"I Couldn't Deny It Anymore"

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Elsa Rassbach interviews U.S. Sergeant Matthis Chiroux
April, 2009 
Strasbourg, France, and Frankfurt, Germany

On April 21st, 2009, U.S. Sergeant Matthis Chiroux, 25, faces Army prosecution in St. Louis, Missouri for publicly refusing to deploy to Iraq last summer.
From April 1st to 5th, Chiroux joined peace activists in Germany and France to speak out against NATO and the war and occupation in Afghanistan.  If not jailed by the U.S. Army on April 21st, he will join European peace activists in Ireland on April 26th for their campaign against the use of Shannon airfield by the U.S. military.
On April 4th, at a large demonstration in Strasbourg, France, Chiroux planned to publicly apologize to Afghan peace activist Malalai Joya for participating in the occupation of her country; however, before he could do so, the demonstration was disrupted by attacks of the French police. He made his apology instead on April 5, 2009, at the NATO Congress in Strasbourg (see below).

Chiroux grew up in Auburn, Alabama, in a conservative Republican family. He joined the Army in 2002, shortly after high school.  As an Army photographer and journalist for more than four years, he served in Germany, Italy, Japan, the Philippines, and Afghanistan, winning numerous Army journalism awards. He is also a recipient of the “Army Good Conduct Medal” and the “Global War on Terrorism Service Medal,” among others.
Like many other resisters, Chiroux was in military service for many years before he came to the conclusion that the wars and occupations in Iraq and in Afghanistan are wrong and found the courage to speak out.  Since last summer he has been a key activist in the U.S. veterans’ organization, Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW).
Elsa Rassbach, a U.S. filmmaker and journalist living in Berlin, spoke with Matthis Chiroux last week in Strasbourg and in Frankfurt.

RASSBACH:  How did you come to join the U.S. Army?

CHIROUX:   I was a kid living in the Deep South, with a Dad who was proud of his service in the military – and I was a kid who did not always do well in school, so I was fresh meat for the Army recruiters. In my teens I had some fights with my Dad and wound up living in a tent outside my town.  When my money ran out, I joined. I really didn’t have any other options.  That was in 2002. In basic training, I learned to kill just like everybody else.  I also trained for the 82nd Airborne in North Carolina, but I chose not continue that training, because the 82nd Airborne has a reputation for mindless brutality, both to their own and to the "enemy."  My commander said, “Are you Airborne or are you a cocksucker?” I wonder how many people that line actually works on? They sent me to Army journalism school for seven months.  I had a certain knack for writing, because I had written a lot ever since I was a little kid.  I had a speech impediment – literally only my mother could understand me – so that’s why I wrote so much.   I learned photography in the Army. 

RASSBACH: What was it like working as a journalist for the U.S. Army?

CHIROUX:  First they sent me to Tokyo for about two years. Then I was in Heidelberg from May 2005 to August 2007 in the “U.S. Army Europe Command Information Division.” My main job was to be a literary and photographic con-artist for the U.S. military in relations with its soldiers and with the civilian populations in Japan, Germany, and elsewhere.  I was thought to have some potential in international relations and strategic communications. Mainly I worked with civilians doing press releases and articles for the internet or for military publications like Stars & Stripes and the Army magazine in Europe. I was really happy to be in Japan and Germany, but felt the U.S. had no business in either place. I was sent to other places, Italy, the Philippines, and Afghanistan, for example to write an article about how great the U.S. military is to provide medical care to Rumanian NATO soldiers wounded in Afghanistan.  On these assignments, I had to carry a weapon: I don't want to think about how many women and children it may have inadvertently been pointed at. As an Army journalist it was my job to collect and filter service member's stories.  I heard many stomach-churning testimonies of the horrors and crimes taking place in Iraq. For fear of retaliation from the military, I failed to report these crimes. Now I feel I struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in part because of deep feelings of guilt that I used my art to further what I now consider to be a racist, imperialist and ultimately genocidal campaign.  And in the articles we wrote, we lied to soldiers from the comfort of Germany and Japan --- these were soldiers whom I knew were suffering, bleeding, and killing in the Middle East.

RASSBACH:  What finally led you to become a war resister?

