‘Readings in Nonviolence’ features extracts from our favourite books, pamphlets, articles or other material on nonviolence and related areas, or reviews of important works in the field (suggestions and contributions welcome)
Veterans for Peace: Gerry Condon interview
Gerry Condon deserted from the U.S. Army in 1969 after refusing orders to deploy to the U.S. war in Vietnam. He found sanctuary in Europe and Canada for six years before returning to the U.S.A. as part of a campaign for amnesty for all war resisters. Today, Gerry works closely with GI resisters who refuse to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is the co-chair of the GI Resistance Working Group of Veterans For Peace, and serves on the steering committee of the Bradley Manning Support Network.
During a tour of Ireland in October and November Gerry Condon spoke to Rob Fairmichael of INNATE –
Rob – Gerry, it is great to have you here and maybe you could start off by saying something about yourself and you got involved in this line of work, so to speak.
Gerry – I am Irish American, I grew up in an Irish Catholic family in California, my father and all two of his brothers fought in World War II; they were all three police officers like their father. I grew up believing that the United States was a force for good in the world, for freedom and democracy, I was a patriotic American, like most Americans I guess. I ended up enlisting in the army during the Vietnam War. I wasn’t really gung ho about it at the time, I actually had serious doubts about the war already and was considering myself to be a pacifist but the regulations for conscientious objection required an extensive questionnaire about my specific religious training and beliefs at the very time, as a young man at first year in college, I was questioning my religious beliefs, even the existence of God, and all of a sudden I am questioning the war, questioning everything I had been taught.
I had a student deferment for a while because I was in college, that kept me from being conscripted because there was a draft at the time. But I fell behind in college and knew I would soon be conscripted into the army, so I ended up jumping before I was pushed. Next things I knew I was in basic training in the army, running around in formation with rifles yelling “Kill the gooks!”. It was pretty shocking to me, there was blatant racism as part of our training, to learn how to hate the Asians we were going to be killing in Vietnam. In fact a friend of mine, a Chinese-American, actually got pulled out of the ranks in training and told, “Come up and stand here, Wong”, and “This is what a gook looks like”! My views on the war were reinforced by the racism and brutality of Army basic training.
Rob – A primer in racism.
Gerry – Yeah. If you talk to Iraq veterans today you’ll hear very much the same thing, they talk about the ‘rag-heads’ that they’re going to kill in Iraq, and the ‘hajis’ in Afghanistan. At any rate I was very disturbed by that and I was recruited into Special Forces, trained as a medic, a year-long training, a Green Beret medic, we had to be like jungle doctors. It gave me a lot of time to think about what was going on, and I got to talk to returning veterans coming back from Vietnam, and they described atrocities against Vietnamese civilians. And some of them were very upset about it, things they had seen or even participated in. Others were bragging about it but they were telling the same story. That’s it, finally I said no, there’s no way I can go forward with this and began to speak out publicly against war and began to refuse all orders. I was kicked out of the Green Beret (Special Forces) training and given orders for Vietnam. I was court-martialled and sentenced to ten years in prison. But that sentence didn’t come until I had already escaped, went AWOL, deserted during the middle of my court-martial and made my to Canada and eventually to Europe.
Rob – When you went AWOL, where were you?
Gerry – I was at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. I headed north to Canada, I made it to Montreal, was there for a couple of months, then I came to Europe, I lived in Germany for six months, I travelled around Europe. Eventually the FBI found out I was in Germany and I made my way to Sweden which was the only real safe haven in Europe, Sweden was the only country in the world that gave asylum to Vietnam deserters and draft resisters specifically because they were resisting that war. 800 of us found sanctuary in Sweden during those years, a much smaller number than went to Canada, as many as 100,000 went to Canada, but that wasn’t asylum, just normal immigration.
Rob – So, you’re still involved with war resistance today?
Gerry – Yes, I went back to the US in 1975 as part of a campaign for amnesty for war resisters, we had a certain measure of success. In fact Jimmy Carter’s first act as president was to pardon draft resisters and to establish a program for a case by case review and return of deserters, a policy of leniency. So many people were able to make themselves legal and avoid prison, even if they decided to remain living in Canada or Sweden or France or England, where some of them were, at least they were able to go back and visit their families.
The whole experience was very formative for me, I was very much an activist in Sweden and Canada, and worked closely with the anti-war movements there, and with many war resisters against the war and for amnesty. I pretty much continued that after I was back in the States, and was involved with the new anti-draft movement; they stopped drafting young men in the early 70s but then brought back draft registration about 1980 and I was very involved with the anti-registration movement then. Also, about that time, the Contra war in Nicaragua began, the US and CIA backing the counter-revolutionaries against the Nicaraguan revolutionary government. I was involved in organising veterans to go to Nicaragua to work in the war zones nonviolently, rebuilding schools and clinics that had been destroyed by the Contras, and trying to raise public opinion at home against that kind of policy. There have been an awful lot of wars! It seems endless.
