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.

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Critique In Hysterical Times

This is a slightly edited version of an essay that was published in The Black Book of FYTA, ed. Athanasios Anagnostopoulos & FYTA (Athens: Nefeli, 2017), 34-40, a collection marking the fifth anniversary of the conceptual audiotextual performance duo FYTA. It was written in February 2017 and revised in April. Think of it as bits of the year gone by. Thanks to FYTA for the invitation to write this, and to Jordan Osserman for useful chats.

In their performance/situation entitled ‘nEUROlogy’, presented at Geneva’s Bâtiment d’Art Contemporain in October 2015, FYTA attempted a far-right medico-theological resuscitation of the European project. The performance was staged in a confined room that FYTA describe as ‘something between the basement of a cult and Clockwork Orange’s reform clinic’—perhaps as apt a description as any of the contemporary European Union as seen from the perspective of its more disgruntled members. In Part I of this triptych, entitled ‘Eden’, FYTA assume the role of the high priests of the European right. Dressed in the red robes of cardinals, they stand before the altar of ‘Europe’, performing the rituals and incantations on which its very sustenance seems to depend. The soundscape of the performance in this segment is revealing in the way FYTA give voice to the utterly banal sentiments of xenophobic nationalists (‘Our environment is our home, our blood is what connects us to the soil, earth is our blood; when we defend our land we defend our blood’) against a disorienting musical backdrop of what sounds like Mongolian throat singing—as if to draw attention to the naturalisation of the arbitrary that is constitutive of all nationalisms. In Part II (‘The Garden’), Europe lies prostrate on a stretcher, covered by her flag. She might be dead, although the beep of machinery suggests life support. Here FYTA appear in the garb of medics who, even as they mill around the patient to no great effect, intone ‘we must remain free’. On the wall hangs a sign that reads ‘Rester Frei!’, the unfamiliar linguistic mashup seeming to gesture at the discontents of Franco-German alliance (or maybe this is just how the Swiss speak). Who killed Europe? On this question the cardinals are unambiguous: barbarians, cultural relativism, immigrants (‘how many people can you fit in the smallest of all continents!’), Islam. On the ground lies a pile of blood spattered posters—mass-produced, as if for a large protest—that read ‘Je suis Voltaire’. Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, the Anthem of Europe, ushers in Part III (‘Hell’). One thinks of the orchestra of the Titanic playing music to calm the passengers as the ship sinks.

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A Faustian Special Relationship

Donald Trump has a thing for rebuking America’s democratic allies and their leaders—his latest target being Australia’s prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull. The UK appears to be an exception to this trend. In his first interview with the British press as president-elect, Trump explained that the UK has a “special place” in his half-Scottish heart and pledged to support a post-Brexit UK-US trade deal. Reportedly a big fan of Winston Churchill—and of Boris Johnson’s Churchill Factor—he also asked the UK government to loan him a Churchill bust that his Republican predecessor George W. Bush kept in the Oval Office.

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Citizens Of Nowhere

In her speech to the 2016 Conservative Party conference, Theresa May threw down a gauntlet:

…if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.

For anyone wondering who or what met the cut, May was helpfully expansive, populating this rather arcane placeholder with the figures of the boss who earns a fortune but doesn’t look after his staff, the international company that eludes the snares of tax law, the ‘household name’ that refuses cooperation with anti-terrorist authorities, and the director who takes out massive dividends while knowing that the company pension is about to go bust. Basically, fat cats with the odd public intellectual thrown in. May contrasted the spectre of the rootless cosmopolitan with the ‘spirit of citizenship’, which, in her view, entailed ‘respect [for] the bonds and obligations that make our society work’,theresa-may ‘commitment to the men and women who live around you’, ‘recognizing the social contract that says you train up local young people before you take on cheap labour from overseas.’ And perhaps astonishingly, for a Conservative Prime Minister, May promised to deploy the full wherewithal of the state to revitalize that elusive social contract by protecting workers’ rights and cracking down on tax evasion to build ‘an economy that works for everyone’. Picture the Brexit debate as a 2X2 matrix with ideological positions mapped along an x-axis, and Remain/Leave options mapped along a y-axis to yield four possibilities: Right Leave (Brexit), Left Leave (Lexit), Right Remain (things are great) and Left Remain (things are grim, but the alternative is worse). Having been a quiet Right Remainer in the run-up to the referendum, May has now become the Brexit Prime Minister while posing, in parts of this speech, as a Lexiter (Lexiteer?).

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On Statues

Even commentators sympathetic to the aims of Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford (RMFO) have been at pains to point out that the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes on the facade of Oriel College is not the most significant element of the campaign’s platform. Amia Srinivasan observes that ‘Neither the Cape Town nor the Oxford campaign has ever been just about statues.’ Amit Chaudhuri laments that ‘it would be…sad if Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford became identified with the statue in Oriel College alone’ because its ambition beyond the removal of the statue, namely that of decolonising education, is more significant. David Olusoga worries that by building their manifestos around calls for the taking down of statues, the more complex and worthy ideas around decolonisation raised by these campaigns have been ‘distorted into a simple right-wrong, yes-no statue debate’. I don’t disagree (much) with these views and indeed, if you want a right-wrong, yes-no answer, this essay will disappoint. But they beg the question of what statues mean and why we keep putting them up if they are so easily relegated to an epiphenomenal register of political discourse.

