Antiwar veterans discuss new challenges

Eric Ruder and Ashley Smith report from Minnesota on two conferences of antiwar veterans.

IVAW members march on the streets of St. Paul, Minn., outside the 2008 Republican National Convention (Jeff Engelhart)IVAW members march on the streets of St. Paul, Minn., outside the 2008 Republican National Convention (Jeff Engelhart)

VETERANS FOR Peace (VFP) and Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) held their annual conventions in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn., on August 27-31.

The conventions were timed to end as the Republican National Convention got underway, and many members remained to take part in protests in the following days. Guest speakers included investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill and former weapons inspector Scott Ritter, among others.

"We had 411 veterans, military families, allies and veterans from Iraq," said VFP Executive Director Michael McPhearson. "It's always a magical time when we get together. We come together to heal because we have a lot of pain, especially combat veterans. We heal each other."

IVAW member Patti McCann said, "The convention was awesome. Each year, we're getting bigger and bigger. Each year, vets are learning more about organizing. We had so many workshops: about graphic design, Afghanistan, the future of what we want to be doing. The longer we stick with it, the more we're going to learn, and the better we're going to be at ending any kind of oppression."

Many IVAW members missed some of the opening workshops because they participated in the Denver protests at the Democratic National Convention. But when they did arrive, they brought with them energy and excitement, fresh from having led a mass direct action that confronted police and successfully got two IVAW members into the convention to present the Obama campaign with a list of their demands.

"We were there to expose the disparity between Barack Obama's rhetoric and his actual plans," explained IVAW board member Liam Madden. "He very clearly presents himself as the antiwar candidate, and yet he obviously isn't when you look at his real plans for Iraq. The convention had high morale coming out of Denver."

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WITH THE presidential election just around the corner, many discussions focused on the new challenges that both VFP and IVAW will face. "[The VFP] passed a resolution for immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan," said McPhearson. "We also want resources put into Afghanistan, and we want a nonviolent resolution. The Afghan people and the people of the region can figure out how to solve a problem there.

"Personally, I think we need the terms of the conversation to not just be about Afghanistan, but about the larger global war on terror," said McPhearson. "But we need to talk about Afghanistan because that's where our troops are going to be. We need to continue to talk about Iraq but we need to talk about it in the larger context of what the United States is doing across the globe."

The IVAW also began a discussion about Afghanistan, but didn't come to a decision at the convention. There were at least three positions. Many support adding opposition to the war in Afghanistan to IVAW's agenda, a few support the war, and another few oppose the war but resist adding it to the IVAW's platform, because doing so, they say, might alienate potential recruits.

"We're putting Afghanistan up to a membership-wide vote," explained McCann. "I feel the majority of people at the conference were against the Afghanistan war. I personally feel that the war in Afghanistan is wrong because it's based on lies too. It's based on this idea that we can catch one terrorist organization with an entire occupation. That doesn't make any sense. It's only going to hurt more people than it's going to help."

IVAW board member Camilo Mejía agreed. "We find ourselves at the gates of a new presidency, and with it, the promise of change," said Mejía. "We cannot allow a promising domestic policy to work as a green light for the same foreign policy, which amounts to the same raw deal for the people of the Middle East.

"One of the main reasons that we have to tackle the question of Afghanistan is that the war in Iraq has become so blatantly unjustifiable that they need a new war as the centerpiece to legitimize the global war on terror. They need a 'good war,' and Afghanistan is going to provide that unless we counteract that.

"We don't want them to be able to legitimize their continued preemptive policy of aggression. So not only is there the physical reshuffling of troops and machinery, but they are also trying to reconstruct ideologically their imperial agenda--and we shouldn't let them get away with it."

Board member Phil Aliff says that when he was on active duty, many fellow soldiers had deployed to Afghanistan, but not Iraq. "When I was organizing the Fort Drum chapter, we met a lot of soldiers who said that they agreed with what we had to say about Iraq, but that they were Afghanistan veterans and didn't feel as though there was an organization that represented them," said Aliff. "IVAW is in a unique position to lead the antiwar movement on this question, and begin to build solidarity with veterans opposed to the global war on terror."

