I arrived in Baghdad believing that Iraqis were simple people in need of having civilization thrust upon them, and that we were the enlightened civil ones who would show them the right way to live. To me, they were less than human.
One pivotal night three years ago, I bragged to my wife and cousins about a family I had terrified by pointing my rifle at them to get them to stop in traffic. I laughed about the way the father and mother had frantically waved their arms at me, begging not to be shot.
When I told this story in the past to my fellow soldiers, they had laughed and told me similar stories of their own. On this night, no one laughed.
To my great surprise, my wife, my cousin, and his girlfriend were horrified. I even scared the waitress. They let me know in no uncertain terms that it was wrong to laugh about such a thing.
I was immediately defensive. “You guys don’t understand,” I told them. “If you had been there, you would get it.” But, they insisted that it wasn’t funny.
Where I saw humor, they saw a terrified family whose only crime was travelling from one place to another.
The conversation stuck with me. I began to wonder why it was funny to me and not to them. Why was I unmoved by that family’s fears, while my family was horrified by my laughter?
I began searching for information about US wars. I discovered the writing of Noam Chomsky, Glenn Greenwald, Chris Hedges and many more progressive thinkers and writers. I was introduced to Wikileaks, Anonymous, and Julian Assange. I started watching Democracy Now! in the morning and The Young Turks at night. I browsed Common Dreams and Salon on a daily basis.
And of course, I followed the story of whistleblower Bradley Manning, without whom many of these revelations would be impossible.
Around this time, I saw Collateral Murder for the first time. I recognized my own attitudes reflected in the pilots’ apathetic chatter. I thought of my own laughter at the suffering of civilians.
In the spring of 2012, I immersed myself in World War II history. I was particularly fascinated and repulsed by the atrocities committed by the Germans.
How could so many people be so culpable in the mass murder of millions of innocent people? I watched and read everything I could find, trying to gain an understanding of exactly how it had all happened. How had the German people become willing accomplices in the biggest mass murder in recorded history?
Of course, Germany didn’t go from depressed nation to genocidal superpower overnight. Boundaries were crossed one by one until they culminated in the near total destruction of Europe and horrible crescendo now known as the holocaust.
I studied every major war crime I could find record of, including those committed by the US government. I came to realize that, without exception, each of these acts was committed under the banner of a government in the name of the common good.
Every killing of civilians has a pretext. Take these pretexts away and these events all look the same: dead men, women, and children whose only crime is being in the wrong place and time.
Change of Heart
I was experiencing an epiphany; a complete spiritual awakening that became almost unbearable at times. I was overwhelmed by a new connection to humanity. A part of me that had been dead, or never alive, bloomed.
At times I felt on the verge of being uprooted and washed away. I sought spiritual guidance from friends, family, coworkers, pastors, and therapists. I searched for a higher power everywhere.
I became keenly aware of my connection to the never-ending war. I no longer saw myself as removed from the events taking place overseas. I was part of the same power structure; it was the department of defense that signed my paychecks and the Army that used the vehicles I was helping design.
Each new revelation – each new report of another criminal government action – felt like a self-betrayal.
I carried on in this state of cognitive dissonance, alternating between acceptance and revulsion. I was making a choice but hadn’t chosen. Would I surrender and accept the moral emptiness of my profession and the safety and security it provided me, or would I follow what I knew in my heart was right?
My disillusionment was complete the night I watched the US Dirty Wars in Iraq expose by BBC Arabic and the Guardian. Realizing that I had unwittingly been aiding the training, transporting, and equipping of US sanctioned death squads was the last betrayal.
I didn’t sleep for several nights. I was irate and wanted to leave General Dynamics immediately. I spent the weekend pouring my soul into my resignation letter and planning my exit.
My wife was worried sick. She persisted to push back on the plan, insisting that I find work before I left my job. I reluctantly agreed and set aside my letter, telling myself that I was playing my part for the good of my family and nothing else.
I hit a new low point in mid-June. It became a chore of Olympic proportions just to slog through my days. Some mornings I woke up and dry heaved at the thought of going to work. I chain smoked five to six cigarettes during my 25-minute drive. I moved in slow motion, forcing my feet to move my body into the building.
On July 4th I went and watched Jeremy Scahill’s film Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. I was moved to tears by the pain of the family members of the victims of US drones strikes, particularly the children. I walked out of the theatre in a daze.
I no longer questioned if it was really my country that was doing these things. I knew in my heart that it was.
On July 8th, the Guardian released the second part of Glenn Greenwald’s interview with Edward Snowden in which he said this:
“…I enlisted in the army shortly after the invasion of Iraq and I believed in the goodness of what we were doing, I believed in the nobility of our intentions to free oppressed people overseas. But over time, over the length of my career, as I watched the news and I increasingly was exposed to true information that had not been propagandized in the media that we were actually involved in misleading the public and misleading all publics not just the American public in order to create a certain mindset in the global consciousness and I was actually a victim of that….”
When I watched this in the first time, I heard my own thoughts coming out of Mr. Snowden’s mouth. It filled me with hope. I had known that there were people out there who had been through the same exact experience I had been through, but here was someone who had risked everything to tell the truth. It inspired me.
My livelihood was dependent on the continuing war I had turned against. If I wanted to advance in my career, send my children to college, buy a house, and do all of those things that we generically call the American dream, I needed more war.
The hours I toiled were in the service of those committing the very war atrocities I despised. More importantly, as long as I served the corporate war masters my voice, which had become one of dissent, was silenced.
I brought my wife flowers that night and sat her on the bed and told her that I must do this thing. She again resisted but could tell I had made up my mind.
We made an accounting of the meager amount of money we had, discussed the possible repercussions, and planned the actions we would need to take. I called my cousin, who came over and helped me edit my letter. I took a sleeping aide and went to bed.
No Turning Back
I am a coward in the morning. I awoke with a panic and walked nervously up and down our little apartment, mindlessly dressing myself. I drove the long way to work. I parked down the street, behind a vacant building and walked in through the security gate.
I went straight to my desk and downloaded the letter, which I had sent to myself buried in an email titled “Birthday Party.” I carefully copied it over into two emails: one addressed to the entire company, and one slimmed down to just the bare essentials: a few friends, the journalists I respected the most, and my corporate chain-of-command.
I found an empty conference room and connected to the internet. I carefully set down my company phone, badge, and General Dynamics property slip. I stared at the emails, rereading them one more time.
I can only remember one other such unquestionably pivotal moment in my life: the day I signed my enlistment papers. At that moment, sitting in front of the recruiter, I had thought to myself: Are you sure you want to do this, because there is no turning back?
As I had then, I had made one small motion and changed the course of my life. Ten years ago, that small motion had sent me to a war I didn’t understand. On this day, I hit send and left that war.
Change will not be hoisted on us from above—at least not the change we desire. It will come from us, those who have given our consent to the state. Until we take back our explicit or tacit support of the criminal actions taken in our name, nothing will change.
Brandon Toy resigned his job working for US defense contractor General Dynamics as an Engineering Project Manager building Stryker armored fighting vehicles on July 16, 2013. Previously, Brandon served in the Michigan Army National Guard as a Multiple Launch Rocket System Fire Direction Specialist, Team Leader and Vehicle Commander. He was deployed as a military policeman to Baghdad, Iraq in 2004 – 2005.
To learn more about a new documentary film Brandon Toy is working on, go here.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License
his article was originally published at Common Dreams