Each Oct. 7 for the past three years, on the anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, members of Veterans For Peace and their allies have gathered at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Lower Manhattan for a soulful ceremony. Their purpose: to mark another year of the war in Afghanistan and call for peace, to honor all whose lives are destroyed by war, and to expand the First Amendment right to peaceably assemble.
This year, they were finally able to do so without facing a small army of police threatening arrest if the ceremony went past the arbitrary 10 p.m. curfew placed on the memorial.
And this year, veterans and allies had more reasons to gather: to protest new wars being waged by President Barack Obama without the approval of Congress or the United Nations and to remember the much-loved Jacob David George, a veteran who served three tours in Afghanistan, who died of “moral injury” three weeks prior to this year’s annual event.
Jacob was only 19 when he went overseas to Afghanistan for his first tour. He grew up in the mountains of Arkansas and was a talented poet and musician. After his tours, he struggled to survive in the United States, where he was surrounded by war culture. He set off to bicycle around the country to speak about the realities of war and the need for peace, a trip that he called “A Ride til the End.” On this tour, he sang “Soldiers Heart”:
“I’m just a farmer from Arkansas, there’s a lot of things I don’t understand, like why we send farmers to kill farmers in Afghanistan. I did what I’s told for my love of this land. I come home a shattered man with blood on my hands.
“Now I can’t have a relationship, I can’t hold down a job. Some may say I’m broken, I call it Soldier’s Heart. Every time I go outside, I gotta look her in the eyes knowing that she broke my heart, and turned around and lied.
“Red, white and blue, I trusted you and you never even told me why.”
“Soldier’s Heart” is a Civil War era phrase used to describe what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder. Jacob wrote that Soldiers Heart “more accurately describes my wounds and what I experienced.” “Moral injury,” which Jacob wrote was a major component of PTSD, leads to 22 veteran suicides a day.
Jacob was with members of Veterans for Peace and thousands of others in Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C., for the tenth anniversary of the Afghanistan War in October 2011. He had spent part of the summer in Afghanistan with the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers. Jacob performed that night in Freedom Plaza and the Afghan Youth joined the event from Afghanistan via Skype. After that, he continued to travel in his search for healing and to participate in the Occupy Movement. In the summer of 2012, he marched 99 miles with the Guitarmy from Philadelphia to New York City.
Ending the Nightmares of War
Although most war memorials throughout the U.S. are open to the public 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in New York “closes” at 10 p.m. — to those exercising their First Amendment rights, that is.
There is no good reason to close the memorial, since is located on a plaza surrounded by office buildings. It isn’t really possible to close this memorial anyway. It is used as a walkway for pedestrians and dog walkers at all hours of the day and night. The veterans believe there should be no curfew because the nightmares of war don’t know curfews, often surfacing late at night. War memorials should be a place of peace and refuge for those who need it, without threats of intimidation or arrest by police.
The curfew has only been enforced when people are exercising their right to peaceably assemble. Tarak Kauff, a board member of Veterans For Peace, first noted the curfew at a 2012 May Day assembly by Occupy Wall Street. Kauff describes the assembly as “what you would want to see in a democracy, people gathering to discuss solutions to community problems.”
Troops of New York Police confronted the assembly. Members of the Veterans Peace Team stood between the police and people, and they were arrested. This constitutionally permitted, democratic gathering was stopped for no good reason.
Kauff brought the idea of a campaign to open the Memorial to Veterans For Peace who embraced it, holding their first memorial service on Oct. 7, 2012. Hundreds gathered at the memorial for a powerful ceremony. Fr. George Packard, Chris Hedges and veterans from World War II through the wars of today spoke, read poems, and sang. Participants read names of New Yorkers who were killed in war and of civilians in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, who were also killed. After every 20 names, a gong was struck and flowers were placed in 11 vases, one for every year in Afghanistan.
As the ceremony continued, the police presence began to grow. When 10 p.m. arrived, the reading of the names was interrupted by a police captain with a bullhorn warning that if the crowd did not disperse, arrests would be made. Undaunted, veterans and allies persisted in reading names and honoring the dead as some in the crowd moved to the margins of the park. One by one, 25 people who continued the memorial were arrested. Those arrested included a decorated World War II veteran and a Vietnam War medic for whom the nightmares of holding the wounded in his arms have never ceased. The police were placed in an uncomfortable position of arresting veterans reading the names of the dead to enforce a capricious curfew.
A friend of Jacob George, Brock McIntosh, also an Afghanistan veteran, described the feelings of Jacob and many veterans:
“Jacob did all he could as a warrior to speak and to warn about the dangers of war. Jacob spoke to me often of moral injury, and he once told me about meeting a Vietnam veteran who felt that every war was his war, who blamed himself for not stopping each war that happened, one after the next. Jacob felt that burden.”
Veterans and allies returned in 2013 to protest the deep war culture embraced by the U.S. To make that point, among the war dead remembered were Native Americans slaughtered in the “Indian Wars.” That year, several of the veterans refused to be removed easily. Firm in their belief that they had a right to be there, that the memorial was created to honor the dead, and that nothing should interfere with that, five veterans linked themselves together with thick plastic handcuffs and lay down in front of the memorial when the police arrived to arrest them. Altogether, 19 were arrested.
