Returning home from the national Veterans for Peace (VFP) convention
held August 4 -7 in Dallas, Texas, I opened my daily paper to an
opinion editorial entitled, "'Thank God for the Atom Bomb;' it saved
thousands of lives." I thought of a contrasting statement made during the convention by GI resister and conscientious objector, Camilo Mejia. "Conscience is a place where one meets God. Conscience is what makes us human, more than intelligence."
The meeting place of conscience is what really saves us. In fact,
during the convention, I heard more than one veteran say it: Thank God
for Veterans for Peace. You saved my life.
Celebrating its twentieth anniversary at this convention, VFP has been
growing by leaps and bounds in recent years. Membership has increased from about 550 in 2001 to some 4,000 today, with 123 chapters across the country. Members of Iraq Veterans Against the
War (IVAW) also celebrated their very busy first year of activity.
The convention marked the first as Executive Director for Michael
McPhearson, an Army veteran whose 20 year-old son is scheduled to be deployed to Iraq this year. McPhearson's opening address to the convention began, "First, thank you for existing."
During the convention, placards declaring the five points of VFP's
statement of purpose followed the assembly, appearing prominently
during the business sessions, then migrating to the big tent stage as
backdrop for the speeches and entertainment. When these vets get
together, they have a very good time. But they meet primarily because
they have a mission.
We Must Work to Increase Public Awareness of the Costs of War
Brad Johnson, VFP Chapter 80, draws from his 20-year Navy career when
he talks with students in Duluth, Minnesota. He visits high schools
with his "War is Not the Answer" banner. When students ask what the answer is, he doesn't hesitate. "I ask them how many windmills they see around here and how they are doing in their science classes." Straightforward, funny and wearing one hoop
earring, Johnson must be capturing the students' imagination with his anti-war message. He clearly appreciates the opportunity.
"I'm buying back my soul," he says, "one classroom at a time."
Like Brad Johnson, Vietnam Air Force Veteran, Brian Willson and his
partner, Becky Luening also believe it is crucial to explore the
"why's" of war. Willson and Luening took the train to Dallas from
their home in Northern California because trains make the most
efficient use of fuel per passenger. Willson said they decided to
attend the convention because when he saw the preliminary schedule,
there was no workshop addressing the structural and root causes of
war. He offered to facilitate one. "Our system requires war," he
says. "Do we want to be anti-war, or do we want to get rid of war?"
Willson is well-known as the attorney and activist whose legs were
severed on September 1, 1987 by a Naval munitions train carrying
weapons bound for Central America as he and others protested on the
tracks. Willson walks skillfully with two prostheses. He and Luening
live close to the land, growing much of their food and conducting
their business locally. Willson no longer uses air travel and
declines most speaking engagements. "When I am invited to speak, I
ask, 'Can I get there without harming the earth?'"
We Must Restrain our Government from Intervening in the Affairs of
During the convention's opening plenary, Iraq Veterans Against the War
co-founder, Mike Hoffman took the stage along with seven other IVAW
members. They spoke of their appreciation for older vets, especially
Vietnam Veterans Against the War, who helped them learn to organize in
the midst of war. Marine veteran, Stephen Funk, the first
conscientious objector to serve time in a military prison during the
Iraq war, said that one of the first groups to reach out to him when
he became a GI resister was VFP. He said he knew he didn't have to be
suspicious of the group's motives.
One IVAW member said, "I am a veteran of Operation Iraqi Plunder. To
call it Operation Iraqi Freedom is an insult to Iraq and an insult to
humanity." He described symptoms of PTSD he is experiencing: fits of
rage, sleepless nights, tearful outbursts. Another IVAW member said,
"When people tell me they are proud of what I did in Iraq, I say,
'Well, I'm not. You don't even know what I did over there.'"
Hoffman and other IVAW members have been criss-crossing the country
over the past year, appearing at schools and public demonstrations.
They speak from experience, challenging what vets call "a culture of
silence" in the military. To a standing ovation at the convention, Hoffman said, "Bush hides behind the troops when he is criticized. He claims that critics don't support the troops. Troops are his shield. Well, IVAW will be the shield of the peace movement!"
We Must Seek Justice for Veterans and Victims of War
A banner created by the Santa Fe VFP chapter read, "Who will support
the troops when our troops become veterans?" The banner included
eight photographs from the book, "Purple Hearts," of veterans who have
lost limbs or suffered other injuries in Iraq.
One of the resolutions considered during the day-long business session
of the convention was a proposal to revise the VFP statement of
purpose to read, "We Must Seek Justice for Veterans and Other Victims
of War," in order to make the point that veterans are war victims
also. However, the VFP board and convention voted to keep the
statement as is. "Veterans are victims and also executioners," said
David Cline, board president, reflecting the group sentiment that VFP
members take responsibility for their actions in war. One vet
commented, "Veterans are in both worlds, and in fact, so are most
The VFP convention commemorated the 30th anniversary of the end of the
Vietnam War, or as it is known in Vietnam, the American War. Many
Vietnam veterans have traveled to Vietnam since the war to participate
in projects that promote reconciliation and restoration. VFP member
Suel Jones, spoke about his involvement with Vietnam Friendship
Village, a community for children and adults affected by Agent Orange.
Jones described his amazement that the Vietnamese people welcomed him
even when they knew he had killed Vietnamese people during the war.
"Veterans who go back to Vietnam with me always ask two things," he
said. "What the hell were we doing and why didn't I come back
Justice for GI resisters was a major focus of the convention.
Workshop panelists, plenary speakers and late-night documentary films
explored GI resistance during the Vietnam War and Gulf Wars I and II.
Vietnam GI resister, Steve Morse was on hand to talk about the huge
increase in calls to the GI Rights Hotline, which he coordinates
through the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors. Lee
Zaslofsky, a US Army deserter and Canadian resident since 1970, spoke
about his current role as coordinator of the War Resisters Support
Campaign, which is lobbying for political asylum and providing
practical assistance for 15 US military deserters in Canada. An
estimated 5,500 soldiers are in deserter status in the US. Whether
soldiers of conscience go to prison, as have Camilo Mejia and Stephen
Funk, or seek refuge in Canada, as have Brandon Hughey and Jeremy
Hinzman, or just go AWOL, VFP supports them.
We Must End the Arms Race and Reduce and Eventually Eliminate Nuclear
Anita Cole enlisted in the Army because she believed the military was
"a meaningful and shared public effort." She felt there weren't
enough outlets for such efforts outside the military. While she was stationed in Japan, she visited Hiroshima. She began to realize that the shared public effort she'd joined "was the most destructive system in the world." Her belief system
"crystallized," as military regulations call it, and she was discharged as a conscientious objector in 2002. An articulate
spokesperson for the rights of conscience, she now serves on the board
of the Center on Conscience & War and answers calls for the GI Rights
The convergence of anniversaries during the 2005 VFP convention
included the 60th year of remembrance of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki
bombings. Attending the convention from Japan was special guest, Dr.
Satoru Konishi, a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing. Dr. Konishi
addressed the convention in halting English, describing his memory of
the bombing and subsequent campaign for a nuclear-free world. He
closed by reading a poem by Japanese poet, Sankichi Toge, who died
from radiation poisoning several years after the bombing. Reciting
the poem, Dr. Konishi's voice suddenly gained strength.
"Our fathers, give back to me,
Our mothers, give back to me,
Our elders, give back to me,
Our children, give back to me!
My self, human, give back to me.
And all humans linked to me!
Peace, give back to me,
One, indestructible forever,
As long as the human's human world will last."
When another special convention guest, Cindy Sheehan, finished her
already legendary address to a very enthusiastic standing ovation, Dr.
Konishi spontaneously gave her the first hug from the front row as she
stepped from the stage.
We Must Abolish War as an Instrument of National Policy
The human life we have taken and keep taking in war cannot be brought
back. But, the human connections we make now could be our saving
grace. The camaraderie - the love for each other - is what most
veterans, including Casey Sheehan, have paradoxically cited as the
main reason for following orders into war. VFP understands the
significance of camaraderie because the same kind of bonding is
necessary for waging peace. VFP members and chapters across the
country are involved in powerful, creative efforts to strengthen human
connections. In the process, they create the kinds of meeting places
where lives are saved.
Susan Van Haitsma is active with Nonmilitary Options for Youth and is an associate member of VFP Chapter 66 in Austin, Texas.