags as a reminder.

In my last story for Infoshop News, I wrote that precise figures for the number of African American Muslims in the Army are not available, but stats for Muslims in the current military are. Of the 1.4 million people who now serve in all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, about 4,200 are declared Muslims (this includes other ethnicities besides African American). But Islamic officials in the U.S. claim that there are a number of undeclared Muslims in the services and that a more realistic number would actually exceed 10,000.

According to a L.A. Times story, Muslims in the U.S. military have faced harassment since 9-11: "Some said they had been viewed with suspicion or subjected to jokes and snide remarks about camels and turbans. Now the specter of war with predominately Muslim Iraq and last weekend's (Akbar) fragging incident . . . have heightened concerns for these soldiers . . . (who) are wrestling with the ethical dilemma of combating other Muslims."

From the same story: "There is widespread agreement that the American military has outpaced the civilian world in accommodating the traditions of Islam." That may be accurate, but the "civilian world" is not coping with a hyper-real war moving at warp speed over an eerie landscape, a war that often resembles a three-dimensional video game, something Richard Goldstein, writing in The Village Voice calls, " . . .the cubism of postmodern combat."

Goldstein argues that gazing at the images of Iraq on television can send even the most media-savvy viewer into a semi-rational state. What about those mostly young soldiers, operating in (sur)real time, offering real flesh, spilling real blood? Eating pounds of sand? Half-crazed from sleep deprivation? Do they give proper consideration to their fellow soldier's prayer mat? Do they ask themselves, "Which way is Mecca?" There certainly doesn't seem to be much opportunity for cheery interracial, interdenominational group hugs or feel good multi-cultural awareness seminars in this jacked up heavy metal thunder blitzkreig bop moment, does there?

You know though, if I hadn't written the preceding pages and was merely reading them, even I might be asking, "What's this jagoff babbling about?" Vietnam is clearly different from Iraq. Nam featured draftees in open revolt, who quit fighting. And who could blame them? Vietnam was a war where the Americans never lost a significant battle, yet never gained an inch of ground.

In Iraq at least one of the seemingly many contradictory objectives is clear enough, so the Army and Marines are gobbling up territory like a fat man at a cake-eating contest. And the Coalition troops seem consistently gung ho as they zigzag across the desert.

In Vietnam it was "illegal" to stray into North Vietnam, let alone get near the capitol city, Hanoi. Coalition forces speed toward Iraq from every direction, howling like hungry dogs as they roll.

And I haven't even mentioned the dope in Nam. Over 11,000 drug convictions just for 1970.

So where DO I get off? The differences between the zeitgeists for the two wars are nearly overwhelming, certainly difficult to deny.

But what about this? Matthew Rinaldi notes in his book Olive Drab Rebels, ". .
.(during Vietnam) it was enlistees who were most angry and likely to act on that anger. For one thing, enlistees were in for three or four years; ... they went in with some expectations, generally with a recruiter's promise of training and good job classification, often with assurances that they wouldn't be sent to Vietnam. When these promises weren't kept, enlistees would get really pissed off. A study commissioned by the Pentagon (during the Vietnam conflict) found that 64% of chronic AWOLs (absent without leave) during the war years were enlistees . . ." Doesn't at least some of what Rinaldi writes have relevance to today's Army?

Then, something terribly sad on the TV. A local California station is running a feature about the combat death in Iraq of a Costa Mesa Marine. There's the impromptu field ceremony with the empty combat boots, the rifle staked in the ground, helmet with sand goggles perched atop the weapon. There's the dead man, still alive in an earlier videotape, going about his job, smiling. Looks to be no more than 20. I have the audio muted, but can see that his Commanding Officer is speaking at the service, some of the dead Marine's combat brothers speak, others, standing at half-assed attention, are crying or struggling not to.

Iraq is a different time, a different century actually. The desert is the jungle's antonym. But I know very well these dewy eyed, rosy-cheeked children of war. Hardness starting to set in around the edges of those recently naive eyes, the beginning of the thousand yard stare. Vietnam is really not that long ago, not that far away. It's right there in the midst of those Marines in Bumfuck, Iraq.

I think of that shopworn bromide about what happens to those who forget history, so I'm not going to ignore. I'm going to remember history and see that others remember it too. That's how I'll be supporting the troops from now on, by recalling history and demanding that they all be brought home now, before anyone has to again feel the horrible pain of sudden loss or the almost equally horrible pain of a dim memory suddenly becoming not dim at all. A memory of brave kids dying for nothing.

Steve Hesske is a Vietnam-era vet who writes and teaches writing at Montana State University-Northern, Havre, MT.