Thursday, September 13, 2007

Rabble-rousing Rhetoric With the Vets for Peace: VfP National Conference, St.Louis, Mo, 08/15/07 Thru 08/19/07

Willie, thnx for writing this; After Action Report: VVAW 40th... I agree w/ you completely... we've got to be there for IVAW... here's my take on the VfP convention last weekend in StL... quite a few VVAWers there too...
Alex T. Primm
Alex, shown here with Panel Moderator, Nancy M. Saunders, at Texas Tech University's 3rd Triennial Vietnam Symposium in 2005, where some Old School VVAW types took on the Swifties regarding the defamation of character of Sen. John Kerry, and the denigration of his service to his country during and after the Vietnam War. It is worth noting that the Swifties were recently fined $300,000 dollars for their illegal campaign practices and fundraising activities. It is also worthy of note that this, for all intents and purposes was the birthplace of As you can see by this article; Alex is still here, Vetspeak is still here, and VVAW is still here. The Swifts are also still here, only they have have since morphed; cyber-camouflaged as the Veterans for Freedom, (Ed. Note.)
Dirty, industrialized and worn-out Mississippi River wastelands may appear an unlikely spot to spend a few days during one of the Midwest's worst heat spell since the 1930s. Even Old Man River has been running low.
We ambled across the murky stream on a venerable stone-and-steel structure known as Eads Bridge, which shook noticeably every time trains or subway cars rumbled along the deck below us. Downstream lies New Orleans washed to sea two years ago. Usually the Mississippi seems deeper, more sluggish, somber and stoic. Our destination; the fetid, or festive, Casino Queen gambling supercenter. It just depends how you look at it.
At 11 p.m. on this Thursday night in late August, the neo-ersatz casino with vast acreage of parking lots appears totally jammed. Inside, a collection of slightly misfit folks hopes for easy jack. Many Social Security checks must end up here. "I couldn't believe it when I drove down from Ann Arbor...", says one vet at breakfast; "All through Indiana it looked like sun and drought had baked everything to a crisp. Breathing was difficult despite air-conditioning in my car. It was almost as bad as the air in that crazy casino. What were they thinking about using this betting parlor hotel as backup lodging for a peace conference?!"
The 22nd annual convention of the Veterans for Peace needed the extra room. It proved to be a popular gathering, as the war in Iraq will not end easily. Talk filled a downtown St. Louis motel's meetings rooms just as any academic conference, but with denser conundrums; Agent Orange. The war in Iraq. Oil. Declining veterans' benefits. 3,705 American active duty combat deaths as of July , 07. The main question: why and how much longer will the occupation of Iraq last? These issues most challenged the 400+ veterans and others who attended the conference.
The good news from this gathering must be the diversity of energies and styles. These fighters will not give up or burn out! About forty years ago I was a regional coordinator for a somewhat similar anti-war effort, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. We sponsored one large successful demonstration in Washington D.C. in 1971 as well as other innovations first implemented by activist veterans. But then VVAW fragmented. Government dirty tricks/infiltrators and ideological in-fighting took a toll, as did a need for regular jobs and return to some semblance of normality. As effective as grass-roots organizing can be, I learned motivating people to fight the government demands an ability to thrive on chaos.
This summer VVAW celebrated its 40th anniversary at a Chicago reunion, but I had time only to participate via I joined the Vets for Peace a year ago out of guilt. I reasoned I had spent the better part of a year while on the G.I. Bill helping to organize VVAW; couldn't I at least find out if this national peace veterans group can now carry it forward? You know, the hope for some realism in foreign policy, rationality, respect for human rights...

From what I could see the VfP may indeed be a healthy if not thriving organization which can pull it off. Talking with representatives from some of their 120 chapters from Maine to the Bay Area, Sheboygan to deep Down South, I learned these community-inspired groups carry on a diversity of activities. With 6,000 members nationally, it's probably more responsive than such huge groups as American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars.
This diversity typified the annual conference. Some workshops dragged on with expected ranting about global imperialism while others used slick multi-media tools to present complex arguments. One of the best was Dr. Dahlia Wasfi who used her skills as a physician to analyze America's continuing reliance on small unit Death Squads first developed during the War in El Salvador. Her work documents many questionable policies now being followed in Iraq.

As much as high-tech gizmos can make military policy issues understandable for a varied crowd such as VfP attracts; old fashioned stump speeches still prove endlessly inspiring. The third night of the conference offered a wide range of speakers at the Public Speakout held in a downtown church.

As former president of the VfP now battling for his health, David Cline more than makes up in soul what he may lack in podium polish. A New Jersey postal worker and union shop steward, Cline offers a simple argument: how can we use weapons, such as Agent Orange or Depleted Uranium, which represent equal threats to the user and target? Of further concern, what is our government's responsibility for cleaning up these dirty weapons used in Vietnam and subsequent conflicts? (Editor's Note: Sadly, Old Soldier David Cline Faded Away on September 15th, 2007. Another legend for the annals.)

Next up, Phyllis Bennis, a progressive think tanker at the Institute of Policy Studies. She makes a decent stab at being a rabble-rouser with punchy sentences, succinct statistics and praise for the vets and anti-war military families as the heart of the movement to end Iraqi occupation. But her analysis lasts nearly a half-hour and squirming sets in.

Then Elaine Johnson takes us back down home. She was one the first of the anti-war moms to confront Pres. Bush for coming to her home state to raise campaign funds while ignoring grieving military families. Her goal now is raising funds to build a local community center at Orangeburg S.C. such as her son envisioned shortly before his Chinook helicopter went down.

