Everyday Heroes: Maggie Martin & Iraq Veterans Against The War

Chris Brooks interviews Maggie Martin

June 10, 2013

On Monday, May 27th, people all across our country recognized Memorial Day, a national holiday set aside to honor the men and women who have served in our armed forces. Exactly one week later began the military court martial of Bradley Manning, one of the most courageous freedom fighters living today. I took the opportunity to mark these occasions by interviewing Maggie Martin, organizing director at the Iraq Veterans Against the War. We talked about what led her to becoming an integral part of the movement against militarism and what her thoughts are on everything from Bradley Manning and the growing National Security State to nationalism.

Maggie Martin, organizing director for Iraq Veterans Against the War

Chris Brooks: What made you decide to join the military? What was your experience in the military and what led you to joining the Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW)?

Maggie Martin: I joined the military in 2001 when I was 19. I was looking for an adventure and to do something worthwhile with my life. My experience of lack of control over my own life, disrespect within the ranks, and the dehumanization of Iraqi people are what made me realize I had problems with the military and what I participated in. I joined Iraq Veterans Against the war (IVAW) in 2007 when I first heard about the organization at a concert.

CB: What do you see as the primary focus of the organizing work being done by yourself and the IVAW?

MM: Our mission is work to build a service-member and veteran led movement that ends militarism by transforming ourselves, military culture and American society. That being said my primary work is to build power amongst service members, veterans, and all of us negatively impacted by US militarism, including all of us here who see our national resources constantly wasted on military spending instead of needed, health, education, and social programs.

CB: The press recently reported that senior officials in the Obama Administration have admitted that they are planning for the “global war on terror” to last for at least “another 20 to 30 years” with “no clear end in sight” LINK. Given the current trajectory of the US imperial project and the strength of the military-industrial complex, how do you perceive organizing efforts to be most effectively attacking the US war machine?

MM: Bridging the gap between Service members and veterans is key. We want to counter the idea that supporting the troops and supporting military action are the same thing. We want to speak for ourselves as veterans and counter the narrative that soldiers are different than other people, we want to reclaim our humanity and use our voices to lift up the humanity of people facing drone strikes, occupation, and other intervention. As we move forward into more mechanized and automated warfare it is important for us to connect with people from other countries facing US Military intervention. It has become easier for us as a nation to ignore what our military is doing, if we don’t stop this trend and expose the human costs of drones and night raids as well as highlighting how these actions make us less safe.

CB: IVAW has been very intentional in what their demands are in relation to the Iraq War – calling for immediate withdrawal of all occupying forces in Iraq, reparations for the human and structural damages Iraq has suffered, and stopping the corporate pillaging of Iraq so that their people can control their own lives and future, as well as a guarantee of full benefits and adequate healthcare (including mental health) for returning service men and women.- what kinds of inter-connections do you see between the struggles for justice IVAW is engaged in and those on the frontlines of battles centered on the rights of women, workers, migrants, the environment and communities of color?

MM: We are coming through a period of a deflated peace/anti-war movement despite the fact that we have been at war for 12 years. We see that almost any situation we are facing at home economically can be tied back to the war through the military spending that is in the billions despite the slashing of important social programs. We are learning to build outside of our organizations especially with communities who struggle with dehumanization, militarism in our streets and schools, and those struggling to heal from trauma.
We’ve learned the value of solidarity and that it’s not about helping others with their cause but instead seeing how our struggles are tied together and how our futures are bound together.

Maggie Martin speaking at a rally.

CB: The left has a long and proud history of veterans emerging from the frontlines of our bullshit wars and becoming profound moral voices of dissent and opposition, yet there is also a tendency on the left for folks to dehumanize and write-off those who have served in the military. I think this has typically produced a tension on the left arising from the need to hold the military accountable for its role in America’s imperial domination of other countries and the need to support disillusioned service members and their families at home. What are your reflections on this tension? Is there a principled way to clearly differentiate between the war and the atrocities committed by our troops and the service members who return home?

MM: As a community anti-war veterans can generally understand the tension. Depending on where we are with our development and healing we may see ourselves as heroes, terrorist, or just flawed humans trying to make amends. I think it does the left well to look at some of the root causes of why young people join the military. If we can understand the intentions and beliefs that cause people to join the military we can work harder to shed light on the conflict between myth and reality.

CB: I know many were deeply disturbed and surprised to see police rolling through the streets of Boston in armored personnel vehicles, wearing Kevlar full-body armor, strapped with military grade weaponry going door-to-door inspecting houses. What are your reflections on the increasing militarization of the police at home and our wars abroad? How do you think these connections should inform our organizing work?

