Josh Stieber on the journey from studying “The Faith of George Bush” to refusing to fight in Iraq
Josh Steiber Interview (Part 4 of 4)
Transcribed from file JoshStieberPT4_0516_08-H.264 for ARCHIVING-1.mov. Runtime 11:20:07 (SMPTE drop, 29.97 FPS).
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington, and we’re talking with Josh Stieber about his journey from religious school, where he studied a book called The Faith of George Bush, to joining the Army, going to Iraq, and then applying for conscientious objector status. Thanks for joining us again.
JOSH STIEBER: Sure. Thanks.
JAY: So talk about that day or the few days or whatever leading up to that application for conscientious objector status. This must’ve been quite dramatic.
STIEBER: Yeah. Well, I actually didn’t know what conscientious objection was until I got back from Iraq and I knew I had to act.
JAY: So you finished your tour of duty.
STIEBER: Right, I finished my tour with all these questions going on in my mind and knew I had to start changing things but wasn’t sure how extreme I would go with this until we got back and I got to spend a month back home with my family. And that process for me literally brought everything back home as I started to imagine all the different things that we have done to other people’s families for the last 14 months going on to my family, and not just these big headline catchers like, you know, what you see in the WikiLeaks video. Obviously, that stuff goes on, but sometimes even the smaller things of what we were doing on a day-to-day basis.
JAY: Like what?
STIEBER: Of searching through people’s homes, and people would often be disrespectful and that, and just, you know, you’re told to search for weapons, so you go in a house and you tear it apart looking for weapons or anything suspicious. And I know, you know, people in my neighborhood growing up who, if that happened to their home, they would have some, probably, pretty passionate responses to that; and other little things like, you know, if we were driving down the street, somebody might think it was funny to swerve into a mud puddle and splash an old lady with mud, or when we were going into a house to pull the head off a baby doll that a kid was holding and hand it back to the kid. And, again, it’s like that’s not going to make, you know, the front page of the newspaper, but you start to think, well, what if that was my mom that got splashed with mud, or what if that was my little sister whose baby doll got ripped apart? How would I feel about that? And so I got down to this very simple idea of doing unto others, and I knew I wouldn’t want other people to do to me.
JAY: Now, in this kind of culture that, you know, it’s relatively acceptable to shoot civilians, we’ve been told of stories that during these house searches there’s been quite a few killings, that people thought there were weapons, or maybe they didn’t and they shot anyway. Did you experience any of that?
STIEBER: Not that I can remember offhand of something specifically in a house search, but, again, it was sometimes even the smaller things that would affect me, like just how we treated the locals when we went into their house, and knew that if that kind of thing went on back here, that, you know, most people I know would be up in arms about that. You know, even some of the relatively minor things would set people off.
JAY: So you’re reaching kind of a crunch point for you, ’cause you’re going to have to decide if you’re going back or not.
JAY: You start to discuss this with your parents. And what’s the reaction of your family?
STIEBER: Well, I knew that I had to do something, and this was still before I knew what conscientious objection was. So the plan I had was I was going to walk to the military pay headquarters in Indianapolis and take enough time to be counted as AWOL, and turn myself in and turn the money I had earned in, and say what I did was wrong, getting paid for it was wrong, and if I need to finish my enlistment in prison, then that’s where I need to be. So I told my parents about it, and then they kind of scrambled and tried to alert me of other options and told me about conscientious objection and went through a pretty big debate with myself about which option to go with and ended up feeling that that was the right one.
JAY: And so what happens?
