Bring More Veterans to the Front of the Antiwar Struggle

by  Antiwar Veterans      As America descends in permanent war, an ...
Antiwar Veterans

As America descends in permanent war, an essay on veterans and their role in the antiwar movement.
By Michael Uhl

On Assignment for The Nation

In recent weeks, segments of the peace movement earnestly debated throughout cyberspace the pros and cons of the slogan 'support our troops' -- however it might be modified by an explicit tag line of opposition to the war. Could the public clearly grasp a principled antiwar stance when it appeared to accommodate the welfare or sensibilities of those who were doing the actual fighting? How could we ensure that the public would distinguish between our support for the troops and that of the war's promoters?

Wasn't the call to silence criticism of the war -- even by some individuals, organizations, and institutions whose dissent quickly evaporated with the invasion -- being justified by appeals expressed in those very same words? Yet, suddenly support for the troops was being translated by opinion polls into support for the war. How might the movement coopt that mantra, and provide just enough cover for fellow citizens who occupy uncertain ground, doubting the war's merits, but unwilling to have their own patriotism subjected to challenge, to win them back to the forces of peace?

"Bring more vets to the forefront," proposed Leslie Cagan, an organizer with United For Peace and Justice in New York. "Let's march on the Pentagon," wrote one youth activist, "as long as the vets are in the lead."

Why the vets? "Because we have this credibility," explained Woody Powell, a Korean War veteran and Executive Director of Veterans For Peace (VFP). "Our words are no different from many others, but they seem to carry more weight." Since Vietnam, even for the most committed antiwar audiences, there's a certain comfort zone when a vet steps up to the podium and says, "if showing our support for the troops means silencing our public criticism of the war, that is not an option." Those words drew strong applause when David Cline, thrice wounded in Vietnam, and president of VFP, delivered them before an overflow teach-in at American University just days after the U.S. led coalition invaded Iraq. The teach-in had kicked off Operation Dire Distress, a weekend of protest and lobbying in the nation's capital (March 22-24), attended by hundreds of veterans who, repeatedly, in private comments and public displays, linked support for the troops in Iraq to a demand to stop the war and bring them home.

It is critical that veterans continue to communicate this message from the movement's national stages, even when the Bush Administration declares the war a victory and the occupation begun. But antiwar veterans, like GI resisters and military family members -- what Chomsky calls "authentic groups" -- are also uniquely effective over the long haul when addressing communities whose social origins are most similar to their own, where empathy, apart from fact-based or moral argumentation, is often the medium of persuasion. This, you might say, is the "identity politics" of the working class. In such settings, the love of country or personal courage -- core values in these communities -- of these vets, in particular those who have tasted the bitter fruit of the battlefield, are seldom called into question. Minimally, veterans who oppose warfare are given a respectful hearing by their Middle American landsmen, and are treated with equanimity in local media, even by the most hidebound provincials of the fourth estate.

The U.S. march toward war with Iraq has certainly stimulated recruitment in the ranks of antiwar veterans. Over the past six months, Veterans for Peace, open to veterans of all service eras, has virtually doubled its membership to 3000 ex-servicemen and women. The organization has a national office in St. Louis, which tends to its website and some of the national press, and also aids in planning for its yearly convention (August 2004 in San Francisco). But VFP's ninety-six chapters, distributed over thirty states from Maine to California, operate autonomously, and set their own activist agendas, much in the spirit of the movement's overall grassroots orientation.

Veterans For Peace was founded in Maine in 1985 [superceding an earlier post-World War II entity of the same name], and quickly spread to other states at a time "when low intensity warfare was raging in Central America under Reagan," recalled Tom Stutevant, who served in Korea. The Maine chapter, which Stutevant heads, is one of the nation's most militant, providing contingents for all the latest national mobilizations, while,at home, engaging in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience that recently led to the arrests of five members. As part of their community outreach, Maine VFP is frequently asked to visit middle and high school classrooms, where they have distributed thousands of bookcovers with a nonviolence theme, and have collaborated with the American Friends Service Committee in offering alternatives to military service.

Minneapolis has likewise reported "phenomenal growth," writes Walt Wittman by email, ticking off in comma-less shorthand his chapter's varied and overloaded activist schedule: "What an impossible task: signs speaking engagements forums church meetings letters legislative contacts city council hearings rallies vigils canoe raffles and merchandising plus keeping our sanity." From Washtenaw County, Michigan, Bob Krzewinski reports that he'd "been thinking of starting a chapter, but there didn't seem to be too many of us around." That all changed after February 8th, when the Ann Arbor Coalition for Peace "wanted a few veterans up front to lead the march ...and we had an almost constant stream of veterans coming up... we had 16 people show up at our first meeting."

Roughly seventy percent of VFP's members served during the Vietnam era, and many, like Dave Cline of Jersey City, have also been active in Vietnam Veterans Against the War since VVAW's heyday during the early nineteen seventies. VVAW "has kept its flag flying," says Cline, maintaining a presence in the progressive communities of the New York metro area -- with its original Clarence Fitch chapter -- Milwaukee, and Chicago, home of the national office. A VVAW newpapers appears regularly, and its reunions during anniversary years have drawn enthusiastic attendance. Many of VVAW's old guard have surfaced from their other lives, and "re-up'd" since the Iraq war began, expanding the group's network to 800 members nationwide.

For years since their return, Gulf War vets have concerned themselves primarily with a struggle to gain scientific recognition for a weird syndrome of battlefield induced health problems that has led the Veterans Administration to provide compensation for nearly a third of the 600,000 men and women who fought in the '91 conflict. But some Gulf War vets, like Charles Sheehan-Miles, were politicized by the traumas of combat, and when a re-run of war in the Persian Gulf first threatened, he helped form Veterans For Common Sense (VCS). But, he stresses that VCS, which has been contacted by over 2000 veterans, "is not an antiwar organization, per se. A majority of Americans don't identify with that point of view. Our group wants to occupy a middle ground, to address audiences about war's hidden costs, the treatment of casualties and compensation for the disabled. Care for Gulf War vets has already cost the nation $2 billion," he told me. "People should know what a war will cost, before they're called upon to support it."

