Revolution #271, June 10, 2012
Iraq, Afghan War Vets Throw Back Medals
March with Thousands Against U.S.-NATO Wars
I’m going to toss this medal today for the 33,000 civilians who have died in Afghanistan that won’t have a monument built for them.
Brock McIntosh, Army National Guard, deployed to Afghanistan
I’m giving back my medals for the children of Iraq and Afghanistan. May they be able to forgive us for what we’ve done to them.
Steve Acheson, U.S. Army Iraq war vet
On May 20, more than 40 vets—men and women, from different branches of the military—made a dramatic statement to the world.
Veterans of America’s so-called “war on terror” courageously tore off their medals and denounced what they represent: “Global War on Terror Service Medals,” “Operation Iraqi Freedom Medals,” “National Defense Medals,” “Good Conduct Medals,” “Expeditionary Medals.” They spoke from the heart about why they were rejecting these “cheap tokens,” given to them, as one vet put it, “in an attempt to fill the void where our conscience used to be,” and repudiating what they had done to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. They talked of the children. The women. The innocent. The destruction. The pain. The sorrow. The hurt. The lies. In a message that now must be spread, these vets hurled their medals toward where the leaders of NATO, the U.S.-led military alliance, were meeting and plotting their next bloody moves.
This action, organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), culminated a spirited march by more than 5,000 people—Occupiers, antiwar activists, students, and many others—from all over the country who had come to Chicago to protest NATO’s May 20-21 summit, its ongoing war in Afghanistan, and its military aggression across the globe. Joining the vets in leading the march and rally, under the theme “Honor the Dead, Heal the Wounded, Stop the Wars,” were women from Afghans for Peace—representing the Afghan people, the victims of the U.S.-NATO invasion and occupation.
This was a powerful, significant action. These veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have directly experienced—and participated in—the horrors and crimes being committed by the U.S. around the world. It took gut-wrenching reflection and enormous courage for them to face, then come together to call out painful truths of what they’d seen, done and been part of—in direct opposition to the empire of carnage they’d once served.
What these men and women did on this day was a call not just to other vets and military personnel, but to everyone in the U.S. and millions around the globe: Wake up. Muster the courage to face the truth—your rulers are committing horrific atrocities and towering crimes around the world. They’re cloaking it in bald-faced lies. They’re doing it in our names, enlisting us to carry it out. Think about the people of the world! Don’t go along! Stand up! Speak out!
Adding to the significance of this action was the unity expressed between the vets and those who they had been taught to treat as “the enemy.” Suraia Sahar of Afghans for Peace told Democracy Now!, “It’s the first time an Afghan-led peace movement is now working side by side with a veteran-led peace movement. And so, this is how—this is the beginning of something new, something better.”
And how did the media in this self-proclaimed land of democracy and free speech cover this? Largely with silence. These cheerleaders for America’s blood-soaked military and predatory wars were not going to allow veterans—who they claim to honor and cherish—to puncture their post-911 narrative of the U.S. as the “victim,” the “good guys” fighting “terror” with harsh truths from the front lines—especially not when their empire is facing daunting problems and perilous waters ahead.
Rejecting the Accolades of Unjust War
The vets’ action in Chicago was consciously modeled on the 1971 anti-Vietnam War “Dewey Canyon III” protest organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which brought hundreds of veterans to Washington, DC to throw their medals back at Congress. (For an account of Dewey Canyon III, see vvawai.org/archive/sw/sw31/pgs_35-44/dewey_canyon.html.)
In Chicago, Alejandro Villatoro, an Army veteran, told the crowd, “Nowhere else will you hear from so many who fought these wars about their journey from fighting a war to demanding peace.” Then he began, “Some of us killed innocents. Some of us helped in continuing these wars from home. Some of us watched our friends die. Some of us are not here, because we took our own lives. We did not get the care promised to us by our government. All of us watched failed policies turn into bloodshed. Listen to us, hear us, and think: was any of this worth it?.... We tear off this mask. Hear us.”
