May 18, 2013

Veterans and the Future of the Peace Movement

[Today, I attended a day-long Conference on the Veterans Peace Movement. Activist from vets groups, military families and other sections of the anti-war/peace movement gathered as part of an ongoing process of  brainstorming directions for the movement in the coming period. The excellent short speech posted here concisely lays out the magnitude of the challenges facing that movement.]

Ben Chitty (left) with Dayl Wise

Veterans & the Politics of Peace

by Ben Chitty

What do you think "veterans against war" or "veterans for peace" really mean? Seems like it should be simple, but it’s not. When David Cline, Clarence Fitch, and Mike Gold revived the NYC metro area chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War in the 1980s, people used to ask, "What war?" or "Why not just 'Vietnam Veterans Against War'?"

You can slice and dice the concepts "veteran against war" or "veteran for peace" in many ways. Here’s one approach. You start by asking where you want to go and what that will take – what would it take to stop this war, whatever war that happens to be; what would it take to stop our own wars, the wars our country fights; what would it take to stop all war, to make war obsolete. You can say it in positive terms: make peace with our enemy; make war our last national policy option; make over our society to eliminate the causes of war -- end oppression and exploitation, so that war can be abolished. That’s a tall order. But look around you -- you can spot someone at almost every point on this spectrum. And every one you see -- every one of us -- is against war and for peace.

I do not have to tell you how many ways you can become sick of war. Brutality, hypocrisy, impunity. Misogyny and homophobia. Bad medicine, environmental degradation. Killing poor people to protect the rich, or people of color to preserve white skin privilege. The military industrial complex, which must be the most wasteful economic engine ever built. Add up the cost of the military, calculate how many schools could be built, or bridges repaired, or superfund sites cleaned up, for the price of one aircraft carrier -- about $13.6 billion dollars for the USS Gerald Ford, now scheduled to float out of dry dock next November -- that’s almost a full year’s budget for the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Science Foundation combined.

So, what about stopping one particular war? Actually, we have no idea.

To begin with, it's hard even to imagine stopping a war before it starts. Many, maybe even most, Americans opposed the Spanish-American War and the annexation of the Philippines, the first World War, the first Gulf War, the invasion of Iraq. All these wars started anyway. So much for democracy.

Some wars don’t stop until someone wins. As long as you believe you’re winning, you won’t be much interested in stopping the war. Stalemates are different. There are two key questions. Can one side
invest enough resources in the war to force a decisive result? Will the soldiers keep fighting?

Deploying resources sufficient for victory is mainly a political and economic question. The only time in the last century that the U.S. empire actually shrank was the Great Depression. Roosevelt ordered the Army out of Nicaragua in 1933 and pulled the Marines out of Haiti in 1934. That same year Congress approved a 12-year transition to independence for the Philippines.

What about soldiers? How long will they keep fighting? Most major wars see some disaffection in the ranks. The U.S. is no exception. One perennial issue is the integration of Black soldiers into the military. African Americans have served in every U.S. war, always within the context of a heritage of slavery, segregation, and discrimination. Religion has sometimes been an issue. Some German and Irish Catholic immigrant soldiers deserted rather than fight Mexican Catholics. Muslim American soldiers and sailors have refused to participate in a crusade against Islam.

Sailors and soldiers do sometimes mutiny, but mutiny rarely stops a war. Perhaps the Black Sea Mutiny in 1919 derailed French intervention in Soviet Russia, but 1918 and 1919 were extraordinary years. French and German soldiers stacked their arms as the end of the war approached. The Russian Army was infected by Lenin's "revolutionary defeatism." British sailors took over ships and refused to deploy, and two companies of Royal Marines sent to Murmansk refused to leave camp. German Bolshevik sailors took over the fleet in Kiel. Two companies of the Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force mutinied in Victoria, British Columbia.

Protests by soldiers can influence policy, and change history. Widespread demobilization rallies by American soldiers in 1946, which began in Manila and spread throughout the west Pacific and Europe, going even so far as Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, probably frustrated the Truman administration’s preparations for war with the Soviet Union. Small and large acts of sabotage by sailors and airmen probably stopped Nixon from again escalating the war in Vietnam in a last desperate attempt to win peace with honor.

