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Issue # 1416      24 June 2009

The view from Germany

“I want to be able to atone”

Elsa Rassbach interviews André Shepherd, a US soldier applying for asylum in Germany

BERLIN: Earlier this month, President Barack Obama signed into law the supplemental funding of US$92 billion for the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan that was approved by the US Congress. Then he departed for a speaking tour and meetings with heads of state in Egypt and in Europe.

On June 5, he came visit us here in Germany, making stops at the concentration camp at Buchenwald, at Weimar, and at Dresden, a site also of massive bombings of civilians during World War II.

The well-known German ambivalence towards the US “war against terror” is now being further tested by a US soldier’s application for asylum in Germany. André Shepherd, who was stationed in Germany, refuses to deploy to Iraq. Many US soldiers stationed in Europe who refused service in or support of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan have been tried in US military courts in Europe and imprisoned in the US military’s correctional facility at Mannheim; the most well known are Blake Lemoine (2005) and Agustín Aguayo (2006-2007).

But Shepherd is so far the first to turn to the German government for help: last November he filed a formal application to the German government for asylum. For the moment his case is entirely outside of US jurisdiction.

Shepherd argues that there are strong reasons arising from Germany’s history for Germany to grant him asylum: the Nuremberg Principles and the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany that has provisions written in the spirit of Nuremberg. In 2005 the highest German administrative court upheld a German military officer’s right to refuse orders in 2003 to provide software that might have been used by the US for logistics during the invasion of Iraq.

Shepherd’s case is of significance in part because of the strategic importance of the bases in Germany for the US wars in the Middle East. Outside of Iraq and Afghanistan, the US has far more bases in Germany than in any other country; 68,000 US troops are stationed at US bases throughout southern Germany. Approximately 80 percent of the soldiers and supplies to the war zones are routed through Germany, which also hosts the Pentagon’s commands for Africa (AFRICOM) and for Europe and the former Soviet Union (EUCOM).

As a sovereign nation, Germany could at any time restrict use of the US bases, as Turkey, also a NATO member, did in 2003. The German government refused to provide its own troops for the Iraq war, which did not have a UN mandate. But the German government interpreted the NATO treaties as allowing the US to use the US bases in Germany for the invasion of Iraq.

André Shepherd, 32, grew up in Ohio, where he attended college. Like President Obama, he is an African-American. In 2003, when unemployed, he joined the US Army. He was trained as an Apache helicopter mechanic and was stationed in Germany at the US Army’s Ansbach-Katterbach base. From there he was deployed in 2004 to Iraq for six months. In 2007, back in Germany, he received orders to return to Iraq. In April 2007, he went absent without leave (AWOL) and lived underground in Germany. He formally applied for asylum in Germany on November 26, 2008. His application references a directive of the European Union under which soldiers must be granted asylum in the EU if they have reason to fear persecution in their home countries for refusing to participate in crimes or actions that violate international law. Shepherd is currently living in an asylum facility in western Germany together with other asylum applicants, primarily from Iraq and Afghanistan; the facility and a small living stipend are provided by the German government pending the outcome of his case.

This interview was previously published in the national German daily newspaper Junge Welt.

Since the “war on terror” began, there have been many US soldiers who have spoken out and many who have refused to serve. But you are the first so far to apply for asylum in Germany. What are the grounds on which your application is based?

Well, it’s very simple: In the war of aggression against the Iraqi people, the United States violated not only domestic law, but international law as well. The US government has deceived not only the American public, but also the international community, the Iraqi community, as well as the military community. And the atrocities that have been committed there these past six years are great breaches of the Geneva Conventions. My applying for asylum is based on the grounds that international law has been broken and that I do not want to be forced to fight in an illegal war.

In your asylum application, you mention the Principles of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, which were incorporated in the UN Charter. In Nuremberg, the chief US prosecutor, Robert H Jackson, stated: “To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” In opening the trial on behalf of the United States, he stated that “while this law is first applied against German aggressors, this law includes and if it is to serve a useful purpose it must condemn aggression by any other nations, including those which sit here now in judgment.” What does Nuremberg mean to you?

The Nuremberg statutes are the foundation of many US soldiers’ refusal of the Iraq war, and to some extent of the Afghanistan war. The United States with its allies after World War II crafted these laws stating that even though you’ve gotten orders to commit crimes against humanity, you don’t have to follow them, because every person has their own conscience.

That was more than 60 years ago. Today the US government seems to be under the impression that those rules do not apply to it. In invading Iraq, they did not wait for a UN mandate, they didn’t let the inspectors do their job, and they made up stories about who’s a real threat. This totally violated everything stated in the Nuremberg statutes.

