Jeff Paterson is Project Director at Courage to Resist, an Oakland based organization that advocates for and assists US military war resisters. Courage to Resist is also involved with the Bradley Manning Support Network, and hosts Bradley Manning’s Legal Defense Fund. Paterson discusses his involvement with Courage to Resist, his experience in the military and issues around the detention of Bradley Manning and his legal defense.
This interview was conducted via email on January 17, 2011.
HP: Tell me about Courage to Resist?
Jeff Paterson: Courage to Resist is an organizing collective based in Oakland, California. Our members live primarily on the west coast, but our efforts are not geographically limited. We’ve been working to support US military war resisters since 2005 as an organization, including hosting the legal defense funds for approximately 30 service members who have faced significant charges at military courts martial.
HP: What are some of the things that it is involved in?
Jeff Paterson: We engage daily in phone counseling with service members who are usually calling about involuntary recall from the Individual Ready Reserve, as well as the continuing policy of Stop-loss. Together these two programs make up what we call the “back door draft”. We’re currently working on behalf of Soldier Jeff Hanks who is fighting redeployment to Afghanistan so that he can get real help for his extreme PTSD. And we’re supporting Nasser Abdo, the first known Soldier to attempt to be discharged as a conscientious objector based on his Muslim faith. Most of our energies these days are focused on the defense of accused Wikileaks whistle-blower Army PFC Bradley Manning.
HP: What prompted the founding of Courage to Resist; how was it started?
Jeff Paterson: Courage to Resist was born from the individual efforts of activists in support of individual GI resisters in 2004. At that time we rallied support locally in the SF Bay Area on behalf of Marine L/Cpl Stephen Funk, the first service member to refuse to fight in the Iraq War. A few months later, two Soldiers in different states were scheduled to face court martial for refusing to return to Iraq on the same day—SSgt Kevin Benderman and SSgt Camilo Mejia. We realized that we needed a standing organization that could systematically support GI objectors, instead of recreating a support committee for each individual objector.
HP: How did you come to be involved?
Jeff Paterson: I was a Marine from 1986-1991. At the end of my enlistment, I was stop-lossed so that I could be deployed to Iraq. There is a lot more to say as to why, but the short of it is that I publicly refused deployment on Aug. 16, 1990. It turned out that I would become the first US service member to refuse to fight in Iraq. I was jailed in pre-trial confinement at the Pearl Harbor brig for three months before growing public support and a great lawyer lead to my immediate discharge, vs. the 2-4 years jail sentence I was expecting. This experience continues to inform my efforts today.
HP: Is Courage to Resist behind both the Bradley Manning Support Network, and the Legal Defense Fund?
Jeff Paterson: Courage to Resist hosts the Bradley Manning defense fund on behalf of the Bradley Manning Support Network (BMSN). This partnership came about based on Courage to Resist’s track record of responsibly hosting similar funds, the need for fiscal accountability for a defense fund being launched by a new ad-hoc entity at the time (the BMSN), and Courage to Resist’s engagement in the Bradley Manning situation from the beginning. Two of the eight current members of the BMSN Steering Committee are Courage to Resist members—myself and Bob Meola.
The legal trust account is related, but separate. All funds donated to the legal trust account directly offset Bradley’s legal fees. While we fundraise and provide accounting for the legal trust account, we never actually touch those funds. The Bradley Manning IOLTA legal trust account is managed by attorney David Coombs under regulation of the Massachusetts IOLTA (Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts) Program, and the American Bar Association. Any funds remaining in the trust account at resolution of the legal case will become Bradley’s with interest.
On the other hand, the defense fund has transferred $50,000 to the legal trust, and we’ve spent another $50,000 on public outreach and awareness of Bradley Manning and the issues involved. Those non-legal funds have been spent on: The international distribution of leaflets, posters, stickers, shirts; Administrative expenses and online transaction fees (Visa, MasterCard, PayPal, etc.); Processing the “Stand with Brad” public statement.
HP: Were you in the military?