For his part, Liam Madden opposes the war in Afghanistan, but thinks it's a mistake to add it to IVAW's points of unity. "I am strongly in favor of IVAW supporting all veterans that organize against the occupation of Afghanistan," said Madden. "I am not in favor of making it a point of unity because I don't want to limit the membership of this organization. I do think it's strategic to have a very clear position on our materials that says we support veterans that organize against it."

"We need to be ahead of the curve because there's going to be a lot of troops deployed to Afghanistan no matter who gets elected," Madden continued. "I think we would actually get more people to organize against Afghanistan by just bringing them in around Iraq. Every member I've seen in IVAW has radicalized when they get involved, and their positions on all sorts of issues change. Their positions on women change. They stop making anti-gay jokes. Basically, I'm against taking a position on Afghanistan as an organization right now for strategic reasons, but I'm personally opposed to the war there."

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IVAW MEMBERS also held several workshops on chapter building and organizational strategy. The organization has grown since its "Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan" event in March in Washington, D.C., adding several hundred members. Those members, however, have largely signed up over the Internet, and it's not clear to what extent they have been integrated into actively building the organization and getting involved in local chapters.

"The convention was a time for us to come together to strengthen the organization and talk about chapter building," explained Martin Smith, an IVAW regional coordinator. "One of the exciting things coming out of the convention is continuing the Winter Soldier events which we first held outside of Washington, D.C. There are several Winter Soldiers coming up: in Rochester, Atlanta, Madison, Champaign-Urbana and elsewhere."

"We want to build on the legacy of exposing their lies and war crimes," said Smith. "We want to bring that back home at a regional and local level in order to strengthen the antiwar movement. We also want to do this before the election so that we can send a message to both parties that we stand for immediate withdrawal, reparations for Iraqis and full benefits for veterans."

During a workshop that focused on the future of IVAW as well as the question of Afghanistan, a debate about whether IVAW should continue to call for reparations from the U.S. for the Iraqi people broke out. Board member Geoff Millard, Martin Smith and several others took to the floor to make an impassioned defense of the integrity of IVAW.

In the end, only one person seemed to favor altering IVAW's demand for reparations, arguing that such wording might make it difficult to appeal to military service members in the South because of the association with the demand for reparations for the descendants of African slaves. Another member rose to disagree, saying that if the IVAW continued to call for reparations for Iraqis, it helps lend credibility to others who deserve compensation from the U.S. government, including the descendants of slaves and others.

"IVAW members made it clear that we stand behind the Iraqi people, and that the companies that are profiting off of this war should be repaying the Iraqi people for the damage that has been done to their country," said Aliff.

As the convention closed, convention participants also felt the bite of police harassment and repression, which swung into full gear during the Republican convention in St. Paul. Near the conclusion of the antiwar conference, police tailed a carload of participants returning to the suburban hotel where the convention was held, surrounded their vehicle and released them without charges after 20 minutes.

After this incident, a hotel manager targeted another convention participant who had been at the hotel throughout the weekend. Kevin James, a black hip-hop activist and performer, known as Son of Nun, was singled out, asked for his ID and held by at least eight police officers for half an hour. This harassment was an obvious case of racial profiling since many white guests who were also present were not asked for ID.

After other activists came to his defense and began organizing both a publicity campaign and legal defense, the officers let James go free.

IVAW executive director Kelly Dougherty expressed dismay at the harassment by police. "The way that Kevin and other close allies of IVAW were harassed and singled out after the convention was disturbing and very insulting to IVAW," said Dougherty. "The suspicion and mistrust that Kevin experienced is a symptom of a climate of fear that is being stoked by our government and causing us to turn against one another instead of working together for change."

Overall, the convention represented an important event for the IVAW. "The convention gave our organization the chance to step back and take a look at where the antiwar movement is at, and where we are headed," said Aliff. "In this election year, both Republicans and Democrats are threatening to escalate the war in Afghanistan, and our organization began our first serious debate about the issue."