In the last seven years I have been working with another generation of war resisters, with a certain amount of déjà vu for me because suddenly we have all these young men who have deserted from the military or resisting within, and many who have become conscientious objectors as a result of actually being in war. A lot of young men went to Iraq, came back, and when they were ordered back again they said “No, I can’t do that”, but they saw that the Army was not going to respect their desires as conscientious objectors. So they fled to Canada, in the last seven years several hundred have gone to Canada. Unfortunately it is much more difficult there now, immigration is much more difficult, so they have had to apply for political refugee status which is a real uphill battle. None of them have been given it yet but they are still hanging on, with legal appeals. They have a lot of political support in Canada, 64% of people say they should be allowed to stay there but there is a Conservative government which has been resisting it.
There is a young man, André Shepherd, who has applied for refugee status in Germany after coming back from Iraq and refusing to return, he has also been denied and is appealing. I am quite involved with supporting young men, sometimes women now, who followed the same course as I did, forty some years ago. Veterans for Peace also is very actively involved in supporting the resisters but also the young veterans coming back. Veterans for Peace is an organisation of about five thousand veterans from the Spanish Civil War, World War II, right through to the current wars, but most of us are actually Vietnam era veterans.
We helped launch a new organisation, Iraq Veterans Against the War, they needed their own voice. They have been very effective, have done a lot of work, and at a time when the anti-war movement was otherwise in somewhat of a lull in recent years in the US, the young veterans have really taken the lead and provided a lot of inspiration, speaking out all over the place, not only against the war but against the treatment they received, when they returned, by their own military which was not really providing them with the resources they needed to deal with the physical and psychological wounds of war. A huge problem is the huge suicide rate among the young veterans at this particular time, as well as active duty military.
The Iraq Veterans have also established a number of GI coffee houses, one outside of Fort Louis, Washington, called Coffee Strong, another outside Fort Hood, Texas, these are two of the largest army bases in the US, that deploy tens of thousands of soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan. You have an alternative setting where anti-war GIs and people who are questioning things and need information about how to get out of the military, how to deal with sexual harassment in the military – there is a lot of that especially against the women, and how to become a conscientious objector or just where to get some counselling for the post-traumatic stress syndrome that the military is not taking seriously. Those kind of alternative spaces have been really important, as they were during the Vietnam War. I was just in Kaiserslautern in Germany where there are 30,000 US troops and 20,000 support people, 50,000 Americans, and they’re establishing a GI coffee house there.
Rob – You have been touring around parts of Europe as part of your Veterans for Peace work?
Gerry – It’s a combination of business and pleasure I guess you could say. My partner Helen and I are travelling around Europe for six months, we have the luxury of being able to do so, travelling on the cheap, backpacking it and staying with friends or camping. At the same time we’re also both active in Veterans for Peace, networking with peace and justice groups as we go. We found it has been keeping us very busy, there are a lot of good people doing some really good work around Europe, they have been eager to meet us and we have been eager to meet them, and we have been learning a whole lot. Of course the mass media doesn’t really tell people that there is a peace movement in the US, and we don’t hear what is going on in Europe.
Rob – That seems to be a big issue in relation to the States, that the peace movement is not mentioned even when there are things which you might consider would be reported. Why is that, is it just under the radar or are there vested interests to leave it unreported?
Gerry – We’re always asking ourselves that question. There are some ways that we might organise to more effectively reach the media, but generally speaking the media is corporate-owned, it’s very much concentrated media, in the hands of relatively few people and they do not have an interest in reporting on the activities of people who question war. In fact they have been very much involved with promoting the wars, even respected newspapers like the New York Times, for example, had to apologise publicly for falsely reporting that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, in other words supporting the Bush administration’s rationale for going to war against Iraq, that was true of the Washinton Post, a lot of media. We have out and out right wing media like Fox News in the US, a Murdoch-owned network, that is cheerleading for war and cheerleading for hatred against immigrants and always trying to stir up base right wing sentiments.
So it is hard to get in the media. Of course it is important to get in the mass media, it reaches tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of people so we continue to make every effort to do so. At the same time, increasingly the progressive movement in the US is making its own media, and of course that is very possible today with YouTube and the internet and other means. So you see a lot of that, we don’t take any chances that our events are going to go totally unreported.
Rob – When you were talking about cheerleaders for war, the quote from Carl von Clausewitz that war is the continuation of policy by other means – there are different interpretations of that but, at its face value; maybe you could make a comment about how the US administrations have tended to see war, and the use of war, in furthering foreign policy objectives.
Gerry – Yes, it is pretty scary how this has all grown because we have a huge military-industrial complex, a huge weapons industry which President Eisenhower himself warned us that it might be a problem. So we have people with a vested interest in the continuation of war and the spreading of weapons around the world. We have a revolving door of top generals at the Pentagon who approve huge expensive weapons systems, then two years later they retire and go to work for that same company0.
Rob – Same in the UK and Europe.
