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Veterans Organizing Conference, New York City

By Susan Schnall

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Jan Barry and Frank Toner.

About 35 veterans and allies attended all or part of the day-long "Veterans Organizing Conference" sponsored by the Veterans Peace Council of Metro New York and its affiliated organizations, and staged at the Joseph S. Murphy Institute of the City University of New York on February 22, 2014. Susan Schnall (VVAW & VFP) and Ben Chitty (VVAW & VFP) moderated the event. Laurie Sandow provided staff support.

This conference followed up on the Council's "Conference on the Veterans Peace Movement," held last May at Rutgers Presbyterian Church in New York City. The May conference's morning sessions discussed veterans' witness to war, patriotic myths and rewriting history, and veterans and the politics of war. The conference's afternoon sessions focused on what veterans bring to the movement for peace and social justice, what the movement can do for veterans, and how to organize veterans as veterans in the movement.

The morning session of February 22 began with presentations by representatives from organizations affiliated or closely associated with the Council. Brian Mataresse (VVAW) focused on solidarity with Vietnam and projects such as Agent Orange relief and recovering Vietnamese MIAs. Matt Howard (IVAW) described Right to Heal. Tarak Kauff (Veterans Peace Teams and VFP) talked about direct actions by veterans. Al Stolzer and Tom Barton (Military Resistance) examined dissent and resistance in the military. Bill Gilson (VFP/NYC) discussed participation in Armistice Day events, commemorating the Christmas Peace Truce of 1914, and the Agent Orange campaign. Ken Dalton (VVAW and VFP/NJ) talked about the chapter's international composition and work with grassroots organizations.

Mike Gold.

Participants discussed many other activities and concerns, including: women veterans' issues, support for veterans in minority communities, challenges to restrictions on constitutional rights, lobbying campaigns, protesting drones, closing Guantánamo, work with US Labor Against War, counter recruitment, community organizing, intergenerational projects, and full disclosure of the real history of the American War in Vietnam. Ben Chitty opened the afternoon session with a summary of the morning's discussion. The various activities and campaigns fit into one or more of five categories: education, civic participation, outreach, direct action, and specific issues.

In the context of the Christmas Truce of 1914, three veterans' reconciliation projects were described. Jan Barry talked about Warrior Writers and Walt Nygard spoke about the therapeutic effects of the Combat Papers project, in which veterans turn their old uniforms into paper. Both projects work on the premise that art heals the soul. Susan Schnall presented the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign, based on the principle that we have a responsibility to care for people harmed by our weapons and wars.

Ben Chitty presented a short summary of the importance of the Christmas Peace Truce when ordinary soldiers made temporary peace with their enemies, causing the Western Front to fall silent during WWI. The truce broke out spontaneously in many places, and more than a hundred thousand soldiers took part. This was an extraordinary event, a peace created by soldiers. Conference participants agreed that veterans should issue a call to commemorate the Christmas Truce of 1914, with suggestions including a hundred-day campaign beginning on International Peace Day, festivals featuring armistice-related movies and performances, gatherings at Vietnam Memorials and issuing the call for peace.

The Veterans Peace Council will hold its next conference on Saturday, May 10, 2014 at the Joseph F. Murphy Institute. Discussion will focus on the significance for veterans of the Christmas Truce of 1914, and the campaign for its centennial commemoration.

This story is based on Ben Chitty's report on the conference. The full report is available on the Council's Facebook site www.facebook.com/veteranspeacecouncil.

Susan Schnall is a co-coordinator of the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign. She is currently a professor in Health Policy and Planning at NYU and a member of VFP and APHA. She is on the VVAW Board.

Ben Chitty.

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