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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