Brandon Toy, an Iraq War veteran and a mid-level project manager at General Dynamics, concluded that what he had done and was doing went against the best principles of the United States – and so resigned with a declaration that if “every foot soldier threw down his rifle,” things might change, Dennis J Bernstein reports.
By Dennis J. Bernstein
Brandon Toy, who has just resigned from his position as an engineering project manager at the military contractor General Dynamics, released a letter of resignation that a lot of people are looking at. It says in part:
“I have served the post 9/11 military industrial complex for ten years, first as a soldier in Baghdad, and now as a defense contractor. I’ve always believed that if every foot soldier threw down his rifle, war would end. I hereby now, throw mine down. At the time of my enlistment I believed in the cause. I was ignorant, naive, and misled. The narrative professed by the state and echoed by the mainstream press has proven false and criminal. We have become what I thought we were fighting against. Recent revelations by fearless journalists of war crimes, including counter-insurgency, dirty wars, drone terrorism, suspension of due process, torture, mass surveillance and widespread regulatory capture have shed light on the true nature of the current U.S. government. …”
DB: Let’s start here Brandon Toy, how did you become, if you will, in your own words, a part of the post 9/11 military industrial complex. Where did that start for you?
BT: To be honest with you, Dennis, I think that started seeing images of soldiers and war, glorified veterans held up as heroes, flag waving, etc., etc. It just got the idea in my head that that was about the highest thing that you could do for your country, was to serve in the armed forces. And then it just snowballed from there. After 9/11, I became, I guess you would say, a rabid patriot and I was all for the Iraq war. I have to confess that I voted for President Bush twice. I enlisted at the end of 2003 after Iraq had started. I believed in the cause. I thought we were going over there to find WMDs and fight terrorism on its own soil, etc., etc, oust Hussein from power and bring democracy to the Middle East which now seems like a ludicrous concept to me. But I actually believed that stuff. So I got sucked in very deeply, very quickly. And even though I didn’t enlist when I was 18 – I was 24 – I still see myself as very young and naive, at that time.
DB: Now could you talk a little bit about your experiences in the war zone? What did you do there?
BT: I was a machine gunner in a Humvee unit. And I was stationed at Camp Rustamiyah, it was formerly called Camp Cuervo. It’s on the southeast side of Baghdad. And we patrolled, up and down, what’s known as Canal Street through Al Masada [phonetic] and Sadr City. We trained and supported and transported Iraqi police officers, and Iraqi army personnel. We checked on detainees, we transported detainees from the Green Zone to different locations, or from an Iraqi police station to different locations. But like I said, I was a foot solider. I was a machine gunner.
DB: Did you see the “collateral murder” video that was made available by WikiLeaks through Bradley Manning?
BT: Yeah, absolutely. I saw that about two years ago, two to three years ago, for the first time.
DB: And was that familiar, in terms of your own experience?
BT: The way they carried themselves, and the way they talked about the targets on the ground was familiar to me. And it was very disturbing.
DB: What was your response to seeing that video? Was that part of, sort of, your transformation?
BT: Yeah, absolutely. That was one of the major things that really stood out to me, in the beginning of really coming to understand the truth of the true nature of what we’re doing overseas.
DB: And what about that video became, sort of, a crucial part of your transformation. What details, what was the essence that got to you there?
BT: The thing that stuck out in my mind was just the disregard for these actually being people on the ground, that they are firing at. And then when the van comes to pick up the wounded … and they almost take joy in, you know, “Please let us shoot.” And then shooting the van, and then finding out that there were a couple of Reuters reporters, and that were on the ground there, and children in the van, and then the tank that, maybe it wasn’t a tank, but that’s how I remember it, that ran over one of the bodies on the ground. And kind of laughing about that. It just seemed very callous, uncaring, dehumanizing, like somebody watching a video game. It was just very disturbing.
DB: Well, after your military experience you actually became a contractor. You worked with General Dynamics as a project manager. That’s a major defense establishment in the sort of the corporate military, you have to say, media complex, at this point. Tell us about how you went to work to General Dynamics, and what you were doing there, in terms of supporting the war effort.