Then vet after vet mounted the stage to give their stories, moving personal testimonies about why they came to march and why they were throwing back their medals. There was a sense these vets were regaining their humanity and forging a new morality in the course of facing agonizing truths, standing up, speaking out, and refusing to be silent. One vet said, “I stole the humanity of Iraqis and lost mine.” Another talked of how now he can “live by my conscience rather than be a prisoner of it.” There were comments about the importance of integrity, and about learning from our mistakes and joining together. Seven months after being severely wounded in a police attack on Occupy Oakland, Iraq veteran Scott Olsen threw back his medals, his presence an example of courage and moral certitude.
A cornerstone of the testimony was facing the impact U.S. wars had on the peoples of Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries in the region. Iraq war vet Scott Kimball said, “I’m turning in these medals today for the people of Pakistan, Iraq, Palestine, and all victims of occupation across the world.” Steven Lunn, an Iraq combat veteran, stated, “This medal I’m dedicating to the children of Iraq that no longer have fathers and mothers.” Greg Broseus said, “I’m here to return my medals because I cannot stand in solidarity and peace with my brothers and sisters in Iraq and Afghanistan as long as I wear them.” One vet who took part in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan in the U.S. Navy simply said: “I apologize to the Iraqi and Afghani people for destroying your countries.”
Members of Afghans for Peace added their own searing indictments. Samira Sayed-Rahman said, “...The Afghan people have had enough. They are sick and tired of being nameless, faceless beings, sick and tired of being treated as collateral damage, sick and tired of 11 long years of this war with no end in sight. We don’t want another Abdullah whose fingers were chopped off and used as trophies of war, we don’t want another Fatima who has had her face burned by acid for trying to get an education, we don’t want another Najeeb and his entire family being killed in a drone strike, we don’t want another little five-year-old Zainab left to fend for herself as she watches as her mother is raped by forces while her father has the barrel of a gun shoved in his mouth, we don’t want our country burnt to ashes over and over again for NATO’s bombs....” (afghansforpeace.org/archives/2646)
“This war needs to be stopped”
Revolution recently talked to two vets who threw their medals back that day, about how this moment had come together, what it meant to them and other vets, and its overall impact.
Army vet Raymond Knaeble told us, “It was a special moment. It brought hope for all the vets and active duty to bring awareness that war is an illegal occupation—not about peace but violence against peace, war of aggression and torture. It was very personal, I was proud to earn the medals but it was all based on lies, not truth. It wasn’t about bringing freedom to people but killing innocent people. I wasn’t in Afghanistan but I’m in solidarity with all the people in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
“Many of us broke into tears, it was such a moment,” he continued. “We can’t change the past but we want other people to know that this war needs to be stopped. We have a war right here to bring these politicians to justice. They’re war criminals. Lots of the vets were in Iraq and Afghanistan so they saw it firsthand. The military lies to the soldiers and puts us on medication that can be worse than street drugs, and they’re told to kill whoever they see. Lots of soldiers have committed suicide because we have a conscience. The soldiers want to come home. They ask, why are we here?”
John Anderson, Marine Corps, who was deployed to Iraq two times, 2007-2009, and threw back his “Global War on Terrorism” and “Iraq Campaign” medals, said, “You lose yourself in the military. This was reclaiming my own person. It was a powerful emotional release when I saw my medals flying toward NATO. And I got more of a sense of peace with myself. It had a profound effect. When we left the stage, we all walked to a park. Everyone kept to themselves for 10-15 minutes, just processing.
“A lot of veterans who are not as politically conscious feel a sense of, like my buddy in Tennessee, an attitude of—I don’t want to think about the ramifications of what we did. They realize it wasn’t okay, but it’s hard to come to terms with it. My guys see me and felt a sense of validation and empowerment.” Anderson said he has had mainly, overwhelmingly, positive responses. A Marine vet at the school he attends said the May 20 action was “so cool.”
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All quotes from veterans, except those interviewed by Revolution, from Democracy Now! video and transcriptions of May 20 action: “Memorial Day Special: U.S. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan Return War Medals at NATO Summit,” May 28, 2012.
See also: “IVAW and Afghans for Peace Lead Historic March on NATO: Veterans Hurl Global War on Terror Medals towards NATO Summit As Thousands Cheer,” Jose Vasquez, May 23, 2012, at Iraq Veterans Against the War website, ivaw.org.
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