Bandit | 10.08.2003 11:10 | Liverpool
An unprecedented internet campaign waged on the frontline and in the US is exposing the real risks for troops in Iraq. Paul Harris and Jonathan Franklin report on rising fears that the conflict is now a desert Vietnam
Susan Schuman is angry. Her GI son is serving in the Iraqi town of Samarra, at the heart of the 'Sunni triangle', where American troops are killed with grim regularity.
Breaking the traditional silence of military families during time of war, Schuman knows what she wants - and who she blames for the danger to her son, Justin. 'I want them to bring our troops home. I am appalled at Bush's policies. He has got us into a terrible mess,' she said.
Schuman may just be the tip of an iceberg. She lives in Shelburne Falls, a small town in Massachusetts, and says all her neighbours support her view. 'I don't know anyone around here who disagrees with me,' she said.
Schuman's views are part of a growing unease back home at the rising casualty rate in Iraq, a concern coupled with deep anger at President George W. Bush's plans to cut army benefits for many soldiers. Criticism is also coming directly from soldiers risking their lives under the guns of Saddam Hussein's fighters, and they are using a weapon not available to troops in previous wars: the internet.
Through emails and chatrooms a picture is emerging of day-to-day gripes, coupled with ferocious criticism of the way the war has been handled. They paint a vivid picture of US army life that is a world away from the sanitised official version.
In a message posted on a website last week, one soldier was brutally frank. 'Somewhere down the line, we became an occupation force in [Iraqi] eyes. We don't feel like heroes any more,' said Private Isaac Kindblade of the 671st Engineer Company.
Kindblade said morale was poor, and he attacked the leadership back home. 'The rules of engagement are crippling. We are outnumbered. We are exhausted. We are in over our heads. The President says, "Bring 'em on." The generals say we don't need more troops. Well, they're not over here,' he wrote.
One of the main outlets for the soldiers' complaints has been a website run by outspoken former soldier David Hackworth, who was the army's youngest colonel in the Vietnam war and one of its most decorated warriors. He receives almost 500 emails a day, many of them from soldiers serving in Iraq. They have sounded off about everything from bad treatment at the hands of their officers to fears that their equipment is faulty.
The army-issue gas mask 'leaks under the chin. This same mask was used during Desert Storm, which accounts for part of the health problems of the vets who fought there. My unit has again deployed to the Gulf with this loser,' ranted one army doctor.
Some veterans have begun to form organisations to campaign to bring the soldiers home and highlight their difficult conditions. Erik Gustafson, a veteran of the 1991 Gulf war, has founded Veterans For Common Sense. 'There is an anger boiling under the surface now, and I, as a veteran, have a duty to speak because I am no longer subject to military discipline,' he said.
A recent email from Iraq passed to Gustafson, signed by 'the Soldiers of the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division', said simply: 'Our men and women deserve to see their loved ones again and deserve to come home. Thank you for your attention.'
Another source of anger is government plans to reverse recent increases in 'imminent danger' pay and a family separation allowance. These moves have provoked several furious editorials in the Army Times, the normally conservative military newspaper. The paper said the planned cuts made 'the Bush administration seem mean-spirited and hypocritical'.
Tobias Naegele, its editor-in-chief, said his senior staff agonised over the decision to attack the government, but the response to the editorials from ordinary soldiers was overwhelmingly positive.
A further critical editorial is planned for this week. 'We don't think lightly of criticising our Commander-in-Chief,' Naegele said 'The army has had a rough couple of years with this administration.'
Mainstream veterans' groups too are angry about cuts being proposed at a time when politicians have heaped praise on the army's performance in Afghanistan and Iraq and want to launch a recruitment drive.
Veterans plan protests to highlight the issue. 'We are going to show them that veterans are people who know how to vote,' said Steven Robinson, a veteran and executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Centre, one of the websites where veterans' issues are raised.
Susan Schuman too is planning a protest. This week she plans to join members of a new group, Military Families Speak Out, who will travel to Washington to make their case for their sons, daughters, husbands and wives, to be brought home from Iraq.
With soldiers dying there almost daily, comparisons have already been drawn with the Vietnam war and the birth of the protest movements there that divided America in the Sixties and Seventies.
Political scientists, however, think the war will have to get much worse before anything similar happens over Iraq. 'To put it crudely, I think the country can accept this current level of casualties,' said Professor Richard Stoll, of Rice University in Houston, Texas.
That is little comfort to Schuman, who says she just wants to see her son, Justin, return alive from a war she believes is unjust. 'It is a quagmire and it is not going to be easy to get out,' she said. 'That's where the parallel with Vietnam is.