The soldiers who resisted the first Gulf War deserve recognition

On International Conscientious Objectors’ Day, let's honor the soldiers who led a mass exodus from the military during the first Gulf War 30 years ago.

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International Conscientious Objectors’ Day is observed annually on May 15. Thirty years ago this month, at the conclusion of the first Gulf War, Private First Class Sam Lwin and 24 other Marines were charged with desertion. They were among tens of thousands across the U.S. armed forces who applied for conscientious objector, or CO, status or otherwise resisted participation in a war that they came to realize was wrong. Lwin, a Burmese-American student and Marine reservist of Fox Company, led seven others in his unit to resist the U.S. Marine Corps, ultimately joining a mass exodus of the military in which soldiers deserted at higher percentages than even in the Vietnam War. The story of why these soldiers resisted, how and with whose help is lesser known but deserves greater recognition.

The first Gulf War had a few causes, but the most immediate was a disagreement about oil pricing in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, that came to a head in mid 1990. Iraq, still devastated from the nearly 8-year-long Iran-Iraq war that had only concluded a couple years earlier, desperately needed oil price stability to recover. Kuwait also held some significant Iraqi debt which, if they were to disappear, would hasten Iraq’s recovery. When Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah of Kuwait again refused to comply with OPEC production quotas, selling more oil than was agreed upon and thus dragging the price of oil down for the rest of OPEC, President Saddam Hussein of Iraq threatened a military response in early July 1990. The invasion began early the next month.

An international coalition largely led by the United States quickly formed to denounce and repel the Iraqi invasion. One major concern was that, after a rapid conquest of Kuwait, Iraq could invade and wrest control of the massive oil fields in U.S.-allied Saudi Arabia. Within days of Hussein’s invasion into Kuwait, the U.S. soldiers were sent into Saudi Arabia. Although the initial objective of Operation Desert Shield, as it was known, was “wholly defensive,” mission creep led U.S. forces to start bombing Iraq within months, starting in mid January 1991. 

The military coalition that formed against Iraq justified intervention in the regional conflict with a number of reasons. Under Hussein, Iraq had a documented history of human rights abuses, including the use of chemical weapons, biological weapons and torture. Iraqi human rights abuses continued in Kuwait. But after the Iraqi invasion into Kuwait, the Kuwaiti government exaggerated and even invented Iraqi atrocities, specifically targeting the international and American public with this propaganda through the Hill & Knowlton public relations firm. The PR campaign successfully rallied the public and Congress against Iraq. Thus, much of the U.S. public was primed to view Iraqis as monstrous, and themselves as heroic liberators. This rhetoric strongly informed the U.S. military’s vision of itself as well.

Many soldiers of color experienced racism during boot camp, but racist harassment increased significantly for those who came out as COs.

The resisters within the U.S. military saw things differently. Although Saddam Hussein’s aggression was worth denouncing, many soldiers did not find it heroic to defend a foreign dictator across the world just to keep some oil fields in friendly hands. Many, including Sam Lwin, enlisted with the military as teenagers uncertain about their life paths or how they might pay for college. For many, and especially for people of color in the military, patriotism was less of a motivator than the desire for status, funding for education, and a decent paying job in the face of few other options.

Others joined genuinely wanting to do good in the world, but over time realized that, in the words of Major General Smedley D. Butler, “war is a racket” meant to benefit a small few. As West Point graduate, former Army career officer and CO David Wiggins put it, “I had been taught that anything below officer was for inferior types — minorities, bums, criminals in lieu of jail … Their lives were pretty insignificant, and it was no great loss if a few of them died defending our freedom.”

When soldiers applied for conscientious objector status, many faced various threats, docked pay, incarceration and isolation, and psychiatric evaluations. Many soldiers of color experienced racism during boot camp, but racist harassment increased significantly for those who came out as COs.

As the possibility of a U.S. military intervention around Kuwait increased, Lwin began to seriously consider what it would mean to participate in such a violent venture. He filed for CO status a few weeks before his unit was called to report for duty, and when his application was ignored, he went AWOL. He reached out to the War Resisters League, or WRL, which counseled him and hundreds of other COs around the country seeking help in getting out. Throughout the ordeal, Michael Marsh of WRL worked with Lwin and 29 other COs to have their status recognized and to reduce any penalties that may arise — and Marsh was just one out of dozens of WRL counselors working with COs.

Without Sam Lwin standing up for his conscience and thus demonstrating that that was even an option, the fates of seven other Marines could have been very different.

Lwin was a student at The New School at the time, and when he told his fellow students about his predicament, the students formed a grassroots group to support and defend Lwin’s conscience. Hands Off Sam!, and later just Hands Off! as the group expanded, was composed of dozens of New School students who helped publicize Lwin’s story, stood with him as he protested before the Marine armory in the Bronx, and packed the court rooms for his and his fellow COs’ court-martials. These groups successfully convinced judges that the Marine Corps’ treatment of COs like Lwin was systemic, abusive and illegal. Lwin initially faced seven years in prison; his civilian support had the sentence reduced to just four months. 

It is often the case that soldiers with doubts about their military participation do not attempt to resist until a fellow soldier does. Sam Lwin was the one who suddenly revealed the possibility of resistance to his seven other fellow Marines in Fox Company. Without Lwin standing up for his conscience and thus demonstrating that that was even an option, the fates of the seven other Marines could have been very different.

But on the other hand, as Sam Lwin’s story illustrates, soldiers within the military who come to realize their conscientious objections often have a very difficult time having their concerns acknowledged by their superiors. This is especially true in times when the military is actively engaged or preparing to engage in a conflict, a disturbing trend considering the fact that the U.S. armed forces have not seen peace in close to 20 years. And with President Biden’s $13 billion dollar military budget increase over Trump’s budget, the American war machine does not seem to be slowing or shrinking.

COs within the military often need the assistance of civilian groups to successfully resist. So, for the sake of fellow soldiers who may be inspired by a CO’s resistance, for the sake of a world constantly threatened by the whims of its largest military, and for the sake of the COs themselves, let us do more to promote and honor those who refused to participate in war. 

This story was produced by War Resisters

War Resisters is a joint page shared by War Resisters International and War Resisters League highlighting pressing antiwar topics of today. WRI is an internationalist network of antiwar groups struggling to end the root causes of war around the world. War Resisters League is an independent organization based in New York and a proud member of War Resisters International.

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