When I was in high school, I lived on a military base and socialized and worked with GIs opposed to the war in Vietnam. These guys weren’t very different from me — we liked rock and soul music and we liked to get high — yet most of them had experienced war. That was something I was not interested in doing and was but one of many reasons that I opposed the war. Many of today’s GIs are in the same boat as my GI buddies back then. They are just like their countrymen and women — except they’ve experienced war.
A group of antiwar vets who did time in Iraq and Afghanistan have been making their presence known for the past couple of years in the US and, like their predecessors that organized Vietnam Veterans Against the War, these men and women have formed an antiwar group known as Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). According to an article in a report titled “North Carolina at War” published by the Institute for Southern Studies, IVAW has members in at least 41 states and on some military bases overseas. I recently got in touch with some of its members. What follows is a transcript of a hopeful and occasionally heartrending exchange I had with these three folks. — Ron Jacobs
Ron: If you don’t mind, can you provide your name, and in what branch and where and when you served in the military? And what you’re doing now (besides working with IVAW)?
Adrienne Kinne, US Army (1994-1998), US Army Reserves (1998-2004, activated 10/01-10/03), Arabic linguist (military intelligence). I now work for the VA in White River Junction as a research health science specialist (MS in psychology).
Cpl Matt Howard. Served with the 1st Tank Battalion, 1st Marine Division, during the initial invasion, Basra to Baghdad, and a year later transferring equipment from Kuwait to Fallujah. I’m currently looking at schools to study Oriental medicine.
My name is Drew Cameron, I served from August 2000-04 on active duty in the US Army as a field artillery soldier out of Fort Sill, OK. After that, I re-enlisted into the Vermont National Guard for two years as a patient administration specialist and ended my time there in August 2006. I served in Iraq from April-Dec 2003 and our base of operations was Camp Anaconda. Since I got out of active duty, I started going to school full-time; I recently transferred to the University of Vermont where I study forestry. I am on the board for the Vermont Peace and Justice Center and run a small artist collective called the Green Door Studio here in Burlington. Vermont. I make paper and books, host openings, get the occasional small commission, it helps ya know.
Ron: What caused you all to take the step and join IVAW? Was it an easy choice or a difficult one for each of you? How many sympathizers would you guess you have in the military?
Adrienne: I had heard about IVAW a couple of years ago. Though I supported what they stood for, I didn’t really think that I would have a place in IVAW because I served my entire enlistment stateside, and I’d been out of the military for a while by then. Instead I was active with other organizations. I signed petitions, donated, and had just started to get more active last election cycle (Get Out the Vote calls, etc.).
Matt: I joined IVAW the second I found out about it. It was hardly a choice — more of a moral imperative. And I take comfort in knowing that for every one of us speaking out, there are hundreds who share our views but have not yet found their voice.
Drew: The choice wasn’t an easy one for me. After I got out of active duty, really after I got back from Iraq, I just wanted to forget about everything and move on. The problem I didn’t understand is that one can’t reconcile and deal unless you approach and work through it. So I spent two years of being numb, distant, and sometimes self-destructive or angry. I used to get anxiety, like a wave of anxiety for no reason, but mostly didn’t really connect with anyone, even my girlfriend. After a while, it came to a point where I wanted to do something, so I went to a protest in January 2006 and met another veteran; he told me about IVAW and what it was all about. It really blew me away the immediate connection and friendships that comes from talking truthfully about what we did and being active towards ending the repression of military service members who are being used by the warmakers. I know that there are a lot of folks that feel the same way, I have met so many of them. Both my buddies from the Army and veterans that I meet at different events, they know what’s up, they know that there is no justification for being over there, but it’s a conflicting feeling to be open and public about it. We have a right to do so, after all we are the ones who are paying the highest price over there, us and the people of Iraq. Why shouldn’t we be able to speak truthfully and dissent? The whole military mission-first mindset is a hard one to relinquish even once you get away from it and can take a breath.
