"There are those who are seeking to equate dissent with disloyalty.
It’s a dark day in our nation when high-level authority will seek to use every
method to silence dissent. Something is happening, and people are not going
to be silent."
~ Martin Luther King, Jr. (1967)
Look to the language. In the last 12 days, I’ve personally – no doubt, along with thousands of fellow dissenting veterans – been labeled as a(n):
- Antifa foot soldier;
- George Soros-paid, or at least his lackey;
- Putin’s "useful idiot;"
- Chinese tool (from my favorite nemesis, Machiavelli Mike Pompeo);
- "Sider with thugs;”
- Member of "a terrorist organization” (from an email to About Face: Vets Against the War, in which the author also informed us she’d "just sent" our "Stand Down for Black Lives” open letter to the Department of Justice);
- Part of an "intransigent, self-righteous & lawless rump," which threatens "to undermine the balance of power in a fever of petulant, racialist self-indulgence." (A near impressively eloquent insult, that)
- "An angry guy," only in the streets because "some of the choices [I] made didn’t work out for me," and a "spewer of anti-American shit for years." (This from a beloved immediate family member)
- And, my favorite: a “Modern Day Hanoi Jane.” (My reply, in this instance, exposed admitted exhaustion and a petulance penchant: "Oh thanks for noticing: that’s exactly what we’re going for.")
I’m hardly a victim, and, if one is self-righteous and self-important enough to masquerade as even a D-list public figure, then them’s the breaks. I, and my far braver brothers and sisters opposing America’s endless foreign and domestic wars, am/are essentially asking for it. Nevertheless, in a strictly semantic sense, these decidedly ad hominem and pejorative attacks are defined by their shallowness, hyperbole, and rage (Who, might I ask, are the "angry" ones?).
Then again, except for the volume and intensity, none of this is all that shocking. There are two key sacred cows in American life long beyond reproach – one, in-your-face, the other, more furtive: they are what I’ve dubbed "pageantry patriotism,” and racialized policing. On most issues, citizens possess at least the illusion of, and narrow confines for, dissent. Yet question the nation’s hopeless wars or symbolic abstractions like the flag or anthem, and you’re in for some shoot-the-messenger vitriol. Dave Chapelle has called stand-up comedy the most honest profession, and he nailed this profound truth: "It took us 400 years to figure out as a people, that white people’s weakness the whole time was kneeling during the national anthem." Of course, to some extent, that particular patriots’ kryptonite often transcends race.
Which transitions neatly to the other third-rail of dissent: race and police brutality. An embarrassingly late-comer to protest, I first hit-the-streets after the 2014 urban-corner-lynching of Eric Garner in my home borough of New York City. Until my latest writing and video-witnessing of the George Floyd protests, it was, instructively, my article in the Staten Island Advance on "deep-rooted patterns in Staten Island’s racial geography," that earned me the most "E" and even "snail" hate-mail.
It mattered not, that the piece was grounded in extensive archival research and backed up by several hundred footnotes, or that it was but a preview of an ongoing scholarly doctoral dissertation. I’d waded into poisoned waters, and sort of knew it. As I wrote in the piece, after any police killing of a black man, "Tragedy strikes and we often race to familiar battle stations." It is tribal; it is alarmist; it is irrational.
Allow me to play the insufferable and self-centered Leo one more time. Consider just some of the slander the article (and my subsequent lecture at the College of Staten Island) engendered:
- My claims of persistent racism in the borough were "baseless;” (this, in a response article from a former judge known for his reflexive opposition to black and police-reform activism.
- I amounted, apparently, to – pick your poison – a: reverse racist; race-traitor; carpetbagger – this last almost impressively historical moniker presumably earned because I had the temerity to leave the island I was born and raised on (and which then remained my home of record and the place I voted) to join the army;
- Of course, many of the more inappropriate comments on the newspaper’s website itself were quickly deleted, since, during the "live" virtual chat I agreed to conduct, the Advance presciently assigned someone to monitor and quickly delete the worst of the worst from the feed. Still, as I remember – and also had repeated in later hate mail – the most common excised comments were of the "you better not set foot on this island again" variety.
This admittedly exhausting list of leader and citizen vitriol slung at me and so many other antiwar or dissident veterans is ultimately motivated by that most influential human emotion: fear; terror, really.
