On Veterans’ Day, some important voices on this new forever war

cropped-soldiersoccupyoakland.jpgThe commentary below was published today in shorter form on Al-Jazeera America, but I liked the whole thing enough to share it here.

Inherent Resolve? Try inherent blowback, say recent vets of Iraq war

Veterans Day this year falls almost exactly two months after Pres Obama announced an ongoing military campaign against the ‘Islamic State’ in Iraq and Syria.  This  new war/counterterrorism op/kinetic activity/forward deployment – “Operation Inherent Resolve”. as was finally named by the Pentagon – has already receded off the front pages. You have to look for news, which then brims with numbers and phrases familiar to any of the veterans we celebrate today:  U.S. Bombing Raid a Success, 150 Jihadists Killed. Kobani/Irbil/[fit region here] Crucial to U.S. Credibility. Allies Gain Momentum.

Last week’s headlines included: “U.S. readying plan to send advisers to Iraqis fighting ISIS in Anbar.” “Inherent Resolve Strikes Continue Against ISIL in Syria, Iraq.”

 

With each such headline,  former Navy lieutenant Fabian Bouthillette thinks about the surface warfare officers behind the numbers, those controlling the ships that carry the bombers. Michelle Wilmot-Dallochio thinks about her time with the Lioness infantry unit in Ramadi, a town lost to IS. And drone operator Brandon Bryant thinks about the families he watched die, accidentally lost forever in pursuit of “the bad guys.”

 

As the new campaign proceeds, we’re hearing about it from the usual assortment of think tanks, politicians, and Pentagon press officials. With very few exceptions,  we’re not hearing from veterans of the most recent wars in the region, those charged with implementing the orders of the national security state.

 

Why are these voices important? Even with the presidential promise of “no boots on the ground,”  this war is still being waged by personnel. It took more than a few Navy and Air Force servicemembers to deliver the more than 1000 bombs dropped this past month (the George H.W. Bush alone has nearly 100 planes). Not to mention the more than 1,300 U.S. troops in the newly bolstered Iraq conflict — security personnel, staff at two joint operations centers in Baghdad and Irbil, and the constantly-growing advisory teams working with Iraqi units. For understandable reasons, current personnel can’t speak on their work, or wrestle publicly with its moral complexity— which makes these voices ever more crucial.

 

When OIR was first announced, I began  checking in with some of the Iraq veterans I knew. Almost all are watching closely, and very few were surprised that it has turned out this way. They spoke to me of what they saw and did; mused about what comes next; and described the work each war created, on both sides of the civilian-military divide. It feels as if their intelligence is in some ways better grounded than most,  and more mindful of unintended consequences — from wear and tear on personnel to international blowback.

Michelle Wilmot-Dallochio, former member of the Ramadi Female Engagement Team documented in the film Lioness, was frustrated: “It’s actually quite disgusting to see other combat veterans get into a war-hungry frenzy that was basically constructed by our own government.”  Dallochio, author of the 2013 memoir Quixote in Ramadi, wrote me that she watched as Ramadi was contested this summer with less surprise than anger. “I’m not trying to sound like an armchair know-it-all,” she wrote,  “but I know we were detaining and fighting 90% Saudi mujaheddin in Iraq and it was underreported. We were fighting a war in ‘Alice in Wonderland’” For example, “the way we were gaining intel was through paying people off.  If you had a vendetta against a neighbor in the face of $1000 USD cash, don’t you think submitting faulty intel would be tempting in the slightest? Alice just wanted to be in a world that made sense, and over there, nothing did.




 It felt heartbreaking, but I knew it was going to happen.”

 

So did former Marine Scott Olsen, who also served in the majority Sunni Al Anbar Province.  “It’s something I’ve been expecting,”  Olsen told me last month. “Al-Anbar Province is one of the places where the Islamic State has taken over. And the people there, the guys we were in charge of keeping ‘in control?’  They’re the ones that had the most grievances with the government we installed. It’s no surprise that it’s been easy to recruit for IS there – these people have legitimate grievances.” Olsen added that any blame thrown at the U.S. for the situation is far from unfounded: “In some ways the U.S. created this. Just cause we’re not there anymore – mostly – we’re still responsible. We uncorked the bottle, we released the genie. ….More military action is NOT the solution either,” Olsen said ruefully, though “it’s hard to say what is.”