BT: Sure, I graduated from college in 2008, and one of my professors knew somebody there, and got me in. And I started there as a very, almost glorified administrative assistant. And then worked my way up to managing small projects and other efforts of that nature, developmental engineering projects, nothing too exciting. around combat vehicle stuff, different systems, mechanical systems, electrical systems, etc.
DB: What about what you were doing became offensive to you, and at what point did it? What was the work?
BT: It wasn’t particularly the work itself that was offensive. There was nothing overtly criminal or anything of that nature, for the work that I was doing. It was more, I came to not see that much of a difference between holding a rifle in theater, and sitting behind a keyboard speaking military jargon, basically being a soldier, an appendage of the military industrial complex, from behind a desk, without a uniform on. We had the same bosses that we reported up through. We were supporting the same war effort, it was just a matter of location, and comfort. I was more comfortable than I was in theater. But I was working for the same exact bosses, in the same effort.
DB: How would you explain the relationship between General Dynamics and the United States military?
BT: Oh, very close, tight knit. Almost one and the same thing.
DB: So, there’s, in your mind they’re essentially no separation between the private corporations making the weaponry, and the military, buying and using it.
BT: Absolutely. I mean, they’re so intertwined, all the way up through the leadership. And at every level that they’ve almost become … General Dynamics has almost become an appendage of the United States government, as is any other contractor.
DB: That is very interesting. So say a little bit more about that. How are these private contractors now heavily interwoven into the fabric of the military? How does that work?
BT: Well, you’ve got the revolving door. You’ve got generals and other officers that move back and forth from the military and then enter civilian life. They have contacts in the military … you get all the way up to the corporate level and these guys are working on each other’s board of directors, etc. They’re part of the elite corporate state, at that high level. They have a certain amount of budget, they need to spend. There’s very close relationships between officials on the government’s side and within the defense contractors.
DB: Now, say a little bit about how Edward Snowden influenced you. What about his actions inspired you to stand up and make this extraordinary statement: “I have always believed if every foot soldier threw down his rifle, war would end. I hereby throw mine down.” Those are strong comments from somebody who was just working at General Dynamics.
BT: Yeah, Edward Snowden is, in my opinion, extremely courageous for what he’s done. And when I listen to that second video that Glenn Greenwald put out, the second part of the interview from Hong Kong and I heard him say those words about, ”I joined after Iraq, I didn’t like what I was seeing,” I’m paraphrasing badly but it was almost like my words coming out of his mouth. And I was just so awed that he risked his life basically … let’s be honest, certainly his freedom, for a very long time, to let us know from the inside what’s going on. He turned conspiracy theory into conspiracy fact, basically.
We all had kind of a general idea that we were being spied on constantly. It was just something that, yeah, yeah, wink, wink, nod, nod … they’re watching us all the time. But I don’t think we’ve had anything this substantial or in-depth before, and also the way that they are handling it, both Glenn Greenwald and Snowden, is very impressive. They’re putting on quite a battle. Maybe not the right word, but…
DB: And, in terms of your work inside General Dynamics, and your disillusionment with the war effort, is this reverberating inside the company? Are there other folks who you worked with who have these concerns who are becoming more and more jittery that they may be engaged in not a democratic effort but perhaps if you think of this in the context of the drone program, that you are actually engaged in supplying an extra-judicial assassination squad? Could you talk about that?
BT: Yeah, sure. You know, I spoke very little about what I was thinking to other people within General Dynamics. There were a couple of close friends that I had conversations with saying, “Hey, did you see what happened yesterday? Did you see about the drone program? Have you seen Jeremy Scahill’s new movie? Did you see “The Dirty War” exposé in BBC Arabic, etc., etc.?” I didn’t get really much of a response. It’s almost like a willful turning away from the actual events, within the company. But I have heard from a couple of people within the company since I’ve left that it was quite shocking. In fact, they were trying to figure out why I did it, what happened, and some people have expressed that I’ve made them look at things in a different way, which I was very happy…
DB: These are people still working inside General Dynamics?
