The Role of Veterans in Peace and Antimilitarist Movements
Wendy Barranco was born in south central Mexico in 1985. At the age of four, she migrated to the United States 'illegally'. She was then raised in Los Angeles, California, and at the age of 17, joined the United States Army. She was later deployed on so called 'Operation Iraqi Freedom' and honourably discharged upon her return home. While at college, she encountered Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and has since served as a chapter president with them, organising events to raise awareness about the true cost of war, troops' right to heal, and GI resistance, as well as demanding an immediate end to the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Elected to the organisation's board of directors, she has served as national chair. Today, she is an activist on womyn’s rights, military sexual trauma, migrant rights, workers' rights, antimilitarism, and anti-imperialism. She writes about these here.
As a woman veteran, my three years of service in the United States Army as a combat medic and my deployment to Iraq is constantly questioned and met with faces of disbelief. It is no novelty that we, women, exist in patriarchal, misogynistic, and sexist societies, constantly 'surprising' individuals as to our capabilities for thousands of years. While we may not be properly valued, respected, and understood, we continue to play key roles in a variety of settings, including the peace and antimilitarist movements. While rich men wage war, we traditionally supply its lifeline of blood and bodies from our wombs. As the producers of the casualties of war in this way, women have often been a crucial and revolutionary factor in attaining peace for we often have the most to lose; many of us have skin in the game. Even if we do not have skin in the game however, we do have game changing insights about the sexist workings of the war machine. Without us, and without listening to us, the peace and antimilitarist movements will remain ignorant of these and be the weaker for it.While those in activist communities are working for progressive change, there is no denying that there is still much room for growth, especially when it comes to women’s equality. The reality is that many environments working for justice, progress, and change, lack a place for women as leaders and active participants. While there may be a handful of powerful women veterans speaking out against imperialism and its repercussions, we, as a global community, still lack awareness and equality from our brothers in the movement. The lack of awareness and education stems not only from our current society but also from the dynamics applied to and existing in the military service that carry over into the civilian sector: because the military is a male dominated institution, it follows that its counter movement will also be male dominated or at least male centric. It has been my experience that only the bravest and most fearless women enter these environments, and the majority of these do not escape unscathed.
For one, actively participating in anything political or controversial while in uniform or while otherwise in service is strictly forbidden by the Uniform Code of Military Justice and is subject to subsequent punishment by the military. Secondly, given the macho attitudes present in the military that are carried over to activist communities, women feel as if we are not valued and by extension, our opinions and experiences are not brought to light for fear that they are not up to par with those of our brothers. We are constantly made to feel out of place, as outliers, and overshadowed. There is also a lack of community because there are so few of us speaking out.
Thirdly, and most importantly, because of the systemic rape culture and violence which exist in the military, women fear for their safety. When veteran men enter the peace and antimilitarist movements, they carry with them the patriarchal and sexist notions taught to them and accepted by them in the military. In order to have a just, safe, and welcoming forum for women, our brothers must be taught the importance of women in the movement. They must leave their sexist and judgemental baggage at the door. For the peace and antimilitarist movements to succeed, men must educate themselves and others on the progressive ideas of equality, justice, and respect for their sisters. We cannot and will not be successful if our brothers do not leave their sexist ways behind them.
While we as women may be moved to tackle this problem, it is most often ineffective, frankly infuriating, and exhausting at times. A person who has survived harassment and/ or violence should not be made to recount her ordeals for the sake of educating a man. Not only is this not productive, but it is damaging and hurtful to the survivor. What is most effective is for an enlightened and educated brother in the community to teach, have trainings with new members and engage in conversations. It should be outlined and understood that this global community is a safe space and a code of conduct will be adhered to. Those not adhering to the concepts of mutual respect not only towards (cis) women but also trans, queer, lesbian and gay members should not be allowed to remain in the community for this endangers the lives of everyone participating. Sexual harassment, misogyny, violence and sexism will not be tolerated.
While our bothers may be beside us in the fight against imperialism, many have yet to connect the idea of war to patriarchy. The war of men is a war on women and humanity. All of the social justice movements in which we participate are inextricably connected and as such our brothers must realize this. While they walk around with male and white privilege and are blind to it, they must learn that their sisters encounter unjust struggles because of the views of their brothers. The war on women is not external but resides within every person who believes it is non-existent. To gain an understanding as to why a woman veteran, or any veteran, would not actively participate in the peace and antimilitarist communities we must look at the dynamics within a veteran.
