American Friends Service Committee
Patrica Watson, Editor
Sara Burke, Assistant Editor
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
2161 Massachusetts Ave.
Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.
Anti-War Veterans Raise their Voices
Michael Uhl is a writer living in Maine who served with the 11th Infantry in Vietnam.
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?
"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 US-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 Noam 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 argument, is often the medium of persuasion. This, you might
say, is the "identity politics" of the working class.
The love of country and personal courage--core values in
many 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.
More veterans becoming active
Veterans For Peace was founded in Maine in 1985 (superseding 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 8, 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 70% 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 newpaper appears
regularly, and reunions 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.
Veterans from the 1991 Gulf War
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."
It's not quite clear exactly what the dismantlers of government intend with this budget-slashing message for the Department of Veterans Affairs, 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 million.
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," March 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.
Resistance within the military also has its 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 7, 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 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 its 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 breadth 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 a transnational infrastructure capable of mobilizing
an occasionally somnolent membership in every corner of the world
to oppose on quick notice the next US-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.