More than 1,000 active-duty U.S. soldiers have signed a petition to Congress known as an appeal for redress calling for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq. Among them is Sgt. Ronn Cantu of Los Angeles, Calif. He served in Iraq with the 1st Infantry Division from February 2004 until February 2005 and participated in the second siege of Fallujah in November 2004.
He started the Web site SoldierVoices.net to give soldiers a forum to speak about the Iraq war. Cantu was redeployed to Iraq in December 2006 and spoke on the telephone with IPS’ Aaron Glantz.
IPS: Sgt. Cantu, why have you decided to speak to the press?
CANTU: Just because I don’t think that the media is getting the full story. There’s a story behind the story.
IPS: What’s that story that’s not being told?
CANTU: Sometimes soldiers who are involved in battles will read the news and they say things like “When did that happen?” Like when news came out that peace came to a certain town, the news doesn’t report that peace came to that town because the Shi’ites kicked all the Sunnis out or vice versa.
IPS: What is the morale like? How do soldiers talk about the situation among themselves?
CANTU: Very candidly. Around other soldiers, nothing’s held back. The war is losing support among the soldiers. I find fewer and fewer soldiers that actually support what’s going on here. Some of them do, but they’re typically not the ones who are on the front lines.
IPS: And how do you experience the fact that more and more people are not supporting the war? You yourself started out supporting this war and then changed your mind based on your own experiences.
CANTU: In talking with other soldiers I’ve come to realize there are many reasons why we don’t support this war anymore. Anything from we just don’t like being misled in the beginning to not being able to adequately defend ourselves to the sheer number of Americans here who are actually making a pretty good paycheck. There are different levels and different reasons why different soldiers don’t support this war anymore.
IPS: Why did you change your mind?
CANTU: For all those reasons. I started to feed my mind on Iraq. I started reading anything I could get my hands on, and my eyes started to open up. It wasn’t so much a moral [decision], it was just that the go-home conditions aren’t really in our power. In World War II, the soldiers knew the fastest way home was straight through Berlin or Tokyo. Once a paper was signed saying they were surrendering unconditionally, we were coming home. But we don’t have any of that this time around. There’s just no representative force that’s going to surrender to us, and our win conditions are in the hands of another entity.
IPS: You served in Iraq a full tour, you were out in the streets and then you returned to the States. And it was when you were back in the States that you changed your mind about the war, when you were doing some reading?
CANTU: No, when you’re in Iraq you have a lot of time to think and not much to think about except your situation. A lot of these realizations came to me and my buddies the first time I was here in Iraq. The thing is that when you go back to the States or wherever you’re stationed you’re just so ecstatic that Iraq is behind you, you just want to put it completely behind you. But when you come back that’s when you start asking yourself: “Where is the end? Is the end in sight?” So it was only when I realized I was coming back that I started to read everything I could.
IPS: What did you experience that first time that made you feel that maybe this war wasn’t such a good idea?
CANTU: Well, I don’t know. In the beginning, I did feel like it was a good idea. It was more that every time that something exploded near my vehicles or every time we got shot at or had to shoot at people I started to ask “What is it worth? What’s going on here?” That was the title of my first essay: “What Are We Dying For?”
IPS: I spent a lot of time in Iraq during the first two years of the war over there as a journalist not embedded with the troops, but talking to regular Iraqis, and I noticed that in 2003 there were a lot of regular Iraqis who supported the toppling of Saddam, but that as time went on folks started to ask: “If we’ve been liberated, why are so many soldiers here patrolling through our streets, running convoys, and keeping the war going on after they’ve already overthrown Saddam?”
CANTU: Yeah, and you see that’s what a lot of soldiers are asking. When is it going to be done? When is it going to be done? Going back to that World War II thing, the soldiers knew back then that as soon as they got to Berlin they were done. For us, we don’t have that. Will the Iraqis stand up for themselves? Will they take the war off our hands? If I was an Iraqi, I wouldn’t. So, yeah, we are at a stalemate and we all have our fingers crossed hoping that this will work out.
IPS: Does the fact that this war keeps going on and the fact that so many soldiers are less enthusiastic about it, does it affect the way you all do your jobs on a daily basis? Have you noticed a change not only in the way people feel, but also the way people act?
CANTU: Not so much, although I have noticed in myself and others that realistically the casualty count is not very high. A lot of soldiers are willing to play the odds. What are the odds that I’m going to be the one that dies? So complacency does kind of set in.
IPS: And a lot of folks are like you, they just stay on the base.
IPS: Right now you have an intelligence assignment in Baghdad. How would you feel going out there and shooting people and getting shot at when you believe that the entire thing is wrong?
CANTU: It’s difficult. I’ll admit that I thought that I could put it behind me, but it wasn’t until I got back [a second time] to Iraq itself that I started to ask myself “Why did I bother reenlisting?” I do like the Army. I don’t blame the Army for the war. Militaries don’t declare a war, they just get used as a tool. That’s an inner conflict I have, but I didn’t realize I would feel that way until after I got [back] to Iraq a second time.
IPS: But you’re prepared to go out and do your job even though it involves people dying because it’s your job?
CANTU: In a word, yeah.
IPS: I think that might be hard for folks to understand.
CANTU: Sometimes, it’s just about the guys to the left and the right of you. That’s one of the things that soldiers have a hard time conveying to people who never served before. I’ll do my part if I feel it will bring results, but I know where you’re coming from because that’s what soldiers run into a lot. It’s something that’s hard to convince anyone who hasn’t been in a situation of what it’s really like. It does bring out the best and the worst in people.
(Inter Press Service)