 

One former infantryman was more blunt: After witnessing the IS takeover of Mosul, where he served a year,  “ It breaks my heart, my friends died for nothing. We spent over a year fighting and securing our sectors just so  they could throw it away,” he wrote.  This young vet, who preferred that his name not be used, added that during his time in Mosul and Baghdad,  his own perspective on the war shifted.  “When my unit got extended i refused to pull the trigger,” he wrote. “Silently: I was in fear for my life if my unit found out. But I had come to the conclusion that our presence over there was bullshit and what we were doing had nothing at all to do with democracy.” Of all the vets who talked with me, he was overall the most pessimistic: “We never should have been over there, we didn’t do any good, we left that place far worse off when the they nowere when Saddam was in charge,” he said.

 

Susanne Rossignol,  who also served in Mosul and in Tikrit, sees those same events from a more big-picture perspective. She quoted an interpreters she worked with: “He said that removing Saddam was like taking a plug out of bathtub that had spiders in the pipes [and] even though he didn’t support Saddam, removing him quickly let the other spiders come out.  I think anytime you have a power vacuum, there is an opportunity for a nefarious force to take advantage.” Rossignol, now a computer programmer, added that  “I’m not sure it was a product of having been in the Sunni triangle, but my understanding, on a macro level, is that the less infrastructure a country has, the more likely that the most aggressive force will come into power.”  She did derive some small hope from the recent participation of Kurdish forces: “Up until recent events, I was very hopeful that Kurdish peshmerga were going to be able to defeat ISIS independently,” she said, though mostly “I hope that innocent people can get out.”

 

But how much use is all this perspective on the past? What about the engagements we hear most about now, in or near Syria?

 

For that I turned first to Annapolis graduate Fabian Bouthilette, who served as a surface warfare officer on the guided missile destroyer U.S.S. WILBUR until 2005. Bouthilette told me that ever since Operation Inherent Resolve began, he’s thought about the officers operating the aircraft carriers. “We SWOs are the ones driving and maintaining the ships. All of them,” he said. Officers like him, he adds, thus wouldn’t be involved in the bombings but enabling them: “I wish  could tell them- even though they aren’t pulling triggers, I’d remind them that they are integral pieces of a war machine.” In any event, he added,  “ISIS may deserve what they’re getting, but where’s the long term plan for peace? Dropping bombs is easy, but it shouldn’t be done without long term plans for peace, and America has not demonstrated any capacity to organize peace.”

 

Full disclosure: Both Bouthillette and and Scott Olsen are both members of Iraq Veterans Against the War.. Olsen, in fact, first came to public attention when he was injured by police when part of an IVAW contingent at Occupy Oakland in 2011; Bouthillette followed his Navy service with three years as an IVAW activist before moving to Los Angeles and working for iconic author (and fellow Navy veteran) Gore Vidal, the latter chronicled in his new book Gore Vidal’s Last Stand. I first met both of them, as well as the others, while working on  Ain’t Marching Anymore, a book about soldiers and veterans who dissent –in which  category one might find any vet raising questions about the morality of Operation Inherent Resolve.

 

If “morality” feels a remote concept when you’re talking about an enemy parading beheading videos, it doesn’t to troops who’ve been charged with chasing down the evildoers. Brandon Bryant, a former drone sensor operator on missions over Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, ended his service with a certificate attesting to more than 1500 “kills” accomplished by his team, hunting the worst of the worst. But he  remembers watching one man bleed out in real time, saw whole families running from the sound of the Predator.  He’s also spoken since, he told me, with Pakistanis who reached out to him at events examining the effects of drone warfare: “That was hard. ” In the quiet, one mother who had lost her son “looked at me….with pity,” he said in disbelief.

