Activists speak out on the campus struggle for…
College Not Combat
March 17, 2006
OVER THE past year, the student-led struggle against military recruiters on campus has been a high point for the antiwar movement.
Earlier this month, the anti-recruitment struggle suffered a setback when the U.S. Supreme Court–by an 8-0 decision that united justices of all political stripes–upheld the Solomon Amendment, which requires universities to open their campuses to military recruiters, even if this violates anti-discrimination policies barring employers that refuse to hire gays and lesbians.
Nevertheless, the struggle for College Not Combat has fired the determination of students across the country–from Seattle, where a student walkout on the day of Bush’s inauguration last year confronted recruiters and sent them packing; to New York City, where students and a staff member singled out for punishment because of an anti-recruitment protest won wide backing that forced administrators to back down; to San Francisco, where a ballot referendum against recruiting in public high schools and universities passed last November by a solid margin.
On March 1, nearly 200 people gathered in New York City for a panel discussion on the College Not Combat movement. Here, Socialist Worker prints excerpts from the remarks of several speakers at the New York meeting, including:
— MICHAEL HARMON, of Iraq Veterans Against the War, who served as a combat medic in Iraq
— ROXANNE HAJI-AGHAJANI, of the Hunter College chapter of the Campus Antiwar Network
— TODD CHRETIEN, the Green Party’s Senate candidate in California running against Dianne Feinstein, and author of last November’s successful College Not Combat referendum in San Francisco
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Iraq Veterans Against the War
MY NAME is Mike Harmon, and I enlisted in the army in May 2002, partly because of 9/11 and partly because at the time, I had no real direction in life. I was lied to by recruiters right off the bat when I was told that I was going to be a health care specialist. That later turned out to be a combat medic.
Shortly after I joined, there were rumors about war, and sure enough, on Martin Luther King Day 2003, we had a special formation where the colonel told us that we were going to war.
I didn’t feel like this war was warranted since the Iraqis had nothing to do with 9/11. But we got to Kuwait in April 2003 as part of the initial invasion, and it was an eye-opening experience.
Two weeks into the war, we were told to put our protective gear and chemical mask away. Now I’m not a military intelligence officer or a CIA agent, but I know we were supposed to be there to rid this country of weapons of mass destruction.
So being a New Yorker with a smart mouth, I asked the major who told us to put our gear away, “Sir, with all due respect, I thought we were here for weapons of mass destruction.” He replied, “Do what you’re told, son, and shut your mouth.” From that point on, I knew this war was just a fabrication by Bush’s regime, and that it was definitely unjust.
The event that really turned me was when one of my good friends died because of an insurgent deciding to pose as a hospital worker and drop a grenade on him and two other soldiers in my company.
At that point, I wanted this war to end immediately, but I had to cope, because I was the first line of medical defense for 350 soldiers. That was hard on me mentally, and you could tell the other soldiers were feeling the same way, especially since we were being strung along about how long the deployment was going to be.
What the media, of course, doesn’t show you is the dead and injured kids, and that will be burned in my memory forever. When soldiers in their mid 20s and early 30s are crying for their wives and mothers because they don’t want to die, that’s something that takes a tremendous toll.
When I came home, I had a lot of trouble adjusting back to civilian life, and I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I went to the troop clinic, and they diagnosed me with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which also affected about 60 percent of soldiers I deployed with.
The clinic decided to throw pills like Paxil at me, which made me feel even worse, and suicidal at times. I started to cope my own way with alcohol, and I hit the bottle real hard. It got to the point where I couldn’t take it any more, and I got out.
When I came home to New York, I fell deeper in the dark hole. I tried to go to the local VA. They told me they were backed up in claims, and what I was feeling was normal.
That’s when I joined Iraq Veterans Against the War, because I felt I needed to surround myself with fellow vets who had similar problems, and who also felt that Bush lied just to start this immoral war.
I felt that I was supposed to be fighting for freedom, but when I came home, all the American people’s freedoms were taken away, due to the Patriot Act and illegal NSA spying.
