Garett Reppenhagen, Veterans for Peace, Interviewed by Bill Resnick
Posted August 27, 2020
Recently, Veterans for Peace issued a statement condemning the deployment of troops in the U.S.:
“Veterans For Peace condemns the inflammatory statements of Donald Trump. His declaration of calling for military troops on US soil to quell people exercising their First Amendment right is inflammatory and incredibly dangerous. We stand unequivocally with the protestors who are in the streets calling for an end to senseless police killings and white supremacy.
In addition to the 200,000 troops already deployed across the world, US cities are being occupied by military force. Thousands of heavily-armed soldiers, military personnel and police have been deployed to the cities across the nation as Trump calls on the military to ‘dominate the streets’ and that he’d override any local control if governors refuse to deploy the National Guard. Threats and intimidation are tactics of terror by this administration. Trump’s statements as well as past statements are incendiary and effectively declare war on our communities…
Veterans For Peace calls on all active duty military leaders and personnel to refuse deployment. We as veterans know the terrible aftermath of participating in actions that are morally wrong against communities in other countries. Now is the time to refuse to participate in orders that are unjust.”
Bill: That’s a strong statement, Garett, why did VFP put it out?
Garett: We don’t want to see our US military being used against peaceful protestors that are demanding a stop to the violence in their communities by police officers, demanding equality and challenging white supremacy. There is no peace without justice. With the federal government deploying troops, we are going to see innocent people killed, protestors who have every right to exercise their constitutional rights being killed. And we’ve already seen it. In Kentucky, a man was killed by a guardsman. I don’t think we’ve seen violence in our streets by the military since, like, Kent State.
As veterans, we know how soldiers operate in a military combat zone and we know
that our National Guardsmen and our federal troops, if deployed, will act in similar
fashion—to put down any threat towards them with mass amounts of violence.
It is going to be morally damaging to the soldiers who are deploying. As we see in countries that the U.S. military occupies, it leads to situations where you’re going to kill bystanders, you’re going to kill innocent women and children and you’re going to be killing people who basically will put you on the wrong side of the civil rights movement in this country.
I don’t think that most service members signed up for that. Atrocities by the
military overseas is certainly awful and it’ll be no different here in our own country
as we’re killing our own citizens.
Bill: Trump could well be mulling over (in his criminally canny way) his options if he loses the election. He might claim election fraud, declare martial law, and order the military to enforce it. Perhaps this was one reason that highly respected retired military men, like General Mattis, spoke out in opposition to Trump’s use of troops in the streets of Washington, D.C.
Well, anything is possible and I don’t think that President Trump is removing any options from the table, as they say. I’m sure he was trying to see whether the military would fall in under his command and do something like this, testing the control he has over the military itself. I don’t know what these retired generals and the senior level leadership were thinking when they actually challenged the president on these issues, but it was good that they came out against him.
However, I want to put a few warnings out there. One, this action by retired military gives a false sense of integrity of the US military command when in a lot of senses, it still is self-serving. And there are worries, I think, within senior level leadership that belief in and support of the US military will fracture if stressed a lot as it did toward the end of the Vietnam war, where there was less and less public support for the US military and I don’t think they want to see that happen. People may think that because these senior level military people might be challenging Trump or at least have some amount of dissension from him, that they also follow their morals and ethics on the battlefield, which we know is not always the case. We’ve seen it in Afghanistan. We’ve seen it in Iraq. We’ve seen it all over the world for a long history. And I just want to remind people that atrocities that happen, as in Abu Ghraib, are not perpetrated by high command; an E5 (well below Officer ranks) is the highest level soldier for any of the atrocities associated with Abu Ghraib. So, you know, it’s not an ethical, moral institution to begin with, so don’t think they’re going to obey … do the right things and follow their conscience when ordered to do something. Be prepared for that. And, if it’s possible and it serves the purpose of the military, I think that they’ll occupy American streets if the opportunity arises.
Bill: Given the many social, economic, and environmental crises this country will face, I can envision a time with vast popular protests challenged in the streets by an armed right. And some future President might well order the military to join with the police to keep order. So Garett, let’s talk about what can be done to make sure that will not happen. And what can be done so that the men in charge tell the President that their troops will not obey that sort of order, and maybe even better is there anything we can do to ensure that at least large segments of the troops side with democratic forces.
Garett: Well, I think on the highest level, you know, I think putting pressure on governors and other officials is really important. Donald Trump threatened governors that if they didn’t mobilize the National Guard, he would send in federal troops. You know, some of that has been walked back a bit. But, the threat still remains and I think governors need the political backbone from their communities to tell Trump “no.” We can make it very clear to governors that their future re-election might count on the decision that they make. And if governors refuse and Trump sends federal troops, then at least it’s not the local state national guard that’s in the city streets and Trump’s move will have much less legitimacy.