Jeff Paterson: Before becoming the first service member to refuse to fight in Iraq, I served nearly two years in Okinawa, Japan, and another year split between South Korea and the Philippines. For my last year, I was stationed at Kaneohe Marine Corps Air Station on Oahu, Hawaii. I was a Marine Artillery Fire Direction Controller.
HP:What were some of the reasons you wanted to join?
Jeff Paterson: I thought it would be cool to kill people for a living, but at the same time, I assumed that the people we were going to kill would deserve to die. This seemed a lot more interesting than struggling to support myself to attend a local community college, or working in a factory or burger joint.
HP: Why did you feel like you could no longer serve?
Jeff Paterson: I realized the people we were planning on killing actually did not deserve to be killed. I was one of a few artillery controllers that had been trained to assemble and set the fuse for the rocket-assisted nuclear artillery rounds—known as “Silver Bullets”. I was told by my commander that if “anything went wrong over there”, it would be my job to “nuc all of the ragheads until they glow”. A few days later I applied for a discharge as a conscientious objector. My claim was eventually denied when someone at the Pentagon ruled that I was sincere, “but not sincere enough”.
HP: How do you view the role of the military in American society, both historically and contemporaneously?
Jeff Paterson: The US military is larger and stronger than the rest of world’s militaries combined. That has come at a massive fiscal price that every American is on the hook for, regardless if they realize it. Yet that has not exactly guaranteed success in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US is in serious risk of going the way of other empires throughout the world’s history—and I believe I’ll live to see much of that play out.
HP: Do you think that there are just wars?
Jeff Paterson: I think oppressed peoples have the right to fight back against oppressive powers, and those living in a region or country have the right to fight for their self-determination against foreign occupiers. However, I doubt that such oppressed folks would care very much if I thought otherwise—so my opinion on that is about as important as my thinking on how many angels can dance on the point of a sewing pin.
HP: What is your definition of a conscientious objector? Do you think that a conscientious objector has the moral right to resist service, even if its a defensive war or a war that most people consider just?
Jeff Paterson: Courage to Resist believes that a conscientious objector is an individual who says that they are a conscientious objector (CO). Specifically, we believe that CO’s should be afforded the right to object to specific wars and conflicts—as it is clear that not every war or conflict is morally equivalent to every other armed conflict. In the real world, CO’s usually begin their journey of self discovery by learning of and opposing a specific injustice. It’s ridiculous, as the US military regulations currently demand, for a CO to be fully formed in their moral understanding of all issues related to conflict, and the totality of their opposition to all conflict in all forms.
HP: A lot of media, commentators and just people seem to have a hard time including Bradley Manning in conversations about the impact and dynamic of the database and other files that he’s accused of leaking. I find myself leaving him out as well. I think this is only made worse by the fact that Manning hasn’t pleaded guilty and might not at all and that his position in the military limits his rights, unlike predecessors such as Daniel Ellsberg.
How should we think about Bradley Manning given that he hasn’t actually admitted to the crime he’s accused of: as an unfairly treated prisoner? Or as a political prisoner? Is it fair to give him the credit for the leaks if he hasn’t admitted that he’s responsible for them?
Jeff Paterson: There is no doubt that Bradley is a political prisoner who is being subjected to extreme pre-trial punishment– specially near total social isolation from other inmates, and a complete lack of meaningful physical exercise.
It’s fair to look at the statements released by the government to implicate Bradley Manning, and to say that if the statements are indeed factual, then Bradley Manning is a hero. Furthermore, that Bradley did not release the materials in question in the hopes of any kind of personal gain to himself, but to spark public debate regarding US foreign policy. That’s basically the textbook definition of a whistle-blower.
Bradley Manning is facing life in prison. The current charges add up to 50 years, but many additional charges are expected to be added by the prosecution prior to court martial. Bradley has made no statements to the prosecution, and the defense team has yet to see any actual evidence against him (beyond the chat logs selectively released by Wired Magazine). In such a situation, it seems more than reasonable to challenge the prosecution to come up with actual evidence before sending someone away to prison for a lifetime.