Gerry – Yeah. Then there’s also that the US seems to be obsessed to control as much of the planet as possible, they don’t seem to want there to be any regional power that can somehow stand up to the US’s overseas interests whether that is control of oil or some other strategic military advantage to the US. It now has 900 US military bases around the world. We are now in the condition that many people refer to as ‘permanent war’. The occupation of Iraq may finally be ending, at least formally with most of the military forces being gone by the end of the year, but the US has built the biggest embassy in the world in Iraq, it’s as large as the Vatican, there are 140 buildings. There are also State Department outposts in cities around the country. Between just the military that are required to defend those installations, and the contractors that will remain there – many war functions are now being privatised – so when they say they are withdrawing the troops, you have a bunch of troops that are contractors, mercenaries, and actually less accountable. It’s the same thing in Afghanistan, Obama has promised to get us out of there by 2014, that’s promising two and a half more years of bloodshed. In fact there is every evidence that the US is building permanent military bases there as well, and intends to stay in Afghanistan for a long time to come.
The drone wars are proliferating, the US is using drones to bomb targets in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia and other places, it almost seems endless at this point. It’s hard to stop that kind of momentum for war. Hopefully that will be happening now. Frankly, a lot of US antiwar activists have been beating ourselves up for a few years because, why can’t we stop this, how come our demonstrations are getting smaller instead of bigger? But then with the economic crisis we have faced in the last few years, and the bailout of the banks at the expense of the people, and the disappearance of jobs in the US, it’s really changing the equation.
Rob – It strikes me that part of the fall of the US military empire could be economic, that could be the way in which the US military empire declines although it may take a long time to fall altogether.
Gerry – Economically the US has already declined, certainly other regional powers are rising. The time of US economic dominance in the world is certainly coming towards an end. Part of the reason for these current wars is there is a certain class in the US that thinks – or a certain part of a certain class – that thinks we are still the most dominant military power there has ever been on earth, so let’s use that to try to compensate for our economic decline.
Rob – There are also economic interests in terms of oil and so on, obviously.
Gerry – And the money that goes into our military, half of our tax dollars, some people argue more than half depending on how you count it, are going into the military budget and related expenses for war, or taking care of the wounded when they come back. There is this clamouring from the right wing of the Republican Party constantly calling to cut all the social programs, and that is happening, and at the same time more and more money is going to war. So there is that. I think it has created a situation where there could be some form of internal collapse.
Right now we have a promising new movement that seems to be coming up, a mass movement in the US, led by youth, the so-called Occupy Wall Street movement which is less focussed on war. Veterans for Peace are working hard to inject this as a strong issue because certainly it relates, but it is more focussed on economic inequality. There has actually been quite a dramatic redistribution of wealth in the US over the last decade or two, from the poor and working class up to the rich. One of the slogans of the Occupy Wall Street movement is ‘We are the 99%’. If we are the 99% we should be able to deal somehow with the 1%, the ones who are doing very, very well by exploiting and ruling the 99%.
Now there seems to be a permanent and growing movement in place, it started with some young activists who decided, almost spontaneously, to occupy Wall Street. For the first couple of weeks the media did their best to ignore them and then somehow it became a phenomenon, and the unions, frustrated by not making more progress, came to support the young activists. The Democratic Party is trying to co-opt it now, hoping that they can steer it into ‘get out the vote for Obama’, and the media is talking about it every day and complaining that these young people don’t seem to have specific demands or leaders that can be isolates or undermined or criticised, and by last Saturday [15th October 2011 – Ed] this movement had really taken off around the world, there were reported to be marches and actions in one thousand cities in eighty some countries around the world. We were at the one in Brussels, it was very impressive, very large, and involved the Indignados from Spain, they had marched up to Brussels and were joined by people from France and Brussels and around Europe. There were also very large protests, in Rome, that is the one place it became quite violent, and in many cities around the world. It is an international movement, some people peg its origins to the Arab Spring.
There is a very poignant seven minute video [‘I am not moving’, which shows President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton talking about the youth in Syria and how they should be respected, their voices should be heard, they should not be repressed [laughter] interspersed with cops beating protesters in the US, very powerful..... A lot of people are occupying some kind of public space in almost every significant city in the United States, hundreds. I saw one video last night which was several cities in southern Oregon and northern California, small places, every one of them had an occupation so I think there are hundreds of occupations going on. We saw one here in Dublin and there is going to be one in Letterkenny, another in Galway. Generally people are making the same kinds of demands against an unjust economic order, and with a variety of other very justified complaints, and it’s a movement that is hard to know right now where it’s going to go.
Rob - It is good to end this interview at least on the fact that people are standing up and doing things, and hopefully the peace and anti-militarist message can be included.
Gerry – Absolutely. We have globalisation now, corporate globalisation but also globalisation of the media, communications, globalisation of war-making with US troops stopping over at Shannon on their way to Iraq and Afghanistan, for example. I think it’s also really important we have a globalised peace movement and we don’t depend on the corporate media to make us aware of one another, that we develop direct contacts with one another to coordinate with one another, to do all we can for peace and justice. Helen and I are very excited to be part of stirring up that kind of energy while we are here in Europe.