Civilian Ally: Veterans as an Affected Population

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This manual focuses on building the GI resistance movement, and doing so requires an understanding of how veterans are directly impacted by war and militarism. Civilian organizers need this awareness in order to to build relationships and organize effectively in the military community. Below we explore veterans’ experiences with the military.

Military Culture and Structure

Military Culture is created and sustained by maintaining thick walls between military and civilian life and isolating service members in an environment of intense discipline and training in preparation for war, which is intended to divest them of their humanity. Many veterans speak of being trained in the military to dehumanize “the enemy,” with the result that they themselves are dehumanized. This shared traumatic experience perpetuates a feeling of isolation from the rest of society and breeds a deep and incredibly strong sense of camaraderie, which is often what keeps people in the military and promotes their defense of each other and each other’s actions.

Upon joining the military, a soldier’s world is turned upside down and the recruit becomes completely controlled by the military. Service members live by a whole new set of rules about everything in their lives: from their schedule to the way they speak, what they wear, and what they do; they become the property of the U.S. government. The military breaks them down, strips away any differences they have from one another, and forces them to identify as part of the institution instead of as an individual.

The military structural hierarchy is rigid and comprehensive, with layers of officers exercising privilege over large numbers of GIs. The explicit dehumanization and devaluing of GIs based on their rank functions like a class structure within the military. Although there have always been exceptions (most recently a lieutenant named Ehren Watada who publicly refused deployment to Iraq in 2006), officers tend to align themselves with their superiors in the military chain of command, and rarely participate in overt resistance.

Hierarchy and authority play critical roles in the military and it often leads to service members relating to these relationships outside of the military in very negative ways. Service members’ relationships with and views of officers vary greatly. Some GIs felt taken care of by their commanding officers, while others felt completely betrayed. There are several types of personnel, indicated below in order of increasing rank:

Enlisted (E1-E5 privates, seamen, airmen, and sergeants are the most likely candidates for organizing, as they are lower ranking, and on the front lines/ doing the grunt work)

  • Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs)
  • Warrant Officers
  • Commissioned Officers
  • Five Star Ranking (Generals)

Many service members feel that no one understands their bravery, sacrifice, and the suffering they have endured, and consequently re-integrating back into civilian life (especially after deployment) is extremely difficult. Military training is designed to turn civilians into soldiers, but there is no training for those soldiers to return to civilian life afterwards.

Each branch has its own subculture: flags, insignia, symbols, strong identity, and pride. The military and each branch also have their own language—words, terms, and acronyms—some of which is institutional communication, and some, is daily slang. These things contribute to an intensely internal culture.

One job of an ally is to learn how to break down the wall between former military members and civilians. Since the veterans are out of the military and living civilian lives, they are already trying to do that. Some differences will always exist, but we must live and work beyond them.

Many aspects of military culture reflect the sexism, homophobia, racism, and violence that are deeply part of U.S. culture, but amplified inside the military. Rampant targeted acts of violence and abuse often go applauded, ignored, or inadequately addressed.

The majority of mental health support is less than adequate or it institutionally supports the war; there is generally no space for emotions except as channeled into anger and aggression. Vulnerability is attacked.

Veterans learn different survival strategies for dealing with an emotionally brutal environment; some shut down entirely, and most struggle in different ways with coming back to emotional health and wholeness.

Why People Enlist

After the Vietnam War era’s spectacular challenge to the draft and military service by GIs and conscientious objectors, the U.S. military shifted from conscription (the draft) to voluntary service (which forces male citizens to register). This new plan for filling the ranks, explicitly described in internal communication by those who crafted the strategy, was to force enlistment by working-class youth with few other viable options.

Communities that already face increased militarization in the form of a large police presence and the jailing of more of their members are the same communities most heavily targeted by military recruiters.

“The poverty draft,” which targets all low-income individuals, and particularly people of color and immigrants, is a net to catch people and therefore a weapon for recruiters.

The following are real quotes from recruiters:

  • “You have two options: go to jail like your friends, or you can join the military and get out of the hood,”
  • “How else are you going to afford to go to college?”
  • “Where else can you get job training? You want to work at McDonald’s forever?”

People enlist for these and many other reasons. They may be confused, depressed and looking for direction, meaning, structure, and discipline. They might be immigrants promised citizenship in exchange for military service. They may be pressured by friends, family, or recruiters. They may be heavily influenced by their military family. They may have a desire to help people and give service or, conversely, want to “blow shit up.” They may believe in the “the mission.” They may have been moved to enlist after 9/11 for a variety of motivations.

It is essential not make assumptions about why someone enlisted, their beliefs, or their experience within the military.

Experiences Inside the Military

The experiences of GIs in the military vary depending on their individual prior experiences; their reasons for joining; and their race, class, gender, and sexuality. Of course, populations that face the most oppression and violence in the civilian world (including people of color, women, and queer folks) will experience them in an intensified way with in the military.

Since the beginning of the war in Iraq, over 30,000 GIs have deserted or gone AWOL. A third of returning troops report a mental condition of some kind and 18.5 percent of all returning service members meet the criteria for either Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or depression. Eighteen war veterans kill themselves each day—five of them while under the care of the Veterans Administration (VA). An estimated 360,000 veterans may have suffered traumatic brain injuries, and 23 percent of the homeless population in the U.S. are veterans. The psychological and physical trauma of war, along with the military institution itself, leaves most veterans struggling with some physical injury or disability, or an emotional/mental health issue. Domestic violence, including murder, and violence within families, including child abuse, are major issues for military spouses, partners, and families. These are all costs of militarism that our families and communities are enduring, often silently.

