Mission Rejected: U. S. Soldiers Who Say No to Iraq

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Disillusioned, outraged, and betrayed, American soldiers are taking a stand against the war in Iraq.

A shattering journey of revelation, pain, and betrayal, Mission Rejected takes the reader deep into the turmoil of U.S. troops confronting the Iraq War. Some of these soldiers have decided not to fight in Iraq. Others, who have served in the "Sand Box" only to return so appalled by their experience and by what that experience has done to them, ...

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Overview

Disillusioned, outraged, and betrayed, American soldiers are taking a stand against the war in Iraq.

A shattering journey of revelation, pain, and betrayal, Mission Rejected takes the reader deep into the turmoil of U.S. troops confronting the Iraq War. Some of these soldiers have decided not to fight in Iraq. Others, who have served in the "Sand Box" only to return so appalled by their experience and by what that experience has done to them, choose to declare, in the words of the old Phil Ochs song, "I’m not marchin’ anymore!"

Consider Specialist Jeremy Hinzman, who chose Canada over his military career. When queried about his obligation to follow orders, his answer came fast: "I was told in basic training that, if I’m given an illegal or immoral order, it is my duty to disobey it. I feel that invading and occupying Iraq is an illegal and immoral thing to do." Meet Sergeant Camilo Mejía, who said from prison, "Behind these bars I sit a free man because I listened to a higher power: the voice of my conscience."

Increasing numbers of U.S. soldiers are returning from Iraq horrified by what they witnessed and what they did. Journalist Peter Laufer tells how these soldiers are transformed from trained warriors to activists in the struggle to end the Iraq War. He puts their experiences into context by drawing on the lessons of the Vietnam War and citing the historical precedents for troops who refuse unconscionable orders.

Mission Rejected probes the universal issue of resistance to war by the very men who chose to defend the nation. "


About the Author:
Peter Laufer , a Vietnam War resister, is the author of several books about conflict and migration, including Wetback Nation: The Case for Opening the Mexican-American Border . A former NBC News correspondent, Laufer has won numerous journalism awards, among them a George Polk for his reporting on Americans in prison overseas and an Edward R. Murrow for his study of Vietnam War veterans suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. He lives in Sonoma County, in northern California.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781933392226
  • Publisher: Chelsea Green Publishing
  • Publication date: 4/1/2006
  • Pages: 240

