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An Article All Anti-War Buddhists Should Read

April 15, 2011

[Update 2:30pm: Just wanna say I love posting about this just as this year’s Safety Fest is getting underway! Safety Fest is an annual weekend of events organized by Communities United Against Violence (CUAV), supported this year by Critical Resistance, on the theme of queer and trans power, anti-violence at the intimate, community, and state levels, and abolition of the prison-industrial complex (PIC). Awesome!]

For the 10th anniversary issue of Left Turn Magazine, anti-imperialist organizer Clare Bayard offers a wonderful look at “demilitarization as rehumanization” work in the US. Her examples are varied and informative, from youth-of-color-led anti-recruitment efforts in Bay-PEACE Oakland, to community-based transformative justice approaches to intimate violence, to indigenous people’s and immigrants’ movements to stop US imperialism at home and abroad. Her primary example, relating to work she herself has been doing with US Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), highlights a thought-provoking and politically visionary approach to war resistor organizing. It’s called Operation Recovery: Stop the Deployment of Traumatized Troops (OpRec).

The underlying strategy is IVAW’s basic model: organizing GIs to withdraw their consent from wars. Its success in stopping deployment of troops with severe trauma would incapacitate the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq by knocking out 20 to 50 percent of the fighting force. It’s a dilemma campaign. If we win, the wars are hamstrung. Or, if the military continues deploying wounded troops, this visible criminal negligence will hurt their legitimacy and ability to keep recruiting. Either way, we also improve our capacity to provide our own community-based care, which is needed far beyond just the veterans’ community. An element of the campaign is developing survival programs, inspired by the Black Panthers, to address the needs of people whose ability to resist their command often depends on access to support.

Operation Recovery exposes the silenced crises of Military Sexual Trauma (MST), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). IVAW, partnered with the Civilian-Soldier Alliance, has a strategy to win on multiple fronts. Demanding the right to heal is a point of leverage to challenge the institution, as well as a survival need within this community. OpRec has begun targeting base commanders who have the power to make immediate decisions preventing deployments. Here, even “damage control” means fewer lives destroyed.

Amplifying the voices of traumatized troops deepens awareness of the scope of disaster in these wars. After last fall’s media exposure of Afghanistan “kill teams,” IVAW member Ethan McCord responded, “You’re taking soldiers who are on psychotropic drugs for PTSD or TBI, and you’re putting a weapon in their hand and sending them right back to where they were traumatized and telling them to go kill Afghans. What did you think was going to happen when you place these soldiers in that same situation?”

The dual strategy of withdrawing worker power from the war machine while simultaneously building alternative structures for healing and recovery that do not depend on the state represents, to me, a beautiful synthesis of peace work and anti-imperialism. Not a superficial synthesis as in a combination of two stereotypically gendered approaches (macho “war resistors” and feminine “healing”), but the real, dialectical synthesis represented in one of the mottos of UBUNTU, a women-of-color and survivor -led community network against sexual violence in Durham, North Carolina:

To resist, we must heal; to heal, we must resist.

In her chapter of The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, Paula X. Rojas advocates the same kind of approach, modeled in many of the people’s struggles in Central and South America: using politicized horizontal organizations that meet community needs as a leverage point against militarized state power. The politically-infused practice of building people’s power to form their own schools, justice systems, food supplies, squatter organizations, and so on, articulates base building not in terms of recruiting people out of their homes into some new hierarchical organization or corps, but “thinking beyond the state, and even beyond an alternative vision of current institutions, by politicizing every aspect of everyday life and alternative forms of dealing with them.” (202) We can see how this resonates with Bayard’s articulation of using OpRec to “improve our capacity to provide our own community-based care” for traumatized veterans, as well as act as a “point of leverage to challenge the institution.”

Having heard so much hype about using Buddhist meditation practices for healing, it’s so refreshing to encounter this articulation of wellness that names the elephant in the room: ambient institutional violence in a militarized, imperialist culture. Not everyone is impacted in the same ways, or to the same degrees, and yet we are all responsible for transforming this reality. As Clare says, “Affirming everyone’s humanity and centering the importance of healing capsizes the logic of militarism.”

