Ghosts of the Lower Ninth

January 25, 2009


I sat in Atlanta International Airport at dawn in early 2008, waiting for my flight to New Orleans. I felt like I was going to another country, nervous, bag full of electronics and tools, no idea what I’d find when I got off the plane. A friend said things are always different there than you expect. All I really know is she’ll be there when I land and in ten days I’ll leave.

I remember staying up all night days after Hurricane Katrina hit, listening to interviews of survivors and relief workers posted on Indybay, writing an article for Fault Lines about the grassroots response. I imagined ways to get down there but I couldn’t work it out. For two and a half years after I was unable to connect a good reason with a good time.

Everything there is complicated, even just being there. Ultimately I decided there’s value enough in seeing it, the expansive underbelly of inhumanity, of this country, of this government, of capitalism. It should be hard, it should be complicated, it should hurt to go there. It’s still raw. It’s the realest place on the map. Read the rest of this entry »


Originally published in Fault Lines, March/April 2007

When Jeff Englehart, Thomas Cassidy, and Joe Hatcher joined the Army in early 2001 they were looking for a change of pace and some college money. A few months later, however, the Twin Towers were smoldering, the ‘war on terror’ was growing from their ashes, and what it meant to be a US soldier was changed dramatically. They three strangers met in the Army and soon found themselves stationed in Iraq, where they served in and around the violent Sunni Triangle from February 2004 until February 2005.

In addition to the ways of war, the Army taught them a lot about power, militarism, capitalism, and resistance. This rapid politicization left the three fighting on behalf of a government they didn’t believe in with little choice but to just wait for their three-year enlistments to be over. While still in Iraq, Englehart and Hatcher joined Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW); Cassidy followed suit soon after returning. Now they are tireless anti-war activists, dedicated full time to sharing their stories and ending all US aggression abroad. Fault Lines talked with them about their time in Iraq and their work since when they stopped in Berkeley as part of a recent West Coast mini-tour.

FL: I know that you’re very politically engaged right now. But what kind of political awareness did you have when you joined the Army?

JE: Absolutely none. If I’d had any political awareness I wouldn’t have even considered putting on the uniform of a United States soldier. My political education didn’t come until I got to my unit. Basically what I realized real quick was I didn’t like the army for its authority and its authoritative structure and I learned real quick what can happen when you’re placed in a situation when authority is rampant and it’s in the hands of irresponsible people. I started reading books that were in opposition to what the military was doing across the globe—books like Chomsky and Howard Zinn, Emma Goldman, Kropotkin, things of that nature. Before I even got to Iraq I was aware of what was happening in the world just from reading these great books. But when you’re tied to a system that governs you and rules you by fear, and the punishment for speaking out or acting against the grain can be jail, that fear over your head kept me in line enough to go to Iraq.

FL: How did this politicization affect your relationship to other soldiers?

TC: The ones that were pro-military, obviously, it created a negative response in our relationships with them. The ones that were on the fence we tried to convince to come to our side. The thing about the military is that anyone who is very negative about the military, who is anti-military, it’s hard to figure out who these people are. You might be sitting across the table from a guy who hates the military just as much as you, basically for the same reasons as you, and never know it. You kind of have to hide that, you know, almost keep your hatred of the military in the closet because if you let it out you’re just going to be subject to more stupid shit. When we did find the more anti people we’d try to bring them into our circle of trust.

JE: We were always trying to resist the Army any way we could without getting in trouble.

FL: What can you do to resist when you’re there?

JE: In Iraq that’s a really tough question.

TC: There’s a very fine line between resisting and being…

JH: …in jail.

TC: …punished.

JE: …held up on treason charges or sedition. We ran a website while we were in Iraq, it was an anti-war blog, at times very anti-government []. We never once compromised any kind of operational security, never once broke any kind of Army law. Still, they were talking about court-martialing us because we had said some bad things about the president and because we questioned the intentions of the mission.

FL: So then it was just waiting out your time?

