An Anti-Imperialist War Resister

Against the Current, No. 117, July/August 2005

ATC Interviews Carl Webb

MILITARY RESISTER CARL Webb, 39, is Absent Without Leave from the Texas National Guard, after his service was involuntarily extended in July, 2004 through the military Stop-Loss program.  He tells his story on his website and blogspot and has been speaking out at antiwar meetings.  His explicit anti-imperialist views have made him a somewhat controversial figure within the peace movement.

During his first period of active military service beginning in 1982, Webb was deployed in Korea and Germany where he was a field and electrical systems maintenance worker (repairing trucks and tanks).  His most recent work in the National Guard was as a combat medic.

On June 1 Carl Webb spoke with David Finkel, from the ATC editorial board, while on a speaking tour of several southeast Michigan towns and campuses.  He was also interviewed by Ric Urrutia in the March, 2005 issue of Solidarity News.  An interview with resister Camilo Mejia, whose case helped inspire Webb’s decision, appears in our previous issue (ATC 116, May-June 2005).

Against the Current: You’ve spoken in a number of different places: big cities like New York and Detroit, campus towns like Ann Arbor, and conservative places like Hillsdale, Michigan.  What kind of responses are you getting?

Carl Webb: In general the audiences everywhere have been very open.  As to some of the groups that I’ve encountered—their response has been problematic.

Initially when I left Texas, my intent was just to refuse to go to Iraq, turn myself in and request a discharge.  When that didn’t happen, I decided step by step to become more outspoken and radical in my public message.  That’s when I became aware of this big schism within the antiwar movement, which I sort of knew was there but hadn’t personally encountered—the conflict among national antiwar coalitions was something I wasn’t aware of until I arrived in New York.

I guess the first time the problem came up was when I tried to contact a progressive student group at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.  After several attempts I finally went to a meeting and heard later that this group, which is affiliated with United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), didn’t want to have anything to do with me. While they said they “supported” my stance, they thought it was a little too extreme…

ATC: “Extreme” meaning not your refusal to serve, but your anti- imperialist politics?

CW: Yes, and I had come out as a Marxist; so my refusal to serve in Iraq was overtly political and leftist.  So I might “scare away,” as they put it, some of the mainstream folks they were trying to attract.  This Knoxville group rented a van for the Fayetteville march (March 19) and didn’t even invite me.

Another incident developed after the big March 19 protests with some members of Military Families Speak Out (MFSO) on the West Coast, who had invited me to speak at some events in solidarity with a soldier who was protesting his “Stop Loss” order.  We had corresponded for weeks, they had sent me an e-ticket and detailed itinerary.

Just a few days before my departure they sent an email expressing “concern” about my speaking and about some groups I was associating with.  I guess they had finally taken a look at my website and thought I was some kind of leftist sectarian—which I’m not, but I do say I oppose U.S. imperialism and support the Iraqi people’s right to struggle for self-determination.

Anyway, they asked me “not to speak about certain things” and remove some content from my website (as if that would make everyone who’d seen it forget it was there!).  Of course I said no. So they canceled my appearances in Seattle and Portland.  I do believe this soldier lost his case and was ordered to go to Iraq.

I was also supposed to speak in Los Angeles, in support of Pablo Paredes.  Unfortunately one of the founders of Gold Star Families—a mother whose son was killed in Iraq, and I certainly don’t want to have a conflict with her—objected to my presence at that event.  So I got a call from an organization I belong to, Iraq Veterans Against the War, saying in essence “we support you but we don’t want to alienate those who don’t share this point of view.”

I thought about compromising my message, but I concluded that once I started doing that it would never end. So I called them back and said I would bow out of that event—in this case it was my decision. 

ATC: So there’s an element of self-censorship among organized antiwar forces.  But what about the response of people who actually come to hear you?

CW: It’s been much more positive than what some of the organizers are thinking.  Even the mainstream press now says that the majority is against the war. From my interaction with audiences, I feel that a lot of those who engage in this type of self-censorship are underestimating the mass sentiment.

I’m not a pacifist, and I want to emphasize the overt political nature of my resistance.  It’s not as if I’ve been assaulted or spat on, and I’ve been speaking in Tennessee and in places like Hillsdale here in Michigan.  Of course there will always be people in the audience who object to the message, but that’s OK.

ATC: Let’s get to that.  What do people ask you?

CW: “Why aren’t you arrested and in jail?” “Why didn’t you apply for CO (Conscientious Objector) status?”

As a matter of fact, it’s hard to believe that the U.S. government isn’t really cracking down on folks.  When I tell audiences that six thousand military personnel (this includes National Guard and reserves) have deserted, it’s not that the number is so large but the military is trying to avoid any publicity about the problems they have.

They try to present it as a minor problem with meeting recruitment targets—but because of the coverup we don’t really know how big it is. They’re obviously afraid of too much negative press.

When it became evident—as I learned after several encounters with city and campus police—that I hadn’t been reported as a military deserter, I called the GI Hotline and was told this is common practice.  They could only theorize that the military either doesn’t have the resources to round up people, especially when they’re sending the MPs (Military Police) to the war and when anyone arrested would need military lawyers, or else just wants to avoid publicity. 

Most of the resisters I know—including Camilo Mejia, who inspired me—aren’t caught.  They turn themselves in. There’s not a dragnet to capture this supposed small trickle of deserters.  The press that Camilo and others have gotten has caused concern.  The military will try to avoid admitting that there’s a problem.

ATC: Do people ask you whether you think there will be a draft?  And I’ll ask you myself.

