War Overseas, Social Devastation at Home: An Evening with Iraq Veterans Against the War

As part of their national convention in Chicago, Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) presented a public forum titled “21St Century American Militarism: Occupation Abroad and Resistance at Home” at the Chicago Temple on August 2, 2013. Featuring talks by Christian Parenti, Michael Rakowitz, Suraia Suhar, and Nick Turse, and followed by an interesting Q&A session, the approximately 250 people in attendance were treated to a stimulating discussion of war and militarism in the current day US Empire. 

The powerful introduction to the event by Iraq veteran and evening master of ceremonies, Vince Emanuele, tied militarism overseas to social devastation at home, was followed by a talk and video slide presentation by Nick Turse. 

Turse, author of the recently-released book, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (see this author’s recent review at www.substancenews.net/articles.php?page=4416&section=Article), began talking about his book and his experiences over a 12 year period of researching, traveling to Vietnam to interview Vietnamese survivors, and writing. Initially planning to do a Ph.D. dissertation on PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) among US veterans, Turse stumbled upon US Army documents detailing the war’s destruction and devastation, and began reading. He read a wide range of the literature—now totaling over 30,000 books!—to provide context and understanding of the war. He traveled across the US, talking to US veterans about their experiences, what they did and/or what they saw. He traveled to Vietnam, locating and talking with survivors of the violence of the war. Basically, what he argued—and showed some gruesome war-related photos so there would be little doubt—is that the war was really a war against Vietnamese civilians, whom we were supposedly there to help.

He went further. He specifically discussed how the US Army—and by implication, the other services as well—did all they could to keep accounts from reaching the American public. Reports “disappeared”; those who reported were intimidated and threated; and those who refused to cower suffered retaliation. At the same time, the US media—and he specifically talked about a case where Newsweek disemboweled a closely-documented story that reported between 5,000-7,000 Vietnamese were killed (over 10 times the number of people killed at My Lai) by the 9th Division in the Mekong Delta—did all they could to ignore the increasing number of reports of atrocities being reported over time.

Later, when asked what “single most important thing” he learned from his research, he said it was just how “all consuming” the war was to the Vietnamese: the Vietnamese had to continually negotiate their lives with the American soldiers and the war in general. He gave an example: when Americans attacked a village, they fired artillery first, so the Vietnamese would get in their bomb shelters to protect themselves from the shelling. But after the artillery stopped, they had to decide how long they could stay safe in their shelters—if they waited too long, and the Americans arrived, they risked their lives because American troops would throw grenades into the bomb shelters to make sure no one was hiding from them. The pressures of this “negotiation,” and over so many years, simply cannot be comprehended.

Michael Rakowitz, a Jewish Iraqi-American and associate professor in the Art Theory and Practice Department at Northwestern University, followed Turse. Shifting focus to the destruction of Iraq from the US invasion, and specifically the cultural devastation, Rakowitz told stories of trying to recover and reconstruct artifacts from Iraq’s cultural heritage, some which went back to Babylonian times.

He specifically talked about the work on Dr. Donny George, an Iraqi scholar who has played a key role in these efforts. It turns out to support his work, George plays drums in a rock band. So in a exhibition created by Rakowitz that George attended, there was a picture of George playing his drums, which befuddled the latter, as he said there were no pictures of his band, the “99 percents.” Rakowitz explained the benefits of photo shop: he told of a picture that he had found of George in a meeting, looking bored, and he attached this image to the image of Ringo Starr of the Beatles!

Next up was Suraia Sahar, an Afghani woman who has immigrated to Toronto, and who is a member of Afghans United for Justice. While she couldn’t talk about militarism in the US, she talked about her experiences in Canada as an anti-war activist, and how she’s been mistreated whenever she has publicly spoken. She spoke about how the Canadian government and the media has used “Remembrance Day”—originally to remember Canadian veterans in World War I—to build support for Canadian troops in Afghanistan today.

Dissatisfied at previous programs, she decided to protest the Afghanistan War at the November 2012 celebration of Remembrance Day activities. Although she is not religious, she chose to wear a headscarf to celebrate her culture, but went there to discuss the war, damage to her people, culture and country as they’ve been at war for over 30 years (including the Soviet and US invasions). She reported that people didn’t respond to her or her concerns: without even talking with her, people starting yelling at her, labeling her a “Taliban supporter,” “Islamist,” or even “jihadi.” (I guess all the fools are not located south of the Canadian border.)

Finally, we got to the presentation by Christian Parenti. The author of four books—his latest came out in 2011, titled Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence—Parenti’s presentation was a tour de force, tying US militarism around the world, and over time, with violence and destruction around the world—and laying the groundwork for even more social devastation as climate change affects food production and water supplies in these countries where guns and violence are ever present. And countries from which people migrate….

He argued that US militarism has changed over time in the post-World War II period. Starting out as what President Eisenhower famously called the “military-industrial complex,” Parenti noted that the civilian component was initially composed of weapons-building corporations, like Boeing, Raytheon, and MacDonald-Douglas. Yet, that has changed: today, in addition to the traditional arms merchants, we must include the “service sector,” those companies who provide things like intelligence and surveillance systems, food and catering services, as well as engineering and construction efforts to the US military, like KBR, Halliburton, Blackwater (now Xe), Triple Canopy, etc. (Nick Turse has written an excellent book on this called The Complex, which I recommend.) In other words, there are more and more corporations benefitting from US militarism, and advocating for greater US military “involvement” across the planet. Of course, they aren’t encouraging the US Government to take their sons and daughters to carry out these policies….

Parenti notices something that seems quite important. As long as the Soviet Union existed—and thus, served as some sort of limit to US power projection across the planet—then there was a considerable wing of the US elites who operated very rationally, and usually with trying to advance the overall interests (obviously, as they defined them) of the system as a whole. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, this wing of the elites has seemed to have disappeared, replaced by individual elites who have no interests that they consider beyond those of individual corporations or, at best, industries—and who totally don’t care about the social ramifications of these projects on the American people.

He notes in the 1980s, beginning slightly before under President Carter but really taking off under Reagan, there was the rise of neo-liberalism, which is based on privatization of public goods (think the Chicago Skyway today) and services (Charter Schools), and deregulation of business.

This hit a new level in the 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union. This signified the victory of the right in the capitalist “west,” as capitalism was seen to be dominant internationally and at home. The military sought a new direction, and focused on “humanitarian” intervention in chosen countries, such as Yugoslavia.

By the 2000s, especially after 9-11, the gloves came off. US foreign policy, according to Parenti, decided to reproduce the Cold War relationships, where US military and economic power was again dominant. We see the massive expenditure on military weaponry, and the military itself, as bogus reasons were advanced to invade Iraq. The US sought to establish itself in a totally different way over the oil supplies of the Middle East, ultimately controlling the oil of its economic and potential economic competitors, such as Japan, China, India, South Korea, and Western Europe.

The ramifications of such “adventurism,” as it really can only be described, has resulted in a number of “failed states”—such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen, with perhaps more coming shortly—that have descended into some level of chaos. This has shifted conflict to within these countries.

At the same time, he argues, there is the global threat of climate change. He argues—correctly, I think—that the Pentagon is well aware of this, and is trying to transform itself to managing a planet that is sliding into chaos: militarism overseas, neo-liberalism at home.

Now, Parenti thinks that more and more Americans are recognizing these contradictions and are seeking ways to get involved and to challenge this direction. While I don’t think most Americans are thinking globally like this—and goodness knows our “mainstream” media aren’t helping with this!—I think efforts to defend public education, for example, can be better understood when put in a larger framework such as Parenti suggests.

In short, a very interesting program, and certainly intellectually stimulating. It was taped by Larry Duncan of Labor Beat, a local cable TV program, and so should soon be available to the public.

I think this was an important program: tying militarism overseas to neo-liberalism at home (featuring Rahm Emanuel as poster boy)—combined with the surveillance state that Edward Snowden has recently begun exposing—and joined with increasing awareness of climate change, suggests that these issues are combined and must be approached holistically. I think the vets are trying to project a broader degree of discussion into our understanding—and they deserve our thanks for that, too. 

Kim Scipes, Ph.D., is a former Sergeant in the US Marine Corps, serving from 1969-73, although staying in the States the entire time. He currently works as an Associate Professor of Sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, IN, while living in Chicago and serving as the Chair of the Chicago Chapter of the National Writers Union (www.nwuchicago.org).                   


Leave a comment