This past year, through my work with Veterans For Peace I was given the opportunity to stand in solidarity with resistance movements in Okinawa, at Standing Rock and in Palestine. Veterans For Peace sends delegations of former military members, including combat veterans like myself, to stand with, learn from and assist indigenous movements that are struggling and fighting back, non-violently, against the policies, occupations, degradations and attacks that are the consequences and realities of American militarism and imperialism, both in the United States and abroad. Where, as veterans, we once worked on behalf of the United States military and government, enforcing its claims, policing its overseas possessions and conquests, and violently subjugating those unwilling to submit, we now seek to add our voices and bodies to those who, undeterred and in pursuit of their own self-determination and dignity, are challenging the American Empire, its war machine, and its allies and proxies.
For someone like me, who had professionally studied war and insurgencies for years, and then executed such knowledge on behalf of the US government in support of the occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq, being on the other side of the rifle was heartbreaking and difficult, as seeing the military and police enforcing the racist occupations, political oppression and environmental destruction in Okinawa, at Standing Rock and in Palestine was a mirror held up to me, reflecting my own past, my own mistakes, my own collaboration with greed, hate and subjugation. Being allowed the opportunity to stand with these resistance movements was rewarding and it was healing, as it was a form of recovery for my moral injury and guilt from the wars. I can never undo or repair what I took part in in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I can, going forward in my life, live a life working with others for peace and justice, both at home and abroad.
The commonness and similarities that exist between these resistance movements are many: a firm belief in and understanding of non-violence; the use of music and song; and the graciousness and openness to outsiders, like myself and other white veterans of the American military whose relationship to the occupation forces and powers cannot be ignored or dismissed, but are understood by those resistance communities as the actions of the colonial and imperial powers and not the actions, will or soul of the individual soldier.
However, there is also something that runs very deep and very true, and that exists within all these resistance movements. Something prime and underlining, a force, one that is infinite and enduring, is the intangible reality that exists in all of the men, women and children who are struggling for their society’s freedom, for the preservation of their land, water and air, and for the chance for their children and their children’s children to live lives not held in obeyance to the guns and violence of a foreign power. I have no other choice for my description of what I witnessed and stood among than to use the word divine to explain what it is that moves, sustains and carries forward these movements and people. Words like justice, peace, freedom, and safety have their well deserved places as descriptions of what these movements strive for, but it is the word divine that I come back to when I think of what it is which motivates, maintains and upholds these movements and what it is that links them together across continents, religions and races, and, ultimately, time.
I saw this again in Charlottesville a few weeks ago, where myself and other white allies escorted black students from Howard University through the city streets. There was something divine, again a better word I stumble trying to find, behind the purposes of those students from Howard, as there were in possession of very existent and timeless connection to something beyond the human experience that animates our desires for truth, justice, equality and peace. This force, this beyond-human force, ties together these movements now, and ties them to the movements of the past, to their ancestors who suffered and were persecuted in their struggles of liberation, fights for peace, and marches for equality; whether there be a direct lineage of descent to those ancestors or an ancestry consisting of purpose and principle removed by epochs of historical and geographic separation.
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I’m an intellectual, logical and rational atheist a good 6 1/2 days a week, but what I experienced in Okinawa, Standing Rock, Palestine and Charlottesville these past twelve months moved me with a force much greater than any and all of the spirited nationalist formulations or conceptions of brotherhood I ever encountered or beheld in my time as a Marine or while working for the US government. This force, this divine presence, cannot be discounted, diminished or dismissed, but is as factual and proven to me in its effect and purpose as any rifle I ever held, any money I was ever paid, or any exceptionalist American myth I ever consumed.
It is why anyone who has taken part in these movements can receive some healing from their own sins in war, as I have; it is why even those who have been silenced by jailing or with bullets and bombs have never truly been defeated – lost to us with great sorrow and grief, yes, of course – but not defeated; and it is why these movements will ultimately be successful, because the divine that is the foundation of these movements and these people cannot be extinguished, cannot be undone, bought or quieted, as this spirit will carries forward this generation and subsequent ones. This common spirit of steadfast perseverance and defiance, sumud as the Palestinians call it, is something the American Empire can never purchase, silence or kill, no matter how craven and cruel America’s policies, how vicious and incendiary her weapons, or how repeated, triumphed and glorified are the false claims to supposed American virtue, principle and values
May we find such a divine presence within ourselves, particularly white Americans and white communities, to conclusively strike down the racism, the greed and the militarism that underlie and give breath to America’s wars at home and her wars abroad.
To see and understand some of the divine involvement that is present in the people of Palestine, please watch Chris Smiley’s latest video of the Veterans For Peace delegation I participated with in Palestine earlier this year.