Opposing a GI & Veteran-Focused Anti-War Movement: Seven Reasons
By Tamara K. Nopper
July 9, 2007
As an activist involved in anti-war and counter-military recruitment work, I have been increasingly concerned about the growing GI and veteran-focused tendency of the broad anti-war movement. When my friend returned from the US Social Forum held in Atlanta recently, I became even more concerned when I saw the number of anti-war panels emphasizing GIs and veterans. Finally, after reading different announcements promoting veteran and military family gatherings on this past 4th of July, including the problematic discourses used to frame some of these events, I felt compelled to write.
Some may be surprised about my concerns given my anti-war work. Some may accuse me of just trying to be ultra-leftist, or worse, unsympathetic of the different realities faced by those who enlist. However, I also suspect that there are many out there, who, like me, struggle with what it means to understand the realities of GIs and veterans while simultaneously being active in anti-militarization and anti-imperialist work.
Specifically, I struggle with what is becoming the left’s uncritical embrace of GI and veteran-focused organizing. While I understand the importance of GIs and veterans speaking out against war, I struggle with some of the deep contradictions embedded in GI and veteran-focused work and what it means for organizing not only against the current war in Iraq but US militarization and empire. This is the political conundrum that I face when I talk with veterans that I know, read listservs and articles, attend events, or engage in anti-war and counter-military recruitment work. Thus, I write this essay to express my concerns and to connect with others who share them. And despite the obvious criticism from those who demand a solution before struggling with the problem, I do not pose a grand solution to this conundrum that I am exploring. Simply, I outline seven reasons why I am currently opposed to a GI and veteran-focused anti-war movement.
# 1: GI and veteran-focused activism over-emphasizes Iraq and Afghanistan as the only problems
While US GIs and veterans have been gaining more cache among the left for opposing the war in Iraq, not all of them oppose war and militarization in general. As such, we hear more about Iraq and then Afghanistan than any other military build-up, site of combat, or use of troops. This is a problem because it presumes that the only military build-up or expression of US supremacy through its military industrial complex is located in Iraq or Afghanistan. Or, it posits the notion that the build-up in Iraq and Afghanistan are unjust but that it is necessary to have US military presence in other countries.
To be fair, many GIs and veterans have, like other anti-war groups, “made connections” between Iraq and other sites of war or militarization, including Vietnam, Palestine, and New Orleans. In regards to Palestine, some groups have suffered for bringing attention to the Zionist occupation there. Activists have also made connections between Iraq and forms of domestic repression. It is important to make connections between different sites of militarization and state sanctioned violence. However, such gestures usually lead back to Iraq. When other situations are brought up they are automatically connected to Iraq as if they independently don’t deserve our attention. This was most obvious when, in the direct aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, many activists depicted Katrina as if it could only be understood in relationship to Iraq—as if Katrina didn’t have a historical basis that preceded the current Iraq War.
Of course the current war against Iraq is of political and material importance. But I think that Kwame Ture provided us with a useful vocabulary for how to think about the over-emphasis on one locale. In 1966, Ture, then known as Stokely Carmichael, gave a speech opposing the Vietnam War at the University of California, Berkeley. As he put it, “One of the problems with the peace movement is that it’s just too caught up in Vietnam, and if we pull out the troops from Vietnam this week, next week you’d have to get another peace movement for Santo Domingo.” Related, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) made it a point, in their important 1966 statement on the Vietnam War, that US imperialism was not simply expressed with the spectacle of Vietnam. Indeed, SNCC emphasized those parts of the world that for the most part continue to be ignored today among anti-war activists, most noticeably African countries such as the Congo, South Africa, and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). In other words, Iraq and Afghanistan, like Vietnam, aren’t the only places anti-war activists need to focus on.
#2: GIs, veterans, and their supporters over-emphasize congressional and legal definitions of war and public support
Many who support a GI and veteran-focused movement tend to emphasize the “illegal nature” and supposed “contradictions” of the war in Iraq as their basis for speaking out and challenging US imperialism. Several well-known GI support groups and veterans organizations emphasize the illegal nature of the current Iraq War and that the war was predicated on lies and deception. They also go out of their way to point out that the current war in Iraq is an “unpopular war.”
