As politicians and pundits opined on the 16-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq this week, organizer and veteran Perry O’Brien observed that people who were born after the 9/11 attacks and the beginning of the global war on terror are now old enough to join the military and deploy to Afghanistan, where fragile peace talks between with the Taliban continue. Blood is still spilling in Kandahar, the province in Afghanistan where O’Brien served as a medic during the early years of the Afghan war.
“In 2003, the idea of being in Afghanistan even five more years would have sounded unlikely; 15 years would have been madness,” O’Brien said in an interview with Truthout.
Nowdays, O’Brien is a political organizer with Common Defense, a nationwide group of progressive veterans that grew out of protests against President Trump’s racist remarks on the 2016 campaign trail. Conservative political forces have long held a monopoly on the public image of military service and patriotism, O’Brien said, but the nationwide community of progressive veterans is actually “enormous.”
“We didn’t want to be props for Trump’s campaign for hate,” O’Brien said. “We were outraged by his remarks about Muslims and immigrants, and the whole platform and were, you know, angry with … how he wraps himself in the flag and the symbols of service even though he has never served anything other than himself.”
Common Defense organizes and trains veterans to advocate on issues ranging from racial and economic justice to opposing the Trump administration’s ban transgender troops, but after nearly two decades of seemingly endless war, O’Brien and other vets want to make it glaringly clear to policymakers that supporting U.S. military intervention has nothing to do with supporting the troops.
“There is a mistaken view that the military community wants you to show your support for the troops by being pro-intervention,” O’Brien said. “Nothing could be further from the truth in terms of what the military community really wants.”
Congress Debates U.S. Militarism Under Trump
Common Defense is one of several veterans’ groups on both the left and the right that are putting mounting pressure on Congress to bring a clear end to the “forever wars.” Now that the war on terror has come to 80 countries, directly caused nearly half-a-million deaths and cost taxpayers more than $5.9 trillion since 2011, momentum among lawmakers to reassert their constitutional war-making authority is gaining steam after years of inaction and failed bipartisan attempts to rein in the White House and Pentagon.
Both the House and Senate have approved resolutions to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen’s bloody civil war, a clear rebuke of both the Saudi royal government and its cozy relationship with President Trump. Lawmakers in both chambers, particularly Democrats, have warned against U.S. military intervention in Venezuela, where hawks in the Trump administration are actively supporting a right-wing opposition leader as the country suffers an ongoing political and humanitarian crisis.
Progressive Democrats and some isolationist Republicans are also pushing legislation that would force a drawdown of war on terror operations in Afghanistan and across the world. Common Defense and dozens of other groups have seized on these proposals, putting mounting pressure on lawmakers (and House Democrats in particular) to bring them up for debate.
“There’s more and more of a drumbeat in Congress, but there’s also more and more of a drumbeat outside of Congress,” said Heather Brandon-Smith, a legislative director at the pro-peace Friends Committee on National Legislation, in an interview.
On March 13, a coalition of 42 advocacy organizations from across the political spectrum sent a letter asking the ranking members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to advance H.R. 1274, a bill that would sunset the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) issued by Congress in the days following the 9/11 attacks. Congress only debated the war in Afghanistan, but the Bush and Obama administrations broadly interpreted the authorization to justify at least 41 military operations in 19 countries.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-California) introduced H.R. 1274 and was the lone member of Congress to vote against the initial use-of-force authorization. She is also one of the few members of Congress from that era who is still serving today. Now, Representative Lee has 50 co-sponsors from both parties on her bill to repeal what she calls “that blank check for endless war.”
“For far too long, Congress has been missing in action when it comes to our constitutional duty,” Lee told Truthout in an email. “Our brave men and women in uniform deserve a full debate and vote on the costs and consequences of our ongoing wars. I’m encouraged that my colleagues — both Democrat and Republican — are standing up for the Constitution and insisting Congress muster the courage to repeal the 2001 AUMF.”
A spokesman for Rep. Eliot Engle, the Democrat who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, did not respond to an email inquiry about Lee’s bill by the time this story was published.
Peace Is a Litmus Test for Democrats
O’Brien said there are not enough isolationist Republicans in Congress to rein in the global reach of the U.S. military. President Trump has been able to have it both ways, pitching himself as a non-interventionist on the campaign trail while promoting war hawks like Mike Pompeo and John Bolton to top positions in his administration, and threatening to invade Venezuela and even Chicago.
“When we look at the last 18 years, it has proved the Republicans are not going to lead us towards a more peaceful foreign policy,” O’Brien said. “They are not going to give up defense spending.”
Instead, Common Defense is focusing on mainstream Democrats, who could be leading the way for peace but have shirked antiwar stances for years out of a misguided fear of being labeled “foreign policy wimps.” Democrats have also received tens of millions of dollars in contributions from defense contractors over the years, and even progressive Democrats are reluctant to oppose military spending that brings pork back to their home states.
Common Defense has been meeting with lawmakers and urging them to sign a “pledge to end the forever war” and halt the foreign policies keeping the U.S. military in a permanent state of international conflict. O’Brien is pitching the pledge as a litmus test for progressives, much like support for the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. Several progressive stars have already signed on, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Ilhan Omar and presidential candidates Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
There is no more patriotic American than @Ilhan. She is graceful, brilliant, and insightful. I will not stand for the anti-black attacks against her. She belongs on the foriegn affairs committee. #VetsForIlhan #IStandWithIllhan @commondefense pic.twitter.com/4kE1FrlfOR
— Dennis (@css_dennis) March 6, 2019
“We want the country to know that these are the folks that the military community is standing behind — the people who are willing to support the military and see use-of-force as a last resort,” O’Brien said.
Will other Democrats listen to veterans in the party’s base and follow suit?