Adrienne: When I heard that Bush was going to escalate the US force level in Iraq this January, part of me just snapped to be honest. I couldn’t believe that after the elections, and all that had happened, he could just go so brazenly against the will of the people. I was fortunate to get on a (Burlington, VT.) Peace and Justice Center bus, and I headed to DC for the January 27th March on Washington, my first rally. I decided to wear my desert uniform, which was also a first for me (it felt really odd too, wearing my uniform out of uniform, by myself until I got to DC, but it seemed right). When I got to DC, I headed over to the area where I knew veterans would be forming up, and I saw the IVAW table, and I signed up that day. Someone asked me where I was from, and I said Vermont, and he said, hey, here’s another Vermonter. I looked up, and saw Matt and Drew, and that was the beginning for me on pretty much every real level.
I have no idea how many sympathizers we have in the military. That there are more soldiers resisting and choosing jail over service is telling. That there are 3,000-5,000 estimated AWOL soldiers is also telling. I think this is the beginning of active-duty soldiers standing down and resisting. Time will tell.
Ron: How do you think active-duty GIs and Marines perceive the organization?
Adrienne: I don’t think that I could answer this question. It’s been too many years for me. I have a brother who is in the reserves and he is being sent to Iraq for the first time this summer with his unit. I think that part of him wants to shut out groups like us, so he can focus on what he thinks is his mission. There are many soldiers who want to believe that what our military is doing in Iraq is good. I wish we could let them know what we have found out, that it is all a lie and that our presence there is what is making Iraq such a disaster right now, a never-ending cycle. I guess some things a soldier has to find out for him or herself.
Matt: The military is organized insanity. I think an organization like IVAW gives service members inspiration that they are not alone in how they feel: the reality they now find themselves in is, in fact, (and reminds them that that reality is) not normal.
Adrienne: It’s unfortunate that soldiers are still being put in this position — kind of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Congress needs to step up and get us out of Iraq, and take the burden from our soldiers.
Drew: I think that active-duty guys think that it may be a bit too radical for what they are used to. I remember looking at the website when I was still in and getting all worried that it was illegal or something. There is this huge false perception that you can’t have political views or free speech in the military, that is totally not true under UCMJ. People have a right to do what they want, remember we are supposed to be protecting the constitution, right? So that misperception definitely plays a part, and of course the Hooah! Like getting all amped up for a tour is a way to deal with it, but more and more active duty are getting sick and tired of getting sent over there. They’ve been there, more than likely already twice, and know that another year out there is a heavy burden that they’d rather see end. So if we are struggling to end it, I bet some folks hope we succeed. The interesting part is that people on active duty are part of it, too, they are the ones that are about to go back to hell. Some of us in IVAW face re-activation, but we talk about what we did, I don’t even want to know what it feels like to be about to go again. They are facing an increasingly dire situation, unjustly occupying and waiting to get hit, and the vast majority of service members know the mission is a farce, it’s just about taking that next step and saying, “No, I won’t die for your lies.”
Ron: What do you think antiwar civilians (who aren’t vets) think of you all? And, as a follow up, what do you think of them and their attempts to end the war?
Drew: It’s been really great to meet a lot of organizers and activists that were struggling to stop this war when I was over there. Here they are still working to end this injustice, now more critically than ever with escalation on the mindset of the Bush regime. It’s such a resounding feeling of encouragement to be a part of the movement and all of the diverse groups and individuals, including students, who are involved. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for these great people, I owe my friends, my fellow peacemakers a huge debt of gratitude. It’s funny, too, they say the same thing about the vets who are speaking out.
Adrienne: My experience has been that “anti-war civilians” value what we have to say a lot. The bus tour with Cindy Sheehan was very life-changing. So many people came up to us afterward and thanked us for speaking out. That’s how it’s been every step of the way. I don’t think I would have been able to do this, if it wasn’t for the support that Vermonters have shown us.
As far as what I think of the “antiwar civilians,” I’m somewhat in awe of them. Part of me wonders why they care and what makes them go the extra step toward action, when so many Americans can’t be bothered to do either. It seems as if even a majority of those who agree with the anti-war movement don’t go the next step toward action. It’s very frustrating. So many people have this sense that nothing they could do will make a difference. The movement needs to start doing more to break this barrier.