The Bush regime was deceptive and the war in Iraq does violate international law—as do many US practices that a variety of activists have tried to bring before an international courtroom during the 20th century. Yet emphasis on notions of “unjust” and “illegal” war implies that wars are morally permissible if Congress ratifies it with no deception. More, the focus on Bush’s deception puts way too much attention on the Bush regime as the problem.
While I am no fan of Bush or his regime, we seem to forget that the Congress who helped, in the immediate sense, get us in the current Iraq War approved to give Bush unlimited war powers shortly after 9-11. Only Representative Barbara Lee stood alone in her dissent, just like the three individuals before her who refused to give unchecked power to presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson for World War II and the Vietnam War, respectively. That more did not join Representative Lee in her dissent is indicative of their cowardice or shared interests with the Bush regime.
Even some groups’ celebration of the Democrats getting back into Congress privileges a congressional interpretation of war and again, gives far too much moral power to those elected to office. Yet history and the present reveal that Congresses are willing, even with more information, to pass legislation that is extremely damaging to communities here and abroad. For those of us who understand the bankrupt notion of American electoral politics, Congress’ approval of Iraq, with or without information, is not the issue.
Related, an emphasis on the legalities of war suggests a belief in the fallacy of US democracy and civil society. The consideration of US democracy as a benign but now misdirected or unchecked process is predicated on political amnesia regarding both the nature of and implementation of US democracy and the related function of the US military.
Finally, to suggest that a war should be stopped because it is unpopular only contributes to the idea that a war is morally permissible if the majority of people within a nation support it. A logical extension of this conclusion is a faith in the ethics of the US public. This is a suspect assumption given that we have numerous examples demonstrating that only a minority of people in the US have any ethics when it comes to putting social justice before individual self-interests marked by race, gender, sexuality, and economic positions.
#3: Most GI and veteran-focused activism fails to address white supremacy
One of the major problems of GI and veteran groups today is that most fail to address white supremacy and its relationship to gender and sexuality politics. Many groups never mention racism, let alone white supremacy, among their main reasons for why they are against the war in Iraq. The closest some get is to claim that the war is unfair to the Iraqi people. While such statements are commendable, there is rarely mention of racism as an inherent part of any imperial project.
This is not much different from the statements of anti-war groups less preoccupied with GIs and veterans. Although many of their statements mention racism, the recruitment of communities of color, and even racial profiling, they give far more attention to detailing how immigrants or South Asians, Arabs, and Muslims have been affected by the “war on terror.” While of course repression of immigrants and South Asians, Arabs, and Muslims is inherently a white supremacist project, emphasis on these groups, for the most part, is not the same as fleshing out how other racialized groups have experienced homeland security measures or the “war on terror,” for that matter. Basically, whether GIs and veterans are featured or focused among organizations it generally results in either a silence regarding white supremacy or an over-emphasis on immigrant groups.
This is not to suggest that individual GIs and veterans don’t address racism in their work. Nor is it to minimize the efforts of more race and gender conscious GI and veteran-focused groups such as the recently formed Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN). Nevertheless, the failure among many GI and veteran-focused groups to have racism front and center in the debates regarding the military, raises a question about the leadership and operations of these organizations. Why is it that among GI and veteran-focused organizations (and the anti-war movement in general) we will see more about corporate profiteering (an economic and therefore “universal” concern among the broad spectrum of the middle and working classes) but very little about racism? And when racism is mentioned, why does the gesture seem obligatory? Why is it that critiques expressed by GIs and veterans that are given the most airtime tend to be limited to “economic” issues such as oil, land, corporations, and contracts? How is it that we have anti-imperialists with little or no race analysis becoming the most prominent GI and veteran-focused activists? Whatever the case, perhaps this is why David Duke voiced support for the positions of some of the most loved white anti-war activists expressing such rhetoric.