Sheehan-Miles' group nonetheless joined with Vets For Peace and VVAW, along with Military Families Speak Out (MFSO), a support group for those with family members currently on active duty, in forming a coalition called Veterans Against Iraq War (VAIW) to organize Operation Dire Distress, strongly emphasizing the veteran character of the event. Of course, it's impossible to say what the turn-out would have been had the invasion not yet begun. And perhaps the presence of the several hundred vets who did attend, resplendent in remnants of their old service uniforms and bedecked with medals attesting to youthful valor, though receiving a decent amount of publicity, would have had an even greater impact if wedded to one of the movement's massive national demonstrations. But the reality is that, even overtly antiwar veterans covet a degree of independent action from the larger movement. The point, suggests VFP's Woody Powell, is to avoid being "discounted," especially in cases where the protest becomes "strident." It's a fine line, he argues, between "being seduced by our power and having it become diluted."

But it is the issue of their postwar entitlements, which Charles Sheehan-Miles recasts conceptually as a hidden cost of war, and Dave Cline frames in a demand for justice for all the war's victims, that unites all veterans across the spectrum of political views. During our rally in Washington, a number of speakers made bitter reference to the Congressional attacks spearheaded by Republican warmongers to cut billions from Veterans Administration health care over the next decade. The Veterans Against Iraq War website has collected the salty comments of scores of former service members, a surprisingly large number of whom served in World War II, that ridicule these politicians as "chickenhawks, those who demand sacrifice of their fellow citizens, but who have never served, and refuse to put their own lives or those of their children on the line.

It's not quite clear exactly what these dismantlers of government intend with this budget slashing message for the Department of Veterans Affairs, a form of managed care perhaps that taps more deeply into Medicare. Another story, but something is afoot here in a system that has extended its eligibility since 1996, and increased its enrollment from 2.9 to 6.8 millions veterans.

Most veterans I know remain proud of their service, because they feel they owed it to their country. A remarkably candid article in the New York Times ( "Military Mirrors Working Class," Mar. 30, 2003), reported that the demographics underlying such values place the actual burden of filling the ranks on blue collar communities, with men from backgrounds of affluence or other forms of privilege, routinely getting a pass. Clearly the formation of this belief in service is a social construction of some interest, another tangent of veteran culture worth exploring elsewhere. But the counterweight to reverence for service to one's nation is resistance, which in former days was aimed at conscription, and today at the so-called "poverty" or "economic" draft.

"Economic," is perhaps the better term since the U.S. armed forces now generally require all recruits to have a high school diploma, thus not only keeping many from the true underclass out of harm's way, as the cliche goes, but denying them access to the potential mobility of a stable military career -- admittedly for a minority -- with some of the perks that, among blue collar workers today, only civilian government employees and trade unionists typically enjoy. Many service veterans, on the other hand, have found that enticements offered them at the moment of recruitment, opportunities for a college education or skilled training transferable to the civilian job market, had been grossly exaggerated. Youth antiwar activists from communities of color, like Karim Lopez, with Uptown Youth for Peace and Justice in New York City, have found that a tactic of counter-recruitment around this pattern of misrepresentation is ideal, not just for warning potential service entrants of high school age about the inflated sales job by recruiters, but for "making a clear link between the cost of militarization, and an attack on young peoples' future," with the concomitant increases they will face in health care and higher education.

Resistance within the military also has it's honorable history, and, while only likely to become widespread in wars of long duration, like Vietnam, there have been some well publicized cases already during this period of militarization. Pacifist hotlines have been ringing off the hook with inquiries by active duty and reserve soldiers seeking information on how to apply for conscientious objector status. As recently as April 7th, one such applicant, Gabriel I. Johnson, was shipped out to Iraq from Ft. Hood, Texas, even though his case is pending, "a clear violation of the Army's own rules," said his attorney Tod Ensign, director of Citizen Soldier in New York. There have been other rumblings at the front, with three British troopers reportedly sent home for opposing the indiscriminate killings of Iraqi civilians.

The veterans peace movement has grown steadily in this time of threatened and now real, war with Iraq. But can it be sustained with a reasonable level of visibility and consistency when this current episode in the endless series of little wars promised by the Bush Doctrine recedes from public view? Or will the vets' movement ebb and flow in sync with the geopolitical tide? Veterans For Peace was kept afloat barely following a precipitous decline in membership after 1991, David Cline believes, by its humanitarian work on postwar issues of reconciliation and healing, and projects like Friendship Village in Vietnam and the Iraq Water Project, which went beyond a strictly antiwar orientation. VVAW also kept it programmatic hand-in by working on readjustment issues and homelessness in the veteran community.

But another idea was broached and discussed by a number of veterans in Washington during Operation Dire Distress. And that was to explore the viability of engineering a certain breath and volume in the vets' movement by giving it a global profile, forging links as widely as possible with those whose involvement in veterans and GI resistance issues in their own countries is of long standing. This strategy would create an transnational infrastructure capable of mobilizing an occasionally somnolent membership in every corner of the world to oppose on quick notice the next U.S. inspired military adventure, and the one after that, and so on. To prevent this apparatus from becoming top heavy or think tanked within our own sphere there is no better model than the chapter structure of Veterans For Peace, with its practice of grassroots autonomy. For every doctrine... an anti-doctrine....

Note: Michael Uhl is a writer living in Maine who served with the 11th Infantry in Vietnam.