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(This commentary piece also appears in THE VETERAN, Fall 2014 (Volume 44, Number 2).)

No New War in the Middle East

By Bill Branson

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From the National Office

After Vietnam Veterans Against the War's (VVAW) 47 years, we are again witnessing the US at war in Iraq and Syria. Our country seems to be on the warpath, doomed to make the same mistakes yet again, not having learned the real lessons from our war.

Instead of learning from the Vietnam War, our leaders have once again attempted to whitewash the terrible truths with the Department of Defense's Vietnam War Commemoration (www.vietnamwar50th.com), and documentaries like Last Days in Vietnam. Under the guise of celebrating the service and the contribution of the troops, the heroism, and the spreading of "democracy," the government sweeps under the rug the after effects of our warfare, like the deaths caused by Agent Orange, the lack of benefits for veterans "dishonorably" discharged, the results of bombing a country into the Stone Age, and the political destabilization of an entire region.

How else would we find ourselves illegally bombing Iraq and Syria in 2014? Yes, the genocide ISIS has been carrying out is wrong and yes, the international community should address it. But the US led response of bombing ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria is the same knee-jerk reaction that produced the current chaos in the Mideast, in the first place. When has bombing ever solved anything? It has repeatedly been the gateway to a much deeper and bloodier conflict.

First, we are illegally bombing Iraq, and now Syria. President Obama did not bother with Congressional approval or United Nations sanctioning before bombing ISIS. To say that this is within the President's power or that it falls under the laws Congress passed in 2002 to attack Iraq is a gross exaggeration and misinterpretation of US presidential powers. President Obama, now the fourth president in a row to be engaged in war with Iraq, seems doomed to follow Lyndon Johnson's legacy after Vietnam. Obama, like Johnson, began his presidency with a much-needed focus on domestic reform. Johnson launched "The Great Society," which included the Civil Rights Act, the Older Americans Act, and the creation of Medicare. But he ended up remembered most notably for taking the US to war with Vietnam.

President Obama took office with promises of closing Guantanamo, immigration reform, and healthcare reform. His leadership led to the greatest social reform since Johnson through the creation of the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare"). But he has fallen short on many of his other promises and seems to be leading us back to an unnecessary and illegal war. Will his legacy be another war in the Middle East?

VVAW calls on President Obama and Secretary Kerry to end the illegal bombings in Iraq and Syria. Trying to bomb ISIS and Al Nusra out of existence will not work. We are killing innocent men, women, and children in the process. We are galvanizing the very people we want to "protect" by bombing cities where there are not clear enemy targets, including urban and rural targets with civilians and terrorists living side by side.

The US doesn't seem to have learned this yet, but the Middle East is a geographic region where western powers have imposed artificial borders. It is not homogenous like Germany or Japan was after Word War II. We cannot use bombs and soldiers to install democracy (a truly ironic statement if there ever was one) in areas with such diverse and mixed religious and ethnic cultures.

There ARE other ways to have an impact, and a positive one at that. The US has other strengths beside weaponry and bombs. If we truly want to eliminate terrorists like ISIS and Al Nusra, we have to be part of an international effort to provide support and resources, not bombs and casualties. We can't continue to be the source of destabilization and ultimately radicalizing groups in the Middle East and expect to end terrorism and walk away with our hands clean, with a victory in our pocket.

One of the primary roots of the ISIS easy victories has been the failure of the Iraq government to share power with the Sunnis. Congress and the White House must make this sharing happen, even though it means admitting the failure of our "nation building" and twisting the Iraq government's arm. How about we stop arming the so-called "friendly" rebels in Syria and work for a regional solution to the civil war? These alternatives will require hard work, and perhaps a long-term plan, but bombing and eventual boots ON the ground will only lead to further chaos.

And while the US is almost solely focused on the Middle East, what about addressing our own problems for once? We have such institutionalized racism that African American teenagers being murdered are all too common — Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown to name a few. Neighborhoods, like Ferguson, that are overwhelmingly composed of people of color are governed by nearly all-white police forces. Since post 9/11, these police departments have been armed by federal government grants providing military-grade vehicles, weapons and body armor. And all-too-often the police don't have the proper training for the appropriate uses of such equipment and tactics. This has to change.

As an organization that struggles for veteran's rights and benefits, we must also address the April VA scandal. The secret patient lists at the Phoenix VA contributed to the deaths of more than forty veterans and prevented 1,700 veterans from seeing a primary care provider at the Phoenix VA. This is horrendously tragic for veterans to have to wait so long to just get through the door to see a primary care doctor. But it is also not new. The VA is the largest health care system in the United States and the demand is growing. Vietnam-era veterans are now beginning to seek out care from the VA for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), conditions related to Agent Orange exposure and much more. At the same time, we've created a new generation of veterans that desperately need access to health care at the VA. This means 700,000 new patients added to the system in a few years.

There are those in Congress who succeeded in their call for Veterans Affairs Secretary Shinseki to resign, and are also calling for VA care to become privatized. But they are simply using the Phoenix VA scandal as a lightning rod for their own agenda. These are the same elected officials who could care less that veterans with less-than-honorable discharges have no access to VA services. The US Senate voted down both Senator Gillibrand's Military Justice Improvement Act and Senator Sanders' Veterans Omnibus Bill last spring.

These are the same officials who fought against expanded Medicaid, which would have provided health care to 250,000 veterans in the states that chose not to expand the program because they weren't required to. Our country has an access to care problem, whether or not you are a veteran.

Former Secretary Shinseki had spearheaded the effort to decrease the backlog in processing veteran disability claims, which had gotten so much better in the last year. It is a shame that Shinseki, not those who kept his hands tied, has been forced into being the fall guy for the latest scandal. Now is not the time for politicians to be reactionary or to use this tragedy to further their own agenda. Instead, it's the time for us to fight for a stronger VA system that can meet the needs of ALL veterans.

There is much work to be done. Join VVAW in our calls to:

  • Stop the bombings in Iraq and Syria;
  • Stop militarizing our police departments;
  • And start appropriately funding and prioritizing the restructuring of the VA system from the bottom up.

We hope you enjoy this issue of The Veteran!

Bill Branson is a VVAW board member.

Thanks to Jeff Danziger and Billy Curmano for their cartoons. Thanks to Bill Branson, Ed Damato, Robert Halgash, Barry Romo, George Weber, Ann Bailey, Vince Emanuele, Meg Miner, Poppy Kohner, Malaya Scipes, Ken Dalton, Brian Matarrese and others for contributing photos.

Charlie Branson
Bill Branson
Jeff Machota
Ellie Shunas
Jen Tayabji

Commentary on VVAW.org: