avatar
Speaking Different Languages:


Recently, the Veterans for Peace led a contingent in a large community parade in Olympia, Washington. To the beat of their marching, they chanted “jodies” such as “They say it is a rich man’s war, always fought by the poor / Support the troops, let’s bring them back, let’s bring them back from Iraq.” Many in the crowd stood in respect, applauded, and flashed peace signs (with only a few flashing “half a peace sign”). I heard a mom tell her kids to clap for the vets who “want your daddy to come home from Iraq.”

Behind the vets were members of local peace groups, representing the unity and growth of the local antiwar community. But the relationship between peace activists and the military community (of GIs, veterans and their families) is not always this good.

 

When Cindy Sheehan recently quit and then rejoined the peace movement, she described her difficulties as mainly due to partisan political influence in the movement; she did not want to simply read from a Democratic Party script. Yet her statements also pointed to deeper frustrations with a peace movement “that often puts personal egos above peace and human life.”

 

I have heard some of the same frustrations from Darrell Anderson, an Iraq War veteran who spent 18 months in Canadian exile (avoiding a third tour in Iraq) but received precious little support from the peace movement when he returned home. I also heard constructive criticisms from military family members with whom I organized a Citizens’ Hearing on the legality of the war earlier this year.

 

It is not that the civilian peace movement and the antiwar military community have different goals. Both want the occupation to end, and for troops and veterans to have support and health care when they come home. But not only do civilian peace activists and military community activists have some difficulties working together, they come from very different cultures, and it sometimes seems that they are speaking different languages. Recognizing these perspectives is a key step toward respectful cooperation.

 

The “military community” consists of active-duty and reservist military personnel, veterans, and military families. The organized antiwar groups within the community include the Iraq Veterans Against the War, Veterans for Peace, Military Families Speak Out, Gold Star Families Speak Out, as well as a number of protest camps, local groups, GI bloggers, etc. I am not a part of the community, but have supported military refusers and resisters for many years–most recently Lt. Ehren Watada at Fort Lewis– and am an associate (nonveteran) member of Veterans for Peace.

 

As a civilian antiwar activist, I always assumed that this military community is just another (growing) part of the peace movement. In the name of “unity,” we often suppress differences and ask them to follow traditional antiwar strategies, even when the strategies aren’t working. Without realizing it, we sometimes hoist our own vision of a movement culture on them, make assumptions that we have the answers, or treat their presence as merely giving the peace movement more public legitimacy.

 

In my experiences with GI support work around Fort Lewis, I have come to see the peace movement and military community movement as two distinct movements, that can and should work together in solidarity. This view is not to promote disunity–quite the opposite. Building unity is helped by recognizing autonomy, and understanding the varied social interests that activists have when they join a movement. A healthy relationship is created not only by recognizing similarities, but by respecting differences. As GIs’, veterans’ and military familes’ opposition to the Iraq War grows by leaps and bounds, it is time not only to work with them, but to listen to them.

 

Which “Military”?

 

The different languages of peace activists and military community activists need to be translated if we are to work together. Misunderstandings between activists can be sparked by even the simplest differences in defining ideas and terms. One simple example is the word “military.” To a peace activist like myself, “the military” means the institution of the armed forces, represented by the Pentagon. It is easy for me to denounce the military.

 

To a military community activist, however, “the military” is often understood as describing all individuals within the armed forces, and so can interpret hostility to the military as a personal attack. This is particularly true for “military brats” who grew up on bases and had their family and social circles intertwined with the institution. These activists are concerned with reaching troops and their families, using language they find familiar, so are more specific about whom they blame for the war.

 

Working together, peace activists and military community activists can specifically identify the target of their protests as the Pentagon, the military command, and the civilian leadership that holds ultimate responsibility for dragging us into wars. To ease the process of working together, peace activists could also learn more about military life (structure, ranks, family services, etc.), and military community activists could more consistently include the toll of Iraqi civilians when they honor the growing number of fallen Americans.

 

War crimes.

 

One of the most sensitive areas of misunderstanding between different activists revolves around war crimes and crimes against humanity. A peace activist offers moral exhortations to GIs not to participate in war crimes, which is certainly an important appeal to make to higher conscience and values (and is even sometimes effective). But such appeals can have the effect of separating war crimes from the act of war itself, the ultimate “crime against the peace.” Once a war starts and any of us is sent into it, who is to say that we (as individuals) would be immune from commiting war crimes out of vengeful rage, or if we felt our own survival was at stake?

 

Military community activists are also horrified by war crimes, but put more emphasis on those who issue the orders than those who “follow orders.” It is easy to identify a common pattern in all U.S. massacres–at My Lai, Abu Ghraib, Haditha, or countless other war crime scenes. The Pentagon pins the “incidents” on a “few bad apples,” blaming only individual lower-ranking soldiers, not the civilian or military decisionmakers who are the ultimate criminals. The media portrays war crimes as resulting only from ground actions, never aerial bombing or field artillery–impersonal massacres where the perpetrators rarely see the carnage. Certainly individual soldiers should be held responsible for “just following orders,” if military and civilian commanders are held ultimately responsible–as they were in the Nuremberg Trials.

