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Friday, November 15, 2013

November 15, 2013: Veteran’s Week: Veterans Against the War(s)

[In honor of Veteran’s Day, a series on cultural and historical engagements with this important American community. Please add your thoughts and takes—on individual posts, on other aspects of veterans in American history, culture, and community, and on anything else that comes to mind—for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On the longstanding veterans communities that we hardly ever recognize—and my personal connection to them.
Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) has been around for forty-six years, almost exactly as long as the National Organization for Women (NOW). But for one reason or another—perhaps the specificity of its name, perhaps the controversies and critiques that surrounded and still surround the organizaton—VVAW is not, to my mind, generally recognized as a contemporary American activist organization. Instead, VVAW tends to be treated as a part of history, a reflection of the growing 1960s divisions in American culture and society over the Vietnam War and related issues. Those historical questions certainly contributed to the organization’s founding—but just as NOW has existed long past the specific women’s movement issues and debates that prompted its 1966 founding, so too has VVAW extended its efforts and reach well beyond the end of the Vietnam War and its era.
Recognizing VVAW’s ongoing presence and activism would be important on its own terms, but it would also help us to better engage with the similar organizations that have become increasingly prevalent in late 20th and early 21st century America. I’m thinking specifically of two very distinct but equally influential groups: Iraq Veterans Against the War, which focused its initial efforts on that particular recent conflict but has gradually broadened its scope, just as VVAW did; and Veterans for Peace, which was founded in 1985 and has opposed militarism and conflict more broadly from the outset. Among the many reasons why these organizations deserve our fuller recognition, I would argue that such awareness would significantly challenge one of our most persistent recent narratives: that each American must choose whether to “support the troops” or oppose war. These anti-war veterans’ organizations reveal that schism as a false dichotomy, one that masks the possibility—the increasingly prominent possibility—that troops themselves can oppose wars.
While such anti-war veterans’ organizations seem to be a relatively recent American phenomenon, my own family history indicates that there is nothing new about wartime service producing anti-war sentiments. My paternal grandfather, Arthur Railton, was a World War II veteran and a committed pacifist, and he consistently credited his war experiences as the source of that subsequent and vociferous opposition to war. In the absence of organized anti-war veteran activism in prior generations, it might be easy to develop narratives that would (for example) contrast Greatest Generation vets with Vietnam-era ones—but such contrasts would, as my grandfather proves, be no more necessarily accurate than a purely historical understanding of VVAW. The truth is that anti-war veterans are not a product of any one moment or debate, but rather comprise a longstanding, ongoing, and significant American community.
Crowd-sourced post tomorrow,
PS. So what do you think? Last chance to share responses or other takes for that weekend post!

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