by Bill Onasch
This three day weekend in the USA hasn’t always been dominated by trips to the lake, “Sales” at the Malls and promotions by car dealers. It started out as a commemoration of those soldiers who fell during the Civil War–the bloodiest of all American wars. It later came to be broadened to include the casualties of subsequent wars and interventions–and there’s been quite a few of those.
The working class and the employer class shared interests in supporting a Union victory in the Civil War. Both correctly saw elimination of chattel slavery as vital to their future. Once their slave owner rivals were eliminated, the capitalists consolidated their power as the sole ruling class.
As the Industrial Revolution took off, there were no more shared interests between worker and boss–not in the workplace, government, or armed forces. When rebellious workers briefly took charge of St Louis in 1871 the US Army was sent in to crush the St Louis Commune.
When the short-lived American Railway Workers Union shut down most of the nation’s railroads in solidarity with workers in Pullman, Illinois the carriers prevailed on a “friend of labor“ in the White House, Grover Cleveland, to use Federal courts and the Army to break the strike–and the union. The principal strike leader, Eugene V Debs, who had once been a Democrat member of the Indiana legislature, was sentenced to six months in jail. Debs absorbed some valuable lessons about the class structure of society from Marxist fellow prisoners and went on to become America’s most prominent socialist.
While never honestly expressed, the primary mission of the U.S. armed forces–when not needed to break strikes at home–has been to defend and expand the global corporate agenda of what is now popularly called the One Percent.
I was already convinced of this position when in the summer of 1965, then living in Chicago, I received a letter from President Johnson informing me I was needed by my country for service in the U.S. Army. This was the early stage of a massive build up of forces on the ground in Vietnam. I strongly opposed this war I saw as unjust and I was involved in the fledgling antiwar movement.
Some opponents of the war refused to report for induction and instead went to jail. Others migrated to Canada. I was at that time a member of the Socialist Workers Party who thought such individual solutions, however noble in spirit, had little impact on the war. As long as the majority of our generation accepted military service as their duty we should go along with them–while retaining our democratic rights to oppose the war. I still think that was the best policy.
But it was not easy to implement. Part of the induction process was a Form 98 asking if you were a member of an organization listed as “subversive” by the Attorney General. The SWP was one of the dozens of groups listed. If we answered Yes we would be voluntarily accepting the false characterization of being a subversive. If we signed off as No we would be vulnerable to prosecution for perjury.
We declined to sign the form at all, explaining our political views were not relevant to our qualifications to be a soldier and were none of the Army’s business. My experience became typical as the Army finally noted a pattern. I was pulled out of my group just before the oath ceremony and told I would be contacted by Army Intelligence. I politely declined to answer any of the questions put to me by those sleuths as well.
In a few weeks I received a thick dossier in the mail from Fifth Army Headquarters. Obviously benefitting from FBI and Chicago Police Red Squad informants, it documented my presence at dozens of SWP public events as well as frequent visits to the national office of Students for a Democratic Society (the major national antiwar group at the time.) Though none of my activities reported in the document were illegal, it concluded that my service in the Army would not be in the best interests of the United States.
In the long run, the attempt by the Army and the other armed forces to keep out dissent broke down as the antiwar movement initiated by students steadily attracted support from the civil rights and union movements to become a majority movement. The call to Bring the Troops Home Now resonated among the grunts on the ground in southeast Asia and many began to repeat the slogan to the Brass. That was a major factor in forcing an end to that terrible war.
I share these recollections on Memorial Day to illustrate part of the continuity of a current in the American workers movement–going back to the days of the great Eugene V Debs –with a class perspective on war.
Debs explained the reality of the War to End All Wars, aka the First World War, in his famous Canton Speech. President Wilson–another labor “friend”–was so infuriated he ordered that Debs be prosecuted under the Espionage Act. Debs had to conduct his 1920 campaign for President on the Socialist Party ticket from a cell in the Atlanta Penitentiary. He still got nearly a million votes. His motto of No War But the Class War is today–in the nuclear age–more appropriate than ever. Those who identify with the Debs heritage–and I include myself in their numbers–still practice international worker solidarity, still work to keep our country out of wars and end those already in progress.
Those of us who recognize that our class enemy in the workplace and government here at home is still our enemy when they lead us down the road of unjust war abroad, take a different view in respect to the sons and daughters of the working class who have to fight these wars. They are not the enemy, they are part of our class flesh and blood. We grieve their every casualty in battle and work to get them out of harm’s way by bringing them home where they belong. I was proud to be part of the Founding Conference of the still active US Labor Against the War on the eve of Bush II’s invasion of Iraq.
Our grief is not limited to Americans. It includes the vast unknown number of dead Iraqis, Afghans, Vietnamese, and those in many other countries where GIs have been sent over the years to advance the profits of “our” bosses and bankers.
We support the democratic right of workers in uniform to express, on their own time, views against war–they have certainly earned it. And, in collaboration with groups such as Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Veterans for Peace, and Iraq Veterans Against the War, we fight to get the benefits promised to and earned by those who served.
This Fall will mark thirteen years of war in Afghanistan. There will be Armed Forces Appreciation Day at the ball park tonight. A major national brewer recently pledged to donate money to needy GIs for every bottle cap sent in by their customers. The President made a quick trip to Afghanistan for a photo op with the troops. But the mass media no longer pays much attention to the day-to-day situation of the 30,000 soldiers and Marines still on the ground over there. It’s like an unpleasant background noise most learn to ignore.
When they mention Veterans at all, the politicians and many in the media call them Heros. These heros have a much higher unemployment rate than the general population–over twenty percent for the 18-24 age group, 9.5 for 24-35. Ten percent of those who have jobs earn less than ten dollars an hour. On any given night, about 60,000 Vets are homeless and 140,000 are incarcerated.
Advances in medical science have greatly lowered fatality rates among wounded and injured troops on the battle field. Saving lives is a good thing but one result is many more being left with varying degrees of debilitation that will require medical attention for life. Many of the 51,000
wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan fall in to that category.
In addition to these physical wounds hundreds of thousands more suffer from psychological afflictions such as PTSD. Active duty soldiers with such disorders, that can lead to behavioral problems even in initial stages of treatment, are often given bad conduct dishonorable discharges to deny them any VA benefits. There’s been little public attention given to this outrage.
Recently, CNN broke a headline scandal about shameful treatment of Veterans at some Veterans Affairs health care facilities. Even this wouldn’t have been such a big deal had it not been passionately pursued by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on the Comedy Channel.
Prior to the Vietnam war, the VA had a proud record of providing health care and other services to Vets in need. Agent Orange and drug addiction acquired “in country” were not adequately addressed for Vietnam Vets. The greatly increased needs of the more than two million Vets of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars come as Austerity is the watchword throughout the public sector. The VA is overwhelmed, Vets are getting short shrift–and some bureaucrats are protecting their performance bonuses by cooking the books to show everything is lovely.
Many hawkish Republicans who never served want to abolish the VA health care system and give the Heros vouchers to buy private insurance–like the Obamacare they so despise. The VA model is in fact the best component of health care in this country. But it needs to be run by people who care more about Vets than bonuses, supported by whatever funding is required. The only adequate replacement would be a system like Britain’s National Health Service that covers the needs of all.
Of course, the best outcome for the VA and the women and men they serve would be peace. The single biggest obstacle to that goal are the bosses, bankers, and brass hats who rule Wall Street, Washington, the state capitals and City Halls across our land. They are armed with WMDs and are extremely dangerous. But they can be brought to justice by those who do all the work and all the fighting–the working class majority.
I don’t want to sour anyone’s holiday–including my own. But I felt compelled on this day to comment in the spirit of the words of Mother Jones to coal miners–Pray For the Dead and Fight Like Hell For the Living. Feel free to substitute honor or mourn for pray if you prefer–but there’s no effective option for fight.
That’s all for this week.
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