Jeff Mullins walked quickly along 44th Street towards Times Square, just a few yards in front of the combat squad. A coordinator with Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), he admitted never imagining that “it’d be this good.” “I mean,” he said, smiling, “we’re occupying New York fucking City.”
It was Memorial Day weekend and the beginning of Fleet Week. At the corner of Broadway and 44th Street, a small group of men and women wearing oversized white t-shirts waited for the light to change. Tourists, military personnel and locals enjoying the long holiday weekend pushed and squeezed their way through the crowd.
Out of nowhere and without provocation, nine soldiers in full-desert fatigues appeared and screamed at the group in white to “get on the fucking ground.” The soldiers pinned people to the pavement and began “bagging and tagging,” using zip-ties on their wrist and stuffing bags over their heads.
People ran to get out of the way. The crowd pushed back to create a wall of wide eyes and open mouths around the soldiers. A hotdog vendor stopped in the middle of Broadway and held up traffic. Strangers exchanged looks of confusion and concern, unsure of what, if anything, should be done.
With precision, the soldiers moved quickly, separating the detainees from the rest of the group. As soon as the site was secure, the squad leader, Demond Mullins, called for the group to “form up” and they proceeded through the stunned crowd down Broadway.
If this were Iraq, a truck would have pulled up to transport those unfortunate detainees to a detention facility. Instead, people in black t-shirts with “Iraq Veterans Against the War” printed across the front quickly distributed fliers to on-lookers that read: “This is Operation First Casualty. The first casualty in war is the truth.”
Operation First Casualty is modeled after the Vietnam-era protest action Operation Rapid American Withdrawal that took place in Pennsylvania during the summer of 1970. This variation came out of a brainstorming session among the Washington D.C. chapter of IVAW earlier this year. The vets felt “tired of just being part of other people’s protest,” explained Adam Kokesh, a member of the D.C. chapter. IVAW, a national veterans organization founded in July of 2004, performed the first Operation First Casualty in D.C. this past March.
Jeff Mullins (also from D.C.) and Adam, along with dozens of other veterans from as far away as Chicago, came to New York City to help the local chapter of IVAW stage its own Operation First Casualty. The day before, the group met in Astoria Park along the East River to plan for the Sunday event. Members of IVAW explained the origins of Operation First Casualty to other veterans as well as the thirty-plus volunteers who had agreed to play the part of “civilians.” The group’s members emphasized their desire to reach “people who aren’t already on our side.” Part street theatre, part demonstration, the action is designed to engage the American public by simulating what it’s like to be occupied. Veterans seek to communicate the terrifying reality of the occupation as well as provide people with a glimpse into the world of American GIs on duty in a country that doesn’t want them there.
The day of the event, everyone met at the fountain in Columbus Circle at 8:30 a.m. IVAW members handed out “uniforms”—the oversized white t-shirts—to volunteers. Vets donned the same desert camo pants, helmets and backpacks they wore in Iraq. For some vets, like Demond, this was the first time since coming home from Iraq that they’d put gear on. Demond grew up in Brooklyn and served six years in the National Guard. He returned home this past January. He is twenty-five years old.
“I woke up with a pit in my stomach this morning,” he said while adjusting the straps of his bag. “I didn’t know if I was hungry or nervous.”
Shortly after 9:00 AM, the squad proceeded along the park side of 59th Street, surrounded by video cameras and microphones. The vets moved quickly between each simulated action, which included taking non-existent mortar fire or coming across a danger zone at the Columbus Center intersection.
Across the street, the bellhop at the Ritz commented to a friend, “You got Fallujah going on here.” Curious breakfasters stared on from Sarabeth’s. In front of the Apple Store on 5th Avenue, a group of “civilian” volunteers waited inconspicuously for the squad to arrive. This was their first scene. They played the part of a tourist family on vacation, snapping pictures and enjoying the sites of New York. Ellen, an ex-Army mechanic, and Thomas, a Vietnam vet, were both members of Veterans for Peace. Jacob and Dave lived in the city. Alison and John traveled from Virginia and Maryland to take part in the action as civilians.
Prior to each “scene,” the entire combat squad crouched down. Demond conferred with the point man, Garett Reppenhagen, D.C. chapter member and veteran of the initial Operation First Casualty. The decision was then made to proceed. The squad randomly chose who would be detained and who would be held at simulated rifle’s length. Moving with a quickness that never faltered, the squad separated Jacob and Alison from the rest. They forced them on the ground and kept watch over each new detainee while another squad member provided bags and zip-ties. The others, hands held to simulate a rifle, shouted at the non-detained civilians to “stay the fuck back” and “shut the fuck up.” When the scene finished, Demond regrouped his squad and continued on past Trump Tower, Louis Vuitton and Tiffany & Co.