Out in the streets, which I’ve only personally – though now repeatedly – witnessed in mid-sized Kansas City, protesters buck themselves up by recalling and pronouncing that "We are many; ‘they’ are few;" and it’s broadly true. However, they – vaguely defined as chauvinist political and security elites – have always counted on a profound trump card (no pun intended): a couple of million foot soldiers in the army and police, whom they count on to do their bidding and prop up their power. However, what began as gradual rumblings of veteran dissent, has recently approached a potential military revolt.
Here’s what we know:
First, recent opinion polls demonstrate that nearly three-fourths of veterans and 70 percent of troops’ family members support a full withdrawal from Afghanistan. Broadening a bit, according to even a rather politically-conservative poll, 58 percent of veterans believe the U.S. should be "less militarily engaged in conflicts around the world." (Just 7 percent favor more engagement). That’s all up from already remarkable findings last year that nearly two-thirds of veterans didn’t think the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were "worth fighting" at all; which, and here’s one heck of a rub, is a higher rate of war opposition than that found among civilians. These veteran antiwar sentiments rival – or often exceed – those of Vietnam alumni of a largely draftee army, even ten years after American withdrawal.
The alarming conclusion: today, the US government wages endless war "over there" and "over here," with and through soldiers who widely oppose what they’re ordered to do.
Furthermore, many active and national guard troops aren’t too keen on policing America’s streets amidst the current crisis, and several antiwar veteran organizations are making themselves heard. As of June 7, 881 veterans had publicly signed their names to About Face’s open letter which encouraged – and offers legal resources to – national guardsmen "to have the courage to do the right thing. Refuse activation orders." Both About Face and Veterans for Peace (full disclosure: I’m active in both), have heard from dozens of troops doing just that.
Anecdotal, but still illustrative, are the now scores of messages – active duty strangers and several former students (now lieutenants) – expressing what just about all describe as an ethical and professional crisis. They don’t believe in America’s wars and don’t think it moral or constitutional to deploy in the nation’s cities. I’ve received notes like this with some regularity for years; but these days I’m inundated. Furthermore, current soldier peers and former cadet students of mine have been out in the streets with the protesters. The vast majority are far more classically conservative than I am, and hardly tear-down-the-flag types.
Lastly, and (predictably) far more reported by corporate media, are the slew of retired generals and former civilian defense officials who’ve openly decried Trump’s inflammatory and constitutionally-dubious response to the mainly peaceful protests. Those opposed to the president’s call for guardsmen – and potentially even active duty troops – to police the streets include bipartisan handfuls of past defense secretaries and chairmen of the joint chiefs. Prominent among them were General Jim Mattis (who Trump once called a "true generals’ general” and a "brilliant, wonderful man“), Admiral Mike Mullen, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and even that perennial late-comer General / Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Look, I’ve previously written about "The Madness of Jim Mattis,” and Rolling Stone’s Andy Kroll was justified in his recent "Spare Us Your ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis Worship” rejoinder. The vast majority of these folks presided over – and never once publicly opposed – the forever wars that killed thousands of their beloved troops and slaughtered (very conservatively) several hundred thousand locals. As Mattis the purported "warrior monk” famously declared during the height of his "war on terror" leadership: "Actually it’s quite fun to fight them, you know. It’s a hell of a hoot. It’s fun to shoot some people." So, let’s be cautious about canonizing these retired generals, whilst also recognizing that their remarkably (at least anti-Trump) united front puts some lie to the all protesters are – or aid and abet – "terrorists" trope.
Now one vital caveat: veteran status does not, or should not, imbue one’s words with some inherent wisdom. In fact, my position – and many of my About Face and Veterans for Peace peers – is that true empire-opposition demands a personal and collective refusal to fetishize military service and eschew even the (for us) convenient cogency it all too immediately implies. Still, (for now) taking the world as it is, one must recognize the ultimate absurdity of waging war and suppressing domestic "disorder" with military leaders and foot soldiers who no longer buy-in.
Furthermore, there’s something obscene – and inherently unstable – about a republic-come-warfare-state run by chickenhawks (combat cheerleaders with little or no personal experience) who persist in (and even escalate) their militarism when the vast majority of ostensibly conservative veterans oppose these aggressive campaigns.
