By Kate Flanagan
In September, I went to the mall in DC to meet with members of Iraq Veterans Against the War. Up to the moment I saw them, I imagined they would be a group of talkative old men. Many young anti-war activists find it hard to think about Iraq veterans as people in their 20s. You probably have seen them on the streets or in your classes without knowing they were veterans. After high school, they go to boot camp instead of college. Some are seduced by recruiters’ promises of job skills, money for college or a chance to travel the world. Others buy into patriotic myths, are following a family tradition or just don’t know what else to do with their lives.
Working with young veterans for the past six months has made me realize just how formative military training and military life is. In boot camp, young people are taught how to fight. They are taught physical techniques, but more significantly, they are trained to respond to uncomfortable situations with violence. My friend Toby, who served in Baghdad for 13 months, won’t carry a weapon around with him because he knows he can not control how he will react to conflict. A car backfiring sounds like a gunshot and for a moment he forgets that he’s in the suburbs of Cleveland.
I traveled with a group of counter-recruitment activists and Iraq-era veterans for about a month on a speaking tour of the post-industrial Midwest towns known as ‘the rustbelt.’ We lived together on the road, which gave us a chance to cross the great divide between activists and veterans. The vets all talked about coming home from the war and being unable to function in society. They felt disconnected from the things they used to like and the people they cared about. Anti-war activism helps them deal with the fact that their experiences will haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Veterans are coming out of the war and finding that the military only pays about half the cost of a public college (most people can get more than this by skipping the G.I. bill and applying for financial aid), they have no marketable job skills and little support to deal with the emotional and physical injuries they sustained in war. They have daily nightmares and flashbacks that leave some unable to attend school or keep a job. The war movement, which proudly dons the ‘support our troops’ slogan, has looked the other way while the administration continues to cut veterans benefits.
On 9/11, I remember thinking that the country was changing dramatically. I rode the bus home from school and the first thing I did was write in an unused red notebook that I intended to be my ‘war diary.’ I was conscious that I was experiencing an important moment in history. I half-hoped that we would be forced to have rations and victory gardens like the people I read about in WWII. Materially, this war is very distant from most of our lives. Even if we don’t think about it, the war is changing the world we live in, in so many ways.
Remember Sean Bell? An unarmed black man killed by cops in Queens on his wedding night last November. Detective Michael Oliver fired 31 of those shots, pausing to reload. Afterwards, he said he couldn’t remember if he had fired or not. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Oliver had been fighting in Iraq nine months earlier. Did he hear the first shot and think he was in a firefight? They say ‘good soldiers make the worst civilians.’
Four years ago, I believed my dad when he told me, “Kate, when a war starts, people usually stop protesting.” I was 17 then and unaware of national politics and the history of protest. I was horrified at the Bush Administration’s sudden and nonsensical plan for the Iraq war. This was my first burst of political activism; a few friends and I had spent a week using puffy paint to decorate t-shirts with anti-war slogans for a nationally coordinated student protest. There was a student walkout that day, and hundreds of students gathered in the hallway to walk out. After the administration threatened us with Saturday school and detention, there were about 30 of us who walked across the street where we waved signs at passing cars.
Everything seemed so exciting then. I felt that way again when I found my way back into anti-war activism the first time we shut down the recruiters in April ’05. I feel that way when I’m riding through town on the Iraq Veterans Against the War bus, and spending time with anti-war veterans. Everything is new and we’re figuring it all out together. Through activism, I’ve found the passion and energy that I once thought only existed in past eras.
_Kate Flanagan is a third-year UCSC student, a writer for the Project Collective and a member of Students Against War._