Mothers and Veterans Reach Out to Middle America

Veterans for Peace (VFP), founded in Maine in 1985, marked its 20th anniversary in early August at the group’s annual convention in Dallas, Texas. With over 100 chapters nationwide, and thousands of dues-paying members who’ve served in war and peace from WWII through the current conflict, VFP has grown into an essential component of the movement against the Iraq war. By meeting in Dallas, VFP signaled that the South, with its preponderance of military bases and large populations of veterans and military families, will increasingly become the focus of its wartime organizing efforts.

The VFP membership is ideologically diverse: pacifists and socialists, liberals and libertarians. Each VFP chapter functions autonomously, free to organize its own projects within the broad guidelines of the organization’s somewhat utopian mission statement, which demands the abolition of war.

In practice, VFPers are anything but utopian. Members are ubiquitous foot soldiers at demonstrations and sit-ins everywhere; their cemetery-like installations of crosses representing the war dead in Iraq have become media icons and landmark features in many communities; a half-dozen of the most effective counter-recruitment projects in the country operate under VFP’s umbrella; and in its capacity as mentor, booking agent, or fiscal sponsor, often behind the scenes, VFP has ensured that the antiwar messages of Iraq war veterans and military resisters, as well as military family members whose loved ones are doing the fighting and, in some cases, the dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, have been widely heard and reported.

It was therefore no great surprise when the 200 VFP delegates in Dallas read in their convention programs that among the event’s principal keynoters would be ex-Marine Mike Hoffmann, co-founder of Iraq Veterans Against the War; Camilo Mejia, a former combat soldier turned conscientious objector who spent nine months in an Army prison for refusing a second tour in Iraq; and Cindy Sheehan, a founder of Gold Star Families for Peace, whose son Casey, as the whole world knows by now, was killed in Iraq while on a mission to rescue beleaguered fellow soldiers.

Cindy Sheehan began her fiery speech before the assembled veterans and guests on Aug. 5, a Friday, by labeling George W. Bush a "lying bastard," and ended by announcing she would not be attending the banquet scheduled for the following evening. Instead, she would decamp Saturday morning for Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, and launch her vigil – demanding a meeting with the vacationing president – that in a fortnight’s time has evolved into the peace movement’s most effective and longest-running lead story of opposition to this war.

Paul Cox, a VFP leader from the Bay Area, commented that when Cindy left the convention, a fair number of delegates went with her. Many of those who remained would see a screening of David Zeiger’s new documentary, Sir! No Sir! about the GI movement during the Vietnam War. The younger observers, Cox said, were amazed at how widespread organized resistance had been in the armed forces then. They learned for the first time of GI coffee houses that were centers of antiwar activities outside every major military base in the U.S., of the scores of underground newspapers, called contraband by the "brass," that the GIs themselves published and distributed in their barracks, and of the many individual and collective acts of refusal by GIs to serve in Vietnam or to continue to cooperate with the war effort. At that time, every GI knew that FTA meant "F*ck The Army," not "Fun, Travel, and Adventure," the slogan on the Army’s recruitment posters.

There is currently little basis for comparison between the scale or impact of GI resistance in the largely conscripted military during Vietnam and any similar level of politicized disaffection in today’s all-volunteer force. Yet the appearance of Zeiger’s film and the revival of several other important historical sources on kindred subjects, including Soldiers in Revolt, David Cortright’s book-length survey of the GI movement that first appeared in 1975, and the classic documentary film Winter Soldier (1972), which captured the efforts of Vietnam veterans to publicize American atrocities in Vietnam, suggest there is optimism among contemporary GI councilors and veteran organizers that growing dissent in today’s military may yet help lead the country – not in – but from Iraq.

And there can be little doubt that the overwhelming publicity for the quest Cindy Sheehan launched from her recent platform at the Veterans for Peace convention – whether or not she and Bush ever actually meet – has not only galvanized and energized the peace movement, but opened new space for those in the political center to resolve and express their own misgivings about the Bush agenda in Iraq. With antiwar opposition magnified by voices from a middle America that has opened its ears and hearts to Cindy Sheehan, even a Bush administration so apparently immune to external pressures may not be able to continue its "noble cause" in Iraq alone.