Thinking about the antiwar movement

Posted September 25, 2008

I was on a panel discussion about the antiwar movement at Wayne State University. Panelists were discussion a special Spring/Summer 2008 issue of WIN, the War Resister’s League’s magazine. It features a number of questions posed to antiwar organizers:

* What is lacking in the peace and antiwar movement?
* What constraints do we face in organizing?
* What are the biggest openings and opportunities for organizing today?
* How do we build a more multiracial and cross-class antiwar movement?
* What roles can veterans, soldiers and military families play in ending war?
* What is the relevance of nonviolence today?
* How do we link peace and justice issues and build alliances?
* What does base-building look like in antiwar organizing?
* Where to from here?

Each panelist addressed a couple of questions and then there was a dialogue with attendees. These were the remarks I prepared:

What roles can veterans, soldiers and military families play in ending war?

Clearly if the military refuses to fight, the war can’t continue. If the military can’t meet their volunteer or re-enlistment quotas, the military is in big trouble!

A bit of history: After World War II Washington didn’t demobilize the army in the Pacific. There was a possibility of revolutions in the area, particularly in China. But GIs wanted to go home! A movement broke out on army bases in the Philippines. Emil Masey, who had been a UAW leader (Briggs Local 212) before he was drafted, was one of the “Bring Us Home” organizers. And the army was forced to do so.

Washington demobilized the army. The draft wasn’t ended, but it was reorganized by a new act in 1947. And Washington’s grip on Southeast Asia was loosened for a period.

During the Vietnam War, antiwar coalitions in the San Francisco area leafleted both nearby army bases (once even from a helicopter!) and the S.F. airport, where GIs were going to Vietnam, and coming home.

The military taught recruits that the Vietnamese were “communists” and encouraged them to think about “the enemy” in dehumanizing ways so that they would be revved up enough to kill. Getting soldiers to kill is an important part of what military training is all about.

The antiwar movement said that GIs have the right to information about the war. Since the military only provided one side, we demanded the right of GIs to hear the antiwar position and make up their own minds. Of course this was exactly what the military feared!

Around 1967 when I was leafleting at the airport I started hearing GIs talk about how they’d take votes in their unit about whether to go out on patrol. I heard about “fragging” officers (meaning something bad would happen to officers who insisted they fight). At first I thought they were just telling me what I might want to hear, but no, as I heard more stories I realized the army was beginning to crack.

I was office manager for the GI Civilian March for Peace in October 1968. This was a march led by active-duty Marines, Air Force and Navy personnel. After changing into civilian clothes a number of Marines from their base on Treasure Island would come by the office 2-3 times as week and go out leafleting. I thought Marines were the gung-ho branch of the military and asked how they’d decided to become antiwar activists. They told me, “It’s our job to unload the bodies coming back.”

Some of the GIs were given orders to report to another base even before the march happened, and most were dispersed in the weeks after the march of 30,000, which was led by active-duty GIs. Lt. Sue Schnall, a navy nurse, was court marshaled for wearing her uniform at the march.

Most of the activists moved on to other sites, where I’m sure they infected others with their antiwar views. The movie “Sir, No Sir” portrays a sense of that moment.

The military has studied the Vietnam War ever since. Washington made the decision to go to a volunteer army, figuring they could maintain a volunteer army by implementing three changes: increase the pay, open the military up to women and privatize many of the jobs.

They have done so, and now we have a poverty draft of a very particular sort. Look at who has died from Michigan and where they are from–overwhelmingly they are not from the urban areas, but the small towns and suburban areas where there used to be jobs for young men and women after high school; those manufacturing jobs are far fewer today.

Another interesting fact about this war is that the African-American community is opposed in large numbers. For the first time, and even given the lack of job opportunities, the percentage of African-American participation in the military continues to fall. When I go into Detroit high schools to talk about why joining the military isn’t a good career option, many Black students don’t even want to look at the military forms to critique them. They see even holding the forms as something that might “infect” them!