When racism is addressed among the GI and veteran-focused anti-war movement, it is usually in the context of non-white enlistees who have refused to go to or return to Iraq. It is important that the face of Iraq War resisters does not remain white. Yet this tendency to focus on people of color who refuse to go to Iraq misses the complexity of the non-white military experience.
For example, many veterans experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but the rates tend to be higher for non-white veterans and/or women. Researchers have argued that the experiences of racism and sexism (including physical and sexual violence), both in and outside of the military contribute to these higher rates of PTSD. More, research also shows that many African American veterans return to civilian life and experience the same meager job opportunities and discrimination in employment that may have compelled some of them to join in the first place. And the largest military court martial in US history was not the result of GIs and veterans resisting war (in the obvious sense)—it was in response to Jim Crow and the assault on Blacks attempting to defend themselves from police abuse.
In August of 1917, 150 Black soldiers of the Third Battalion of the Twenty-fourth US infantry marched on the city of Houston in response to Jim Crow both in the military and the civilian world. They were also responding to inaccurate reports that a Black corporal named Charles Baltimore had been killed while detained after intervening on behalf of a Black soldier who was assaulted and taken into custody for defending an African American woman being beaten by two white police officers. The white townspeople retaliated and several Black soldiers were killed and more than a dozen residents died. Subsequently, over sixty soldiers were tried in the first of several court martials. As L.V. Gaither describes in his book Loss of Empire: Legal Lynching, Vigilantism, and African American Intellectualism in the 21st Century : “Five were acquitted, four convicted of lesser charges, forty-two handed life sentences, and thirteen were sentenced to die. These men were summarily hanged on the morning of December 11, even before their sentences were publicly announced.” It is reported that many of the executed men were dumped in unmarked graves.
This situation reminds us that non-white GIs have not only risked their lives for challenging specific wars or unjust military policies. It reminds us that racism, as well as gender and sexuality politics, inform what soldiers experience and how they get dealt with by the military outside of the designated combat zones. More importantly, this situation reminds us that some of us are vulnerable to a myriad of issues that exist in the civilian world way before we enlist and possibly challenge the military from within. Demonstrated with this example, military personnel have been forced to address their lived realities of being racialized, gendered, and sexualized in the world. They have not only had to express political militancy against “unfair wars” but have had to deal with the reality of racial profiling, state and public violence, and everyday forms of discrimination and repression that affects life chances. But these realities are not addressed in the universalized calls against war promoted by many GIs, veterans, and their supporters.
This is not to suggest that organizations have no people in them raising these issues. People of color who are and/or promote GIs and veterans do raise these issues both within and outside of the organizations in which they work. Nevertheless, the general failure of GI and veteran-focused groups to emphasize white supremacy in their mission statements or platforms raises some urgent questions. For one, are there any possible linkages between the over-emphasis of the Iraq War by anti-war activists, the growing increase in GI-focused activism, and the fact that many white anti-war activists proclaim (with a sordid delight) that more white soldiers are dying on the front lines of the current war in Iraq than in the Vietnam War? Notwithstanding that such a comment is usually a disturbing way of saying “fuck you” to race-minded anti-war activists, it does make me wonder if there is any connection between GI-focused activism on the left and the continued absence of a conversation about race among the organizations given the most attention for their work with GIs and veterans.
#4: Some veterans and GIs present themselves as knowing best “because they were there”
GIs and veterans have valuable stories to share about their experiences given that they experience(d) the realities of military enlistment. However, all too often they are granted the moral upper hand to speak on how to address or stop war because they have been in the front lines. The implication is that those of us who are too “weak to enlist” or those of us who protest “from the sidelines” do not have the moral basis to speak out against war compared to those who enlist. Not only is this the same logic of US presidential candidates who brag to the press and the public about their military exploits in order to gain the upper hand in an election, it suggests that unless you go and fight in a war, that your history, your community, and your autobiography is untouched by the US military industrial complex.
