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Justice and Survival: A Forum on Building Movements to Stop War

By: 
Catalyst Project
Date Published: 
June 16, 2007

At the National Conference on Organized Resistance in Washington DC, Catalyst Project brought together anti-war organizers to share their thinking on movement strategy. Max Elbaum, a former leader in Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960’s and a current editor of War Times, Maricela Guzman from Iraq Vets Against the War, and Clare Bayard from Catalyst Project, focused on strategy to end the war in Iraq and build a movement against US imperialism. This is an excerpt from that forum, which was moderated by Chris Crass, transcribed by Dee Ouellette & Jen Collins, and edited by Clare Bayard & Alexis Shotwell.

Chris: We’re here to talk about how to prevent the most powerful nation on the planet and potentially in human history from continuing to wage genocidal wars in the Global South, and from militarizing and waging violence on communities of color and working class communities in the US. The sessions this weekend are about how each of us here can play a role making a history, a future that is different from the one the ruling class wants us to live or even believes is possible.

We’re all here because movements of liberation of oppressed peoples have been struggling for hundreds of years on this continent and for thousands of years around the world. Those struggles open up the political space to redefine the future of this country on the basis of justice, self-determination of oppressed peoples, and global solidarity. This is an anti-war panel, but it’s fundamentally a panel about strategy for movements for liberation.

Max: Three weeks ago in an unprecedented event an Iraqi woman went on Iraqi television and told her story of being raped by the Iraqi security forces. Riverbend, an Iraqi woman blogger, writes about this: “Just know that we never had to tolerate this before. There was a time when Iraqis were safe in the streets. That time is long gone. She’s just one of tens, possibly hundreds of Iraqi women who are violated in their own homes and in Iraqi prisons.”

Riverbend’s words cut to the heart of the human story of what’s going on in Iraq. Remember that Iraq is one of the oldest and the most multi-layered civilizations on the planet. The US invasion and occupation of Iraq is the driving force hurtling that country backward and making one out of every six Iraqis a refugee in their own country or having to flee abroad. It’s our job as an anti-war movement and as people of conscience to put an end to this war and to remember the human connection we have to the people in Iraq and their day-to-day suffering.

This war would not have steamrolled so fast and would not be so difficult to stop if it didn’t tap into something large and deep and structural in this society. It’s embedded in the economics, the politics, the way of thinking. It’s connected to the fact that the US has military bases now in 137 countries around the world and a military budget equal to the total military budget of every other country on the planet put together. It’s connected to the fact that the way of thinking in the United States dehumanizes and degrades other peoples. These things are connected to a capitalist system with a drive for private profit and capital accumulation. In today’s globalized world, you not only have the exploitation of classes by a small ruling class you have the exploitation and dispossession of whole peoples and whole nations—imperialism.

Now does the fact that this system, which reproduces wars constantly, exists mean that we can’t stop the Iraq War until the whole system of imperialism is overthrown? It doesn’t. This is the great lesson of the Vietnam War. When it was stopped it was a tremendous moment of liberation, of exuberance all over the world. Specific imperial wars can be stopped even short of the destruction of the entire system of imperialism. It is urgent and necessary for us to keep in mind that reality.

Stopping this war is a concrete material aid to the Palestinians, to the Zapatistas, to the people struggling in Asia and Africa and Latin America. It opens up room for struggles in the United States. Getting the US out of Iraq is one front of contributing to the reconstruction of the Gulf. It opens up resources; it gives heart to progressive people struggling everywhere. It is the weakest link right now in the imperial foreign policy chain.

How do you stop a war? You make it more costly for the people who are commanding to keep waging that war than it is for them to leave. They lose on the ground in Iraq. They are internationally isolated in public opinion. They are afraid of radicalization among the population, and the military begins to fall apart. For this, we need a movement that embraces millions of people from all sectors of society—different constituencies who will oppose the war for different reasons. That is the essence of a broad movement: people of different views, cultures, and politics join together for a common goal and agree to cooperate on that and agree to disagree on many other things that they do independently.