Matt: Everywhere I go I get absolutely great responses, but it’s a weird place to be. Because at the end of the day, I am getting this positive attention for ultimately participating in something extremely negative. One day I hope to live in a world where we don’t need veterans to tell people violence never brings about peace. Having said that, the support has been overwhelming. That has meant a lot, because I was worried at first at being perceived as the enemy. After all, I took part in something very wrong. There is a clear distinction between government policy and the people on the ground in the movement. This of course is abused by the war mongers who say we don’t care about the “troops.” We care more about the lives of these people serving more than anyone — certainly more than their commander in chief. We want them home and alive this very minute!
Ron: Speaking of war, are you opposed to both the involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan? If so, why? If not, why?
Matt: I am opposed to all war. Violence only begets more violence. These wars are living proof of that. We can talk policy and motives until we are blue in the face, but it all boils down to the cyclical nature of violence. A Marine’s buddy dies right next him, so the next time they are hit with an IED he sprays machine gun fire in every direction. Now we have dead Iraqis. They pick up arms to avenge the loss of innocent life. And it just goes on and on and on. An occupation has never been “won.” We can’t be fooled by the “good war” propaganda either. Go back and look at the history of Afghanistan, look at our policy decisions. Its about empire — money and power. And no, that country is not better off. Far from it.
Adrienne: I was in the reserves when 9/11 happened. I remember hearing about the news from one of my professors and not believing him. I drove home and was glued to the TV for the next few weeks. I was waiting to be activated (which came October 3rd). I remember having a hollow pit in my stomach every time Bush came on TV, and started talking about invading Afghanistan. I remember thinking that it wasn’t the people of Afghanistan who attacked us on 9/11, so why should they be made to suffer. In the end, part of me could understand the fact that we sent troops into Afghanistan (if it was really to find bin Laden, but it wasn’t).
Drew: Definitely, they are two fronts on the same war, the same agenda and plan to dominate the Middle East. What would have happened if the government would’ve actually tried to identify the reasons that people would be so compelled to send a desperation cry over how they are being treated by US foreign policy. What if, instead of war, the US gave them peace, inclusion, and a place at the decision-making table? Not Al Qaida, but the people of Afghanistan, those are the ones who have been killed and bombed and subjugated and tortured, right along with the people of Iraq. The whole idea about building democracy is a farce. If the US government was determined to establish democracy, then why won’t they listen to the people? I would argue that it’s about domination, imperialism, and controlling the decisions and resources in that region, so the US can stay on top. It’s bad over there, getting worse, and it’s no wonder that people don’t like to be invaded and live under a martial law and foreign military regardless of how the public relations and politicians spin it.
Adrienne: I was always opposed to our invading Iraq. I knew Bush was manipulating 9/11 from the start. It was very frustrating and continues to be so. The media totally dropped the ball. I suppose that’s because the vast majority of our media are owned by three men who have ties to Bush and their own motivations for wanting us to invade Iraq (though I didn’t understand the threat of media consolidation and corporate interests back then).
Ron: Despite the fact that our culture is very military inundated — you know flyovers at baseball and football games, Army sponsorship of NASCAR teams, Rolling Stone and other such magazines running ads for the military next to their editorials about how screwed up the war is — why does it seem like enlisted men and women are viewed as somehow different (if not outright outcasts) by many citizens? Or is your experience different?
Adrienne: It’s very odd, the public’s relationship with the military. In the south (I was stationed in Georgia my entire military career outside of training), they were supportive on the one hand because there are so many large posts down that way. The military is a part of their way of life. On the other hand, it was very transparent support. Support based on the idea of patriotism, and not the reality of what we were doing in Iraq or Afghanistan. In Augusta and Savannah, Georgia, in the year after 9/11, soldiers were invited to make appearances in various places, hockey games, Irish festivals, etc., always in uniform, marching with flags, singing the anthem, rappelling from the ceiling of the hockey rink as they unraveled an American flag draped from on high. Quite the spectacle of support, but really, it was so meaningless. All show and very little substance. Kind of like how people in the south displayed flags all over their vehicles, especially post-9/11 but certainly even before then . . . their gas-guzzling vehicles that they don’t need (based on my observations, more people in the south drive oversized trucks, SUVs, and Hummers than anywhere else in the country, probably because gas is so much cheaper and oversized vehicles are seen as being more “American”). They don’t even connect the fact that we are in Iraq largely because of our dependence on oil. Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe for our society to really come to terms with what our military is doing in Iraq, Americans would have to admit that their own reliance on oil is connected and that they need to look at what role they have to play in all of this. Unfortunately, Americans have been taught that they have a right to buy whatever they want. Capitalism and patriotism are synonymous in our society, a fact that frees us all from taking personal responsibility for many things.