There was one time when I came home from Iraq from mid-term leave, and airport security made me step aside so they could wave the wand around me, and I was in full uniform. I couldn’t believe it. Here I am fighting and risking my life in Iraq so that we could keep freedom from supposed terrorist threats, and I felt like the enemy.
Bush has shredded the Constitution and killed over 2,200 good soldiers along the way, and that’s not even counting how many were injured. Now if we all stick together for this cause, we will prevail.
Campus Antiwar Network
SIXTY PERCENT of the American population opposes the war in Iraq. Over half the people, the majority, want to see this war come to an end. This means that three out of five of the people you sit with on the train, or grumble with in the office, or laugh with or at in the classroom are opposed to this war.
But I would like to see a show of hands of those who know for a fact that three out of five of these people are actively engaged in bringing home our troops and ending this erroneous war. Unfortunately, most if not all of our hands remain in our laps.
With no national antiwar movement to speak of, we have to take matters into our own hands. This is, I think, where groups such as CAN come in.
The Campus Antiwar Network is a student-led grassroots network of over 50 antiwar student groups nationwide. Specifically here in New York City, we have chapters at Columbia, BMCC, NYU, Pratt, Pace, City College and Hunter College.
Central to our work has been our involvement in counter-recruitment. We believe that military recruiters who station themselves on college campuses or in poverty-stricken areas are detrimental to youth and their futures. By counter-recruiting, we can show our opposition to the war concretely, as students, who resent being lied to and refuse to be used as cannon fodder for an unjust and illegal war.
CAN activists have achieved great accomplishments fighting for students. We have distributed information about military recruiting in high schools and colleges. We have campaigned against the Solomon Amendment, which threatens universities that if they bar recruiters from their campuses, the government will eliminate the university’s public funding completely.
We organize protests that kicked recruiters off of over a dozen schools. At Seattle Central Community College, 300 students walked out of their classes, surrounded their campus recruiter, pelted him with his own literature, and drove him off of their campus, shouting, “Don’t come back.”
Another important date in CAN history, was March 9, 2005, when City College students kicked recruiters off of their campus here in New York City. But that event holds a new significance today since recruiters will be back at CCNY this March 9.
Our movement will be there on March 9 to show opposition not only to recruitment, but also to school administrators, who side with recruiters and use sometimes violent repression against their own students. Our movement will be there to show them that we will not be silenced.
We’re working to bring a message to America’s youth: College not Combat. Pick up a pencil, not a gun. Use the weapon of words, not bullets.
People don’t want to fight in this war because they don’t buy it. They don’t buy the racist dehumanization of people from the Middle East. They don’t buy that money should be used for war instead of for domestic problems, such as faulty levees.
This is why our focus on counter-recruitment goes beyond simply opposing the war. We want to focus on broader topics as well. Topics like Hurricane Katrina, and the lack of aid the victims received from their own government. Or the victims of racial prejudice or stereotypes–for example, Muslims being labeled as terrorists. We see these struggles as connected.
Campuses have traditionally been some of the places where oppositional and progressive ideas have been discussed. This is partly because of the rich history of student movements, and that explains why we see such potential for the student wing of the antiwar movement today.
By kicking recruiters off of our campuses, by standing up to repression, by condemning racism and by protesting, we can transmit our antiwar message louder and clearer to the American people, the American government and the entire world.
Of course, it takes more than just one protest to make a dent in this system, or to end a war. It’s just like the song on the radio: If you play the song only once or twice, how probable is it that a large proportion of the radio’s listeners will hear it. As you play the song more, more of an audience is attained, and thus, the song becomes more popular.
If it’s a good song, that is. And our song, the antiwar song, is a very, very good song indeed.
On March 18, the third anniversary of the war, there will be another protest in Times Square, so please come and demand troops out now, college not combat, relief not war.
Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate from California
WE’VE TALKED tonight about the number of American soldiers who have died–almost 2,300 now. When I wrote Proposition I, the College Not Combat proposition, back in March 2005, the number was 1,500. Now we’re up to 2,300. By the elections, it will be 3,000, and by next spring, it will be 4,000, unless we do something about it.
