Vincent Emanuele is from the Iraq Veterans Against the War in the United States. He recently visited Australia to promote the documentary film On The Bridge which follows seven returning service men and women.
This is an edited version of a speech that he gave to a forum hosted by the Marrickville Peace Group, the Independent and Peaceful Australia network and Stop the War Coalition in Sydney on February 26.
I grew up on the south side of Chicago. My family were all union members, labour activists, steel workers, railroad workers, pipe fitters, iron workers — so I grew up with that background.
I joined the military even though my father had warned me not to join — particularly after 9/11. The atmosphere was very scary — a lot of jingoism and racism. The general attitude towards those from the Middle East and Muslims was very toxic. To some degree, I did feel like I wanted to be a part of what was happening at that time — and in an ignorant way.
I was 17 and I joined the Marine Corps, as an infantryman and machine gunner. I finished the infantry training a month before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I was sent home early from that deployment because my mother had a brain aneurysm and I came home to care for her.
I was sent on a second deployment to Al Anbar province of Iraq. We spent most of the time doing house raids and prisoner detention.
During that time, I became a little more conscious of what I was doing. Many people told us that they didn’t want us in Iraq. And the US forces were conducting some very brutal actions. Most of the prisoners we took in were tortured.
There were a lot of shootings and massacres of civilians, things that were not on the daily news in America.
Because of these things, I decided I could no longer support the war effort.
They told me they were going to send me on a third deployment to Iraq and I refused to go. At that point I was discharged from the Marine Corp.
I came home and found out about Iraq Veterans Against the War, which is made up of servicemen and women who have served since 9/11 and who want to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The global financial crisis in 2008 shifted most people’s attention to economic issues — and it’s been difficult for a lot of folks to make the connection between military spending and imperialism abroad while at home we’re having schools and roads fall apart.
But right now, with the economic situation, it’s very difficult to ask young men and women not to join the service, because it provides free education and free healthcare.
Healthcare costs are ridiculous. More than 60 million people in the US are uninsured. Half of all bankruptcies are due to healthcare costs. So we have a segment of society, particularly from the African American and Latin American communities, who feel as if their only way out is to join the service to find a job, money, health care, shelter and education. Young people don’t have a lot of other options right now.
There are many issues facing veterans. Well over 150,000 veterans are homeless, close to a quarter of the homeless population is made up of veterans. One tenth of the prison population are veterans. One third of all females getting out of services are reporting rape by fellow service men and women.
Eighteen veterans are killing themselves every day. More veterans have committed suicide in the past five years than who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Well over 5000-6000 veterans have committed suicide in past six years.
The unemployment rate for veterans is about 20%. For African American and Latin American veterans that figure jumps to 30-40%.
Veterans are returning home to the same disadvantaged communities they came from, where the black and brown communities are a lot more impoverished.
For instance, Latin American and African Americans make up 26% of the armed forces but they make up 56% of the homeless population of those in the armed forces.
We have found that in the past five years, particularly since the financial collapse, there’s been an upsurge of political activism in the United States. We have the occupy movement, we have several labour movements and unions that have been organising in a more radical way than they have in the past.
Only 11.7% of our workforce is unionised. We’ve been working with unions and veterans trying to connect the issues of austerity with a military budget, if you include nuclear weapons and if you include veterans’ healthcare, spending on the military hovers at $1 trillion a year.
The major question is: how do you galvanise the 70% of Americans who are against the war? Sometimes activists look at the rest of Americans as ignorant, but that’s a big barricade to organising people. It’s important to find places where we can come together as opposed to where we disagree.
We found that when we worked with the environment movement and the labour movement, we said let’s not talk about ideology right away, let’s find the issues we can agree on and that way we can move forward.
Organising has been difficult to organise among the African-American and Latin-American communities because the majority of the anti-war movement is old, grey and white.
A lot of organisers from the 1960s makes it difficult to move into the more impoverished communities and build power in those places. It is certainly a challenge.
We’ve done an excellent job of having an independent, alternative grassroots media — an antidote to the mainstream media, Fox news, CNN and major media.
We have thousands of community radio programs, podcasts, weekly news reports. Let’s see how much we can work with mainstream media, but we don’t rely on it.