Read an Excerpt

Joshua Key is just one of an enormous number of Iraq War veterans suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. Returning home psychologically damaged is as old as war. Gregory Peck sums up war-caused trauma succinctly in a brief speech in the 1956 film, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. In the scene, Tommy, Peck's character, is picking up his life after fighting in World War II. He suffers combat flashbacks on the commuter train to and from his office job, and at home his wife (played by Jennifer Jones) tells him he has changed since the war. "I suppose I have, in a way," he says to her. And then he explains why. "I was what we have to have in our country, a citizen soldier. One day a man is catching the 8:26 and suddenly he's killing people. And a few weeks later he's catching the 8:26 again. It'd be a miracle if it didn't change him in some way." The National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder defines PTSD as "a psychiatric disorder that can occur following the experience or witnessing of life-threatening events such as military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, abuse (sexual, physical, emotional, ritual), and violent personal assaults like rape. People who suffer from PTSD often relive the experience through nightmares and flashbacks, have difficulty sleeping, and feel detached or estranged, and these symptoms can be severe enough and last long enough to significantly impair the person's daily life." A 2004 study commissioned by the Army estimated that one out of every six soldiers who fought in the Iraq War came home with PTSD.13 The Veterans Administration (VA) responded with treatments designed to help these soldiers deal with the psychological damage they suffered in Iraq, and to cope with what researchers found was one of the most serious barriers to treatment: the veterans' fear that seeking help would make them be seen as unreliable, weak, and cowardly, and, worse, would harm their careers. Typical PTSD symptoms for war veterans include severe difficulties readjusting to domestic life, spousal abuse and failed personal relationships, poor on-the-job performance, and alcoholism. Unlike veterans of previous wars, some Iraq War veterans received treatment for PTSD while the war continued and at a time when they were susceptible to being redeployed to the battlefields. "In some cases it makes them very shy about getting any treatment," Dr. Marion Eakin, a VA psychiatrist and PTSD specialist in New York City, says about soldiers she treats who suffer PSTD symptoms while still in the military. "They get very anxious. They're worried about what's going to go on their record and how it's going to affect their standing." And Dr. Eakin confirms Joshua Key's motivation for enlisting. "A lot of them have joined the military for a career, for an opportunity, to get away from backgrounds that are less than privileged. They're worried about being labeled as having some mental problem. "When we talk in late 2005, her caseload of Iraq War victims is increasing exponentially, and the VA is devising schemes to reach out to those PTSD sufferers hesitant about seeking treatment. Although some of the soldiers she works with express a readiness to return to the war zone, others make clear their profound opposition to a war that made them ill and jeopardized their lives. "One guy I saw last week, for example, told me he usedto love being in the service," she says. "This is a guy who was in the Marine Corps, the Army, and then he joined the National Guard because he wanted to be closer to his daughter. Then he got deployed to Iraq. He's in his mid-thirties. He said, 'The one thing I'm really good at is the military and now I don't know what else I can do.' He said, 'I was really proud to serve my country, but now when I look at what is happening in Iraq, I feel like some of the work I did over there is a waste.'" Dr. Eakin says this patient's frustration was not so much with the overall mission or the war itself but with the results. "He felt he had worked really hard and made a lot of sacrifices, and that ground was not being gained." The combination of stresses and strains in this soldier's life brewed a mess for his return to the civilian world. "This guy has a real problem with domestic violence. He has nightmares. He's a very angry young man. He has a hair trigger temper. He said, 'I would actually never do it, but I just feel like shooting people some of the time.' He just can't get out of that battle mode." Dr. Eakin sounds resigned as she recounts the soldier's litany of problems; she's heard from a long line of veterans with variations on the same theme. "He was treating his relationship like he was the commander and the spouse was the inferior who has to obey orders." In addition to his Iraq experiences, he had been physically abused as a child. This combination tends to make war veterans more prone to develop PTSD. He suffers nightmares about the war, and experiences flashbacks: He's driving down the road and sees debris in the road and thinks it's a roadside bomb. Treatment for a damaged Iraq War veteran like this one is a challenge for Dr. Eakin and her team. "This is a guy who doesn't believe in medications, who doesn't believe a whole lot in mental health treatment. In this particular situation, because his relationship-which was everything to him-has fallen apart because of domestic violence, he himself is motivated to get some counseling in anger management. He doesn't have interest in long-term treatment, but he realizes now that he needs help." Anger is a common problem for soldiers suffering from PTSD, and the VA offers behavior modification programs designed to treat out-of-control anger. That anger often is exacerbated by sleep disorders and nightmares, and is routinely treated with drugs. Unfortunately, many psychiatric medications can lead to weight gain and depressed sexual functioning, side effects that drive patients away from trying the drugs to relieve their sufferings. Dr. Eakin is hearing plenty of complaints about logistics in the Iraq area of operations from her clients, but not much about politics and policy: "A lot of them say it was disorganized. They don't think the leadership was good. They felt inadequately supported. Most of the ones I'm seeing are entangled in their own stories and their own personal adjustment problems. That's what they talk about. Many are proud of what they did for the most part, but it was hard. One guy said, 'First we were told to shoot anything. They kept changing the rules