Dispatch September 2008

Military Resistance at the RNC

Former infantryman Brian Mockenhaupt reports from the Twin Cities where Iraq Veterans Against the War are holding their own convention.

"The war is being supported by the people who consent to it continuing,” declared Adrienne Kinne, a former Army Arabic linguist, to her Iraq Veterans Against the War colleagues. The group had gathered for their own convention in the Ramada Mall of America hotel ahead of the Republican National Committee events, taking stock of their past year’s work and plotting future operations. Many of them had slept little the night before, having driven in from the Democratic National Convention. In Denver they had walked for several hours on mock combat patrols, dressed in camouflage, with imaginary rifles at the ready. They took fire from “snipers” and treated their flailing, screaming wounded. They held off mobs of angry Iraqi protestors, played by volunteers, and shoved suspected “insurgents” to the ground. Sufficiently shocked, they hoped, the lunchtime crowd might reconsider America’s role in Iraq.

Footage of Iraq Veterans Against the War doing street theater
in Denver during the Democratic National Convention

The group, formed in 2004, has staged such performances across the country over the past two years, along with public testimonies about alleged war crimes in Iraq, the realities of conditions there, and its own members’ treatment by the military and the Veterans Administration upon returning home. These kinds of public exhibitions do grab some attention, but the group’s primary focus has been on subverting from within—eroding military support for the war by encouraging active resistance, which might involve anything from refusing to deploy or declaring conscientious objector status to simply not re-enlisting, draining the pool a drop at a time. In August, a half-dozen members visited military towns in six states, hosting barbeques and concerts, looking for compatriots. This initiative, called the State of the Union Base Tour, finishes on Saturday at Camp Pendleton near San Diego.

One IVAW activist, Jose Vasquez, took time to speak with me at the IVAW convention shortly after presenting a slideshow of veterans’ protest movements throughout American history. He argued that it’s important to bring the message directly to the troops because, he explained, ordinarily “they’re so disengaged from the debate and the discussion.” He said that he himself had become a conscientious objector after 14 years in the Army as a cavalry scout and medic, and now heads the group’s New York City chapter. “It’s amazing to me,” he observed, “how little soldiers know about their government and politics in their own country, not to mention the people they’re going to blow up.”

So who better to tell them the war is wrong than those who have been there? That moral authority has been the group’s trump card at a time when so few Americans—about 1 in 200—serve in the military, and significantly fewer have seen the current wars from the inside. “Someone who hasn’t served in the military will tiptoe around someone who has,” Vasquez explained. He’s working on a doctorate in cultural anthropology, his dissertation tentatively titled The Veteran Mystique: Military Service, Sacrifice, and the Nation State. “The state is investing in a certain narrative about soldiers, veterans and sacrifice,” he says. “They craft it in a way that shuts down debate [by claiming] there is no place for politics. So anyone who tries to politicize it is automatically wrong.”

Of course, IVAW, at about 1,200 members, represents but a fraction of the hundreds of thousands who have served in Iraq. Many veterans and active-duty personnel are, to say the least, ambivalent about the group’s approach, and some are thrown into fits of vitriol. I asked one Army buddy, with whom I served two Iraq tours, for his opinion of the resisters. He himself had privately questioned the necessity of war with Iraq before we deployed, and was horribly wounded while there. But he is perturbed by the idea of people shirking the jobs for which they volunteered, and encouraging others to do the same. “They signed up for it,” he told me. “It’s not like they were made to do it. Yeah, life sucks. That’s part of the Army. They should have thought about that before.”

But Vasquez considers it unrealistic to expect 18-year-olds to fully comprehend the complexities and potential moral conflicts of the roles they’re assuming. “The average American,” he observed, “rarely finds something to care about until they’ve had some real life experience.” Besides, he said, just “because you volunteer to join the military doesn’t mean you stop being a moral agent. We still have to do what is right.”

This tactic, leveraging moral authority to claim the moral high ground, hasn’t been limited to those opposing the war. Vets For Freedom, a group dedicated to supporting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, sent eight members back to Iraq for ten days in August to report on progress there and to urge Americans to maintain the troop commitment. Pete Hegseth, a former Army captain and now VFF’s executive director, filed video dispatches from a now-calm Samarra. He had been stationed there in 2006 when Sunni insurgents blew up the Golden Mosque, pushing the country into civil war.

Pege Hegseth's video dispatch from the Golden Mosque in Samarra

Hegseth spoke with me by phone from the DNC before heading to Minneapolis. “Every veteran has a unique experience that gives them an opportunity and a platform from which to speak,” he said. “They’ve sacrificed and they’ve put their life on the line for their country. At the same time, with that comes a great deal of moral responsibility not to mislead people… [The IVAW protestors] are running around in camouflage detaining people in street theater. That’s not professional. People aren’t convinced by that. There’s a place for a debate on where we should be and what kind of military tactics we should be using, but I don’t think street theater is going to get the job done.”

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Brian Mockenhaupt is a freelance writer and former infantryman.

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