It’s arguably the most polarizing issue in the country—war, in Iraq and in
Afghanistan—and finding just a splinter of common ground on which to debate
it is tough.
Begin with this: folks are often not even debating the same thing, as the
meaning of words like “patriotism,” “terrorism,” “duty,” “protest,”
“courage,” and “service” has shifted and blurred. And then there’s this:
families mourning the death or maiming of a loved one and needing to find
significance in a son’s or daughter’s sacrifice simply don’t want to believe
that their child gave everything for nothing, or for the wrong thing.
In short, the most cherished and emotionally fraught values—both broadly
cultural and intensely personal—are at stake in the debate, and nobody wants
to give an inch.
For Vince Emanuele Jr.—a Chesterton resident, a veteran of the U.S. Marine
Corps, and a member of Iraq Veterans against the War—the key to any meeting
of the minds at all is respect: honoring the other guy, crediting his
good faith, if not agreeing with his argument.
Last week, Emanuele and three other veterans of post-9/11 intervention made
respect the basic ground rule of a dialogue on war and peace at the
Library Service Center.
Emanuele’s companions: Sabrina (U.S. Navy, Iraq), Derek (U.S. Army, Iraq),
and Jacob (U.S. Army, Afghanistan).
Emanuele opened the event with a few introductory comments, in which he made
no bones about his own personal opposition to the war, a position reached,
he said, after “spending time on the ground, experiencing what I
experienced, and having my perspective changed.”
“The U.S. has a long history of intervention and occupation for the benefit
of the few and at the expense of the many,” Emanuele said, this nation has
attacked, invaded, intervened in, or occupied 62 other countries in its
history, and for only 14 percent of its 225-year history has it not had
troops committed abroad.
Emanuele noted as well that, according to a Brown University study, war in
Iraq and Afghanistan has cost the country to date a total of $3.7 trillion
or $9.7 billion per month, the latter amount more—for instance—than the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency’s annual budget. At the same time, he said,
millionaire households in the U.S. have reached an “unprecedented level”,
owning $38.6 trillion in wealth here and another $6.3 trillion offshore,
“while other people are going hungry, wages are declining, and folks can’t
afford health insurance.”
“Our priorities are clear,” Emanuele said.
Emanuele then gave the floor to Jacob, a former paratrooper who served three
tours of duty in Afghanistan and recently returned to the country to live,
dress, and eat like an Afghani. “I wanted to be an Afghani, to see what is
was like,” he said. “I wanted to understand the people but also to start my
own healing journey. I needed to iron some things out.”
On his journeys, Jacob said, he met folks displaced from their farm fields
by U.S. bombs, toured refugee camps—one across the street from a
“multi-million dollar military installation—and wherever he went ran into
children orphaned by war and living on the street. On two occasions, U.S.
troops pointed weapons at him.
“I didn’t hate Afghanis when I was in the Army,” Jacob said. “I just didn’t
know. I was only 19.”
His conclusion: “I was fighting a war for rich, greedy people.”
Emanuele then opened the floor to questions and comments.
Do you ever come into conflict with other veterans who don’t share your
feelings? a woman asked.
“A few,” Emanuele replied. “But most of my platoon feel the way I do. Most I
know want to come home and learn how to live again.” He added that a lot of
veterans aren’t happy with the situation in particular because they’re on
their four or fifth, or their eighth or ninth, deployment. “Only a small
percentage of folks are bearing the brunt of this conflict.”
Sabrina, an active member in her VFW post, said that it’s taken some doing
to “win the hearts and minds” of some of the others at her post. “But now I
think they understand me. We have debates at the bar. It’s a process to get
to the point of understanding.”
Jacob—who’s toured much of the South by bike as part of an outreach—noted
that, surprising to him, “there’s not a whole lot of support for the war in
the South. That’s kind of alarming. If the South doesn’t support the war,
One gentleman, with less of a question than a statement, said that a war not
formally declared by Congress is unconstitutional, that “there’s no power in
the Executive Branch to send kids to war.” He then commented on the
“gigantic military machine” and the “cowardly way it wages war” by sending
drones controlled by technicians here in the States to bomb civilians.
Emanuele took the gentleman’s comment as an opportunity to observe that “a
lot of different people with a lot of different political agendas” oppose
the war. “We have Ron Paul supporters, Republicans and Democrats and
Independents. We have anarchists and Communists.”
A woman who came of age during the Vietnam War asked this question: “I knew
people who went to Canada and who went to jail. I know those who volunteered
and those who were drafted. Not many of them came back whole. What is it we
can do to support you and comfort and help ease the pain that you have been
put through in my name?”
Emanuele: “What we’re doing tonight is a start. We have to start this
dialogue. That has to happen. These very real issues have to enter the
dialogue of the average family home. We have to tell our neighbors, our
co-workers, friends and family. We have to have masses of people in the
Sabrina: “It’s a dialogue. Continue it after you walk out of here. Go to
church, go to work, and talk.”
Derek—who helps to process veterans’ benefits claims—had a slightly
different answer. “Pay your taxes,” because the VA is understaffed and
there’s an enormous backlog of claims forcing veterans to wait 12 to 15
months to receive their disability benefits. “Pay your taxes and make sure
rich Americans pay theirs,” he added.
Another woman made this remark: “I don’t think the fighting is doing any
good and then people say I’m not supporting the troops. I ended up going
into the closet a little. If we can’t have an honest debate and can’t stand
up for our principles, we’ve lost our country.”
“It’s become a lot easier for folks to make the distinction” between
opposing the war and supporting the troops, Emanuele countered. “During the
Bush years, if you didn’t support the war, you were a terrorist.”
“I’ve come across a lot of active-duty GIs who are active war resisters,”
Sabrina said. “They’re the courageous ones.
“We have to realize we’re the majority,” Derek added. “Two-thirds of
Americans oppose the war in Afghanistan.”
And then a second gentleman: “This is a misbegotten and futile war. We are
going to find it inevitable that we will fail. I feel a great sense of
helplessness because I am one man and can do so little.”
“It has to mean something for people, families, to keep it together,” Derek
responded. “Just for the world to make sense, it has to mean something. But
I could only BS myself for so long until I realized, for me, it didn’t mean
anything. But I understand why it means something for veterans.”
Emanuele, for his part, recalled returning home and bringing with him the
personal effects of his best friend, killed in action. Those belongings he
gave to his buddy’s family in Chicago and while speaking to his friend’s
mother and father, “it became very clear that they were for the war and they
weren’t going to budge. And I was against it and it was very hard. But
there’s still a bond. They know what I do but they respect what I do. As
long as there’s mutual respect, we can sit in a room and talk.”
“At a very basic level, we have to respect each other and have a discussion
without being verbally abusive,” Emanuele said.