Fight to Live, Live to Fight: Veteran Activism after War

A guest post from Ben Schrader, on the topic of his new book, Fight to Live, Live to Fight: Veteran Activism After War, published today with SUNY Press. Ben recently completed a visiting professorship with the Bard Globalization and International Affairs program in conjunction with Central European University. He is a war veteran turned peace activist turned academic. He has published in the Journal of Narrative Politics on ‘Auto-Archeology and Political Affect of War’ (2014) as well as in Critical Military Studies on ‘The Affect of Veteran Activism’ (2017). Ben has a number of other published non-academic works, from think pieces to poetry. He is currently living precariously on the job market. Ben is also a board member for the anti-war organization About Face: Veterans Against War.

Me in Iraq

Taking in some shade while on patrol in Iraq.

From 2001-2005 I served in the US Army as a 19D Cavalry Scout. I was stationed in Vilseck, Germany and went on two deployments, one to Kosovo from 2002-2003 for a peacekeeping mission, and one to Baqubah, Iraq, where I was a part of my units Quick Reaction Force, so if anything happened in our sector we were the first people that were called. Needless to say I saw a lot of combat. While in Iraq, I began to become disillusioned with the mission, as the reasons we had been given for why we were in Iraq did not seem to align with what we were seeing on the ground. I left the military upset, confused, and as if I had been betrayed by my own country, so to understand my experience I did two things. First and foremost, I joined the group Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), now known as About Face: Veterans Against War. This gave me a tool to channel much of my anger and also connected me with other veterans who were questioning the things they experienced in Iraq. One of the primary tactics I found with IVAW, parrhesia—speaking truth to power—worked to expose the lies that I saw (as well as the truths that have been hidden from civil society), while also working to help me heal by releasing the burden of these truths.

Me at RNC with Rage

IVAW marching with the Prophets of Rage at the 2016 Republic National Convention

The second thing I did was I went back to school. I studied sociology to understand the human and societal impacts of war, and I studied political science to understand the gears and processes of war. Between my activism and academia, I began to see many connections not just on an international level but also on a local level, whereas many of the inequities that Americans face could be tied to different aspects of militarism. This drove me deeper into understanding these connections, as I learned about them in the classroom as a student, and on the streets as an activist. I began to expand my activism and my formal learning beyond just understanding militarism as I got an MA in ethnic studies; examining intersectionality, white supremacy, and colonialism; as well as marching for racial justice, advocating for gender equality, and fighting against homophobia. I then moved on to a PhD where I would work to tie all this together into the project I’m writing about today: a look at military veterans who came home to be social justice activists.

While the project is entangled with my own experiences as a soldier and an activist (as I utilize embodied auto/ethnographic research), my examination of other activists took place over the course of a year. In 2013-2014 I drove around North America interviewing veterans from all walks of life. I started by reaching out to veteran activists that I knew to see if they knew other veterans who would be willing to be interviewed. My only requirement was that they considered themselves “social justice activists,” and that they had served in the US military. In all I ended up interviewing twenty-two veteran activists, twenty of them being in the US, one in Mexico, and one in Canada. I hadn’t begun with the categories of activism I wanted to understand but as one interview led to another categories began to form, as I found veterans who were not only engaged in antiwar activism but also a part of the Occupy movement, doing environmental work, addressing issues of sexual assault in the military, working on immigration issues, and trying to help veteran communities heal from the traumas of war. In some cases, I spent an hour with them conducting an open-ended interview, in other cases I spent a day or two with them observing the work that they were doing. Each interview was different, but all were fruitful. Within the book I primarily highlight two veterans per chapter and their work as an activist, as I do what my former advisor Michael Shapiro calls staging encounters between theory and event. I draw much inspiration from Critical Military Studies as I examine the many ways that war and the military effect the self, groups, and society. Furthermore, these veterans are what Victoria Basham and Paul Higate call geocorporeal actors, not only as soldiers, but also afterwards as veteran activists. I therefore weave these veterans’ stories with my own, from my experiences in war to my engagement with them as interviewees. I try to tell these stories in a manner that is accessible for anyone to grasp both the impacts of war and some of the theoretical concepts around identity formation, militarism, and problems these veterans are addressing around social justice issues.

My book cover

My bookcover! Art provided by the veteran art collective project: Just Seeds

The personal experience—of being soldier, having fought in war, and then becoming an activist directly protesting the very war I fought in, as well as other systems of oppression that I once supported, though not always directly—gave me special insights not only into the struggles faced by returning veterans but also allowed me a certain level of understanding and intimacy with the veterans I interviewed for this project. I have been interviewed by journalists and academics many times in the past, and there was always a tension between the interviewer and me as I would have to constantly stop and explain little things, or I would hold back this detail or that sentiment, because I felt they just would not understand. Many of the people that I interviewed relayed similar stories and told me how much easier it was to talk with me, because I had been there. Therefore, there is a different layer of thinking I bring beyond what many other amazing academics can and have been doing—with my own story and the subsequent way I am able to analyze these issues layered throughout the analysis. This is where I begin the story, with an auto-archeological account of my time in the military, as it then grows into my activism with IVAW, and then subsequently into other forms of activism; constantly going back and forth between my own growth and understandings along with other veterans forms of activism. The imbrications of these narratives work to show the transformative affect of activism, both on the personal level as well as on civil society.

