An Open Letter to Pro-War Americans
by Tim Wise
March 21, 2003

Dear neighbor,

Please spare me the lecture. Likewise, don't bother asking me why I refuse to tie a yellow ribbon around the tree in my front yard, or put out a flag, or slather my Honda Civic with "Support the Troops" bumper stickers. I don't feel like explaining it every time someone wants answers to these questions, and anyway, you probably wouldn't like my reasons to begin with. 

You claim that we must now put aside our different opinions about the propriety of war with Iraq, and rally round the President, the country, and our men and women in uniform. But you are wrong, and I imagine that at some level you know this to be true.

After all, do we really have an obligation to support the troops no matter what they do as they prosecute this slaughter against a minor league opponent? Would you indeed support the troops if their mission involved nuclear incineration of Iraqi cities and villages? One, two, many My Lai massacres? 

Beyond hypotheticals, should we support the troops even as they carry out the announced plan to launch nearly a thousand cruise missiles into Iraqs major population centers within forty-eight hours of war? With the UN estimating that upwards of a half-million Iraqis might die as a result of this war, can you really say without any sense of misgiving that we should "support the troops" come what may, and that failure to do so should be branded un-American?

Don't misunderstand. I guess one could say that I too support the troops, but surely not in the way that you and other flag-wavers intend.

I support them being able to make a living and get an education without having first to subordinate their consciences to a military establishment that vitiates critical thought, reflection and free will, so as to create more efficient killing machines. How about you?

I support them not being lied to about the chemicals and depleted uranium to which they will likely be exposed. How about you?

I support them refusing to fly their planes, refusing to bomb civilian infrastructure, like water treatment facilities, the destruction of which will create mass epidemics and cause the deaths of thousands of children. How about you?

I support them refusing to move their tanks against civilians. How about you?

I support them deserting, going AWOL, and disobeying the unlawful orders that are the hallmark of modern warfare--unlawful because they almost always violate international law, such as Article 54 of the Geneva Conventions, which makes it a certifiable war crime to target any facility the integrity of which is necessary to the functioning of civilian life.

I support the troops as fathers and mothers; as children; as brothers and sisters; as human beings and free moral agents, all of which they were long before they became the foot soldiers of a swaggering empire, led by a functionally-illiterate cowboy with no knowledge of history, who couldn't find Iraq on a map if it wasn't labeled first, and whose drive to mass murder seems motivated as much by a desire to win the love of his daddy as anything more substantive.

I support the troops arresting any American solider who they see killing an Iraqi civilian, or ordering the same. They should turn their guns on their own in such a situation, in the name of defending the innocent and in regard to a higher law to which they are bound.

But I do not support the troops following orders that will kill scores of innocent people. I will not cheer the light show over Baghdad, the bulldozing of Iraqi soldiers beneath desert sand, burying them alive as was done in the first Gulf War; nor will I support the strafing of Iraqi soldiers as they retreat or seek to surrender, as was also done in the first Gulf War, in what was described at the time as a "turkey shoot."

Any soldier that engages in those kinds of actions deserves not support but rather prosecution under accepted standards of international law for the commission of war crimes. Following orders was no excuse at Nuremberg and it will be no excuse in Basra either.

Indeed, military personnel are sworn to obey orders only when those orders are lawful, according to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. What's more, in their oath to uphold and defend the Constitution, all members of the military are bound by Article VI of that document which makes international treaties and agreements the highest law of the land. As such, following orders to prosecute this war violates the oath taken by the troops, since Article 51 of the UN Charter allows war only in immediate self-defense or when the Security Council has directed or authorized use of force to maintain or restore international peace and security, neither of which condition applies here.

And since Article 2 of the Charter makes clear that war is not legitimate for the purpose of regime change, the attack underway is by definition a criminal act, in violation of international law and thus the Constitution. It is an impeachable offense, far more serious than getting a blow job and lying about it.