 

Asked by The Intercept  about the war on ISIS, Brandon refused Obama’s statement that IS is ‘unique in their brutality.’ We’ve got prisoners in Guantanamo Bay that haven’t seen the light of fucking day. We’ve killed children. We’ve killed entire families getting at one or two people. ” Like many of the others I spoke to, Bryant also uses the newish term ‘moral injury’ when describing his own particular burden.

 

“I mean, I swore an oath, you know?” Bryant has said repeatedly. “I swore to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. And how do you feel if you can’t use “I obeyed orders” as an excuse? It’s ‘I obeyed the Constitution, regardless of lawful or unlawful orders.’ [But] lawful orders follow the Constitution.” Similar conflicts roiled many of the Vietnam vets treated by psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, who pioneered the concept of post-traumatic stress disorder but devised ‘moral injury’ to describe such attacks of conscience.

Bryant, Bouthillette and the others know well that Veterans Day was originally called Armistice Day, a day to celebrate the “day to end all wars.” This year, no doubt, we’ll hear much about the Greatest Generation’s war 70 years ago and the Vietnam conflict now passing into history.

But when it’s no longer ‘Veterans Day,’ Operation Inherent Resolve will still be with us. And the voices of these newer veterans will be crucial for any honest reckoning.

(Photo: The IVAW contingent at Occupy Oakland.)

Advertisements

Operation Recovery’s Oleo Strut

About a year ago, Iraq Veterans Against the Wars began a campaign that sounded almost conservative: Operation Recovery, against the deployment of traumatized troops. The celebrated Camilo Mejia, when he and I talked in Philadelphia, was skeptical : “Sounds like the VFW.”

Actually, it’s a sign that IVAW gets it, in a very deep way.

Photo: New York Times

By “it” I mean the confluence of dissent-ingredients I’ve been tracking in my book, most especially the multifaceted effects of combat trauma. This week, a team at Fort Hood in Texas reported on what they saw:

–       We listen to the Military Police Sergeant talk about her soldier that is only 21 years old and after one deployment just can’t function any longer. He needs help and treatment, and their commander makes his every attempt to get help harder as opposed to easier.

–       We listen to the Medic Sergeant talk about the number of suicides and attempted suicides that no one is talking about.

–       We listen to the soldier on extra duty talk about being shot on his third deployment, needing to take pain relievers, running out of pills, taking his wife’s pills to get through the day, and then getting courtmartialed for taking the wrong medication.

–       We listen to the soldiers talk about their non-commissioned officers that are shaken and struggling with anxiety and memories but are gearing up to deploy again.

All of the above is often greeted with “Suck it up and drive on,” at least in the Army. To insist that the Pentagon do otherwise is actually quite a sucker punch to the machine that relies on obedience to that one instruction.

My friend Luis Carlos Montalvan, told TIME Magazine (published this week): “There are 18 suicides a day among veterans. I’d do anything to help prevent that tragedy.” We all know now that the numbers for active-duty guys are just as troubling. Luis and his amazing book (buy it!) are on a mission of essential if non-controversial service. Op Recovery, as I said to Camilo, is just as essential and potentially revolutionary. Dave Cline, founder of the Vietnam-era Oleo Strut, would have been proud of them.

Notes toward an introduction

It’s been a long time since I first started batting around the idea of a book about the G.I. Rights Hotline, (a book I’d still love to write someday), and instead took on this behemoth of a project. Below is what I’m calling my faux-introduction; we hope that someone with more clout (Dan Ellsberg? Cynthia Enloe?) will write the real one, but in the meantime I tried to articulate my multiple themes and my reasoning behind who I included and didn’t. For those who’ve been following my travails all along,  some of what’s below will feel familiar; my hope is that it will also explain, a bit better, why I zeroed in one the people I did.

My inspiration, kind of my gold standard, was people who’d taken the path directly from warmonger to peacemaker, like Philip Berrigan or the just-recently-lost-to-us Howard Zinn (seen as a 1944 bombardier, right). But that inspiration, and the way I frame it above, is too incomplete to be honest,  or even narratively interesting to me.

