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.”

Hegseth acknowledges common ground with IVAW in their push for veterans’ benefits, but he dismisses their calls for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. “Why would we bring them out now when we have the ability to leave behind a stable situation?” he asked. “Now people are looking around and they’re saying, ‘While it hasn’t been pretty and we may not like this war, we certainly want to salvage a positive outcome if possible.’ Americans don’t want to lose and they’re seeing a concerted strategy that is working and they’re getting behind it. That in and of itself is a blow to the anti-war movement.”

Something else that poses a challenge for the IVAW is the limited extent to which the rest of the country is invested in their concerns. As John McCain has told us many times, Americans don’t mind our soldiers being in Iraq; they just don’t want them dying there. Cynical, sure, but the view holds more than a little truth, though probably not for the reason McCain intends. Without a draft, sacrifice is distributed narrowly and unevenly among the population, so while two thirds of Americans say they oppose the war in Iraq, such statements may not have much concrete effect. Asked to do little more than buy Support Our Troops car magnets, the electorate loses interest when Iraq drops from the news, and especially when U.S. casualties decrease.

The September 1, 2008 anti-war March in St. Paul

Further complicating matters for the anti-war movement as a whole is the fact that the aims, interests, and identities of its constituents are sometimes very divergent. When IVAW members marched through St. Paul on Monday, they shared the streets with church groups, labor unions, and pacifists alike—and even with some self-described anarchists who smashed car and store windows and set fires. The IVAW often works with other groups—window-smashers excluded—though it sticks to its own talking points, focused on three “points of unity:” immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq, robust benefits for veterans, and reparations for Iraqis. Collaboration with other groups can be beneficial, with IVAW gaining manpower and reach, and the other groups piggybacking on the veterans’ moral authority. But working with these organizations pushes IVAW’s public identity further left, an inevitability that bothers some members. Christopher Raissi, an IVAW member from Atlanta who served five years in the Marines, asked, “Why am I all of a sudden a socialist because a socialist came to support me as a vet against the war? … ‘Bringing together divergent views.’ In Washington they call it bipartisanship. Why is it bipartisanship when they do it, but I’m a radical when I do it?”

The Iraq veterans were holding their Minneapolis convention in conjunction with Veterans for Peace, a larger group—comprised mostly of Vietnam veterans—from which IVAW spun off in 2004. They rotated through two days of workshops with names like Just War Theory, Introduction to Blockades, and Innovative Ways to Deal with PTSD, and they strategized about upcoming actions. In a side room, filled with literature and merchandise, I scanned a pile of t-shirts. Among them: At least the war on the environment is going well; I’m already against the next war; and Let me teach you about democracy—with each message written on a bomb falling from a plane. A poster in the lobby showed President Bush and Vice-President Cheney behind bars, above the caption “I have a dream.” Behind me, I heard a Vietnam vet lament, “If we could get as crazy about peace in this country as we do about war, we’d be in good shape.” A ’60s anthem, The Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn,” drifted from a stereo.

Elliot Adams, president of the VFP board, watched a group of Iraq veterans clad in matching black t-shirts, then turned to me. “I look at them and think, ‘We failed them,’” he said. “Our job was to keep them from having to go to war again.” But the Vietnam veterans did pass on their playbook. The Winter Soldier testimonial event, at which soldiers testify about war crimes they’ve committed or witnessed, and the street theater are modeled on Vietnam-era efforts, as are the G.I. coffee shops, now open in two military towns as gathering spots for active-duty troops interested in resistance. But while VFP opposes all war—and endorses a range of peace and justice issues far afield from Iraq—things are less clear-cut for the Iraq veterans. Some members renounce war entirely, while others oppose the Iraq war but support U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and elsewhere if need be.

The group tempers disagreement by keeping its focus on its three points of unity—withdrawal, reparations and benefits. But with the Iraqi surplus now at $80 billion, the idea of reparations is starting to pose a problem. “A lot of our members are starting to have heartburn on that,” one member told me. It’s also now looking like a drawdown of troops in Iraq is imminent, as is a troop surge in Afghanistan. This means that many who have thus far confined their views to the war in Iraq are starting to feel pressure to take a position on Afghanistan.  Few relish the idea of sorting out how to support one war while opposing the other, or opposing both and being perceived as critics of the War on Terror. Raissi, the former Marine, explained, “If you say you’re against the war in Afghanistan, people are going to flip the switch. They’re not going to listen to you. That’s the safe war that no one can attack. It’s almost an impossible battle.”

If the IVAW members do start taking a position against Afghanistan, their fellow veterans will be waiting. Hegseth is planning a Vets For Freedom field trip there for this fall. That race for the high ground, however, will pass with little notice for most Americans who, with no military affiliations of their own, will be little affected whether troops stay in Iraq or come home, or come home and leave for Afghanistan.