Good Veterans and Bad Veterans

Earlier today the annual National Memorial Day Parade took place in Washington, DC. Every year veterans from around the country gather to march in the parade. Banned from marching, however, were the members of Veterans For Peace.

The American Veterans Center which organized the parade justified excluding VFP on the basis that the group was too "political." According to the communications director of the American Veterans Center, "We’re striving to keep political statements out of the parade" [1]. Other chapters of Veterans For Peace were banned from marching in similar parades in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Washington state on similar grounds [2].


Of course, the argument that "political" groups have no place in an event like a Memorial Day parade is absurd. Regardless of the intentions of individual participants, such events are highly political in that they invariably promote a certain vision of US foreign policy and of what it means to be a veteran. When the status quo includes a vicious, illegal war of occupation that has killed almost 4,100 US soldiers (in addition to well over one million Iraqis), and when a strong majority of people in both the occupying and occupied country staunchly oppose that war, no event that invokes the memory of fallen veterans can possibly be "neutral"—it either supports or opposes that status quo. As VFP National Director Michael McPhearson says, "It is ridiculous to say we have this political objective when the whole thing is about politics" [3].


Events like today’s parade in DC are even more politically-charged when they are sponsored by war profiteers like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, by the government of Kuwait, and by groups like the US Army and the NRA (all of which sponsored this year’s DC parade). And when the event’s organizers deliberately ban dissenting voices from participating while allowing rabidly pro-war groups like the American Legion (with its slogan of "100 percent Americanism") to take part, the event’s message becomes unequivocally supportive of current US foreign policy [4].  


What the communications director of the American Veterans Center really meant, then, was that a political message is perfectly fine, and in fact desirable, if it corresponds to the official line in Washington. By the official definition, a "veteran" is someone who is blindly and unwaveringly loyal to this official line. Veterans by definition support war and military imperialism when waged by their government. Those who question such policies are not worthy of our respect and, almost by definition, cease to be veterans.


The implicit distinction that politicians and the press make between "good" and "bad" veterans is nothing new; in fact, this distinction has been apparent at least since the US began engaging in overseas imperialism. Bad veterans are those who come to recognize the horrors of war and the callous motives of the elites who send common soldiers to kill and be killed. For this reason, the bad veterans are extremely dangerous to elite prerogatives and must be silenced or discredited.


In Dalton Trumbo’s classic World War I novel Johnny Got His Gun, a young unsuspecting teenage boy from the US returns from the war as nothing but a "stump" with no arms, no legs, and no ability to see, hear, or speak. Instead, he devises a way to communicate using Morse code and is finally able to communicate to his caretakers at the military hospital that he wants to be taken around the United States to show his fellow countrymen the reality of war, confident that "if men saw the future they wouldn’t fight" [5]. The response, in Morse code, was that "WHAT YOU ASK IS AGAINST REGULATIONS" [6].


Trumbo’s account, though fictional, could be taken as a microcosm of the way antiwar vets have been treated over the past century. The most famous veteran testimony to come out of the Vietnam era, Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July, tells a similar story. After being paralyzed from the chest down, Kovic eventually joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War and became a vocal critic of the US presence in Vietnam. At official events organized to increase public support for the war, though, he was displayed "like an animal in a zoo" and was denied the chance to speak [7]. Later, while publicly protesting the war, the wheelchair-bound Kovic was beaten, kicked, and called a "traitor" and a "commie" by police and government supporters. When he and other veterans went to the 1972 Republican National Convention to protest Nixon’s continuation of the war, they were spat on by Nixon supporters and were forcibly removed from the convention center by armed guards [8].


Throughout the current war in Iraq, as well, antiwar veterans have been subjected to continuous harassment, scorn, and repression from the government and its supporters. The government and military have been relentless in their efforts to prosecute and imprison those courageous soldiers who refuse to go to Iraq or Afghanistan. The major national press outlets have alternately ignored or disparaged all those vets who have spoken out against the war. When the newspapers do cover the growing GI resistance, they often portray antiwar vets as psychologically-damaged fringe elements within the military who are manipulated by the antiwar movement. For example, in a Fall 2006 article on the Appeal for Redress (which several thousands US soldiers have signed demanding that their government withdraw from Iraq), Eli Lake of the New York Sun writes that "GIs [are] being recruited to lobby Congress," presumably by manipulative leaders in the antiwar movement who trick them into opposing the war. Lake then quotes a retired Army general who characterizes the signers of the Appeal for Redress as "unwitting instruments" of the antiwar movement [9].


The exclusion of Veterans For Peace from today’s parade is the latest example in a long history of official attempts to silence those veterans who question US policies. Why such repression is directed against the bad veterans should be clear: in contrast with many forms of citizen protest, veterans’ questioning of warmakers’ policies and/or the refusal to fight exerts direct structural pressure on the elites who wage wars by depriving them of the manpower they need to do so. Maintaining control over the military rank-and-file is so crucial that militaristic States have historically been known to take unprecedented measures when this control is threatened. Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero spent three years speaking out against the US-backed Salvadoran dictatorship’s repression of workers and peasants, during which time the government could easily have had him killed, but in March 1980 he finally crossed the line when he urged the military rank-and-file to lay down their arms; he was assassinated by a government-sponsored death squad within a matter of hours. The imprisonment and assassination of popular leaders like Eugene Debs (WWI) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (Vietnam) offer similar examples within the US. In more subtle ways, as the parade today shows, repression continues to be directed at soldiers and veterans who speak out against US policies.


Supporting veterans’ groups like VFP (www.veteransforpeace.org), Iraq Veterans Against the War (www.ivaw.org), and Courage to Resist (www.couragetoresist.org), and doing counter-recruitment work in high schools, colleges, malls, and parks are therefore among the most important efforts to which the antiwar movement can devote its time. Not only do these efforts stand to have enormous personal significance for war resisters and for youth who might otherwise be drawn into the military, they also hold tremendous potential for undermining the ability of Congress and the President to continue waging war in the Middle East, and for limiting our government’s ability to maintain an economy based on war and militarism in the future.





[1] Quoted in "Vets for Peace Booted from National Memorial Day Parade," The Progressive (online), 23 May 2008. Available from http://www.progressive.org/mag_mc052308. 


[2] See the VFP website: http://www.veteransforpeace.org/Parades.vp.html. According to the site, "Throughout the last few years, a growing number of VFP Chapters are being disqualified from participating in these important traditional events." See also Stephen Manning, "Veterans Peace Group Blocked From Parade," Examiner (Philadelphia), 20 May 2008.


[3] Quoted in Manning, "Veterans Peace Group Blocked From Parade."


[4] "Vets for Peace Booted from National Memorial Day Parade."


[5] Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun (New York: Bantam, 1967 [1939]), 241.


[6] Ibid., 234-35 (see chapters xix-xx generally).


[7] Ron Kovic, Born on the Fourth of July (New York: Pocket Books, 1977). See Part 4, chapter 1.


[8] Ibid., Part 5, chapter 2, and Part 6, chapter 2.


[9] Eli Lake, "Active Duty GIs Being Recruited To Lobby Congress Against War," New York Sun, 26 Oct. 2006.

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