Kokesh: The Face of Iraq Vets Against War

As a week of antiwar activities kicks off in Washington on Saturday, Marine Corps veteran Adam Kokesh will be a familiar face. The 25-year-old former sergeant was in the news earlier this week when he was escorted out of the House Armed Service Committee's hearing for Gen. David Petraeus. Dressed in a black anti-Iraq War T shirt and a desert camouflage hat, Kokesh unfurled a small sign that said GENERALS LIE, SOLDIERS DIE and was summarily escorted out of the room while House aides struggled to get the general's microphone working.

Kokesh wasn't arrested, but if he had been it wouldn't have been the first time. In the eight months since he joined Iraq Veterans Against the War, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit, the telegenic Kokesh has become a fixture on the antiwar scene giving speeches, blogging, staging mock military patrols and being arrested in cities all over country. He was on Larry King's CNN show Thursday night, and Wonkette snarkily reports sightings of Kokesh in cafes around D.C.

Kokesh, who did an eight-month tour in Fallujah in 2004, is one of a growing number of both active and veteran military members who are publicly opposing the continued occupation of Iraq. In January, Appeal for Redress, a group of active-duty, Reserve and National Guard personnel presented a petition of 1,000 signatures to Congress calling for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. And in August, seven active-duty soldiers took the almost unprecedented step of writing an editorial in The New York Times criticizing the military leadership and calling U.S. forces an occupying force that "long ago outlived its welcome." (Two of those soldiers died in an accident in Iraq this week.)

Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), which Kokesh co-chairs, says its membership has grown slightly from 400 to 600 in the last few months—a sign they say, of mounting frustration over the war and the toll that extended deployments are taking on members of the military and their families. The drawdown of troops proposed by Petraeus and endorsed by President Bush isn't appeasing these vets. "That's a crock," says Kokesh. "When their deployments are up, there are just no replacements for them. They are stretched as thin as possible as it is, and it's tearing the military apart."

More traditional-minded Marines say antiwar vets are insignificant when you consider the size of the overall military. "It irritates some of us to see this vocal minority get such attention. They are such a small percentage of the total," says Mitchell Bell, a 41-year-old civilian pilot and lieutenant colonel in the Marine reserves out of Ft. Worth, Texas. "They've been over there, they've got the right to disagree, but there are other ways they can express their feelings." The father of three, Bell is a popular Marine blogger who served in Anbar province in 2005.

Particularly upsetting to Bell was a protest called "Operation First Casualty" that took place in March to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the start of the war. Kokesh and about a dozen other mostly young vets and reservists in desert camouflage staged a mock combat patrol. They roamed through Union Station and Capitol Hill in patrol formation wielding imaginary assault rifles and cuffing and hooding other "civilian" protesters with sandbags. The effect was somewhat disturbing—exactly what Kokesh was aiming for. "We treated [the other demonstrators] the way Iraqis are treated every day," he says. "We wanted to show people what it's like to be occupied—the dehumanization of the Iraqis. And what we have to go through as soldiers in this occupation when we're on patrol and everyone out on the street is out to kill you. It's that kind of aggressive mentality that really hurts our chances of creating rule of law."

That unusual demonstration earned Kokesh a close-up photo in The Washington Post, and a reprimand from the Marines for wearing his uniform inappropriately (this was prior to his June discharge from the Marine Reserves). "Doing a fake patrol, in uniform, it just kills me," Bell says. "As a Marine, you don't wear your uniform to political events. And there's a reason for that, it's because you don't want people to think that the Marine Corps is endorsing what you're doing. I can guarantee that there are 20,000 or 30,000 Marines around D.C. and at Quantico who looked at that guy and said, 'You don't represent me.'"

Kokesh was in fact discharged in June from the reserves a week earlier than scheduled after a hearing over whether he was wearing the uniform in an unauthorized manner. Kokesh says he was within his free-speech rights because he'd stripped all insignia from the clothing and was participating in what he calls "street theater." Officials recommended he be discharged under "other than honorable" conditions, but the panel opted for a middle road, giving him a "general discharge under honorable conditions," which allows him to keep most of his veteran benefits.

Kokesh has a complicated history with the Marines. As civil-affairs officer in the Fallujah area, he was tasked with outreach to the Iraqi population. He managed to learn enough Arabic to operate without a translator at checkpoints, was promoted to sergeant and awarded a Navy Commendation Medal. But then, but before his discharge in June, his rank was reduced to corporal for illegally bringing a pistol home from Iraq.

Halfway through his tour, Kokesh says he became disillusioned with the mission—though he still calls himself a proud Marine. "The country doesn't need another school, mosque clinic right now," he says. "They need rule of law and they'll never get that with us as a foreign country imposing martial law. Somehow people think that we can't leave until the Iraqis have 24 hours a day of electricity. That's ridiculous. Electricity isn't going to give them democracy." But what about the chaos that the Bush administration and others say will happen if U.S. troops pull out? "Everything they say will happen if we leave will only be worse the longer we stay," Kokesh says.

Not surprisingly, Bell disagrees. "We can't turn around now and say that all the hard work that people are doing over there should go down the drain and we should withdraw."

This weekend, Kokesh's group will join PinkSlip, ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) and other activists in protesting the war in Washington. They've planned a Saturday "die-in" on Capitol Hill involving protesters lying down to represent Iraqi and American dead. Kokesh believes the presence of more Iraq veterans at these types of events will bolster Democrats (and the few Republicans) who support an immediate withdrawal.

But Congressional Quarterly reported midweek that many leading Democrats won't be attending this weekend's events. House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. of Michigan has said that Democrats are concerned that their attendance "would be wrongly seen as a sign they are soft on terrorism." That's the kind of thinking that keeps Kokesh going. "If we knew that the Democrats were going to do their job … and really be aggressive as they need to be in confronting [the administration's] lies and spin, then we wouldn't have to be there," he says. "But it's becoming clear that the Democrats don't really want to end the war before 2008, they just want it to look like they do."