Those numbers are horrifying enough. On the Iraqi side, at least 100,000 have died. We use that number, from Johns Hopkins University, a lot. And that number was from a year ago. So we’re probably talking about 125,000 Iraqis who have died–in a country that is about one-tenth of the size of the United States.
So if you want to get an idea of the number of casualties and the amount of suffering and anger that our country is imposing on Iraq, you have to stop and think what it would mean to have tens of thousands of dead American soldiers and hundreds and hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, maimed for life. That’s really the framework in which we’re all meeting here tonight.
That’s the bad news. The good news can be seen in the latest polls on George Bush. In California, the Field poll tracks presidential approval ratings, and Bush just scored 36 percent in the ratings. The interesting thing is that Bush got 36 percent, but Dick Cheney got 38 percent approval. And the only thing I can figure is that an extra 2 percent of people approve of Dick Cheney shooting Republican lawyers.
We do have some positive things on our side, which is that large chunks of the country agree with us. We have an overwhelming majority of people wanting to bring the troops home. We have the vast majority of American troops in Iraq wanting to come home, which really shouldn’t be that surprising to anybody who looks at what’s happening in Iraq. And of course, they don’t do polls every day in Iraq, but I think we can all feel comfortable that somewhere between 95 percent and 99 percent of the people of Iraq want the United States troops to come home as well.
So we have sentiment and consciousness on our side. I think that we should look at some of the work we’ve done and take some credit for that–although people just seeing the raw destruction and death that the United States is bringing to Iraq is also what is moving consciousness.
We have people in a frame of mind where they agree with us that it’s time to bring the troops home now and give Iraq to the Iraqis. That’s something that we have to be clear about, and not feel like we’re just this embattled minority that nobody agrees with. We can go out and convince the majority of people that we’re right, and George Bush and Congress are wrong. But the question is how you get them into action and create a mass movement.
I want to talk about the College Not Combat initiative in San Francisco. This referendum, Proposition I, said that we want all military recruiters expelled from public high schools and colleges. The language also said to bring the troops home now, Iraq for Iraqis, against the No Child Left Behind Act, which forces recruiters into the schools, and against the Solomon Amendment.
So it wasn’t just a one-liner about military recruiters. It was a policy statement, which is now the official policy of San Francisco. The reason we got the idea for Proposition I was that we were inspired by Seattle Central Community College. We were inspired by City College of New York and Kent State and San Francisco State and UC-Santa Cruz–all these campuses, as well as high schools, that were having protests.
And one of the things we recognized was that students would go to a protest, and you feel like you’ve kicked them off for the day. But then, what happened in many cases is that the administrations came down on the students. These liberal administrations speak out of one side of their mouths and say that the war is terrible, and our budgets are being cut because of the Pentagon budget. But the students who are protesting the military recruiters: they’re the problem, and we’re going to expel them and threaten their student organizations.
So one of the motivations for the College Not Combat proposition in San Francisco was to show the college and high school administrations that the vast majority of people in our cities agree with the students and don’t want the recruiters on our campuses. And we won that vote last November with a margin of 60 percent.
Everybody here who is an activist knows that there’s easy, and then there’s easy. To get College Not Combat on the ballot, we had to collect 15,000 signatures in about seven weeks. On the one hand, it was easy–people signed readily. My estimate is that about 80 people you asked would immediately sign up, so it gives you an idea of consciousness.
On the other hand, getting 15,000 signatures in seven weeks isn’t so easy. It takes a lot of time, dedication and effort. And we found that same gap that we’re trying to deal with now–the gap between the soldiers and family members and students and teachers and the general community that’s against the war, and then the number of people who feel like their participation in the movement actually makes a difference.
So we had relatively small numbers of people talking to tens of thousands of people. And I think that what we have to figure out as an antiwar movement is how bridge that gap. We all have to stay in the hardcore. But we have to expand that core.
I want to talk for a few minutes about some of the things I think we have to overcome in order to expand that core of the antiwar movement that is consistently active–so that we can reach not just tens of thousands, but millions of people.
