June 25, 2008 – Active-duty sailor Jonathan Hutto signed up to join the Navy in December 2003, at the age of 26. Previously a college activist fighting police brutality in Washington, D.C., and later an organizer with the ACLU, he was not the sort of recruit one usually imagines enlisting in the U.S. military. But his experience as an activist would serve him well as he began to protest unjust practices within the armed forces, where almost from the start, he battled institutional racism and the unwillingness of the chain of command to punish it, while also fighting oppressive and arbitrary disciplinary practices by his commanding officers. In 2006, he co-founded Appeal for Redress, one of the only active-duty anti-war groups since Vietnam, devoted to ending the war in Iraq.
The appeal itself is three sentences long:
As a patriotic American proud to serve the nation in uniform, I respectfully urge my political leaders in Congress to support the prompt withdrawal of all American military forces and bases from Iraq. Staying in Iraq will not work and is not worth the price. It is time for U.S. troops to come home.
According to Hutto, more than 2,000 military personnel, 60 percent of whom have served in Iraq, have signed the appeal.
This month, Nation Books published Hutto’s book, Antiwar Soldier: How to Dissent Within the Ranks of the Military. Part military memoir, part training manual, it lays out crucial things a soldier needs to know before resisting. The preface was written by David Cortright, whose 1975 book, Soldiers in Revolt, is considered the definitive chronicle of the Vietnam GI movement. With the Iraq occupation in its sixth year and no real end in sight, Antiwar Soldier comes at a critical time, and a moment where, increasingly, veterans and soldiers are revitalizing the anti-war movement.
AlterNet staff writer Liliana Segura recently exchanged e-mails with Hutto, who discussed, among other topics, why he joined the military; why he does not support a candidate for president; and what comes next for the anti-war movement.
Liliana Segura: You were raised in a left-leaning, politically conscious household and were an activist in college. Plus, in the book you describe how your mother used to chase away military recruiters from the house. Did you ever think you’d join the military?
Jonathan Hutto: No not at all. Nothing in my background or history would have supported me making such a move. The military was not represented as a proud tradition in my community, given the military was segregated until the early 1950s, with blacks still experiencing severe racism and repression throughout the Vietnam conflict. Both of my parents were born in a segregated/apartheid South, which shaped and informed my world view.
LS: Why did you choose the Navy?
JH: My mom was the primary reason for my decision. I was looking at the military at the age of 26, purely for economic and social adjustment reasons. One of the primary motivators was paying off a substantial portion of my student loan debt, which was $48,000, in the fall of 2003. Today, my loans stand at $24,000. I’ve always envisioned myself working toward advanced higher education, so the GI Bill was also seen as an incentive. My mom lobbied for me to look at the Navy, given the risk associated with service in the Army and Marines — plus I had two uncles that were veterans of the Air Force, one during the Korean conflict. The Iraq War was barely a year old when I decided to enlist.
LS: What surprised you the most about the Navy?
JH: I guess the word is “shocking” and not so much “surprising.” Nothing really surprised me; however, it was shock treatment to be exposed to the depths of internalized racism and imperialism. I vividly remember an instructor at boot camp speaking on the virtues of Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee in 1964 that ran on an anti-Civil Rights platform. I remember seeing the Confederate flag as one of the many flags we marched under. Although I have seen that flag many times in my life, this is the first time I had to endure it from an institutionalized setting. Then I remember battle stations, the last phase of boot camp. This is when you stay up 24 hours completing different battle scenarios on a ship, in combat, in water, etc. I can remember the instructors giving these heroic war stories, many of these stories coming directly from the Vietnam conflict. Much of this ran counter to my core belief system. You can imagine how deep the shock treatment was, given that one of my first experiences leaving home in 1995 was standing in front of Frederick Douglass Memorial Hall, named in honor of the late great abolitionist on Howard University’s campus, for a student rally.
LS: You describe racism as one of your central grievances regarding the culture of the military. Can you elaborate on this? How much do you think it informs U.S. military policy on a larger scale?
JH: The major motivation for the U.S. ruling class missions abroad is hegemony, power and leverage over its rivals such as Russia, Japan, China, Iran and countries in Latin America such as Venezuela. The Iraq War is based on the Carter doctrine, named for former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. In his 1980 State of the Union address, Carter stated that any attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region would be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault would be repelled by any means necessary, including military force. This global imperial ideology requires racism, religious intolerance and xenophobia to justify the mission to the masses of the people, especially those within the working class and margins of society needed to bleed and die in these missions. Hence anti-Arab racism is used as a justifying ideology, along with an anti-Islamic ideology, both in terms of religion and culture.
The military needs racism, both formally and informally, as an inherent part of the indoctrination process, especially in boot camp, because dehumanizing the “enemy” is necessary for GIs to be fighters for the mission. To be an effective killer, you must see the other side as less than human. During Vietnam, soldiers, sailors and Marines were taught to see Vietnamese as gooks. During this current conflict, soldiers are taught to see Iraqis as Hajjis.
Although the military has made great strides to eradicate institutionalized racism organizationally, with more people of color and women within the senior enlisted ranks and officer ranks, the ideology of white racism is still prevalent within the culture. My first experience with white racism came at apprentice school, post-boot camp, for using the term “affirmative action” in my introduction to the class. All of us were asked why we joined the military by our instructors. I basically stated that I viewed the military as the best affirmative action employer in the country. Post my giving this statement, I was targeted severely by these instructors. I was told later it was due to my use of the phrase “affirmative action.” My worst experience with white racism would be having a noose paraded before my face by three noncommissioned white male officers. The noose incident was the culmination of other incidents such as some white male non-commissioned officers making mockery of Dr. King’s holiday.
