Vince Emanuele is a former US Marine who completed two tours of duty in Iraq but refused to serve a third time. He is now organiser for the Michigan chapter of Veterans for Peace and serves on the national board of directors of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW).
Vince is in Australia as part of a speaking tour organised in partnership between IVAW, Stand Fast, WikiLeaks Australian Citizens Alliance, Marrickville Peace Group and Stop the War Coalition. He spoke with Red Flag’s Cathy Lewis about life in and out of the military.
How did military life change you and the people you served with? Did you notice that, over time, the “moral compass” that guided you had to be reset?
I have to be honest and say that I don’t think I had much of a “moral compass” prior to my time in the Marine Corps. Sure, my parents raised me well and taught me to be nice to other people. But I was still able to become a murderer after 13 weeks of Marine Corps training. That’s how powerful the indoctrination is.
Marines are routinely referred to as bitches, pussies, cunts, faggots and queers. The dominant culture’s ideology is firmly at work during training. You must implant the seeds of dehumanisation in order to convince 18-year-old kids to fly half way around the world to murder people. Therefore, Iraqis and Afghans were referred to as hajis, sand niggers, camel jockeys and towel heads.
Whatever limited moral compass I possessed at the time, those coordinates changed dramatically. In our spare time, my fellow Marines and I would frequent strip clubs, prostitution houses, pubs and drug dealers. Is that the life of “honour, courage and commitment”? I don’t think so.
Many Marines became indifferent to the killing and suffering of the Iraqi people as they watched their friends die. Of course this set up a situation where everyone was the enemy. Consequently, many of us interpreted the daily actions of those living in Iraq as threatening and many times responded with bullets, bombs, rockets and missiles. In short, we became heartless murderers and bandits. I watched as many of my fellow Marines robbed, beat and killed innocent Iraqis.
How were soldiers generally treated by the higher ranking officers?
There is a hierarchy that the military structure depends on. Usually, “enlisted” Marines come from working class and poor backgrounds, often uneducated. On the other hand, many of the “officer classes” comes from middle to upper class backgrounds.
There is a significant difference in the way officers and enlisted personnel live, both on deployment and back home. Many of our officers were simply padding their resumés so as to gain more ribbons, medals and accolades, which, in their thinking, would allow them to move up the military rank structure. Sometimes, after returning from patrol, we would find our officers and staff NCOs playing video games while many of us hadn’t slept in days.
How much internal resistance was there to the officers? Do you think that mistreatment of Iraqis was, in part, a reflection of the dehumanisation of the soldiers themselves?
Several of us rebelled in various ways, but this was limited to verbal protest and drug use. There were no “official” outlets for “letting off steam”.
On one hand, we have the dehumanisation of the Iraqi people, which had a profound impact on the way we viewed, aided and reacted to their suffering. On the other hand, the dehumanisation of the servicemen and women themselves is very important. I felt like a barbarian while I was in the Marine Corps – a stone cold killer, someone who was trained to kill on command. This led to very destructive personal behaviour, not to mention the reflecting of this dehumanisation onto the people of Iraq. It’s a vicious cycle of hate, anger, killing, regret and empty gestures in the attempt to heal or cope.
What have the soldiers faced when returning home? How are they treated by the government?
Here, Plato is correct: “Only the dead have seen the end of war”. For those living in Iraq, the war hasn’t “wound down”. The people of Iraq, and for that matter people around the globe, have endured the dual brutalities of American empire and neoliberal economic reforms for several decades now. For them, it’s 80 percent unemployment, skyrocketing birth defects due to depleted uranium, a collapsed society and generations lost to civil war and foreign occupation. That’s the legacy of American occupation in Iraq.
Back home, the United States has over 100,000 homeless veterans, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are experiencing unemployment numbers twice that of America’s national average, entire families and communities have been destroyed and veterans are killing themselves at a rate of 22 per day – more veterans have killed themselves than have been killed in combat over the past six years. Veterans are prescribed insane amounts of psychotropic medications, and one-third of female veterans are reporting military sexual trauma or rape at the hands of their brothers while serving in the armed forces.
What is IVAW trying to achieve today?
It’s been a very tough few years for us ... The anti-war movement has largely disappeared since Obama was elected. It’s been more difficult to re-energise and mobilise since 2008. There have been little sparks of protest, such as the anti-NATO/G8 medal returning action IVAW conducted in May 2012 and, of course, the Occupy movement. But outside of those two, mobilisation has been sparse.
IVAW has been building bonds with many labour organisations ... For IVAW, it’s quite clear there is no disconnect between struggles abroad and struggles at home. As Dr Martin Luther King Jr noted in the 1960s, “Every bomb dropped on Vietnam explodes on the streets of America”. While trillions are spent on the American empire, back home the working and poor classes suffer as programs are slashed and unions are attacked.
The connection between militarism and economic strife will become more apparent as the United States begins to use military technology, weapons, tactics and strategies to combat the rising tide of anger that will swell with ongoing economic strife and ecological collapse. Organised workers and, hence, veterans will be needed more than ever. We’re proud to be part of such a robust and inspiring tradition of veterans, workers and oppressed peoples around the world standing up and taking power.