Veterans Must Join the Poor People's Campaign for a New Winning Strategy
By Rev. Shawna Foster
Joining the military is another one of those false bargains that separates the poor from one another. The promise is that if you lay your life down for your country, your country will do everything for you - send you to college, finance your house, pay your healthcare, grant you citizenship, bury you in a nice cemetery, and tend to your orphans.
IVAW members at Veteran Day 2016 in Chicago.
It gives a reason for people in the United States to go over to countries to kill people they never knew for freedoms people of color and the poor are not granted equally back at home anyway - one of the reasons why Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was opposed to militarism.
Benefits promised to people who served in the military were realized for white people during World War II but not so much for people of color, as Ta-Nehisi Coates shares in his article, "The Case for Reparations." Now, with the aim of the elite to eliminate most avenues of upward mobility, white people are finding the military makes them poorer too.
This is true in my own family. 33 years ago, we were not given what was promised us. I was born and raised in the military. Once my mother and father realized they would be parents (thanks to me!) my mother was forced to drop out. She made more money as a sergeant in the Air Force picking out bomb targets from Guam than my father did as an Air National Guardsman. The sexist military policy said that she had to quit and my father had to apply to go full-time. He was homeless, and with the forced resignation of my mother, my parents lived on my grandmother's farm in Falmouth, Kentucky, until my father got his first duty station - Shaw AFB, South Carolina. My parents drove in the night before the first day my father was to report; I was born that same day, two weeks early. My father being a freshly enlisted private was not provided military housing and went around to mobile home associations to offer his services as a handyman part time to save on rent. Thus, I spent the first years of my life in a trailer park, my mother getting assistance from the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program even though my father was employed by the military full-time.
Poverty did not leave us until my father took Clinton's buyout package in the 90s. My mother became a computer programmer, and my father a boiler worker for the United States Postal Service. This trend continues today, as in 2014-2015 the active duty military spent $24 million on food stamps, something we think only happens with unjust employers like Walmart.
So, it goes to show, that for at least two generations now, the military has turned its back on the poor, immigrants, poor whites, women, and people of color, and most of us are not aware. I joined the Nebraska Army National Guard as a Nuclear Biological Chemical Specialist partly because it had the biggest sign-on bonus of $6,000 dollars. It was also the only branch that promised to pay full tuition for school. Not books, or board, or any other fees. Just tuition at the state school. Something I didn't know as the first in my family to ever go to college. I still carry $25,000 worth of debt for my undergraduate degree thanks to the scaling back of benefits. Not one of my military friends were just given the benefits they were promised for their service, they had to fight for it. Many who were fighting for healthcare immediately after they came home from war died before they got what they were promised. It's hard not to think that this isn't by design, it's cheaper to bury a soldier than it is to pay for their healthcare. Also, if you join the military as an undocumented person, that will not grant you citizenship; but if you die in the service, they will at least bury you a citizen.
IVAW member Aaron Hughes, Veterans Day, Chicago, 2016.
Most people are unaware of just how much the military has been gutted. During WWII over 50% of the nation was in the military, during Vietnam, 25%, and today, 1%. Yet, the United States spends more than the next 17 nations combined on military spending - if that money is not going to military service members, where is it going?
It's certainly not going to help veterans. Many of us know about the 55,000 military personnel that were killed or missing in action during Vietnam. What many of us don't know is that about 150,000 Vietnam veterans have died by suicide, a 1:3 ratio of those killed or missing in action. With these current unending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, this suicide ratio continues on, unabated.
Many charities have sprung up to try and help these veterans; but we are suffering not just from PTSD or physical wounds, but what Rev. Nakishma Brock calls a moral injury, which means we shouldn't have been in Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan in the first place. We know it's wrong, especially after we serve there. No charity can fix this sin of the nation. We need the nation to admit it was wrong to conduct these wars, and apologize to our armed services for using them for ill. If not for the innocent dead citizenry of those nations, then at least for our veterans.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King., Jr. knew this in his famous address in 1967, "Beyond Vietnam." He knew that the lies that caused that war, the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, would cause the United States to lose its soul in continuing to fight it. They lied! We military service members cry out today, as it is revealed there were never any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the Bush administration knew it before they sent us to die, killing millions of Iraqi and Afghani citizens; we know, say the veterans of Vietnam. The evidence of the lost soul of our nation is in every veteran's suicide - 22 a day.
Let me tell you - the same reasons Rev. Dr. King opposed Vietnam back then are the same reasons why Iraq Veterans Against the War fights against the military industrial complex today - though we didn't see this at first. At first, we just knew it was wrong. That they lied. Our organizing strategy was based simply on us telling the truth. We did not realize we were becoming a political pawn against the Bush administration. If we tell the truth, the war will become unpalatable to the public, and it will end, so we thought. We marched on the DNC in 2008 to secure a promise from then candidate Obama to end the wars. We got that promise, which was never delivered.
First Obama tried drones, then surges, and then the fear of ISIS rose and now the Syrian war; I've lost count of the times the government has said there aren't "boots on the ground" and yet military personnel are there as advisors and drone operators, and military spending continues unabated. President Obama was the mastermind at lying through his teeth as a peace candidate.
