The military recruitment budget is $3 billion annually; 90 percent of the people killed in war are civilian noncombatants; 91 percent of Berkeley High students believe the war in Iraq is wrong and illegal; 65 percent of veterans never get their education benefits; 33 percent of homeless men are veterans….
It was more than these factoids splashed across the screen in the school auditorium and the anti-war rap pulsating in the background that kept the Berkeley High students riveted to their seats Wednesday. It was the real life lesson in war, taught by some who touched battle up close and by others who escaped it that kept the teens’ attention.
The idea of the anti-war teach-in—four different presentations given to four groups of about 300 students—was hatched by students studying social justice and social action in CAS, Berkeley High’s Communication Arts and Sciences school. The project was guided by CAS teacher Joanna Sapir.
The first presenter, Aidan Delgado, a 23-year-old conscientious objector, brought the war home to the audience, which sometimes gasped in shock, other times tittered with discomfort, as they viewed images depicting the graphic reality of war they had never seen on the evening news.
Delgado was 19, just a bit older than the students he was addressing, when he signed the Army Reserve contract that changed his life. The son of a diplomat who grew up in Egypt and other countries abroad, he said he did not go into the service for college money—his family was paying his way—but because he wanted a change in his life. He thought he’d join the reserves and put on a uniform a couple of days each month.
Soon after the war began in March 2003, Delgado’s unit was deployed to Iraq. “I got to Iraq and felt totally unprepared,” he said.
He told the students that he had always been opposed to war intellectually, but in Iraq he began to understand the meaning of pacifism and began studying Buddhism. After three months, he told his commanding officer that he wanted to apply for conscientious objector status. The process took two years and he was honorably discharged in January.
Delgado said he was upset by many things he observed in Iraq. On various occasions he would see a group of civilians walking and U.S. soldiers would tell them to stop. “They didn’t understand. (The soldiers) would shoot them down,” he said.
Delgado knows Arabic and was able to communicate with the people. For most of the soldiers, though, “every Iraqi was an enemy,” he said.
They would call them “Hajjis,” (normally a reference to those who have made the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca), using the term to denigrate them. He saw a fellow soldier whip children who had annoyed him with a Humvee antenna. He would watch soldiers break bottles over the head of Iraqis as they drove by.
His unit spent six months working at Abu Ghraib, where prisoners were punished with the removal of their tents and blankets during the cold months. Once when the prisoners rebelled and started throwing stones, the guards responded by shooting several of them dead and wounding others.
Delgado showed the Berkeley High students pictures of dead children, and of soldiers degrading corpses. “That’s the reality of war,” he said. “This is what you have to think about.”
Student organizers also invited a recruiter for the Army Reserve, Sgt. First Class Marco Ramos. Responding to a question about what he had thought of Delgado’s presentation, he said, “I don’t know anybody who agrees with war. War is bad. But unfortunately, war is going on in the world. It’s always a challenge to go to war.”
Ramos said he has never seen combat and does not feel responsible for sending people to war. His job is to recruit them. Others are responsible for deploying the units. He underscored the positive aspects of soldiering: “Helping build schools, hospitals, taking care of people.”
The panels explored military recruitment, the question of a possible draft and how people can resist it if they choose to do so.
Evelyn Chang of the American Civil Liberties Union said she wanted students to know their rights when approached by a recruiter. She said the ACLU hears reports of students who are coerced and misled. Students need to understand, she said, that “the military is a contract, not a job, like others. You can’t quit. It’s a commitment for eight years, even though active duty is two-to-four years.”
Chang said students need to understood the No Child Left Behind Act. Unless a parent signs an “opt out” form, schools must turn over to recruiters the names, addresses and phone numbers of every student in order to get federal education money. (Berkeley High, however, has adopted an opt-in strategy whereby parents sign up to have their students’ names turned over to recruiters.)
On Tuesday the Alameda County Board of Education postponed voting on a resolution to encourage parents to opt out of releasing their children’s information to military recruiters on high school campuses. The board is expected to take up the issue again at its April 26 meeting.
The possibility of a draft was on the minds of students and panelists. Speaking from the audience, one student asked if a draft would be more equitable than recruiting low-income youth as is done today. (A bill with this intent, authored by Rep. Charles Rangel, D-NY, was defeated in the House in October.)
Ed Hasbrouck, from the National Resistance Committee, served six months in a federal prison camp for refusing to register for military conscription. Millions do not register, but the government wanted to make an example of 20 vocal opponents, Hasbrouck told the students.
On Thursday Associated Press reported that the Army, which has increased recruiting bonuses, raised the number of recruiters on the streets by 33 percent and increased the maximum age of National Guard and Reserve recruits from 34 to 39, missed its February recruitment goal by 27 percent and is predicting that the goals will fall short in March and April.
Oakland City Council candidate Aimee Allison, who was honorably discharged as a conscientious objector from the Army during the First Gulf War, counseled students who think they might have moral or religious grounds for opposing the war. She told them to begin a file now to prove their beliefs in case of a draft. For example, they might include papers they’ve written for school, a letter to the editor, proof of membership in a social activist club, pictures of them at an anti-war march.
As panelists took audience questions, the students who spoke seemed generally against war and against serving in the military. However, student Mateo Guttierez challenged the panel, asking, “Do you think it’s immoral or unpatriotic to use tax-payer time during school to give information on draft resistance?”
Ed Hasbrouck answered the question, saying that he believed the country was founded on principals of resistance. “Schools give people a chance to grow and learn,” he said. “It would be an immoral use of schools to educate people to kill.”
A Counter-Military Recruitment Forum and Conscientious objector workshop will be held at 1:30 p.m. March 27 at Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists Hall, 1924 Cedar St. Panelists will include Cindy Sheehan, who lost her son in Iraq, Steve Morse, of the GI Rights Hotline, Jeff Paterson, of Not in Our name, Robert Reynolds, a Berkeley High School student, and the Rev. Craig Scott, UU minister.
By JUDITH SCHERR
Special to the Planet (03-25-05)