As US military resources creak under the pressure of a deteriorating security situation in Iraq and deployments across the globe, discontent among veterans and servicemen is growing.

The Pentagon has played down antipathy towards the war effort among its forces, but after the army missed its recruitment targets last year – for the first time in six years - and personnel are asked to return to Iraq for second and third tours of duty, more and more are refusing to serve.

Figures released by the defence department in 2004 listed 5,500 troops as deserters or absent without leave.

Military veterans and insiders say that the number is now at least double that, but that the Pentagon keeps quiet about the problem to avoid bad publicity and damaging morale.

Carl Webb, 39, who is originally from New Orleans, refused to deploy to Iraq with the Texas National Guard in 2004.

He initially fled Louisiana to hide with friends but then planned to turn himself over to military authorities to publicise his opposition to the war.

Public image

Some say desertion in the US
military has topped 10,000

Eighteen months on and Webb is still openly working and campaigning against the war. He says that people he knows in the military tell him that at least 10,000 deserters are refusing to serve and that often the apparent lack of efforts to apprehend offenders is down to maintaining a good public image.

"As far as I know the military police have only come to my place once in the last year-and-a-half," he says, "but it seems that for whatever reason they’re not actually pursuing all the soldiers that have gone missing."

Webb says that the military may simply be unable to cope with the scale of the desertion problem. "A soldier would have to go through a court martial and go to a military prison. They would need 10,000 prison cells."

Another theory is that the military authorities are "sacrificing long-term force stability for short-term public relations".

Tim Goodrich, the co-founder of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), cites the army's use of "stop-loss" orders as one reason for increased resentment.

The orders mean that soldiers due to retire or leave the force are unable to do so while their units are still deployed, affecting some 7,000 troops of the estimated 150,000 now in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Poor training

Pressure is growing in the US to
bring troops home

While serving in Iraq in 2003, Sgt. Kevin Benderman became disillusioned with the military when members of his unit were injured due to what he said was poor training.

Even worse, he says, on another occasion his commanding officer gave orders to shoot Iraqi children who had climbed repeatedly on a wall to get a view of the troops if they did it again.

When he returned to the US in 2004, Benderman was told that he had been "stop-lossed". He applied for conscientious objector status but his application was refused and he was jailed for 15 months.

His wife, Monica, says that the US military authorities were angered by his conscientious objector claim, an avenue that is hard to take because of the strict criteria needed.

Saving face

"The tipping point for the veterans in this war will be when they can no longer feel in their heart that what they are doing is moving the situation in a positive direction"

Monica Benderman,
wife of jailed serviceman

Monica says that her husband's company commander used the case as an example to others thinking of similar action. But she also blames administrative incompetence in the military and says that her husband was jailed in order for it to keep face.

She believes that many soldiers are simply too tired to go on repeated tours of duty.

"I think we have to start looking in terms of people rather than the overall circumstances," she says. "There are soldiers who don't want to serve any longer, and if their heart is not in it, they need to be allowed to leave the service and move on to what will work for them. That is basic humanity."

Goodrich says that most veterans and servicemen feel similarly disenchanted but are reluctant to voice their opinion because of national and professional pride.

He says that the IVAW has only hundreds of members at present, but its role is to speak for the thousands who have yet to come out and join the anti-war movement.

He cites the example of the Vietnam war where the veterans’ movement against the conflict existed for years before it swelled to the hundreds of thousands of members it has today.

With increasing sectarian violence in Iraq, the Bush administration finds itself in an intractable position as it seeks to scale back its forces and the discontent among many soldiers may become more and more vocal.

As Monica Benderman says: "I think the tipping point for the veterans in this war will be when they can no longer feel in their heart that what they are doing is moving the situation in a positive direction. When they feel as if their actions are not only destroying the humanity of others, but their own as well, as in Kevin's case, they must be allowed to make a decision that is best for their own wellbeing."