Iraq veteran Tom Cassidy: Czechs being used by US for superpower chess game
George W. Bush arrives in Prague on Monday evening for a visit that is likely to be dominated by missile defence - Czech and U.S. officials are currently involved in talks on building a radar base some 70km from Prague. The proposal, however, has produced much soul-searching about the Czech Republic's relationship with its most powerful ally. Among those attending the recent anti-radar base demonstrations in Prague was Tom Cassidy, a 24-year-old American veteran of the Iraq war, who is now campaigning in Europe against U.S. foreign policy. Earlier Tom came into the Radio Prague studios, and began by telling Radio Prague about his childhood in rural Ohio.
So joining the military was very much a form of escape for you?
"Yeah. It was a way to get college money, which I didn't have, living in a small town and not making much money, my family not making much money. And it also got me out of there and helped me to see the world, I guess you could say."
Is that true of a lot of other young men of your age? Did a lot of people around you join for the same reason?
"Oh yeah. In America there's a thing called the economic draft, it's referred to a lot, where the military kind of preys on people who are down and out. They don't have very many options in life, and they convince them this is a viable option. And as a result, the majority of the military is people that come from underprivileged and dead-end, small towns like that."
But it's also true that the military provides an opportunity for a lot of people from poorer backgrounds that they wouldn't necessarily have otherwise.
"Yes, you're right. They do provide an opportunity. But the problem is they coerce these kids in with a lot of misinformation and sometimes just outright lying, so it's a bit of a moral grey area. You get a little bit of good out of it, but as a result you're lied to a lot."
You served in the U.S. Army's 1st Infantry Division from July 2001 to 2005. What was it like when you first arrived at base camp? Was it something of a shock for an Ohio farm boy?
"Well, in basic training, the first moment of the first day when I first saw the drill sergeant, I thought to myself - Oh Lord, what I have I got myself into? And basically every day until the day I got out of the army I thought that when I woke up - what did I get myself into? It was a shock, to say the least."
You went to Iraq in 2004, one year after the U.S.-led invasion. How did you feel when you were told you would be going to serve in Iraq?
"I wasn't very surprised because I had a feeling we were going to be sent anyway. I was morally opposed to the war, I thought there was no reason to invade Iraq, and this was back when a lot of Americans were still jaded and misled by the media and by the government, thinking it was a noble cause. I didn't think it was noble at all. It was very tough for me personally to go there, because I felt I was selling my morals out."
Did you have any say in the matter at all?
"Not really. It was an order. It was either follow the order or break the law. At the time there really wasn't much of a support chain for AWOL and resisters. So my options were basically go to war or break the law and be a fugitive from the United States government. As a result, because I was stationed in Germany at the time, it was - you know, I'd never be able to go back to America and so on."
So just to get this straight, there was no possibility just to leave the military?
"No. Actually I was supposed to get out in July 2004, but the military kept me in an extra year to make sure I could go to Iraq. Not only was there not the option to get out, but when I was originally supposed to get out, they made sure I stayed in longer."
Despite your apprehension, did you still go to Iraq thinking - I want to do some good and I want to make a difference?
"I personally felt that I wanted to do good. But I knew that our mission there and the people around me didn't personally care. So it was a lot of guilt and just bad emotions that I would just hold within me. Because I honestly wanted what I thought or what the Iraqi people thought was best for them. But we were never doing that. We were never helping these people, we were just slaughtering these people and destroying everything they had that was once beautiful."
I'm sure you have many unpleasant memories of that year in Iraq. What's the worst one for you?
"I don't know if there's a worst one, but there's quite a few bad ones. One time a father was walking up to our front gate and I was on guard duty and he was being helped by his son, no older than 11-12 years old. And the reason his son was helping him walk was because three days ago his leg had been blown off by the United States military. This man was just a simple farmer, and he can no longer farm because he's missing his leg. It was just seeing that and seeing him ask for help and being turned away and told to go home and being told - we don't care, get out of my face. Being called names by the other soldiers, racist names. Things like that just really tugged at my heartstrings a lot. How are we spreading democracy by doing things like this? We're not spreading democracy. We - the American military in Iraq - are the terrorists. We're spreading terror in Iraq."
"Well, bringing down Saddam Hussein needed to be done, I'm not going to argue with that. He was a bad man. However, the reasoning for going to war changed almost by the week. Every time they came up with a new excuse it got shot down. It was weapons of mass destruction, and links to al Qaeda, and links to 9-11, and terrorist training camps and then it was - well we have to find Saddam, and then they found him. Then we said - we have to install democracy. Well, they elected a government and drafted a constitution and the American consulate ripped up the constitution because it wasn't good enough. Where's the democracy in that? A freely-elected government drafts a constitution for their new free nation and another nation's ambassador rips up the constitution, says it's not good enough? There's no democracy in Iraq, and as long as there's American occupation in Iraq there will not be democracy."
"Well, there's really no guarantee they're going to protect Europe. General Obering, from the missile defence command, even said - this is to defend America. He didn't say this is to defend America and Europe. He said - this is the line of first defence for America. And frankly, from the actions of the American government and the American military over the past thirty-forty years, what's to make anybody think that they care about anything other than themselves? Putting a radar base here in the Czech Republic is going to first of all make the Czech Republic a target. It will escalate the Czech Republic's role in everything that the American military does abroad, everything that's currently going on and everything that's going to go on in the future."
But the Czech Republic is already a target. It had military police in Iraq, it has troops in Afghanistan, it's a member of NATO and a loyal ally of the U.S. How is a radar base going to make things different?
"Essentially this radar is a bit of a standoff with Russia. The radar has a range of 5,000 kilometres, and a large portion of Russia is in that, including one of Russia's main missile concentrations. So it seems like we're gearing up for the second Cold War right now, and putting a radar base in the Czech Republic to monitor that Cold War makes the Czech Republic the frontline for that. Yes, the Czech Republic is already an ally, but you don't need to pour salt in the wound of these people that already don't like America. Getting closer and closer to America just makes you closer and closer to the problem."
Some people in America listening to this would accuse you of anti-Americanism, even being a traitor.
"Well, I disagree with them vehemently. I think the principles of America, what America was originally based on, have gotten so far out of context right now that we need to bring them back. Our nation was supposed to be about freedom and democracy, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But we're not spreading life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness in Iraq. We're spreading death and destruction and sadness and depression, that's what we're doing. The American military really has no basis to be in Europe right now. It's all just trying to expand this empire. You know what? If George Bush's arrogant militarism is what it means to be an American, then I'd gladly accept the alternative."
If you had a message for Czech people listening to this programme - many of whom have very, very fond feelings about the United States, which of course stood by them during forty years of communism and liberated part of this country from the Nazis, what would you say to them?
"Don't listen to the people who are nay-saying on you. It's your government and it's your country. You should make the decisions. You should take back control of your government and demand a referendum on this issue. It should be up to the people, because the people are going to be the ones who will feel the nasty effects of this. We already have missiles to destroy the whole world over, and we have enough satellites that we see everything that's going on anyway. This is just another step in the chess game between the great powers of the world, and they're using the people and the land of the Czech Republic as just a square on that board, and that's wrong."