MIKE HOFFMAN would not be the guy his buddies would expect to see leading a protest movement. The son of a steelworker and a high school janitor from Allentown, Pennsylvania, he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1999 as an artilleryman to “blow things up.” His transformation into an activist came the hard way—on the streets of Baghdad.
When Hoffman arrived in Kuwait in February 2003, his unit’s highest-ranking enlisted man laid out the mission in stark terms. “You’re not going to make Iraq safe for democracy,” the sergeant said. “You are going for one reason alone: oil. But you’re still going to go, because you signed a contract. And you’re going to go to bring your friends home.” Hoffman, who had his own doubts about the war, was relieved—he’d never expected to hear such a candid assessment from a superior. But it was only when he had been in Iraq for several months that the full meaning of the sergeant’s words began to sink in.
“The reasons for war were wrong,” he says. “They were lies. There were no WMDs. Al Qaeda was not there. And it was evident we couldn’t force democracy on people by force of arms.”
When he returned home and got his honorable discharge in August 2003, Hoffman says, he knew what he had to do next. “After being in Iraq and seeing what this war is, I realized that the only way to support our troops is to demand the withdrawal of all occupying forces in Iraq.” He cofounded a group called Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and soon found himself emerging as one of the most visible members of a small but growing movement of soldiers who openly oppose the war in Iraq.
Dissent on Iraq within the military is not entirely new. Even before the invasion, senior officers were questioning the optimistic projections of the Pentagon’s civilian leaders, and several retired generals have strongly criticized the war. But now, nearly two years after the first troops rolled across the desert, rank-and-file soldiers and their families are increasingly speaking up. Hoffman’s group was founded in July with 8 members and had grown to 40 by September. Another organization, Military Families Speak Out, began with 2 families two years ago and now represents more than 1,700 families. And soldier-advocacy groups are reporting a rising number of calls from military personnel who are upset about the war and are thinking about refusing to fight; a few soldiers have even fled to Canada rather than go to Iraq.
In a 2003 Gallup Poll, nearly one-fifth of the soldiers surveyed said they felt the situation in Iraq had not been worth going to war over. In another poll, in Pennsylvania last August, 54 percent of households with a member in the military said the war was the “wrong thing to do”; in the population as a whole, only 48 percent felt that way. Doubts about the war have contributed to the decline of troop morale over the past year—and may, some experts say, be a factor in the 40 percent increase in Army suicide rates in Iraq in the past year. “That’s the most basic tool a soldier needs on the battlefield—a reason to be there,” says Paul Rieckhoff, a platoon leader in the New York National Guard and former JPMorgan banker who served in Iraq. Rieckhoff has founded a group called Operation Truth, which provides a freewheeling forum for soldiers’ views on the war. “When you can’t articulate that in one sentence, it starts to affect morale. You had an initial rationale for war that was a moving target. [But] it was a shell game from the beginning, and you can only bullshit people for so long.”
With his baggy pants, red goatee, and moussed hair, Mike Hoffman looks more like a guy taking some time off after college than a 25-year-old combat veteran. But the urgency in his voice belies his relaxed appearance; he speaks rapidly, consumed with the desire to get his point across. As we talk at a coffee shop in Vermont after one of his many speaking engagements, he concedes, “A lot of what I’m doing is basically survivor’s guilt. It’s hard: I’m home. I’m fine. I came back in one piece. But there are a lot of people who haven’t.”
More than a year after his return from Iraq, Hoffman is still battling depression, panic attacks, and nightmares. “I don’t know what I did,” he says, noting that errors and faulty targeting were common in the artillery. “I came home and read that six children were killed in an artillery strike near where I was. I don’t really know if that was my unit or a British unit. But I feel responsible for everything that happened when I was there.”
When he first came home, Hoffman says, he tried to talk to friends and family about his experience. It was not a story most wanted to hear. “One of the hardest things when I came back was people who were slapping me on the back saying ‘Great job,’” he recalls. “Everyone wants this to be a good war so they can sleep at night. But guys like me know it’s not a good war. There’s no such thing as a good war.”
Hoffman finally found some kindred spirits last fall when he discovered Veterans For Peace, the 19-year-old antiwar group. Older veterans encouraged him to speak at rallies, and steadily, he began to connect with other disillusioned Iraq vets. In July, at the Veterans For Peace annual meeting in Boston, Hoffman announced the creation of Iraq Veterans Against the War. The audience of silver-haired vets from wars in Vietnam, Korea, and World War II exploded into applause. Hoffman smiles wryly. “They tell us we’re the rock stars of the antiwar movement.”