Jacob was there that year. One vet who stood with him recounted that Jacob was deeply distressed to see his comrades being arrested for protesting the wars and honoring the dead.
The veterans and allies who were arrested had two goals. They wanted to use the judicial process to end the curfew at the memorial and to introduce the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to expand the definition of freedom of speech to meet the international standard rather than the narrow and shrinking U.S. standard.
Instead, charges were dropped for many of the arrestees and 14 who spent a week in trial were denied justice. The judge refused to entertain the expanded definition of free speech and found them guilty but then dismissed the charges “in the interest of justice,” undermining their ability to appeal.
Fourteen of those arrested the second year had their charges dismissed, and the five who linked themselves together had their charges downgraded against their will to avoid a jury trial. The judge also found them guilty but gave them conditional release.
Each time the veterans appeared in court, police officers shook their hands, thanked them, and told them they supported what they were doing. It seems the memorial services were having an added effect of dividing the police.
A Bittersweet Victory
This year, the veterans won the right to stay at the memorial without police interference. In a letter to the mayor, the veterans outlined their intent to hold the vigil again and their desire that the memorial remain open at all hours. They thanked the mayor for his statement — issued after the Flood Wall Street protest two weeks earlier — that First Amendment rights were more important than traffic and invited him to join them on Tuesday. The mayor’s office responded by saying that the curfew would be lifted for the night.
The mood at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial this year was bittersweet. There was palpable relief that we were free to express ourselves without police intimidation and that we could choose when to leave under our own terms. But there was also greater sadness than years before because a week after the president began bombing Iraq again and then Syria, Jacob George took his life. Some suspect the trauma of watching another U.S. war begin, knowing that more soldiers and innocent civilians would die or be forever traumatized, and seeing the “Masters of War” succeed in manipulating the public to support war was all too much to bear. Jacob wrote:
“With our choice to join the U.S. military, we soldiers gained great insights into the effects of war. During basic training, we are weaponized: our souls are turned into weapons. This intentional adjustment of the moral compass seems to be the onset of Moral Injury. Basic training demands the dehumanization of the enemy.
“Through my personal healing from PTSD, I’ve discovered it’s not possible to dehumanize others without dehumanizing the self," George said.
We gathered that night to speak, read poems, and sing together once again. We remembered Jacob and all who are devastated by war. Large photos of Jacob were placed on the memorial wall. “Taps” was played.
One vet read a statement about the damage war does and the toll it takes on families, remembering his nephew, a vet who also committed suicide:
“Not only was he profoundly affected by war, but so was his entire family. The pain will be felt by those who loved him for generations. That is what war does. It causes deep wounds that cut across generations. His father, a Vietnam veteran, is having a very difficult time and has withdrawn, buried in grief. He already suffered from PTSD, and this has made things much worse. His mother, my sister, is racked with guilt and blames herself for not being able to help [her son].”
A poem by Doug Rawlings, the Veterans For Peace poet laureate, titled “We Need Not Go There Again: A tribute to Jacob George,” was read:
Over 100 years of
shoo ting into a mirror
thinking they were
squashing the other —
first the Hun, then the Nip, then the gook,
and now the sand niggers —
the old war mongers remain insatiable
in their self-delusion
Freudian analysts can’t get them off
they never sense
that something is awry
How could they?
It is not the blood
of their daughters and sons
pours back into their hands
slippery with the stench
of their calculated ignorance
They will continue to
worship at the alter
of Pontius Pilate
to wash their hands
in the trough
of our passivity
until we gather in the streets
until we bring down
the walls of the Pentagon
singing the choruses
of Jacob George”
We formed a circle and one by one, we walked the circle and hugged each other. Members of the Guitarmy led us through songs written by Jacob. We also sang “Down By the Riverside” and “Lean On Me.” We read names of the dead, raised our fists, and shouted “Presente” in unison after each name. Afterward, we talked quietly in small groups. And when we were ready, we left the memorial.
It took three years to win the right to vigil at the war memorial. The next task is to change the policy so that it remains open at all times and is always there for those who need it. Members of Veterans for Peace are committed to seeing that task through. We hope this campaign encourages others to find ways to expand our rights.
Though it is important to choose particular days to gather for remembrance and protest these illegal and unjust wars, the work for peace is a daily task. Those who are not fooled by the propaganda or persuaded by partisanship can best honor those who have died and those still living who have served by speaking out regularly for an end to war.
In his song “Support the Troops,” Jacob wrote:
“I’m tellin’ you, don’t thank me for what I’ve done. Give me a hug and let me know we ain’t gonna let this happen again because we support the troops and we’re gonna bring war to an end.”
Margaret Flowers and Kevin Zeese are organizers of Popular Resistance. They participated in the campaign to end the curfew at the New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Follow them on Twitter: @KBZeese and @MFlowers8.