On Solidarity and Intentionality: Civilian-Soldier Alliance and Iraq Veterans Against the War are Building a New Model for Antiwar Activism

On Solidarity and Intentionality: Civilian-Soldier Alliance and Iraq Veterans Against the War are Building a New Model for Antiwar Activism

Members of IVAW and CivSol. (Photo by IVAW)
Members of IVAW and CivSol. (Photo by IVAW)

We all stood up and were asked to form a line. There were so many of us in the room, we actually had to curve the line from one side of the room to the other. We organized ourselves chronologically, in order of how long each of us had been involved with Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). From the founding days in 2004 to just a minute ago, from Kelly Dougherty on one side, a founding member of IVAW and former executive director, to Becca von Behren at the other side, a lawyer with Swords to Plowshares who joined Civilian Solider Alliance (CivSol) barely a week ago, our curved line was eight years long. Threaded throughout with the IVAW members stood members of CivSol. All of the founding members were present along with a crop of brand new members. This is what solidarity looks like to us.

Squeezed in between superstorm Sandy and the election madness, the 2012 joint convention of IVAW and CivSol was a brief oasis of intentionality and solidarity. We gathered in Baltimore, Maryland just a day after the storm. People traveled from across the country. From waterlogged New York City to the sunny San Francisco Bay Area, from Texas to Toronto, veterans, active duty service members, and civilian allies gathered not only to continue the struggle against militarism but also to celebrate our community of activists.

As it goes with national grassroots organizations without a wealth of free time and money, we have relatively few opportunities to actually meet face to face which is what makes our shared time at the convention so precious.  Thankfully, our Baltimore allies at the 2640 Space, Red Emma’s Collective, Village Learning Place, Red Clover Collective, volunteer journalists from Indyreader, and many more throughout the city were extremely kind in volunteering their time, and even their couches, to make this a comfortable and communal convention.

Healing the wounds

This year’s convention was titled “Healing the Wounds.” Eight years after the founding of IVAW, it has become clear that our work has to be about two things which are constant and simultaneous: resistance and healing.

IVAW was formed by folks returning from the first wave of deployments to Iraq. They came back changed by their experiences, eyes open, angry, outraged, and wounded. They were met at home by an antiwar movement ferociously hungry for their voices. But just as the 15 million strong worldwide antiwar movement that blossomed in the months before the war withered in the face of the movement’s inability to prevent the war from happening, so too did IVAW members find that telling their stories, their own life-shattering, world-changing, soul-stripping stories, over and over in the service of other people’s events and agendas, was neither stopping the war in its tracks nor building an organization able to sustain its members for the long haul. Additionally, their relationship with the civilian community was beginning to strain as non-veteran activists would simply invite them to be at the front of a march or poster without asking for their greater participation in the organizing work or incorporating their insights to support the issues that mattered directly to them.

With time, IVAW began turning away from functioning solely as a speakers bu­reau and CivSol members began stepping up to support their leadership and orga­nize shoulder to shoulder. The founders of CivSol carried the same analysis that our newest members carry: the under­standing that it will only be through joining the struggles and concerns of both the civilian and military communi­ties that we can develop a framework for challenging militarism and healing our communities. We believe that organizing resistance within the military is a strategy that can directly end war and occupation. When service members withdraw their labor from a war that depends on their consent, they become a powerful force for change. When civilians understand their intimate relationship with war and its consequences at home, as well as abroad, we stand strong.

Building a civilian-soldier alliance

CivSol began as a loose network of people organizing within the circles of GI resistance and support of antiwar active duty servicemembers and veterans. Our aim is to support the leadership of people most affected by war and occupation and to build movements where healing and personal growth are central components of organizing. It was quickly apparent that IVAW was a nexus for this work as they were yearning for this level of analysis, commitment, and perhaps most importantly, mutual trust.

We have been through a lot since we began our relationship with IVAW. Civ­Sol members were there when the first chapters were started in 2006. We sup­ported Operation First Casualty in 2007, where members went out “on patrol” in an American city “arresting” civilians, bagging them and marching them off, giving bystanders a tiny taste of what occupation may be like. We were there for Winter Soldier Iraq and Afghanistan, modeled on the Vietnam era hearings, bringing eyewitness testimony home to the US from Iraq and Afghanistan reveal­ing what was actually being done in our names, and for The March on the Demo­cratic National Convention in Denver in 2008 where IVAW members led a march to the doors of the DNC where they presented a letter to staff for the freshly nominated Barack Obama.

