Drawing the Line: An Open Letter to Present and Future U.S. Troops

December 1, 2002

The United States government has admitted that in 2002 it has placed military forces at one time or another in at least 180 of the world’s 210 nations, and articulated its intentions to place ground, air, and marine forces in virtually every land, air and sea space in the world. Thus, it is incumbent upon men and women in the armed forces, or those interested in joining same, to be well trained in international and U.S. Constitutional law, and versed in the history and customs of local people around the world whom you will be encountering.

From my personal experience as an air force ground officer in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta in 1969, and from talking to numerous veterans from various wars over the years, there is a consensus that we were not sufficiently briefed on the laws of war or the cultural circumstances into which we were placed. Because we were located in and around civilian communities, we were subjected to numerous situations in which we personally aided or participated in prohibited war crimes (murder or ill-treatment of civilians and prisoners of war, plunder of public or private property, etc.), crimes against peace (planning, preparation, initiation or waging a war of aggression or conspiracy to do the same), and crimes against humanity (murder or general abuse of civilians carried out in execution of crimes against peace or war crimes). The above three categories comprise the essence of the Nuremberg Principles. One of the regretful aspects to living in a relatively isolated culture that takes pride in its “manifest destiny” is that our citizenry often simply cannot readily understand the thoughts, history, and mores of people living in other lands. You will discover this to be a disadvantage when exposed to other populations.

Furthermore, we were promised that any wounds or illnesses suffered during our military service would be fully treated and cured if possible. Many U.S. veterans have left the military suffering from a myriad of serious wounds and debilitating illnesses: thousands of Atomic veterans; an unknown number subjected to chemical and biological warfare testing with others subjected to CIA mind control experiments; two or three million Vietnam veterans exposed to chemical warfare Agents Orange, Blue and White; and several hundred thousand Gulf War I veterans suffering from what is called Gulf War syndrome. Although many of these veterans have received adequate medical care, a surprising number to this day have in fact not been acknowledged or properly cared for.

For example, to date nearly 10,000 Gulf War I veterans have already died. Over 250,000 of the 696,000 U.S. troops in Iraq during Gulf War I, or 36 percent, have sought medical treatment for disabilities related to their experiences. The VA finally granted 160,000 claims for “Gulf War Syndrome” as of May 2002, but has refused many other complaints denying their connection to military service. Many ex-soldiers attribute their illnesses to untested vaccinations ostensibly given them by the military for prevention of potential sickness, and from exposure to the 320 tons of depleted (half) uranium (D-U or U-238) utilized in Iraq which emits primarily alpha radiation that possesses a half-life of 4.5 billion years, while producing a toxic heavy metal dust in the form of uranium oxide that is wind- and water-carried in the air and soil. A British Parliament report using alleged U.S. data suggests that the U.S. is prepared to use 1,500 tons of D-U in Iraq in Gulf War II. Medical reports from southern Iraq since Gulf War I suggest that the staggering rise in cancers, leukemia among children, and birth defects, among other illnesses, is caused by exposure to D-U. This does not bode well for any persons exposed to D-U. Because of its indiscriminate, continuing lethal effects on non-combatants (as well as ex-combatants), i.e., a weapon of mass destruction, the U.N Human Rights Commission and a number of scientists and lawyers have identified it as a prohibited weapon in defiance of international law.

A blow was dealt to veterans on November 19, 2002, when a federal appeals court ruled that the government does not owe free lifetime medical care to a number of World War II and Korean War veterans despite promises made by recruiters. And earlier in 2002 U. S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Anthony J. Principi, ordered VA medical facilities to discontinue active marketing of health-care enrollment to the veterans population due to lack of adequate Congressional appropriations. That the government expects plenty of casualties in the impending war in Iraq and perhaps elsewhere is highlighted by the fact that it recently placed a massive order for all available refrigerated containers for shipping bodies of dead soldiers home from the Middle East.

In hindsight, many veterans wish they had been offered a more informed perspective on the military and war than that provided by military recruiters prior to making such an important decision as to whether to “serve” in the military or not. Over the years veterans have discovered that many recruiters never experienced the harsh realities of war and combat. If this remains the case, many veterans believe they are not sufficiently experienced to offer an authentic perspective.

All members of the U.S. armed forces must abide by the provisions of U.S. Army Field Manual 27-10 (1956), The Law of Land Warfare, especially note paragraphs 498-511. Your training should include study of this manual. The crux of these provisions is that military personnel are bound to obey only lawful orders as the manual sets forth, abiding by what the government considers international rules on the law of war. The provisions have incorporated the Hague Convention (1907), relating to treatment of captured combatants and conduct in captured cities/villages and undefended locations, the Geneva Conventions (1929, 1949), relating to protection of civilians, treatment of prisoners and the sick and wounded, and the Nuremberg Principles (1946, 1950), mentioned above.

In Vietnam, practically every order in the field directed to ground or air forces in the area of my tour of duty involved destroying civilian targets or murdering and maiming civilian personnel. Though most of us were not brought to account for these crimes because of the general impunity we “enjoyed” from our superiors who were also extraordinarily liable, it has not escaped our consciences or psyches. Perhaps a million or more Vietnam veterans suffer from symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that continue to plague us to this day, more than 30 years after our traumatic experiences. Furthermore, committing this kind of prohibited behavior greatly contributes to a growing worldwide rage directed against the United States that likely will explode in the future. In the broader context, it would be extremely helpful to explore the motivations behind the 9/11 tragedy, especially in relation to people’s feelings about how they experience the effects of past U.S. policies.

Superior orders are no excuse for violating the laws of war, though they may be considered in mitigation of punishment. Each soldier must know what is or is not a war crime, a crime against peace, or a crime against humanity. Killing of civilians is explicitly prohibited, and you will likely face civilians, some of whom may be armed, as they struggle to defend themselves and their homes as innocent parties in international disputes. You will be obligated to disobey orders if directed to fire any weapon toward civilians or civilian targets, including communities and their normal infrastructure facilities. You are also prohibited from mistreating any civilians or their property. You must disobey any order if you believe that order violates the laws of war. This is an extremely important responsibility, the successful performance of which will build tremendous personal character and assure honorable soldiering.


S. Brian Willson, former Captain, USAF, Vietnam, 1969
J.D., LL.D.(Hon.)


For More Information:

  • Legal representation: Citizen Soldier, 267 Fifth Ave., #901, New York, NY 10016; www.citizen-soldier.org; (212) 679-2250
  • G.I. Rights Hotline: (800) 394-9544
  • Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft, P.O. Box 15195, San Diego, CA 92175; (619) 265-1369; comd@comdsd.org
  • Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO), 1515 Cherry St., Philadelphia, PA 19102; or CCCO, 630 20th St., Suite 302, Oakland, CA 94612; (888) 236-2226
  • Depleted Uranium: (1) National Gulf War Resource Center (NGWRC); (800) 882-1316, Ext. 162; www.ngwrc.org; (2) Discounted Casualties: The Human Cost of Depleted Uranium by Akira Tashiro (2001). Japan: The Chugoku Shimbun. Available through Transnet, P.O. Box 8867, Atlanta, GA 31106; (404) 898-0586; leeps@mindspring.com; (3) Metal of Dishonor: Depleted Uranium, ed. by Depleted Uranium Education Project (1997). NY: IAC. Available thru IAC, 39 West 14th St., #206, New York, NY 10011; (212) 633-6646; iacenter@iacenter.org; (4) Don’t Look: Don’t Find by Dan Fahey (Gulf War veteran). Available from NGWRC (see above).


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