US Politics

Active-Duty Troops Voice Their Dissent from U.S. Policy in Iraq

By Drew Brown

Liam Madden opposed the war in Iraq even before he deployed with his Marine unit in late 2004. But he came home convinced more than ever that the war was wrong.

“The more informed I got, the more I opposed the war,” said Madden, 22, a Marine Corps sergeant in Quantico, Va. “The more people who died there, the longer we stayed there, the more I opposed the war. The more I know, the easier it is to support withdrawal.”

Madden is one of about 118 members of the U.S. military who plan to petition Congress asking that U.S. forces be withdrawn from Iraq and brought home, said attorney J.E. McNeil. McNeil is advising the grassroots group of active-duty service members, who organized the petition drive through a Web site (

In a rare display of public dissent, Madden and another serviceman plan to go public Wednesday with their disapproval. Members of the military are more limited than civilians are in how they can express dissent.

Although a number of troops, including at least one officer, have been brought up on charges for refusing to serve in Iraq, and dozens more have deserted, this is the first time that serving members of the U.S. military have publicly petitioned Congress to end the war. The action comes less than two weeks before the Nov. 7 elections, in which the Iraq war is a major issue.

President Bush says he plans no major changes in strategy, and top U.S. officials in Baghdad said Tuesday that they are sticking to plans to hand over most security responsibilities to the Iraqi government over the next 12 to 18 months.

Organizers are planning to deliver the petitions to Congress by the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in January.

“The long-term goal is to end the occupation of Iraq,” Madden said. “The short-term goal is to spread the word that service members who feel like we do have a tool to have their voice heard, and it’s their duty as a citizen of a democratic society to participate in democracy.”

The message that Madden and other troops are sending to their congressional representatives is brief and to the point.

“As a patriotic American proud to serve the nation in uniform, I respectfully urge my political leaders in Congress to support the prompt withdrawal of all American military forces and bases from Iraq,” it says. “Staying in Iraq will not work and is not worth the price. It is time for U.S. troops to come home.”

The grassroots movement of active-duty service members is based in Norfolk, Va., and is sponsored by several anti-war groups, including Iraq Veterans Against the War, Veterans for Peace, and Military Families Speak Out. Service members can submit their appeals online, giving their names, duty status and service branches.

McNeil, the attorney, said troops who speak out against the war are exercising their First Amendment right to free speech.

Under military regulations, troops are free to speak their minds as long as they’re not on duty, not in uniform and aren’t saying anything that’s disrespectful to their chain of command or the president, she said.

“They’ve got to be clear that they are speaking for themselves and not the military,” said McNeil, the executive director of the Center on Conscience and War, based in Washington. The organization was formed by Quakers and other church groups in 1940 to protect the rights of conscientious objectors.

The Military Whistleblower Protection Act of 1995 allows servicemen and women to communicate grievances directly to Congress without the threat of penalty or reprisal.

Eugene Fidell, a Washington attorney and president of the National Institute for Military Justice, said the service members are within their rights to speak out against the war to members of Congress. However, he said they must be careful about what they say in public and the circumstances under which they say it.

Eric A. Seitz, a Honolulu attorney who has handled military cases for more than 40 years, said: “The kinds of resistance and opposition and outrage that military people are now beginning to express has been simmering for quite a while. But it’s about to just burst out in huge waves.”

Seitz is representing Lt. Ehren Watada, an Army lieutenant at Fort Lewis, Wash., who’s being prosecuted for refusing to serve in Iraq.

If dissent continues to build, more soldiers might refuse to fight, Seitz said.

Pentagon officials might “think they can continue to prosecute a war, but when the troops stop fighting, that’s it, they’re out of luck,” he said.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service, October 24, 2006