MM: What is most alarming is how normalized this militarization is. I get very worried thinking about a generation younger than me who have been living at war and with a threat of “terrorism” since their childhood. I used to believe that if a person isn’t doing anything wrong they have nothing to worry about. Now I believe if we don’t roll back the militarism of our police force we could find ourselves in a state where night raids and drone strikes become acceptable in our own cities and towns. We’re already using drones for surveillance and boarder patrol.
This is a clear area for us to work on with other domestic organizations, migrant folks, policed populations, formally incarcerated, etc.

CB: After more than three years since his initial arrest, Bradley Manning’s court martial for releasing the largest trove of classified cables and government documents in US history to the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks began this month. After the United States government led the people into a series of imperial wars based on lies and secrets, what do you think of the full behemoth of the US empire being brought down on Manning for his attempts to shine light on the truth? Is there anything particular about his courageous actions that civilians might have a hard time understanding? Do you think that Manning’s courage might serve as a model for future actions by US military personnel?

MM: In 2008 IVAW held our Winter Soldier hearings with eyewitness accounts of the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have always felt the need to offer a more accurate version of the truth or war than what our mainstream media provides. In this vein Manning has done more to enhance the debate and bring unknown truths to light than any other service member in history. My hope is that the debate about if whistle-blowing and treason will fall on the side of those who speak the truth and value humanity. My hope is that others will take strength from Manning’s sacrifice and that more service members and veterans will be emboldened to share their own experiences.

CB: The Obama Administration is ruthlessly wielding the full power of the US National Security State to aggressively pursue whistle-blowers, in the process prosecuting more government leakers under the 1917 Espionage Actthan all prior administrations combined. What I find to be even more concerning was the recent revelation that that the National Security State is truly all-seeing and all-powerful, having the capacity to review all “telephone calls, emails, online chats and the like” which “are automatically recorded and stored and accessible to the government after the fact”LINK. What do you make of the connection between the US wars abroad and the rise of the National Security State at home? What does it mean for the peace movement and for folks concerned with the protection of Civil Liberties that the Democratic Obama Administration has not only completely defended and entrenched the illegal and immoral activities of the Bush Administration, but actually escalated them in dramatic ways both abroad and here at home?

MM: Ugh, I don’t even know what to say about this. In some ways it seems totally overwhelming. My strategy for dealing with the increased security state is to be wide open, public, and know that transformative organizing cannot be stopped by surveillance. In the big picture I think joining with other movements to name and question these tracking tactics as well as drawing attention to the way federal agencies infiltrate and encourage violence in order to discredit people’s movements.

Maggie Martin speaking to the press.

CB: We just celebrated Memorial Day and we are about to celebrate the Fourth of July. As a country, we constantly give lip-service to “supporting the troops”, which is pretty obviously bullshit if anyone takes the time to look at the astonishing inefficiency of the Veterans Affairs Administration, the number of veteran suicides, the number of veterans living on the streets, etc. What do you make of this obvious contradiction between what we as a country profess and what we actually put into practice?

MM: The more we can share our story and our message the more we can find out who really supports the troops, the more we can point to the hypocrisy of what is said versus what is done. While many friends and supporters have found real ways to support service members and veterans by helping with healing resources, supporting our organizational work, and demanding better care for service members. We are sick of hearing about 2 year waits for disability and 2 month waits for mental health appointments, part of our work is continuing the fight to demand the government fulfill its obligations while getting vets and service members the help they need to take steps towards healing.

CB: Given all you have been experienced, seen and been through in your time in the military and your time spent on the frontlines of the struggle for justice, what are your thoughts on nationalism and the role that it plays in our lives?

MM: I heard a phrase that Nationalism is a thinly veiled version of self-worship, that really stuck with me. Why is it when I joined the Army I believed that the US was always on the side of good? Why is it that intervening on the hero myth of the soldier can make some people so angry that they will call us traitors? I think it feels good to believe we are a moral authority and that we don’t have to think about it or even do anything, just being “American” makes us superior.

IVAW members have a unique role to use the privilege that we have to speak as those who have actually served, the key is though, we must use our privilege to counter the idea that US service members are super human, that we are heroes. It is our opportunity and responsibility to tell the truth, that we are just people, we all joined for our own self-interest as well as the fact that most of us thought we were doing something “honorable”. We have to tell the truth about what we did, what we experienced and participated in, what we suffer and struggle through now, and what we can do to change the future.

Chris Brooks is a community organizer based in Chattanooga, Tennessee. This piece originally appeared on this blog, The Chactivist.