Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Vets Peace Groups Transform U.S. Iraq Debate

votevets1.jpgI have long maintained that peace groups, including faith-based peace groups and pacifist churches, need to work with military veterans, especially those involved in military-related peace groups.  Many of these military and veterans-related groups are NOT committed to nonviolence as a way of life (although some are–Veterans for Peace is composed of military veterans converted to nonviolence). Most follow some form of Just War Theory and/or celebrate military culture in a way that makes many traditional peace churches and pacifist Christians squirm.   Tough. Get over it and get to know these folk as real human beings.

Look, the simple fact is that very few nations (Finland and Costa Rico are exceptions) are doing without standing militaries in the near future.  The U.S. has a national culture that celebrates an independance achieved by a military revolution.  Our national narrative (somewhat inaccurately) celebrates our military as the defenders of all our cherished freedoms. We honor military service as among the most patriotic and selfless ways of service.  None of this is going to change overnight. So, if peace groups want to make a serious impact on foreign policy then, above all, they must not seem contemptuous of the military.  Rightwing militarist policies win over more peaceful, or even more realistic, policies time and again by the simple tactic of making peace groups look and sound “anti-soldier.”  They constantly paint opposition to militaristic foreign policy as failure to “support the troops.”

Traditional and faith-based peace groups can work with military and veterans-related groups to transform this debate–though differences between pacifists and just war theorists will remain.  The picture relates to this article about Iraq veteran Jon Soltz and the organization he leads, VoteVets.org  which played a major role in the 2006 elections and is seeking both to help members of Congress take a stand for ending the Iraq war and to play a major role in the 2008 elections, especially in helping elect progressive Iraq veterans.  But VoteVets is not the only such organization.

Perhaps the most pacifist/nonviolent of these military veterans peace groups is the aptly named Veterans for Peace.  A national organization founded in 1985, VFP is composed of U.S. military veterans who have dedicated the rest of their lives to working for peace and justice through organized nonviolence.  Some came to be converted to a form of pacifism during or after their military service.  Some are repentant of their former lives.  Others in VFP are quite proud of their military service, but want to make sure that U.S. military forces are used only in defense and in the highest standards of U.S. and international law and the protection of universal human rights. 

Perhaps the oldest of these military-related peace organizations is Vietnam Veterans Against War (originally “Against THE War”) which started in 1967 with 6 vets marching in a peace march in full uniform.  Perhaps the most famous member of VVAW is U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-MA), whose testimony in the “Winter Soldier” hearings before Congress in ’67 gave the nation its first view of VETERANS arguing for withdrawal and an end to U.S. involvement in Vietnam.  VVAW is still working for peace, for an end to wars of “choice,” and for veterans rights.  It was VVAW which organized the Vietnam Agent Orange and Responsibility Campaign in which U.S. Vietnam Vets, often themselves Agent Orange victims, work to get the U.S. government to take responsibility for this chemical weapon (defoliant) and its side effects–and also travel to Vietnam to help their victims of Agent Orange.

Military Families Speak Out breaks the traditional “culture of silence” in which the families and loved ones of military members are intimidated to keep silent about the crass and reckless ways their loved ones are sent into harm’s way, to kill and bleed and possibly die for selfish or narrow reasons.  Another organization with the same focus, Gold Star Families for Peace, is composed of the families and loved ones of those who have died in the war and/or occupation of Iraq.  Such families (who are given gold stars and a U.S. flag when they would rather have a living loved one!) are often paraded before the public to drum up support for continuing the war.  GSFP defuses that exploitation to prevent its use against real debate about policy alternatives.  GSFP’s most famous (and controversial) member is, of course, “peace mom” Cindy Sheehan.

Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) is modeled on the older Vietnam Veterans Against the War and also has ties to Veterans for Peace.  Membership is open to anyone who served in the U.S. military (active duty, reservist, or national guard) since 9/11, but especially those who served in any part, even support, of the invasion and/or occupation of Iraq.  Veterans for Common Sense, like VoteVets.org, wants to be seen as a mainstream organization, not a part of a peace counter-culture. VCS is composed of military veterans who opposed the invasion and occupation of Iraq and who believe that terrorism and other threats to the nation can only be successfully opposed by a sensible foreign policy that respects international law, cooperates with other nations and international organizations, and vigorously defends the human rights of everyone, including national enemies and suspected or captured terrorists. 

These organizations, and possibly others like them, have the potential of transforming presidential and Congressional races, debates in legislatures, the way the media covers military-related stories and peace-activism stories, and even the social culture of mainstream America.  That last transformation may not be as dramatic as pacifists would like (at least, not in the short run), but the transformation will be larger and longer lasting WITH the involvement of such groups than without them.  Traditional peace groups, especially those which are church-related and/or faith based, need to have as much contact and cooperation with these and similar groups as possible–and without delay.


August 30, 2007 - Posted by | foreign policy, human rights., Iraq, just war theory, politics


  1. Thank you for the information about these groups. It always is interesting to me how most vets who served in combat are more reluctant to start a new war than those who did not have such service. (And dodging service appears to make one — two in the case of P & VP — more eager to send others to war.) We must draw from the insights of our vets and support them as they reconcile their experiences with post military life in the USA.

    Comment by Tauratinzwe | August 31, 2007

  2. As a family member of a soldier, it’s easy to feel isolated and marginalized, even after the soldier has returned. It’s even harder to be both a family member and a pacifist, because one can’t justify the suffering with the belief that it’s for the greater good. (And as an adult child of a soldier, the military support groups don’t even pretend to offer anything for me.)

