With mounting opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan among active duty soldiers, and military servicepeople experiencing unprecedented stresses as they face second, third, and fourth deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan, efforts to organize soldiers’ growing disaffection into a political movement have been on the upsurge. The opening of the Different Drummer Café in 2006 in Watertown, New York and two new coffeehouses in November 2008 (Coffee Strong near Fort Lewis in Washington State and Under the Hood near Fort Hood, Texas), gives the GI support network three venues with the potential to bring soldiers into personal contact with groups like Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), which have been at the forefront of organizing efforts within the military community.
Idris Green offers a good example. Green left his native Harlem to join the military in 2005 after losing his job in the health-care industry. He and his wife had just had their first son and he felt it was his only option. He deployed to Iraq the following year, where, particularly as a Muslim, he was horrified by what he was ordered to do. "I woke up one day and just couldn’t do this anymore," he said. While in Iraq, he recalls, "I told my company commander I was not going to take up bombs against fellow Muslims or anyone, for that matter."
Green found the GI rights hotline while searching the Internet for Conscientious Objector (CO) information. The hotline, run by 20 different collaborating groups, helped him get ready for his CO application and introduced him to the Different Drummer. Today, Green credits the GI hotline and the connections he made at the Different Drummer for his expected release from the military this Spring as a Conscientious Objector. He has even been able to pass on resources, including copies of his CO application and contact information for the GI rights hotline, to a couple of fellow soldiers, one of whom has filed his own CO application.
Founded by the GI and veterans advocacy organizations Citizen Soldier and Veterans for Peace, the Different Drummer primarily serves off-duty military personnel from Fort Drum, one of the largest military bases in the northeast United States with the highest per-capita deployment of soldiers, as well as the highest re-enlistment rate of any U.S. base. Now in its third year of operation, the café is run by Citizen Soldier on a budget of about $35,000-$40,000 per year. According to the Drummer’s sole staffperson, Danielle Jacobs, on average seven new service members and five new civilians—often the family of service members—come in per week and "many of them come back."
In addition to providing referrals to counselors and legal support, and organizing events including concerts in the evenings and movie screenings in the afternoons, the coffeehouse operates as a kind of informal community center for service personnel, veterans, and their friends. The Drummer’s extensive library boasts a wide array of informational resources including anti-war newsletters, resources for local counseling, and treatment for mental heath issues.
Louis Endelman, a former military police officer who spent time at the Different Drummer before being discharged as a Conscientious Objector, observes, "You can go there and talk to people about whatever’s going on in your life." What he particularly appreciates about the coffeehouse is "being able to talk to someone face to face."
For Demetrius Bowell, a soldier who has also frequented the Different Drummer, "The history behind [these GI coffeehouses]" is "what I liked best about it." Bowell, who first walked into the Different Drummer to read a poem he’d written, sees the coffeehouse as a "bridge between the military and non-military" and finds inspiration from the Vietnam War era coffeehouses by which people "got out and got involved" in grassroots activism. "It’s something that I do identify with," he said.
David Zieger is a filmmaker who worked for two years at the Oleo Strut GI coffeehouse near Fort Hood, Texas and directed the documentary Sir! No Sir! that details the history of the Vietnam-era GI resistance movement. Zieger observes that these coffeehouses were "for the most part the only way that GIs could be in contact with that movement," offering literature and music soldiers could access nowhere else.
The advent of the Internet, however, allows GIs today access to material online that used to be available only in coffeehouses or in movement media and offices. There is also a lively network of GIs and veterans exchanging their experiences on blogs such as Fight to Survive and online video testimonies from IVAW’s Winter Soldier hearings.
Another important difference facing GI coffeehouses today, according to Citizen Soldier Director Tod Ensign, is the fact that today’s wars are being fought by an all-volunteer force and many of those fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are reservists, who tend to be older and have families. Moreover, there has been a new emphasis in the military on "unit cohesion" to promote strong identification between GIs and their military units as a way of preempting resistance.