On the simplest level, some kinds of military dissent — desertion comes to mind —  ALWAYS constitute a challenge to the military’s functioning, and need to be described even when it’s for non-political reasons.

More profoundly, what’s come clearest as I finish the book is that my interest is not only the total transformers, though that’s kind of the core of the inquiry, as the partial ones along the way. For each chapter and each war, I’m asking for what ends government-sponsored violence and preparation for same were being relied on —especially, perhaps,  including odious ones like slavery and genocide of indigenous people — and honoring soldier-dissent against them, too. My old friend Sam might argue that since the means — military action — is odious, that should be enough; but it’s not.

Back when I was on staff at the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, I used to half-joke that  “if there’s gonna be a revolution, it’s going to happen because of antiwar veterans,” like those who volunteered for my branch of the G.I. Rights Hotline. Being defiantly uninterested in Marxist predictions of actual revolution, what I meant was that fundamental, progressive change has been escorted into American life with such figures, half-ignored even as they’re being lionized for other reasons.

I’ve usually described my criteria for inclusion in the book as “a kind of reverse funnel,” one ending in a laser-sharp focus on truly antiwar soldiers but beginning with a much wider palette:  Chapters 1-7 including mutinies over late pay and desertion in protest of the freeing of slaves (one of the least glorious moments for Civil War soldiers) and then narrowing through Vietnam and beyond —until, by  the 21st century, “we have our hands full just challenges thrown up to what some Iraq vets call “gee-wot” (the Global War on Terror).” Earlier rebellions, such as the 1779 mutinies against price-gouging and the 1930 Bonus March, seen only as “important reminders, especially through the Cold War, of the immense potential power of such rebellions.” That all sounds way too glib to me now, after three years of learning and writing.

What feels both more honest, as a journalist and historian, and equally true to the spirit of Philip Berrigan and Howard Zinn, is this:  Include a selection of those who, having had a significant experience in the U.S. military, have used that experience to help nudge American society as a whole away from militarism. Mili-what? Think simply of the concept of “relying on armed enforcers to protect us and our stuff” (the latter meaning land, or water, or oil, or more amorphous concepts such as national identity, ideology or “credibility” ,e.g. saving face).  You can look up the Webster’s definition if you like.

As I write this, Howard Zinn has just died, and a 2004 Nation quote has just surfaced: “Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society.” It’s those surprises, in the form of challenges thrown down to the established order by soldiers, that I’m tracking, making semi-educated guesses as to which of those zigzags was pointed toward peace.

Show me the money. The name “soldier” is derived from the French “soldat,” meaning money: and issues of how well troops are paid was a flashpoint of dissent from day one.  The opening chapter, “A Country Born of Dissent,”  is rooted in such rebellions, including the 1754 mass desertions of colonial soldiers, the 1781 Mutiny in January that almost got Washington involved, Captain Daniel Shays’ uprising against bankers (whose veteran-troops were called “The Regulators.” Take that, Bernanke!). Class issues were alive and well, continuing when Lt. Matthew Lyon, one of Ethan Allen’s “Green Mountain Boys,” was defeated by a mutiny on July 4, 1776 when his men refused orders that involved not fighting the British but guarding absentee landholders’ property. Matthew Lyon, the commander of that 1776 mutiny and publisher of the anti-Federalist newspaper The Scourge of Aristocracy and the Repository of Important Political Truths, ended up, twenty years later, a foe of John Adams imprisoned under the 1798 Sedition Act.

There wasn’t yet a concept of an antiwar soldier, especially after James Madison nearly secured for Quakers an exemption from military service for conscientious objectors. But in the meantime, men from “peace churches” in uniform were a wild card of their own, as when Methodist minister Lee preached peace to his Continental Army brigade: “ Many of the people, officers as well as men, were bathed in tears before I was done.”

