Adam Kokesh, a former Marine and an Iraq veteran, is no angel by any account. He’s an antiwar demonstrator who has been seen in uniform, stripped of military identifiers, at Washington protests, and this turns the stomach of many a soldier. Warned by an e-mail message not to do this, Mr. Kokesh cursed at an officer. This follows by a few years a demotion from the rank of sergeant to corporal for bringing an unauthorized pistol back from his first Iraq tour. The Marine Corps downgraded Mr. Kokesh’s honorable discharge as punishment for this latest episode, to make an example of a troublemaker.
We’re likely to see more cases like Mr. Kokesh’s in the future, so it’s worth considering whether this treatment was justified. Indeed it would be wholly fitting punishment for an active-duty soldier, Marine or drilling reservist, who should never be seen moving around Washington in uniform at political demonstrations. Mr. Kokesh’s case is not so clear. We think the Corps should have erred on the side of leniency.
Mr. Kokesh is, for all practical purposes, no longer in the service. When the protest episode occurred, he had mere weeks remaining as member of the Individual Ready Reserve, which at any given time consists of about 112,000 veterans returning to civilian life. A member’s only duties are to keep a uniform, keep an I.D. card, notify authorities when changing addresses and, crucially, respond to the president’s call in cases of national emergency. The Marine Corps had told Mr. Kokesh that it did not want him back. And the stripping-down of the uniform blurs things. Military lawyers can wrangle over how much this matters, but it’s clear that Mr. Kokesh was simply a guy at a protest in camouflage pants. People listened to him because he’s an Iraq veteran with fiery antiwar views.
It’s illogical to hold a war veteran who is for all practical purposes a civilian to the same limits of political expression that apply to men and women on active duty. Veterans, including young ones who are legally part of the Individual Ready Reserve, should not be deprived of their rights over a technicality. Besides, this is a public-relations disaster for the Pentagon.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars recently and rightly criticized the treatment of Mr. Kokesh. “Trying to hush up and punish fellow Americans for exercising the same democratic rights we’re trying to instill in Iraq is not what we’re all about,” says VFW chief Gary Kurplus. “Someone in the Marine Corps needs to exercise a little common sense and put an end to this matter before it turns into a circus.”
Sad but true, the country is sharply divided by the Iraq war. These divisions cleave the military and the community of veterans, too. When recently discharged soldiers and Marines returning to civilian life become politically active, as is their right, the authorities should beware of treading, however lightly, on those rights.
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