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The Establishment’s New Tactic: Gag All War Veterans

21st Century Wire says…

These are the men and women the establishment fear more than any other. 

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Military veterans who live to tell the other side of the war coin are speaking out in droves, and the state fears that if they are given a big enough platform, they will be able to sway public opinion and susceptibility to state-run war propaganda away from the cold party line, and over towards the humanist position. Unless the state can keep military whistleblowers quiet, then politicians will not be able to sell the next war, or pull the patriotism card.

Formalising its gagging order policies with regards to veterans is important, because it’s the state’s way of not only neutralising dissenting veterans, but also dehumanising them by stripping away their right to free speech and expression.

Below details the stories of many such individuals including American combat veterans who served in Afghanistan, Jules Tindungan and Chris Vassey, who because of their views on war, have been forced on the run applying for asylum… in Canada.

The state moving to silence veterans is nothing new, and takes many forms on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain, one recent, and highly extreme example of the state forcibly gagging military veterans in order to avoid embarrassment over the UK government using its own soldiers as unknowing guinea pigs for nuclear testing in the South Pacific. In 2010 the Daily Mail reported:

“More than 1,000 former servicemen and their families are fighting to win £20million compensation from the Ministry of Defence after being made ‘guinea pigs’ for postwar nuclear tests in the South Pacific and Australia.

They took legal action after suffering medical problems, including cancer, skin defects, infertility and genetic disorders passed on to their children, which they blame on exposure to radiation. On average, three survivors are dying each week.”

One British soldier who has spoken out on behalf of other veterans and in the public interest is former British SAS special operations veteran, Ben Griffin, who gave a rousing opening statement earlier this year on the horrors and hypocrisy of 21st century wars at the Oxford Debate Union.

Vice Magazine does an excellent report on this ‘war on whistleblowing’ trend…
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A Generation of US and UK War Veterans Are Being Silenced

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Joe Glenton
Vice Magazine

After the Remembrance Day parade, I repaired to a central London boozer with fellow veterans to stew my brain in ale. Pinned to chests all around us 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 our stories would make us appear mad and for some, leaving the heroic fantasy intact allows one to continue living at the centre of it. To break that tribal silence carries risks.

US Army veteran Chris Vassey (right)

War fans 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 mid-2000s – on the grounds of security, they claim. The Canadian military currently is trying to stop wounded veterans from criticising 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. I had spilled no secrets. Rather I’d claimed 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. He later blew the whistle on war crimes being carried out in Baghdad. He was gagged in the high court and promised jail 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 in the knowledge 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 men – Jules first, followed by Chris – believing they had been involved in war crimes, fled to Canada 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 anti-war 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.”

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 (photo, left) 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 between 2009 and 2012 and was “honourably” discharged. Like Chris and Jules she fled to Canada, a place she felt safe to speak out from. 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.”

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 quite: Manning. “If we spoke out about certain missions to the general public, and definitely media, we would ‘end up like Bradley Manning’.” The effort to instil 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 honours the non-disclosure agreement that came with her security clearance. Having been involved in numerous kills she suffers from post-traumatic stress. She explained that she cannot claim the veteran’s benefits she is entitled to, because she cannot 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. Then he rebelled against the rebellion, helping to found the Old School Sappers – a radical group within the original anti-war veteran’s movement. 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. He explains that the Vietnam vets were harder to silence because they had the advantage of mass. Military prisons were overflowing and their numbers gave them confidence. Some organisers 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 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, then, are things 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 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.

Joe Glenton is a writer, journalist and Afghanistan veteran. His book Soldier Box: Why I Won’t Return To The War On Terror, is published by Verso Books.

Follow Joe on Twitter: @joejglenton

More on soldiers in shitty situations:

The Canadian Forces Still Can’t Buy Decent Combat Boots

An Interview With One of the British Army’s Forgotten Soldiers

This Is What Winning Looks Like

READ MORE INT’L NEWS AT: 21st Century Wire

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