In these terms, healing is not an “escape” from worldly troubles, just as meditation is not an exercise in stopping pesky thoughts from arising. Rather than chase after some imaginary permanent spa day, a life in the realm of the gods that is also ultimately impermanent, we turn toward suffering and confront militarization as one of the the primary mechanisms for the maintenance of class society. Not only in manifestations of, as Lenin called them, “special bodies of armed men,” but also in the patriarchal, hierarchical, and punitive tendencies — subtle and overt — that we each bring to our organizing collectives.

One last dimension I love about Bayard’s piece, that I think is relevant to the “Socially Engaged Buddhism” discourse, is the focus on GI leadership. Often, it seems to me, in progressive Buddhist thinking, we see strains of liberal logic of “empowerment” or “responsibility” manifesting as a kind of self-centeredness. For example, my friend Maia over at the Jizo Chronicles recently resolved to face her own “hypocrisy” as someone who is against US wars but also pays taxes that support them. Now, I know that Maia wasn’t trying to propose some sort of program for ending the wars — it was more of an exercise in self examination and transformation — but I hear this angle echoed a lot in white liberal anti-war circles. As I understand it, this line of thinking looks at the ways in which we are each individually accountable, through our own actions, and seeks to use our individual power to change our behaviors. Kind of an aggregate approach — if enough people follow suit, there will be a big shift. I respect and admire some of the ideas there, but on strategic grounds I disagree with centering them. What does it mean that such war resistance efforts can happen totally divorced from relationships with GIs? Clare touches on this problem in her discussion of the challenges of veteran organizing, describing not only separation but “friction between GI resistance and majority white and class-privileged peace movements,” also exacerbated by “the carefully designed race and class makeup of the military.”

Now, I hear a lot of emphasis placed on war spending (read: electoral politics) and weapons manufacture as points of intervention for peace/anti-war work, but that doesn’t mean that other organizing tacts don’t exist in Buddhist circles that I don’t know about! Anyone have a lead on veteran-led anti-war work supported by organized Buddhists?

In the meantime, please give Clare’s whole article a thorough read, and feel welcome to share insights, reflections, and disgreements here.

Have a wonderful weekend, friends!

8 Comments leave one →
  1. April 15, 2011 2:21 pm

    Hey Katie,

    I agree with you on this. The context of my post on the Jizo Chronicles was indeed focused on my individual actions, and that was both its strength and weakness. I do feel an imperative to see where my actions are incongruent with my beliefs and to clean that up — otherwise, there is no potency in my actions, on a very personal and spiritual level.

    That doesn’t mean that this is the most strategically useful approach, though, exactly because it leaves out a more systemic, structural analysis. I appreciated my friend Lewis’ comment on my post for just that reason. (BTW, Lewis was an old colleague at Buddhist Peace Fellowship back in the early 2000’s. I keep trying to get him to write a guest post on anarchism and socially engaged Buddhism… I think that would be a doozy!)

    As to your question about veteran-led anti-war work with organized Buddhists, I can’t say I know of any. Sadly, I think many ‘socially engaged’ Buddhists are notoriously bad organizers. I’m not sure what it is… maybe it goes with the territory if they are also white folks of privilege, but there just doesn’t seem to be much awareness of the need to apply effective organizing tactics around this work. It kind of goes with the post you wrote the other day, asking something about is it possible for there to be an approach to socially engaged Buddhist activism that does bring in a higher level of speaking truth to power and confrontation. That’s a great koan.

    One of the best organizing efforts I ever participated in came from the Western Massachusetts American Friends Service Committee office at the start of the Iraq war (2002/3 — oh so long ago!). They worked closely with Veterans for Peace and made sure that the vets were literally leading the way at the marches that we organized up until the start of war in 2004, including the massive march in NYC in Feb 2003. They also made concerted efforts to ensure that young people of color were in leadership roles. I am forever grateful for that experience and have a lot of respect for AFSC in general around this work (including their efforts in counter-recruitment).

  2. April 15, 2011 2:22 pm

    correction — I meant the start of war in 2003, not 2004.

