Vets Peace Groups Transform U.S. Iraq Debate
I 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.
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