by Ross Caputi
I worry that by using the authority and privilege of veteran voices to spread our antiwar message and deflect criticism, we in the antiwar movement have inadvertently made veterans into a kind of propaganda, packaging an antiwar message within a familiar warrior ethos. In effect, we are using the very same culture of soldier worship that we should be dismantling.
I worry also that the antiwar movement assumes a “truthiness” about veteran war narratives. The common refrain is that no one knows the horrors of war better than veterans. However, the experiences of veterans do not always lend themselves to a single antiwar interpretation. To assume that they do is just another iteration of what James Campbell has called combat gnosticism — “a construction that gives us war experience as a kind of gnosis, a secret knowledge which only an initiated elite knows.”
The culture of the antiwar movement has created a kind of veteran identity politics that regards veteran voices as given goods. But combat gnosticism can be dangerous when it leads us to become uncritical of our soldiers, even the ones who share our political beliefs.
I’m not saying that veterans have nothing to offer the antiwar movement. I’m arguing that we should not rely on them as sources of informational or moral truth. This does not help us build a culture of critical, independent thinking, responsibility, equality, and antimilitarism.
An alternative contribution that antiwar veterans could make is to offer stories and self-reflection that renounce the authority and privilege we enjoy in our society, that recognize our moral agency, that confess our mistakes in enlisting and participating in unjust wars, and that announce our responsibility to our war victims. This would be a first step in a process toward full reparations that not only seek to repair the harm done, but that also address the root causes of the violence: power, privilege, and imperialism.
Ross is the cofounder of the Islah Reparations Project. He is also the director of the documentary film Fear Not the Path of Truth: a veteran’s journey after Fallujah. The full essay can be read at VeteranReparations.org