Breaking Ranks: An Interview with Mike Hoffman

The co-founder of Iraq Veterans Against the War knows firsthand why the United States’ mission in Iraq is the wrong war.

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Corporal Mike Hoffman knows firsthand why the United States’ war in Iraq is the wrong war. Deployed with his Marine Corps unit in February 2003, Hoffman fought in both Tikrit and Baghdad. Though he had his doubts about the war from the start, he saw going to Iraq as a matter of professionalism and loyalty. But it soon became clear to him that the U.S. occupation was doing more harm than good — to both Iraqis and Americans. “The hardest thing,” he says, “is knowing what we’ve done to the kids there.”

After returning home with an honorable discharge last August, Hoffman decided to do something. Teaming up with a small group of fellow soldiers, Hoffman co-founded the organization Iraq Veterans Against the War, to push for an end to the Iraq occupation and advocate for the rights of returning soldiers. Hoffman has spoken at hundreds of antiwar events, giving voice to the concerns of soldiers who’ve returned from Iraq, and those who are still there and have doubts about the war but are nervous about speaking out.

Hoffman recently spoke to by phone from his home in Pennsylvania. Why did you form IVAW? What do you hope to achieve?

MikeHoffman: When I first came home and started speaking out last November, I think the only ones speaking at that point were myself, Steven Funk, who was protesting against the war before it had started, and Jimmy Massey. People started asking me, “Where are the rest of them? You can’t be the only one who feels this way about the war.” I said just wait, there is going to be more of them coming. It’s just that I came home first. So just by doing what I was doing, I started running into more and more people who felt the same way. I met most of the co-founders either through Veterans for Peace, through Military Families Speak Out or meeting up with them at protests. Why did you decide to found it?

MH: We had been talking for a while. And with Veterans for Peace National Convention coming up in July we all realized, Hey, we’re all going to be here together. The momentum behind this is really building up. We’re finding more and more people like us every single day. Now is the time for us to get together and formally announce that we’ve created this group. And that’s exactly what happened at the Veterans for Peace convention in Boston. What are you guys doing now to build political pressure at home?

MH: Basically, we’re just trying to get our message out however we can. We’re doing a lot of press interviews, we’re getting a lot of offers to speak at college campuses and community gatherings, which we take up every chance we get. Also speaking at rallies and marches, basically just making our voice heard as loudly and clearly as possible. Do you think vets can bring a degree of credibility to the anti-war movement that others can’t?

MH: Most definitely. I mean when somebody else comes out and speaks, the average American hears him and goes, oh he’s just some college-educated tree-hugger that doesn’t really know what’s going on in the world. But when the average American hears a veteran—be it from this conflict, Vietnam, WWII, Korea, whatever, somebody who has seen combat and knows what it means—people listen, more than they do to anyone else, because this is somebody who has been on the ground, knows what the realities are, knows what these things mean. Did you oppose the war in Iraq from the start?

MH: I did oppose the war from the get-go, but it changed after going through Iraq. Before I went there, my reasons for being against the war were I guess more academic. I’d been reading the news articles. I didn’t believe in the claims of WMDs — those aren’t just something you hide under someone’s bed. If Saddam had them, we would have some kind of tangible evidence. The idea that Saddam had ties to al Qaeda was laughable to anyone who had really taken any time to understand the Middle East.

After going to Iraq and seeing what he did there, the devastation that came upon the people of Iraq, the things that happened to the people who fought there. Luckily my unit itself, everyone came home, but I hear stories from my friends of people dying in their arms, of fearing for their lives and just watching their friends in front of them. This is something no one should ever go through, especially not for a lie. So do you oppose war on principle?

MH: No, I’m not a pacifist. I do believe that, unfortunately, war is necessary. I don’t believe there is such thing as a just or unjust war; there are avoidable and unavoidable wars. Sometimes you have no choice but to go to war. And WWII, when we got involved in it, that was an unavoidable war. It could have been avoided in earlier times, but it became unavoidable. That doesn’t mean that the war was right, that doesn’t mean that we fought the war in a just manner. There were a lot of things on both ends that were horrible: the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the fire-bombing of Dresden. Things like that weren’t justified, but they happen in war. War is horrible no matter what. There’s going to be atrocities, there’s going to be horrible things that happen in war. That’s why when we go to war we have to make sure that we’ve done everything to avoid that war. Given that you disagreed with the war, how did you feel about going to fight in Iraq?

