I was just about the youngest person in the room. I usually am when I address veterans’ peace organizations. Of course, when I speak at universities, it’s the exact opposite case. Being a 35-year old post 9/11 antiwar vet can be a bit lonely, a feeling of being stuck between two generational worlds. In this case, just this past weekend, I spoke, along with the great Ann Wright, at an amazing event titled Peacestock, in Red Wing, Minnesota. It was an annual gathering, several years running now, of the greater Minneapolis chapters of Veterans for Peace.
In a solemn, yet joyous, day of peace, camaraderie, and even group singing, various speakers discussed the state of the struggling antiwar movement, the importance of patriotic veterans’ dissent, and a plethora of intersectional foreign and domestic issues. We laughed, some cried, as many of our emotions leapt from frustration to excitement and back again. In addition to my genuine gratitude for the honor of attending and serving as a keynote speaker, there were, for me, two key takeaways from the daylong event.
First, as speakers discussed a range of policy issues and facets of activism, it occurred to me that the antiwar movement must avoid the pitfall of artificially separating foreign and domestic affairs. At the gathering, the audience of perhaps 150 vets and family members heard speeches on topics that ranged from Afghanistan to Palestine, Guantanamo to immigration, indigenous rights to drone warfare, and from the upcoming 2020 election to halting the march to war with Iran.
As I listened, hour after hour, it struck me that each of these vital problems ought not to be covered the way mainstream media and most other activists tend to do so. No serious antiwar movement can take root as long as "kitchen table" issues like healthcare and immigration are disjointed from "overseas" affairs such as war and human rights. These vets in little Red Wing, Minnesota, on the banks of the Mississippi, got that, and it was refreshing. See, empires, all empires, including the latest American manifestation, always come home to roost.
As such, there is a direct line between the military occupation of Baghdad and the police occupation of communities of color in Baltimore; between Guantanamo Bay and detention camps on the U.S. southern border; between Abu Ghraib and domestic mass incarceration; between drone assassinations abroad and warrantless surveillance at home. Citizen apathy about matters of foreign policy, as was so clearly demonstrated in the first serious of Democratic primary debates, won’t change unless a newly invigorated antiwar movement clearly connects military waste of lives and cash in perpetual war to the national debt and lack of domestic social programs back in the civilian world.
It matters not, for now, whether one would rather transfer the trillions of dollars saved to poverty reduction programs or tax cuts. Progressives and libertarians must forge an alliance to end forever war or there’ll be no hope of doing so. Until Rand Paul types and Bernie Sanders supporters truly find common cause in a broad sense, the militarist establishments of both political parties will feed the American people endless war.
The second major takeaway from Peacestock involved my relative youth. Nearly all in attendance were Vietnam-era veterans. Now these weren’t the stereotypical flaky hippies of the common imagination, but rather former troopers who’ve seen and done the serious business of war fighting, been-there and done-that types. That can never be taken away from them. Still, the fact that I, an invited speaker, was the only post 9/11 wars alumni, qualifies as more than a bit disconcerting.
Organizations like Veterans for Peace have to actively recruit Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Conversely, my generation of former soldiers must put aside our frustration and nihilism (and our smartphones) and get involved. Social media activism has got to be replaced with holding signs, and standing in the rain; joining Facebook groups replaced by joining Veterans for Peace and About Face (both).
Look, the spirit is out there waiting to be harnessed and productively organized. Recent polls demonstrate that fully two-thirds of post-9/11 veterans now believe the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan weren’t "worth fighting." And indeed they most certainly were not! Moreover, since other opinion polls have long (and disturbingly) shown that the military is the only public institution which Americans now trust, it is from within the veterans’ community that a new and serious antiwar assault must be launched. When those of us who killed and sacrificed needlessly, those of us who are highly respected by most civilians, speak out en masse, Americans will (just maybe) listen!
So, whether you are a vet who’s sick of endless war and countless combat tours, or a like-minded civilian fellow traveler, be a citizen: check out Peacestock and join – or support – an antiwar veterans’ group. The future of this republic may depend on it…
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen