Raising Voices Against War

A new book chronicles an antiwar movement organized by veterans of the Iraq conflict

veterans marching in protest in Boston

More than 140,000 American soldiers were deployed when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003—a number that would swell to 1.5 million who had been there by the war’s end in 2011. But it was soldiers who fought in the early years of the nearly decade-long conflict who formed Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) to try and stop what they believed was a senseless war.

In her book War is Not a Game (Rutgers University Press, 2014), Nan Levinson, a lecturer in English in the School of Arts and Sciences, follows this antiwar coalition during its peak activity in 2007 and 2008. “I wanted to understand what constituted success and failure for an antiwar movement, and I wanted to understand what motivates its members,” Levinson says. “I wanted to tell their stories so that the vast majority of us who have no direct connection with the military would understand the complexity of these people and their experiences, and not just treat veterans simplistically as heroes or victims.”

Levinson, who describes herself as “utterly civilian,” had no connection to the military until she wrote about conscientious objectors in her previous book, Outspoken: Free Speech Stories (University of California Press, 2003). Researching their stories piqued her curiosity about this segment of American society, “which is so big and so separate,” she says.

Nan LevinsonNan Levinson
She chronicles IVAW’s arc—what begins as a failed attempt to stop the Iraq War morphs into a broader ongoing agenda working to end militarism, prevent future misbegotten wars and bolster veterans’ rights. “Sometimes it’s important to act without any guarantees of success,” she writes. “Still, while antiwar movements throughout history may have whittled away at support for a war, they’ve seldom stopped one.”

IVAW’s story begins when Marine corporal Michael Hoffman and seven other veterans launched the movement at Boston’s Faneuil Hall in July 2004. A mile away, the Democratic National Convention was nominating another former antiwar activist, John Kerry, for president.

“Five marines, two soldiers and one airman became the most unlikely of antiwar activists,” Levinson writes. These working-class high school graduates had once bet their future on the military, and believed in their country’s morality. Now they were calling for an end to a conflict they saw as pointless and needlessly brutal.

Just a Job

Hoffman joined the Marines in 1999 at age 19. It was a way out of his small hometown near Allentown, Pennsylvania, where his father was a steelworker and his mother drove a bakery truck. He couldn’t find a job. A recruiter convinced him the Marines were his ticket out.

Hoffman’s four-year tour of duty was extended involuntarily, under a policy known as stop-loss in military parlance. He participated in the ground invasion of Iraq that began in March 2003, and returned home with an honorable discharge in August 2004.

His experiences in Iraq led to alcohol and drug problems. “After seeing what happened there, it changed for me,” Hoffman told Levinson. “There’s this idea that you join the military because you want to kill people and go to war,” he said several years after he returned. “Granted, there’s a few that think that way, but it’s a small minority. Overall, people join the military because they want a better life for themselves—and to help people.”

IVAW’s goal was to give voice to a new kind of narrative about the Iraq War from those who had actually been there, Levinson says. There were needless killings of Iraqi civilians, and there was no foreseeable resolution to the conflict—and that was not what the American public was being told, she says.

“Their stories are not the ones we want to tell ourselves about the military or about our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” she says. IVAW explained “that the problem was not the military strategy, but the political policy that led to the invasion; not a few bad apples but a situation that made ordinary soldiers act from their worst instincts,” she writes.

Among those soldiers Levinson interviewed who were disenchanted with the war was IVAW founding member Kelly Dougherty, who spoke at IVAW events across the country about her shame at what she had done in Iraq. “I’m not proud of burning flatbed trucks filled with food while hungry Iraqis looked on. I’m not proud of burning ambulances,” Dougherty told the audiences.

IVAW member Kristofer Goldsmith served as an Army sergeant in Iraq. He had the gruesome assignment of photographing the corpses his unit exhumed after a battle in Sadr City. “He had to look away,” Levinson writes. “That didn’t stop the image from burning in his brain, nor the blood from spurting onto his shoe, nor the flies from crawling up his nose.”

Protesting at the Source

The antiwar group entered the national spotlight in 2007, when it staged its first public protest at a Veterans for Peace convention in St. Louis, Missouri. By then, the original eight members had become 90. They marched up to an Army recruiting booth that featured a video game called “America’s Army” and began a call-and-response:

“Iraq veterans against the war, what have you learned?”

“War is not a game,” they responded in unison.

With momentum from media coverage of the protest and subsequent actions, they convened a conference, Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan, at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Maryland, in March 2008. Inspired by a similar 1971 event organized by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, about 50 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars testified before fellow veterans, members of the public and the news media for three days and provided evidence of war crimes, disregard for rules of engagement, reckless endangerment of Iraqi civilians and casual racism. It was covered widely by journalists nationally and internationally.

IVAW followed up Winter Soldier by testifying on Capitol Hill at an informal hearing, visiting military bases on a second national bus tour and spearheading the largest protest at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, where they presented a list of demands to the Obama campaign.

“That 18 months or so were IVAW’s heyday,” Levinson says. “It was a time of such hope and energy and excitement. These were people who weren’t just complaining; they were organizing, they were testifying, they were creating art, they were doing things. It was so much fun to research and write about.”

At the end of 2008, IVAW ran into budget problems and dissention among the leadership. Then it reorganized and began Operation Recovery, a multi-year project that continues to push for soldiers’ right to heal and for investigation into the long-term effects of the war on the health of Iraqi citizens.

Though the organization continues to be active, with about 2,000 members working on veterans’ issues and antimilitarism, it is a lesson in the mutability of antiwar movements, Levinson says.

Levinson attended the group’s 10th anniversary national convention in Colorado last August. She spoke to a longtime IVAW member who told her this: “You know, we just kept thinking if we stood up and yelled ‘This war is wrong,’ everyone would listen to us, and they’d stop the war.”

“We all learned that it’s a lot more complicated than just being right,” Levinson says.

Nan Levinson will discuss War Is Not a Game on Friday, Jan. 30, at 3 p.m. at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Gail Bambrick can be reached at gail.bambrick@tufts.edu.

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