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Appeal for a Reinvigorated Veterans Movement

I carry numbers. Ernest Hemingway carried numbers too. In his case, it was the numbers of roads and regiments. He didn’t care much for platitudes about glory, sacrifice, honor, or courage. He found them obscene. So do I. But my numbers are different from his. The numbers I’m most conscious of – that claw at me – are the numbers of the dead.

Twenty-five. That’s the number of Marines who died in one of the units I worked with back in 2010. Five to seven. That’s the number of civilians I figure we killed one morning after I watched another unit pour heavy fire into a quiet (at least according to enemy radio traffic, which my unit was monitoring) village. One. That’s the Marine who exploded within weeks of replacing one of my Marines – news I learned almost immediately following my return to the states.

My obsession with such numbers began in country. Whenever I’d make it to a new outpost, I always made sure those were the first numbers to greet me. How many of us? How many of them? How many of the rest? The numbers would quickly blur, and the latter numbers were blurry from the start, but I accepted them all the same. Whenever I returned to a big base, I’d follow the numbers online. Not just the units I worked with, but all of them. They reminded me that I was, unlike them, still alive. For some reason, I needed those numbers to tell me what I already knew.

I still can’t escape the numbers. Not long ago I posted several of them in a long entry on Medium. Six million. That’s the low estimate of how many people have died in America’s major wars since World War Two. 1.5 to 3.8 million: the estimated number of Vietnamese killed in the Indochina War, along with 600,000 to 800,000 Cambodians and around 1 million Laotians. 1.3 to 2 million: the number of people our military has killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan during the War on Terror.

Even these numbers don’t tell the whole truth. They don’t include Libya: tens of thousands dead and around a third of the population displaced. They don’t include the war in Yemen, for which our government bears significant responsibility, and which has now butchered thousands and starved millions. They don’t include the drone war in countries like Somalia, a routinized form of remote-control killing that has claimed thousands of lives. They don’t include classified special operations across the globe, especially in Africa. They don’t include the Israeli occupation of Palestine, a U.S.-sponsored apartheid that has killed thousands and encaged millions. They don’t include Syria, a hellscape our government has done so much to frame and aggravate, by now having buried something approaching half a million.

As scholars like John Tirman and institutions like The World Bank have shown, such numbers fail to capture the all-encompassing destruction. For every person wiped out, far more have sustained gruesome injuries, inside and out. Hundreds of thousands of women and children have been raped, propelled to the streets or into prostitution, trafficked to the most sordid corners of the earth. Millions more have merely surrendered their homes, their jobs, their incomes, their livelihoods, their communities, their families or loved ones, and their will or capacity to live. Thousands of schools and hospitals lie in rubble, with roads and highways pulverized, bridges collapsed, sewage systems choked in their own muck, electricity grids darkened, and clean water a luxury item.

One imagines that official justifications would still somehow be mustered for this madness. One would be wrong. Hardly any of our government’s stated aims have been met. We have been greeted not with open arms but with a refugee crisis beyond anything seen for generations. Authoritarian states have crumbled into failed states, vacuums sometimes filled by totalitarian ones. Civil wars have erupted across borders, terrorism in the West has worsened, international tensions have waxed, and experts remind us of the possibility of nuclear annihilation. The situation is so dire that the US Army’s think tank, the Strategic Studies Institute (SSI), has concluded, “US efforts in the war on terror have been largely ineffective in achieving the stated objectives.”

And yet, pundits are still glowing over the “presidential” exploitation of warfighter grief in the State of the Union address or gushing over reckless missile strikes that risk precipitating proxy wars with great nuclear powers, never mind World War Three. Generals are still anticipating further surges in Afghanistan. The media features the same national security experts and consultants as in the George W. Bush years, all of them itching to fight, while the liberal intelligentsia retains an unworldly faith in the United States military to achieve humanitarian goals in Syria and elsewhere, or sees the Obama presidency as having been burdened by a foreign policy of “restraint” —a presidency responsible for the bombing of seven Muslim countries and the largest boom in arms sales since World War Two.

Perhaps the slaughter, regardless of how loud or frequent our protestations, really will proceed in gleeful forgetfulness. If past is prologue, this is certainly the most reasonable conclusion.

But what if the task before us – to revise and repurpose the enigmatic phrase of the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard – is to embrace a teleological suspension of the reasonable? That is, what if we are left with no choice but a leap of faith? What would such a leap look like?

This is a question I’ve lost many nights mulling over, as I’m sure numerous other likeminded veterans have. It is something thousands of war resisters and anti-imperialists have devoted their lives to bringing into being. For brief interludes during the Vietnam War or the War in Iraq, they succeeded. It is possible brief interludes are the most we can hope for. What follows, however, assumes a more long-term ambition.

There is little here that is original, and almost all of it owes its debt to those already toiling away in the trenches of resistance. If this program offers anything new, it is a preliminary triad of concentric planks linking (1) campaigns against all oppression with (2) campaigns against capitalist exploitation with (3) campaigns against militarism and empire.