The US Constitution states that the US is bound to our international treaties, for example with the UN. When we ignore the UN, we are violating the US Constitution, which every US soldier is sworn to uphold. And the US must also respect our own very strict laws against war crimes and torture. Since the Obama administration refuses to investigate and prosecute the previous administration, it’s clear to me that the Obama administration is an accomplice to the previous administration’s crimes.

They’re setting a very dangerous precedent for the future of the world, something I don’t want to see. The German people are well aware of the history; it is here that the Nuremberg tenets were first set down. Now we have to find a way to restore those tenets, to actually respect the Nuremberg tenets as well as the Geneva Conventions. Germany needs to tell the US, “Look, you guys helped create these laws, and now you guys should abide by your own rules.”

When you were stationed in Ansbach-Katterbach, were you aware of the German citizens’ campaign to prevent the US from enlarging the base there?

Yes, there were protests outside of the Katterbach base. Being inside, we understood that the German people weren’t against us as soldiers. They were just protesting against Germany’s further involvement in US imperialism. So the relationship between us Americans and the Germans working on the base was actually still good. We were of course not allowed to join the protests. I am sure the US military assumed that 50 percent of the GIs would have been out there protesting. A lot of the soldiers understand what is going on – to the point that we realise that we are just a mercenary army for a few rich people. But a significant number of GIs, about 60 percent, have families, so it’s very difficult for them to go AWOL or make massive resistance.

What is your understanding of why Germany is allowing the US to conduct these wars from German soil?

Honestly, I cannot answer that: you could look at it from the political side; you could look at it from the economic side. Or maybe Germany just has a hands-off approach: “You guys are paying the gas, you guys are paying us for the rental space, so you guys just do your thing, and we’re not going to do anything about it.”

So in filing this application for asylum, it’s not just about finding a place to live or something like that: you’re trying to raise a larger historical and political principle?

Yes, that’s correct, because it is my sincere belief that the United States has gone too far. In Iraq alone 1.3 million people have died so far, and that includes American soldiers as well. We’ve attacked several countries over the past eight or nine years: Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Iraq, and some places in the Sudan. All over the world, we’re just destroying property and killing people, all based on lies. And I feel like that I have to do everything I can to help put an end to this. I feel guilty enough for having taken a part in this war for almost five years. I want to be able to atone for that.

Why didn’t you go through the US legal system and apply to the Army for conscientious objector status?

When I asked my NCO (officer) about applying as a CO (conscientious objector), he told me that you have to be against fighting in all wars of every form. And that doesn’t work for me, because of course if you’re being overrun by a foreign invader, you would have to fight back.

According to US Army regulations, this means you are not a conscientious objector. I also learned of the case of Agustín Aguayo and saw how the military treated him. He was based in Schweinfurt, Germany, not far from where I was in Ansbach. He tried to go through the military procedures to be recognised as a conscientious objector, and he refused to load his weapon.

Twice he turned himself in to the US authorities and said, “Look, I’m a CO, and I can’t do this.” But the military wanted to force him to go back and fight anyway. Ultimately they put him in jail in Mannheim. This showed me that I could not expect any help from within the military, and I decided to fight for my rights from the outside.

Can you think of any moment when you suddenly realised, “What I’m doing here is wrong?”

I can’t pick only one moment, because this was a process that went on for years. Falludja was one. Looking at the aftermath of that battle, especially what the Marines, and the Air Force, and the Apache helicopters did to that city – the devastation caused by these machines and the air war, also in Basra and in many other Iraqi cities – I realised that if it weren’t for my work and the work of the other mechanics, those Apaches wouldn’t have gotten very far.

We were constantly working, 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, to make sure this sophisticated equipment continued to fly, especially in the hard conditions in Iraq with all the sand storms and the temperature changes from 140F degrees in the day to 60 at night. Had we, the mechanics of these aircraft, not done our jobs and refused from the beginning to take part in this war, a lot of those people would still be alive, and a lot of the infrastructure in Iraq would still be functioning.

And then there was when one of the Iraqi guys working for the US Army on our sandbags told me how he didn’t understand why we were destroying their city, destroying their infrastructure, arresting people. And I’m just standing there like “what?!” I can’t believe this stuff is happening, because I thought the military is supposed to be fighting for the rights of people. They’re not supposed to torture. They’re the ones who are supposed to get rid of the torturers and to stop the rapists and to help people to have a better life. And when I heard what we’re really doing – it just turns your whole world upside down!

And then there are the 937 lies of George W Bush to the American people: you just feel like a fool, because we signed up to do X, but we wound up doing Y and Z and who knows what else. We killed people; some of our people got killed. An entire country, two countries, are completely destroyed. I keep wondering: what was this all for?