It’s worth remembering that RMFO itself has never downplayed the significance of the statue in the way that some of those writing in solidarity with it have done. It describes its mission as that of decolonising ‘the institutional structures and physical space in Oxford and beyond’ (emphasis mine) and lists as its first aim the intention to tackle ‘the plague of colonial iconography (in the form of statues, plaques and paintings) that seeks to whitewash and distort history’. In addition, it aims to reform the Eurocentric curricula to which university students continue to be subject and to address the under-representation and lack of welfare provision for black and minority ethnic staff and students at Oxford. One way to think about the place of the statue in this debate is to see it as a means to an end: as Srinivasan rightly notes, ‘complaints of structural racism and calls for curriculum reform don’t draw public attention like the toppling of a statue, and the RMF leaders know this.’ But while clarifying that its campaign is indeed ‘about more than a statue’, RMFO nonetheless insists that

statues and symbols matter; they are a means through which communities express their values. The normalised glorification of a man who for so many is a symbol of their historical oppression is a tacit admission that – as it stands – Oxford does not consider their history to be important. This is incompatible with a community that posits itself as progressive, enlightened and intellectually honest.

Without wanting to suggest that the success of RMFO should be judged by whether the statue falls or endures (it shouldn’t), I want to think with RMFO about what the expressive function of statues entails. Writing in a very different context, Judith Butler has famously worried that the relegation of injustices to the realm of the ‘merely cultural’ effectively downgrades the urgency with which they demand redress. For ‘merely cultural’ read ‘merely symbolic’, and the risk of disappearance of the demand for iconographic decolonisation (exactly what Oriel College might wish for) becomes obvious: if RMFO is about more than ‘just’ a statue and if we all agree that the statue is ‘merely symbolic’, then we might as well get beyond, behind, and beneath the symbol to address its putative ‘real’ while leaving the symbol itself intact. Meanwhile the possibility that the ‘merely symbolic’ has material consequences remains unexplored.

rhodes oxford

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Solidarity with Academics for Peace: An Open Letter

Academic freedom and freedom for political dissent is under serious threat in Turkey. Following the publication of a statement signed by Turkish and Kurdish academics, condemning Turkish state violence against Kurds, 1,128 of the original signatories have been subjected to sustained attacks and threats from the Turkish state and fascist groups.

Erdogan

The Disorder of Things is proud to publish the following letter, signed by 1,211 academics, offering international support of those facing persecution in Turkey. This letter follows multiple statements criticising the Turkish state from research bodies and associations including, within the field of International Relations, ISA, EISA and BISA.

This is one of many such letters of international support for academics in Turkey. A comprehensive collection can be found here.

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“Mansplaining to the Max” or “Know Your Place!”: On How Disciplines Discipline and Police

The second post in a short series on naming and representation in IR spaces. Here Saara Särmä and Cai Wilkinson respond to Knud Erik Jørgensen. Saara is a feminist, scholar and artist. She is the co-founder of the Feminist think tank Hattu and the creator of “Congrats, you have an all male panel!“, “Congrats, you have an all white panel!“, and “Congrats, you did not cite any feminists!“. Cai is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Deakin University, and has written widely on securitization, international politics in Central Asia and the use of interpretive ethnographic methods in Critical Security Studies. Both Saara and Cai have contributed to The Disorder before.


Knud Erik Jørgensen’s post responding to criticism of the naming of rooms at the EISA conference in September and explaining his rationale does not exactly invite engagement. Indeed, it seems designed to dismiss and silence, the implicit message being that we should know our place in IR and defer to our elders and (by mainstream standards, at least) betters. Feminists, it turns out, might occasionally be seen, but should still not be heard. Nevertheless, we felt that a response is in order.

Our criticism of the all male room decision is, indeed, about issues that are of much more significance than 18 of 32 meeting rooms in Sicily. We share a concern with Jørgensen about the future of IR; we all want to make IR a better place. Why on Earth would we have stayed in IR in the first place, if we didn’t? That’s why we expect more and urge all of us to do better. No-one is perfect and fuck-ups are inevitable. However, this should not prevent us from speaking out when things go wrong. It is axiomatic that we should seek to learn from our mistakes, but this can only happen if we are able to take in criticism and admit responsibility in ways that are productive and open for further engagement, rather than reacting defensively. This is rarely easy.

As the former president of EISA who decided to name the 18 rooms, Jørgensen writes from a position of power. Yet rather than acknowledging his role, he misrepresents what happened by leaving out crucial details about the issue. He purports to be responding to only Särmä and Wilkinson, omitting the fact that there was a letter from BISA Gendering International Relations Working Group, signed by 77 people sent to the EISA board, and that an official reply from the new Executive Committee of EISA acknowledged that the decision to name the rooms was a mistake and lay responsibility in Jørgensen’s hands.

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