Additionally, it contributes to a pro-military atmosphere by suggesting that the “truly brave” are those who enlist and then resist. I certainly appreciate the changes of heart that different people involved in the military have, as well as the courage it takes to resist the military from within. Nevertheless, I am frustrated by how the over-emphasis on GIs and veterans who challenge the military have, in some ways, rendered invisible the myriad forms of resistance among those who have deliberately decide not to enlist and who suffer for doing so. I have had the opportunity to know, meet, hear, and read about different people who resisted World War II and the Vietnam War. Some of them ended up incarcerated because they refused to enlist (as well as the fact that many institutionalized peace and anti-war groups did not help them). While many activists are aware of such individuals, they appear to have become uninteresting to the left. Today we hear very little about the many brave people who refuse(d) to go into the military. Or if we do, we are subjected to white people’s stories about fleeing to Canada or becoming COs.
Even to this day, non-white people’s historical and current resistance to war and militarization are given little attention among the left, just as they are given little attention in mainstream accounts of war resistance. Of course the exception is the attention given to the bravery of Muhammad Ali and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But the focus on such icons has translated into putting on the back burner the variety and breadth of anti-war, anti-military, and resistance movements. Thus, the important historical foundation and examples of resistance against war and militarization have yet to be fully told. One such important example already mentioned is the conscientious objection of many non-whites, even when the state or anti-war organizations refused to recognize them as COs. Another is the heroic work of Civil Rights and anti-imperialist groups that provided vital support to incarcerated draft resisters and organized against the draft among their communities. Even more deeply buried are the stories of those individuals who fought for the military but came back to the US and organized oppressed communities to engage in combat for self-protection or defense as they politically organized. Indeed, some of the calls for self-defense among a variety of Civil Rights and anti-imperialist organizations would not have materialized if it were not for veterans committing themselves to using their military skills to train organizational leadership and cadre. Finally, there are the everyday forms of refusal to join the military machine among those the military works the hardest to entice. For example, news stories over the past couple of years have detailed how Black enlistment remains down.
Despite this amazing history and continuation of resistance, our leftist films, forums, and marches are, for the most part, mainly filled up with well known military personnel or their family members and the organizations and big (usually white) names promoting them. While there are people of color involved in these ventures, some of them starting their own organizations, most of the people featured are white. But even if they were all people of color isn’t the point. Despite the fact that being non-white and enlisted is a radically different experience, people of color veteran or GI-oriented organizations are nevertheless veteran or GI oriented-organizations, and therefore fraught with some of the issues I address here.
#5: A movement to gain rights and benefits for GIs and veterans has been confused with a movement against militarization
Most of the effort to gain support for GIs and veterans is to put pressure on the US military to make good on its promise of benefits. Knowing that we all come to our political perspectives from a variety of paths, I still wonder if we would have so many GIs and veterans mobilizing against the war in Iraq if they had received the benefits or entitlements that they had been promised by the US military.
That aside, I politically struggle with the issue of GI benefits. I believe that GIs are getting screwed by the military and know that many of the GIs are non-white and/or working class or poor people who went into the military as a way out. And many of them were recruited through manipulation and nefarious means. Overall, I believe people desperately need services and support to deal with the physical, mental, and emotional traumas associated with or exacerbated by training, combat, and military life in general.
This is especially the case with the overwhelming number of women and some men who are physically and sexually assaulted while in the military, replicating heterosexism, patriarchy, homophobia, and incidents of violence that they experienced before enlistment. Women now make up 15 percent of the US military globally and one in ten soldiers in Iraq is a woman. During their military experiences most women are sexually harassed, pressured, assaulted, and/or raped by other people in the military. This can include what some victims’ advocates label as “command rape”—being pressured into sex by men above them in rank who can control their experiences in the military. And despite my profound disgust for those who engage in rape, sexual assault, and gendered and homophobic violence, it is also necessary to have a range of services available for these perpetrators upon their return to civilian life. This is because, regardless of how heinous their acts are while in the military, these are the same folks that will have to reintegrate back into civilian life, which means returning to our neighborhoods, homes, families, relationships, etc. And so how GIs get treated by the military affects not only them but entire communities of people.
