No War, No Empire

John Valdespino joined the U.S. Army in 2014, after two years of not being able to find a job that could pay the rent. He quickly regretted his decision, and in the aftermath of the 2016 elections, he began listening to and reading analyses of U.S. politics from a leftist perspective. Since then, he’s begun organizing as a socialist in his community. And he’s joined the DSA Veterans Working Group (VWG), a national DSA working group made up of both former U.S. armed forces service members and family members of current and former service members. The working group’s purpose is to agitate against the increasing militarization of U.S. society and the bloody, cynical role of the United States in overseas conflicts.

The VWG includes former officers and enlisted personnel from all branches. Most served during the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but a few are veterans of conflicts in the 1990s and even of the Vietnam War, when there was a nationwide antiwar movement. The VWG has worked with other DSAers to produce literature opposing the privatization of the Veterans Administration and publicizing the widespread water contamination that affects communities surrounding military bases.

Most members of the VWG joined DSA for the reasons 55,000 others have in the last three years: national media attention, electoral victories and local campaigns, and a growing belief that another world is possible and that we need to be involved in the growth of a socialist movement that will achieve it. Seeing the growth of DSA was not the only source of radicalization for VWG members. While still in uniform, many began to wonder whose interests they were serving. They may have enlisted out of patriotism, or for economic or educational reasons, or a combination of all three, but as time went on, experience showed them that the wars are being fought for naked profit.

Historically, socialists have viewed soldiers and sailors as “workers in uniform,” because after they left the service, they would be forced once more to sell their labor for a wage. This picture of the class basis of the military has changed in the United States since 1973, when the draft was ended. But the strategic implications remain unchanged: The support of members of the military, and especially rank-and-file enlisted and junior officers, is key to ending U.S. imperialism and shutting down the nearly 800 oversea bases that the military currently maintains.

Of course, not every member of the military is a disgruntled comrade-in-waiting. As with any profession, people join the military for a variety of reasons, some of them overtly reactionary. However, nobody should have to sign up to kill or be killed just to receive an education. We know that the military is a hotbed of nationalism, racism, and sexism. Its upper ranks provide loyal servants in the state bureaucracy and the military-industrial complex. And we also know that socialist organizers have a role in changing both conditions and minds.

DSA should advocate for the democratization of the military, as it does for the rest of society. Service members should be allowed to organize unions and should be allowed to be politically active, both of which are federally illegal at this time. When service members aren’t allowed political freedoms, it’s the politics of the capitalists, generals, and admirals that reigns supreme. Officers should be elected, and officers-in-training should not enjoy special privileges such as the service academies and Reserve Officer Training Corps. DSA should encourage and offer legal help to support dissent and disobedience within the ranks. Many groups on the Left today have an older cohort of members who became active in the antiwar movement after experiencing the solidarity of civilian socialists. DSA can recreate bonds like this today in order to strengthen the socialist movement.

Alex McCoy, a Marine veteran, served from 2008 to 2013. As an embassy guard, he spent a year each in Saudi Arabia, Honduras, and Germany. Alex is now a staff organizer for Common Defense, a grassroots organizing group aiming to make anti-imperialism a topic of debate in the 2020 presidential elections. Common Defense has endorsed democratic socialist candidates such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Kaniela Ing, and runs an organizing program called the Veterans Organizing Institute, which some members of the VWG have attended. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have both signed Common Defense’s pledge to “end the Forever War.”

How should DSA relate to other antiwar or veterans’ organizations? Most official Veterans Service Organizations, McCoy observes, are increasingly either captured by conservatives, deal narrowly with benefits and don’t address foreign policy, or are politically paralyzed by their nonpartisan status. Other, more activist groups, such as Veterans for Peace and About Face, do community-building and protests, but can’t engage in electoral politics because of their legal status. And some, like Service Women’s Action Network, focus on engaging with D.C.’s elites, an approach opposed to DSA’s bottom-up theory of change. It makes sense for DSA to cooperate openly with these different groups on shared tactical goals, but to maintain an independent and socialist antiwar presence.

Most VWG members are active in their local chapters, some of which have their own antiwar working groups. The overlap between many socialist campaigns and anti-imperialist goals are numerous—and so are the organizing opportunities:

  • The defunding and privatization of the Veterans Administration—the largest government provider of healthcare in the country—is just one recent example of the attacks on public goods that characterizes neoliberalism. Every waiting room in a V.A. facility contains possible organizing partners.
  • Counter-recruiters can deter students from signing predatory contracts to join up after high school and instead convince them to become active union members.
  • Actions supporting the Green New Deal must grapple with the fact that the U.S. military is the largest single consumer of energy in the world.

Rich Madrid, a Surface Warfare Officer (ship driver) from 2005 to 2015, now lives and works in Olympia, Washington, where he is a member of the local Olympia DSA chapter. There are Army, Navy, and Air Force bases within 30 miles of Olympia. This means that there are many disaffected current and former service members who have intimate knowledge to share about U.S. imperialism.

Only 40% of the people who have served in the military since the attacks of September 11, 2001, have been deployed overseas, and far fewer of all military personnel see combat. But the damage that U.S. forces have done abroad is incalculable.

The United States invaded Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, long enough ago that high-schoolers born on that date can now enlist. That the United States continues to occupy countries in the Middle East nearly two decades later is not only a moral failing or a tragedy of humanity; it is a political decision. Wars abroad are an assault on the working classes of other countries. Socialists in the United States have an obligation to demand and bring about an end to all foreign conflicts. There is only one way to “support our troops”:

Bring them home!