Venezuela is the one spot in the world where there is optimism
Interview with Josh Simpson and Benji Lewis, two ex US soldiers who fought in combat in Iraq and now publicly oppose Washington’s Global War on Terror
By Eva Golinger
Eva Golinger (EG): Why did you join the Armed Forces in the United States?
Josh: I was really interested in history, in a patriotic sense, World War II, Vietnam.
EG: A romantic vision?
Josh: Yes, even Vietnam, I thought it was a one time thing. I didn’t know about CIA involvement in Latin America, or Mossadegh – that’s common, most people from the US don’t know those things, especially when you are 17. I ended up joining the military also for economic reasons. I joined in July 2001 and was in basic training when Sept. 11th happened, and everything changed.
EG: What did you think?
Josh: I was nervous but excited. I happened to join the military when something big in history was happening. I didn’t understand why 9/11 happened, why we were attacked. I guess that people just hated us for being for Americans. If I had to go to war to defend my country I was totally prepared to do that. I didn’t end up going to Afganistan because I was in the second striker brigade, and so by the time I ended up going to Iraq I was already against the war. Today I believe they are all imperialist wars, but then I didn’t support the war, but figured I would still go because I had to go and I didn’t know people were resisting.
EG: Do you mean soldiers resisting or people against the war?
Josh: I didn’t know there was an anti-war movement. I was in the desert in California on a military base, and in the military we never knew there was a huge opposition to the war in the US, the media didn’t cover it. I think there were tactical errors made in the US by the antiwar movement, if people would have stopped military shipments from leaving the country instead of just marching in the streets, if people would have blocked railroad tracks and ports, this war would have never started.
EG: Benji, why did you join the military?
Benji: I came from a military family. I was encouraged by my mother and father join. I joined the military to help people. I entered boot camp in the Marine Corp in March 2003. I was 17 ½ years old. Once I joined I realized it was a bad idea and thought, what did I do?
EG: When the war started?
Benji: As I was in bootcamp the invasion was happening and we would see video clips of it set to heavy metal music to get us riled up. It was disturbing. Before every class in bootcamp they would show videos of people getting shot, killed, set to heavy metal music, and then as we were invading Fallujah, the PSYOPS (pyschological operations) units weren’t pointing the speakers at the people in Fallujah, they were pointing the speakers at us, playing the same music as they did in bootcamp. I distinctly remember being agitated and edgy before we invaded the city. It became clear to me that military indoctrination is much deeper than it appears to be on the surface.
EG: When did you go to Iraq, Josh?
Josh: September 2004 to September 2005.
EG: What did you think when you were going there?
Josh: I was against the war but at the same time figured we already started the war and so should see it through and help the country rebuild. It was hard to think about. I was in charge of interrogations in Irak. And Source Operations, running sources to get information. I was in Mosul, Iraq. In Iraq, 95% of those detained and interrogated were innocent. The interrogations agitate the population against you. If they weren’t terrorists or insurgents when detained, they will be afterward! The reason why 95% are innocent and still detained is because the way to measure succes in Iraq, unlike in Vietnam where it was a body count, is based on the number of detainees. It doesn’t matter if they are women or children or innocent. I didn’t participate in physical torture and beat detainees. But I did participate in psychological torture.
EG: But you knew torture took place?
Josh: I saw the victims of the torture. The bruises and lashes all over their bodies came from somewhere. We would send the detainees to the Iraqi Army and Kurdish Militia that were working with us and they would do the torture for us. I had concerns about that especially because torture doesn’t work well for getting information.
EG: Benji, you were in Fallujah during the Blackwater scandal?
Benji: Right after. I was sent to Fallujah and there was excitement because it was right after the Blackwater scandal and we were on a mission of revenge. No one told us what had really happened except that US citizens had been killed by the Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah. So I was excited because I was going to be in a mortar unit and would be able to do what I was trained to do, we were going to utilize our mortars. We thought we were going to Fallujah to neutralize an insurrection, but they didn’t tell us that the entire city had already been bombed by the US for about a week and a third of the population was already displaced or dead. We were being told that this was a mission of revenge, we didn’t know they were Blackwater mercenaries that had been killed, we were told they were just US citizens. Several batallions of marines were unleashed on the city from every angle. It was a seige. There were thousands of us that assaulted Fallujah. We surrounded them and cut off their electricity and water, we bombed Mosques.
EG: The military wasn’t giving the soldiers any kind of information?
Benji: Hearts and Minds is double rhetoric. You have to first control the hearts and minds of the troops committing these atrocities before sending them to war. You have to lie to them otherwise you can’t fight these kinds of wars.
EG: How did you perceive the resistance of the Iraqi people?
Josh: They were terrorists, radical, islamic fundamentalists, not people fighting for their country, that’s what we were told.
Benji: The military indoctrination is so sophisticated – you are even cut off from members of your own batallion, you can’t ask questions, the only thing that matters is to protect yourself and your batallion. There are no politics. The first thing you learn is not to question, keep your thoughts to yourself.
EG: Didn’t you know it was a war for oil?
Benji: The only reason you are there is to protect the person to the left and right of you. Everyone knew about the oil but your only mission is staying alive and keeping your friends alive.
Josh: You think you’re helping the Iraqis. That’s what you’re told.
EG: Why did you leave the military?
Josh: I was active duty for 5 years then I signed up for another 3 years as a reservist. I didn’t want to go back to Irak. I was told that if you join the reserves you can get a nice bonus and you won’t be deployed for two years. I was naive thinking the war in Irak would be over in two years.
EG: Why would you join the reserves and train people to go to war in Iraq if you were against the war?