For this reason, the role of the new generation of GI coffeehouses is appreciably different. Jacobs says one of the top issues soldiers and their family members talk about is the effect that military stresses are having on their relationships and family life. Ultimately, Ensign emphasizes that organizing GIs is actually just "one piece of the work" of organizing around the conditions of military service today. He also identifies a need to support organizing by spouses and families of military service personnel.
Ensign says that compared to GI resistance during the Vietnam War, "conditions for service today are worse" and today’s military forces are facing "stresses that are much greater than Vietnam." In May 2008 the Inter-Press Service reported an average of 18 suicides a day among people serving in the military. Rates of sexual abuse of women in the military are extremely high and a recent RAND Corporation study found that 18.5 percent of all returning service members meet the criteria for either PTSD or depression.
A New Resistance Movement?
Support for withdrawal from Iraq runs high, with 72 percent of military personnel indicating in a 2006 Zogby poll that they favored withdrawal within the year.
In August 2006 the Pentagon reported that 40,000 troops from all branches of the military have deserted since 2000, mostly from the Army, and in the four years following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the number of Army deserters increased 80 percent—2007 saw 4,698 soldiers going AWOL, compared to 3,301 in 2006, according to the Army. Despite the fact that Canadian immigration policy has become much more stringent since the Vietnam War when an estimated 90,000 Americans fled to Canada to resist the draft, an estimated 200 U.S. military servicepeople have taken refuge in Canada and are now facing deportation and stiff military prison sentences. Matthew Vogel, who operates the GI rights hotline on behalf of the War Resisters League, reports that in his 50 to 75 calls per month, the top 2 questions are about going AWOL and from people who enlisted in the military and changed their minds.
Over the past few years, anti-war soldiers and veterans have been increasingly vocal. In 2006, 1,000 service members signed the "Repeal for Redress," a petition urging Congress to bring the troops home from Iraq. IVAW, founded in 2004 with a "strategy to mobilize the military community to withdraw its support for the war and occupation in Iraq," today boasts members all over the U.S., as well as in Canada and Iraq. It includes active duty soldiers as well as veterans. With high profile public events such as the 2008 Winter Soldier hearings and public protests, the group is increasingly visible on the national stage. Endelman sees IVAW’s significance as "showing people—particularly servicepeople—that they aren’t alone in what they think." He observes that the military "can be a very lonely place to realize you don’t agree."
The network of groups supporting GI resistance are engaged in a wide range of organizing—from supporting military servicepeople facing military prosecution to opposing the extension of deployments via "stop-loss" and the Inactive Ready Reserve to fighting for veterans benefits to pushing the Canadian government to grant asylum to resisters. Groups like Military Families Speak Out and Gold Star Families for Peace have also been active in organizing military families. There have been some attempts, notably by IVAW and the Military Project, to go out to bases and talk to active duty military service personnel. Meanwhile, some of the groups actively supporting resisters, including Courage to Resist, War Resisters League, and IVAW, are also engaged in "truth in recruitment" work, which promises to be even more pressing with the economic downturn.
Since being discharged as a Conscientious Objector, Endelman has returned home and is "looking for a job in the rough economy." In light of the economic recession and skyrocketing unemployment rates, he worries that others will feel pressure to stay in the military even if they share his feelings about war.
Vogel predicts that in the coming year, regardless of the change of Administration and the proposal to shift troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, GI support work will continue to be in high demand. He observes that "war is war. Whether people are fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, we’re looking at people being deployed again and again" which "puts a huge strain on people’s lives." He added, "I don’t think we’re going to see a decrease at all. I think it’s even going to get higher as the stresses continue to mount." In Vogel’s assessment, coffeehouses like the Different Drummer represent a promising development for the broader GI support network: "They offer a great potential for people in the military to find not only help with problems they may have, but also to meet other war resisters and refusers, and to find out what it means for them to organize."