By JOHN M. CRISP
Hart Viges doesn’t look particularly like a soldier, but he used to be one. And he says that in some respects he still is.
He’s a tall and lean young man, with glasses and a goatee, and when I met him recently, he was wearing blue jeans and an unbuttoned Army camouflage jacket over a white T-shirt.
On Sept. 12, 2001, Viges walked into a recruiting office in Seattle and asked for Airborne. His country had been attacked, and he wasted no time going to its defense. The Army complied with his request and assigned him to the 82nd. He made 20 stateside jumps and before long he was in Kuwait and then in Baghdad, for 11-1/2 months.
But when I met him he was participating in a forum at my college on the Iraq war. Viges, now a conscientious objector, was representing the viewpoints of the Iraqi Veterans Against the War and of the Austin Chapter of Veterans for Peace, which he serves as chair. What happened?
His transformation from warrior to C.O. and active opponent of the war is complicated, but when he told me his story, two incidents stood out: When his unit accompanied civilian engineers to a water-treatment plant near Baghdad, a firefight broke out. Viges was a mortarman, but soon he was settling his rifle’s sight directly onto an Iraqi, about 60 feet away, whose own weapon, an RPG, was slung over his back. Viges says that, for an instant, he locked eyes with the Iraqi. He was shocked to see just another scared and confused man, whose reasons for fighting probably had nothing to do with hating the West. Viges had the drop on him, but he didn’t pull the trigger. The Iraqi ran.
Later, his unit was ordered to investigate a farmhouse where, a report said, there were men who had "said something bad about the U.S." The soldiers ransacked the house, but found nothing except an entirely legal .22 pistol. But when they took her two sons away, the mother wept bitterly, fell on the ground at Viges’ feet, and begged him not to take them. He tried to assure her that they would be fine, but he had no way of knowing if that was true. Now Viges suspects that the allegations were a trumped-up personal vendetta and that, from the mother’s point of view, she might as well have been living under Saddam Hussein.
There’s much more to Viges’ story. When he returned from Iraq, he still believed in the mission and wanted to transfer to a Special Forces unit. He believed that the United States was using the wrong tools, trying to "chop down a tree with a hammer." But eventually his Peruvian girlfriend broadened his perspective on U.S. international policy. He saw "The Passion of the Christ," which appealed to his innate spirituality and made him question his ability to kill at all. After all, the Bible says to "love your enemies." Now Viges advocates a pure pacifism that most Americans would consider unrealistic; on the other hand, he’s been to the war, and most of us haven’t.
We’re asking a lot of our soldiers in Iraq and, as always, they have responded with resolve and self-sacrifice. But Viges asked me to imagine what happens when good people are put into dangerous and miserable conditions for unclear purposes without an end in sight. If you hold them over the fire long enough, he says, they’ll begin to pop like popcorn.
The metaphor that occurs to me is a tightrope. With classic American determination and loyalty, our soldiers are able to balance their way along it for a considerable distance, especially in a "good" war where the causes and goals are clear. In those conditions, few American institutions have been more dependable than the military.
But as Iraq deteriorates and as Americans lose faith in the wisdom and competence of the Bush administration, as the casualty toll grows, deployments are extended and the goal becomes no clearer, some soldiers will fall off the tightrope in the direction of Abu Ghraib and Haditha. Others, like Viges, will give in to an innate decency that says that we should never kill anyone unless we’ve got a very, very good reason.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)