While we succeeded in making the public hate the wars we failed to end them. We rethought our strategy. I started thinking about all the feminism I was studying, about the intersectionality of oppression.
I thought to myself that was the place from which we must organize. Not just for the straight white male veteran who was lied to, but from the woman of color experience, trans people in the military, from the perspective of those who were suffering the most - the citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan. From the perspective of the veteran who died by suicide, unable to cope with participating in wars with no end, with no purpose beyond corporate gain. We had to start organizing from the perspective of the US communities who were the most robbed because of rampant spending on militarism, from the majority of people of color communities who were occupied at home because of the programs for local police to buy military equipment they didn't know how to use. Like the police pointing military-grade weaponry straight at citizens in Ferguson - military folks know you don't point a gun at someone unless you're going to shoot them.
We realized that the root was not the individual wars, but the militarism that feeds our society. Since my father's time, there is a backdoor draft, in which the mythology of the military being able to lift you out of poverty preys on the hope of the poor thinking the only thing they have is their life to lay down for their country, in hopes that maybe they will not have to die or have to kill anyone to make it out of the trailer park or ghetto; but will if they must. They don't know that Costco offers more benefits today than the military does, and you don't have to pledge to kill anybody to get those benefits from Costco.
We are lending the veteran's voice to many organizations outside the peace movement. With immigrants, we talk about deported veterans. With the environment, we talk about the vast expense to protect the extraction fossil-based economy that we don't need anymore. For Black Lives Matter, we talk about over-militarized police and occupation of communities. For women, we talk about the sexual assault and degradation we faced in the military and our ability to achieve mission no matter our gender or sexual orientation. For voting, we talk about how we laid down our lives for these freedoms. In every issue, you can find the veteran's voice, because militarism is so ingrained in our society. This voice reaches beyond left vs. right politics. We are a mainstreaming force even as it is very radical for the military to speak out for these basic rights and against militarism.
For the poor, for labor, we talk about all that dang money that isn't even going to us in the military; we were sent to fight without even the proper armor, yet our combat pay is cut. Where the hell is all of this money going?
The mythology that surrounds veterans is being used as a smokescreen for private contractors. It is public risk, and privatized gain. In 2015, the Pentagon spending was $589 billion on discretionary spending. The proposed budget - this is budgeted, not discretionary, military budget - for 2017 is $542 billion. Lockheed Martin has 287 billion dollars of contracts and pays 3 million to lobby congress yearly. Boeing, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems, they all have DoD contracts totaling 533 billion dollars. Reuters reported this past December that the Pentagon rejected a study saying that we could save $125 billion by renegotiating these contracts and other administrative costs. All of these corporations are engaging in blatant war profiteering, while veterans fight to get the government to recognize we were dying from lung cancer caused by the use of burn pits. The public thinks the majority of the military budget is not going to the very elite, but to their uncle who is going to the VA to treat his diseases associated with Agent Orange. Or to the homeless military, which make up about 1 in 4 of every homeless person.
The privatization of the military provided the blueprint for the privatization everywhere else. So, what happens is that taxpayers pay for young people like me to join the military. Once I realize that the benefits won't come through and I'm getting paid less than if I worked at Starbucks, I see private contractor jobs doing my military job for 80 to 150k a year. This lures me out of securing any time in grade for the military, so I do not get what little benefits are promised because I am thinking I am going to get big bucks now. It is completely unknown how many defense contractors our Department of Defense employs or even how many have died while in service for private defense companies. Somehow, if I die in the military I get a street named after me, if I die doing the same job as a contractor they couldn't be bothered to tally me up with all of my fellow dead. The military is forbidden to organize as a union, in an effort to prevent our country being overthrown by a military coup. So, we could not stop our benefits from being denied as a matter of course to save money. We could not stop the privatization of our own jobs. When I told one of my mentors, Ricardo Martinez, about this, he asked me a question I still do not know the answer to: what happens to a democracy when its military are basically mercenaries?
You can see this dynamic applied to all of our public institutions today. Starve the public system, declare it a failure, privatize public funds, and militarize that profit. Capitalism requires infinite resources and cheap labor in order to function, and it's running out of that frontier to exploit. Most resources have been claimed and conquered. The money to be made is in the exploitation of the workers and the privatization of public monies and property. That's the only thing left. It is to rob the poor of the little taxes they pay and give it to the rich on top of the tax breaks they get in the system and hide wealth through multinational corporations. It's no surprise to me that with the rise of statelessness of corporations, how they do not respond to national laws and evade international standards, we also have the rise of stateless terror groups.
Veterans, I feel, can create the connections across these different silos because we have seen the end-use of these policies; we have been the oppressors, and we have seen how war and strongman policies do not make us any safer and kill a lot of people. By building a united front, we at Iraq Veterans Against the War, want everyone to believe the poor as strongly as they believe veterans, because the plight of the poor is the plight of the veteran.
Rev. Shawna Foster is board chair of Iraq Veterans Against the War. Rev. Shawna was a nuclear, biological, chemical specialist and left the national guard in 2006 once she realized there were no weapons of mass destruction, and the Bush administration knew this before setting up Colin Powell.