Monday, November 10, 2014

ANTI-WAR ACTIVISM: SOLDIERS, VETERANS, AND MILITARY FAMILIES, A Book Review



Harry Targ

Fighting for Peace: Veterans and Military Families in the Anti-Iraq War Movement by Lisa Leitz. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014. (306 pages; paper)

One of the biggest scholarly secrets about social movements since the Vietnam War is the magnitude and vibrancy of the anti-war movement inside the military. “Sir! No Sir!” a 2005 film documented the militant anti-war movement that spread throughout the United States military in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The movement included acts of civil disobedience at military bases, networks of coffee houses near military installations, anti-war newspapers targeted to military readers, and a spreading network of anti-war families and loved-ones as the movement percolated throughout U.S. society.

Fighting for Peace by Lisa Leitz, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Director of Project Pericles at Hendrix College, fast-forwards in a rigorous way to the study of the military anti-war movement from 2005 to 2012; involving veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, loved-ones of those serving, extended families, and networks of military families. The volume uses a variety of methods--questionnaires, extended interviews, archival materials, and ethnographies of organizations and individual military anti-war activists and their families. While surveying anti-war movements against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Professor Leitz concentrates on the participation, vision, rhetoric, activism, tactics, and contradictory “identities” of five organizations: Veterans for Peace, Military Families Speak Out, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Gold Star Families for Peace, and Gold Star Families Speak Out.

The narrative begins with the formation of some of these groups and growing tensions between them arising after the dramatic anti-war protests initiated by Cindy Sheehan, mother of a son who was killed in Iraq. The site of these demonstrations in Crawford, Texas was adjacent to the summer residence of President George Walker Bush.  For Leitz, the camp site that was created and named after Sheehan’s deceased son, Camp Casey was “a watershed moment for this movement.” In addition to inspiring the anti-war movement generally “…the vigil brought together veterans of the current wars, veterans of past wars, families of dead military service members, and families of current service members who were all critical of the Iraq War” (3).

The volume presents in-depth research on each of the anti-war military organizations. It addresses their composition: current military and veterans; families of service members and those killed and injured; and veterans of prior U.S. wars, particularly the Vietnam War. It examines the collaborations and tensions between the veterans and military families and the larger peace movement.  It describes policies, programs, and strategies. These involve anti-war positions and demands for increased services for soldiers on the ground and those returning veterans with health needs. It describes debates about how the military and military families should use their special legitimacy, experiencing war directly or through loved ones, in the mass movement. And the narrative describes how the military anti-war movement (rather than the peace movement in general) became a platform for debate between some socialist organization members who wished to incorporate it in a larger campaign to radically transform society versus those who argued that the military anti-war movement should concentrate on the more limited goal of ending the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and providing adequate services for returning veterans.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the study is the portrait of the contradictions faced by the author herself and the five organizations as they navigated through a hostile military environment. First, Professor Leitz, a visible anti-war activist was married to a career military officer. As a military spouse, she lived on military bases and carried out some of her anti-war activism in a social milieu that was hostile. She frames much of the study around how active military personnel, veterans, and military families addressed these contradictions personally and politically. 

The contradiction of being anti-war activists in social networks of military personnel and families was replicated in the tensions anti-war veterans and military families experienced working with the larger, non-military peace movement. Many of the former opposed the two twenty-first century wars but believed that the U.S. military was needed and, on occasion, could engage in positive projects. This position put these military activists at odds with peace movement ideology and sometimes peace movement practice.  

This portrait of the contradictions between the military movements and the larger peace and anti-war movement provides useful information for activists who ponder how to expand participation in campaigns to promote a peace agenda. And, of course, the peace movement should appropriately respect the special experience, legitimacy, policy preferences, and more limited perspectives of those who actually have experienced war. In addition Professor Leitz describes how the military activists reflected on how their influence could be enlarged as they struggled to become part of a larger more “generic” peace movement.

Fighting for Peace can be a valuable tool for researchers as well as activists. Despite the author’s abstract framing of her research as a study of the military “insider-outsider” identity which sometimes interferes with the well-written account it remains an important contribution to the scholarly study of social movements. Furthermore the rigorous study demonstrates the issues and pitfalls that peace activists must consider as they organize to create a more peaceful world.