Sometimes history–and necessity–make strange bedfellows. The German general staff transported Lenin to Russia to lead a revolution. Union-buster Ronald Reagan played godfather to the birth of the Polish Solidarity union. Equally strange–but perhaps equally necessary–is the addressee of a new appeal signed by Daniel Ellsberg, Cindy Sheehan, Ann Wright and many other leaders of the American peace movement:
“ATTENTION: Joint Chiefs of Staff and all U.S. Military Personnel: Do not attack Iran.”
The initiative responds to the growing calls for an attack on Iran from the likes of Norman Podhoretz and John Bolton, and the reports of growing war momentum in Washington by reporters like Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker and Joe Klein of Time. International lawyer Scott Horton says European diplomats at the recent United Nations General Assembly gathering in New York “believe that the United States will launch an air war on Iran, and that it will occur within the next six to eight months.” He puts the likelihood of conflict at 70 percent.
The initiative also responds to the recent failure of Congress to pass legislation requiring its approval before an attack on Iran and the hawk-driven resolution encouraging the President to act against the Iranian military. Marcy Winograd, president of Progressive Democrats of Los Angeles, who originally suggested the petition, told The Nation:
If we thought that our lawmakers would restrain the Bush Administration from further endangering Americans and the rest of the world, we would concentrate solely on them. If we went to Las Vegas today, would we find anyone willing to bet on this Congress restraining Bush? I don’t think so.
Because our soldiers know the horrors of war–severed limbs, blindness, brain injury–they are loath to romanticize the battlefield or glorify expansion of the Iraq genocide that has left a million Iraqis dead and millions others exiled.
What could be stranger than a group of peace activists petitioning the military to stop a war? And yet there is more logic here than meets the eye.
Asked in an online discussion September 27 whether the Bush Administration will launch a war against Iran, Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest replied, “Frankly, I think the military would revolt and there would be no pilots to fly those missions.”
She acknowledged that she had indulged in a bit of hyperbole, then added, “but not much.”
There have been many other hints of military disaffection from plans to attack Iran–indeed, military resistance may help explain why, despite years of rumors about Bush Administration intentions, such an attack has not yet occurred. A Pentagon consultant told Hersh more than a year ago, “There is a war about the war going on inside the building.” Hersh also reported that Gen. Peter Pace had forced Bush and Cheney to remove the “nuclear option” from the plans for possible conflict with Iran–in the Pentagon it was known as the April Revolution.
In December, according to Time correspondent Joe Klein, President Bush met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a secure room known as The Tank. The President was told that “the U.S. could launch a devastating air attack on Iran’s government and military, wiping out the Iranian air force, the command and control structure and some of the more obvious nuclear facilities.” But the Joint Chiefs were “unanimously opposed to taking that course of action,” both because it might not eliminate Iran’s nuclear capacity and because Iran could respond devastatingly in Iraq–and in the United States.
In an article published by Inter Press Service, historian and national security policy analyst Gareth Porter reported that Adm. William Fallon, Bush’s then-nominee to head the Central Command (Centcom), sent the Defense Department a strongly worded message earlier this year opposing the plan to send a third carrier strike group into the Persian Gulf. In another Inter Press analysis, Porter quotes someone who met with Fallon saying an attack on Iran “will not happen on my watch.” He added, “You know what choices I have. I’m a professional…. There are several of us trying to put the crazies back in the box.”
Military officers in the field have frequently refuted Bush Administration claims about Iranian arms in Iraq and Afghanistan. Porter says that when a State Department official this June publicly accused Iran of giving arms to the Taliban in Afghanistan, the US commander of NATO forces there twice denied the claim.
More recently, top brass have warned that the United States is not prepared for new wars. Gen. George Casey, the Army’s top commander, recently made a highly unusual personal request for a House Armed Services Committee hearing in which he warned that “we are consumed with meeting the demands of the current fight and are unable to provide ready forces as rapidly as necessary for other potential contingencies.” While this could surely be interpreted as a call for more troops and resources, it may simultaneously be a warning shot against adventures in Iran.
An October 8 report by Tim Shipman in the Telegraph says that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has “taken charge of the forces in the American government opposed to a US military attack on Iran.” He cites Pentagon sources saying that Gates is waging “a subtle campaign to undermine the Cheney camp” and that he is “encouraging the Army’s senior officers to speak frankly about the overstretch of forces, and the difficulty of fighting another war.” Shipman reports Gates has “forged an alliance with Mike McConnell, the national director of intelligence, and Michael Hayden, the head of the Central Intelligence Agency, to ensure that Mr. Cheney’s office is not the dominant conduit of information and planning on Iran to Mr. Bush.”