 

Working together, the two movements can identify the sources and origins of war crimes in the command structure, with attention to the institutionalized violence in the training process, in the dehumanization of the civilian enemy through conditioned racism (as “gooks,” “hajis,” etc.), and in the rules of engagement–or lack thereof. There is a parallel well understood in the social justice movement: racism is not just treated as a matter of individual prejudice, but as an institutionalized set of practices to maintain the power and advantages of whites. If we work only on overcoming our own individual racism, we leave the origins in institutionalized racism intact–so we have to do both. The same is true for holding institutions accountable for war crimes, which not coincidentally are fueled by racism.

 

Military “reform”

 

Miscommunication can also arise over proposals for “military reform,” such as challenging sexual harassment, anti-gay policies, or unsafe conditions for the troops. To many peace activists, reforming the military may seem like making the military a safer, more inclusive job to kill people and occupy their lands. Taken to the extreme, they ask, should women drop 50% of the napalm, and gays and lesbians lob 10% of the white phosphorus shells? Yet this argument overlooks how discussing working conditions can be a conversation opener to reach GIs. If the brass lies to them about their work, and covers up hazards and discrimination, wouldn’t it also lie to them about the war?

 

To a military community activist, military reform is a matter of justice. Troops are expected to sacrifice for their country, but their country’s government will not provide adequate health care or post-traumatic stress care for them. Yet this legitimate argument is sometimes isolated away from issues of war and peace, as if the military is just another job, not a matter of life and death. Taken to the extreme, some argue that reform would make the armed forces more “efficient” without asking “efficient at what?”

 

Working together, peace activists and military community activists can make connections between the violation of rights inside the military and the violation of rights imposed on foreign populations by the military, such as how uranium munitions contaminate both Americans and Iraqis. As local peace activist Alice Zillah has written about the rape of American women GIs , “Around the world, women and girls are subject to sexual violence due to the presence of U.S. troops and bases. The horrible case in Iraq, in which a 14-year-old girl was raped and murdered by four U.S. soldiers, is only one of the most terrible instances of this…Our message is two-fold: against sexual violence [in the military] and for solidarity with those who are victimized by troops.”

 

Youth Counterrecruitment.

 

In the peace movement’s counterrecruitment work in the schools, it carries a vision of a peaceful, nonviolent world. It often portrays warfare as related to personal aggression, and tries to encourage peaceful dialogue and curb the use of war toys–all laudable goals on their own merit. But is modern warfare really based on personal aggression? Who feels this aggression? The general issuing orders from his air-conditioned headquarters? The B-1 pilot pushing a button to release the bombs? The soldier in battle who is scared to death and fighting for survival and the lives of fellow GIs? In the Iraq War, 80 percent of U.S. personnel never leave the military bases or Green Zone. War is not just about violence, but about power and control–occupying another country would be wrong even if no shots were fired. Its central emotional buttress is not aggression but dehumanization of the “enemy.”

 

Veterans doing counterrecruitment work emphasize not only peaceful values, but the power of their own stories and experiences. Because many of them remember why they joined the military, they realize that many young people are not as moved by doves and peace signs, and the more jaded youth may even see these symbols as too idealistic. Nor are economics the only motivating factor for youth to join up. Many young men and women actually do sign up for the adventure, to join the “Army of One” to build their character, or to prove they are “Army Strong.” Barry Romo of Vietnam Veterans Against the War has advised these youth to instead take martial arts, not only for self-defense but to control their anger and learn self-discipline.

 

Working together, the movements could work on practical alternatives to offer youth so they do not join the military. Though it may be anathema to some peace activists, taking martial arts is better than joining the Marines. Other ways to get the adrenaline pumping are firefighting, disaster response training, or even political activism and direct action. And both movements can agree that there will never be peace without justice–the only real alternative to the military is well-paying jobs for youths in poor communities.

 

Open vs. Underground Resistance.

 

To many peace activists, the most important type of resistance is an open, individual, public act of conscience. Because the peace movement is based on moral values, it understands a change in moral consciousness. This is a reason for the strong (and deserved) peace movement support for conscientious objectors such as Spc. Agustin Aguayo, and individual refusers such as Lt. Ehren Watada. But it is also important to let GIs know that individual public refusal is just one choice on a spectrum of many options.

