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'We Will Make Our Voices Heard': Chicago War Resister Speaks Out Against NATO

Iraq and Afghanistan veterans from across the country will march in protest against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit meeting in Chicago on Sunday, May 20th and attempt to return their Global War on Terror military medals to NATO's generals. A call to action released by Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) declares, "We were awarded these medals for serving in the Global War on Terror, a war based on lies and failed polices." Veterans say they will march to "demand that NATO immediately end the occupation of Afghanistan and relating economic and social injustices, bring U.S. war dollars home to fund our communities, and acknowledge the rights and humanity of all who are affected by these wars." 

NATO is an alliance of Western military superpowers that throws military might behind the U.S.-led Global War on Terror and other overt and covert military campaigns and occupations around the world. NATO's summit meeting, slated to take place in Chicago on May 20th through 21st, is expected to be met with massive protests from anti-war and social justice organizations. 

The Group of Eight (G8), a meeting of the world's economic superpowers, was also scheduled to meet in Chicago at the same time in a joint summit. In early March, however, the White House announced that the G8 meeting would be moved to Camp David, with many economic and social justice organizers insisting this was a direct response to anti-G8 organizing. In their NATO call to action, IVAW members declare that NATO should be advised that "they are also not welcome in our hometown."

In this interview I speak to David Van Dam, a former Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy who resisted his military service in July 2008. David, a Chicago resident, is an active member of IVAW and an organizer against the upcoming NATO summit. Here David explains why veterans plan to protest NATO's presence in their city and how he went from military service member to war resister.

Why do you plan to mobilize against NATO?

A mobilization or protest is intended to express dissent and resistance against a certain target. I oppose the occupation of Afghanistan with NATO forces. As a war resister, I am already opposed to a lot of the policies of the U.S. military. The policies of NATO are heavily influenced and led by U.S. policy. A select few are making decisions about war and occupation, and these decisions affect the entire globe. Dissenting and protesting is one tactic to make our voices heard. 

IVAW is opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and one of our points of unity is a call for full reparations for the Iraqi and Afghan people. I recognize that these wars and occupations can never be undone, but all we can do is stand in solidarity with people in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Medals are supposed to be for honorable things that represent accomplishment. A lot of veterans and IVAW members do not feel that it is honorable to take part in the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and object to being congratulated for it. IVAW members will return military medals to NATO. It is like returning a thank you.

How did you go from military service member to war resister?

I joined the Navy because I had a bad family life, and my father suffers from mental illness. It was a way out to get out of the house where I lived and grew up. My family didn't have much money. Community college and staying at home wasn't an option. I chose the Navy because I saw all these commercials before my senior year of high school that advertised the humanitarian work that the Navy supposedly does. I was taken in by this advertising. It was only once I was in the Navy that I realized that most of what the military does is bombing.


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My job in the Navy was to bottle oxygen and other gases for fighter pilots. Through studying more about the history of U.S. wars during my service, I learned that there are a lot of civilian casualties in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a war with many casualties: mothers, fathers, and children. I would not want to be part of killing families. We were set to deploy to the Persian Gulf, which would have meant direct participation in the U.S. War on Terror. I chose to resist before I was sent to the combat zone. If I had been sent to war, I would have enabled pilots to drop bombs on people that I never knew. These are people who are not my enemy, who are not a threat to me. The last straw for me was on the Fourth of July when I was listening to my commanding officer of my ship, U.S.S Dwight D. Eisenhower CVN-69, give a speech about war as a patriotic act. He talked about how great America is. I just couldn't take the patriotism and nationalism and the way that was used to rationalize fighting a war that most people in the military felt opposed to or at least indifferent towards. 

I resisted my military service in July 2008. I wasn't religious and I didn't fit the military's definition of a conscientious objector, so I decided to go AWOL, or UA, which stands for Unauthorized Absence, the terminology used in the Navy. I talked with the G.I. Rights Hotline, and they told me about some past Navy resisters who chose to leave, and they let me know the best way to go about it if I chose to resist. I went UA, and after four months [the Navy] can't return you to your active duty station. When I turned myself in I was pretty fortunate because my Commanding Officer didn't want anything to do with me so he didn't pursue a Court Martial. The Navy processed me out after 30 days. I was pretty fortunate, as most other branches would pursue the Court Martial. 

Why did you get involved with IVAW?

I joined IVAW because I wanted to work with other people who share the same experiences--people who joined the military and now speak out and organize against the war. I wanted to be part of the movement. A lot of the work I do with IVAW involves trying to reach out to and bring in veterans who have the same viewpoint of the war and try to help their voices get heard.

One of the campaigns we are working on is Operation Recovery. In order to maintain the occupation, the U.S. military needs a constant stream of active duty troops. We are seeing massive problems with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury, and Military Sexual Trauma in the U.S. military. In order to maintain numbers, the U.S. military is keeping people in the military and not letting them heal.

Why was the G8 meeting moved out of Chicago to Camp David?

Obviously I think there is a political reason behind the decision to move the G8. The massive organizing against the G8, including massive labor organizing, is probably behind their decision to move it. I think it is a sign that they are nervous about holding these summit meetings in large urban centers like Chicago where they will be met with protests and actions. I think they are apprehensive, and it looks like they are going to have a militarized presence and possibly deploy the national guard against protesters. I feel like they are afraid because the city government has already communicated with churches not to host anyone during this weekend, and I think they are going to close off large parts of the city. They are trying to inhibit organizing and put out the fire before it gets bigger. This honestly makes me feel better about where our movement is and gives me hope that in American society there is a social justice movement, that there are people organizing. We are on the politicians' radar, so we must be a threat.

How do you feel as a Chicago resident about NATO coming to your city?

Rahm Emanuel should have asked me first. His background is in finance and and banking, so he is not used to asking what is in the best interest of the people. However, we will make our voices heard.

Sarah Lazare

Sarah Lazare

Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Intercept, Common Dreams, The Nation, and Tom Dispatch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

David Van Dam

David Van Da served in the US Navy but is now a war resister, IVAW member, and anti-NATO organizer. He lives in Chicago.

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