Every indication is that the “war about the war” is ongoing. Hersh recently reported that the attack-Iran faction has found a new approach that it hopes will be more acceptable to the public–and presumably to the Pentagon brass. Instead of broad bombing attacks designed to eliminate Iran’s nuclear capacity and promote regime change, it calls for “surgical strikes” on Revolutionary Guard facilities; they would be justified as retaliation in the “proxy war” that General Petraeus alleges Iran is fighting “against the Iraqi state and coalition forces in Iraq.” According to Hersh, the revised bombing plan is “gathering support among generals and admirals in the Pentagon.” But Israeli officials are concerned that such a plan might leave Iran’s nuclear capacity intact.
The appeal for military personnel to resist an attack is primarily based on principle. It asserts that any pre-emptive US attack on Iran would be illegal under international law and a crime under US law. Such an attack would violate Article II, Section 4, of the UN Charter forbidding the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state. Since Iran has not attacked the United States, an attack against it without authorization by the Security Council would be a violation of international law. Under the US Constitution and the UN Charter, this is the law of the land. Under the military’s own laws, armed forces have an obligation to refuse orders that violate US law and the Constitution. And under the principles established by the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal after World War II, “just obeying orders” is no defense for officials who participate in war crimes.
But the petition also addresses some of the practical concerns that have clearly motivated military officers to oppose an attack on Iran. It would open US soldiers in Iraq to decimation by Iranian forces or their Iraqi allies. It would sow the seeds of hatred for generations. Like the attack on Iraq, it would create more enemies, promote terrorism and make American families less safe.
The petitioners recognize the potential risks of such action to military personnel. “If you heed our call and disobey an illegal order you could be falsely charged with crimes including treason. You could be falsely court martialed. You could be imprisoned.”
But they also accept risks themselves, aware that “in violation of our First Amendment rights, we could be charged under remaining section of the unconstitutional Espionage Act or other unconstitutional statute, and that we could be fined, imprisoned, or barred from government employment.”
In ordinary times, peace activists would hardly be likely to turn to the military as allies. Indeed, they would rightfully be wary of military officers acting on their own, rather than those of their civilian superiors–in violation of the Constitution’s provisions for civilian oversight of the military. But these are hardly ordinary times. While the public is highly dubious of getting into another war in the Middle East, there now appear to be virtually no institutional barriers to doing so.
Is there a basis for cooperation between the military brass and citizens who believe an attack on Iran would be criminal and/or suicidal? Perhaps. The brass can go public with the truth and ask Congress to provide a platform for explaining the real consequences of an attack on Iran. They can call for a national debate that is not manipulated by the White House. (They can also inform other players of the consequences: tell Wall Street the effects on oil and stock prices and tell European military and political leaders what it is likely to mean in terms of terrorism.) The peace movement has already forged an alliance with Iraq War veterans who oppose the war and with high military officials who oppose torture; a tacit alliance with the brass to halt an attack on Iran is a logical next step.
Such an approach puts the problem of civilian control of the military in a different light. The purpose of civilian control, after all, is not to subject the military to the dictatorial control of one man who may, at the least, express the foolishness and frailty that all flesh is heir to. The purpose is to subject the military to the control of democratic governance, which is to say of an informed public and its representatives.
What contribution can the peace movement make to this process? We can cover military officials’ backs when they speak out–no one is better placed than the peace movement to defend them against Bushite charges of defying civilian control. We can help open a forum for military officers to speak out. Many retired officers have spoken out publicly on the folly of the war in Iraq. We can use our venues in universities and communities to invite them to speak out even more forcefully on the folly of an attack on Iran. We can place ads pointing out military resistance to an attack on Iran and featuring warnings of its possible consequences from past and present military officials. And we can encourage lawmakers to reach out to military officials and offer to give them cover and a forum to speak out. Says petition initiator Marcy Winograd, “I’d like to see peace activists and soldiers sit down, break bread, march together, testify together and forge a powerful union to end the next war before the bloodletting begins.”
The peace movement leaders who appealed to the military had to break through the conventional presumption that the brass were their enemies in all situations. Such an unlikely alliance could be a starting point for a nonviolent response to the Bush Administration’s pursuit of a permanent state of war.