  3. April 15, 2011 3:45 pm

    Thanks for thinking through this stuff with me, Maia! My hope is that as a community (or interlinking communities) of sanghas, we can move toward following the lead of radical autonomous communities of color (worldwide) and envision the process of aligning our beliefs and actions as a process of engaging collectively, rather than acting in isolation/aggregation. Naturally, I think, this would involve getting more and more practice at sound political organizing, including avoiding the typical non-profit pitfalls. And I think this means creating collectives, or nodes, of like-minded radicals who can act together, support each other, learn through doing, and link up with the best ongoing organizing work we can find in the area.

    I know that this collective action approach has also figured prominently in your life and work, through BPF and other orgs, so I hope I don’t come across as “calling you out” or something — definitely not my intention! Just trying to learn more about what’s out there and reflect on what I hear coming through prominent Buddhist channels.

    So the AFSC was kind of an organized contingent of a larger anti-war coalition while you were there? Were they organizing as Quakers? I’m really curious about minority- spiritual organizing because I suspect its role is quite different from Christian-based organizing in this country, which obviously appeals to a much larger population!

    Hope your foot’s feeling better. :)

    hugs

  4. nathan permalink
    April 15, 2011 5:18 pm

    First off, I love the emphasis on building healing structures and systems outside of the State. For whatever reason, I have been paying some attention to debates around funding for Veterans, especially related to trauma and illness – and what happens over and over again is that heated conversations amongst elected officials on this kind of funding always end up trumping any significant discussion of the wars themselves, and the war machine behind them. I remember a few years ago seeing a speech one of my Senators – Amy Klobuchar – gave at a packed house of Minnesota defense contractors. She stood there saying she supported Veterans, and would fight for their benefits (this was during the final Bush years, when talks about cutting some of the overall budget for Veterans services were going on.) The rest of the speech was the pro-corporate garbage she’s known for, but the whole scene struck me as the perfect image of how screwed up things have gotten. A female politician standing in front of a room full of white corporate men (and a few women), talking about supporting veterans, while simultaneously speaking about how wonderfully “innovative” Minnesota’s companies were – in creating war tools.

    So, point being – it’s makes a hell of a lot of sense to me to step outside of that, and create grassroots organizations. For multiple reasons. Collective and individual empowerment. Community development. And as a way to undermine the military/industrial complex.

    One of the biggest weaknesses in the mainstream anti-war movements is that they tend to be filled with people who have no direct experience of actual military conflicts, or something equivalent. So, even if their analysis is right, the collective image given off is that of armchair quarterbacks. In fact, the very privilege many of these folks experience can make it difficult for them to imagine alternative economies, social structures, and ways of living that would break down the military/industrial complex at it’s roots. I frequently found myself frustrated with the preponderance of protesters I met during anti-war marches that were basically content with the way things are, besides the wars and a few other issues. And it was so telling how every two years, the “election of the century” took away 1/3 to 1/2 of those involved to go doorknocking for Democrats. Yawn. Double yawn.

    One of my particular angles in all of this is the immigrant solider population, including those who offered to serve in order to get papers. So few have any awareness of the numbers of undocumented folks who opt to become soldiers and go to war as a way of bypassing the jacked immigration system we have. Or the thousands of recent documented refugees who join the military as a way to show their commitment to a nation full of people who are ambivelent and even hostile to their presence – even though many of them just left war torn countries and are still suffering from those wounds.

    And in terms of healing justice, the need for treatment communities that reflect the people in them (their values and traditions) is another reason for developing grassroots orgs/systems.

    I can’t say I know of any Buddhist-based work around any of this. In fact, in my neck of the woods, it feels like the moment Obama got elected, most of the Buddhists around here stopped talking much about the wars – and socially engaged work in general. Not everyone, but back during the Bush Admin. I could have rustled up a group pretty easily to go to a protest, do letter writing, or some other form of action. Now, not so much.

  5. April 16, 2011 11:36 am

    One of my particular angles in all of this is the immigrant solider population, including those who offered to serve in order to get papers. So few have any awareness of the numbers of undocumented folks who opt to become soldiers and go to war as a way of bypassing the jacked immigration system we have. Or the thousands of recent documented refugees who join the military as a way to show their commitment to a nation full of people who are ambivelent and even hostile to their presence – even though many of them just left war torn countries and are still suffering from those wounds.