Josh: I justified that by thinking I was keeping them safe by training them well. They had to go anyway. But it got to a point when I couldn’t look myself in the mirror anymore, I was disgusted with myself. I was basically stuck in a moral dilemna. I want to be proud of my actions, proud of what I am doing, but honestly, I wasn’t. I started college at the same time. I was studying political economy at Evergreen University, learning about US imperialism.
EG: Did people in your class know you were in the military? What did they say to you?
Josh: Yes, but people knew I was opposed to the war.
Benji: The “support the troops” campaign has altered everyone’s perception.
Josh: I’m actually opposed to that campaign. People should have been more confrontational with the troops.
EG: Like in Vietnam.
Benji: The “support the troops” campaign was engineered to allow for indirect acceptance of the war.
Josh: People are scared to criticize the troops, it’s considered the most blasphemous thing in the world. At the same time, if you are never criticized than you will never know that what you are doing is wrong.
Benji: You can’t criticize the troops. It’s a poverty draft, these kids just do it because they have no other way out of poverty.
Josh: But you have to criticize them, because they will say they are just following orders, but that’s bullshit, the Nazis were just following orders too. The military is fascist, it’s basically blind, unquestioning obedience. Then they try to tell you that the blind obedience is some form of courage and bravery. It’s much easier to go with the current than against it. While I was at Evergreen I was learning something different than what I was told in the military. I got to the point where morally I couldn’t just be opposed to the war, I also couldn’t even participate in the military or train other soldiers to go kill people in a racist war. I was told in January 2008 that I was going to be deployed to Irak and I decided I wasn’t going to go back. I was already speaking out against the war and blocking military shipments, I was active in direct action against the war. I was building barricades in the streets of Olympia to block military shipments from going out of the US ports to Irak, and for the first time I felt like I was fighting for something I actually believed in. It makes me cry to think about this. I was in the military for five years and never had the chance to fight for something I believed in.
Benji: Which is why you join the military, to fight for something you believe in!
Josh: The fact that I was finally fighting for something I believed in, against the war, was such a great feeling. I joined Iraq Veterans Against the War and other resistance groups against the war. I helped start the GI coffee house, Coffee Strong. The GI coffee house is right off the military base Fort Lewis in Washington.
EG: Benji, why did you leave the military?
Benji: After my first tour in Iraq I was disillusioned and after my second deployment it was obvious. We referred to our ourselves as occupiers. When I got back from the second tour I was convinced that I wouldn’t go back. I volunteered to be an Urban Combat Instructor. I trained several urban combat batallions and one of my teams ended up in Haditha, massacring hundreds of innocent Iraquis in a 3-day exercise. That’s on my conscience. And it’s really sad, people in the marine corp are doing cocaine before morning exercises. After a year, I decided I didn’t want to go back to Irak. I had no idea there was a resistance movement. When you get out, you want to put it all behind you. You don’t want to think about it, you don’t want to remember it, you just want to live a small, quiet life.
Benji: I moved to Oregon and met people from Veterans for Peace. I learned that you don’t have to go back, you can resist. I joined Courage to Resist and I began to broaden my work and speak out against the wars in Afganistan and Iraq.
EG: Why did you come to Venezuela?
Benji: South America is in a position to resist the economic collapse in the US. We also have plans to set up a safety net for friends and people in the US in case the US does turn into a bigger police state domestically. If there is a larger war coming on the planet the people have to choose sides and this is the side I want to be on.
Josh: Venezuela is the one spot in the world where there is optimism. This country is moving in a good direction. In Venezuela there is a lot of really great work going on.
EG: What would you say to the Venezuelan people about the US military buildup in Colombia?
Josh: Be prepared. Neighborhood and popular militias are the most effective way to deter the US – it’s working in Irak, and Afganistan. People with rifles can hold out forever. You’re not going to be able to defeat the US military with tanks and airplanes because they have more than all countries in the world combined. Live up to the creed, socialismo o muerte! Capitalism is in a major state of decline and it’s going to lash out. We have to fight it however we can, it’s the only way to exist. If Venezuela was attacked, and there was an Abraham Lincoln Brigade to defend Venezuela, I would come here in a heartbeat.
Benji: To me it’s obvious the US is gunning for Latin America. Latin America is one big resource for the US, that’s all they see, they see the people as a nuisance. The only thing the US is good at is invading other countries, that’s the only export the US still has, invasion.
Josh: It’s the war that never ends.
• Josh Simpson, 27 years old, was a Sargeant in the US Army Counterintelligence Division. He was in charge of interrogations and source operations in Mosul, Iraq from 2004-2005. His actions resulted indirectly in the deaths of hundreds of Iraquis. Today, Josh is the president of the Fort Lewis Chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War and is co-founder of Coffee Strong, a GI Coffee Shop that seeks to mobilize soldiers against the war. Josh earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Political Economy from Evergreen University in 2008 and is pursuing a Master’s Degree in Teaching at the same institution. He speaks across the US against the war and US imperialism and is very active in blocking military shipments from leaving the US as a form of direct action war resistance.
• Benji Lewis, 24 years old, is an ex Marine Infantry soldier who did two tours in Iraq, both to Fallujah from 2004-2005. His M-16 mortars killed over 500 people in Fallujah during a three month period. Today, Benji is an outspoken anti-war, anti-Empire activist in Oregon. He is a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War and Courage to Resist. He speaks throughout the US against the war and organizes soldiers to resist deployment to Iraq and Afganistan. Benji is studying English Literature and Philosophy at Lynn-Benton Community College in Corvallis, Oregon and plans to learn Spanish.
This interview was conducted during their first visit to Venezuela as part of an anti-war, pro-peace delegation from the Portland Latin America Solidarity Coalition.