Matt: Well it’s hard for many who feel this war is wrong to identify with those involved. Like, who would do that? It’s hard for myself sometimes to believe that I did that. I think it’s important to realize that there are a lot of good people in the military caught in a horrible situation. And also maybe because the military is just so fundamentally different. What passes for normal human behavior in the military would absolutely not be tolerated in your average work setting — obviously in combat but in garrison too. It’s a completely different world.
Drew: I never felt like an outcast, just like I knew a big secret that I could never explain no matter how hard I tried. I would say that it’s more of a curiosity and misunderstanding, not judgment.
Ron: Do you ever miss the military? If so, what aspect?
Matt: I miss the people I served with. It’s a tough process to go through, realizing that some days you can miss something you hated so much. As time goes on, some of the better memories have returned. I had a blast in Japan — but that was always far, far from base. Yet even that was tainted. Imagine if another country had military bases in the US. I always felt bad for being there in that capacity.
Adrienne: Yes. I most miss the camaraderie of the military, the sense of belonging. I joined the Army when I was 17, and so I kind of grew up in the military. I suppose I work at the VA now because part of me needed to maintain that connection somehow.
To be honest, I loved the Army, for the first two years I was on active duty. I wanted to make it a career, and I was very certain about it. My illusions concerning what it meant to be a soldier were somewhat shattered soon after I reached my first duty assignment, when I realized that the military doesn’t really care about its soldiers. The bottom line is always, do they have enough bodies to fill the positions, period. Barracks quality, food quality, health care quality, it mattered little. We worked shift work, and they didn’t care that rotating between days and mids every week for over two years was basically turning us all into insomniacs and wreaking havoc on our bodies. In 1997-1998, I counted down the days of my last year on active duty (as did most of my unit, retention was atrocious). Nonetheless, part of me still wanted to stay in. I even decided to sell back my 60 days of annual leave, instead of getting off active duty 2 months early, because it was so hard to let go and say goodbye to my friends and what had been my purpose in life for the past 4 years, even though I hated it.
I reasoned that maybe it was just my unit that sucked, maybe the rest of the Army was different, so I decided to hedge my bet and I joined the reserves instead of just ditching the whole thing. In 2002, I volunteered for a second year of mobilization, instead of just ditching the whole thing then and there. My eight year contract was up, so I think I would have been off scotfree (though there was still a stop-loss, so I probably would have been reactivated three months later with the other reservists that chose not to volunteer for the second year — they were sent to Iraq). I was very unhappy with what our country was doing under Bush’s “leadership.” Every time I heard the phrase “shock and awe,” it made me want to puke. But I chose to stay for that second year, how screwed up is that? I just couldn’t let my fellow reservists down. I couldn’t let our soldiers stationed in Kuwait and Iraq down. I chose to stay, because part of me still thought we had to make the most of the situation Bush had thrown us into. Hell, I even tried to reenlist in the reserves at the end of our second year (2003), but when my unit had problems finding the proper paperwork, I took that as a sign that I wasn’t meant to stay in. Thank god for small miracles.
Drew: Yes, there were certain aspects that were rewarding, but mostly frustrating and seemingly wasteful. I did like having a tight platoon, you know a team that could perform our missions really well, whether it be in training or in combat. Basically the sacrifices far outweigh the benefits for an individual, for a family, for a community. I mean what other “job” rather lifestyle would have you put into the situation to have you sent to far away lands to be violent for peace? To get treated like an idiot and always being told what to do, all the way down to when to eat, sleep, work, rest, go, jump, die.
Ron: Now, for some movement-type stuff. What have you all been doing in the past few months in terms of organizing? I know you give talks and appear on panels about the wars. Have you been doing outreach into communities not necessarily familiar to antiwar debate? If so, what has been your reception? Are you able to get into high schools and talk with students?