However it is important to take note of the two communities which the military has targeted for recruitment: Mexican Americans, under the assumption that they might be willing to sign up for the draft in order to obtain citizenship, and Arab Americans who speak Arabic. The military desperately needs their language skills, and will pay significant bonuses to Arab speakers. We should go out of our way to get the counter military recruitment message into these communities, and translated into Spanish and Arabic.

Clearly there are many months the military is not able to meet their recruitment and retention targets. It is being chewed up under the pressures of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is particularly true because of 16-month stays that were imposed, which increased the stress and violence GIs faced–and because of Bush’s war on terror, some will respond to these pressures by inflicting or tolerating torture. All of these factors head to PTSD cases at a much higher rate than ever before.

During the Vietnam War I don’t remember seeing signs about military families being against the war; it was mostly soldiers who became antiwar, and often their families supported them. I remember how my aunt, a nun, became antiwar through her correspondence with GIs she had once taught.

But during this war, from the beginning, there have been military families speaking out. One factor is the existence of the internet so that families are in much closer contact with their soldier. A second factor is that in the volunteer army, many more soldiers are married and have families.

Another difference between the Vietnam War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that active-duty GIs are a part of an antiwar organization, Iraqi Veterans Against the War. IVAW is setting up new chapters almost every week, and some are on bases.

What prevents the emergence of a stronger, more coordinated and strategic antiwar movement?

For people who earn a living-and for students, many of whom both study and earn a living-life is very precarious. One’s job, one’s benefits, one’s leisure time is pretty much up in the air. When I was a student, I was able to go to a college that was virtually tuition free; when I graduated I didn’t have any debt.

Today people have a host of problems they have to deal with, and the war is just one more bad thing that exists in our lives. And it’s not often problem #1, or even problem #6. Most people feel it’s impossible to handle most of the problems on their plate. Millions tried to stop the war in Iraq before it began, but that proved impossible. A couple of years later they went to the polls and elected a Democratic Congress, in order to stop the war. The Democrats say they are against the war, but they continue funding it.

Another factor at work here is that while most Americans are against the Iraq war (the bad war, as it were), they are for the war in Afghanistan (the “good” war) because it is supposedly a war against the people who flew the planes into the World Trade Center. But both wars are wars against a civilian population, and only end stiffening the opposition of those people to the presence of foreign troops.

If we step back, we realize one big problem is that while the American people are often against particular wars that Washington starts, they somehow still feel U.S. foreign policy, and U.S. “aid” to countries, is benign. They somehow still accept the notion that Washington has the right to intervene in other countries, that the so-called enemies of Washington are the enemies of the U.S. population. They don’t see that it’s the corporations and the military-industrial complex that set the country’s policy, and that’s definitely not in our interests.

There’s also identification with the fact that the United States is a military superpower. It’s as if this county has the right to such enormous power and will of course wield that power justly. But the reality is that the United States doesn’t have the right to this power and doesn’t have the right to enjoy the world’s resources at the expense of other people’s needs.

Because we live in the empire doesn’t mean we enjoy the privileges of the empire, except for the few. We pay, just as those in the Third World pay, but in different ways. As long as the majority of the U.S. budget goes for war and military hardware, percentage wise there is very little for schools, job creation, rebuilding our infrastructure, having quality health care and education available for all, or mass transit. I submit to you that those of us who live in the heartland of imperialism are diminished by the burdens of managing that empire.

We can only transform this empire in community with others, attempting to express our solidarity with those like ourselves who are struggling against militarism and war. That’s why organization is so essential and linking our struggles is so vital.

When I first became involved in opposing the Vietnam War, I thought all I could do was be a “witness” to history, that someday historians would write that a handful of Americans opposed the war. What I discovered was that social movements begin as a minority, but have the potential to become the majority. My role didn’t have to be a mere witness, but an organizer to help make change. We are free to become actors in our own story, in our own history.