The first point is this: We’re up against an extremely well-organized machine. People who have kicked the recruiters off their campuses know that, generally speaking, they come back. You feel like we won, and then, six months or two months or a month later, they come back–or you’re being prosecuted by your administration.
People often think that a temporary victory is a lasting victory. And it’s frustrating that you have to win that victory over and over again. But that’s the reality of all social change. The first time that somebody said we should get rid of slavery, it wasn’t gotten rid of. It took hundreds of years of struggle, on the part of slaves themselves as well as the abolitionist movement. To get industrial unions, it took decades of defeated strikes before we had victorious strikes.
So the first thing to get over is that we can easily end the war in Iraq. We are up against a government that fully intends to continue the occupation.
Everybody knows the name John Murtha–he’s the Democratic congressman who put forward a position in favor of redeployment from Iraq. In a way, it’s a good sign of the times–that some people in the Democratic Party, like Murtha who’s a hawk and totally supported the war, and loved every war he ever saw until the United States started losing this one, are calling for strategic redeployment.
But why is he calling for redeployment? He understands that this war is becoming a political problem, and he’s trying to figure out how to position the Democratic Party to take advantage of the 60 percent of people who are against the war now.
I think it’s good that he brought up opposition, because it now allows people to discuss it. But on the other hand, I think that we have to have an honest discussion about whether our government and either of our two parties intend to withdraw our troops from Iraq easily and quickly.
I think that we should go back to the Vietnam War to understand what the people who rule us are capable of. Some 58,000 American soldiers died in that war, and 2 million Vietnamese. So if anybody here thinks that our government is getting squeamish or having moral problems with 2,300 dead Americans and 100,000 dead Iraqis, then you have to get that out of your mind.
This government does not care how many people die. And there is oil in Iraq–a lot of oil in Iraq. There wasn’t oil in Vietnam, which means that eventually the American government could withdraw from Vietnam, and it was a blow to its prestige, but it didn’t hand over the second biggest oil reserves in the world to a force that was politically hostile to it.
So the idea that we’re about to leave–that there’s going to be a phased troop withdrawal running up to the November 6 elections–is an illusion and a political game being played by some forces within the Democratic Party to try to get your votes.
So the question is how do we put together a movement of soldiers willing to resist, of people in the streets here, and in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Iraq who don’t want the American presence. That’s a big task, but we have to begin by understanding what we’re up against. We’re up against a military and political machine that intends to keep its hands tightly on sources of oil, and it’s willing to spill your blood and certainly the blood of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to keep them there.
The other reality is the majority of people being with us. We want to get out, and the government wants to stay in. That’s going to be a conflict, and so we have to figure out how to strengthen our side against their side.
This is where I want to talk about some of the weaknesses of our side–especially the importance of challenging the racism against Muslim people and Arab people being whipped up.
The reason that people are protesting all around the world against cartoons of the prophet Muhammad is not because of some Danish cartoonist. The reason people are protesting all around the world is because the military forces of our country are occupying Iraq and Afghanistan.
If you want to understand what fuels the anger about the anti-Muslim cartoons, it isn’t because Islam has some special phobia against cartoons. It is because we are killing tens of thousands of people, and we are occupying their countries, and we are funding Israel to the tune of billions of dollars a year to continue the occupations of Palestine.
Then there’s this brouhaha about the company from Dubai taking over U.S. ports. Diane Feinstein and Hillary Clinton are arm in arm in their outrage that foreigners are taking over the ports of America. Then they did a little homework, and it turns out that almost every port in America is already run by a foreign company.
I was in Baltimore and got to thinking about the fact that the company that the Dubai company was replacing is British-owned, and I thought: What happened in Baltimore? What did the British do to Baltimore? The British bombarded Baltimore and set it on fire in the War of 1812, and that’s why we have the national anthem. Francis Scott Key was on a British frigate that was bombing Baltimore, when he wrote about the rocket’s red glare.
So we are protesting the fact that a British company that’s been running our ports all along is being replaced by an Arab company. Why does anybody care? Because of racism against Arab and Muslim people. That’s what the politicians are trying to whip up, and we have to call it like we see it and not give an inch.