Adrienne: We’ve been doing a lot in Vermont, going to the State House, trying to get a word with any of our representatives who will listen. We’ve driven to the war resisters café outside of Ft. Drum, and we’re trying to maintain an active connection with that. We went to DC in January and March. We had a large group of IVAWers here for the rally in Burlington, and we’re trying to strengthen our connection with other IVAWers in the Northeast region. I know that Matt has been very active with counter-recruitment.
I’ve been trying to spread awareness to my hometown in Utica, NY. Utica is very conservative (as is a lot of upstate NY), and there isn’t a very strong anti-war presence there yet that I’m aware of, but I think it’s growing. So the last few trips out that way I wore my IVAW t-shirt everywhere, a small gesture, but I received a lot of positive feedback. I guess I have to start somewhere. I even wore my IVAW t-shirt to a somewhat fancy charity wine-tasting event out that way last weekend. That got me a lot of odd looks, but it also started a few very interesting conversations — only one guy was negative towards me, and he apologized later on. So, that was a fairly successful outing in my book. I handed out IVAW flyers at a coffee shop, and I’ve been raising awareness with my family, passing out bumper stickers and keeping them informed of what’s going on in Vermont. Actually, I’ve been emailing everyone I know all over the country about what’s been going on in Vermont and what IVAW is all about. I’m not sure what the next step will be for me outside of IVAW events and what’s going to be happening in Vermont. I do want to get Utica more in the loop, so I’ll have to start looking into what groups are already out there and start making contact.
Matt: We have been going around giving talks, yes. I would love to talk to more high school kids, especially those thinking of joining. Recruiters lie, plain and simple. I think counter-recruiting is very important. Sometimes it’s tough. In many ways we are preaching to the choir. I mean, republicans don’t come to antiwar rallies, you know what I’m saying? So that’s the real work — figuring out how to reach those who are for the war and having some real dialogue. Many say that’s not possible. The next tier down are the people that know it’s wrong but believe we have some responsibility to stay and “fix” it. I’ve seen people really change when they find out we are the cause of the problems, not the solution.
Drew: The biggest success has been with establishing and building the VTCAN, Vermont Campus Anti-War Network, There are eight schools that are a part of this, and we collaborate, activate, and build for actions and events. Most recent was a large demonstration in Burlington, VT on the 24th of March. We had the largest IVAW contingent in VT ever, seven of us, all of the represented schools and community members — over four hundred came out for that, it’s huge for Vermont. Next up is our first statewide conference in the first part of May. We are strategizing for the summer and how to maintain and continue the momentum that we have established over this school year. In my recent travels over the past few months, we have been around Vermont, every time there is always an overwhelming number of people who are interested to hear and listen to our messages, sure there are pro-war folks as well, but their arguments turn to personal attacks and denigrating our service. We talk about the truth, and it’s hard for people to accept sometimes, it’s really horrible what the government is doing to people.
Ron: If you could bend the ear of the antiwar movement, what would your suggestions be for the next several months? How do you think we can move the apparent anger and frustration at the continuation of the war to a point where the warmakers and their enablers have to listen? I don’t know about you, but I am pretty tired of every effort to end the war NOW ending up with another check being written by Congress to continue the damn thing.
Drew: I think a lot of what the “World Can’t Wait” speaks to is true, we have to coalesce our differences, mass the people, and disrupt the status quo. The politicians listen to business and economics, if we are able to put aside small differences in tactics and approaches and push the movement into a persistent, non-violent civil disobedience on a massive scale, we can really effect change. It’s worked before and we can learn from our heroes of the past and change our society for the better. It comes from an organized movement, in large part we are still building that force, but encouragingly more and more students are coming together and our demands are being heard and respected with a renewed authority that we have always had. Empowerment and action, that is what we need to realize.
Matt: I don’t have all the answers. It seems we have exhausted all political routes. We have a Congress that got to power because they said they would end the war. And like you said, the checks just keep on coming. So where does this leave us? Mass civil disobedience? I don’t know.