CW: I don’t know! But I would guess they can’t sustain their present military operations.  I tell people the government is stuck between Iraq and a hard place—sorry about the pun. This backdoor draft, as many people refer to the mobilizing of reserves and National Guard, has skewed the military’s demographics upward by a decade.

I’m going to be 40.  Most of the people in my medical unit are over 30.  You’re talking about doctors, radiologists, technical and professional people who are physically over the hill and have kids and jobs and businesses, which they have to leave.  This is of concern to middle age, middle class people and a lot of the resisters you see in the media are older servicemen.

Military propaganda partly justifies the Stop-Loss policy by claiming it preserves “unit cohesion” with older people who have trained together, in the same community.  In my case, the unit I was assigned to—after I received my Stop Loss order as an individual—which has been in Iraq since January, is made up of people I never met. I was transferred from my unit in Austin to this other unit based in Dallas.

Some soldiers have even had their job classications changed from noncombat to combat occupations.  People are being prevented from leaving as their contracts specified, then reassigned to different units to fill deficiencies that already existed for years.

It’s theorized that this is another coverup: Although we see the coverage about the lack of equipment and body armor and even ammunition, we haven’t known the shortages of personnel which obviously had been a problem for years before now. (Just google “ghost soldiers” to find out more.)

In Hillsdale, there was a sergeant in the audience who pretty much confirmed the stories journalists have been writing about the over- reporting of personnel in many units.  This happens for bureaucratic reasons, officers making themselves look good.

It’s hard for people to believe this—we’re the superpower, how could we not have the best of everything?  That goes along with the story we used to hear about the government spending money on high- tech and high-priced equipment to the detriment of the common soldier.

This sergeant I mentioned isn’t leftist, but already he’s seeing the lies.  He’s serving in a unit that isn’t his own, from Texas when he’s from Michigan; he knows about the issue of ghost reporting, about the mixing of units and even soldiers from foreign “coalition” armies serving with them.  I hadn’t heard about that, which brings to light even more the shortage of personnel and how far they have to stretch to deal with that.

ATC: Have you had any surprising responses?

CW: Not from the audiences.  I never had this misjudgment that the population is pro-war. There are many different motivations.  There were people in Hillsdale who were against the war, but from a libertarian perspective.  Then there are folks who are basically pacifist, for religious or other reasons, and opposed to war in general—which isn’t my own view.

I’ve been surprised as I said before at the leadership in the antiwar movement.  But I’ve actually been impressed by the real solidarity among those of us on the left, who are always accused of too much sectarian infighting.

At the March 19 protest I saw everybody together, from all the socialist to anarchist groups.  It’s been the liberals who are supposedly interacting with “the middle,” who have been most sectarian.  None of the groups I’ve encountered in the left—and I’ve been open about my past affiliations, although these were largely dormant while I’ve been in the military—have acted in a sectarian way.

However much infighting there is on the left, the polarization in the antiwar movement has made many of us more willing to work together.  You find out who your friends are.

ATC: How do you see resistance developing from here?

CW: I’m trying to figure out why there has been so much underestimation of the so-called masses that some people feel we have to go “antiwar lite,” like “you can’t go on stage and tell people to do something illegal.  You can’t say something crazy like telling all these guys they should just refuse to go.” 

Well, it’s illegal to go AWOL.  That’s why Camilo Mejia went to jail.  Why are we going backward?  In the 1960s the action and theory that moved us forward—if only temporarily—came from the so- called “extreme” that moved “the middle” toward the left.  Why would we put ourselves in the box of working only within the system’s rules?

As a war resister I am telling people to work outside the system.  I appreciate all the advice and help from lawyers and my Quaker friends, but most Conscientious Objector applications are going to get turned down.  I purposely didn’t go to Canada, because I was told those refugees might lose their cases.

The movement is going to have to go back 30 years and see what really was done then to assist resistance.  It may happen—there may be a draft.  Maybe not: Perhaps we’ll force them to withdraw from Iraq.  But what if they don’t?  If the antiwar movement rejects resisters who are “too radical” it will make a huge mistake.

ATC: Any final thoughts on your own experience?

CW: Another question people come up with: “If you were already so politically conscious, how did you wind up in the military in the first place?”

ATC: Let me guess: This question comes from people who haven’t been in or near the military, and don’t understand who ends up there and why?

CW: Right—it’s a matter of not having a frame of reference.  And I say, yes, to a certain degree I sold out. People have done that for hundreds of years.  Look at the history of the left, people vacillate all the time.  A lot of that has to with life.  Sometimes it’s hard to combine principles and practice, and I’m not purer or holier than others. 

Why would, let’s say, a lesbian or someone politically conscious enlist in the military It goes to show how bad things are that people resort to such lengths for survival.  What inspired me in Camilo Mejia’s story was that he’s the son of a leading Sandinista militant (Carlos Mejia Godoy); so for him to be in the U.S. military shows how awful this system is, when they can get people like that.

In my case, I was on the left politically when I was 15.  Unfortunately I dropped out of high school the next year, and ideology wasn’t going to pay my bills.

But when the revolution comes, who can say they were pure?  The holier-than-thou leaders in China and Cambodia attacked their opponents’ background or even their parents’ background.  That’s just nonsense.

Unless you pronounced yourself a radical in your baby crib, everyone has gone through a process of political evolution—either in school, the work place, or oddly the military, which was my direct lesson in U.S. imperialism.  And some of us will backslide.  My question is: Is it ever too late for someone to redeem themselves?

ATC 117, July-August 2005