Ask anybody, why are we in Iraq? And you hear several theories: Israel, oil, strategic purposes for Iran, whatever, but no one really has the answer. Same thing in Afghanistan: the NATO mission only went to Afghanistan because of US insistence. We have to force the US to clarify what the actual objective in Afghanistan is. Are they there to help out the drug dealers cultivating heroin, or for the Unical pipeline, or are they there just to have a forward base to go into China or Russia? Why are we there?

Do you think President Obama is going to change any of this?

No. Obama has the backing of the international corporations. And the people who gave him the most money are the ones whose interests are going to be served first. And it’s quite obvious. He won’t go after the prior administration for the war crimes; he won’t pull out of Iraq. He’s leaving 50,000 soldiers to conduct combat missions in Iraq. That means the war is continuing. He wants to escalate the war in Afghanistan. He wants to keep pushing for AFRICOM, the US command for Africa based in Stuttgart, and he’s pushing for the missile shield to try to encircle Russia and Iran.

These things show me that Barack Obama is not going to change anything. And Obama is only one guy. He still has to deal with the entire Congress, the court system, the Pentagon. The military has been around for over 220 some years, and they’re not going to change overnight just because there’s a new Commander-in-Chief.

They’re still arresting people who refuse to fight. They’re still putting them in jail, giving them dishonourable discharges, and some are facing possible felony convictions. But Obama has yet to speak of the growing number of soldiers refusing to fight for him – well, first Bush, and now him. So I don’t see President Obama granting anyone clemency until the entire “war on terror” is finished, and Afghanistan and Iraq are part of the same war.

Many US soldiers who have fled the military are living underground in the US and dozens more are likely in Europe. In Canada, many of them have applied for asylum, but since last summer they are being deported and then imprisoned in the US. What if Germany rejects your asylum application?

Then I’m facing a US military court martial and jail time. I’m not saying I would go back to the US willingly; I would still try to find another way to build a life somewhere.

If Germany granted you asylum, would large numbers of GIs who are stationed here start walking off the bases?

I would see maybe like 100 or 200, but I don’t see 30,000 soldiers applying for asylum in Germany. It’s no easy thing, because you’re basically saying goodbye to your country, perhaps for the rest of your life. That’s a really big step. You have to say goodbye to your family. You’ve got to learn a new language and try to fit into the culture. You’ve got to deal with homesickness. It is a very important personal step that a lot of soldiers would find difficult.

But you are taking all these difficulties upon yourself. Why do you feel called to do this?

Because I was sick of watching the United States degenerate into something I can’t even recognise anymore. The America that I grew up in isn’t there anymore. Between Clinton, Bush, and now Obama, the US is sliding from the constitutional republic that it was to where now the corporations are just taking all the fruits of the American people’s labour; the country’s really poor, we’ve got endless war everywhere.

Sixty years from now people will be saying that we were the country that destroyed half the Middle East for nothing. They’re building up a civilian corps that’ll spy and turn in everybody, you know, like a modern day Stasi. These things are very disturbing. This is a country that I don’t want to live in or raise my future children in.

America’s going down the exact same path as the Roman Empire, and it’s really sad, having grown up there, to watch the destruction slowly happen before your eyes. Sometimes you feel, no matter what you do, it’s going to happen anyway. There have been many people before who have been sounding the alarm bells, many peace organisations. And I want to help, put my hand in and try to stop it as well.

And this is something that’s been building up over time, because I’m totally hurt. I feel cheated. I feel lied to. You know, I helped murder people in Iraq for nothing. These are things I’m not proud of whatsoever, and I want to be able to turn this around and bring the people ultimately responsible for this to justice. Because had I known back then what I know now, I never would have signed up in the first place.

What can people do to help you?

Help raise awareness internationally, because this is not just about me. It’s about the other soldiers as well. We’re all in this together. And especially it’s about the Iraqi people, the Afghan people, the dead soldiers, just everyone. Organisations people can contact are Military Counselling Network (MCN) or Connection e.V., Tübingen Progressive Americans, Munich American Peace Committee, Iraq Veterans Against the War, and it’s good to contact with DFG-VK in Germany – they’re a national organisation.

Right now we’re collecting letters to give to the German government to show the support of the German people. The German government also needs to know that Americans and people from other countries support my request for asylum. This is an international problem, and I believe in an international solution.

To support André Shepherd, contact:

girights-germany@dfg-vk.de
or see www.connection-ev.de

Elsa Rassbach is US citizen, filmmaker and journalist who often lives and works in Berlin, Germany. She co-founded American Voices Abroad Military Project, an initiative to support GIs who resist in Europe, and she is active in DFG-VK (the German affiliate of War Resisters International, WRI) as well as in Code Pink and the International Committee of United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ). Her award-winning film, The Killing Floor, set in the Chicago Stockyards, will be re-released this year.

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