It’s very possible that supporters will mount significant rallies of support for Bradley Manning during his pre-trial hearing (likely in March), and during the actual court martial (likely in the summer), focusing on government transparency, truth, and the realities of the US occupation wars. Meanwhile, in the court room, the legal arguments will revolve entirely on computer-based forensic evidence. Clearly this is not the typical political trial storyline, but activists need to accept it and move on with our efforts to build broad support for Bradley and his alleged actions.
HP: Do you think Manning gets enough credit for his actions, or is that credit mitigated by all of these complicating factors?
Jeff Paterson: Bradley Manning could certainly use additional attention and support. There are complicating factors, but in large part those complicating factors are: 1. Bradley is locked away in isolation and is not commenting on the case against him. 2. Bradley’s lead attorney is not doing a lot of media. 3. Bradley does not have family members willing or able to speak up for him. 4. There are very few individuals who Bradley chooses to visit with. All of these issues make it challenging for media outlets to cover Bradley’s story in the usual format.
HP: Wikileaks raised funds for the Bradley Manning defense fund, but later seemed unable to deliver those funds to the defense fund for several months. Recently, Wikileaks released the funds…but the amount seemed lower than what had initially been promised.
Can you talk about what prevented Wikileaks from releasing the funds?
Jeff Paterson: I have no particular insight into Wikileaks’ financials. If I had to guess, it seemed that WikiLeaks was focusing on their mission of processing and releasing leaked information, and dealing with endless attacks by opponents. Bradley Manning might have slid down their “to do” list.
From the beginning, it was my belief that it was primarily going to be up to US-based organizers to take on the responsibility for providing Bradley Manning a civilian legal defense team (with US military court martial experience) of his choosing, and building a grassroots campaign on his behalf. We’ve been reasonably successful on both accounts, but we clearly have a lot of work ahead of us.
HP: Was it difficult for Courage to Resist to be critical of Wikileaks, given the barrage of criticism that was already being directed at both Manning and Assange?
Jeff Paterson: Courage to Resist and the Bradley Manning Support Network never intended to be overly “critical” of Wikileaks, yet we felt we needed to clarify the situation. We took on the responsibility of funding Bradley’s entire legal defense, and we couldn’t do that if folks were under the mistaken belief that a large portion of those defense funds had already been taken care of.
It was very unfortunate that our original statement regarding this situation was released hours prior to Julian Assange’s arrest. We certainly did not intend to have any part in the attacks on Wikileaks.
HP: Can you speak of the main legal issues that are currently being dealt with regarding Manning’s detention?
Jeff Paterson: Bradley Manning attorney David Coombs filed a motion to dismiss the charges based on the lack of a speedy trial on January 3rd. Mr. Coombs also filed a motion to have Bradley released from pre-trial confinement based on the clear pre-trial punishment being inflicted upon Bradley in the Marine brig at Quantico. The pre-trial conditions clearly go far beyond what is required to ensure that Bradley appears at court martial. At the very least, we hope that these motions, in conjunction with protests and a letter writing campaign to the Marine authorities who are overseeing Bradley’s confinement, will alter Bradley’s confinement conditions for the better.
HP: If a soldier is contemplating becoming a conscientious objector or leaving the service for moral reasons, what should he/she do?
Jeff Paterson: If a service member is thinking about applying for a conscientious objector discharge, the most important thing they should do is contact Courage to Resist or the GI Rights Hotline (girighthotline.org) prior to submitting their formal CO application. An experienced counselor can help identify parts of their CO application that are likely to be unfairly interpreted by the military investigators, and in turn to make suggestions regarding possible ways to reword these same ideas. Generally speaking, service members who attempt to file a CO discharge on their own have a 1 in 3 chance of success, whereas service members with assistance from the beginning have a 2 in 3 likelihood of success.
Service members who simply leave the military (in other words, go AWOL) can also benefit greatly from contacting Courage to Resist or the GI Rights Hotline. We’re able to provide likely outcomes based on their service, rank, and a number of other variables. Additionally, we can help them prepare to return to the military in order to resolve their outstanding AWOL or desertion issues so that they can move on with their lives.