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What happened today in Washington was, as Senator Russ Feingold called it, “historic.” Thirty-eight years nearly to the day when a young John Kerry shocked the nation with his fiery anti-Vietnam war testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Rick Reyes, a former US Marine Corporal, delivered an equally puissant testimony in which he expressed his disenchantment with the war in Afghanistan. How appropriate Kerry should be sitting directly across from Reyes as Committee Chairman, listening as Congress heard one of the first major voices of dissent on this war.
The son of Mexican immigrants who joined the Marines to escape a violent gang life in Los Angeles, Reyes served as an infantry rifleman in Afghanistan and Iraq. He upheld his duty to serve our country honorably, and immediately after 9/11, he was deployed to Afghanistan “with the conviction of fighting for justice and the American way.” All of that changed when Reyes realized US military forces faced the impossible task of fighting militant Taliban members who blended in with the local Afghan population, routinely resulting in the injuries or deaths of innocent civilians.
As Reyes told Congress:
“We weren’t fulfilling our objective of capturing terrorists, but instead creating enemies out of civilians. As a Marine trying to ensure justice, I began losing sight of why I was there and the conviction began to fade.
“Because our mission was to capture suspected Taliban and had no successful way of being able to distinguish them, we had no other choice but to suspect the entire civilian population, innocent or not.
“One day we stopped at gun point, detaining, beating, and nearly killing an innocent man only to find he was just traveling down a road to deliver milk to his children. Because of us, that day those kids went without a father. There were hundreds of incidents like this one.
“Almost 100 percent of the time we would find that suspected terrorists turned out to be innocent civilians. I began to feel like we were chasing ghosts, fighting an enemy that we could not see or that didn’t allow itself to be seen. How can you tell the difference between the Taliban and Afghan civilians? The answer is that you can’t. it all stopped making sense.”
Reyes is a patriot, but like a young John Kerry, he felt that patriotism exploited when he returned home from these wars. The chaotic violence Reyes experienced, coupled with the lack of clear mission in Afghanistan, led him to question our government’s plans for this war publicly. He cited low troop morale and military forces stretched impossibly thin; soldiers who have already done multiple tours, Reyes claimed, are dying on the ground in Afghanistan and in spirit due to a deeply flawed foreign policy.
As the casualty rate of US soldiers in Afghanistan nears 700–with violence at its worst in the history of this war–we must also consider more and more troops returning home injured and in dire need of psychological help. And that only begins to scratch the surface of why Reyes believes Congress should reconsider plans for escalation. “Sending more troops will not make the US safer; it will only build more opposition against us. I urge you on behalf of truth and patriotism to consider carefully and Rethink Afghanistan.”
Kerry, who couldn’t help but draw parallels between the Vietnam War and the escalating conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan, stressed the importance of hearing soldiers testify about the conditions in Afghanistan. “History proves that soldiers on the ground have an intimate knowledge that is vital to their commanders and us as policymakers,” Kerry said. “Most recently, it was soldiers who sounded the early warnings that our mission in Iraq had some problems.”
We should be seeing more soldiers like Reyes sitting before Congress, if not to channel Kerry’s anti-war passion from 38 years ago, then to alert the nation to what’s really going on in this war and compel the public to question policymakers, as Kerry once did. That absolutely must happen now, as Congress will soon consider a war funding bill in excess of $83 billion, with ten times more for expanding military operations than humanitarian aid. Take a minute to call your Representatives (if you’re not sure who represents you, it’s time you found out). Tell them not to vote on the war funding bill until they have heard from more soldiers like Reyes, and certainly not until they’ve started explaining what escalation will mean for us and the people of Afghanistan.