Veterans For Peace National Convention

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From August 16th to the 19th, veterans from across the country gathered in St. Louis for the Veterans for Peace (VFP) National Convention.  VFP is based in St. Louis. It includes veterans of wars from the Second World War to Vietnam to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, who are interested in an alternative to imperialist slaughter.  Many organizations were present including Courage to Resist, various counter-recruitment organizations, the local Instead of War Coalition, and many others. But most important was the presence of 90 members of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), who inspired the entire conference with their dedication to a swift and uncompromising end to the current quagmire in Iraq, and their courage to speak out.

Aside from the convention itself, there were various other actions over the course of the weekend.  There was a “speak out” at a Methodist church on Friday night.  There was an action by IVAW at the “Army of One” recruitment table at the Black Expo being held at the same time, which featured a flashy video game to draw in black youths.  The soldiers fell into military line and chanted at the top of their lungs, “War is not a game!”  The weekend was rounded out by a march on Sunday, dubbed the “March to the Arch”. 

The conference, taken as a whole, showed a marked change in the consciousness of both the movement itself and its leadership, as well as a searching for a way forward for the movement.

The first planned event open to the public was the “speak out” at Centenary Methodist Church, which was led by VFP executive director, Michael McPhearson, a veteran of the first Gulf War.  The speak out featured speeches by Garett Reppenhagen of IVAW, Phyllis Bennis of the International Policy Institute, Elaine Johnson of Gold Star Families, and Democratic presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich, among others.  Entertainment was provided by Raw Earth, Steve Jacobs, Victor Segura, and Tom Chelston, as well as an a cappella rap performance by Iraq War veteran and member of IVAW, Darrell Anderson (who was interviewed in Socialist Appeal #29).  The meeting was very well attended and the church overflowed with people eager to hear what the speakers had to say after a long day of workshops and meetings.

McPhearson led off the meeting and introduced Reppenhagen of IVAW.  Reppenhagen is probably best known for penning the very moving poem “Letter from Iraq”, which the Bouncing Souls have put to music.  Although Reppenhagen was among the first to speak, for many, his speech spoke most clearly to the sentiments of many in the movement.  At the climax of his speech he declared:  “We will make them stop this war, but if they don’t, we will march on Washington, storm the Capitol, and we will stop this war!”  To this, he received a wild standing ovation, which in and of itself is a direct reflection of the changes taking place in the movement.  Not only would that statement not have gotten such a response just one year ago, but it is unlikely that it would have even been made at a national convention of VFP at that time.

There was also a noticeable change in the way the Democratic Party was discussed.  Most of the speakers spoke about the two parties as if they were one party, to a balance of nodding heads and standing ovations.  Those in the leadership that disagreed dared not say so from the stage.  This is how far the changing consciousness has come since the 2006 elections, at least among some of the more advanced layers of the movement.  The Democrats have shown themselves, in practice, to be utterly incapable of immediately ending the Iraq War, because they represent the same basic interests as the Republicans.  This was the sentiment expressed from the stage at the speak out, as well as from the rank and file at the convention.

Dennis Kucinich’s speech deserves special attention, because a great many sincere anti-war activists see him as an alternative to the rest of the Democratic Party.  While there were a lot of positive ideas put forward in his speech, such as the need for universal health care, if one listened closely, he spoke as if he had been asked to speak to the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) rather than the VFP.  Besides all the completely out of place talk about duty, honor, and country, having never heard his plan for Iraq directly spelled out, many in the crowd were rather put off when he said that U.S. troops must leave in order that “international peacekeeping” forces can occupy the country instead.

This is no solution at all, and clashes directly with the sentiment of broad sectors of the anti-war movement. What is needed is the complete withdrawal of all foreign troops (and mercenaries, like Blackwater USA), so that the Iraqi people themselves can decide.

Nonetheless, Kucinich, on the whole, received a positive response from the crowd, because he does speak to many of the issues that concern working people.  He has been marginalized by his own party, and ABC News has recently been made to admit by members of his campaign that he was intentionally marginalized, both during and after the candidates’ debate hosted it hosted. 

If Kucinich actually means what he says, he should immediately break with the Democrats, plain and simple.  So long as he remains within the big business confines of that party, he can serve only to siphon off the growing discontent with the two party system by fomenting the illusion that real change is possible within it.  All experience has shown that this is simply not the case.  Time and again, the Democratic Party has been used to derail progressive movements, from the struggle for Civil Rights, to the anti Iraq War movement.

The VFP weekend wrapped up with a march from the convention at the Holiday Inn to the St. Louis Arch.  While slightly smaller than some of the anti-war marches in the past (although very respectable by St. Louis standards), signs of a change in the mood were clearly discernible here, as well.

It must be made clear that it is not common for passersby to join a march in St. Louis, but this march was an exception.  The march left the convention almost entirely white and made up mostly of veterans.  Along the way, we picked up a great deal of supporters from the sidewalks and surrounding streets.  By the time the march reached our destination at the Arch, we were a much more diverse crowd, far more representative of the composition of the city of St. Louis.

Another thing that was quite different at this march was the level of support from the people all along the march route.    Workers from restaurants all along the way stepped out and gave us the thumbs up.  We didn’t receive a single negative comment. Residents and workers in the high-rise buildings in downtown yelled messages of support to the march below.

We arrived at our destination where we heard several excellent speeches by members of IVAW and others.  One Iraq War veteran and member of IVAW stated, correctly, that, “We must stop this war at the point of production,” and urged those present that were not currently a member of some organization, “there are plenty here, join one.  You cannot change things as an individual.”  He stressed the importance of organization and discipline.  “We must be organized…Our enemies are very organized, and they don’t miss meetings!”

The veterans’ movement, as exemplified in the form of both VFP and IVAW, is a key component of the anti-war movement.  As Garett Reppenhagen has pointed out elsewhere, they are a “bridge to the heartland.”

There were quite a few people this weekend asking, “Why are our numbers still so small?”  “Why isn’t everyone out here when virtually everyone is against this war?”  In part, the reason can be traced to the splits in the anti-war movement. Studies have shown that the rank and file participants at ANSWER and UFPJ demos are demographically virtually identical.  There is no excuse for the continued division in the movement when we all have the same aim.  Maximum unity to end the war now is the way forward.

The movement also needs a political expression.  It is now clear to millions more Americans that the Democrats have no interest in actual solutions.  All they can offer is talk of new and different places to attack, or in the case of Kucinich, international “peacekeeping” forces.  The anti-war movement, and the working-class as a whole, needs a political party to call our own.

One remark from Phyllis Bennis at the “speak-out” sticks out in my mind:  “The anti-war movement needs to learn how to deal with winning.”  The fact is that the consciousness of the vast majority of the U.S. population has been transformed since the beginning of the war, largely due to the worsening conditions on the ground and the economic effects here at home, but also due to the arguments and demonstrations by the anti-war movement up to this point.  Many more people are now listening to what we have to say:

For a united anti-war movement!
Bring all the troops home now!
No to international “peacekeepers”Let the Iraqi people decide!
We need a party of our own: For a mass party of labor!

Are you a communist?
Then apply to join your party!