on us. Then we were told to shoot only at armed people. Then we were told only to shoot if we were shot at first.' He was a Marine and he found these changing instructions very upsetting." Dr. Eakin describes another PTSD patient as a Boy Scout leader, a super-nice guy, very responsible. "He went over there and he tells these stories about the women and children he saw. In particular, a woman came toward him with the burnt torso of her dead child and said to him, in English, 'Baby! Baby!' as if, he thought, she was asking him to put her baby back together again. He thinks about that every day. He's haunted by the image of this woman, whose child had been hit by a mine. Those images haunt him. About what he did overall," she muses, "he hasn't really talked about that yet." Dr. Eakin doesn't ask. The wounds are too deep and too fresh. "Some of the ones who are really sick-to start questioning what they did in Iraq would be very hard for them at this time, while they're just trying to adjust to being back." Over time, she says, in therapy, these patients need help putting their war experiences into the context of their lives. "They don't seem very rah-rah about the war." Nonetheless, "some of them want to go back, they would go back." Because the VA is treating these PTSD sufferers early, and because Americans, even if they oppose the war, generally support the troops as individuals, Dr. Eakin is guardedly optimistic that many of her patients will recover and enjoy a successful return to society, that their reentry will not be as difficult as it was for Vietnam War veterans. The VA and the society at large have learned from mistakes made a generation ago. "I think they can come out and function. I don't think they're untouched. I don't think they'll be totally fine after what they've been through. It changes them." But some will, she's convinced, fall through the cracks-casualties of the war. "I too have nightmares," says Abdul Henderson, an Iraq War veteran, during his speech to the 2005 Veterans for Peace conference near Dallas. "I've talked to a lot of old Vietnam-era veterans and I asked them, 'Were you angry after you came back?' They're like, 'Man, it's been thirtyfive years and I'm still angry!'" The crowd laughs a knowing laugh. "Having to see the things I did and having to do the things I did in the name of defending our country puts a deep pain in my heart." Abdul grew up in Los Angeles, playing with his GI Joe doll and dreaming of a military career. He watched Top Gun and figured being a Navy pilot was a nifty goal, but then decided the Marines were more glorious. He enlisted after some college, hoping to fly. His motivation was not money but dreams of glory and service to country. Early in 2003 he was deployed to Kuwait, just in advance of the invasion of Iraq. "I was against the war before the war even started," he says. "We put sanctions on Iraq in '93. They couldn't import any military hardware. We were constantly bombing the country in the no-fly zone. If a man can't control his own air space, I don't think he'd be a serious threat to our own country. It didn't make sense. He was really confined to Baghdad." The insistence by the Bush Administration that Saddam Hussein maintained mobile biological weapons labs and other weapons of mass destruction under such conditions was not credible. "But out of duty and obligation to my country, when my president ordered me to active duty I answered that call." Pleasantly serious, Abdul says he opposes the Iraq War, not the military: "That's one thing a lot of people get mixed up. I'm protesting this war. I'm not really antiwar. Sometimes war is inevitable. I love the Marine Corps. To this day I love the Marine Corps." But the Marine Corps did not take too well to Abdul being featured in the Michael Moore documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. The two of them stationed themselves outside the Capitol building and buttonholed members of Congress, asking them why their own sons and daughters were not fighting in the war they had sanctioned in Iraq. And the lance corporal told Moore on camera that if he were ordered to go back to Iraq, he would refuse: "I would not let anyone send me back over there to kill other poor people, especially when they pose no threat to me or my country." Following that brief appearance in the film, his career in the Marines ended. The Marine Corps decided not to press charges against him for his in-uniform remarks; he was discharged for injuries he received during his two months of duty in Iraq, duty that earned him the Marine Corps Achievement Medal. For Abdul, a continuing puzzle after he returned from Iraq was the quiet about the war from his generation. "Why aren't young people involved in this? The only thing I can really think of is young people are consumed with worrying about self." Too many are politically apathetic and don't vote, he says, and don't keep track of the news that ultimately affects them: not just the war, but also budget deficits and Social Security and other long-term issues. He sounds like the politician he's become-his eyes are on the California state assembly, for starters-as he gently criticizes young voters for their short-term interest in buying a house and car, traveling, and enhancing their own lives at the expense of society. "Maybe they truly feel that they can't make a difference," he muses. "I think that they're having a hard time trying to figure out what is the truth." He speculates that one reason is that "the marketing is different" with the Iraq War than it was with Vietnam. "You don't see the end of a bombing strike. And if you do see it, you have to go on the Internet to pull it up and download it," he says. "They don't show this on public media like they used to. The public media used to show all these atrocities. You saw the real horror-the innocent kids in Vietnam with bullet wounds and blood. The true effects of what happens at a suicide bombing. The people here," he says about being back home, "don't have to feel that stress. Our media has done a very good job of suppressing our stress." Charlie Anderson became intrigued by the military watching GI Joe cartoons on television while growing up in Toledo, and he still remembers the channel and the times in the afternoon on which the show was broadcast. Looking back on that early influence, he recalls no bullets being shot on the show, and no combatants dying. "We used to watch GI Joe [and] we would go play war," he says. By high school he'd read a lot of books about war, including enough about the Vietnam War to believe