There are specific roles for those with an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, anti-oppression analysis. One role is to consistently draw the linkages between Iraq, New Orleans, immigrant rights, Palestine, racism, sexism, homophobia, domestic violence at home with violence abroad. Another is to bring cooperation to the broadest diverse forces within that broad front. We have to be in the forefront of showing people how to work together and how to unify even where we disagree. So we will be going into spaces where we do not set the terms. This is our responsibility to the Iraqi people and it’s our responsibility to building the progressive and anti-imperialist movement here.

Maricela: Hello. My name is Maricela Guzman, and I’m with Iraq Veterans Against the War. IVAW is a national organization of veterans and active duty service members who have served since September 11, 2001. We’re committed to saving lives and ending the violence in Iraq and call for immediate withdrawal of all occupying forces. I joined the Navy in 1998 and I got out in June 2002. As somebody in the service when September 11 happened, I was very distraught with the direction that the service was going. I left the service because of what we were prepared to do in Iraq. I was supporting Afghanistan at that time—you have to understand the mindset of veterans—when the country’s attacked the first thing you want to do is defend your country. That’s how we were trained in the service. I’d started protesting in the streets at the pre-invasion of Iraq rallies and even then I wasn’t really an activist. The way I became an activist as a veteran was through veteran’s benefits. I was very upset with the fact that our president decided to cut the benefits before we went into Iraq. As a veteran going to the Veterans Affairs hospital, I was distraught [at] how long it took for veterans to get helped out. For me, it took about a year before I got to see a doctor in the VA.

The most important thing about veterans is there are different ideologies. Veterans come into the service for different reasons. For me, I went into the service because as a kid from the inner city who wanted education benefits I thought at that time that was my only option. But once I took that oath, I was a soldier; I was property of the service. I want you to understand the mindsets of vets. For example, with IVAW, we have three mission statements. One, immediate withdrawal of all occupying forces from Iraq; two, reparations and other compensation for the destruction and corporate pillaging of Iraq so the Iraqi people can re-build their lives and control their future; three, full benefits, adequate health care for veterans who are coming back. Even with these clear mission statements, there’s a spectrum of different ideologies coming in our organization.

Within the movement, there’s a lack of education about vets. We shouldn’t need the media to educate us. If you want to be a part of the peace movement and you really want to understand your vets, talk to them and hear what they’re going through. We should know about Walter Reed without hearing about it first on the news, and also keep in mind Walter Reed is a hospital for Active military personnel—what about our [veterans]?

There are different types of war resisters, not just conscientious objectors, and you have to understand that we have to embrace all vets who are coming back: people who choose not to re-enlist, people who go AWOL, [and] people who pursue a medical discharge. Understand one thing: under article 85 in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, any conviction on charges of desertion during time of war can result in sentence of death. Are you willing to die just to get out of the service? Do you think our service members are willing to put themselves up for that? That’s not a very realistic goal. So the most important [goal] is about embracing all our vets and figuring out what they need.

The way you talk to these vets is not by trying to recruit them or trying to push our ideology, even I don’t do that. First of all, when you meet a vet the first thing you should do is say, “Thank you for your service.” It doesn’t matter if they’re against the war or for the war. A lot of these vets do come back against the war, but the problem is that they feel that in being against the war, they’re being against their buddies. And that’s the myth we have to break. We have to teach them that, “look, we’re here for you guys, we’re here for your veterans’ benefits.” We can’t push them to be against the war. Not at all. Welcome them home. And make sure that they have services that they need. I think the most important thing about this movement is making sure we take care of our vets.

Clare: In Catalyst Project’s anti-war program, we focus on GI resistance as a crucial piece of the anti-war movement, in conjunction with counter recruitment, as [a] way to actually incapacitate the military—make it useless as an occupying force. We want to build a movement capable of getting the military out of Iraq immediately which can also challenge the ways that militarism is part of our culture. A broad anti-war movement in the US needs to be rooted in the communities that are targeted by the military and by war—communities of color, immigrant and working class communities. That means being connected to explicitly racial and economic justice struggles within the US.

Looking to histories of imperialism also connects our movement to the global justice and solidarity movement, and to the breadth of resistance struggles within the US. We need to envision the big picture goals and also plan how we’re going to get there. Short-term victories create concrete steps to build up our strength for the bigger, harder victories. Some examples of current tactics towards embedding anti-war movement in grassroots community-based struggles are:

Supporting anti-war veterans organizations; organizing direct material, political and social support for resisters and also their families; Counter-recruitment; Mass demonstrations; disrupting war profiteers; and direct action at recruiting centers, weapons development and shipments, bases, etc.