CHIROUX:  In Japan and in Germany, I was friends with many civilians and hung out with them more than I did with other soldiers.  Some friends in Heidelberg – they were not peace activists, just ordinary civilians – looked me in the eye and said, “You know, what you are doing in Iraq and in Afghanistan is genocide.” At first, it pissed me off. I thought “How insensitive; they don’t know what my people are going through who have to go and do this fighting.” But they said, “You need to understand that there are more types of genocide than simply Nazi fascism. You need to compare what’s going on now and what was going on then, because we don’t want to see your wars end like ours.” It was especially important to me that my Japanese and German friends had the courage to tie it back to their own history. Yeah, at first if offended me, and I said to them, “How dare you?” But what they said sat in the back of my head, and I kept thinking about it, and it came to a point where I couldn’t deny it any more. So never be afraid to tell it like it is. It was hard to take, but maybe saved my life. I ended up refusing to go to Iraq, very much as a result of what I’d learned in Heidelberg.  I may actually owe my life to some very brave German citizens who were willing to offend me with the truth.

RASSBACH:  How did you and other GIs feel about the demonstrations outside the base in Heidelberg?

CHIROUX:  Me, I loved it, personally.  Most of the soldiers thought it very cool.  Some of them made fun and said “damn hippies” and “damn crazies” and “We’re here to protect their free speech, but all they want to talk is trash, da, da, da….” These opinions are the loudest, because that’s what’s accepted in the Army. But I’m sure you’ve seen it from the outside yourself: soldiers will give you the peace sign.  They’re telling you, “Good job, keep protesting, because we don’t have that right.”  It’s important for soldiers to see that another world is possible. GIs don’t have this information, especially in Germany.  They don’t have newspapers from the U.S., don’t have U.S. magazines – just a few in the PX.  They get almost all their information from the Armed Forces Network (AFN) or from military newspapers or from their commanders.  They don’t get information from the outside.  That information from the outside forced me to readdress where I was.

RASSBACH: So what led you, finally, to take a public stance against these wars?

CHIROUX:  I was discharged honorably from the Army in Heidelberg 2007, but there is a provision where you then are part of the Individual Ready Reserves (IRR), and they can recall you at any time.   When I left Heidelberg, I’d been overseas so long that I felt like an immigrant coming back to the U.S., so I moved to Brooklyn, a city of immigrants.  After various short-term jobs and a brief time on unemployment, I enrolled in Brooklyn College in January 2008.  The Army benefits help a little, but at $1200 a month, they don’t even cover my rent in Brooklyn.  Then in February 2008, I received a letter from the Army ordering my return to active duty, for the purpose of mobilization for “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” I was depressed and did not know what to do, but in March 2008, I watched the “Winter Soldier” hearing of Iraq Veterans against the War (IVAW) on the internet (www.ivaw.org/wintersoldier). This hearing has inspired many soldiers, and IVAW has grown rapidly, with over 1700 members now worldwide.  In New York I met IVAW members, like Selena Coppa, who runs the Active Duty Organizing campaign of IVAW and who is now stationed in Wiesbaden. IVAW gave me the backing to stand up and refuse to deploy to support this unconstitutional and illegal occupation that violates all my core values as a human being.  But as I said, before I met IVAW, I had already come to the conclusion that these wars are wrong from my talks with Japanese and German friends.

RASSBACH:  What is at stake in your hearing on April 21st, and how can we here in Germany help you?

CHIROUX:  Most likely I'll be discharged from the military. It is unlikely the Army will attempt any further action as I have been quite public and am part of a growing pool of IRR Soldiers who have refused deployment in similar or more private fashions.  More than a dozen members of the U.S. Congress have signed a statement supporting my refusal to go to Iraq.  Even my father, who twice voted for Bush, supports me now. People in Germany can help me by continuing to support those like me. Work to help André Shepherd, who also refused to go to Iraq, gain asylum in Germany. Demonstrate in front of more military bases. Talk to more young soldiers like me who need to know the truth in no uncertain terms. Call my unit (HRC-St. Louis) at 314-592-0708 and tell them German people stand in solidarity with IRR resisters like myself: tell them they should refuse to prosecute soldiers of conscience. Add me on Facebook, check out my Website, but most importantly, continue the struggle.

RASSBACH: Was it hard for you to apologize to Malalai Joya?

CHIROUX:  it was hard for me to go to Afghanistan in denial of the true nature of what I was doing, the suffering that I caused, not only that I caused to other people, but also that I caused to myself by going to Afghanistan.  It’s hard to say the words in the moment, but it was absolutely necessary. Those words have been sitting dormant, waiting to rip out of my soul for years now.  And I’m just so honored that they could come out to someone like Malalai, someone whom I have so much respect for and so much admiration for.  And I really do believe that she is the living embodiment of hope for the Afghan people. And I won’t stop struggling to free them, because they are enslaved right now by the U.S., and its as wrong as slavery was against the black people in the 1800s, and everyone deserves to be free, especially Afghani people who have for so long been occupied.  This is the way forward.  This is definitely the way forward.