“Post-World War II, the military hasn’t been defending America, but working for the power elite to expand empire,” Will Thomas tells me. In I962, at the age of 19, he was deployed on board the USS Okinawa to help enforce the US Naval quarantine of Cuba during the missile crisis.
Talking to the Veterans Peace Team, whose ranks include Mr. Thomas, is like a history lesson in that post-WWII imperial trajectory – these guys have been all over the world. The Peace Team, in the words of Tarak Kauff (101st Airborne Division, 1959-1962), hopes to “directly confront, challenge and expose the violence of the state.” We are standing in Zuccotti Park, gearing up for a march to call for New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s resignation. Regarding the police presence on the park’s perimeter, Kauff remarks, “If they want to use violence, let the world see them using it on veterans first.”
Formed four months ago, the Peace Team aims to muster enough of a presence to present a first line between protesters and police officers at demonstrations like today’s. “We are hoping our message about nonviolence will prevail on the police (and any occupiers who are a little bit gaga),” says Jay Wenk of the 90th infantry division of Patton’s Army. He earned a Purple Heart (for shrapnel in his leg) and a Bronze Star during his tour of duty in World War II, when he saw combat in Belgium, Germany and Czechoslovakia. Around Wenk’s octogenarian neck hang goggles in case of tear gas and pepper spray. In his pocket sits a cloth soaked in vinegar, a common substitute for a gas mask.
For further medical assistance, the Peace Team includes Mike Ferrer, who tended to many horrific injuries in an Illinois Navy hospital from 1969-75. A “farm kid with a head full of John Wayne movies,” Ferrer joined up to do his part and was quickly disabused of his romantic notions about war. Such injuries as Navy infantrymen were sustaining in Vietnam are unlikely to arise here on the march, but Ferrer’s bag includes gauze and other implements of wound care just in case. Mostly, though, he has water and Maalox, used to flush out eyes stinging with police poison.
As the speeches end and the march assembles, the 13-strong Peace Team form ranks, hoist a “Veterans for Peace” flag and march on the street side edge of sidewalk. That they are permitted to do this is a welcome change for the Peace Team, whose previous deployment was to Jeju Island, the South Korean island where they were recently detained at the airport, denied entry and seated on a return flight. “The South Korean and US governments,” explains Kauff, who was among those kicked out of Jeju Island, “are destroying the environment, which people there consider sacred, living and essential, in order to build a massive naval base a few hundred miles off the coast of Shanghai that 97 percent of the population doesn’t want. That is an act of war.” An act of civil resistance against the construction of a US naval base might seem a radical act, but, says Kauff, “being in the service radicalized me – just to see how the US military worked.”
Few people have a better sense of that than Art Brennan, an Army veteran of the 82nd Airborne division who served for 20 years in the Army Reserves. He went on to be a superior court judge in New Hampshire for 15 years and retired in 2007, when he was asked to head up the State Department’s anti-corruption unit in Baghdad. The Iraq war presenting an attractive candidate for most corrupt enterprise in American history, Judge Brennan served only a month on the job, before reaching the conclusions to which he testified before the US Senate:
“The Department of State has negligently, recklessly and sometimes intentionally misled the U.S. Congress, the American people, and the people of Iraq. In a sense, the Department of State has contributed to the killing and maiming of U.S. soldiers; the deaths of thousands of Iraqi civilians; the bolstering of illegal militias, insurgents and al Qaeda – and the enrichment and empowerment of the thieves controlling some of the Iraqi ministries. Further, the Department of State’s performance or nonperformance has discouraged honest men and women in the Iraqi government. Billions of U.S. and Iraqi dollars have been lost, stolen and wasted. It is likely that some of that money is financing outlaws and insurgents such as the Mehdi Army.”
Brennan tells me that the Democrats in Congress were all very encouraging of his testimony, but when President Obama was elected, they dropped the whole issue, including the billions and billions of dollars unaccounted for in Baghdad. “Now,” assesses Brennan, “the same people who fucked up Iraq are fucking up Afghanistan.”
Linda LeTendre, a cross hanging from her necklace, considers this gospel witness. “Veterans for Peace,” she tells me, “does some of the best gospel witness in the whole god damn country.” She is not a veteran, but a social worker who describes her religious commitment as “Quatholic” – part Quaker, part Catholic. Kauff tells me that the Peace Team has brought in allies for civil resistance trainings and actions like this protest so as not to manifest a uniformly male presence.
Along the march’s ever-changing route, we come across Sgt. Christian Alfonso, a US Marine active from 1984-88. I ask him if he saw combat, and he tells me, “You could say that – drug war stuff.” He continues to “train troops in Arab culture” before deployment to the Middle East. “Of all branches of service,” Alfonso tells me, “Marines are the most brainwashed.” He isn’t part of the Peace Team, but they slip him cards in an effort to recruit him.
They each bring up the fact that they have sworn an oath to defend the Constitution from enemies both foreign and domestic, and they all confess that the nobility of this formulation, the duty to defend dissenters from brutal official retaliation, didn’t impress them during their terms of service. It took the military experience, and often the subsequent years of reflection and activism, for the importance of that oath to sink in.
Ferrer’s Maalox and gauze never come out, but the march isn’t without its dangers. At one point, Officer Keegan of the NYPD, who does not have a badge number (“They don’t give us one as lieutenants,” he tells me) drives his police motorcycle directly into the leg of Mike Tork, a Navy veteran who spent 1965-67 fighting the Vietnam War. (Officer Chu, badge number 25352, had recently done the same thing to me – in neither case was an apology forthcoming.) “This affects all of us,” Tork tells me. “We want all veterans to start doing it.”