A Racist Flag in a Racist War
"Racism is an essential component of preparing U.S troops for war" Veteran who served 28 months in Iraq
MAJOR LEGAL VICTORY! U.S soldiers may now have the legal right to refuse to fight in the Pentagon's racist wars abroad. (See blow)
BY KEVIN BAKER
The author is a former Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army infantry who served 28 months in Iraq.
The U.S. Marine Corps is in hot water once again over leaked images that give a glimpse into its inner workings.
Just like the recent release of a video showing Marines in Afghanistan urinating on the corpses of Afghan men, the new photo of Marines posing with a Nazi SS flag doesn’t shock me at all, either.
These two situations emerged in different times and locations in the country, but are completely bound together. They are bound with the racism, sense of superiority and sense of nationalism that the military itself embraces and promotes.
Racism is embraced, coddled and on full display by the top leaders of the U.S. military. We see it everywhere, in plain sight. In my time in the U.S. Army, I wore a patch on my shoulder of the 2nd Infantry Division, bearing the image of an “Indian head,” a racist image that Native Americans have fought for decades to have removed as an icon from sports teams, commercial products, and so forth. An image, ironically, once used to dehumanize the people who were being killed and colonized.
But the racism is far more brazen than that. Anyone who has served in the U.S. military knows that, despite the official line of its “Equal Opportunity Program” and official rules and regulations against racism, use of racist terms to dehumanize Muslims and the peoples of the Middle East and South Asia are so common they are part of the everyday vernacular.
Nazi paraphernalia is not uncommon
Many were shocked to see U.S. troops flying a Nazi flag, and there was the immediate excuse that “they didn’t know what it meant.” They must have only meant “Scout Snipers,” with no knowledge that it was a Nazi flag, or that it could be interpreted as such.
That is an absolute joke. In my time as an infantryman, I saw Nazi paraphernalia regularly. Soldiers complained to me that in the barracks of Ranger Regiment on Fort Lewis, Nazi flags being hung in soldiers’ rooms without repercussion. My first tour in Iraq was the first time I remember seeing the “Deaths Head” pin, a symbol of the Nazi SS, placed on the front of soldiers’ vests. It was not the last.
Especially in Special Operations units—such as the Marine snipers in the photo—Nazi symbolism is revered. Why? Quite simply because the Nazis are famous for mercilessly killing and terrorizing millions of people. It fits right in to the mentality expected of Spec Ops.
In fact, when the U.S. military was experiencing a recruiting shortfall in 2005, the Department of Defense changed its supposedly strict policy against allowing self-avowed Nazis to join, and adopted an official “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding members of neo-Nazi and white-supremacist organizations. They could get “moral waivers,” as long as they could “perform satisfactorily” in combat.
The Pentagon needs racism
As the Marine Corps denounced the leaked photo, they announced that there would be no disciplinary action for the Marines flying the Nazi flag, which is not surprising at all. Why would a military so reliant on racism punish racist behavior?
The reality is that U.S. troops have far more in common with the people we are sent to fight than the millionaire politicians who send us. We are told to fight people who also just want a decent life for their families; people who also needlessly suffer under bogus policies of corrupt governments; people who are doing the same thing we would be doing if we were in their shoes. The last thing the Pentagon wants is for rank-and-file troops to identify with the people we are sent to fight, relate to them as human beings, and correctly identify that they are not our enemies.
So in order for the Pentagon to continue sending poor people in the United States to kill and die fighting poor people in Afghanistan, all for the super-profits of a handful of billionaires, they need to wrap the mission in racism, national chauvinism and a sense of superiority.
This is why service members must take a strong stand against racism: it’s a barrier to unity within the ranks of the military, hindering our ability to collectively advocate for our interests, and it distorts who our real enemies are in the world.
A racist war
The rationale for the war rests on several racist assertions. On one hand, there are the assumptions that the people of Afghanistan are too backward or inferior to determine their own destiny; that they’re too helpless to survive without the U.S. occupation; that they need saviors from the West to teach them about democracy, human rights and modernity. On the other hand, there are the assumptions that the people of Afghanistan are somehow responsible for the 9/11 attacks and will launch more attacks; that it is a country of “terrorists” or people who “harbor terrorists”; that they are somehow the aggressors, motivated to fight by anti-American extremism and not by the daily misery and humiliation of life under foreign occupation.
The result is that the lives of the people of Afghanistan are seen as inferior. When Afghan civilians are killed—like the eight children massacred by a NATO aircraft revealed this week—it is supposed to be acceptable collateral damage, barely a footnote in the media. The tens of thousands of innocent people who have been buried, and the hundreds of thousands wounded and displaced, is considered acceptable. It is “acceptable” because we are told it is to somehow save American lives, which by implication are more valuable than Afghan lives.
Without racism and Islamophobia, the reality of the war in Afghanistan would be on full display: An unpopular war waged by millionaire politicians and incompetent generals, who tell us flat-out lies, aimed at nothing other than expanding the reach of Big Business in yet another resource-rich region of the world. Because people in the United States would never want to send their loved ones to die for such an absurd cause, and troops would never want to die for it either, racism becomes an indispensable tool for those who say we must continue to fight.
Those wanting a “kinder, gentler” war, where the troops do not urinate on dead bodies, kill innocent civilians or fly Nazi flags, will continue to be shocked and disappointed. This is an imperialist war. It does not get any “kinder and gentler” than this.