As soldiers, these veterans were trained and formed in specific ways, for specific purposes, primarily to perpetuate violence. While this training affects every individual differently, there are similar themes and ideals that come to light, which tell us much about the military, the US government, Western liberal democracy, the affects and effects of war, and subjectivity. Furthermore, veterans are able to articulate these
concepts and ideals differently than civilians because their lived experiences exemplify the ramifications of war and American policy. Often, veterans feel the effects of US policy before society does, thus acting as the miner’s canary, and yet they are rarely the locus of enunciation. As mentioned above, Victoria Basham shows that soldiers act as “geocorporeal actors that are necessary for waging wars that harm some populations while preserving the life of others.” The veterans that I interviewed have been these “geocorporeal actors” in times of war and continue to be so, though in different ways, as they interact and often resist the very institutions that they, as soldiers, were a part of.

The contextual shift from “soldier” to “activist veteran” highlights the aims of my project. With veterans being separated from the military, this time often gives them the space for critical reflection that is often difficult to achieve when in the thick of military service. These veterans are able to find ways to heal through different forms of resistance within these veteran activist communities, as their reflection and their activism work hand in hand to help them understand their experiences in war. This not only works to heal the traumas of war within the veteran, but also pushes the veteran to try and alter the war dispositif, thus attempting to heal the impacts of war on society. For example, many veterans have left the military disgusted with the resource wars that have violently claimed the lives of their brothers and sisters in arms. This in turn has pushed them into becoming advocates for alternative energies and a nonviolent geopolitical stance. This advocacy for the environment has had multiple effects, from shifting the debate from global warming to a position of national security, and to veterans finding new forms of healing in and through the power of the nature they aim to preserve.

The aim of my book is both to try and disentangle the messiness of war and politics, and also to make it more complicated and messy, as I seek to break with the normative analytic constructions of war by examining veterans’ narratives. I wanted to understand how these veterans came to become activists. Embedded within this how is a narrative that falls outside the empirical normative expectations for war veterans, in which we can see a resignification of patriotism take place. This resignification of patriotism is a pushback against militarism, which many within the general public might normally see as problematic; however, since it is war veterans who are doing the pushing it blurs the boundaries of who and what signifies as patriotic. So when the protesters of the Occupy Wall Street movement get labeled as “dirty socialist hippies” by the likes of Fox News, we see a disruption of that narrative when veterans like Shamar Thomas stands up to police violence at the Occupy camp in New York City, or when veteran Scott Olsen gets shot and nearly fatally wounded by a police gas canister at Occupy Oakland. This disruption often acts as a spark for further action as we saw after the Scott Olsen incident inspired many to take to the streets across the US (here is a video highlighting Olsen’s thoughts on the incident and the movement a year after it took place).

The activism that these veterans are engaged in is wide ranging, from antiwar activism to participating in the Occupy Wall Street movement; it sometimes involves participating in protests, as well as taking paid community organizing positions with nonprofit organizations. While all these veterans began and ended up in different places, the one common point I am starting from is their military service; I seek to understand the affective relationship between these veterans’ activism in relation to war and trauma. Furthermore, these veterans often see their activism not necessarily as a product of the social movements, but rather a function of their subject position within the Social Contract, which I term the Soldiers’ Contract.

So, what is this Soldiers’ Contract? With one of the foundations of Western liberal governance resting on the idea of the Social Contract, there are important developmental relationships between the concepts of the nation and subjectivity within the Social Contract. Thus, the Soldiers’ Contract stands between the state and the Social Contract, and when soldiers and veterans protest, it shows that they feel there is something wrong with the Social Contract. Soldiers are the defenders of the Social Contract as well as participants in it. When the state violates the Social Contract, soldiers and veterans are in a prime position to critique the state, as well as to work to repair the contract, as they could still be seen as upholding the Social Contract by being a part of the Soldiers’ Contract. As the US enlistment oath holds, soldiers are sworn to defend the country from enemies both foreign and domestic. The domestic can include the state if the politics of the time is incongruent with the will of the people. One contemporary example of this is the organization Vets Vs. Hate, which has worked to counter the divisive rhetoric of President Donald Trump, both before and after his election. This indictment of the state by these veterans shows the violation of the Social Contract that President Trump enables through his rhetoric and policies.

Vets vs Hate

From an organizing retreat with the organization Beyond the Choir.

I hope that my book can be useful to a wide range of scholars, from international relations to sociology, as I attempt to stage encounters between theory and the narratives of these veterans. But I am also attempting to make this work accessible to a non-academic audience, as it is my hopes that people can better understand some of these dense theoretical concepts through these everyday experiences. After sending the book to one of my interviewees he emailed me to say, “I never thought I would see my story used to better explain a concept used by Michel Foucault.” While he has already encountered Foucault’s work, I hope that this can reach those who have no idea what a dispositif is, or how a biopolitical system works. By making this sort of work more accessible we can start to find new tactics for engaging and expanding theory, which I have found is a great exercise pedagogically as well.

One thing to note is that while I look at veterans who got out of the military and became social justice activists, there is another side to veteran activism, a much darker side, which I hope will become a part of the future of my research: veterans who get out and are a part of more rightwing activism. This rightwing activism ranges from supporting Donald Trump to veterans who become a part of nationalist militias.

In many ways this other side says just as much about society, the Social Contract, and the Soldiers’ Contract as social justice activism does. Furthermore, I hope to examine the growing tension between these two sides, which could lead to higher rates of armed violence not just on the right but also on the left; as we have seen the recent formation of groups like the John Brown Gun Club and Redneck Revolt, which definitely have veterans involved, not just in participation, but also training other activists many of the military tactics they learned while they were a member of the armed forces. This highlights many of the interesting aspects as to why we as scholars need to continue to study veteran activism.


A logo for the leftist armed group Redneck Revolt. Source:

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