Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Fighting for Peace

One way to study social movements is to do a lot of research and interviews. Lisa Leitz took a big step beyond standardized scholarship and joined the movement she wanted to study. That movement consisted of local to national actions of Military Families Speak Out, which she joined as the wife of an active duty Navy aviator, Gold Star Families for Peace, who lost sons and daughters in war, Veterans For Peace, Iraq Veterans Against the War and allied organizations.

Her hands-on approach resulted in Fighting for Peace: Veterans and Military Families in the Anti-Iraq War Movement, recently published by the University of Minnesota Press as part of its series on social movements. During the time she worked on this book she taught sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara and then at Hendrix College in Arkansas and “commuted” to war protests around the country.

I first met Lisa Leitz at an antiwar rally by Military Families Speak Out and Veterans For Peace in front of the White House right after Barack Obama was inaugurated president. She showed up at war protests in all sorts of places and took notes, exchanged phone numbers and email addresses and “became a part of my wider family,” she wrote. “I took late-night calls from stressed out parents and spouses ... I sat through the night with veterans traumatized by the war and with their families who worried about them… I shared activists’ fear, guilt, anger, pride, and joy.”  

The focus of her book is both to record an historic outburst of war protests by military veterans and family members outraged by the invasion and military destruction of Iraq with the loss of thousands of US soldiers, and to challenge sociologists to look deeper into the web of grassroots actions that create cultural shifts.  “We need to go beyond traditional protest to examine how change happens,” she writes.

Consider some of the shifts she discovered:

  • “While trying to change public opinion, the activists changed themselves,” she noted. “Activists found others who were sympathetic to their traumatizing experiences and the problems that developed from them, and these tactics channeled activists’ anger about those experiences toward the war.”
  • “One day, a middle-aged man with a military style buzz cut who said he was a senior officer grabbed my hand [at the Arlington West memorial to the Iraq War dead set up by Vets For Peace and military families in Santa Barbara, California], shook it, and said, ‘Thank you for what you are doing. People need to see this.’”
  • “the second time an Arlington-style memorial was set up outside Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in Southern California, two flatbed military trucks filled with Marines drove off base … [and] helped to set up the memorial and memorialized hundreds of their friends who died in battle. A three-star general visiting Pendleton told the activists, ‘You guys are doing it right.’”

In the course of working on this book, while her husband served four deployments in war areas, Leitz experienced the intense stress on military families that is another of the hidden wounds of war.  

“While many people think of post-traumatic stress as a military servicemember’s problem, recent research finds that military spouses’ rates of psychological problems are similar to those in uniform,” she wrote in a recent University of Minnesota Press blog. “With lengthy and deadly deployments common in our lives since 2001, spouses’ rates of stress-induced illness have increased, along with depression.”

The best way to address these problems, she concludes in her book, is through civic activism to reduce our national obsession with waging wars.

“The military peace movement hoped to put a human face on war so that Americans would have to think about specific individuals rather than nameless ‘troops’ and what wars did to them. … The idea was that by personalizing the pain of war, Americans would demand that troops be sent to fight only when absolutely necessary,” she wrote.

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