STIEBER: So I go back to the military base in the States, in Kansas, and make the application and fill out all this paperwork and get interviewed by a chaplain and a psychologist and an investigator, and just go through all these interviews and all this writing. And then, at the same time, I’m expected to carry out most of your normal military duties. And that started to—well, the first couple of weeks went smoothly until it came time to go out to the ranges to train to kill again. And like I had said earlier, part of that training was that we would shoot at targets that looked like our stereotypical Middle East—or stereotypical enemy, a Middle Eastern man. And as I had been debating with myself about this idea of conscientious objection, and if it was ever justified to kill, or when I would kill, and went back and again looked at the person who I claim to have faith in and who Christianity is based off of, to paraphrase him, he said, you know, it doesn’t even matter if you physically killed somebody; that if you even looked at somebody with hatred or with judgment, then psychologically and spiritually you’ve already killed that person. And so I tried telling my leaders that if I believe that was true, then going out to the ranges and building this racism towards the stereotypical-looking enemy and being told this is what your enemy looks like, practice shooting him, practice killing him, told them I couldn’t reconcile the two. And that didn’t go over so well with one of my leaders, and he got really upset with me and started calling me a terrorist and a traitor and a lot of interesting names along with that that he knew. But it was actually a really important challenge, I think, for me to see if I was going to live up to all these things that I had been preaching and talking about. And I just thought back to the lessons that we had learned in Iraq, that every time we got confronted with violence and with anger and we tried to respond in the same way, it might have solved the problems for a day or two, but then it would eventually lead to an even more intense attack. And so taking that same idea, I was definitely tempted to yell back at my leader who was yelling at me, but I knew it would make him yell louder and I would yell louder and nothing would get accomplished. So just like I had seen, trying to understand people who, again, thought very differently and had attacked us, I had seen that create progress. I tried to take that same mindset in dealing with this leader and tried to understand where he was coming from and tried to work together with his concerns.
JAY: So you applied and received conscientious objector status. But you did more than that. You started speaking out publicly about where you’ve been, interviews like this. Why’d you go public? ‘Cause you must get some feedback from this. Okay, it’s one thing not to do something in terms of your own conscience, but by going public, people must be accusing you of harming the military, perhaps even saying you’re going to endanger soldiers, talking this way.
STIEBER: Well, a lot of it had to do with the eventual reaction of this particular leader who—I had never seen a person that angry as he had been with me. But by trying to live out these things that I said I believed on a day-to-day basis, ten months after I had made my application he went from being absolutely furious at me to being able to give me a hug and wish me good luck on my life after the military. So I had seen that, you know, by practicing these things, that it had transformed this big, you know, tough, high-ranking military guy. And these ideas like compassionate and love and understanding have more value than I think a lot of times we like to give them credit for. So that’s what started to motivate my speaking publicly. And I started speaking publicly right after I got out, and wanted to say that not only do I think war is the wrong answer, I think that so many people who are in the military think that war is the only answer, and if I am saying that war is wrong, I need to point people to other answers. So I started a journey across the United States and spent three months walking and three months on bicycle, visiting different charities across the country, and trying to point people to other ways of going about handling their issues and towards just being proactive and trying to address issues before—.
JAY: And what kind of reaction have you gotten from other military people that are either out or still in?
STIEBER: For the majority, people have been pretty supportive. You know, my friends who are still in the military have some fundamental differences of belief with me, but still have respect for what I’m doing and what I’ve said, and, you know, I have respect for their desire to try to serve their country and try and do what they feel is right. And seeing their dedication inspires me all the more to try and solve—.
JAY: Are people surprised when they hear the stories of this, from boot camp and once you’re there, this sort of creation of the culture of the acceptability of killing civilians?
STIEBER: Well, when I did this cross-country trip, the way I framed it, I tried to really get people to think about it, but the way I did it was that—. I did a lot of public speaking, and the way I would start my talks was I would get in front of an audience and ask them if they cared about their family or their friends, and if they did, to stand up with me. And the whole room would, you know, stand up. And then I’d say, this was an important factor in the decisions that I made, and along the way I was told a number of different things would be in my best interest to say, and I’m going to pass that wisdom along to you and tell you, by repeating after me, that it’ll be in your best interest. And I would lead them in that cadence about killing women and children.
JAY: What is it again?
STIEBER: The whole thing? I went down to the market where all the women shop/I pulled out my machete, and I began to chop/I went down to the park where all the children play/I pulled out my machine gun and I began to spray. And I could get rooms full of the most dedicated peace activists and the most hardcore religious folks to repeat these horrible lyrics, and it was really telling for me about just the human psychology, that in a relatively low-stress environment like that, they were saying these things because I was telling him to and because of the peer pressure around them, and that if we want to change things, it has to start out with something that is very fundamental as just starting to ask questions and not going along with everything that we’re told to do. So I used that exercise to, one, put people in the mindset of a soldier a little bit, that here you stood up because you wanted to do something positive, to care about the people around you; and then before you know it, you’re being asked to say these different things, and you start to understand how people get to the point where they say those things.
JAY: And then do it. Thanks for joining us.
STIEBER: Sure. Thanks for having me.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
END OF TRANSCRIPT
Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.
The Real News Network
14 May 2010