Hardcore mavericks and original sins. For the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century, one of the main tasks of the American soldier was to perpetrate those two original sins I mentioned earlier — the slave economy, and the bargain first proposed for native peoples by  Thomas Jefferson. “They will in time either incorporate with us as citizens of the United States, or remove beyond the Mississippi,” Jefferson wrote to future president William Henry Harrison, adding that if they resisted “we need only close our hand to crush them.”  Or, either become private capitalists and gentleman farmers like us or kicked off your land, which conveniently becomes ours. Precious few, especially during active duty, saw anything wrong with the latter, though half-native soldier William Apes did wonder why he was fighting in the War of 1812 against those who’d despoiled his Pequot ancestors.  His matter-of-fact “I could not think why I should risk my life, my limbs,  in fighting for the white man, who had cheated my people out of their land,” cast triangulated light on that war’s expansionist aims (for all the geopolitical context and diplomatic spittle, the war ended when the Brits exacted an immediately-broken promise not to mess with the Indians).

A few years later General Ethan Allen Hitchcock called the Jefferson-Jackson expansion policies “a blight upon the Indian.” Hitchcock, the Hamlet of American expansionism, railed in his diaries against President Andrew Jackson, who was acting to put Jefferson’s Indian policies into bloody practice. When another president sent him to Mexico for another very-regretted war, Hitchcock made common cause with West Point dropout and rogue diplomat Nicholas Trist, who negotiated peace with Mexico, even as hawks back home were chanting for his recall.

Those who actually took public action against “Indian policy”   were, almost without exception, also connected somehow to the abolitionist movement, which had begun to move from relentless newspapering and prayer to a harder core. These included Hitchcock, who found in the Civil War the fight he could finally get behind, andSilas Soule, who offered some of the rare light refusing to participate in the  massacre of Indians at Sand Hill after having volunteered for Lincoln’s war against slavery, along with two of his brothers.

Also lining up to end slavery were Ambrose Bierce’s uncle Lucius Bierce, who sent guns to John Brown before raising two regiments for the war; the iconic Charles Shaw and George Garrison, sun of the iconic William Garrison, among the white officers leading battalions of black soldiers, and the Carpetbagger officers who went South to try to enforce Lincoln’s promise. These soldiers were engaged in something intrinsically radical even when working for the President, throwing “surprises” at the powerful economic and social forces that had fed the slave economy.

Without them, we would likely not have the minority who took the next step and went on to become prominent antiwar voices when the Spanish-American and Philippine wars came along —  Frederick Douglass’ son Lewis; the younger Bierce, who William Randolph Hearst feared sending to the Philippines because of his veteran’s skepticism;   and the flotilla of grizzled vets who joined with Andrew Carnegie’s Anti-Imperialist League, like Donelson Caffery (whose brigade had fought Bierce’s at Shiloh), John Adams descendant Gettysburg veteran Charles Francis Adams. Not to mention Mark Twain, who lived to vacation with Woodrow Wilson years after the League was gone and few remembered his“The War Prayer.”  But Twain’s antiwar poems and the writing of the younger Bierce, especially his story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” would be remembered by those looking centuries later for a soldier’s story that rang true.

From “nostalgia” to“shell shock and beyond. Bierce, darling of the yellow press and bete noire of plutocrats, would eventually become what  journalist and veterans’ advocate Lily Casura has called “the quintessential, though unrealized, poster boy for PTSD,” wandering to suicide in Mexico via a tour of old battlefields. A close read of his early postwar writing. as in “What I Saw at Shiloh” which ends: I will willingly surrender an other life than the one that I should have thrown away at Shiloh;  when that same battle took place, hundreds of soldiers of both sides broke down, carried onto hospital ships with a case of what doctors called “nostalgia.” That was around the time that commanders and military doctors started tracking soldiers’ breakdowns as less “weakness” and more something related to war, even positing that the trials of battle damaged the heart muscle — both accurate and prescient, considering the complex hormonal and developmental re-wiring that we now know takes place when stress responses harden.