JE: That’s pretty much what we had to do. My sergeant could tell that I was angry about it. He told me, ‘Look, I know you probably don’t want to be involved in this war and there’s a lot of people who feel the way you do. But they just put their head down and they get through it. Really there’s only two ways for you to get out of this mess: one, in a body bag, or two, in handcuffs.’ And he was totally right.

FL: How have civilians interacted with you since you’ve been back?

JE: Well until you express that you’re against the war and you hate the president for what he’s done to you and your friends and the whole entire planet, they typically treat you like a hero. But then again there’s been a shift in the almost two years since I’ve been out of the Army and got back home. We’ve been very vocal between us three in our opposition to the war since we’ve been out. Whereas two years ago it was like, ‘I think you guys are traitors, I respect your freedom of speech but I think you’re wrong.’ Compare that to today where people are like, ‘You’re totally right, we need to get those troops home.’

FL: How do you feel that you are different from other anti-war activists?

JE: I think that maybe veterans have a little more clout, in a sense. Any movement in American history has been greatly influenced by veterans of any war. Look at Vietnam for instance and the Vietnam era. Had it not been for veterans, had it not been for soldiers in ranks actually shutting down the war machine—soldiers in revolt, basically—had it not been for them, that war might have continued for another ten years.

FL: What has been IVAW’s approach to ending the war? What do you think is necessary?

JE: There is a huge disconnect in this country in the fact that 1.5 percent of this country has fought in the ‘war on terror.’ Roughly one and a half million soldiers. I’d say apathy is still a huge part of what’s going on, what’s the problem with the movement. Not the people in the movement itself, but where’s the support for this kind of sentiment going to come from? I don’t know, maybe until it reaches more everyday-Americans’ lives that this war is going to be devastating for us all. I’ve heard some advice from some guys I know who were in the civil rights movement and they were involved in anti-war activism in the 60s. They’ve been harping on me to get it out there, to let it be known that we need to reach out to the soldiers themselves. If you know a National Guard base near your house, you need to go out and actually meet these people and tell them, ‘Hey, we support you. We understand there’s a difference between supporting the war and supporting the troops and we’re telling you right now we oppose the war and support the troops.’ We need to reach these soldiers and help them in any way we can. I think right now there’s probably a lot of soldiers who feel they’re on the margins, they’re the only ones who are dealing with this. What was that story about the PFC?

JH: There was a private first class and he was set to deploy for what I believe was his third time and the colonel was giving this speech. He made a comment about America being at war. And a younger soldier, a PFC or private, stood up in the audience and said, ‘Sir, America’s not at war. America’s army is at war. America’s at the mall.’

JE: That says it all right there.

JH: It’s not like World War II. There’s not any strains on the economy. There’s not any rations here at home.

JE: It seems to me that there’s a lot of people who oppose the war but not the reasons these wars are fought. Once we can end the reasons these wars are fought, which is basically for corporate profit, will we ever stop this war, will we ever stop the next war. We as citizens of this country, and as a world movement even, have to come to terms that the current system of capitalism is probably the cause, and will continue to be the cause, of these wars and poverty worldwide.

TC: We stopped the Vietnam War but we didn’t stop the reasons it was created.

JE: Exactly.

TC: We keep just treating the symptoms, as a doctor would say, and not treating the actual disease.

JE: War in the 20th and 21st centuries is like a malignant cancer that just keep coming back. I think most people feel uncomfortable when we say, ‘Perhaps your very lifestyle is the reason why these wars are being fought,’ but maybe it’s true. The reason these wars are fought is for corporate profit and for the exploitation of natural resources in another country.

TC: You might no longer be able to buy Nikes if we actually end the reason the wars are created. And that’s the problem: people like their fucking Nikes too much.

FL: What does your activism look like?

