Introducing The Will to Resist by Dahr Jamail
Ever since he first went to Iraq to cover the U.S. occupation of that country in 2003, Dahr Jamail has distinguished himself as a journalist of rare courage and honesty, who understands that a conscious commitment to humane values is a necessary tool for the reporting the truth and not an obstacle to it. He continued to cover the Middle East since his initial stint as an independent unimbedded journalist, writing for Inter Press Service, Le Monde Dipomatique and Asia Times, among other publications. Dahr was the recipient of the 2008 Martha Gellhorn Award for Journalism.
Dahr has offered journalists a model for how to cover an illicit and brutal war of occupation that contravenes the accepted norms of American journalism, under which the journalist is expected to be part of the U.S. military team. Rejecting that role, he consciously sought to cover the war from the point of view of those who were its victims, the Iraqis. His experience in witnessing the crimes of the U.S. military in Iraq, as he observes in his own introduction to his new book, the “The Will to Resist”, fueled his rage against the U.S. military.
Dahr Jamal’s Iraq experience gives his path-breaking new book on resistance by military personnel to wars of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan a sharpness and political clarity that would have been absent from a more conventional journalistic treatment of the subject. Arguably, his treatment of military resistance is more penetrating precisely because of his own experiences in Iraq.
Dahr has put the phenomenon of military resistance in the present era in a broader historical perspective, trying to ascertain how it differs from and is similar to the movement of GI resistance to the Vietnam War. He does not try sugar coat the situation of resisters in the military, which is admittedly difficult. He underlines a series of social and political differences between the military and the GI movement of the Vietnam and their present-day counterparts: the transformation of the army into an all-volunteer organization; the fact that most troops are older and have a wife and children to support; the clever shift in emphasis by the military brass to unit loyalty and solidarity; the much more repressive military discipline, and the absence of a mass popular anti-war movement pressuring the government for withdrawal – all these factors, Dahr suggests, have made it more difficult, on balance, to organize large-scale resistance to the war among troops on the battlefield or back home in the barracks.
This overall context for the contemporary military resistance movement, which accurately characterizes a country that has moved further to the right and is in many ways less responsive, to the appeals of anti-war activists than was the case during at least the height of anti-war sentiment during the Vietnam era, gives even greater poignancy to his portrayal of the individuals who have shown the conscience and courage to defy the military and say no to aggressive war. They are bucking a pro-military tide that is arguably more powerful than it was in previous decades.
Dahr’s account of resistance in Iraq suggests that the heart of military resistance in recent years has been the refusal to go on patrols that seem almost certain to result in unnecessary casualties. That phenomenon is surely related to one of the primary new features of the wars of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan – the central importance of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and related ambushes as a means of imposing costs on the United States and other NATO forces.
The ramifications of that new military tool against foreign occupation for both military resistance and for broader understanding of the irrational nature of the wars themselves are far reaching. The dependence of the U.S. military on traveling the main roads and the degree to which it makes U.S. troops vulnerable are symbolic of the reality that U.S. troops are ultimately both irrelevant and powerless. The “search and avoid” missions which are described to Dahr by Iraq war veterans show that more and more troops instinctively understand the pointlessness of the strategies and tactics they have been ordered to carry out.
Dahr also underlines another factor that mitigates somewhat the intensity of military pressures on dissenters within the ranks: the desperate need of the army for warm bodies to maintain its manpower levels. That manpower crisis appears to have restrained the military leadership from harshly punishing desertion, which he points out, reached its highest rate (nearly 4,700) in 27 years in 2007.
Soldiers bear the burden of modern American war not primarily by dying but by having their lives permanently blighted. The level of combat deaths is much lower than it was in Vietnam only because thousands of troops’ lives are saved through new medical procedures. But that means that there are many times more veterans with injuries that severely handicap them. Dahr reports the astounding ratio of 8 wounded to every one killed, compared with 3 to one during the Vietnam War. Even more stunning is the figure of 300,000 troops reporting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression – most of which have not sought any treatment.
It is no exaggeration to say that the wars Iraq and Afghanistan are creating an enormous community of American victims of war whose scars will never be fully healed. One of the questions Dahr’s book poses for this writer is what can and should be done to integrate the war wounded into a broader veterans movement against present and future wars.
*Investigative journalist and historian writing on U.S. foreign and military policy for Inter Press Service; author of Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam (University of California Press, 2006)