    And that’s where I think we have our strength. I’ve gotten more support and acceptance from other pacifists than my mom has gotten from the “family support unit” that has done its best to silence its members who express anything other than gung-ho jingoism.

    Comment by plain foolish | August 31, 2007

  3. I think you’re absolutely right to say that pacifists oughn’t to be contemptuous of veterans or currently serving military personnel simply because they’re under arms. But I can’t recommend working with military groups, any more than I can endorse military chaplains. This isn’t born (I hope) of some narcissistic devotion to “purity,” but rather to sad past experience. Pacifists and militarists are two different cultures and speak largely different language games, and this means very little real collaboration takes place, as opposed to expedient and ad hoc partnering that sends the wrong message. But when pacifists and militarists align, it smacks too much of accomodationism on the former’s part, or it suggests that pacifists concur with the notion shared by many members of (for example) Veterans for Peace that some wars are acceptable.

    Comment by Kerry | August 31, 2007

  4. PF, I hope you find a strong support group.

    Kerry, I do not think the analogy between endorsing military chaplains (which I have long opposed) and working with military-related PEACE groups holds water. I would not classify these groups as “militarists.” At most (or “worst” from a pacifist perspective), they are Just War Theorists. Pacifists are way too small in number to ever stop particular wars without the help of JWTers who disagree with particular wars.

    Do we speak different moral languages? Of course, but must we be only able to speak our own “native” moral language? Is not the ability to speak another language part of the preparation of peacemaking? John Howard Yoder, the most influential pacifist theologian of the 20th and early 21st C., understood JWT better than most who claimed to follow it. Because of that, he was able to work for reform among JWTers. I have followed his example.

    I have not met members of Vets for Peace who believe that some wars are acceptable. But, if so, should I never cooperate???? The majority of my denomination (Baptists) and yours (Episcopalians) also believe that “some wars are acceptable.” Should we have nothing to do with them??? That would mean that I could not cooperate even with most members of my own family.

    This sounds far too much like G. W. Bush’s approach to foreign policy: Talk only with those who already agree with you. But Jesus commands us to talk even with enemies–certainly with those who disagree. Cooperation in opposing particular wars certainly doesn’t prevent us from disagreeing about war in general–and this allows dialogue.

    Will the dialogue be easy or comfortable? No. Nor is genuine interfaith dialogue. Or negotiating peace.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 31, 2007

  5. I respect your position, Michael, although I can’t agree with it. I don’t think that my position reduces to preaching only to the choir, although that’s always a danger. I do think it’s crucial to focus on those folks who are ambivalent or confused about warfare in general. That’s where dialogue is possible. It’s not possible with a hawk–or, more precisely perhaps, it expends too much energy that could be spent fruitfully elsewhere.

    I’m sorry to have given the impression that I dislike the groups you mention. I’m actually a member of Veterans for Peace. I wasn’t speaking so much about these groups (although I’m not entirely comfortable with them) as I was referring (should’ve clarified this–again, sorry) to collaborating with groups such as VFW, Rotary, etc. The peace organizations to which I belong have tried this in the past, just to see if we couldn’t discover common ground that would open dialogue, and it’s been absolutely disastrous–not the least because we felt we compromised our position just for the sake of what MLK might’ve called a negative peace.

    Comment by Kerry | September 1, 2007

  6. Well, I certainly agree that one cannot cooperate with HAWKS (although I will dialogue with anyone who is really interested). I would not call the local VFW in planning a peace march. But in your initial post warning against my naivete, you aimed at the groups I mentioned and the only people you named specifically were Veterans for Peace.

    I’m also a VFP member–and also not entirely comfortable. But peacemaking involves being taken out of our comfort zones.

    But even when considering hawks–the head of the local VFW or American Legion post, for instance, one should look for opportunities to dialogue. One never knows where seeds for peace will sprout, Kerry. Haven’t you found, as I have, that your own status as a veteran opens up dialogue with folks that lifelong Quakers or 3rd generation Mennonites can’t reach? I am always embarrassed that my status as a former soldier, during peacetime, which I consider to illustrate how slow I was to understand the gospel, gets me a hearing for nonviolence not available to others. But I am not so embarrassed that I fail to use that opening.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 1, 2007

  7. Thanks Michael for pointing out that NOT being a strict pacifist, such as myself, doesn’t mean that people don’t want peace or constant war.

    Comment by Martin | September 3, 2007

  8. Well, Martin, I thought that was obvious. I still believe pacifism is the Christian norm, but I think that is a discussion one should have with non-pacifists WHILE working to make peace in specific contexts. The emphasis of Scripture is not on what is forbidden (violence), but on what one must be doing now to make peace with justice.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 3, 2007

  9. It occurred to me that if a pacifist is treating *anyone* with contempt, then they’re sort of failing at pacifism.

    I think this post is an important one. The last thing ‘we’ want is to alienate people who might be willing to work with ‘us’ on peace issues. Really, strict Just War Theory is much closer to pacifism than to our current neo-conservatism, which has nothing to do with a “last resort” whatsoever. Personally, I’ll take a principled and discerning Just War theorist any day.

    Comment by Doug Hagler | September 4, 2007

  10. […] Military Veterans, Peace Groups, and the U.S. Debate on Iraq […]

    Pingback by Index of Posts on “Just War Theory” « Levellers | July 16, 2008

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