And also on the local level, on the person to person level, if you know somebody who’s in the military or you know somebody who’s in the National Guard, reach out, talk to them, have these conversations with them. It’s all good and well for these high-ranking military officials to speak up, but ultimately, it’s the lowest level person that’s going to be on the ground having to make the decision to pull the trigger or not. I’d rather them not be in the situation where they’re afraid for their lives or they’re afraid of their military command who gives them orders. So, let’s talk to them. There are resources: the GI Rights Hotline, the Military Law Task Force, Courage To Resist, About Face: Veterans Against War, and Veterans For Peace, all standing by to receive calls and emails to help you find the resources that you need if you’re in the service and you want to get out and you want to refuse orders.
I wonder what role civilian organizing can play in discouraging troops from carryout out orders if they are directed to enforce martial law. I think we have to present a threat of a general strike or of some other way of people just refusing to go along with the military occupation. It seems to me that that refusal creates some degree of reticence amongst the military and the political elite that otherwise might back Trump. What’s your sense?
Garett: General strike is always great. I don’t know if we have the critical mass in labor organizing at this point to be able to pull off something that will be effective, but we should keep working towards that. I think withholding our labor is an amazing tool for change, but you also see these protests in the streets are becoming very effective. You see local communities changing, talking about reducing military spending and police spending. Denver, Colorado, which is the closest large city to me, the police budget is about a third of the tax dollars spent in the city. And people are demanding to reduce that. If we stay in the streets, we keep supporting black lives, reach out to national organizations like the Movement for Black Lives and other local coalitions to see how we can show up–I think that is really powerful.
I’d like to see more military veterans out there. I think having the military veteran community oppose these deployments and mobilizations is really critical right now. We are supporting Veterans for Black Lives and Stand Down for Black Lives as a way to organize against military forces in our streets and for demilitarizing our police forces. I think it’s starting to really make a difference.
I’m curious, not on the presidential elections because I don’t have a lot of faith in Joe Biden, but on local congressional elections and state elections if we’re going to see a massive shift, because the popular culture is moving away from the status quo, away from the colonized forms that we’re used to seeing, away from white supremacy. And I think we’re going to have many more progressive leaders take positions of power on a local level and I think that has a way of really changing many things.
Bill: Yes, when a big veterans contingent went to Standing Rock to participate in the organizing against the Keystone Pipeline, it was a tremendous boost for the movement. One final issue, Garett. In the VFP statement, you say that “veterans know the terrible aftermath of participating in actions that are morally wrong against communities in other countries.” Can you give us a sense of what you see as the aftermaths of unjust wars and killing.
Garett: Well first, are the people of the countries that are typically occupied by unilateral, overwhelming military force on the US side. And then there are the veterans who are serving there. And I just want to say that there’s no equality there. The service members are not the ones whose home countries are being occupied; they’re not being suppressed and terrorized by an armed force; their loved ones aren’t being killed; their way of life is rarely being upset to such a degree that their whole world is being turned upside down. You know, in this new scenario, those people are going to be American citizens. But I also don’t want to say this is different in that I don’t want to put any sort of additional value on American lives over other people’s lives.
So, that being said, there’s also the veterans’ side of things. Many of us who serve in the military do so for economic reasons, to access higher occupations, educations, and so on. There are also people who have military service as a family tradition, and there are people who believe in the military as their patriotic duty.
You know, the military who’s actually going out there and doing this, many of us who serve in the military are doing it for economic reasons, do – – are in a situation
But, when you take the battlefield and take lives, there’s a weight upon you that you’re not trained for. The military is very good at training you how to kill. I was very excellent at my job as a sniper in Iraq. What they don’t teach you is what happens to you psychologically and emotionally and morally after you take someone’s life. And the ambiguity of the conflict that you’re in, the lack of clarity about why you’re there, also affects that weight upon your soul. I struggle with moral injury every single day. The immense shame I feel about participating as a perpetrator of violence of against people in Iraq is intense. Some days, I can’t get out of bed and I punish myself for being happy. And I punish myself because my society treats me like a hero. I’ve sabotaged great relationships with lovers, family members, friends; I’ve sabotaged job opportunities, just because I felt the need to punish myself and go to a very dark place.
And you can imagine the amount of moral injury that a soldier is going to feel once he draws down a weapon on a person from his own community and kills them when they’re only trying to advocate to end police violence in their communities, to highlight how there’s still not equality in this country, that the economic divide is vast. That is going to be a massive burden and take a massive toll on service members if they take the streets of America. Right now, we lose about 22 veterans a day to suicide. Twenty-two a day is going to be very small compared to the remorse that military troops will feel if they actually take the streets of America.
Garett Reppenhagen is Executive Director of Veteran’s For Peace. His family was military: his father a Vietnam veteran; both grandfathers served in World War II. He was a cavalry scout sniper in the Army’s First Infantry Division. After a combat tour in Baquaba, Iraq, he got disillusioned with the war, gained an honorable discharge in 2005, and immediately began working as a veterans’ advocate and dedicated activist.
Bill Resnick co-founded and does interviews on the Old Mole Variety Hour on KBOO Radio in Portland, OR. He’s published on U.S. politics in the Portland Alliance, Socialist Review, Against the Current, and other journals.