Consider just the core cast:
The current security asylum is headed by Mr. Bone Spurs himself: Donald J. Trump – a man whose profound insecurities clearly inform his lifelong tough-guy posture. Yet, the closest he got to the war of his generation – Vietnam – was comparing it to STD avoidance on the Howard Stern Show. Vice President Mike Pence may have prophesized before last year’s West Point graduates that "It is a virtual certainty that you will fight on a battlefield for America at some point," and once childishly walked out of an NFL game because some players took an anthem knee. Nevertheless, his own military service was nil – "My life never took me into the armed forces," according to his peculiarly passive explanation – and anyway he’s presumably saving his combat courage for The Rapture he expects in his lifetime.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rode his West Point valedictorian credentials straight to the top corridors of corporate power, congress, and now the White House. Only, he served just his minimum military service obligation in peacetime, and never saw a shot fired in anger. Pompeo’s West Point 1986 classmate (these tool-bags call themselves the "West Point Mafia), Defense Secretary Mark Esper, did serve as an assistant staff officer in the brief First Gulf War, but hardly faced or actively participated in grinding ground combat (Trust me, if he had, his handlers would surely splatter it all over the web). And real talk: let’s not forget that mighty Mark spent more years lobbying for Raytheon than he did months in a combat zone.
So, when it comes to we antiwar military veterans, what is it, precisely, that the national security chickenhawks and "law and order" enthusiasts are so afraid of?
Well, they’re scared of our platform and credibility – deserved or not – with the American people. This is why both parties shamelessly scramble for retired generals’ endorsements during election cycles. Until now (and mainly still), this senior crew – equally divided in Republican and Democrat circles – has generally been a polite and safe bet on the core contours of imperial policy. But what of the "trigger-pullers" in the middle to lower officer and enlisted ranks?
These executors and managers of violence also have a hold on the public consciousness. That’s partly why the cool 93 percent of citizens who haven’t served guiltily (okay, some well-meaningly) enjoy parading them on America’s proverbial – and actual – 50-yard lines. A wealthy, mix-raced football star like Colin Kaepernick makes an easy target for "patriotic" rebuke, but it bears considering: what if some veterans or active soldiers started kneeling – or otherwise refusing obedient spectacle – during moments of tokenist adulation?
The government also fears our intersectionality; are terrified of veterans – like those in About Face – who oppose not just discrete wars but the imperial system, and thus stand in solidarity with other facets of a broad and multifaceted justice movement. My veteran colleagues who "deployed” to the Standing Rock reservation were just one example. For status-quo-defenders, horizontal activism linkages are far scarier – and more difficult to control or co-opt – than top-down, single-issue movements. Thus, these antiwar veteran proclivities must be first dismissed, then denounced, and if necessary destroyed.
Yet most of all, national security elites’ collective dreams are haunted by active GI and veteran resistance. These are savvy and (technically) educated leaders. They know – either as fact or feel viscerally – what’s been largely whitewashed from U.S. History: that a powerful component of late Vietnam War agitation was the growing refusal of foot soldiers to patrol, follow orders, or even adhere to draft notices. A small but disturbing number – 551 recorded incidents (and 86 deaths) from 1970-72 alone – even took to "fragging" (killing or wounding) their more aggressive officers. The state, all states, fear – more than a retired generals’ revolt – a rank-and-file revolt.
Many who run in my circles have long fantasized about the popular query adopted from Carl Sandberg’s 1939 poem: "What if they gave a war and nobody came?" This country is hardly there yet, but in the wake of COVID and the mass protests, the old national security consensus, and politician-soldier compact, is more precarious than it’s been in my lifetime. None of us should even pretend to know how this ends. But each time a soldier allows a citizen to place a daisy in his bayoneted rifle barrel, the veneer of state power shrinks.
Speaking about the famous 1967 image associated with this rifle-flower moment, the photographer noticed that the pictured National Guardsmen were shaking.
Today, the elites they protect are quivering even more…
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and contributing editor at Antiwar.com His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Mother Jones, and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at 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. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War (Heyday Books) is available for pre-order. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and see his website for speaking/media requests and past publications.
Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen