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Demilitarization as Rehumanization

Clare Bayard
Date Published: 
March 11, 2011

The antiwar movement never died. The movement has shifted to the work of long-term, community-based organizing to mount a comprehensive challenge to US militarism. This work is growing inside grassroots movements led by veterans, immigrants, queers, and low-income communities of color. Everywhere domestic militarization burns to the bone, people are fighting for a different future. The mass street marches of 2003 sought to preemptively raise the political cost of the Iraq war. We always knew that beyond those marches we would have to confront the real human cost if the wars moved ahead.

  • Outside Washington DC, CASA de Maryland fights the deportation of an undocumented woman who called the police to escape domestic violence and was turned over to ICE, Homeland Security's immigration wing.
  • In Oakland, BAY-Peace's low-income youth of color win a two-year campaign developing a viral Youth Manifesto and passing the nation's toughest anti-recruitment resolution in their school district.
  • Desert fatigues become paper for screenprints, or the canvas for their former wearer's Sharpied stories of trauma, where veterans' art-based transformational projects like Combat Paper and Fatigues Clothesline break isolation and culturally-enforced silences about the realities of war.
  • In a grainy Wikileaked video, a soldier named Ethan McCord pulls children out of a massacre in Baghdad. Later, he and other veterans and allies write an Open Letter of Reconciliation and Responsibility to the Iraqi people and begin a reparations project.
  • Oct 7th, the anniversary of the US war on Afghanistan: In New York, former Afghan Parliamentarian Malalai Joya, an Iraqi refugee organizer, a Latina youth organizer, a Muslim conscientious objector, an Imam from Harlem, and other speakers hold a press conference organized by the South Asia Solidarity Initiative, Iraq Veterans Against the War, War Resisters League, and other groups to connect the realities faced by Afghans with the realities of veterans and civilians in the US.

A few days later, in DC, One Nation Working Together marches for “Money for Jobs, Not for War” on the capitol. National efforts like the 25 Percent (reduction of the military budget) Campaign and Move the Money are gaining steam, demanding New Deal-style investment in social spending and de-funding the military.

These are snapshots along a continuum. People are organizing on every level, from federal legislation and military policy to survival programs that start with individuals and generate networks of grassroots resources and programs. Current work with the potential to drastically impact US militarism includes war economy and economic conversion campaigns, migrant justice, and GI resistance organizing.            

There are many crucial questions about alternatives to military intervention, or the roles of armed struggle in peoples’ movements for self-determination. We take inspiration from people around the world confronting US militarism on their own territory, particularly in the anti-occupation and anti military base movements, currently finding their strongest expressions in North Africa, West Asia, Latin America and the Pacific. Here, I will touch on a few threads of domestic demilitarization, highlighting GI resistance.      

Going deeper

The US is deeply shaped by militarism, from its origins as a settler nation taking its territory piecemeal and by force, to the uncloaked empire we live in today. Living in the US, particularly for those of us with citizenship, carries responsibility to end the spread of this empire, which we can’t dodge anymore than we can drop the struggles in our home communities. Nor is there always a clear separation between what we often refer to as “wars at home and abroad.” Attacks across the country on people read as Arab, Muslim, or South Asian, whether detentions by the state or street attacks, are entangled with the heightened level of militarism accepted by the US mainstream since post-9/11 policies of aggressive racism were implemented. Increased militarization of the US-Mexico border has led to horrific rates of rape of migrants on and around the border. Funds drop from anti-violence programs and are moved instead into the criminal justice system. Queer youth are bullied to death by peers who are taught militarized images of gender roles. These struggles for safety and health are part of resistance to domestic US militarism.

Anti-militarists build off analyses from women of color feminists about the need for community-based alternatives to dealing with violence. INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence and sister organizations provide us with a clear analysis of how anti-violence movements’ use of the criminal justice system perpetuated racist systems of criminalization and control, and encourage us to look beyond state structures to community-based transformative justice  approaches. Anti-militarist activists need substantive answers to the questions and fears that arise for many in response to the idea of demobilizing the military, just as abolitionists have to answer the question of what we would do without prisons.

Demilitarization means structuring our society with different values. We build institutions that reflect the values we want to strengthen and help us navigate what we are trying to transform. Prison abolition struggles and transformative justice experiments contribute to demilitarizing society by developing different ways to handle real conflict and violence. We need functional strategies that are driven by commitment to cooperation and to community health, instead of the profit driven motives and divide-and-control tactics we see from Afghanistan to Louisiana.

Immigrant & Indigenous Leadership

Migrant justice organizers have no choice but to deal with militarism at every turn. The post-9/11 folding of immigration enforcement into the Department of Homeland Security aggravated an already dangerous situation. Heavily recruited, with promises of citizenship for youth considering military service, immigrant communities of color across the country are taking on militarization of their neighborhoods and of the border region. They are resisting racist immigration and “enforcement” laws and pushing for alternatives to militarized schools and streets. 

Guerrero Azteca Peace Project, a Latino community-based peace and counter-recruitment effort formed by Fernando Suarez del Solar when his undocumented son Jesus Alberto was one of the first soldiers to die in Iraq, responded to Arizona's SB1070 racial harassment law in a letter signed by Latino military parents. The letter asks Obama to take action, and states: “Those on active duty supposedly are risking their lives for American ideals, but with this law they see clearly that if their families must face harassment, incarceration, and deportation these ideals are nothing but empty words.” The letter recalls Vietnam-era challenges by African Americans to racism and hypocrisy, summarized famously by Muhammed Ali: “No, I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over.”

Indigenous nations are the first resisters of US militarism, and veterans and nonmilitary leaders still apply traditional knowledge and visions for the future to the damages of militarism. Eli Painted Crow of the Yaqui Nation, an Army veteran and cofounder of Servicewomen's Action Network, initiated Turtle Women Rising, an annual transformational ceremony led by indigenous women. Painted Crow echoed Suarez del Solar's words in describing her path as “the defining moment for me [in Iraq, 2004], when I knew I had to get out of Iraq and the military, was when I fully realized that I was participating in the very same thing that my people had suffered and are still suffering in the United States.”

Members of the Ohlone Nation—the Bay Area's original inhabitants, displaced to Southern California—journeyed to San Francisco to hold a joint healing ceremony with the local Veterans For Peace Chapter on Veterans' Day. The ceremony recognized a young person lost to suicide after returning from combat, and honored these two communities, beginning an explicit long-term partnership on healing the wounds of war.

Withdrawing consent

Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) uses a people power strategy of leveraging their power as workers the wars depend on, and as veterans who can deny the wars’ legitimacy. IVAW, which formed in 2005 and numbers several thousand members, is uniquely positioned to provide the vision and leadership for growing a mass GI resistance movement. They are applying lessons from the civil rights movement and previous generations of GI and veteran resistance, as well as seeking organizing wisdom from grassroots organizations including Domestic Workers United, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers/Student-Farmworker Alliance, and United Workers.

In October, IVAW launched their first campaign, Operation Recovery: Stop the Deployment of Traumatized Troops (OpRec). The underlying strategy is IVAW's basic model: organizing GIs to withdraw their consent from wars. Its success in stopping deployment of troops with severe trauma would incapacitate the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq by knocking out 20 to 50 percent of the fighting force. It's a dilemma campaign. If we win, the wars are hamstrung. Or, if the military continues deploying wounded troops, this visible criminal negligence will hurt their legitimacy and ability to keep recruiting. Either way, we also improve our capacity to provide our own community-based care, which is needed far beyond just the veterans' community. An element of the campaign is developing survival programs, inspired by the Black Panthers, to address the needs of people whose ability to resist their command often depends on access to support.

Operation Recovery exposes the silenced crises of Military Sexual Trauma (MST), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). IVAW, partnered with the Civilian-Soldier Alliance, has a strategy to win on multiple fronts. Demanding the right to heal is a point of leverage to challenge the institution, as well as a survival need within this community. OpRec has begun targeting base commanders who have the power to make immediate decisions preventing deployments. Here, even “damage control” means fewer lives destroyed.

Amplifying the voices of traumatized troops deepens awareness of the scope of disaster in these wars. After last fall's media exposure of Afghanistan “kill teams,” IVAW member Ethan McCord responded, “You're taking soldiers who are on psychotropic drugs for PTSD or TBI, and you're putting a weapon in their hand and sending them right back to where they were traumatized and telling them to go kill Afghans. What did you think was going to happen when you place these soldiers in that same situation?”