Similar leaks will continue to show—not examples of a few “bad apples”—but the real and inevitable manifestations of the core nature of U.S. foreign policy.
U.S. Army Specialist Daniel Birmingham, a March Forward! member stationed at Ft. Lewis, Wash. who did an infantry deployment in Iraq, won a major victory for service members’ rights this week after successfully receiving an early honorable discharge as a conscientious objector.
Over the course of applying for conscientious objector status, Spc. Birmingham's unit received orders to deploy to Afghanistan, which he also successfully averted.
Spc. Birmingham’s basis for applying as a conscientious objector (CO) was not a religious one, but based on the fact that he did not agree with the wars that the U.S. military is engaged in, and therefore had the right to not take part in them.
His approval as a CO sets an important precedent for all U.S. service members, as polls show that a large majority also oppose the war.
Becoming a war resister
Daniel Birmingham is a 21-year-old from a working-class upbringing in Battle Creek, Michigan, where he grew up living in his grandparents' two-bedroom house with over 10 family members, with not enough beds to go around. His mother has been a factory worker in an auto parts plant his entire life, and his father has spent most of that time unemployed after becoming disabled on the job as a union painter. At 18 years old, Birmingham, with few options for college and in a state with high unemployment, enlisted in the U.S. Army.
During his 2009-10 tour in Basrah, Iraq, Spc. Birmingham’s first-hand experience as an occupying soldier--in a country that had just been decimated by a war that took the lives of upwards of 1.3 million Iraqis--made him question the morality of his participation in the occupation.
Upon returning home in 2010, Spc. Birmingham wrestled with the moral conflict of having participated in an occupation that he no longer agreed with and considered a crime against the Iraqi people. He knew that he would inevitably have to deploy to the other unpopular war the U.S. military was engaged in, the other occupation that was taking the lives of countless innocent civilians, the other war that he didn't agree with.
So Spc. Birmingham did what every U.S. service member has the right under military law to do: file for honorable discharge as a conscientious objector, for moral opposition to participation in U.S. foreign policy.
Taking a stand
As Spc. Birmingham was waiting for his CO paperwork to be processed, he didn’t stay quiet. He was instructed to keep quiet to other soldiers about what he was doing, and pleasing his command was important to get a favorable decision on his CO application.
But he knew there were others in uniform experiencing similar moral dilemmas, and wanted to reach them with the message that they, too, had the right to refuse their orders to Afghanistan. Spc. Birmingham wrote a public statement, “I will not go to war again,” explaining why he exercised his legal right to be honorably discharged, and called on all other soldiers who agreed to do the same. March Forward! worked to make his message heard throughout the military, and circulated a petition in support of his stand to rally public support, which was signed by thousands across the country (including many members of the active-duty military).
And in fact, soldiers responded - soldiers who were deployed in Iraq. On a base in Baghdad, several (anonymous) soldiers not only decided to become COs, but started refusing to pull guard shifts, and began distributing anti-war leaflets on their base with information on becoming a CO. Service members elsewhere in the country began contacting us saying that they, too, wanted to exercise their rights as Spc. Birmingham had. Several of them have already averted deployments to Afghanistan.
Spc. Birmingham also took his message to the streets. To mark the 10th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan this past October, Spc. Birmingham joined other March Forward! members in Washington, D.C., and marched in uniform as an active-duty soldier in the mass anti-war demonstrations. He told his story to thousands gathered to establish Occupy Freedom Plaza, took part in the first General Assemblies at Occupy DC, and was even pepper-sprayed as he was on the front-lines of a protest against the drone propaganda exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum.
Spc. Birmingham not only took a stand for his own life, but put himself at great risk of disciplinary action and other repercussions by taking such public action--he put his own interests on the line to reach out to others questioning the war, and put his body into the gears of the war machine as a physical participant in protests that rocked the capital on a historic anniversary. As a result of his courageous stand, several other active-duty soldiers have successfully refused to deploy to Afghanistan, become COs, disrupted the war machine on the front lines, and become anti-war activists.
A victory for all service members
While Spc. Birmingham’s CO paperwork was being processed, his unit received orders to deploy to Afghanistan. He successfully exercised his right to not go. Then, after months of waiting for a decision, his CO status was approved. Last week, Spc. Birmingham terminated his contract early and was honorably discharged, retaining full veterans benefits.
Spc. Birmingham’s successful stand as a CO sets an important precedent for U.S. service members. There is the generalization that CO status is reserved for service members with a religious or spiritual opposition to war. But Spc. Birmingham’s CO status was explicitly non-religious.
His rationale was simple: If he believed the wars were wrong, then being a participant in them conflicted with his personal morals, and therefore he had the right to the legal separation from the Army afforded under military law.
The approval of his CO paperwork is an extremely significant acknowledgement by the U.S. military that the legal right does exist for any service member who disagrees with the war in Afghanistan to refuse to participate.
Polls show that more than 70 percent of active-duty service members oppose the war in Afghanistan. All of them have the right to refuse deployment to Afghanistan as conscientious objectors, as proven by the approval of Spc. Birmingham’s CO status.
And Spc. Birmingham wants them all to know that fact. Upon receiving his honorable discharge, he said, “This isn’t the end. We will continue to inform other soldiers of their rights and the options they have, that they will never be informed of otherwise. The outcome of an informed military can be the end of these meaningless wars.”
Any service member who is one of the thousand who doesn’t agree with the war in Afghanistan, and is considering exercising the same rights that Spc. Birmingham did, can click here for information, assistance and support.