I have found that most veterans, deployed or not, will have some kind of mental health issue because of their service: the culture of violence, dehumanizing the enemy, and lack of concern for human life is indelibly marked in the soul of a soldier. Even when we no longer wear the uniform it is near impossible to break free from the brainwashing that took place early on in our military experience. As we move into the civilian sector, we must once again relearn what it is to be a 'normal' person. The first few years after exiting the military are the most tumultuous for a veteran as they struggle to find their feet. Personally, I grappled with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and its manifestation, depression. There were very dark moments. However, these did not come immediately after my deployment but rather appeared late within the first year and progressively worsened over time. I was lucky that I encountered members of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) at my college early on. Activism with my brothers and sisters became a sort of therapy. But this was not sustainable; I dedicated my free time and even that which wasn’t to activism. My education and professional career were put on the back burner.
None of the veterans I know will ever ask for help. It has been ingrained in us that we are unbreakable; we have endured cold, hunger, pain. Additionally, most of us tend to immerse ourselves in what we do completely, there is no halfway. As such, we focus on our work and do not care for ourselves properly. In our community, we have lost many to suicide. Though we preach and practice a community of love, we can and will never understand the personal demons a veteran faces when they lay their heads to sleep.
PTSD may manifest in other ways, and as a peace community we need to be aware of and educated about this. While I consider myself an activist, you will probably never find me on a march with thousands of people. Not only do crowds cause me anxiety but loud noises still cause alarm signals. As a community we must be sensitive to the fact that all our members have different experiences, needs, and capacities. We must not push veterans, or indeed anyone, into activities or situations they may not be ready for, as this may cause severe repercussions. There must be honest and open communication. Finally, there must be an understanding that self care is paramount and making resources available a top priority.
Secondly, it is obvious that war causes death and injuries. Veterans are no strangers to this. While mental wounds are not visible, physical ones are and those more often than not require extensive attention. While many injured veterans would like to get out on the streets and work for peace, the reality is that they are consumed with the task of staying alive and caring for themselves.
Thirdly, as a result of their mental and physical injuries and military experiences, veterans find themselves struggling to fit into civilian society after their service. The most menial of tasks can prove to be the most difficult. Veterans that are working to establish themselves and stay afloat will not likely have time to dedicate to activism. The tasks of obtaining a roof over our heads, food and water, and other life necessities, will most likely occupy the whole of a veteran's life. The city I reside in, Los Angeles, has the highest rate of homeless veterans and I can assure you that none of them will list activism as their top priority. For a veteran to sustainably be involved in the peace and antimilitarism communities, they must already be self sufficient and stable. This is a lot to ask when we are facing an epidemic of veterans living on the streets and taking their own lives in the US. The estimates that the Veterans Affairs department gives us, of 22 suicides a day, is conservative at best and frankly unreliable from an institution that keeps veterans waiting for access to health services and denies our benefits.
Finally, we must look at the composition of the military. In the civilian world, there are more or less equal numbers of men and women, but in the military, women make up a small minority. Of the US' active duty force only 14.5% are women and even fewer are in leadership positions. It is no wonder, then, that so few women veterans are found in the peace and antimilitarism movements.
Given the dynamics and barriers we face in getting veterans involved, we can now look at what they, specifically women veterans, bring to the peace community. First and most importantly, we bring our experiences. Because we fell prey to the imperialist beast and have lived within it, we are familiar with its ways of operating and what it takes to dismantle it. Further, we offer irrefutable evidence in our experiences of the savagery that is war. When I speak with people and share my experiences, there is a palpable awakening among people. It is one thing to see war in the movies and on the news and it is quite another uncomfortable thing to see it personified and live.
Most of my experiences in activism have been preaching to the choir. However, some rebuttals to my presentations have been that my speech was 'too feminist', or too demonising of men. Unfortunately, too many men fail to connect the dots and find the bigger picture for themselves. The reality is that women have an understanding of structural oppression that is vital to understanding the systemic nature of imperialism that male veterans could never fully grasp on the deep level that women do, especially women of color like myself. Women can attest to the realities of dehumanization and the nature of the atrocities of structural imperialism through sexual violence against both US GIs and women victims in the Middle East and anywhere else there is a military presence. There is a continuum of global patriarchal violence that women are fighting.
Secondly, while we may find ourselves in a patriarchal society, let us not ignore the power that women have. Mothers, sisters and daughters are key to the functioning of societies globally. As women veterans, we can build threads of solidarity and work together with women in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere to build an equal and just life for women everywhere. In my travels, I have found that the struggles I face here in the United States are remarkably similar to those of women in Spain, France, or Mexico. The systems of oppression, violence, sexism, and racism abound globally. There are a vast number of examples of women organizing themselves and achieving their demands. Women should be taking the lead in the peace movement and their voices should be highlighted and magnified.