it wrong, but he still considered the soldiers heroic. He was accepted at Purdue University, but decided not to go and instead stocked shelves at a store, wondering what to do with his life. In 1996, a recruiter gave him a ride to work one day, and without much trouble signed him up. Assigned to a Marine infantry battalion, Charlie trained as a medic and enjoyed a tour of the Mediterranean during the calm just prior to September 11, 2001. A large-framed man, he's lost some of his fighting trim, and his black hair is thinning. He speaks in rapid bursts, accompanied by jerky body movements, and often refers to his post-traumatic stress disorder, which led to his retirement from the Navy after he served in Iraq. I am talking with him at the Veterans for Peace conference near Dallas in the summer of 2005, and Charlie is telling the story of his arrival in Kuwait on February 2, 2003, just before the invasion of Iraq.Tents were set up by Indian and Pakistani contract workers. "Let the hajjis do it," Charlie heard for the first time, something he only later recognized as "the beginning of the dehumanizing process" of the people he was sent overseas to fight. (The term is derived from the Haj-the pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims must make at least once during their lifetimes. Hajji is a title of honor amongst Muslims, but it was a derogatory slur when used by some U.S. forces in Iraq.) Within weeks, Charlie crossed into Iraq, and the first casualty he saw was a U.S. soldier killed outside Nasiriyah by another soldier in his own platoon, an exhausted buddy who had made an error and shot the victim three times. That night, says Charlie, he wrote in his journal, "I don't know if our causes are just or not. I don't know if the reasons they gave us are true or not. But this operation has already become too costly in human life." His first action in a firefight came in the Sadr City slum of Baghdad. "I fired my weapon nine times, I shot nine rounds. I don't know what I shot at. I don't know who or what was there." He pauses. "And that was really hard to deal with. I still have trouble dealing with that today." As Charlie recounts his time in Iraq, he expresses himself in random fragments of stories and thoughts. He tells of his feelings of helplessness when his unit was attacked. He talks about the soldiers who died-he feels their sacrifice is unnoticed. He explains how he tried to believe his commanders' insistence that Iraq posed a threat to America. "In October of 2004, they said there's no WMD, and I just sat down and cried. That was the last straw. It was for absolutely nothing," he says about the war. "I felt totally worthless. I sacrificed part of my humanity. People around me sacrificed significantly more than I did. For what? For what? I can't point to a single thing.We're going to liberate the Iraqi people by killing them?" He was back home by May, but his problems continued. "My daughter had been eight months when I left, she was a year when I got home," he says. "She called me 'Daddy' the night I left. When I saw her the morning after I got home, she cried and ran away from me. She called me 'Mommy' for the next eighteen months. Mommy, Daddy, I don't really care. But there was this loss of a relationship." "I'm a veteran of Operation Iraqi Plunder," Charlie tells the other veterans when he stands up to make his speech. "I think it is important to tell it like it is. I refuse to call it Operation Iraqi Freedom. There was no freedom over there. It was not a war to liberate Iraq. It was a war to make it safe for U.S. business interests. It was a war of aggression and occupation. To call it Operation Iraqi Freedom is an insult to the Iraqi people and it is an insult to humanity." And then Charlie tells his story about coming home.
"I thought I was one of the lucky people-I thought I came through the war unscathed," he begins. "When they handed me my plane ticket and said, 'Well done, have a nice day,' I thought that was it. I thought, Thank God I had gotten home, back to my family, and things were going to be okay." He pauses, then adds, "Except I couldn't sleep through the night. I would break down crying for no reason. I would fly off in fits of rage over things that were totally trivial, like who left the bathroom door open." Another pause. "Something was wrong with me," he says with such dry understatement that it emphasizes the tragedy. "I knew it had to be me because everybody around me was fine. My neighbors were okay. They were in the military. They were over in Iraq. My friends were okay. They were over in Iraq. Then I started talking with some veterans from Vietnam. At first they all kind of broke into these smiles, and I thought, 'Not only am I going crazy, these guys think it's funny.'" A knowing punctuation of laughter comes from the audience as Charlie explains that the Vietnam War veterans told him they understood what was happening to him because it mirrored their experiences. That's when he learned he suffered from PTSD. The military concurred and he was discharged. "People say, 'Oh, you got sick and they threw you out.' And I say, 'No. I was psychologically wounded.'" The university bells are tolling again as Charlie recalls his warm welcome home. "Everyone was thanking us for our service and I was feeling ashamed. I was embarrassed. People were saying, 'I'm proud of what you did over there.' And I'm saying, 'God! I'm not. Why are you telling me you're proud of me? You don't even know what I did.'" Back in the early 1980s, a recovering Vietnam War veteran I interviewed offered this lay advice to help the next generation of soldiers coming home with the horrors of war: "Stand out in the streets and throw a ticker tape parade," he urged. "Play a band. Welcome them home. Debrief them. Give them what they need when they get home, don't wait fifteen years until the guy is almost out of his mind with stress that he's been holding in to himself. Give him a chance to vent it when he gets home so he doesn't have to drag it through his life. I think that would have made a big difference for all of us." He repeated his wish quietly before we said good-bye.
"I think that would have made a big difference."14

Notes
13. "Combat Duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mental Health Problems, and Barriers to Care," Charles Hooge et al, The New England Journal of Medicine, July 1, 2004.
14. The Vietnam War veteran was interviewed for the NBC News documentary "Healing the Wounds," reported and produced by Peter Laufer, 1984.

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