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A Truly Antiwar Agenda Must Include Free College and Medicare for All

An antiwar agenda must include redirecting the war budget to education and health care.

A protester holds a sign ahead of a rally against the imminent closure of Hahnemann University Hospital outside the Center City facilities in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 11, 2019.

Last night’s debate brought home a reality for me: A truly antiwar agenda is not confined to priorities traditionally seen as “foreign policy.” It must include bold plans to address climate change, education, institutional racism and sexism, health care and immigration justice. And our movements must reflect that broad-based vision.

The recent assassination of Iran’s top Gen. Qassim Suleimani was a frightening reminder of the undemocratic and reckless approach of those who currently rule the U.S. And days later, the detention and denial of entry to dozens of Iranian Americans at the border drew attention to the racism and Islamophobia of this country’s border patrol apparatus.

Activism in resistance to Trump’s reckless provocation has been inspiring. We saw powerful marches across the country in response to the strike against Suleimani. The strongest messages coming out of those rallies was that Iran is not our enemy and that the true enemy of poor and working-class people in this country is the current administration and the ruling class that drives us into war.

For many, these events were also a wake-up call to rebuild an antiwar/anti-militarism movement. Such efforts will be critical to prevent U.S. interventions in the Middle East and end trillion-dollar wars that redirect money from education, health care, infrastructure and environmental protections. In September of 2017, the Senate voted to increase the annual military spending budget from $620 billion to $700 billion. The $80 billion used for that increase could have made public colleges and universities tuition-free. The roughly $6 trillion spent on the wars in the Middle East since 2001 could have made the energy grid in the U.S. 100 percent renewable. And of course, there are the countless lives that have been destroyed because of U.S. militarism, and the potential to destroy countless more.

Yet somehow, as we saw in last night’s debate, politicians are never asked how they are going to pay for increases in military budgets, but always pounce on the questions of how we would pay for Medicare for All, free college, or green energy. The stakes couldn’t be higher when it comes to the need to build an antiwar movement. But what will that movement look like? And are we closer to realizing it than we think?

At the No War with Iran marches I heard a few reminisce about the marches during the Vietnam war. One person specifically referenced the day in October of 1967 when 100,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to challenge the war and the racism that fueled it. “We need to see something like that again,” that person said longingly. Others spoke of the antiwar marches in 2003 where up to 500,000 marched in New York City alone to protest the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

As inspiring as the antiwar movements of the past have been, it’s important that we don’t overly romanticize them and take them out of historical context. These movements were far from perfect and ultimately left the apparatus that continues to drive us to war intact. Yes, we need to replicate much of the energy of these previous decades and get ourselves back to a place where hundreds of thousands bring “business as usual” for the military-industrial complex to a grinding halt over a sustained period of time. But we can’t overlook the work being done that is creating a broader conception of an anti-militarism movement in the current moment.

In the spirit of embracing the moment we are in, and seeing the great work that is already being done, let’s look at some of the campaigns that are in action now and draw out some of the ways these struggles are directly and indirectly challenging U.S. militarism and laying a foundation for a broader and healthier intersectional antiwar movement that will one day welcome soldiers home, convince students not to sign up for the current wars, and redirect the trillions spent on the military to infrastructure, health care and education.

Fighting for Climate Justice

Many in the climate justice movement are drawing the connections between the U.S. military and the warming planet. They are challenging our elected officials to do more to shut down the 800 military bases around the world that are polluting more than 140 countries combined. People are recognizing that there is no such thing as a green military, and there never will be. You are either for the environment or for U.S. imperialism. You can’t be for both. More and more people are recognizing the point Sarah Lazare recently argued in In These Times: “We must not only tie together U.S. imperialism and climate, but use both as an entry point to combat the other.”

Demanding Free Higher Education

It’s been inspiring to see people fight for free education and recognize that one of the greatest obstacles to free college is the U.S. military. Most elected officials understand that if college were free, then the pool of potential military recruits would plummet — and that fact scares them to death. Roughly 20 percent of the 184,000 people who sign up for the military each year come from households that make less than $40,000 a year. It’s hard to find a college education that costs less than that amount.

I signed up for the military in part to pay off my college loans. I always ask myself if I would have signed up if I were debt free. If college debt were erased, thousands of soldiers would lose their incentive to stay in the military — a huge threat to the U.S. war machine.

Confronting Racism

So much of the racism used to fuel aggression overseas in foreign wars is taught through our existing institutions. People like Angela Davis and the leaders of the Movement for Black Lives have been making the connections between U.S. imperialism and the policing of Black and Brown communities for years, emphasizing that racist institutions at home fuel war abroad and vice versa. Supporting the existing efforts of those making these connections will resonate with students considering the military, as well as those currently on active duty who are questioning the mission.

Confronting Gender-Based Violence

Two out of every three women are sexually assaulted or harassed while in the military. The #MeToo movement is inspiring women in the military to challenge the patriarchy and toxic masculinity the military thrives on. The unhealthy and undemocratic power dynamic of “the chain of command” creates conditions ripe for abuse.

It’s only a matter of time before #MeToo truly erupts in the military. When this happens, the military will be rocked to its core. Civilian survivors’ struggles for justice are leading the way for women in the military to speak out about sexual assault in the ranks.

Fighting for Migrant Rights

The U.S. is the richest country in the world, in part because it has exploited countries in Latin America for decades. The migrant rights movement is challenging the idea of American exceptionalism and chauvinism that justifies so much killing and destruction around the world. Many have called upon active-duty soldiers to lay their weapons down and refuse to police the border. They are challenging active-duty soldiers to make these historical connections in order to further question the legitimacy of their mission at the border.

Indeed, much of our movement work is already threatening U.S. militarism. We can see this in the declining numbers of students who are willing to sign up for the military, despite enormous recruiting and marketing budgets. More and more activists are confronting militarism in words and actions while battling climate change, racism, sexism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, student debt, for-profit health care and capitalism as a whole.

At last night’s debate, the moderators presented war as an issue wholly separate from other urgent priorities. Meanwhile, the moderators and centrist candidates criticized progressive candidates’ plans for free college and Medicare for All, even as they called for an end to “endless wars.” It’s time we looked to grassroots movements — which increasingly recognize how these issues are inextricably linked — to be our guide.

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