There is no glory in warabracad, · Categories: externally authored, in the news, spiritual politics
In an interview, Michael Ferner, interim director of Veterans for Peace, discusses the growing calls for non-violent means of resolving issues.
Veterans for Peace, a US-based non-governmental organization founded in 1985, seeks to eradicate war as a national policy. The group comprises veterans from many eras and conflicts, including World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, and the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to their website, "Our collective experience tells us wars are easy to start and hard to stop and that those hurt are often the innocent. Thus, other means of problem solving are necessary." Michael Ferner is the group's Interim Director. Jason Francis interviewed him for Share International.
Share International: What was behind the formation of Veterans for Peace?
Michael Ferner: The group Vietnam Veterans Against the War was created in 1967. A number of military veterans, most of them from the Vietnam War, got together in the mid-1980s and decided they wanted to form an organization that would provide a platform for veterans in an ongoing way, not just following a particular conflict. What brought people together at that time was a sense of urgency regarding US policies in Central America - using death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala, and later, funding the Contras in Nicaragua.
SI: What motivates a former member of the military to renounce militarism and campaign for nonviolence?
MF: What I have heard from a large number of our members who talk about why they join Veterans for Peace and what got them interested in opposing war is that they feel betrayed. We are taught in our culture that the United States is exceptional. If we are going to get involved in a conflict, it is only because someone else started it and we are going to promote freedom and democracy. When they get into the military a good number of people start looking into things they haven't looked into before. They find out more about the real history of the United States and how it has been an empire for a long time and what sorts of things empires do. That starts to fit pretty closely with the policies that young men and women see going on around them when they are in the military. They feel they were told one thing in their youth - particularly about the military - and when they got in they began to see a very different reality.
Some of our members have been in combat. There are very few people who have been in combat who think there is anything redeeming about it. There is no glory in war. Our members realize that and want to do something to prevent additional conflicts and wars. And there are a lot of veterans opposed to what they have seen and done in the military who aren't necessarily activists who are going to join an organization, but have some of the same feelings.
I was not in combat but worked at a Navy hospital for a couple of years, taking care of young men who came back from Vietnam. It's an eye-opener to see what war is really all about. Eventually I became a conscientious objector and was discharged from the Navy. That is not uncommon among our members - to be so disillusioned about the reality of what they actually are doing and seeing that they don't want to participate in it anymore.
SI: Are attitudes changing in the American public against the Afghanistan and Iraq occupations or even against war in general?
MF: We are seeing a very interesting evolution of public opinion. For the last few years public opinion polls have noted a general trend of declining support for the wars to the point where a majority of the population now thinks the wars and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan are a bad idea. And more than just thinking they are a bad idea, the public wants to see the troops brought home as soon as possible. That's a majority of the public, and depending on how you ask which questions, you get even higher percentages. So that's something that has been slowly changing over the last several years.
SI: Could you comment on President Obama's announcement that the war in Iraq will be over by the end of 2011?
MF: That's a fantasy when you consider the fact there are some 22,000 contractors - including 5,000 armed mercenary contractors - that are going to be left in Iraq, plus we don't know how many special operations forces. The Marines will be guarding the embassy, which is true of every embassy around the world, except for the fact that this embassy is by far the largest and will have the largest staff.
Also, there will be regular Air Force and drone flights over Iraq, and there are any number of warships within easy striking range. There's going to be a military presence in and around Iraq for some time to come, and you can bet every so often the President, whoever it is, will find it necessary to bomb something in Iraq. Pulling out almost all of the troops but leaving behind some 22,000 contractors, including mercenaries, is hardly what I would call the war being over.
How we got to this point is a combination of the peace movement, including Veterans for Peace, and just the expense of trying to keep two wars and occupations going at the same time.
Current campaigns – Occupy Washington DC
SI: Could you tell us about some of the campaigns that Veterans for Peace currently have underway?