However, I also really struggle with what it means to fight for GIs and veterans to get benefits (as opposed to needed services) for a couple of reasons. First, some people who go into combat already had patterns of acting violently in the civilian world. For example, a family member of mine had run-ins with the law and physically attacked his former girlfriend as well as punched holes in the walls of different apartments, which resulted in his immediate family being evicted several times. People thought a possible way for him to avoid the criminal justice system was to get him into the military. I am not sure I want this man learning combat skills and getting benefits for doing so. Second, I struggle because some of the people the movement is fighting to get benefits for are some of the same racist people who would beat up and terrorize us non-white people in the civilian world. I am not simply referring to neo-Nazis, whose numbers are reportedly up in the military. I am talking about the everyday white person who has no problem with perpetrating or supporting various forms of violence against non-whites. Third, I am not totally comfortable organizing for benefits for the all too numerous people, primarily men, who perpetrate violence against women and gay men.
Further, I am also troubled by the embedded suggestion that GIs are more deserving of benefits and rights than civilians because they went and fought for the US government and killed people—most of whom were non-white. For example, I have watched and shown counter-military recruitment videos that showcase veterans talking about how they went and fought for the US and then they return only knowing how to push a broom. Or they talk about how they received fewer benefits than someone working at McDonald’s. While this may be a powerful way to point out how military recruiters distort the realities of job training and benefits, implicit in these assessments is a belief that if you fight for the US you deserve to be treated better than a janitor or a McDonald’s employee. This of course is an economically, racially, and sexually problematic assessment in and of itself. More, it suggests that people who weren’t “brave,” “patriotic,” or “man” enough to enlist do not deserve to have benefits before a veteran. While this is not necessarily explicitly expressed or even held by all who are involved in the work, I do think it is embedded in many efforts to obtain benefits for GIs and veterans.
The failure to receive benefits or to upgrade one’s status after being discharged can be, and has been a catalyst for people to interrogate the function of the US military and their role in it. Some of the people with the most sustained critiques against US empire are veterans. However, this does not mean that we should confuse a concerted effort to get benefits or even services for GIs and veterans with an anti-war movement, let alone an anti-militarization movement. And yet, some of those who emphasize benefits more than a broader social justice agenda tend to be given center stage at many left anti-war gatherings as if both efforts are inherently one and the same.
#6: Some GIs and veterans enjoy violence and combat
I think that organizations that are quick to support GIs do not really grapple with the possibility that many people they may be taking direction from or giving a platform to have fantasies of seeing or participating in war and combat. Or, at least, many enjoy engaging in violence and having the skills to do so. Most GI activism garners support by suggesting that GIs are simply those people who are struggling in the civilian world and who, because of a lack of opportunities, went into the military. Indeed, on the left, the most popular explanations why people go into the military are that they had no other options or that they needed a job or educational benefits. Reports over the last couple of years that Black enlistment is down should push us to really interrogate this narrative. Additionally, while it is true in many cases that people join the military to fulfill some need, I nevertheless think the left has a great deal of difficulty confronting the anthropology of war and combat—the fact that many people go into the military because they derive pleasure from the thought of witnessing atrocity or participating in violent acts. Some even see it as a new and exciting experience.
For example, I know a male medical student whose parents had offered to pay his way through medical school but was determined to pay for it “on his own” by joining the military. He opposes the Iraq war and thinks that Bush should be impeached. But he also felt that the US military was providing excellent medical support for the injured insurgents. And he is excited about going to Iraq because, as he explained, he can witness medical injuries there and get on the ground training he can not receive in an emergency room in the US. When I just looked at the man, he became defensive and told me that he knew I wouldn’t go to Iraq.