MH: I disagreed with the war but I went anyway, not because I agreed with the war but because my friends were going. Being in the military, I was going over with people I’ve known for four years. These were people that were basically family to me and I couldn’t keep a clear conscience by letting them go over and not go with them. I had to be there to protect them just like they were going to protect me. What kept you going once you were there?

MH: It’s really the idea of getting your friends home alive, and that’s just it — getting your friends home alive. [I] and my other friends who felt the same way about the war, we basically said to ourselves, Listen, we are going to do whatever it takes to get home in one piece and we’ll deal with the consequences of that later. That was the whole idea — just get home, get the mission done as quickly as possible — just get to Baghdad — and then we’d go home. Do you advocate bringing the troops home now?

MH: Yes, myself and IVAW—our primary goal is bring the troops home now. If you look at what’s going on over there, it’s becoming clearer and clearer every day as reports come back from the troops who are serving there and people higher up of what’s going on there, that the troops are the cause of the problem, they aren’t fixing anything. The Iraqis view us as occupiers, as they should—we are occupying their country. And as long as they feel that way, nothing is going to get accomplished. If the U.S. were to pull out, what then?

MH: After the troops pull out, we can’t completely abandon Iraq. We still owe a lot to the people of Iraq. The years of sanctions, two wars against the people of Iraq. We have to help them rebuild. But the military is not the people to do it. We have to give them financial aid, we have to give them material aid and whatever else they want and need. It’s not what we want to give them, it’s what they want. We have to remember that we are there to aid them, not occupy them. That’s a very important thing that people tend to forget. We shouldn’t be occupying, we should be aiding them and that means that we have to listen to them and hear what their needs are. There’s obviously people in Iraq who want to move in the right direction. We’ve got to give them that chance to be heard. Did you support the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan?

MH: You see, Afghanistan is a lot more complicated and a lot different than Iraq. I think at first we were justified by going in there. This is where Osama bin Laden, his network was based, where they were operating out of. So going in there was something we needed to do. But where we screwed up is that we didn’t follow through, we didn’t conduct things correctly. This is where I go back to what we were talking about—an avoidable and unavoidable war. This, like any war, was avoidable years ago. You look at the fact that the U.S. has supported Osama Bin Laden in the past during the Russian invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, things like that. This has been a long time coming. We could have stopped this years ago. But we didn’t take those actions, so it became unavoidable.

What we haven’t done is follow through. We were hailing the sudden rise of women’s rights in Afghanistan, things like that. Well, if you look at Afghanistan now, all those positions that were held by women have been vacated, people are afraid to take over the office of women’s rights in Afghanistan because of numerous death threats and assassinations against those people. The warlords are starting to take back over. I’ve seen some independent news articles talking about how the opium trade in Iraq is going through the roof and U.S. servicemen are starting to get involved, just like what was happening in Vietnam. So you know, you’re starting to see this cycle, basically because we’ve shifted all those resources and personnel away from Afghanistan where they were doing some good, over to Iraq where they shouldn’t be in the first place. What do you think is the proper role of the U.S. military in the “War on Terror”?

MH: I think the U.S. military needs to be pulled back more. I think what we’re doing with them is the wrong way to use them. We need to use them when there is no other choice. I like what Kerry said in some respects on this—we need a smaller, faster, tighter-controlled military. We need to be able to do quick strikes. And also, if we find Osama bin Laden, go get him. Use small strike forces, maybe just a battalion for something like that. We don’t need a massive invasion force just to grab him, as long as we have permission from the country. What we need to do is just like what we need to do in Iraq — we need to attack the very basis of terrorism, which, if you look at it, is global poverty, it’s the globalization of the world’s economy, things like that, the stripping of other nations’ resources by American and British companies, that is the real cause of terrorism. We have to address those things. That’s how we have to win the war on terrorism. What’s your sense of the morale among the troops in Iraq?

MH: It’s bad and it’s getting worse every single day. Basically, every single American knows someone who has been killed by an Iraqi and every Iraqi knows someone who has killed by an American. You’ve got guys over there who are ill equipped and ill trained. Just yesterday a battery from the battalion I served with in the Marines was sent out to Iraq. This is an artillery battery, they are now acting as provisional rifle companies—this is not what they’re trained for, but yet they’re being sent to Iraq to do it. And this is happening time and time again, because we are just over-extended in Iraq, over-extended, under-manned, under-equipped, under-trained. And it’s wearing on the guys, long deployments, low pay, they are trying to cut benefits, they’re trying to cut the pay over there. This is ruining the morale for the guys. Do you worry that your activities in the IVAW might undermine the morale of the troops in Iraq?