DB: Did it seem like they were interested in learning more, or becoming more active, or concerned to that point?
BT: It made it sound like they were becoming more aware of what was going on. I didn’t really get into too much depth with them about things.
DB: You say that you are no longer a foot soldier in the war. What does it mean to you, to resign? What do you think you are leaving behind, and what will you be able to offer in terms of your experience, to the world. Your words are very powerful. Something about your experience perhaps that Americans don’t understand about what you’re doing and about this relationship that you’ve been a part of?
BT: Yeah, you know when I decided to do this I thought to myself “Oh, I can slink off into the shadows, and find another job, and that will be the end of it.” But I felt so strongly about what I was seeing, and what I was doing, and what I was a part of that I wanted people to hear my voice, because I actually believe in Thomas Paine-type democracy. Right? I wanted to get it out there, if anybody didn’t listen, that’s fine. But at least I had said my piece.
DB: I’m sort of asking what kinds of insights based on your experience both in the military and within a military contractor what do you think people might not yet understand, and, you know, if you were standing before a class of junior high school students in civics, what would you want them to know that you didn’t know when you went blindly, as you say, as a patriot thinking that you’re fighting the good fight?
BT: Don’t blindly trust your government. Things are not as they seem. At a very wide spread level they’re things that we’re doing that are just plain wrong. They are against what’s suppose to be the fabric of this country, everything they teach us in school, the Constitution, the ideals that we’re supposed to uphold, the things that we’re supposed to be fighting against. And they will cover those up, they will hide those secrets. There’s a higher agenda at work here, I’m not quite sure exactly what it is but it is not what is being sold.
And it’s very easy to fall into that other narrative because the voices that are speaking the truth, WikiLeaks, the Assange, the Greenwalds … those are drowned out by the mainstream media. It’s getting a little better, it seems. People are listening a little more, it’s getting, more it’s the mainstream. But for a long time if you started talking about this you were going to be labeled a conspiracy theorist. Especially when the Iraq war started and we just went into this fevered pitch over 9/11 which was a horrible event in itself, but we kind of lost our mind as a country. We lost our bearing. We swallowed a lot of stuff, we didn’t need to swallow. We didn’t need to give up our civil liberties. We didn’t need to blindly follow whatever the government shoved down our throats.
DB: Well, and finally, just in terms of the holdover, this is a fairly fast transformation. Are you still haunted by some of the things that you saw, or experienced or participated in the war? And if so what kinds of things … because that’s sort of where this really all began, in terms of your transformation.
BT: Yeah, there were some things that stood out in my mind. I think what most disturbs me is my own attitude, I had during the war. Which was I dehumanized the Iraqi people myself. You know, pointing rifles at people to get them to stop in traffic, and thinking it’s funny. That’s pretty common. And it’s easy to fall into that mind set when you’re over there. But we completely dehumanized the Iraqi people. There were very few places saying, “These are actually people, and they matter.” It was more like, “Hey, this is our place, we took it over and we’re going to do what we want.” I feel bad about that. I feel bad about participating in that and behaving in that way. And there are some specific incidents that happened over there that stand out in my mind.
DB: For instance…?
BT: Responding to bombings and having people jump up and down on burnt up cars saying “Death to Americans” stuff. And at that time I thought “Why are they doing this?” And now it all makes sense. But events like that that you asked what haunted me. There are some incidents that haunted me, some things I saw, but overall it’s just the deceit of the whole thing, the dishonesty of the whole thing that really is impressed upon my mind.
DB: And as I said in the beginning you said in your letter of resignation “I’ve always believed that if every foot soldier threw down his rifle, war would end. I hereby now, throw mine down.” Thanks for being with us Brandon Toy, and thanks for making this decision to go public.
BT: Well, I appreciate that Dennis. It’s been a pleasure talking to you, and you brought up some good questions, and keep doing what you’re doing.