TC: A little bit of everything. Protests, rallies, marches, speaking out. Our tour bus, going around the country, getting the word out. One of the biggest challenges for the new anti-war movement and the new generation of leftist activists is to get the yuppie population, the middle class, middle-aged people who used to be the hippies in the 60s and early 70s…to get them to go back and start believing in the things they believed in 30, 40 years ago. Things they gave up on and went and bought their white picket fence and got their wife and their 2.5 kids and their dog named Flipper. Cash out the Roth-IRA, get your money out of the stocks, and fight for what you believe in. Stop funding this. Stop making money off of corruption and slavery and all these other causes.

FL: What if these people you’re talking about don’t believe in anything?

TC: Then they’re a lucky bunch. I think that nihilism is a thing that only exists in the privileged. People that don’t have anything—they believe in something.

JH: Sick, starving people don’t start wars.

JE: The Group of 8 starts wars.

FL: Where do you see the war going?

TC: It’s obvious it’s going downhill. Sixty percent of Americans are opposed to war in Iraq, the occupation of Iraq. It’s obvious that the anti-war movement and the resistance movement is gaining steam. Now the thing is, without a doubt this war’s going to be ended very soon. I’m not saying in the next few months, but in the next few years. The thing is after it’s ended to not give up and say, oh, we won, cause we haven’t won—we still have troops in Afghanistan, and troops in Germany still from World War II.

JE: Victory would be the withdrawal of America from the Middle East, and that includes Afghanistan, that includes Iraq, that includes even North Korea.

TC: The Department of Defense, if it should even exist, should only exist to as a department of defense. Mother Nature attacked New Orleans and we had no sort of defense against that. Your guns aren’t going to help fight the hurricanes that are killing poor people.

JE: I think we’re passed the arguing point as to whether or not to withdraw troops. I think the idea of troop withdrawal is an inevitability at this point.

TC: It’s just how. And when.

JE: How much longer are we going to allow our soldiers to die, Iraqis to die? How much longer are we going to pollute Iraq with depleted uranium? How much longer are we going to keep sweeping our veterans under the rug? We’ll never defeat this popular insurrection because most empires don’t. It wasn’t that long ago that the Iraqis kicked out the British. Some of their great-grandparents over there in Iraq, if they’re still alive, they still remember British occupation. They successfully ousted the British in the 20s.

TC: Why should we be any different?

JE: They’ll do it to us in 2007.

FL: How has all of this changed the way you think about war, and government, and politics?

JH: I think it hasn’t really changed much as much as fucking enforced everything.

JE: I think the one thing that this war has proven to me is that we’re fucked. We have a one-party system that’s making all of our decisions. And they’re subservient to corporations. That’s a hell of a barrier to break through. It doesn’t make sense to vote for either candidate anymore, but what to do? People will say vote for the lesser of two evils.

JH: Voting for the lesser of two evils isn’t voting.

JE: It seems to me that the politicians in Washington, DC, are history’s best puppet government. They’re totally in tow to the capitalist regime, the corporations, the corporatocracy—they’re all in bed with each other.

FL: Do you think the big anti-war marches are worth putting energy into?

JE: Oh absolutely. People power is always worth putting something into.

TC: I think that it doesn’t really create much when it comes to lawmakers, but it gets more people to notice, like, ‘Wow, this is gaining steam, and this is something I agree with. Maybe I should get up off my ass and help out.’

JE: Look at what last May Day did for immigration—it didn’t essentially solve a problem overnight, but…

TC: And it’s all those rights marches that happened prior to that, in the past few years before that that created such a fervor for that. Eventually our D-Day will come and anti-war marches will be like May Day was last year.

JE: People power is a very real thing. The more people that are interested in it, the better. I can tell you that since I’ve been out of the Army, I’ve definitely seen a rising undercurrent of people who are getting interested and getting involved. Maybe it’s time to come out of the woodwork again and get back in the game.

JH: And the high school kids coming up are pissed too. We just spoke at a high school a couple of days ago and we had a 17-year-old senior ask us if he was going to be the first one drafted for Iran. We need to get the burned out hippies and the rich white men and the kids and the minorities, we need to quit playing into our differences and we need to work together to overcome this.