Of course, global corporations are generally speaking evil, and we should protest them all the time, but we should start with the British corporations that have a much bigger say in the shipping industry in terms of breaking dockworkers’ strikes, before we worry about corporations from Dubai, which are certainly not exactly world-dominating.
This is a dangerous thing that’s going on. In Irvine, Calif., there’s a big university where the Republican Club had a meeting of 200 students in which they displayed the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. They were basically making fun of Islam. They brought in a speaker who said that Islam is a terrorist religion.
This scapegoating and this campaign against Arab and Muslim people is a wedge being used by our government to weaken the antiwar movement. We in the antiwar movement have to absolutely reject it, and stand arm in arm against the attacks on Islam and Arab and Muslim people if we’re going to have an antiwar movement that is worth anything at all.
When we talk about the antiwar movement, our job can’t be to simply replace one person in the White House with another person. Because if you ask the question whether Bill Clinton is a worse president than George Bush Jr. or his father, from the point of view of an Iraqi child, it’s a hard question to answer. Bill Clinton killed a million Iraqis, and George Bush is on his way to killing a million Iraqis. From the point of view of Iraqi children, who is in the White House is not a very relevant question.
So our movement can’t be simply about replacing one politician with another. Our movement has to have clear principles, demanding that our troops come home now, and Iraq for the Iraqis. We do not subordinate our political demands and our political movement to the short-term interest of one party or another.
I want to end by talking about Diane Feinstein, who I’m running against in California. She supported the war on Iraq, she voted for it, and she continues to vote for all the funding. She voted for the USA PATRIOT Act in 2001, and she’s voting for it again. She voted for No Child Left Behind, and she’s an ardent supporter of the death penalty. There’s a whole list that I could go on about.
One of the things that I think explains most clearly why we need a movement which is independent of these two mainstream parties is what just happened to Cindy Sheehan. Cindy Sheehan was considering running in the Democratic primary for Senate against Dianne Feinstein.
Now you would think that the antiwar Democratic Party politicians would say, thank god Cindy, the most famous antiwar person in the country, is going to run against Dianne Feinstein, who is very unpopular in California.
That wasn’t the reaction. Barbara Boxer, the supposed liberal Democrat from California had a press conference–in fact, a conference call with reporters, because she didn’t want be filmed saying that Cindy Sheehan will be hurt if she runs against Dianne Feinstein. That was a threat, in my opinion, against Cindy Sheen and all the work that she has done. Then, the local Bay Area congressional liberal Democrats went to work on her and convinced her not to run.
I respect Cindy’s decision not to run. She feels like she can do a lot of good in other places in the antiwar movement, and I think we should all respect her tremendous work. But you have to ask yourself what type of a political party that claims to be antiwar doesn’t want Cindy Sheehan as its candidate. And you have to ask yourself why the priorities of the Democratic leadership are about defending Dianne Feinstein over helping the antiwar movement and talking about Cindy Sheehan being a senator.
This isn’t all about the elections. We need a movement to get back in the streets. We have to be loud and proud and out there.
But we also have to have a political movement that takes our demands into the elections. They bring their elections into our movement. They try to pull us off the streets and say you should settle for less. We need a political movement that can go right into their elections and say that we shouldn’t have to be fighting our political representatives. Our political representatives should be helping lead the movement–not standing above them and telling them what to do, but an organic part of those political movements.
I’ll end by saying that we have tremendous opportunities. If we simply switched the federal education budget, which is $70 billion a year, with the $120 billion a year that we’re using specifically to occupy Iraq, the difference of that $50 billion means that we could hire 750,000 public school teachers.
We could flood our communities with unionized, well-paid teachers. We could give college students and kids from those communities a chance to have a good job and help their peers. We could flood our communities with education, by simply taking 5 percent of the Pentagon budget away from them.
That’s the priorities that we have to stand for as a movement. I’m not going to stand here and tell you that it’s going to be easy. We have a hell of a fight ahead of us. But it’s the only possible direction to go.
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