In 2010 IVAW and CivSol came to­gether for five days in Chicago to hold a leadership training and campaign orga­nizing retreat and come up with our first strategic campaign, Operation Recovery: Stop the Deployment of Traumatized Troops. The Operation Recovery organiz­ing drive worked out of Under the Hood (the GI Coffeehouse at Fort Hood, Texas) throughout 2011 & 2012. In May 2012 we supported IVAW’s march on the NATO Summit, where 46 IVAW members returned their hard earned medals to the NATO gener­als in protest. Hundreds of other events and actions large and small have been organized nationally, regionally or in chapters. People have come and gone, returned or remain, but our vision remains shared and constant.

We practice a transformational form of organizing. We aim to win short term victories to improve lives in the immediate, but we keep our eye on the long term transformation to a just society based on human rights, equality, and co­operation. These last four years in this community are a testament to the idea. Through our work, with a firm commitment to developing uni­versal leadership and healing with­in our ranks, the changes are pro­found and hopeful. Military culture is notoriously misogynistic, ho­mophobic, hierarchical and emotionally closed. In addi­tion, with the physical, psycho­logical, and moral trauma that comes with military service, the challenge becomes even greater.

Yet at this convention, transformation is manifest. Leadership by women and by LGBTQ identified people is the new normal, fully embraced and absorbed not just by new members but by all the mem­bers. We all have transformed along with our organizations. No one would say it has been easy, or that we are anywhere close to being done. But what has been accomplished is remarkable.

Solidarity without borders

Suraia came from Toronto to at­tend the Convention. She is a founding member of Afghans for Peace. The war in Afghanistan is not over. Yet we are organizing with veterans and Afghans impacted by the war together. This work is also developing with Iraqis in spots across the country. This is delicate work but truly remarkable. In Chicago, Illinois there was a dinner prepared for IVAW and CivSol members by an Iraqi woman, a refugee from the war, and some friends of hers from Somalia. The next day a young service member spoke about how he had been so moved by a recruiting film he was shown on his first night at boot camp, because he was going to be part of something greater than himself. “But,“ he said, “last night I knew that finally I am now really part of something bigger than myself.”

The war in Iraq is “over.” The war in Afghanistan is “drawing down.” Whatever those terms aim to imply, it certainly doesn’t mean that people have stopped dying from war. The wars may be less hot, but they are not over for the 2.3 million service members who cycled through those wars, often repeatedly and often while carrying previous trauma with them. Certainly Suraia and our other Afghan and Iraqi allies will tell us that it is not over for the millions of civilians who have endured a decade of war and occupation, and it never will be. They are not over for rest of the US either, who will be paying for this war for generations, sacrificing health, education and employment benefits to do so. It is difficult to keep the issues of the wars on the table when everyone is struggling so hard for work and a home.

Solidarity across issues

To build a strong movement, we also need to build solidarity across those working on different issue areas. Dur­ing the convention there were work­shops building solidarity campaigns with health care workers from National Nurses United around staffing ratios and quality of care at VA hospitals, for example. There was a workshop by the Center for Constitutional Rights on pre­paring a hearing at the Inter American Commission on Human Rights as well as to promote our latest outreach and organizing tool for Operation Recovery, an Appeal for Redress for service mem­bers who have not been able to access the kind of care they need to recover from their service.

The weekend concluded with a panel of inspirational allies, focusing on the theme of “Learning from other People’s Movements.” We are building solidarity outward with National Nurses United, the Center for Constitutional Rights, United Workers, Student Farmworker Alliance, Poverty Initiative, and Afghans for Peace. The closing conversation made it clear that our understanding of solidar­ity, and our shared work and hardships over the past years have allowed us to come to a place now where we realize that our work is a part of a whole. Essential, as each other piece is, we are a part of a movement, working towards genuine international solidarity of people who recognize that we rise and fall together. We are joining in solidarity with the “all of us” who have been fragmented by op­pression and come together to heal as a whole. Who would want to be anywhere else?

Sergio España is a Baltimore resident and a member of the Civilian-Soldier Alliance, a national organization of civilian allies taking leadership from veteran and active duty service members  to help support the growing GI Resistance movement. 

For more information please visit www.civsol.org