This, unlike the money and mavericks, is a stream I was looking for, having been near-obsessed with PTSD as a subject long before I knew I would write this book. The relationship between the military and traumatic stress is a complex one, as noted by experts like Col. David Grossman, author of On Killing: The Psychological Consequences of Learning to Kill on War and Society. Some, like Andrew Jackson, never got over it but subsumed it into national policy; others, like Bierce and George Garrison, turned it all inward. Still others, of course,  turned trauma into art —like World War I vet Lewis Milestone, the protagonist of whose All Quiet on the Western Front tells a group of schoolchildren: “We live in the trenches. And our bodies are earth. And our thoughts are clay. And we sleep and eat with death. And we’re done for, because you can’t live that way and keep anything inside you.”

By then, the Freudians were grabbing hold of what laypeople had called “shell shock,” a grip that was complete by the time John Huston, still having nightmares from his World War II service in Europe, made the long-suppressed documentary Let There Be Light,  whose subjects ask earnestly to be cured of their “psycho-neurotic” ailments.That suppression, added to general cold-war amnesia, meant that when Vietnam veterans started experiencing something similar, they had  to work hard to know what was going on.

The process of doing so, getting those truths near-permanently exposed and their treatment mandated, also has required a lot of those surprises, and a fair amount of dissent; like soldiers’ compensation, its psychological damage is another cost of war.

Speaking of the cold war, however,  civil rights icon Bayard Rustin once told his old friend David McReynolds that before the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, national discourse was like a brittle steel wall, and it took a mighty shake from Montgomery to fracture it. That wall squelched a lot of early postwar surprises, from Howard Zinn’s own American Veterans Committee and early organizing by Medgar Evers, while energy underneath it continued to bubble in all sort of unexpected ways, as J.D. Salinger and Joseph Heller poured PTSD onto the page and the paradigm-shattering ROTC dropout Rustin, who’d long since finished his prison term for refusing the draft, began organizing to infuse “Gandhian” principles into the fight for racial justice,  until he showed up at Montgomery to help Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. take his boycott national.

The fracturing of that wall, its accompanying surprises (the Beats, the civil rights movement), is part of the origin story of the 20th-century peace movement. As soldiers and veterans increasingly became involved in the latter, the learning was mutual:

Stand up for your beliefs, brother. How do the less-antiwar dissenters interact with the most hardcore objectors? The dynamic between the two is simultaneously twisted and heartening: From the Revolution on, non-dissenting soldiers often took note of what we’d now call “peaceniks” not with horror but with solidarity, and when the wars themselves turned explicitly bad looked to them for guidance, or at least proof that to object wasn’t insane.  Early examples included  and Civil War medic Jesse Macy, who kept refusing to be shunted aside all the way to the end of the war; conscientious objectors who encouraged strikes at military prisons during World War I and II; and in-service CO’s like Desmond Doss, who saved hundreds of soldiers as a medic during the Battle of Okinawa, and Lew Ayres, who went from playing a traumatized soldier in AQWF to spending months as a medic in the Philippines, some of it under the command of Major William Kunstler.  In these new wars, many young soldiers and veterans tell similar stories: “There’s a lot of respect for what you did,” a Marine once told Stephen Funk (above), one of the founders of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

I hardly mean to claim that the pacifists were making converts left and right (certainly not right). It’s probable that the majority of the soldiers were little affected by these dissenters, but I’m not writing about the majority. And at many points on this zigzag path, there they were —the series of surprises, the wild cards in the deck, the grace notes or minor crescendos that cut against the standard music. As the book proceeds, you’ll glimpse both sides of these interactions — and watch them collude, as when some of them show up sick.

Also in this stream are the civilians without whom the soldiers might never have been able to get the word out, from War Resisters League founders Frances Witherspoon and Tracy Mygatt to the stalwart military law experts and volunteers, from Citizen Soldier’s Tod Ensign to the indomitable Kathleen Gilberd, co-author of Rules of Disengagement, the Politics of Military Dissent. (I know that by doing so I leave out whole swaths of equally dedicated activists who did NOT focus on dissenting soldiers, but ….) In a few cases, like my old friend Steve Morse, it worked the other way just a little; Steve went from Swarthmore to joining the Army so he could better organize soldiers, though at the time he was also part of a somewhat pernicious subset of civilians who saw in soldiers (working-class  and armed!) the  perfect recruits for their brand of socialism. (That subset has remained in action, on all sides of the political spectrum  – from Ron Paul to World Can’t Wait.)