Tactics require coordination and organizing to become strategies. We can draw from community organizing frameworks about how to build power in the process of struggle. We build grassroots power and bigger movements through leadership development, political education, mentoring and intergenerational connections, and alliance building between different areas of the movement. This focus needs active practices of centralizing the leadership of folks who are most targeted by the US military and by racial and economic violence inside and out of this country.

We're fighting the same systems that are behind the war when we resist racism and capitalism or the deployment of the National Guard to the US-Mexico border. We see this when Vets for Peace and IVAW were some of the first outside organizations going down to New Orleans to not just try to provide support, but to really connect their members to struggles there. Veterans were using a powerful slogan last year that [was], “every bomb dropped on Baghdad explodes on the Gulf Coast.” People are making these connections, linking resistance, learning from that.

If we’re not building for the long term, we’re in trouble. We are working to choke off the supply of (bodies and willing) bodies within the military. But two of the major trends in how the military is reorganizing itself now are increasing the use of technology and privatization, mercenary forces and contractors. We will lose a great deal of our leverage power as civilian oversight and accountability decreases, and most importantly as their reliance on oppressed communities for cannon fodder lessens. So we need to be rooting this movement now in grassroots racial and economic justice organizing. We need to not set ourselves up for long-term failure by just going for the easy targets of Bush's arrogance; we must consistently attack the systems behind this war.

Chris: So here’s one of the questions that people have posed: Why should we support troops who resist when they entered the military of their accord while not objecting to the US military and its history?

Maricela: I come from an environment which is very volatile—South Central LA. I joined the service knowing the image, knowing the attitude of the racism within the country. Recruiters actually target high school dropouts. How many high school dropouts know what imperialism is, first of all? I didn’t know at that time. I was a high school dropout because I needed to support my family. People say we had a choice; we really didn’t. I was drafted in the service by the economic draft. Yet by going to the service I was really able to understand what imperialism was. It doesn’t matter at what point in your life you decide that this is wrong. The most important thing is that you decided and you made that choice. These people are coming back and they’re saying this is wrong; that’s the reason we should support them. And that’s how we create a movement. If we’re going to divide each other by saying, “well you know they joined the service because of whatever reasons,” then we’re dividing the movement at that moment. We come together as one and we have to remember that. In order for us to survive in this movement we have to work together and not divide each other from our past history.

Chris: Do you have any closing comments?

Max: We should lead by example. And nothing draws people like gains, success, and a sense of inclusivity and welcoming. There’s no point in wasting your time criticizing people or knocking people who aren’t into that at this point. Concentrate your energy on those who are ready to move. Set a positive example. Do that direct action and it will move everyone in the anti-war movement in a positive direction.

Maricela: With this generation, we have the two-minute mentality where we want these actions to happen now and if it doesn’t happen, we quit. Maybe it will take 30 years to get New Orleans back to what it was once. Well, I’ve committed myself to work for those 30 years in New Orleans. The most important message is, “keep on going.”

Clare: We’re four years into this war, but we are centuries into all of these wars, both here and around the world. For us, for our kids, and beyond: it's time to step it up.

Max Elbaum was a leader in the movement to end the war in Vietnam with Students for a Democratic Society. He is an editor of War Times and author of Revolution in the Air.

Maricela Guzman is an organizer with Iraq Vets Against the War. She served in the US Navy and is a leader in the G.I. resistance movement.

Clare Bayard runs the Anti-War Movement Program of the Catalyst Project working with the War Resisters League to bridge anti-war organizing with economic and racial justice struggles.

Catalyst Project is a center for political education and movement building committed to creating spaces for activists and organizers to collectively develop relevant theory, vision and strategy to build our movements. Catalyst programs prioritize leadership development, supporting grassroots fighting organizations and multiracial alliance building.

To learn more about the organizations mentioned:

War Times: www.war-times.org

Iraq Veterans Against the War: www.ivaw.org

Catalyst Project: www.collectiveliberation.org

War Resisters League: www.warresisters.org