The Internet and Frontline Military Dissent
Army Sergeant Ronn Cantu, is serving his second tour in Iraq and is a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. He famously rose to prominence as an outspoken troop against the war when he spoke live from his base in Iraq, to America’s radical online radio network Democracy Now. Then he described being how he was scared out of his mind during that interview, this time round we chatted over Myspace about how he is utilizing the internet to organise against the occupation from its front line as the Winter Soldier events were some weeks away from taking place.
Can you explain what the “appeal for redress” is to readers who might be unfamiliar with military culture?
Upon entering the military, a few of our Constitutional Rights are restricted, though not abolished outright as some service members are led to believe, and one of the rights that members of the Armed Services retain is the right to communicate privately with their members of Congress. The Appeal For Redress is just a means to foster that communication.
The Appeal, in short, states that we don’t feel that the military can tackle the problem laid out in front of it and that any lives lost trying to accomplish a mission outside of its purview is a tragic waste. Every signatory’s personal information is kept completely private and their Appeal is given only to their representatives.
I first came across your name via a Democracy Now broadcast back in January, that was a pretty brave thing to do and you seemed pretty worried about it at time, did you receive any reprimands for it or in general from your superiors for how outspoken you are about the conflict in Iraq? What sort of consequences could you face?
I received a reprimand in the form of a Letter of Admonishment from my chain of command. I’ve always taken great pains to stay within the limits of my rights as a service member, but it’s a fine line to be walking and I know the Army will be there
if I should cross that line. The letter basically stated that my commander was disappointed in me. He wanted to give me a harsher punishment, but the military lawyers had stated that I had done nothing wrong. As such, I wasn’t required to forfeit any of my pay or rank, though my relationship with my superiors can be described as “icy” at best. As for possible consequences? The sky’s the limit with the military. During Vietnam, soldiers engaged in the same activity faced charges of mutiny and 30-year jail sentences. Nobody, myself included, enlisted with the intent of getting a Less-Than-Honorable Discharge or serving jail time.
In one piece you wrote, you describe how soldiers enlist out of a baser need, for money and economic security – did you come across much of this in the military and is it possible now to speak of an economic draft and could the disillusion with the promises sold to people feed into anti-war dissent in the active services?
When the volunteer military started in 1973, social activists denounced the idea as a poverty draft. I know that 25 years later, in my case, it was certainly true. I was almost 20 and floating around the community college scene with no real direction in life. I figured that if I didn’t get a kick in the ass, I’d probably end up homeless. At the time, if anyone asked me why I was enlisting I would have said “patriotism” or “to serve my country” without even thinking. Ten years later, it’s just as true of the new soldiers I see. Some enlisted already hating the war, but needing college money or a steady job.
I thought that was interesting. Others will still say patriotism was their main factor, but if you look between the lines, these soldiers are sometimes young and may already have families and no college education. It’s no secret that enlistment declines with age and when less than one percent of the population serves, you can’t assume that more than 99-percent of the population is unpatriotic nor can you say that patriotism declines with age. Read between the lines.
How successful has the “soldiers voices” as a website been?
SoldierVoices, as a website as had mixed success. I noticed in the beginning that things I, or other servicemembers, posted on the site were actually acted upon. When I heard of the possible 18-month tours, I kept a section where I posted every news bit I could find proving that 18-month extensions were coming. As a result, generals put out memos saying that there would be no second extension and even the Sergeant Major of the Army briefed soldiers that tours would not exceed 15 months. The posts caught media attention and I was even credited anonymously with breaking the story of the “Second Surge” though that was as much a surprised to me as anyone.
SoldierVoices is a forum for everyone to share their ideas and doesn’t bring anything new to the table other than it’s run by a soldier. It started to turn more into a blog or a place for people to see what I, personally, had to say and that wasn’t what I wanted. I got the idea for SoldierVoices after a buddy’s girlfriend told me he woke up screaming every night. I had no idea and wondered what else soldiers are keeping to themselves. I remember my buddies and I being able to have intelligent discussion about things like Iraq, but when we all moved away, I couldn’t find that anymore. I tried soldier groups in MySpace and elsewhere, but in the end I realized I should probably just start one of my own.
What other ways are troops in Iraq and elsewhere using the net as a means to discuss their experiences, air their grievances and push for action on them? Are things like Myspace, Facebook and blogs popular and how does the military feel about the use of these tools?
Well, the use of blogs has gotten the most attention in recent years. This is the first “wired war” where internet and cell phone use has proliferated and I believe email plays a big part of that. During my first tour, every time I got into a firefight and every time a bomb went off, as soon as I could, I fired off an email to everyone I know telling my story and I think all the soldiers doing exactly the same thing affected how quickly public sentiment started to change. During my first tour, when things quieted down, I stopped emailing as often. By the time we started getting attacked again, it wasn’t new or exciting anymore so I stopped emailing. When I got home, my friends were surprised to find out I was still alive. They told me my emails went from firefights and bombs to… nothing. So I never realized the impact of my own emails.
Myspace and other blogs are, by far, the military’s number one concern. The official stance is that they fear “OPSEC violations.” OPSEC being milspeak for Operational Security, or information that could get service members killed or affect the mission. When the government did an audit of blogs versus the military’s own systems, they found that the military was by FAR the worst violator of giving away secret information. Instead, what the Army is really afraid of is blogs affecting public sentiment and harming enlistment numbers. As enlistments and re-enlistments decline, the only thing the Army can do is hold on like a vice to the service members who are already in. The new 15-month tours is a direct result.
Finally, the internet makes it easy for ideas to be exchanged clandestinely through email, like GI Special, and things like Google groups. What the military thinks about these tools, I can only guess. I’m sure that like many things, it’s ok to be used for pro-mission sentiment, but anything else is frowned upon.
What forms is your disapproval of the occupation taking now and will you be going to the Winter Soldier 2008 sessions and can you explain what it is?
Well, lately I’ve been a good boy. I haven’t done any writings or many interviews lately and I plan to keep it that way until I get back to the states. Service members have to right to say what they want about the military so long as it’s done off-duty, out of uniform, off base and in the United States… none of that really applies in Iraq. I did some things I’m proud of like the live Democracy Now! interview (a first in history), but now I’m less interested in attention-getting stunts than I am in actually spreading a message and affecting change.
Winter Soldier was originally an event held by Vietnam Veterans Against the War in Detroit, Michigan in 1971 to discuss and raise awareness of what was going on in Vietnam. IVAW is sort of the child of VVAW and Winter Soldier 2008 will be a three-day event in Washington DC where Iraq veterans will offer testimony as to what the war is really like. The intent is to raise awareness more than get anyone in trouble or tell sensationalist stories. I plan to attend in a show of solidarity and support, but I don’t plan to offer up any testimony as I am still “in uniform.” Still, the American people’s reluctance to think of soldiers as anything less than “God’s Warriors” will make this an eye-opener, I’m sure. I missed the invasion, but telling soldiers my stories about Iraq life in 2004-2005 results in a lot of wide eyes from enlisted and officers alike who are on their first tours. It’s one thing to say “This is what I saw…” and it’s completely another to say “This is what I
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