Monday, August 30, 2010

Veterans for Peace Help Lift the Fog of War

Members of the Maine chapter of Veterans for Peace joined with other national chapters in Portland this weekend for the group’s annual convention. This year’s gathering marks VFP’s 25th anniversary, which was founded in Maine in 1985. The Holiday Inn by the Bay housed the four-day convention which included prominent speakers, local activists and legislatures, poets, authors and artists.

This year’s convention centered on the theme, “Lifting the Fog of War,” in which speakers and VFP members attempted to shine a light on the true, often grotesque, nature of war as only soldiers who have witnessed battle can describe it.

To that end, members of the national, “We Are Not Your Soldiers” campaign (a branch of the online activist organization, The World Can’t Wait) presented the infamous WikiLeaks “Collateral Damage” video, along with a discussion by Ethan McCord, a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, who is seen in the video rushing to save an Iraqi girl’s life.

Another workshop featured a war-tax-resister’s guide to refusing to pay for military spending with one’s federal taxes. Members of the “9/11 Truth Commission” presented their case that the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks were, in fact, orchestrated by the U.S. government (a controversial theory, even amongst many on the Left). Local activists, meanwhile, discussed their recent success with the “Bring Our War $$ Home,” campaign, particularly with regard to Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree’s (D) shift to opposing war-funding votes in the House of Representatives. And U.S. diplomat-turned-anti-war-crusader, Ann Wright spoke during the Saturday evening banquet of her activist awakening.

Author and journalist Chris Hedges delivered the convention’s keynote address, Saturday night. Hedges spent nearly twenty years as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, covering conflicts in Bosnia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Iraq and the Gaza Strip. He resigned from the Times in protest of the paper’s uncritical coverage in the run-up to the Iraq War.

Hedges’ remarks were by far the most polarizing for convention attendees. Drawing primarily from his most recent book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, Hedges grimly but succinctly summed up the hostile corporate takeover of democracy in the United States. Like many of the prophetic authors Hedges referenced in his speech (Camus, Adorno, Polanyi and George Orwell were amongst his theorists cited), his assessment offered little hope for salvation.

“Our nation has been hijacked by oligarchs, corporations, and a narrow, selfish, political, and economic elite,” Hedges writes in Empire of Illusion, “a small and privileged group that governs, and often steals, on behalf of moneyed interests. This elite, in the name of patriotism and democracy, in the name of all the values that were once part of the American system and defined the Protestant work ethic, has systematically destroyed our manufacturing sector, looted the treasury, corrupted our democracy, and trashed the financial system.”

Hedges goes on to describe the rise of corporate power and the decline of democracy as a “coup d’├ętat in slow motion.” Citing philosophy professor Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, Hedges notes how similar economic and political situations in Germany during the 1930s lead to the rise of fascism. Polanyi wrote, “Fascism, like socialism, was rooted in a market society that refused to function.”

While attendees later dismissed Hedges as overly bleak and pessimistic (two speakers denounced his remarks during a rally the following morning), I feel much of the criticism toward him was unwarranted. I certainly agree Hedges tends toward the dire (and, at times, the melodramatic) in his writing. And I agree he comes off as too deterministic—Claiming mankind’s fate is sealed and there is little (outside of small acts of rebellion that reaffirm our humanity) we can do to prevent it.

However, it is difficult to refute Hedges’ summation of our current state of affairs—as depressing as it may be. And, like it or not, many of the scholars he routinely cites such as Adorno and John Ralston Saul, have proven highly prescient in forecasting societal downfalls decades in advance. (Read Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, which meticulously maps out the rise of corporate power and consumer culture as early as 1944, if you need further evidence.)

Still, if Hedges was invited to “lift the fog of war,” perhaps he would have better addressed the convention’s theme by drawing from his previous book, the critically acclaimed War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.

(On a side note, I am not sure what those who strongly disliked Hedges were expecting. His talk was consistent with the tone and writing style of his weekly columns for Truthdig.com. Hedges’ lecture was pretty much what I expected it to be.)

Though not a veteran myself (and no offense to any VFP members, but I have no intention of becoming one anytime soon), I found the Veterans for Peace convention highly rewarding. Some workshops were productive and educational. Others mostly rehashed themes or ideas I have heard before. I wish I had encountered more young people at the event, but then I can’t honestly say I am surprised by the lack of youth presence. I left the VFP convention feeling simultaneously drained and invigorated.

Perhaps the most chilling observation came from McCord. During a discussion on the WikiLeaks online video, McCord noted, despite the uproar the video and those who released it have caused, there really is not anything exceptional about the violence it depicts.

“That video is not special in any way,” he stated, “because that video shows a daily occurrence in Iraq. We’re killing innocent people daily in Iraq. While I was there we were given orders for three hundred-sixty rotational fire. That means you kill every person on the street whether they have a weapon or not.”