    F’sho. This isn’t a dimension I knew about until reading Clare’s article, where she has a section dedicated to immigrant and indigenous veteran work:

    Migrant justice organizers have no choice but to deal with militarism at every turn. The post-9/11 folding of immigration enforcement into the Department of Homeland Security aggravated an already dangerous situation. Heavily recruited, with promises of citizenship for youth considering military service, immigrant communities of color across the country are taking on militarization of their neighborhoods and of the border region. They are resisting racist immigration and “enforcement” laws and pushing for alternatives to militarized schools and streets.

    Guerrero Azteca Peace Project, a Latino community-based peace and counter-recruitment effort formed by Fernando Suarez del Solar when his undocumented son Jesus Alberto was one of the first soldiers to die in Iraq, responded to Arizona’s SB1070 racial harassment law in a letter signed by Latino military parents. The letter asks Obama to take action, and states: “Those on active duty supposedly are risking their lives for American ideals, but with this law they see clearly that if their families must face harassment, incarceration, and deportation these ideals are nothing but empty words.” The letter recalls Vietnam-era challenges by African Americans to racism and hypocrisy, summarized famously by Muhammed Ali: “No, I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over.”

    Thanks for all your thoughts, nathan! I was reading somewhere that you’ve been feeling an urge to get re-involved in grassroots organizing -type stuff (not that it has to be around war), so I wish you hella luck in that and am looking forward to how things unfold for you! Yoga teachers can be powerful politicized community healers…. :)

    hugs

  6. April 21, 2011 3:02 pm

    Hi Katie,

    Finally getting back to this. I still haven’t read Clare’s article in full, but reading your reply brings up a few more thoughts.

    First no worries… I didn’t feel that you were ‘calling me out’ in any kind of negative way… only engaging in a deeper level of conversation. And I always appreciate that.

    The Western Mass AFSC office that I referred to was an interesting example. Since it was AFSC they were, ipso facto, organizing as “Quakers,” but the director of that field office and most of the organizers were actually not Quakers. They were in alignment with Quaker values around nonviolent resistance and the belief in the ‘god that lives within everyone,’ [perhaps equivalent to the Buddhist belief in the fact that everyone has buddhanature] but they weren’t card-carrying Quakers.

    The field director was a woman who trained at the social work program at Hunter College in NYC, which has a strong community organizing component ( see http://www.hunter.cuny.edu/socwork/about/about-hunter-ssw.html ). She was committed to creating opportunities for young people of color in the area to take lead roles in organizing, and she was able to allocate funding and resources received from AFSC for that purpose.

    So this was a case of a fairly large national organization with resources (AFSC) that could support community-led efforts in areas like counter-recruitment, economic justice, immigrant rights, GLBQT rights, and more.

    I think that’s an important consideration, actually — how to support and sustain people to be change agents… So many young people have so much energy and devotion around these issues, and are skilled organizers, but if they are unable to support their own lives doing so, it’s more likely they’ll eventually burn out or be forced to work ‘in the system.’ So I’m always curious about how we can create structures that support activists to continue to be subversive without having to sell out, so to speak. And that AFSC partnership I witnessed in Western Mass seemed to allow that to happen, at least for a while.

    Another thought — I really love what you say about the junction between healing and resistance. I believe that calling out the immense destruction that’s going on at both physical and emotional levels is one way to bring diverse groups together against militarism. Yet, I also worry how even that can be co-opted. There’s a big movement going on inside the military right now to bring in more mindfulness practices to military personnel (soliders as well as caregivers). Unfortunately, I don’t see the dialogue there going much beyond something like, “We want to support our wounded warriors in whatever way possible, and so we’re open to mindfulness practice, with the idea to help them get back to being whole so they can resume their duties again.” It’s still inside the same paradigm — healing for the purpose of returning to the battlefield. I wonder how we can support people to break through that paradigm?

    Thanks for the forum to talk about all this!

  7. April 21, 2011 3:07 pm

    P.S. I did think of a Buddhist-based initiative that does work with current soldiers/vets, but not in any kind of organizing/political way. It’s Joe Bobrow’s Coming Home Project — http://www.cominghomeproject.net/ — which provides counseling and support to returning soldiers and vets. Joe is a Zen teacher, but I think they’ve tried to de-buddhify this initiative, even though it makes use of mindfulness practice.

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