 

Many GIs and veterans also describe other varied and complex ways that military resistance can take place. It is difficult for GIs to openly act together, because they can then be charged with mutiny. But they can and have carried out quieter, collective acts to slow down a war effort. In both Vietnam and Iraq, GIs were sent out on patrol, but instead stayed in one spot and radioed false coordinates back to base. Anyone who has worked at a crappy job, where they are smarter than their boss, knows how to slow up their work. Like thousands of termites gnawing away at a foundation, these collective surreptitious acts can undermine the waging of a war.

 

Working together, any number of practical projects could unite the movements in supporting GI resistance. During Vietnam, the peace movement set up GI coffeehouses, though many were quickly declared off-limits. (As one veteran stated in the film Sir! No Sir!, soldiers were often more powerful in the barracks with a printing press.) In the 21st century, the peace movement could help set up “cybercoffeehouse” websites for the military community around particular bases. As Vietnam War resister Mike Wong says, “the Internet is the GI underground press of today.” When protesting around a base, activists (letting vets and families take the lead) can make a special effort to greet soldiers and make signs appealing to the troops themselves, as Washington activists did when they opposed Stryker deployments from Fort Lewis (images of the protests are at www.youtube.com/watch?v=wlndgiBhNQQ)

 

Organizing cultures and languages

 

Since working on the Citizens’ Hearing on the Legality of U.S. Actions in Iraq in Tacoma last January, I have been thinking often of how the peace movement and military community have different interests, languages, and organizing styles. In my day job teaching at The Evergreen State College, a colleague introduced me to Fred Rose’s excellent book Coalitions Across the Class Divide, which helped shed some light on these different styles.

 

Rose focuses on how political adversaries can begin to work together in “cross-class” alliances, using case studies of timber workers working with the environmental movement, or defense plant unions working with the peace movement. He points out that miscommunication comes not just from different goals or priorities, but from different cultures and “languages” of organizing. But he goes beyond the obvious point that labor unions are working class, and the peace and environmental movements are predominantly middle class.

 

Rose identifies peace and environmental activists as mainly “values-based,” and union worker activists as “interest-based.” People join a “values-based” movement because of what they believe, so the movement’s emphasis is on raising consciousness. Since their participation is based on moral concern, they may change that concern and move on to another issue. People join an “interest- based” movement because of who they are and their direct experiences, so the emphasis is on defending their social community. Since their participation is based on a practical response to their situation, they have to stay on that issue until it is resolved.

 

Here too, there is a parallel well understood in the larger movement. The (values-based) environmental movement was criticized by communities of color and working-class communities who have directly experienced pollution, and who formed their own (interest-based) movement for “environmental justice.” Today, the environmental justice movement is seen as leading the way in many environmental struggles, not just as a caucus or appendage of the predominantly white middle- class movement, but as a movement in its own right that speaks for itself.

 

I maintain that the military community movement has a very similar relationship to the larger peace movement as the environmental justice movement has to the larger environmental movement. The relationship is fraught with tensions, but also has immense potential when they work together and respect their differences. There are certainly many working-class people in the peace movement, and many middle-class people in the military community. Yet the miscommunication is not just about class background, but about how experiences and interests shape a movement’s culture. The overall personal feel, tone and language of the organizing culture around VfP, IVAW, MFSO, etc. feels familiar to an activist who has worked to support environmental justice groups.

 

The military community’s personal language also sounds familiar to activists who have worked with war refugees, or to those with family members who survived past wars. For example, I am against war because of my Hungarian father’s stories about the Nazi Holocaust and Allied bombing raids. Perhaps I am sympathetic with the viewpoints of veterans and military families because I too cannot get away from my family’s experience. But because I have not personally experienced the violence of war, I cannot pretend to know what either refugees or veterans have gone through. This is one reason why veterans are a protected class in anti-discrimination laws: we civilians often “don’t get it,” and cannot understand how war has shaped their thoughts and actions.

 

As our movement to stop the Iraq War is now a majority movement, we need to recognize that the current antiwar movement has really become an alliance of different movements. Listening–really listening–to GIs, veterans, and military families goes beyond pointing to them as “legitimate” antiwar voices who have “moral authority.” It means learning about new strategies and tactics that may be unfamiliar to us, but can more effectively reach the majority of nonpolitical Americans. (A recent rally in Seattle, for example, very clearly communicated that we want to “Fund the Wounded, not the War.”)  Marching together, defending military refusers and resisters, and counterrecruiting in the high schools can all be powerful means to build unity between people from different “walks of life” who all want the same thing: for all the troops to finally come home, and above all for the slaughter of Iraqi civilians to stop.

 

 

Zoltan Grossman has been a civilian antiwar activist for 25 years in Wisconsin, Illinois, and now Washington state, where he helped organize the Citizens’ Hearing on the Legality of U.S. Actions in Iraq (www.wartribunal.org). He is a geographer and member of the faculty at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, where he can be reached at [email protected] or on his website http://academic.evergreen.edu/g/grossmaz .

 

 

Leave a comment