February 19, 2009

A "People's Amnesty" for War Resisters

by Gerry Condon

Last week the Customs and Border Police in Blaine arrested a young American who was returning home from Canada. Cliff Cornell, 28, was arrested because he is AWOL from the U.S. Army. He fled to Canada four years ago after realizing he had been lied to when he joined the military. The Army recruiter lied to him when he said he would never be deployed overseas. And President Bush lied to him when he said Iraq was connected to the terror of 9-11. The next thing Cornell knew, he had orders to deploy to Iraq and “shoot to kill anyone who gets near your vehicle.”

In 2002, Cliff Cornell raised his right hand and swore to uphold the U.S. Constitution. He swore to defend the U.S. from all enemies, foreign and domestic. He didn’t swear to invade other peoples’ countries on behalf of Exxon Mobil or Halliburton. “He signed a contract,” some people declaim emphatically. But it was President Bush who broke that contract when he lied to the American people about why he was sending their sons and daughters into harm’s way. And it is Cliff Cornell who is being punished.

After spending the night in the Whatcom County Jail, Cornell was released on his own recognizance on Thursday . He then hopped on a Greyhound bus for a sleepless, three-day ride across the U.S. On Tuesday, he surrendered himself to Army authorities at Fort Stewart, Georgia. Cornell hopes the Army will just discharge him “for the good of the service,” as they do to many returning AWOLs. But Cliff Cornell has been a vocal opponent of the Iraq War. The Army will likely court-martial and imprison him, as it did Robin Long, another Iraq War resister who was deported from Canada in July. Long was convicted of desertion and is serving a 15-month prison sentence.

The American people became disenchanted with the U.S. war in Iraq a long time ago. Almost everyone knows the war was based on lies. Candidate Obama called it a “dumb war” and promised to end it promptly. But the dictates of empire may see U.S. troops fighting and dying in Iraq for years to come. President Obama will attempt to manage a gradual draw-down of U.S. troops in Iraq, while simultaneously escalating the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Obama inherited these twin wars from George Bush, but they could easily drag down his own presidency.

President Obama should immediately withdraw all U.S. troops, mercenaries and contractors from both Iraq and Afghanistan. Both wars are unjust and un-winnable. Both wars target civilians with weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. military is torturing prisoners and violating human rights in both wars. And the vast majority of the people in both countries want U.S. troops to leave.

Uncle Sam has also failed on a massive scale to care for his own soldiers who have been physically and psychologically wounded, and are now caught up in an epidemic of suicide, murder and spousal abuse. President Obama must act to ensure adequate medical care and benefits for all veterans.

President Obama should also do the right thing by those troops who refused to be part of this madness. With the stroke of a pen, he can grant amnesty to Cliff Cornell and thousands of young men and women who are fugitives from injustice. Presidents Ford and Carter granted measures of pardon and leniency to Vietnam draft resisters and deserters. President Obama can do the same.

And the American people should not be lulled into passivity by the changing of the guard at the White House. We must continue to demand that our leaders end these horrible wars immediately. Not one more day of war will undo the damage we have already done.

There will be no amnesty until the troops come home. In the meantime, we must provide sanctuary for war resisters in our own communities. The people of Bellingham, Washington, near the U.S.-Canada border, are providing a perfect example. Their proposed Sanctuary City ordinance would not only welcome war resisters to Bellingham, it would bar the use of city resources for the apprehension of GIs who refuse to fight. Similar efforts are taking place in several cities around the country, including Portland, Oregon. Ithaca, New York has already declared itself a Sanctuary City for soldiers who are speaking out against war.

Veterans For Peace is one of several organizations that are helping war resisters find housing, jobs, and treatment for PTSD. Many of these young GI’s are suffering from the wounds of war; they do not need to return to the scene of the crime. We owe them our understanding and our help.

President Obama may not be ready to act, but We The People can show compassion for our young soldiers of conscience. George Bush may never have to answer for his treason or the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. But Cliff Cornell should not be the one who is imprisoned.

You can contribute to Cliff Cornell's legal defense fund here.

Gerry Condon lived in Sweden and Canada for six years after refusing Army orders to deploy to the U.S. war against the people of Vietnam. He now lives in Seattle and serves as director of Project Safe Haven, a war resister advocacy group.

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