Adrienne: I’ve been very frustrated as well. I thought that Vermonters voting for impeachment on town meeting day would mean something. I thought Vermont’s State reps would have done something by now to take it to the next level, vote on their own resolutions maybe. I expected Vermont Congressman Peter Welch to stand up and start impeachment in DC. I’m very sick of Congress’s failure to act more decisively. Bush has used our soldiers to spy on Americans and to torture. He has lied to the American public to get Americans to support an illegal and immoral war, which I believe makes him guilty of the murder of all of our fallen soldiers and Iraqi civilians. I believe that he needs to be held accountable for his actions. I believe that Congress needs to stop whining about Bush’s threats to veto their withdrawal bills. They are using Bush as an excuse for their failure to act and get us out of Iraq, when they could be impeaching him right now. It’s all related.
We need to support our troops by getting rid of their corrupt commander-in-chief and getting them out of this winless situation. We aren’t even supposed to win in Iraq, Iraqis should be the winners, it’s their country for crying out loud. We’re the invaders. And that situation needs to be brought to the public’s attention.
We need to get all of our supporters-in-theory (those who say they agree with the anti-war movement but who don’t do a thing about it) to be participating members of the movement. Whether the support through writing letters to the editor, donations, signing petitions, calling their representatives, attending rallies, attending speaking events, wearing a pin, buying a gas-efficient vehicle and slapping a bumper sticker on . . . the possibilities are endless. We need to start stepping things up and remind our representatives that they work for us, the people. The next step is civil disobedience, and I think we’re getting closer to that phase.
Ron: What’s next for IVAW?
Adrienne: Organizing, trying to get the word out to soldiers and veterans, attending events. To be honest, I’ve been mostly zeroed in on what’s going on in Vermont, and my IVAW membership has been only a small part of that so far. Drew is much more plugged in to IVAW than I am. I will be attending an IVAW retreat next weekend, so I hope to get more involved in what IVAW will be doing as a whole.
Drew: We continue to build, advocate and speak truth. One main reason that I am doing all of this is to reach veterans like I was embraced. So we can make sense of all of this, it comes from reconciliation, together, and working to make sure nobody ever has to be put through this again, war is failure and the costs are too heavy to bear.
Ron: One more question, if you could share one aspect of your experience from soldier to antiwar vet with a GI or Marine currently in Iraq or Afghanistan, what would that be?
Adrienne: I would encourage all soldiers to question everything they have taken for granted as being the truth as told to them by their unit, their president, and their country/media and to start thinking for themselves. I would also suggest that they shouldn’t let some abstract feeling of loyalty to the military override their own morals and consciences. I would encourage them to watch The Ground Truth and other related documentaries, and to start reading books such as Anthony Arnove’s Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal, or Howard Zinn’s, A People’s History of the United States, or former Marine Major General Smedley Butler’s short book, “War Is a Racket” (available for free here: www.lexrex.com/enlightened/articles/warisaracket.htm). I would also encourage soldiers to start talking to one another, really talking, about their experiences. I’ve been listening to soldiers who were over there for the past few months, and even though I knew it was bad, until I heard their stories, I had no idea how truly godawful the situation has become.
It’s very hard for soldiers to break free of the hold the military has over us — the military’s had centuries to perfect its methods of manipulation. But in order to make the transition from soldier/veteran to resister/activist, we all have to be open to the concept that everything we thought we knew about reality could be wrong or only half-truths. This has been very hard for me to deal with over the past few months, especially with things happening so quickly over a very short period of time. I consider myself to be very fortunate to have found the IVAW and to have found my way back to the Northeast (and specifically in Vermont) at this stage of the game. Active-duty soldiers will need our support, they will need to know that should they decide to resist, we will stand by them. It is very crucial for the movement to make its support of our soldiers felt by them.
Drew: It’s impossible to deal with this alone, you know that things are different and it’s hard to even identify why. Coming together with other vets that feel the same way makes you realize so overwhelmingly how we are all still connected, and always will be. What we remember, our stories and ideas that we share with each other, is really empowering, because you realize that you are not alone. Things can get better, but you have to come out of the woodwork, come out and talk with other vets, it’s an important part of the process to remember and resolve, you know, and listen, like friends are supposed to.
Matt: All I would say is, just be honest with yourself. Ask yourself what would you do if this occupation was going on in our country? The state of affairs in Iraq, does this really make you proud? The truth can hurt, but it must be faced.
Ron: Thanks, y’all.
Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground, just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch‘s new collection on music, art and sex: Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.