By then, of course, the White House and the Pentagon were not prepared to sustain their war in Indochina, any more than they turned out to be prepared to sustain their war in Iraq and now Afghanistan. The U.S. does not surrender; it just walks away.

If you can’t stop a war, maybe you can organize to prevent the next war.

Unlike its younger sibling the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars did not start out as a right-wing organization. Formed by the 1914 merger of groups of veterans of the wars against Spain and the Philippine Republic, the VFW agitated for fairer treatment by the Veterans Bureau and the Bureau of Pensions, then staffed mainly by aging members of the Grand Army of the Republic who were not especially impressed with the hardships of combat against demoralized Spaniards or poorly-armed insurrectionists. These Veterans of Foreign Wars advocated non-intervention. In 1932 General Smedley Butler led a VFW recruiting drive, criticizing the Legion as a tool of the banks, and he often spoke at VFW conventions during the '30s. It took Pearl Harbor to end VFW's isolationism.

The American Veterans Committee was started in 1943 to organize veterans as advocates for peace and justice -- its motto was "Citizens First, Veterans Second." By 1947, AVC membership had grown to over 100,000. The next year the Committee purged communists and membership fell to 20,000.

AVC campaigned against segregation and took up other liberal causes like fair housing and labor rights. In the '60s, the Committee refocused on military and veterans affairs, testifying before Congress about the draft, soldiers' civil and human rights, and the educational problems of veterans returning from Vietnam. In the '70s, the Committee worked on discharge upgrades and programs for women and minority veterans. In the '90s, the Committee shifted focus to Gulf War veterans, and equality for gays in the military. The AVC’s last two chapters -- in Washington and Chicago -- closed in 2007 and 2008.

The largest international veterans organization today is the World Veterans Federation, with 170 organizations from 93 countries representing some 25 to 30 million people worldwide. Started in 1946 by Belgian and French veterans of the first World War, at first most Federation members were European and American -- U.S. member organizations included the American Veterans Committee, American Veterans of World War II (AMVETS), Blinded Veterans Association, and Disabled American Veterans. Headquartered in Paris, the Federation has held consultative status with the United Nations since 1951. Over the years, the composition of the organization has changed: WVF member organizations include military veterans and ex-service members, victims of war, resistance fighters, former prisoners of war, former peace keepers and former peace builders. Its activities are mostly social or humanitarian, carried out through the UN, governments and member organizations.

One Federation event you may have noticed – or maybe not – is the global "Veterans Walk
for Peace" every September 21, the International Day of Peace.

For whatever reason, clearly none of these three organizations made it too hard to start another war. Of course none of them -- even the AVC in its earliest days -- ever promoted revolutionary social change, the kind of change which would end wars.

ARAC -- the Association r√©publicaine des anciens combattants, or Republican Association of Ex-Combatants – was more ambitious. Created in 1917 to hasten the end of the war, by war's end ARAC was the largest veterans group in France, maybe the largest in the world. ARAC’s first post-war campaign was to investigate cases of soldiers summarily and unjustly executed during the war, and to win pensions for their widows.

ARAC had fraternal organizations in every European state which had taken part in the Great War except Russia. It seemed well on the way to accomplishing the vision of its founders:
  • to obtain, then defend and extend the rights to reparations for veterans and victims of war;
  • to organize men and women in actions against war, for peace, and for solidarity among peoples;
  • to cultivate the memory of history in a spirit of truth;
  • to promote the republican ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity, and to fight against colonialism and fascism.

ARAC spilt over the definition of pacifism. For some veterans of the Great War, like those who joined War Resisters International (founded in 1921), pacifism meant opposition to all wars. For others, pacifism meant opposition to capitalist wars, and support for wars of liberation and the class war, the real war to end all wars.

ARAC went on to participate with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, and was active in the French resistance in the second World War. By then ARAC had become the veterans organization of the French Communist Party, which aligned with Moscow. ARAC opposed the French wars in Indochina and North Africa, and supported liberation movements throughout the colonial world. More recently, ARAC added "Victimes de guerre" to its official name to reflect a renewed focus on work with victims of war. In 1999 ARAC helped build a Friendship Village for victims of Agent Orange in Van Canh near Hanoi in Vietnam.