As I listen, applaud and catch emotions of the evening I realize what a privilege it is to hear people with all ranges of speaking abilities and backgrounds. This is pure rhetoric. Aristotle should be here.

Trained rhetoricians are not here, nor probably many academics. Who will give professors coming up for tenure or anyone already safely hiding out at some university airfare or release time to support this ragtag army of true believers? Though these folks speak right from the heart, they undoubtedly could use some organizational and p.r. assistance. These groups have no money; there is no benefit in anyone joining. They don't seek help, just an audience to share their anger and frustration. They're sick of the whole bloody military, the useless deaths, the lying, gold-plated contractors, the torture, American mercenaries, innocents death, sickness, poverty, and unemployment on the rise. The night is black, but the light inside this old Methodist church seems all the brighter for a chance to share deepest concerns and hopes.

Steve Jacobs, a Catholic Worker who runs a homeless shelter in Columbia, Mo., gets people laughing and singing. He has a song asking, "Who would Jesus bomb?", and a rap about pigs enjoying fat military contracts.
Two hours into the program the main event arrives. Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, U.S. Rep. from Ohio, jumps up to the podium. The place goes nuts. They love him. It's not hard to see why Kucinich can be a rabble rouser extraordinaire; William Jennings Bryan could do no better, maybe. His techniques include:
  • Acknowledging the ovation by flashing the peace sign, pointing to individuals in the crowd while clapping and hugging everyone on stage;

  • Citing the great tradition of military service in the nation and his family while saluting all the veterans and families in the room for their often overlooked duty; Referring to 1966 when the anti-war movement against the Vietnam conflict began when most people still supported the war, but within a few years that support evaporated;

  • storytelling about his days as a newspaper copyboy in Cleveland when one of his jobs was to visit families of recent causalities to obtain a photograph of the victim for the newspaper. Always it was in the older, run-down parts of town, Kucinich said. And the one picture usually available would be right on top of the TV set, the heart of the family which had just been torn apart.

  • Yelling and pounding on the podium to ask the crowd to save the nation, join his campaign and visit his website;

  • Coming up with great line: "Why are we bombing bridges in Baghdad when we should be rebuilding them in Minnesota?"

  • Concluding with an idealistic quotation from John F. Kennedy and again calling those who have served in the military to be the heart of the campaign for a new foreign policy and new president.

How could anyone follow such impassioned oratory? Two members of Iraqi Veterans Against the War amazingly next prove able to change and add to the evening's energy. Garett Reppenhagen, a former Army sniper, reads one of his own poems and creates a sense of urgency for ending the occupation. He introduces fellow vet Agustin Aguayo who has unilaterally withdrawn himself from active duty to pursue his case as a conscientious objector to the Supreme Court if necessary.

The two had a spirit of determination similar to what we shared in VVAW when opposing our ill-conceived Southeast Asia adventure. For example, when Pres. Nixon ordered the useless Christmas Eve bombings of Hanoi as a negotiation tactic, we protested by drawing our own blood and throwing it onto a prominent military billboard downtown. We waited to be arrested in the spirit of civil disobedience, but no one showed up. It was too damn cold.

These IVAW vets will do this and more. The Post-Dispatch reported approximately 90 IVAW members went next door to the city's convention center the day after the Speakout to confront military recruiters trying to work the crowd at something called the Missouri Black Expo.

Kelly Dougherty, 29, director of the IVAW and former medic and military police officer who served in Bosnia as well as Iraq, explained the demonstration to a reporter: We want people to know the truth about military service and that it's not always what they say. She pointed out many potential recruits, especially women and minorities, may not realize some consequences of prolonged war in Iraq: increased chances of repeated deployments, extended tours of duty overseas, a call back into war even after an enlistment has expired and difficulty accessing benefits on return.

In addition to vets, other speakers represented Gold Star Families Speak Out; the Guerrero Azeteca Peace Project; the American Civil Liberties Union and Grassroots America for Us. Big and small, the diversity had to inspire others as it did me.

By 10 p.m. I feel effects from this generous filling of words. I decide to amble back across Eads Bridge to get some perspective on the day's heated insights while the Missouri humidity gradually abates. I mull over what the last speaker said, a fellow Ozarker, Tina Richards who has moved from Salem, Mo., to join the anti-war movement in Washington D.C. ; "I owe you my son's life...", is how she explained her commitment to end the occupation in Iraq. "My son Cory had two tours with Marines in Iraq", she tells us..." They were going to send him over again despite severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The movement to end this war and save others from what he went through is the first thing to grab him since being back in the states. I owe you all everything."

This kind of dedication differs from the gamblers' endless routines across the river at the Casino Queen. The bright lights there seem to never fade, but for most the wager is a habit, just a way to pass a little time and maybe win a few easy bucks.

The commitment to end the occupation runs much deeper. I wish I had time to be more involved. No one speaker dominated the evening. All said something powerful. With so many different organizations represented, the VfP seems like a huge, friendly tent. The Speakout was a time to explore as well, as to inspire activists.

For anti-warriors of all kinds, their commitment goes beyond a hope for a quick payback to tumble down by luck. All seem to know they are working not only to save the lives of others, whether American, Afghani or Iraqi, but also their own and those they hold most dear. Two ways of life, habit or choice, follow crowds to the big parking lots of America or search out one's own path. The long- term commitment to the peace movement isn't the easy way. In most respects however it does seem a whole lot happier, spirited and certainly hopeful, than more conventional habits of the heart.

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