I read today (December 22, 2009) that the last bunch of US Marines in Iraq are scheduled to leave early next year. As everyone knows, this means that more than 120,000 US troops will still be in Iraq after that Marine unit’s departure. In addition, there will be tens of thousands of US-paid mercenaries, CIA operatives and other personnel. No one knows when or if these people will leave that country. It’s hard to believe that the United States has been waging some kind of war against that nation since 1991. Whether it was the original attack on January 16, 1991 that ended in the slaughter on the Highway of Death, the years of deadly sanctions or the renewal of outright hostilities and occupation that began with the shock and awe attacks in March 2003, the people of Iraq have felt the wrath of US military power. This nineteen-year campaign has destroyed the infrastructure of the Iraqi nation and much of the social fabric of its people. What follows is a reflection on one of the earliest protests against the war in 1990.
December 8, 1990 was a beautiful day in Olympia, WA. Once again, people throughout the world were massing in large numbers to express their opposition to what seemed to be an inevitable war in the Persian Gulf. In Olympia, over five hundred people had gathered in Sylvester Park. This was almost twice the number that had made it to the October 20th demonstration.
As antiwar organizer and Army veteran Greg Bye wrote in his report for the local left-wing monthly Works In Progress: “the rally and march was spirited˜and well received [as] leaflets were taken by most everyone who was offered one.” Many of the speakers were familiar faces by now, yet one of them-a young man I’ll call Hugo-gave the most powerful talk of the day. Hugo was one of those guys who still believed that America was a good country. He had joined the Marines because he wanted to and had served proudly. However, he couldn’t deal with a war that was so obviously about markets and profit. This led him to decide that not only would he refuse to go should his reserve unit be activated, he would also oppose the war as loudly as he could. As time went on, it was apparent that he had an innate ability to reach young (and older) folks who were nervous around the more garishly outfitted and culturally extreme protesters and organizers. In other words, he was best at reaching people from middle America who liked being from middle America. The part of his speech that sticks in my mind to this day went like this:
“I’m here today with a troubled heart. This morning one of my best friends from Evergreen (college) left; not because he doesn’t want to be here; not because he is not intelligent enough to be here; not because it’s the holiday season and school’s out so he can go home to his family. He left because he serves in the reserves and George Bush has decided his life is less valuable than words like oil. He must leave the peace of home because George has decided to send our armies overseas to make the world safe for feudal monarchy. Some would claim that my friend must be a warmonger to enlist, so why should the peace movement worry? But those of us who are his friends know this is wrong. He must go because he does not have the money to be in college without the GI Bill. Not having money for an education should not be a death sentence in our society.”
Hugo had hit it right on the head. Many folks in the antiwar movement, whether they were anarchist or some kind of liberal pacifist, assumed a moral superiority over those in the military. This had been a problem during the Vietnam war as well, yet most organizations overcame it. Without the military draft, however, this arrogance had returned. Many folks who held this opinion either did not understand the economic reality of a system that forced working class young people to choose between a dead end job and the military once they left high school, unless they somehow lucked into a substantial scholarship for college. Those folks who had developed a working class consciousness knew that this lack of choice constituted what some on the Left termed an economic draft.
Having lived in a military environment the first eighteen years of my life made it easy for me to sympathize with most service women and men. Hell, my parents had hired GIs to babysit us when I was a youngster on a small USAF station in Peshawar, Pakistan. When I was in high school over in Germany I used to listen to rock concerts and smoke hash with several GIs. After all, we were only two or three years apart in age. This identification with their situation, especially after working with antiwar servicemen and women in Frankfurt am Main as a newsletter distributor for the local chapter of Fuck The Army (FTA) and later as a friend of some of the members of the Laurel, Maryland chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), led me to quickly defend GIs whenever some movement person started to call them baby killers or something similar. The best way to stop a war is to get the soldiers to refuse to fight it.
On the other side of the coin, however, the yellow ribbon campaign to support the troops (which was just in its infancy in December) was difficult to swallow. If one was against the war, then it was ridiculous to suggest that (s)he could support the troops’ presence in the Gulf since they were there to fight a war. As for the government and the media behind the yellow ribbon phenomenon, their call was pure hypocrisy. They cared less about the troops than anyone, otherwise they would not have supported their going to the Middle East in the first place.