One is for fighting, one is for fun. As better scholars than I have noted, the U.S. military has long been identified with a certain kind of exaggerated masculinity, in ways that have actually increased as those other walls kept crumbling. And the mouse in all those houses is the presence of non-gender-conforming soldiers, from the women who “passed” in the pre-20th century wars to the gays who did the same (Walt Whitman’s lover Peter Doyle or Major Alice Davey Sheldon, also known as James Tiptree Jr.). By the time we get to the 1990s, women have been welcomed into the U.S. military with mostly open arms while gays remain simultaneously criminalized and ubiquitous; the resulting fights for equal treatment, sparked in part by revelations of sexual assault of women in uniform just as gay service members really began to organize, is actually where gender could stop mattering, and stop threatening the military ethos — and thus, no longer belong in this book. Stay tuned to find out if that ever happens.

Everything old is new again. So what’s happening right now, in the dual wars that some aggregate into “the long war” or the “global war on terror?” A series of new and old surprises on all the paths above, along with some new ones enabled by technology and globalization and the sheer kick-ass defiance of the soldiers themselves.

Unstuck in time again, in a good way

It’s been forever, I know. I should have at least updated my other shop’s cheers as Sotomayor became a Justice, especially the soulful essay about how she, a wise Latina herself, felt during that confirmation ceremony. But given the demands of that other shop (go look! Make comments!) and that I’ve been writing the last two chapters of my book simultaneously, I’d made a conscious decision not to blog until I was done. Well, not completely conscious, or else I’d have put up one of those “Gone Fishin”signs.

But last week I finally went to this convention, which I’ve described to friends as “like going to a party where fully half your characters are there to answer the questions you never asked.” Veterans for Peace, founded in the wake of the collapse of the Nuclear Freeze movement, and containing many of the folks I’ve now been writing about for years.It began with a rousing statement from Rep. Donna Edwards (above), who like me isn’t a veteran, but who may as well be: her father was career military, and she remembers when her father was stationed in the Philippines and “if we wanted ice cream, we had to go all the way to  Quezon City” because in military facilities, including the huge Clark Air Force Base,  “all the hangars and freezers were filled” — she choked up — “with the caskets of young men and women who had died in Vietnam.” That told her, she said, “When we ask our young people to sacrifice, it’s our responsibility to get it right.”

I remember when Edwards was “just” the director of the National Network Against Domestic Violence, and we were working together on military issues: that one, like many of the issues jostling in  my brain and this book, was challenge and enriched by the information streaming everywhere last week.

coxMuch was  super-informal, with benefits: e.g. I warned Paul Cox (right), who I’ve known nearly 15 years now, that he was a star of my Vietnam chapter, and as a bonus he let me see and upload some 1969 photos he’d just got hold of.  (They proved what I’d always guessed: he was even more of a babe at age 19 than now.)

ellen_barfieldWRLAfter dropping by the Women’s Caucus — where I also got to check in at the long-pervasive issue of military sexual abuse and homophobia— I got to interview Ellen Barfield (U.S. Army 1977-1981, now on the board of War Resisters League.) Barfield told me about being stationed in 1980 at Camp Humphreys, in South Korea, when her unit and many others were suddenly put on lockdown during the Kwangju Massacre.

barfieldportraitWe were put on high alert; the combat troops were given orders, and up in our unit we started getting riot training.” she told me.  Asked by fellow officers if women should participate, she and other women said hell yeah, we’re soldiers too — but matters never got that far. “That’s as close as I ever came to combat,” Barfield reflects now. “But – it wouldnt have been combat, it would have been killing civilians!” Already a Nation reader who’d been struck by the grinding poverty she saw in Korea, she set about upon leaving the Army to learn more about U.S. involvement in backing up Sung’s repressive government. “People are kept for so long from knowig their history,” she told me.  She learned a lot from members of the then-newborn VFP such as former CIA Asia specialist aideChalmers Johnson and Brian Willson, who’d lost his legs protesting U.S. aid to repressive governments.

