After this month's Remembrance Day parade, I repaired to a central London boozer with fellow veterans to stew my brain in ale. Pinned to chests all around me were glinting banks of medals. A statistically improbable number of airborne maroon and commando green berets were on display. Groups of veterans bunched together, slurring war stories.
The soldierly clique is cultural. While trained to be aggressive we are also taught to be quiet, keeping dark deeds and informed opinions “in-house.” If spoken aloud to outsiders, our stories would make us appear—and for some, leaving the heroic fantasy intact allows one to continue living at the center of it. To break that tribal silence carries risks.
Many people say we have fought for freedom and democracy. Given this consensus one might think veterans are as entitled as anybody to contribute to the political discourse, as serving senior officers regularly do. Not so.
The American and British militaries clamped down on social media in the mid-2000s—on the grounds of security, they claim. The Canadian military currently is trying to stop wounded veterans from criticizing the military in public. There is only one hymn sheet in the military, and it is decided upon on high.
I was gagged by a military court in 2009 even though I had spilled no secrets. All I did was claim the Afghanistan occupation was an illegitimate, shambolic disaster. The keenest soldiers I know say the same, but I said it on television rather than in the regimental bar. I spent five months in a military jail over a banality. Others have faced similar or worse treatment.
Ben Griffin was the quintessential British paratrooper, an SAS soldier and a founder of Veterans for Peace UK. He left the army after refusing to return to Iraq and later blew the whistle on war crimes being carried out in Baghdad. He was gagged in the high court and promised jail time if he ever spoke about UK involvement in rendition again. "I knew I would get in trouble for speaking about our activities in Iraq,” he told me, “but I felt then and now that the public needs to be told about the true nature of war.” Kidnapping and handing over non-combatants to the Americans while knowing they’d be tortured is fine; telling the public about it is criminal.
Recently, when I visited Toronto to help start a new project called Front Lines International, I met soldiers facing long prison sentences for speaking out. For me, Jules Tindungan, 26, and Chris Vassey, 27, were virtually impossible to tell apart from the average Canadian, but both of them are American soldiers on the run and applying for asylum in Canada.
They were experienced, door-kicking infantrymen in the US 82nd Airborne when they went to Afghanistan. After 15 months they returned home changed men. Both of them believed they had been involved in war crimes and fled to Canada—Jules first, then Chris—where they would be able to speak out. Men like these do not refuse lightly.
Chris told me that whenever his patrol took incoming in Afghanistan "it was no holds barred… the day after, when people come to your base saying you shot up their home, tractor, farm… all we would say was, 'Well, the enemy was on the run… don’t let them fire at us from your backyard and this won’t happen again,' as if they had condoned it." He saw Afghan national army soldiers "butt-stroke" local women in the face with their rifles during raids. It was, he was told, how thing were done in Afghanistan.
Jules explained that after one firefight his platoon recovered remains—bodies and body parts. These were strapped "to the hoods of trucks and driven through local towns as a sort of warning."
Both men have been vocal in the Canadian antiwar movement. They will suffer for their words if deported. “Dudes who speak out get harsher punishments," Jules told me. "Statements made to the media, as well as in social media, are used as evidence against you when you are sentenced."
Jules also told me that one soldier who ended up back in the US phoned him from military prison, warning him to clear his Facebook posts and emails of any criticism of the military or the war. “They compiled a very thick docket of his Facebook statements and emails as evidence against him,” Jules said.
Chris is now an ironworker but easily slips back into telling expletive-filled soldier stories about his long months spent doing “illegal shit” in “A-stan.” He confirmed what Jules had said about the risks of speaking out: “Video or audio of you speaking out is used against you—usually guaranteeing a stiffer sentence.”
Soldiers who just go AWOL are often simply “shit-bagged” (discharged) from the army, but those who speak out like Chris and Jules get longer sentences. One got a 25-month sentence after the prosecution at his court martial “showed the videos of his public speeches.” But it’s not just war resisters like Chris and Jules who face threats.
Heather Linebaugh came to Canada from the States a few weeks later, joining us at a rural veterans' retreat. Heather served in the US Air Force in drone intelligence from 2009 to 2012 and was honorably discharged. She was good at her job, earning the nickname “Harbinger of Death” from her comrades. Not every assignment went smoothly, though: “One mission in particular, I remember that we were told to keep quiet about, and to this day, I can still not discuss it.” Like Chris and Jules she fled to Canada, a place she felt safe to speak out from.
Heather says she challenged an officer of more senior rank on the issue. She asked what would happen if people spoke out about “sloppy strikes.” She was taken to her commander and warned about “talking recklessly” and asking “stupid questions.”
In her unit there was a watchword used to keep people quiet: Manning. “If we spoke out about certain missions to the general public, and definitely the media, we would 'end up like Bradley Manning.'" The effort to instill fear was being ramped up around the time she was leaving the military. "I saw quite a few posters going up with an image of the typical soldier sitting in a jail cell in handcuffs."
Heather still honors the non-disclosure agreement that came with her security clearance. Having been involved in numerous kills she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, but she says that she cannot claim the veteran’s benefits she is entitled to because she can't detail to doctors the missions that saw her develop the condition. If she does, she risks jail. Heather is 24 years old.
I approached older vets, wondering if today’s silencing tactics were novel. Nick Velvet fought in Vietnam. He rebelled against the war and went on to help found the Old School Sappers, a radical antiwar group made up of veterans. The Sappers endure. For a new kid like me, they are a kind of elder council.
I asked how the military silenced soldiers back during the Vietnam era, and he explained that Vietnam vets were harder to silence because they had the advantage of numbers. Military prisons were overflowing and the government simply didn't have enough resources to clamp down on all of the antiwar veterans. Some organizers went to prison or were given bad discharges, but when his own subversive activities came to the attention of his commanders, Nick laughed in the Army’s face. He would have “welcomed a court martial” because he had “keen movement lawyers who would relish [fighting] the case, gratis.” Nick got away with it because he had support. He fears for the new generation of rebel soldiers. “I wasn't alone,” he says. “These guys are.”
Freedom and democracy are rights that extend to veterans only conditionally. If we speak ill of the war, we are ignored and sometimes we are silenced. The military and—I personally suspect—a percentage of the population in countries like the UK and the US derive comfort and a perverse sense of gratification from praising us. But, as Jules suggests, they flinch at the idea of soldiers “thinking critically about the global impact of what we are doing.” Nothing can be allowed to puncture the war dream and woe must betide those who stray from the script.