MH: No, not at all. Because if you talk to the majority of guys there, they just want to go the hell home. They don’t want to be there anymore. They don’t see a point to them being there. That’s the real kicker. They don’t understand why they are still there, they don’t see themselves doing any good. They know they’re not wanted by the people of Iraq, so why should they stay? Are there any soldiers who feel differently or do you think that’s pretty much across the board?

MH: It’s the majority of the people that want to leave. There are still some people who think we’re doing the right thing by staying there, but the majority just want to go home. Does that translate to anti-Bush sentiment?

MH: Definitely. Just from what I’ve been reading, a lot of guys are afraid to speak out in the military, but they will most definitely cast a ballot. And I think you’ll see a lot of the military vote going to Kerry. Not just because of Iraq but because of things like cuts to the VA and cuts to quality of living programs in the military, things like that. Part of the IVAW’s mission statement is advocating for better benefits for veterans returning from Iraq. What does the situation for them look like right now?

MH: It’s bad. They’ve been closing VA hospitals for years now, cutting VA benefits. The GI bill, when it was originally started years ago after WWII, was a great program. It basically paid completely for someone’s schooling. It barely covers anything nowadays. It will cover somebody going to a community college, but that’s it. If someone wants to go to a real four-year college, that is not nearly enough. The VA has been just been absolutely gutted. Right now they are closing the Manhattan VA hospital, which is going to be a huge blow to that area. They also closed the hospital in Pittsburgh, which means you are putting a lot of burden on these guys to travel to different places. Walter Reed Hospital, where they are treating most of the amputees from Iraq, was so overfilled that they didn’t even have enough beds for people and they’re putting them up in hotels nearby. This is overburden, it’s a growing example of how they’ve been continuingly cutting benefits for the military veterans. And does it look that same way for people coming home from Iraq?

MH: It’s looking worse and worse by the day. We were talking earlier about dissent in the military. How high up do you think it goes?

MH: It goes very high up. I just got an email from a senior NCO, someone who has been in the military for 20 years, who outlined and hit the same points that I do on saying why we should leave Iraq. This is someone who has been in for 20 years. There’s people who are retired generals who are speaking out against the occupation of Iraq. And do you think it goes as high up in military serving in Iraq?

MH: I think it might. I can’t say for sure because the higher up someone gets in the military, the more they have to lose by speaking out, so they definitely think twice. What advice would you give Kerry on Iraq if he were elected?

MH: The advice I would give to him is basically just to remember his roots. Go back to what he said after the Vietnam war and follow along with the feelings he had back then. I think if he was still holding a lot of the values that he held back then, we would be in a much better place. So do you think that Kerry has strayed from those values?

MH: I think he has. I’ve heard a lot of people say that privately he speaks a lot more harshly on Iraq and what he wants to do there. But I haven’t heard it publicly and I think if he says things like that he would be doing better in the polls and I would have a much better time getting behind his campaign. What did you think of Kerry’s Sept. 20 speechat NYU, laying out his plan for Iraq?

MH: That was probably the best speech I’ve heard him give the entire campaign. He’s not there yet, but he’s getting very close to what I want to hear. That was a definite step in the right direction for him. And so you agreed with the steps he was advocating?

MH: Not completely, but he’s definitely getting very close. Basically, he’s still calling for some kind of military force there. I think that that’s what we need to get away from. I think that’s what’s causing a lot of the problems. He’s stepping in the right direction when he says that we need to get more UN aid agencies in there, more U.N. assistance for conducting elections and things like that. But I think he’s calling for internationalizing the military force and I think we need to internationalize the aid and withdraw the military force. Are you currently on call?

MH: Right now I’m on “inactive reserve” or “individual ready reserve,” which means I don’t have to go out and do anything active, but if they call me up, I would technically have to go. And would you right now?

MH: I don’t like saying anything just because there are some people who have been prosecuted for making statements about that. If you remember Abdul Henderson, who was in the film “Fahrenheit 9/11,” statements he made—the military was considering pressing charges against him for that. Did you vote for Bush in 2000?

MH: No I didn’t, actually I voted for Ralph Nader. Are you considering voting for Nader again?

MH: I don’t think so. I hate to say it, but it’s just too important—especially since I’m in a battleground state. I’m in Pennsylvania. But it’s just too important to get rid of Bush. It sounds like you are going for Kerry then?

MH: Yeah.



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