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2 U.S. military members discuss why they resigned over the war in Gaza

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

There's a small but growing number of resignations from the government and now the American military over U.S. policy in Gaza. Today, we hear from two service members.

Army Maj. Harrison Mann spent 13 years in the military. He describes his most recent job as assistant to the director who oversaw all things Middle East at the Defense Intelligence Agency, including the Israel crisis response. One day in the fall, he says, he couldn't do the work anymore.

HARRISON MANN: October 17, there was this explosion at al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza that killed upwards of a hundred people, and it was the only time that I'd seen the intelligence community actually make a concerted effort to investigate what looked like some of war crime. And in that instance, we determined that it was not the Israelis.

And that was very heartening for me 'cause I thought, wow, there's going to be intense interest in investigating possible war crimes or killings of civilians. But shortly after that process, I understood that that was an outlier and that we were really never going to drill deep into any killings of civilians ever again.

FADEL: After his resignation went into effect, he published an open letter online explaining that his decision to walk out was due to moral injury, noting that he is the descendant of European Jews.

MANN: Seeing videos of burnt corpses and dead kids and people starving to death, I think, should be very affecting for anybody, but if you're Jewish, you can't look at that and not think of your own people's history. It's impossible not to if you think that Arabs are human beings, too.

FADEL: I also connected with 1st Sgt. Mohammed Abu Hashem, a Palestinian American. He says his aunt's killing in a strike on her building in Gaza's Jabalia refugee camp in October sealed his decision to end a 22-year career in the U.S. Air Force. The strike, he says, killed nearly two dozen people, including children.

MOHAMMED ABU HASHEM: I never received a single answer from my leadership team or from our government as to what happened on that day. And it didn't matter how far I made it in the military that I was not going to be able to affect change based on the rank and based off of my leadership. On October 21, I submitted my decision to step away.

FADEL: Abu Hashem's aunt is one of six relatives he's lost in Gaza. Both Harrison Mann and Mohammed Abu Hashem say they resigned so they could speak out but also because they felt guilt.

MANN: You're going into work every day understanding that you're partially supporting this military that is deliberately starving and killing massive numbers of civilians.

FADEL: Israel denies that they're deliberately killing civilians. Biden has said it's possible that U.S. weapons have been used in war crimes in Gaza.

MANN: Could I respond to that...

FADEL: For...

MANN: ...Statement?

FADEL: Sure.

MANN: Yeah, I just say the Israeli military is totally dependent on the U.S. for munitions. Especially at the start of the war, they were expending them at an extremely high rate. So the idea that they even have anything left that's not U.S.-made is very unlikely.

FADEL: Mohammed, you said you felt like you had to leave to try to push for the change you couldn't get inside. What is the change that you want?

FORMER 1ST SERGEANT, US AIR FORCE: One of the changes that I'm hoping that our administration can see is how this war is affecting our service members. I'm continuously getting members who are talking about the conscientious objector package because they did not sign up to be a part of a genocide. Everyone has a smartphone. Everyone has the capability to see what's happening live in Gaza, and they're seeing the starving children. They're seeing the family members just being completely decimated, and it's affecting them personally.

FADEL: I will, just for context for our listeners - genocide has a very specific legal definition. It is the subject of a case at the International Court of Justice. The court has found it is plausible that Israel has committed acts of genocide. It hasn't ruled. It's something Israel denies. Mohammed, you talked about mental health. Was that also part of your decision walking away? I'll start with you, Harrison.

MANN: Sure. It's not what led me to leave. The stress and guilt were important indicators that I was part of something wrong and that I needed to make a change in my life. But ultimately, I left so that, if nothing else, in five, 10 years, I can look back at this moment and know that whether or not it gets determined a genocide, helping kill tens of thousands of innocent people and starve multiples of that - that is what drove me.

FADEL: Mohammed?

FORMER 1ST SERGEANT, US AIR FORCE: It wasn't the No. 1 factor. It did affect me. The information that I'm receiving directly from family members, messages and voice memos where you can hear the bombs striking every single day, and knowing that I'm serving and U.S.-made bombs are being sent over there - it was kind of painful every single day to even show up to work.

FADEL: There are people who will be listening to both of you and who will be saying to themselves, Israel had to do something in the wake of the October 7 attacks and what they've done since is to protect Jewish life. What would you say to those people who are listening and thinking that?

MANN: Everything Israel has done since October 7 has put Jewish life at greater risk. I understand having a need to try and target the people who planned the October 7 attack. But that's just really nothing close to what actually happened. They embarked on what Israeli leadership themselves basically described as a campaign of mass punishment. They have not actually defeated, in any substantial way, Hamas.

And now they're moving closer and closer to escalating their conflict with Hezbollah and invading Lebanon. And if they do that, the Israeli homeland is going to witness a level of destruction that I don't think any living person in the state of Israel today has experienced before.

FADEL: This is a difficult topic for a lot of people, polarizing in this country. Did you expect backlash?

MANN: Yeah, I expected a tremendous amount of backlash, and it's part of what made me delay my decision. But at the risk of tempting fate, it really did not materialize in a big way.

FADEL: Mohammed?

FORMER 1ST SERGEANT, US AIR FORCE: I never really thought in the very beginning that I was going to receive backlash, and it didn't really dawn on me until I made the decision, and I started to think about what kind of backlash this might bring up not only for myself, but members that I led as a first sergeant 'cause I've had a lot of people that asked me what they should do. My No. 1 response was, you have to search inside for whether this is morally right for you and whether you believe in the reason why you serve is right for you and your family.

FADEL: Mohammed Abu Hashem served 22 years in the Air Force. Harrison Mann served 13 years in the army, the last three as a foreign area officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency. Thank you to you both.

FORMER 1ST SERGEANT, US AIR FORCE: Thank you.

MANN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRYCE DESSNER AND KRONOS QUARTET'S "TENEBRE")

FADEL: When NPR asked about the attack that killed Mohammed Abu Hashem's aunt and many other civilians, the Israeli military declined to comment on the record. We reached out to the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force about the service members' resignations, but we didn't get a response in time for this broadcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRYCE DESSNER AND KRONOS QUARTET'S "TENEBRE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.