Anti-War Leaders Launch New Strategy Inspired by Workers’ Human Rights Movement

Last month, I joined twenty veterans and nineteen other civilians at a training organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and Civilian-Soldier Alliance (Civ-Sol). The week was devoted to community building, strategic planning, leadership development, and sharing stories of hope, struggle, hardship and commitment.

It was exciting to see the level of strategic thinking and critical reflection from everyone in attendance, and the further development of the organization’s organizing model – reflecting aspects of two leading poor people’s human rights organizations, the United Workers and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) – focusing on transformative organizing, leadership development and campaigning.

New Leadership for a Movement

The two host organizations have come a long way, surviving both Bush terms, Obama’s broken anti-war promises, the “end” of the Iraq War, the escalation of the war in Afghanistan, and the withering, if not the complete halt, of the Peace Movement.

Those left standing will dictate the leadership and strategic direction of any revival – or, better yet, reconstruction from the ground up – of such a movement. IVAW and Civ-Sol’s decision to invest in this inaugural training – along with other key organizations such as Courage to Resist and Catalyst Project – makes it clear that they have taken up the challenge to redefine and lead a movement against war and militarism.

Looking Back to Learn

The training is a long way from IVAW’s humble beginnings as a speaker’s bureau in July of 2004. Along with the anti-war movement, the organization grew and picked up momentum. In 2005, IVAW members participated in Camp Casey, an encampment Cindy Sheehan began outside President George W. Bush’s vacation home to protest her son’s death in Iraq. In 2006, they marched in the Gulf Coast to highlight the Bush administration’s negligence of human life not only in the wake of Katrina, but also in the other Gulf where the war in Iraq was still officially being waged. Winter Soldier marked a peak for the organization in March of 2008. The event brought together hundreds of Iraq and Afghanistan service members and veterans to testify on the atrocities of war, modeled after the historic 1971 Winter Soldier hearing during the Vietnam War.

Through their strong presence at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, IVAW demonstrated that they are a determined and significant force that will not be silenced. From 2004 to 2010, scores of chapters were built, Conscientious Objectors were supported, and countless actions were held to highlight the horrors and inhumanity of war and our country’s inadequate care for veterans.

Although in 2003, The New York Times once quipped that the massive anti-war demonstrations were emblematic of a second “superpower,” there has been no shortage of shocking disappointments for the organization and its supporters. Yet with every event, action or march, IVAW believed that each effort would bring about an end to the wars. A strategy rooted in ending the war in Iraq, and, later, Afghanistan, only brought disappointment. The lack of a longer-term strategy or vision proved to be demoralizing and demobilizing for IVAW and the anti-war movement; this morale deficit proved to be a weakness when President Obama “ended” the war in Iraq. What becomes of IVAW when the war in Afghanistan “ends”?

IVAW’s identity as an explicitly “anti-war” organization has also hamstrung the organization, limiting its opportunities to speak to the majority of veterans, who don’t identify as being anti-war. This false dichotomy of pro-war vs. anti-war serves solely as coded speech among those who already identify with that ideological construction. If the goal is to organize as many veterans and GI’s as possible, than selecting a narrow ideological framework closes doors on potential leaders and members. The construct also carries with it the weight of the anti-war movement (predominately white and middle class), which is not necessarily reflective of the veteran and GI community.

This is why organizing around universal values as opposed to ideology can speak to a much broader base of people. Through the universal values of dignity, respect, and human rights – the same values the highly successful United Workers and the CIW incorporate into their organizing models – communication can occur across ideological or partisan barriers.

The Civilian Soldier Alliance has been active in the anti-war movement for at least as long as the IVAW. Their work has been crucial in supporting the work of resisting veterans and service members throughout the years. In 2007, they formed an alliance with IVAW, looking to the Student/Farmworker Alliance’s (SFA) relationship with the CIW for a partnership model-focusing much of the work that many of these committed civilian peace activist were already doing.

Civ-Sol was subject to the same hopes and frustrations faced by other players in the national anti-war movement, yet, like IVAW, has weathered the challenges with a core group of highly committed leaders. Like IVAW, Civ-Sol, found themselves rushing from protest to protest to fill the larger anti-war movement’s leadership gap, hoping that their next protest would end the war.

Looking Forward to Change

Thanks to Obama’s brilliantly managed “peace” campaign, by 2009 there were few peace groups to speak of left on the scene. IVAW and Civ-Sol’s momentum had also been stagnated by the 2008 presidential elections, but, unlike other groups, they emerged with a strong set of leaders ready dive into an honest assessment of their work’s impact. Members studied the anti-war movement’s shortcomings and its history during the Vietnam War, sought advice from like-minded organizations, and reflected on the history and organizing during the Civil Rights Movement. Their synthesis resulted in two significant documents: IVAW’s organizing model and the Civilian Ally organizing manual.

By week’s end, the group had collectively identified an issue to start a campaign around. IVAW announced on July 11 that it will focus on advocating for adequate PTSD and mental health care for veterans and GIs and against deployments of traumatized veterans – a clear shift from the previous strategy of trying to create bigger and bigger events to end the war. The change will help focus organizational resources and unite veteran and peace organizations, while also exposing the federal government’s neglect for the health of veterans and service members.

Recommendations for the Future

On many fronts, IVAW along with Civ-Sol are pushing forward in a much more strategic, intentional and sustainable way that has the potential to organize a broad-based peace movement led by veterans and GI’s capable of shifting the power relations that create poverty, war-profiteering, and killing at the expense of fair development and dignified healing. As they move forward, they should:

Think Beyond Current Wars

As it stands, both organizations identify the core of their strategic visions to be an end to the military war and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. This has been and may continue to be a barrier for them to establish long-standing, effective organizations. Wars can be ended rather abruptly by presidents and by mass media’s perception management – as evidenced by President Barack Obama’s “end” to the war in Iraq. If an organization’s chosen war was ended, then its mission would be “achieved” and its relevance subsequently imperiled. I would like to see these organizations around in thirty years, not because the U.S is still in Iraq and Afghanistan, but because members fight for the human rights of veterans and build power to transform national priorities toward peace and reconciliation.

Learn Lessons from Poor People’s Human Rights Movement to Expand the Movement’s Base

Great efforts are being made to pursue a transformative organizing model where people engage in struggle not out of self-interest, but to participate in collective struggle for something much larger then themselves. Poor people’s human rights organizations like the United Workers organize through universal values that speak to a larger struggle toward realizing the full human potential of all – values of respect, dignity, and sanctity of life. In heeding this lesson, the anti-war movement’s base of veterans and a select group of civilians could expand beyond of the polarized pro-war/anti-war ideology and connect with people around shared values and cultures.

The two groups should also continue to prioritize critical reflection and analysis, especially in the early stages of the campaign, and – taking yet another lesson from the CIW and United Workers – construct a compelling campaign narrative to make their struggle epic, and lay the groundwork for power-building through perception in a story where the movement gets to be the heroic underdog rather then a reactive, powerless force of protesters facing off against police.

IVAW and Civ-Sol can be the new leadership we need for a more vibrant peace movement. If they continue along their current path, they will move from being a reactive anti-war force to a proactive, pro-peace force for a more just, humane, and dignified order, not solely for veterans and service-members, but for everyone, at home and abroad.