Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Two Things Anti-War Activists in Canada Need To Do Better

There are at least two things that the anti-war movement in Canada needs to do a much better job of as we speak out against war and empire: We need to get better at not alienating and shaming veterans and active duty soldiers. And we need to get better at not soft-pedalling the horrors that are predictably and inevitably part of Canadian military intervention abroad.

These two things look, at least at first glance, like they pull in very different directions -- doing a better job of one seems like it will necessitate doing a worse job of the other, and vice versa. As I discuss below, I'm not sure that is entirely true, but it certainly looks that way. And what's most interesting of all is that at the moment we don't really do justice to either of them.

I was reminded of the centrality of not alienating and shaming veterans and soldiers by someone on Twitter last month. Unfortunately -- because I like to give credit where it is due -- I don't remember who it was. But it is vitally important. It is important because shaky capacity to engage with military personnel feeds into narratives used to attack us in the mainstream media, and thereby limits our ability to build the movement in the population as a whole. And it is important because vets and active duty personnel themselves can be a crucial component of organizing against war and empire, and if we can't engage with them then we can never contribute to that aspect of resistance. Admittedly, the latter point is one that even many people within anti-war organizing fail to recognize and that is almost illegible in the mainstream. But if you look back at the history of organizing against the Vietnam war in the United States -- as shown, for instance, in the documentary Sir! No, Sir! -- contrary to myths that have arisen since then about the anti-war movement being nothing but middle-class hippy scorn heaped on working-class grunts, active resistance within the military itself was massive and essential, and was probably second in importance only to resistance by the Vietnamese people among the factors that ended the US assault on southeast Asia.

On the other hand, many people who would identify as being anti-war also engage in various rhetorical strategies that end up soft-pedalling exactly what it is that we are doing 'over there,' wherever that might be in a given instance. Sometimes this is through insisting on nostalgia for Canada's supposed liberal internationalist virtue and the myth of the peacekeeeper. Attachment to such narratives means not really being able to talk clearly about how power works in the world -- for understanding the continuities between how we act in the world now and how we acted then, and therefore for understanding the basis of both as a grounding for figuring out what we need to do to change things. It also happens through a poorly considered attempt not to alienate a public that may passively oppose the war but that has little stomach for hearing ill implied about those who are fighting it. And that, I think, gets wrapped up in the various pressures towards civility -- a euphemistic name for culturally imposed silence around issues that discomfit the comfortable -- that can be so strong in our political culture. Those make it hard to be brutally frank about the fact that during the Canadian participation in the recolonization of Afghanistan, our neighbours, our friends' kids, the guy we played hockey with, that kid from down the block -- they were participating in something that, entirely predictably and inevitably, included the murder of civilians; sexual assault of civilians and of women serving in the imperial armies; the continuation of the domination of a poor, mostly non-white country by rich, white-dominated countries; and torture. Canadians did many of these things directly. And the actions of Canadians were part of what enabled the overall project in which, entirely predictably and inevitably, other Western militaries did these things. This was not some abstracted "mission" that we can agree to disagree about -- it was active involvement and complicity in murder, rape, torture, and white supremacist colonial domination.

Obviously, there is no immediately clear way to speak out against war and empire such that we prioritize both of these at once. There is, however, one strategy that I can think of that will at least begin to make them less mutually incompatible. I think both of these deficiencies in how we talk about war and empire reflect a reluctance to really confront our own complicity in them, where by the "we" in that construction I particularly mean progressive civilian folks in Canada who have a distaste for war. It is obvious how that might be at play when we soft-pedal the horror of Canadian intervention around the world, but I think it is just as much at play in how we relate to soldiers and vets.

Here's what I mean by that: People with a certain amount of class privilege and with what you might call metropolitan sensibilities are able to both admit that racism, sexism, and heterosexism continue to exist as social problems while simultaneously denying our own complicity and thereby refusing to do anything about them. This is one manifestation of what Sherene Razack has described as "the race to innocence." And this is accomplished in this instance by displacing responsibility for these oppressive practices and attitudes onto poor and working-class people, onto people of colour, and onto non-urban people. It becomes Alberta, small-town Ontario, people who work in manufacturing, welfare recipients, as well as the white working class and non-white people more broadly, that are seen as the irredeemable repositories of (variously) racism, sexism, and heterosexism, while middle-class white metropolitan folks are framed as enlightened guides to a better society. Which isn't to say that these nasty social relations don't get enacted and reproduced among these populations. Rather, it is to point out that the dominant (white) practices for how to see and evaluate racism, for instance, have been constructed such that the cultural markers and manifestations of it among working-class white conservatives in rural areas are treated as visible, severe, and worthy of mockery, whereas their equally pervasive character among metropolitan middle-class white liberals are rendered next to invisible and/or treated as being much less serious, all without much reference to the actual experiences of racialized people or to where power lies to change things.

I think we engage in a similar sort of displacement when we talk about war and empire. Yes, it does matter in certain respects that it's the working-class kid from Gander who is carrying the assault weapon in Kandahar and who calls in the US air strike that kills civilians, and not the class-climbing Liberal Party-belonging white gay man in Toronto who has a passive dislike for war but really doesn't think about it very much. But we need a way of talking about it that makes it very, very clear that the latter is just as complicit. Being far away does not lessen complicity. Being notionally anti-war does not lessen complicity. If anything, having class privilege, social capital, and political connections increases complicity.

The point, then, is to find ways to relentlessly name the horrors of our role in the world but not to belabour the blood on the hands of the mostly-working-class youth whom we push, cajole, and bribe (both with jobs and with the psychic wage of 'the mission' and 'the nation') to go over and be the claw on the imperial social body. The point is to begin the conversation from the fact that most of us -- of we-the-cells that comprise the totality that is murdering and raping and colonizing -- have blood on our hands, including those of us who speak against it. And from there, it is a matter of finding ways to communicate (and to demonstrate through lived experiences of struggle along other axes) that though we might be complicit in and benefit from this violence, the way the social body enacting it is organized is also one that (differentially) harms us. To borrow John Holloway's language, we are "within-and-against" this oppressive social totality even as we benefit from aspects of it, and in this fact lies the possibility of working together to challenge both the violence we face and the violence we perpetrate.

That, obviously, is not going to be an easy sell either. Nor is it going to avoid scorn, dismissal, and ridicule, not just from the right but also from liberals and progressives. Nonetheless, I think it points in the general direction we need to take if we want to figure out how to engage with soldiers and vets while pulling no punches about the horrors that predictably and inevitably are part of Canadian military intervention overseas.

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