And saying this is not giving aid and comfort to the enemy, as you suggest. What gives aid and comfort to the enemies of the United States is the prosecution of an unjust war itself. It is this war that will aid our enemies, by giving them yet another issue around which to rally terrorists, suicide bombers, hijackers and other assorted fanatics.

Bombing a nation like Iraq, especially after eviscerating it for over a decade with sanctions, can serve no purpose but to enhance the likelihood of terrorism, and even the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, since only being in clear possession of such materials (as with North Korea) seems capable of deterring attack by the U.S.

And no, it is not my job to fall in line, just so the morale of soldiers can receive a boost. I want the morale of soldiers to plummet. I want them to question the propriety of their assignments, and I want them to be so conflicted about that mission that they simply refuse to do their jobs. If criticism of this war harms troop morale and can create internal dissent and divisions among the U.S. military, then we need more of it, not less. Lives are worth more than morale; worth more than self-image; worth more than soldiers feelings.

And since it is with my money and in my name that any killing of Iraqis will proceed, I have not just a right but an obligation to speak out against the war if I consider it unjust. When my nation kills, I kill, and I dont take the thought of collaboration lightly. Collaboration puts my soul in jeopardy. So while the troops may use my money to do their dirty work, dont expect me to say amen. My soul is more important than their morale. So is yours.

As a father, I believe that this war will endanger the life of my daughter (and my daughter to be) down the line. That by creating even more embittered Muslims--embittered towards my nation because they can, after all, read the markings on the bomb casings that say, "Made in the USA"--this war will lay the groundwork for a form of payback that will make 9/11 look like a global fender-bender. Survivors have long memories, and the truth be told, we simply cant kill them all. It is those long memories that will haunt my children and their children, for as James Baldwin reminded us, "There is no creation of any society more dangerous than the man who has nothing to lose."

So no, I cant support the troops in the traditional sense, because if they do their jobs, they contribute to the menacing of my family in years to come, and my familys safety is more important than their morale. So is yours.

But I do support the troops in the ways that truly matter. Do you?

I support those troops of color in their continuing quest to be treated as equals at all times, and not merely when they are picking up a gun to kill for America: that means that I support the struggle against the racism that those same troops too often face in their homeland. How about you?

I support those troops who are women in their continuing struggle against sexual assault and harassment, in general and specifically at places like the Air Force Academy, where some of their male counterparts apparently think it their duty to abuse them as sex objects. How about you?

I support those troops who are gay or lesbian in their quest for equitable treatment and the right to be true to themselves and not have to hide their sexual orientations so as to pander to another soldiers bigotry. How about you?

I support those troops who are poor; specifically I support their right to health care, and a college education and a job and shelter, and a living wage. And I support these things for them whether in or out of uniform. And I support these same things for the families of the troops back home. How about you?

It is not the anti-war movement whose concern for the troops should be questioned, but rather that of the men who send them to battle, to face weapons that those same men (or their fathers) sold to the other side in the first place.

Those men who never faced war themselves--and in the case of the President went AWOL to avoid even a stateside National Guard assignment during Vietnam--but who are quick to use others as the fighting, bombing appendages to their own shriveled manhoods.

Those men who think that respect for international law can be instilled by disregarding international law, international opinion and the primary international decision making body on the planet.

Those men who think it appropriate to build up monsters around the globe and then criticize those monsters for doing exactly what we knew they would do all along.

Those men who believe they are entitled to say which nations can have certain types of weapons and which cannot; which nations can ignore UN resolutions and which must follow them; which nations are allowed to oppress their own people and which must be held to a higher standard.

Those men who believe that "our vital national interests" like the free flow of oil at market prices outweigh the right of Iraqi children to walk, laugh, play, or simply breathe.

For it is these men who view the troops as expendable, and who see them as one-dimensional tools for destruction, rather than as human beings. It is these men who are putting the troops in harms way so as to satisfy their own ambitions.

And it is we who oppose this war who seek to bring them back in one piece--physically and emotionally.

So please, spare me the lecture.

Tim Wise is a writer, antiracist activist and father. He can be reached at

refusing to kill