1. Be the Barricade: The huge and arguably decisive, if dysfunctional, turnout of veterans at Standing Rock earlier this winter (where I played a microscopic part) marks a promising chapter in a likewise encouraging season of activism. It suggests that thousands of vets are willing and able to put their bodies on the line at the most hazardous of junctures, a mass readiness bursting with possibilities.

Such mobilizations force the hands of the authorities, propelling them to stand down or risk a public relations fiasco. They invert a repressive and historically illiterate paradigm that tends to identify leftist causes with traitors, drug-addled hippies, or pampered college students. They embolden previously reserved veterans and other citizens to speak out and take part. And they offer an ideal meeting ground for those with military backgrounds to share ideas, tactics, and strategies with organizers and activists.

Discussion of similar deployments in places like Flint, Michigan and other hotspots are already under way, although it is crucial that seasoned groups like Veterans for Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) lead the way, so as to prevent the logistical chaos of the Standing Rock action. Large-scale, veteran-led training sessions in direct action and nonviolent civil disobedience are also being planned, something we can use a lot more of in the age of Trump, especially if these sessions become institutionalized across the country.

2. Occupy the Workplace: The best hope for a more equitable society involves securing democratic vibrancy in the workplace. As I’ve written elsewhere, America’s veterans are perfectly primed for this sort of thing. The majority of vets are confident, they’re experienced in the art of teamwork, they’re fierce partisans of small-unit leadership, they’re all about solidarity (what they call camaraderie), and they hate their superior officers (the managerial elite). They mark a natural body of recruits for any unionist or workplace democracy revival, and many would jump at the chance to take part in such a cause were a new veterans movement to underwrite such a labor struggle, particularly one that welcomes their contributions.

Groups like VFP and IVAW should collaborate with labor unions and freshly buoyant organizations like Democratic Socialists of America and Socialist Alternative. As the accomplished organizer Jane McAlevey argues, the labor movement is in sore need of organic working-class leadership. Newly politicized veterans, disillusioned by their war experiences and a complacent home front, offer a wellspring from which such leadership can be sought. Such an alliance would also help draw the connections between capitalism and imperialism, as well as assist the left in undermining global capital and empire simultaneously.

3. Tax the War: According to a March 2013 release from Face the Facts, USA, a project of the George Washington University, defense contractors have been awarded $3.3 trillion by the Pentagon since 9/11. The top winners have been Boeing (23.5 billion), Lockheed Martin (22.8 billion), Raytheon (11.4 billion), General Dynamics (11.34 billion), and United Technologies (6.3 billion). Defense lobbyists have spent over $2 billion since 1998, and over $100 million annually since 2005.

A 2011 report from The Commission on Wartime Contracting, a bipartisan congressional review board, estimated somewhere between $31 and $60 billion has been attributed to waste and fraud in Iraq and Afghanistan. A 2013 report to Congress from the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction (SIGIR) concluded about $60 billion was attributed to waste and fraud in Iraq. A 2013 testimony from the special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction (SIGAR) estimated $100 billion was spent on reconstruction, where less than 10% had been accounted for.

The Watson Institute has assessed that

• US government funding of reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan has totaled over $170 billion. Most of those funds have gone towards arming security forces in both countries. Much of the money allocated to humanitarian relief and rebuilding civil society has been lost to fraud, waste, and abuse.

• The cost OF the Iraq and Afghanistan/Pakistan wars totals about $4.8 trillion. This does not include future interest costs on borrowing for the wars, which will add an estimated $8 trillion through 2054.

• The ripple effects on the US economy have also been significant, including job loss and interest rate increases.

As the economist Jeffery Sachs has put it, “Over a 15-year period, the $4.7 trillion amounts to roughly $300 billion per year, and is more than the combined total outlays from 2001 to 2016 for the federal departments of education, energy, labor, interior, and transportation, and the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and the Environmental Protection Agency.” The National Priorities Project has found that military spending accounted for 54% (almost $600 billion) of federal discretionary spending in fiscal year 2015.

In June of 2015, Senator Bernie Sanders proposed a “war tax” on millionaires and billionaires in order to pay for our wars. A new veterans movement should work with Senator Sanders and other politicians to craft and promote “war tax” legislation targeting all past and future war-profiteers. The increased revenue would be redirected to a myriad of progressive expenditures, including investments in socially beneficial industries like green energy, and veterans (as well as non-veterans) employed in defense firms would be the first afforded training and job opportunities in such newly subsidized fields. Consider it a scheme designed to euthanize the war-profiteering class.

This is a hard sell. Then again, we are living in an age of the hard sell, which in the cryptic logic of desperate times, makes the hard sell all the more possible. It was Simone Weil, the forgotten French mystic, who wrote during World War Two:

To define force – it is the x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him.

One might add: Not even a corpse; just a number. Perhaps we can build a countervailing force that will turn us back into human beings.

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