LS: Your book — and your movement — is very historically rooted. Is the average soldier as conscious of U.S. military history, including the GI resistance movement?
JH: Unfortunately, no — although many in the ranks do receive the stories from their relatives that fought in Vietnam. The public educational institutions in this country, coupled with boot camp, are not designed to give the rank-and-file soldier the proper U.S. military history or any notion that there was ever a movement of GIs within the enlisted ranks. The purpose of boot camp is to break you down and build you back up as a loyal servant with less capacity to think for yourself. However, the Appeal for Redress and Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) are demonstrating another kind of education taking place. Like Ron Kovic a generation ago, the Vietnam veteran turned peace activist and author of Born on the Fourth of July, these Iraq veterans are receiving an education on the ground in Iraq and within the complex that is changing hearts and minds every day. The movement will continue to grow.
LS: In a recent interview, you said the biggest challenge confronting the anti-war movement as a whole “is to build a culture of operational unity,” and you mentioned the National Assembly to End the Iraq War in Cleveland, Ohio, next weekend. What is the assembly, who will be there, and what are the goals?
JH: The National Assembly to End the Iraq War, gathering in Cleveland, Ohio, from June 27 to 29, is a strong attempt to bring together all elements of the anti-war movement from every constituency within the country. The major mass organizations including United for Peace and Justice (UPFJ), the Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) coalition and the Troops Out Now Coalition will all be present in Cleveland. The mission is to build an open … anti-war conference with the capacity and unity to build the largest mass mobilization against the war since 2003. This conference will also include proposals for local mobilizations before and after the November election. The conference is based on five principles, which are: 1. immediate withdrawal of all troops and bases from Iraq, 2. mass demonstrations as the central strategy, 3. unity of the movement in the streets, 4. democratic decision-making and 5. independence of the movement from all political parties.
LS: Do you support a particular candidate in the 2008 election?
JH:I do not support a particular candidate for president. I was unprincipled in flirting with the idea of Ron Paul, being that he was the only anti-war candidate within the Republican Party, which I felt was strategic, only to be propelled back to my progressive roots based on his “Ron Paul Letters,” which confirmed him as a staunch racist and anti-Semite.
I do not support a particular candidate and party because I believe the power resides within the people, not the politicians, toward ending this war in Iraq, curtailing other imperialist wars of aggression and building a better, just world. John McCain and Barack Obama are both committed to continuing the Iraq War, with potential future military missions in Pakistan and Iran. Obama is the greatest threat to our movement since JFK and arguably since FDR. He can do what John McCain cannot do, which is motivate our young to serve as cannon fodder for U.S. wars abroad while motivating working people in general to sacrifice for the preservation of corporate power at their own expense. Obama does not seek to end the Iraq occupation. His current plan would leave up to 200,000 troops in Iraq with no call at all for U.S. corporate interests to leave. The anti-war movement a generation ago could not depend on the likes of Johnson and Nixon to end the Vietnam conflict; the masses had to bring pressure. This is our challenge today.
LS: Your book is very much a how-to guide to dissenting within the ranks. How have people responded to this inside and outside the armed forces? What did you risk by writing it — and by forming Appeal for Redress as an active-duty member?
JH: The response from my colleagues within the Navy has been enormous. I am asked off base consistently for copies of the book, which I respond to consistently. The Appeal for Redress has sent out a little over 100 copies to active duty across the U.S., including some stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Amazon has been my only consistent indicator for how we are doing outside the military. We have consistently been in the top 100 in areas dealing with Iraq, human rights and race issues.
In terms of risk, one would think I risked being marginalized further within the ranks. I mentioned earlier the noose incident, which took place prior to us forming the Appeal for Redress. I certainly endured minor reprisals during that struggle against the noose in my shop, which I document in Antiwar Soldier. However, once we went public with the appeal, the chain of command has been hands-off, with the exception of the public affairs officer of my ship informing me of my First Amendment rights as a sailor occasionally. This hands-off approach is a validation of Frederick Douglass’ pronouncement 150 years ago when he stated, “The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those they oppress.” It means that oftentimes, oppressive conditions persist due to the endurance of the victim. Only consistent agitation and a demand for basic dignity can help to change an oppressive environment and situation.
LS: What has been your biggest victory thus far with Appeal for Redress?
JH: First, demonstrating there is a base within the armed forces opposed to this war. It helps to dispel the myth that everyone within the military is monolithic and supports the mission 100 percent. Simply because one takes an oath to defend the Constitution does not mean they have sacrificed their rights embodied within that document.
Second, the appeal being a conduit through which active-duty (troops) get involved within the broader anti-war struggle such as Iraq Veterans Against the War. Liam Madden, co-founder of the appeal, currently serves on IVAW’s board of directors.
LS: What are you doing next?
We’re going to continue to push the Appeal for Redress and Antiwar Soldier to all active-duty, reserve and guard troops. I’ll continue to work within the mass movement through the National Assembly to End the Iraq War. The National Assembly speaks directly to my core beliefs and gives me the opportunity to work with everyone laboring to bring the troops home. I’ll probably remain within the complex for at least another three to four years at minimum, although I keep all my options open. No matter where I am, whether that is within the complex or teaching in a high school or college classroom, I’ll remain steadfast and committed to bringing about social justice and transforming this society from being thing-oriented to being people-based. Kwame Ture (aka Stokley Carmichael) taught us at Howard that the struggle is eternal and our people, those on the margins, are going to need us to do until we die. Therefore, we are committed to eternal struggle.