Because we have so few veterans speaking out against militarism and even fewer women veterans, we must cultivate a community of sustainability. It is not enough to work together in the struggle for peace, we must also care for each other genuinely. Our work will continue only as long as our members can. We must care for ourselves and each other. As such, we must not be afraid to take a step back and gather ourselves. The typical activist personality is one that takes on too much and then burns out. Once burned out, there will be no work done and an indeterminate amount of time passes before a veteran returns to the activist community, if they do so. While we are all participants in this movement, we must take care to cultivate replacements should we need to take a sabbatical. One of my regrets as president for the local chapter of IVAW was not training another leader. When I burned out and disappeared there was no one ready or willing to take my place. There is much work to be done, and it is likely it will not end in the near future. As such, we must care for ourselves and each other so that we may sustain our work for peace. With veterans this is most difficult, because of the personalities into which we have been conditioned and because most of us know only one speed and that is 100% all the time. The crux in our lives is exceeding our capabilities and not asking for help. But we have to think about the peace movement as a whole and its sustainability in the long term.
Veterans face particular struggles in adjusting to civilian life. There is rampant homelessness that is not new to this generation of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans; the same is true of Vietnam veterans. Companies in the United States are less likely to hire veterans than non-veterans due to stigma, and in a struggling economy where employment opportunities are few this is a devastating blow. Further, the skills and experience that veterans obtain while serving in the military do not often translate to the civilian sector. I have yet to find a company looking to hire nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons specialists and infantrymen that does not involve returning to combat zones. The norm in most activist circles is to work without compensation, also known as volunteering. Not all organizations have the means to compensate those who work for them of course, but established institutions like universities and many churches do, and could afford to pay for a speech or lecture. This would make it possible for veterans to continue contributing to the peace and antimilitarist movements while providing a source of income for what is most likely an unemployed veteran at risk of homelessness, especially if she is a woman.
Our tendency as a society to victimize survivors of sexual trauma is one that must stop. This is detrimental to the survivor when they must constantly relive their trauma and be made to feel inferior to those around them. While a survivor may be willing to share their story, the pity that is shown and expressed by those present is not productive and has negative psychosocial effects on the survivor. We must remember and understand that the identity of the survivor is not solely and wholly one of victim. They are a composition of many parts, one of which is a survivor of sexual trauma. It has been my experience, when I tell of my military sexual traumas, that I am seen only in the light of the acts that happened. We do not need pity, or to be looked down upon, but rather seen as equals, and with empathy. My identity does not consist solely of victim, but of many parts of which survivor is one of many. We must cease as a community to parade and expose survivors to relieve the traumas and then subject them to being looked down upon. This practice plays into the patriarchal, sexist, and unequal notions of our society.
Finally, one of the major obstacles the peace and antimilitarism movements run into, unknowingly, is the perceived notion that we are anti-veteran or anti-solider. While War Resisters' International (WRI) and associated organizations like Iraq Veterans Against the War are supportive of veterans and active duty servicemen and women personally, albeit not of what they are required to do and represent, the popular view of many in uniform is the complete opposite. The notion that the peace movement hates soldiers is prevalent on many American bases around the world. This notion is highly detrimental to the peace movement, because we cannot attract and welcome active duty soldiers or veterans who believe we are against them. One way to combat this is to make our message crystal clear; we protest war and violence, the policies of the leaders who have sent you here, not 'Yankee go home!'. The popular action of marching to bases with banners and signs may seem efficient and productive in calling attention to a foreign military presence in a sovereign land, but this action is highly detrimental to the forces on the base. They naturally conclude that the peace movement is against them personally. An alternative might be to organise a march, protest, or sit in at the office or home of the politician who allowed for the base to exist.
The role of the veteran in the peace and antimilitarism movements is of vital importance for it contributes validity that cannot be disputed, knowledge of military institutions, and most importantly: experience from the belly of the beast. As important as these things are, however, what veteran activists we have must be treated with sensitivity, respect, and understanding because we face dynamics that our fellow activists do not. If we are to attract and retain productive and long lasting relationships with veterans we must take care to cultivate our environments so that they may be welcome and feel a part of the community. In the end, this may not only achieve out purpose of world peace, but it may also save the life of a veteran that would otherwise take their life.