Veterans Are Building The Anti-Militarism Movement

About Face members conduct a mock action at the Highlander Center during Memorial Weekend
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I spent Memorial Day weekend at the famous Highlander Research and Education Center training in nonviolent direct action and methods of civil disobedience. It was called Veterans Action Camp and was organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), and the Ruckus Society.

The Highlander Center is a social justice leadership training school and cultural center located in northern Tennessee. Founded in 1932, it played a critical role in the Civil Rights Movement. Prominent activists like Rosa Parks trained there as well as many of the members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and many others.

In 1957, Martin Luther King Jr., left, attended a weekend event in honor of the 25th anniversary of Highlander Folk School. Also attending were representatives of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, looking for proof that King and Highlander were breaking the law.

Just as ending the Jim Crow system was paramount to changing the foundation of America back in the 20th century, so today we must resist U.S. militarism to not only save the soul of America but to literally save the world.

King said,

“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

U.S. Militarism is at the heart of everything that is destroying the world. The very fabric of American society has been militarized: our culture, public school systems, police forces, outer space, the internet, our language, and so much more. If we continue on this path, we will perish.

The two most dangerous issues that pose an existential threat to us in the 21st century are climate change and nuclear war, both of which are intrinsically tied to militarism. Nuclear war is tied to militarism for obvious reasons and in the 21st century is more dangerous than during the height of the Cold War. The US military is one of the largest contributors to climate change as the single biggest institutional consumer of fossil fuels as well as the worst polluter of greenhouse gases and other toxic substances.

Earlier this year the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists pushed forward their famous Doomsday Clock to two and a half minutes to midnight! In addition, the resources and funds needed to combat climate change are being spent on the military industrial complex. Just one look at discretionary spending will make anyone realize enough is enough!

Photo: https://www.nationalpriorities.org

This calls for massive change. Signing petitions just won’t cut it. We, as concerned and engaged people, need to take nonviolent direct action to address these critical all-life threatening issues.

Daniel Hunter describes nonviolent direct action as “techniques outside of institutionalized behavior for social change that challenges an unjust power dynamic using methods of protest, noncooperation, and intervention without the use or threat of injurious force“. He goes on to say, “direct action is about power–bringing together people to make a united change.

This was the primary focus of the Veterans Action Camp at the Highlander Center. As veterans from illegal, immoral, and unjust wars, we decided to spend our entire Memorial Day weekend together, learning new ways of strengthening unity in community to make foundational changes in our society. We realized it’s going to take serious training to do so.

One of the first presentations was about the history of veterans in social movements, which is quite deep. From the Bonus Army to the antiwar movement of the 1960s, veterans have had a special voice in our society. In order to truly use our voice to its fullest advantage, understanding the history of veterans in social movements is critical to contributing to the current social movements of the 21st century.

Learning about the history of veterans in social movements at Action Camp. Photo: Siri Margerin

The Action Camp was five days long surrounded with amazing scenery of the Appalachian mountains, incredible, healthy food, and the presence of beautiful souls dedicated to changing this country. The love and passion I witnessed came from something very deep inside us all. Witnessing and being part of this was incredibly healing for many of us, who as the reader can imagine, still suffer from our military engagement with emotional, mental and physical health issues.

Most of the training came from leaders in the organization known as the Ruckus Society. This non-profit organization sponsors skill-sharing and non-violent direct action training, strategy & consultation for activists and organizers from frontline and impacted communities working on social justice, human, rights, migrant rights, workers rights, environmental justice, and much more. The trainers we had were absolutely phenomenal in their knowledge and ability to convey it. The mix of IVAW and Ruckus members created a vibrant space that many of us will long remember.

We were trained on four tracks (or categories); strategy and action planning; artistic and creative action; blockades and holding space; and community defense.

I choose the blockades workshop because I’ve participated in blockades in South Korea, Okinawa, Palestine, and Standing Rock. I wanted to learn more in-depth tactics and the Ruckus Society certainly provided that. I feel confident for my next blockade!

Planning for the direct action at Highlander. Photo: Siri Margerin

The majority of the camp was focused on training for a mock scenario action on the fifth day. The idea was that a weapons expo was coming into town and our goal was to disrupt the expo in order to highlight the connection between the defense industry, the violence it results in, and our political leaders tied to it.

IVAW has a campaign called Drop The MIC-Military Industrial Complex where we are exposing the fact that essentially all these wars have been lead by the business community, and boy has it been profitable. On IVAW’s website it states, “Drop the MIC is focused on interrupting the relationships between profit, institutional violence and politicians“.

We created banners and works of art for visual display, which included wrapping the “weapons expo building” with caution tape claiming the expo as a health hazard to our community. The people from the blockade track created physical barriers by linking arms in front of vehicles to conducting sit-downs in front of building entrances. We had people practice their community defense, who are the people that do threat assessments, internal capacity assessments, scenario planning, provide security and so much more. And of course the people from the strategy and action planning covered the functions of the direct action, developing strategy and tactics as well as applying these techniques to achieve our goal of disrupting the expo to expose the connection of business, violence, and political leaders.

The beginning of our mock scenario direct action. Photo:Siri Margerin
Yes, people were “mock” arrested. Photo: Siri Margerin

One of the most important lessons I learned from attending the Action Camp was noticing how diverse our group of veterans was in today’s world. Compared to photos of veterans from past movements, it’s generally white or black men but mainly white. Our generation of veterans are more diverse and that was proudly displayed at the Action Camp.

It was a mix of men and women, including transgender. We had people of color from all backgrounds lead us in many different ways. There were heterosexuals and homosexuals working together like peas and carrots. We had people attend from all over the country to share their experiences. It was beautiful to be a part of this diverse crowd.

According to a leading expert on nonviolent resistance, Dr. Erica Chenoweth, having a diverse crowd of people is one of four key factors of a successful movement.

Aside from the strategy and tactics that I learned, the most important aspect was building a community of veterans who are dedicated to actually serving our country, and therefore the world. Since leaving the military in 2010, it has been difficult to find a community where I feel comfortable, where I “fit in”. I recognize how important it is for myself, and all of us humans, to have community.

“At the end of the day, humans are social animals and we are at our best when we get to do things with others who appreciate and enjoy what we enjoy. It’s what keeps us human.” – Simon Sinek

We are still the same people we were when we first joined the military, wanting to better the world with our capacities. Only this time we won’t we be wielding a weapon, dropping any bombs, or making defense contractors rich while destroying the lives of entire countries. The real weapon we use is our community.

Group photo from Action Camp. Photo: Siri Margerin