Making a bad situation worse, the services provision system of the VA is dysfunctional and inadequate at providing veterans and GIs the healthcare they need. Most veterans experience some lifelong impacts on their physical, emotional and/or mental health, and many never get the basic services they were promised upon enlistment.

Unsurprisingly, the populations most oppressed in the military are also the populations that disproportionately resist and challenge its authority and control. Historically within the G.I. resistance movement, the most progressive, outspoken, and bold sectors have been the soldiers of color, queer, and female soldiers. Supporting the leadership of these courageous veterans is necessary for a healthy, strong, and successful G.I. resistance movement.

Racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, sexual assault, and hazing are woven into the fabric of daily life in the military, meaning that many GIs and veterans are survivors of oppression and institutionalized violence.

These debilitating experiences, and internalization of oppression, profoundly affect GI resistance organizing environments, sometimes shaping power relationships within the very circles that are attempting to challenge militarism. It is important for allies to be aware of this danger and support those resisting oppression within their own communities. The support of allies can take many forms, but it always requires attentiveness to the situation and awareness of the larger power relationships that shape interpersonal and community ties. Because those power dynamics are so deep in how our society is shaped, they are the air we breathe-- all around us, and automatic rather than conscious. Whenever we aren’t being thoughtful and intentional about privilege, even with the best of intentions we contribute to reproducing these systems of oppression.

Internalized privilege and oppression affects how we relate to each other as activists, whose work gets recognized and valued, and whose voices and leadership are respected and sought out. Sometimes support from allies can be as basic as refusing to let someone degrade their own value and abilities, or intervening if someone is being marginalized in the course of organizing work. Our goal, in building as strong a movement as possible, is to have all the strong voices, particular talents, and unique contributions of each person be fully integrated.

Surviving the Military

Within the U.S., we all experience the costs of militarism in different ways. Civilians have a range of relationships to militarism; we will explore this topic in the Allies chapter. In addition to ways militarism impacts all of us, military veterans are also survivors of the institution itself, and many experience symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other challenges to their mental and physical health. Some resisters are survivors of military incarceration (“the brig”). Many are also combat veterans, survivors of war.

Service members’ training to embody militarism affects them physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. As a part of the military, their life was wrapped up in its culture from the uniforms they wore, to their haircuts, their names, the words they spoke, where they lived, the rules they adhered to, their paychecks, and, of course, their bosses. Many were deployed to combat zones. Some participated in the combat and violence. Some witnessed them. Some cleaned up the results of the violence and some propagated it.

Different activities, responses, personalities, and support systems produce varying reactions by service members to the numerous forms of trauma and violence enveloping the lives of service members. Furthermore, all in one way or another supported the military’s actions whether stateside or deployed, so it is important to acknowledge each service member’s experience with the military. Whether they served as a medic, or “didn’t see anything,” simply being in the military affected them to the core of their being.

The unifying factor making GIs and vets an affected population is the fact that they are part of an institution where no one has the right to voluntarily leave or quit, no one has a voice, and everyone’s civil rights are suspended. No other parts of the labor force besides prison labor, and in some places, migrant or trafficked laborers, work under similar conditions.

Implications Of GI Resistance for Resisters

Why do some service members, who at one point voluntarily enlisted, later risk imprisonment and more to resist unjust, immoral, and illegal wars?

Nearly always, an individual will have gone through a transformative process that included questioning and soul-searching, weighing “duty” and their training in obedience with conflicting direct experiences and study. For some, this period of internal debate lasts years. For others, new outlooks become crystallized within days, often in response to key moments.

Many service members come to a point of simply no longer being able to follow orders in good conscience. For many, this realization manifests through depression. Some mistakenly believe suicide is the “only way out” from under military authority. Others are motivated by these internal conflicts to resist, in a number of ways.

The military justice system is in actuality a system to enforce discipline. Despite its name, it does not exist to seek justice. That has implications for service members who resist. We encourage anyone considering resistance to seek counseling from someone trained in the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Counselors can help you explore your options, apply for a discharge, and/or build a legal strategy.

Below are very brief overviews of common acts of military resistance and their legal implications. Please note that it is impossible to precisely predict what the consequences will be. This is because, within the military, the implications of any action or actions are very arbitrary. At numerous steps in a service person’s chain of command, authority figures can weigh in on the outcome.

For example, the same commanding officer might decide to administratively discharge one returning AWOL soldier and press for a court martial and bad conduct discharge for another. While both soldiers might have been AWOL for the same amount of time, the commander could make this decision based on his history with each individual, the ranks of the AWOL soldiers, and his perceived need to make a disciplinary statement to other troops vs. the effort to convene a court martial. The base commanding general also might play a significant role in these decisions. Historically, race has also played a major factor, with soldiers of color receiving harsher punishments.

Finally, anyone who has served in the military knows that most punishment and discipline is not served through the formal military justice system, but through informal peer pressure, duty assignments, and making someone an outcast.

(from: Civilian Ally. A guide to organizing with veterans and service members to build a GI resistance movement)

Civilian Ally was published by Civilian-Soldier Alliance, Iraq Veterans Against the War, & War Resisters League.

Copies of the entire manual can be ordered via War Resisters League at