Chesterton Tribune

Iraq and Afghanistan Vets Against the War hold dialogue for peace here

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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.”

The Dialogue

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, who does?”

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 streets.”

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.



Posted 9/2/2011