After the incident depicted in the Collateral Murder video, when McCord sought mental health care, his sergeant told him to “Get the sand out of your vagina.” “He told me I was being a homo and needed to suck it up,” McCord said. OpRec testimonies bring back to the US public the realities of what is happening on the ground in Afghan and Iraqi neighborhoods; how soldiers struggling to stay sane and follow their conscience are treated by their command; and what happens when traumatized troops return, bringing instability and violence home.

Operation Recovery is currently focused on establishing consistent outreach at base towns around the country. In the last week of January, IVAW organizers at Fort Hood, Texas, alone collected a couple hundred pledges of support for Operation Recovery from active duty troops. Community support and participation for outreach, media work, fundraising, research, and compiling resources for healing is needed for their goal of activating thousands of GIs.

Veteran organizing

Veteran activists experience frequent obstacles to working partnerships with nonmilitary peace activists. They often report being either tokenized/valorized in a dehumanizing way, or ostracized by antiwar civilians who feel uncomfortable or disdainful of “soldiers with bloody hands.” Pain and anger at the US military's violence against Iraqi and Afghan civilians is real and just. It is also real that the carefully designed race and class makeup of the military plays a role in the friction between GI resistance and majority white and class-privileged peace movements. Many veterans bring fierce hunger to this struggle, including deep personal commitment to justice for the people they hurt, which everyone in the US needs to be taking responsibility for. 

GI organizing offers complicated questions of fighting for veterans' needs within the larger context of challenging wars. One common issue is the vital difference between centralizing this community as “the most impacted” by US wars, versus “one of the most.”  Another is the tricky balance of fighting for veterans’ legal rights to healthcare and benefits, while at the same time challenging military privilege and demanding these human rights for everyone so they will not be dependent on enlistment (or honorable discharges, which are often not accessible to resisters, and are disproportionately denied to soldiers of color). Our job is to move away from competitive frameworks towards cooperative models. Operation Recovery seeks to improve community provider networks that help re-integrate veterans, which could grow to provide care for people who have lost healthcare, jobs, or housing as a result of the military budget eating up our social spending.

Veteran communities, like other communities that experience high levels of violence and are forced to prioritize survival issues, have a lot to offer social movements on the importance of weaving community-building and healing work into campaigns, actions, organization-building. Revolutionaries must also ask questions of what different scenarios can play out in moments of uprising, with different types of relationships with active duty military personnel. The complicated role of the Egyptian military during this winter's revolution is only the latest reminder of the significance of the choices made by military personnel when called on to repress domestic dissent as well as fight wars of conquest. IVAW has discussed organizing a tour of the US-Mexico border to talk to National Guard troops stationed there and encourage them to stand on conscience.

IVAW members have initiated several reparations projects. One, along with US Labor Against War, primarily works with Iraqi trade union leaders on policy issues. Another project, born from the open letter, partners with Iraqi Health Now on direct aid. Guidance has come from Iraqi-Americans and Vietnam-era Veterans For Peace, who built a joint Agent Orange reparations campaign with Vietnamese organizations. Broad support for these initiatives could be transformative, engaging the US public with our responsibilities, which do not rest solely on veterans.

Healing From Inside

Demilitarization means untangling layers, from which institutions shape our society and address our needs, and decolonizing our minds, bodies, and organizing practices. Demilitarization practices are healing and wholeness strategies for our communities and cultures. Affirming everyone’s humanity and centering the importance of healing capsizes the logic of militarism. While we campaign to withdraw troops, defund the military, involve the public  in reparations, and make racist fear and warmongering unacceptable, we must also be practicing individual and community behaviors that support the values we seek to implement as a society. 

“Healing justice is being used as a framework that seeks to lift up resiliency and wellness practices as a transformative response to generational violence and trauma in our communities.” This footnote to principles developed at last summer's US Social Forum, by Cara Page of Kindred Southern Healing Justice Collective, explains the power of aligning different antimilitarist threads. We have no choice but to address the violence and trauma carried in so many of our bodies. We must reclaim traditions of wellness that use not the individual but relationships as the fundamental unit. This aligns us with values of community, right relation to the environment, and organizing as a process of building relationships that we set in motion to effect change. Demilitarization means hope for the future.

Clare Bayard has been involved in demilitarization organizing for over a decade, originally in immigrant justice work, and has been building the G.I. resistance movement since 2004. Clare has been working with IVAW and Civilian-Soldier Alliance in developing the Operation Recovery campaign, is an organizer with Catalyst Project and the War Resisters League, and is from a military family.