The Trump doorman accepted the passing vets with a shrug of uncertainty. He pointed out that America hadn’t been attacked since we went to war, although he did acknowledge the “messed-up” situation in Iraq as well as the vets grievances. A New York City sanitation truck driver was pleased with what he saw of the IVAW group. He supported an end to the war.
Serena, who described herself as a “mostly European” New Yorker, looked on as the squad simulated a sniper attack. The victim sprawled out on the ground and went into fake shock. He was slung over another squad member’s shoulder while the others swung their open hands around in protective arcs at the people on the streets and the high glass façades overhead.
“I think it’s so important for this to be brought over here so people know what’s going on,” Serena said. “It’s fantastic.”
A few minutes later, two Marines on leave for Fleet Week encountered the IVAW group en route to Times Square and had a different reaction. They both thought it was “cool.”
“It’s good to make people aware because we have to counter the negative media and show that we’re actually doing a good thing over there,” said one, sporting a thin mustache. He obviously had not yet read the flier, which pointed out “our troops are…unwanted by the majority of the Iraqi people. In order to survive…soldiers…use brutal, dehumanizing search and seizure tactics.” Neither Marine had yet been to Iraq but both were excited to go.
The scheduled route brought Operation First Casualty down 5th Avenue, through the flag-hung pedestrian mall at Rockefeller Center, over to Bryant Park for a “sweep” across the lawn, back through to Times Square, and, after a subway ride, down to Union Square where they held a press conference and a riot demonstration.
The vets had lunch while the press conference was being set up. Demond, relaxed, said he felt good as he took a break. He had earlier expressed hesitation about Operation First Casualty but that concern now seemed totally absent.
“More than anything,” he said, “I forgot how much hard work this is, to crouch and skulk. It feels a lot like training did, actually, minus the real weapons. There are a lot of good guys in the group, with experience doing this before [in Washington, D.C.] and they’re helping everyone stay really up.”
The volunteer civilians also felt good about how things were going. “Well, we had our faces pushed into the sidewalk in Times Square, that was fun,” joked Ellen, as her group ate lunch next to the Gandhi statue. “Being thrown on the ground and screamed at hasn’t gotten any less intense, really.”
A number of IVAW members spoke at the press conference, including Demond and Adam, who eloquently delivered the central message of the group: U.S. troops out of Iraq now, reparations for the Iraqi people and adequate health care and benefits for returning vets.
They then left Union Square for a brief memorial service at Ground Zero, a scene in front of Wall Street and then on to Battery Park. The single biggest concern for the organizers were cops—avoiding them, dealing with them and, potentially, being arrested by them. The organizers considered the actions in Battery Park to be at the highest risk for police confrontation.
At Battery Park, the group did three scenes, moving through packed crowds and looping back around to pass by the Veterans for Peace annual Memorial Day ceremony. But the NYPD, Parks Department and Port Authority police never disrupted any IVAW activity, even though the group had no permits and deliberately did not tell the police they were coming. As they paused for a break in the shade, a police vehicle approached. A liaison was sent out to speak to the group. After explaining why a bunch of vets in fatigues were running around Battery Park, the liaison returned with a message from the cops: thank you for your service to your country.
From Battery Park, everyone piled into the 4/5 train to Borough Hall in Brooklyn. The squad made its way down Fulton Mall, en route to a mass detainment scene in front of the recruiting station on Flatbush Avenue. The day ended at Grand Army Plaza under the arch. Surrounded by statues and busts of military heroes, the members of IVAW stood in two rows as a group. Operation First Casualty then closed with a symbolic shedding of the “soldier” from each squad member. Demond called the group to attention and proceeded first. With precise military steps, he turned on his heel and came forward. Standing at attention, he unbuttoned his “skirt”—the waist-long jacket of the infantryman—and tossed it on the ground in front of him. With a look that hovered on disgust, he turned, took the same precise steps back and got into line.
One by one the rest of the squad added their skirts to the pile. Each person approached the ritual differently. Some continued with the same stoic intensity displayed all day, while others were on the verge of tears. The ceremony proceeded in silence. In those final moments, the diversity of the group was especially evident: all different races, heights and forms, from all over the country. They had all experienced their military service differently, yet as one vet pointed out, their stories, regardless of where or how they served, “all start having eerie similarities.”
Finally, after the last vet finished, Demond strode back out and, at attention, addressed the group.
“Unit, fall out.”
The vets broke rank, turned their backs, and walked away.
ContributorB. Colby Hamilton
Colby Hamilton is a freelance writer living in Greenpoint.