plow8bBarfield was soon drawn in by the nuclear-freeze movement, just as Philip Berrigan and the rest of the Plowshares movement were getting arrested  at nuclear plants all over the country: Barfield was soon doing the same at the PANTEX plant near her hometown of Amarillo, Texas, and has been a “soldier for peace” ever since. I learned some of the latter story from a panel on nuclear-weapons issues, where a hikabusha (survivor of Hiroshima) asked through a translator what the  U.S. was doing to teach its children about nuclear weapons.

At panels on The GI Rights Hotline and on active-duty resistance, I learned more about the still-ongoing cases of current resisters such as Agustin Aguayo (above), and of those in exile fighting for asylum, like Andre Shepherd (below), whose German support network includes a woman who’s been doing this work on and off since the Vietnam years.I didn’t think then — but do now as I write this – that if I had stayed at CCCO a mere year longer, I might never have felt able to leave.

Despite the friendliness of the members of Iraq Veterans Against War, though, I was perhaps too shy about the IVAW workshops, fearing they were tired of me already — something I regret and don’t, now.

johnjudgeBecause on my way out of town, I touched base with John Judge — who  has been doing this work literally since I was two years old, including with the G.I. Project of  VFP’s vibrant predecessor. John described for me what he witnessed when  Vietnam Veterans Against the War was  neutralized  by the Red Squad in 1974,  “destroy[ing] the single most visionary and effective peace group in history.”   (I’d already written about these events here, drawn from documentary evidence).

wintersoldier_bannerWhen the RU moved into VVAW’s Chicago headquarters (note the North Vietnamese star at the center of the logo), so did posters and newspapers with appropriately “militant” headlines, such as: VVAW BATTLES V.A. THUGS. A civilian volunteer named John Judge, who watched the transition, was astounded. “Were they really advocating physical violence against medical personnel?”

The transition did, Judge added, have its comic elements: “They came in with these handlebar mustaches and sideburns, like Stalin, and these flannel workshirts.” Romo and his RU peers also told Judge to stop reading a pop history book in his bag, because We only read Marx and Engels here. “I told them, Those books are 150 years old now.” But the new regime also purged any members they deemed not “correct,” which included many who had been working triple time to help the new veterans get what they needed.

The January 1975 issue of THE VETERAN, whose “Vets Fight V.A” article was just before the “Victory to the Indochinese,” was also its last until 1996. The closer RU got to its goals, the more complete the damage to an organization once powerful enough to scare Nixon.

road_from_ar_ramadi_coverThat conversation with John stayed mostly comic/elegiac.  We did touch on the question I’ve since been trying, separately, to sort out: if the same has already begun to happen to IVAW, perhaps under the influence of it outgoing board president Camilo Mejia, the brilliant young scion of Nicaragua’s revolution? I mention the latter fact in full respect; Mejia (with whom I share a literary agent!)  grew up in the fullness of a poet’s revolution, and his father, Carlos, wrote the Sandinista National Liberation Front’s national anthem. His speech last Thursday was compelling, as when he noted that the U.S.’  unfortunate Asian land war had left room for all the democracy movements south of the border.

But my concern was rooted in more than Camilo’s charisma: rumor has it that while I was worrying about ANSWER (Workers’ World Party) and World Can’t Wait (RCP) leeching off the younger group, I was too distracted by their sideshow to see the steady recruitment tactics of this group, only a few years younger than RCP and hipper/younger/jazzier in its presentation.

It’s not a meaningless question: dissenting soldiers are already being marginalized every minute. I hope those rumors are incorrect, but I’m not that optimistic.But my job now is to find out what actually happened, and to tell that story as honestly as I can.

(p.s. Thanks so much to Gerry Condon, whose comment below helped me correct some errors born of hurry and 50 percent humidity. That’s part of what this blog is for.)