MF: The overarching theme of our efforts is to expose the true costs of war. We have 120 chapters around the country, and the activities that Veterans for Peace engages in are primarily at the chapter level. For example, in some chapters members have constructed temporary exhibits of crosses or tombstones, grave markers of some kind, for each service personnel that have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and laid them out in exact rows like in Arlington National Cemetery [the national war veterans cemetery]. The exhibits usually include information about civilian casualties as well.
Other activities include truth-in-recruiting talks in high schools, where our members talk with students about issues that military recruiters don't discuss. We give students a more balanced view of exactly what the military is up to and what they would face if they joined the military. We also take part in community festivals and parades, and talk with people about the true costs of war; write letters to the editor; and encourage members of Congress to vote against funding for war. There are a variety of things that we hope will educate the public about the true costs of war so people will become more active in demanding better policies from the government.
SI: Could you tell us about the "Stop the Machine: Create a New World!" campaign?
MF: "Stop The Machine: Create a New World!" is the tagline that has been given to the occupation at Freedom Plaza in Washington DC. The initiative for this came out of actions that Veterans for Peace took during the last year. In December 2010 and again in March 2011, we organized a veteran-led demonstration in Washington where 100 people were arrested in each case through acts of civil disobedience at the White House. They weren't all members of Veterans for Peace, but we were responsible for getting the ball rolling for those particular actions.
As people were planning the second protest in March, the actions in Tunisia and Egypt were just starting to take off. Some people thought: "This isn't a bad idea. We should be doing something like that here." So as soon as the March 2011 demonstration was completed, the planning started right away for an occupation in Washington DC that would coincide with the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2011.
Veterans for Peace was quickly joined by other organizations and activists in Washington and other places around the country who were interested in doing the same thing. And then, two or three months after we began planning for the occupation of Freedom Plaza, relatively coincidentally, people were announcing they were going to have an occupation of Wall Street - which began in September. Our action, which had been planned for several months, began in Washington on October 6th.
The occupation of Freedom Plaza is ongoing. Nearby, a smaller and very committed group from the Wall Street occupation has come down to Washington and is similarly occupying McPherson Park. The reports that I've received from people who attend the general assemblies every night are that they are getting more used to working together, working through problems, and coming to decisions on a consensual basis.
The fascinating thing about these occupations across the US is that they are not just about opposition to the war, or opposition to foreclosures, or people being angry about the fact that we don't have a decent healthcare system. They aren't about any one of these single issues: they are about democracy; they are about corporate rule; they are about people being fed up with having to pay the bills for empire and furnish the bodies, and the decisions are made by a small, elite group of people who don't have the public's interest in mind at all. It is really heartening to hear people say, "We've been getting the short end of the stick for too long. We need to demand that the government start taking care of business for the people."
SI: From the point of view of Veterans for Peace, what is the connection between peace, justice and sustainability?
MF: One of the things we say in all of our literature, and just about all of our public speaking, is that we are working for peace with justice. We know the two are inseparable. There cannot be peace without justice. And there cannot be sustainability without justice. A very small percentage of the world's population are reaping huge benefits and the overwhelming majority of the population are paying the costs. That injustice itself is unsustainable, and is one of the causes of our unsustainable society. We have to be sustainable or in the long run we are going to cease to exist.
SI: Do you believe the nonviolent occupation movements are leading to something bigger?
MF: At the occupation of Freedom Plaza in Washington DC, there were conversations about how we need a revolution in this country and not just some reform around the edges. There were conversations about what that revolution would look like. Some people said that there has never been a successful revolution that hasn't required a lot of bloodshed. But that's not true. In fact, anybody who has been in involved in combat can tell you they don't want to see a bloody revolution, not just because the effects of it would be terrible at the time but also because it perpetuates the cycle of revenge and violence. In the long run nothing good will come out of it.
The changes we are seeing in society are that more people are demanding the government operate differently and in the public's interest. Along with other organizations, Veterans for Peace is going to be one of the voices talking about nonviolence and winning over our enemies without intimidating them. It is going to be increasingly important in the period ahead to have that kind of voice in the debate that will be going on.
Re-published courtesy Share International magazine
Filed in: externally authored, in the news, spiritual politics