So veterans have organized for peace and social justice in different forms with different agendas and gone in different ways.

The same divisions which have run through the broader progressive movement also affect veterans. Some go to the foundations of the movement.

Do we work for reform of revolution, and if for revolution, will it be violent or non-violent?

Reform is problematic. For a while after the fall of Saigon, our government seemed reluctant to start new wars. Appearances were deceiving. The U.S. staged covert interventions in Afghanistan and Latin America, invaded and pacified Grenada – a country twice the size of Staten Island with one fourth the population, and invaded Panama because… well, Just Because.

Within thirty years all three major anti-war reforms from the Vietnam era had been compromised.

  • The all-volunteer army was designed so that it could not be deployed for extended combat operations overseas without being reinforced by new conscription. Solution? Send out the National Guard, again and again and again.
  • The War Powers Act codified the constitutional clause that reserves to Congress the power to declare war; it has been superseded by an Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which has no end date.
  • The Rockefeller Commission’s reforms of the Central Intelligence Agency have morphed into secret prisons and assassination by drone.

Some reforms!

Revolution is problematic too. Some political groups – on the right as well as the left – recruit veterans because some of us can shoot. But this is not 1918. As for non-violence, well, power concedes nothing without a fight, and veterans understand all too well that the state can waste you in a heartbeat. Not much space for non-violence there.

Do we work from a national or an international perspective? On the one hand, our military service to the state earns us the right to rebuke the scoundrels who use patriotism to cloak their misdeeds. On the other hand, for those of us living in the belly of the beast, in the heart of the empire, the most urgent calls on our solidarity come from enemies of our state.

Other kinds of divisions are not foundational, though they are very far from trivial.

Social injustice comes in many forms and causes much pain to ourselves, our families and friends. Racial discrimination, reproductive rights, gay rights – these are struggles which can’t be left until after the revolution. That may take too long.

Voting rights, immigration reform, health care, prison reform, environmental protection, labor rights – such struggles sometimes seem remote from veterans' immediate concerns, but their outcome will define the playing field for more social change.

One of the most important of these issues is the class war – not the conservative talking point class war, but the real class war waged on working people by the minions of the rich, the war on the 99%. Every other struggle takes place in the toxic context of this war: it prescribes limits to change, tells us there is no alternative, distracts us from our own concerns, smothers us with the busywork of trying to make a life, just staying alive. 

And the granddaddy of them all, the grandmother of all issues, the elephant in the room – climate change.

How do veterans and veterans issues fit into this? I don’t know, but I will suggest a couple of principles.

First off, our government fails again and again to care properly for veterans and victims of war. It’s like some law of nature. Sometimes it’s bureaucratic incompetence. Sometimes it’s because the military conceals the causes and consequences of service-related injuries. Sometimes it’s because no matter how many politicians rush to pose next to veterans to show off how patriotic they are – they really don’t much care, and they aren’t patriots, just politicians trying to get ahead. Maybe they are thinking of better ways to spend our money. Wait long enough, after all, and every Agent Orange claim will be closed. Looking out for one another has to be the bedrock of our personal politics. It’s a step along to the way to becoming the change we want to see.

Second, however we may define our goal – whether it’s reform or revolution, stopping one war or making an end to war – we are not in the business of perfecting the military. We can hope the War Department gets past racial, sexual, or affectional discrimination. We can commend an ecologically sensitive, environmentally gentle, even cost-effective military. The empire is still the empire. Its military still patrols and pacifies the borders of the empire.

For us, that has to be the problem.

Here’s one more principle. Only a dope expects the future to look like the past.

We have a lot to think about.

Ben Chitty
USN 1965-9, VN 1966-7, 1968
NY/VVAW; TZB/VFP Yonkers New York

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1 comment:

Gaza Lover said...

I am a member of Veterans for peace(associate member-not a vet). This is just an excellent post! I DO wonder what it is going to take to stop this madness-and I think we must be unified in this effort.