While this man comes from a more economically privileged background from many enlistees, the pleasure from having combat skills, fighting, witnessing atrocity, or being in a position to police people is not necessarily at odds with having economic or social needs. A case in point is a woman I know who was in the military and who has been actively pursuing a job as a federal agent. When she was finally granted the interview, she told me she was elated because she has wanted to be a federal agent for so long. And I have met many people who are young, enlisted, and financially strapped—and who are excited about going into combat, or feel that it is their responsibility to go, or who are hyped about the physical and artillery skills they have gained from being in the military. For example, in high school my best friend’s sister, who had joined JROTC, bragged about her physical prowess and liked that she could kick people’s asses. Of course not all people who enjoy physical fighting or having the skills to do so want to be in combat. However, it does suggest that some of the people we are organizing with or on behalf of enjoy some aspects of engaging in or witnessing violence.
There are those, however, who do derive pleasure from killing. For example, if you read or listen to accounts of soldiers in Iraq, there are more than a few testimonies of how much they “get off” from killing people. The details of these accounts suggest that some soldiers find contributing to, and witnessing death as a sexually erotic experience. Others treat combat as an anthropological exercise, as demonstrated in the practice among some soldiers during the Vietnam War to take body parts from the Vietnamese that they killed and wear them like necklaces. All of this to say, some people have financial or social needs, but this does not preclude them from enjoying violence or combat.
Unfortunately, the left, especially those promoting GI or veteran-focused campaigns, doesn’t really know how to address the fact that many people enjoy witnessing and being involved in violence and combat, as well as having the power and training to kill people. Instead, we promote a standard narrative about the GI to garner sympathy from those who may otherwise be critical of the US military or the ideologies by which it operates and promotes. Generally, there is little space on the left to question the political ideologies, values, or intentions of military members or veterans and their families without appearing unsympathetic to the reasons for why people (presumably) enlist.
#7: GIs and veterans tend not to be opposed to militarization and the US military
While many GIs and veterans are vociferous about different military build-ups, such as the Vietnam War and the current war in Iraq, very few are willing to let go of their identity as military members. Indeed, it is precisely from being in the military that GIs and veterans opposed to certain wars derive their moral authority. They speak from the position of having been in the military—an important vantage point, to be sure—but are unwilling to interrogate the very purpose of the US military in the world. As such, most will never politically denounce all war or militarization. Or they will not interrogate how US empire, of which they may be critical, relies on the military.
Understandably, for some, this is a pragmatic decision in terms of trying to ascertain or keep some of the benefits the military promises them. However, many of the veterans and GIs I know, have met, heard speak, and read about really believe they are fighting the good fight but that the US just shouldn’t be fighting in Iraq. Some who oppose the war in Iraq have the nerve to tell me that they were fighting for my rights. Some will go so far as to challenge US imperialism and US economic interests (while barely touching on US racial or gender and sexuality interests), but do not explore the role of the US military in the actual expansion, creation, manifestation, and maintenance of US identity in all of its manifestations, regardless of how obviously imperial or not. That is, the US military has, since its formation and outgrowth from being US militias, been responsible for far more than simply the war in Iraq—or the Zionist occupation of Palestine or the repression of immigrants. It is the main state apparatus that has determined and enforced social boundaries, relations, and inequality, but whose many and mundane purposes have not garnered as much attention from the left as Iraq, Palestine, or the Southwest border.
Overall, I wrote this essay because I was concerned about the growing emphasis on GI and veteran-focused activism among the anti-war left. I have given seven major reasons why I think this direction in the movement should be reconsidered. I did not write to exclude GIs or veterans from the movement. To do so would be to deny the heroic and brave fights for social justice in which many engage. More, it would be to deny the complexity of how people come to their political conclusions and in turn, engage in activism. Some people surely have doubts before they enlist, and others will have a change of heart after they do. Some may even become actively involved in anti-war work. Yet all of these possibilities should not prevent us from interrogating some of the issues that GI and veteran-focused anti-war work brings. To this end, I wrote this essay to bring attention to issues that I have been struggling with and that I sense many fellow activists are struggling with as well.
Tamara K. Nopper is an educator, writer, and activist living in Philadelphia. She can be contacted at tnopper_at_yahoo.com