How veterans can lead progressive politics and bring back the peace movement

U.S. Army veteran Perry O'Brien questions former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. (Beyond the Choir)

U.S. Army veteran Perry O’Brien questions former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. (Beyond the Choir / Ange Tran)

A few weeks ago, I joined a group of fellow veterans in New Hampshire for the GOP’s “First-in-the-Nation” Presidential Town Hall. We came into a strange scene at the Nashua Radisson, where the event was being held. A group of naval cadets stood in the lobby, the young trainees having apparently been summoned to serve as valets. Just beyond this formation we were greeted by a pair of life-sized cardboard cutouts — one of Ronald Reagan and another of George W. Bush.

Seven of the Republican hopefuls were speaking that day. Each candidate was represented by a table piled high with campaign swag, staffed by grinning volunteers with signs bearing slogans like “Real Leadership,” “Jeb!” and “Unleash the American Dream.”

Like the other vets I’d come with, I carried an index card with a hand-written question concealed in my pocket. Our plan was to try and get called on during the Q&A sections of the town halls, which would give us the opportunity to address the candidate, the media and the thousand-or-so Republican activists who had gathered for the weekend. We knew the issues we’d come to raise — including war profiteering, anti-Muslim bigotry and the deportation of immigrant veterans — would not be popular with this crowd.

As I took my seat in the auditorium, trying to blend in, I began to feel nervous. My mind kept traveling to past antiwar protests, when other veterans and I had been threatened, shoved and even spit on by Bush supporters. Given the belligerent tone of the current elections, there was no reason to expect an environment of polite discourse; after all, everyone had seen the way protesters were getting handled at Trump rallies.

I got in my first question to Jeb Bush, who I managed to flag down as he left the podium. “Governor Bush,” I asked, “do you have a second for a U.S. veteran?”

Bush paused, slowing the momentum of his entourage, and turned toward me. Instantly, the two of us were surrounded by cameras and smart phones.

“Why were you so eager to support the rush to war in Iraq, your brother’s war?” I asked. “Given the enormous consequences…”

Before I could finish, Jeb turned away with a scoff, assuming a wry smile that suggested he’d heard a familiar but unfunny joke. Showing me his back, the former governor rushed onward toward the exit, trailed by a flurry of aides.

Unfortunately, Bush’s attitude is all too emblematic of the way veterans have been treated by the political establishment. Since September 11, servicemembers and veterans have been repeatedly deployed as props to support hawkish political agendas, while actual veterans have less and less of a voice in our political discourse. In fact, this year’s election cycle marks the first time in modern American politics that not a single candidate from either party has served in the military. This is especially remarkable when you consider the sheer number of candidates vying for the nomination and the fact that our nation has been at war for the last 15 years.

Rather than being a historical oddity, the lack of veteran representation in politics is symptomatic of a larger divide between the military and civilian worlds. This chasm has been growing since the Vietnam war. As it stands, fewer than 2 percent of Americans have served in the military since September 11, meaning that a comparatively tiny number of citizens can claim to have direct, personal experience with the global consequences of war and militarism. This divide poses serious consequences for the future of progressive politics in the United States, particularly when it comes to foreign policy.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, social movements have had a visible and profound influence on our national discourse, shifting popular opinion — and the agendas of politicians — on everything from the War in Iraq to the minimum wage. In the absence of a visible war to protest against, there has been very little momentum to challenge the unbroken policies of U.S. imperialism and a militarized economy. The insulation of the larger U.S. population from military experience has further constrained the possibility of mass mobilization to address these issues. The result is that the peace movement has shrunk to a tiny, righteous few, with little connection to other, more popular social movements.

Other groups and movements interested in connecting their struggles to the issue of militarism face significant obstacles. For starters, U.S. antiwar efforts have traditionally had difficulties collaborating with other movements while maintaining a focused message. Despite being motivated by the desire to build alignments around popular, morally resonant issues — for instance, by taking a stance against racist violence, whether at home or abroad — these attempts have often fallen into the “lefty laundry list” trap, where a movement is perceived as advocating for every issue under the sun, and therefore nothing at all. Additionally, membership-driven groups like unions and community organizations are often concerned about the possibility of alienating their veteran members if they take an antiwar stance. Finally, organizations often don’t feel like they have spokespeople who can credibly address issues of war and militarism.

I believe that progressive veterans can play an important role in overcoming these challenges. One way is by using our personal experience to draw links between domestic issues and militarism. For instance, at the New Hampshire town hall we attended, Iraq veteran Jason Hurd posed this question to Carly Fiorina: “I spent a year in Baghdad, policing Iraqis with often brutal tactics. Now, I see police here at home using those same tactics — with the same weapons and the same equipment — on black communities here at home. What would your presidency do to end the militarization of police and stop cops from killing everyday Americans?”

Similar questions could be raised about the use of defense contractors to run private prisons, or the connection between military spending and growing rates of economic inequality.

The footage of Jason Hurd also serves as a demonstration of the unique, mythologized status of veterans in U.S. culture. Even when engaged in political interventions that challenge the status quo, this cultural legitimacy tends to make us less vulnerable to being dismissed as “protestors” or “troublemakers.”

I am currently working with a team of veterans and organizers on a project to cultivate the skills, savvy, and leadership of veterans who have developed a critique of war and foreign policy. The project is being run by Beyond the Choir, a social movement strategy group, and the idea is to equip antiwar veterans — who have already demonstrated leadership abilities — with political skills that will enable them to become lifelong leaders in progressive social justice movements. The event in New Hampshire was just the first step in this broader project, which will continue to grow through the 2016 elections and beyond.

Back in Nashua, it turned out I didn’t need to worry about the audience. Every time we identified ourselves as veterans, we got an enthusiastic ovation, and the clapping often continued (if more muted) after we had finished speaking. All in all, our group of veterans got questions in with all six of the major GOP candidates.

At one point during the event, I found myself sitting next to an undecided Republican voter. When I told her I was a veteran, she asked whether I thought that “most mosques” were fronts for terror groups. I replied by saying I was sure that wasn’t the case, and in fact, I was hoping to ask Rick Santorum (who was currently speaking) whether he’d commit to stating that “Islam is not a national security threat.” I explained to her that I’d worked closely with Muslim interpreters in Afghanistan, and was fed up with the Islamaphobia that too many of the candidates seemed eager to cultivate. She listened to me quietly while I talked.

When Santorum finished his speech, I stuck up my hand. “Call on him,” said the woman sitting next to me, who’d asked about the mosques. “He’s got a good question.”

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