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Veterans of Domestic Wars

On the home front, vets battle for decent health care

Mark Foreman never wanted to go to war. From an early age, he rejected violence. Later, as he watched the Vietnam War play out on the evening news, he viewed the struggles of that country’s indigenous National Liberation Front as justified. “They want independence, just like we did,” he thought.

After finishing high school in his hometown of Ames, Iowa, Foreman had dreams of becoming an artist. But he grew up under the roof of parents who prayed at the altars of God and Country. His mother was a Christian fundamentalist, his father a Navy veteran of World War II. Foreman was spooked by the vagaries of a system where an unlucky draft number could send him off to fight, and was “too chicken” to hightail to it Canada. So he opted to join the Navy, just like his dad. At nineteen, as classmates were burning their draft cards, Foreman enlisted as a Hospital Corpsman.

Foreman first believed this role would help him remain true to his pacifist principles. “I had the ability to stop bleeding, to keep them breathing,” he said. “I had the skills to save lives, and that was very important to me.” He further hoped that by joining the Navy he’d avoid Vietnam duty and instead be sent out to an isolated warship on the South China Sea. But, a week before graduating from his training program, Foreman was told he’d be embedding with a unit of Marine grunts, on the ground in the military hot zone of Da Nang. He remembers the date: March 30, 1968, just a month after the Tet Offensive, the war’s deadliest fight for American GIs.

After he landed in country, Foreman initially refused to carry a gun. He quickly lost that battle. Ordered by military brass to carry a piece, he chose the smallest weapon he could find, a .45 caliber pistol that rested in a holster on his belt. Just five weeks into his deployment, Foreman’s unit was sent on a patrol mission through a mountainous jungle route known as Haivan Pass. Their path was narrow and the tree canopy so thick that the sun barely shone through.

His mission was blind to a key piece of intelligence, namely that Haivan Pass led straight into a North Vietnamese Army training camp. When he and his comrades stumbled upon the enemy base, they were immediately exposed to a barrage of lethal gunfire. As bullets rained down, Foreman found the ground too rocky to dig a foxhole. He instead took shelter between the roots of a massive tree. Within a matter of minutes, more than half his unit was taken down, he recounts. This assault—later deemed “Operation Houston II”—continued over the next six days and five nights.

When the sun dropped below the horizon on their first night, the bullets stopped. Foreman crawled over to wounded Marines in an effort to deliver aid. The first man he came upon was alive, barely. Part of his brain hung over his face and bees swarmed his wounds. Foreman bandaged him but knew he would soon die. With little help to offer, Foreman went back to hiding at the base of his tree. He listened through the night as the moans and cries of wounded Marines rose into the sky.

When rifle fire resumed the next morning, Foreman was hit in the hip by an AK-47 bullet. He laid in excruciating pain for days as his injury became infected. Two American Medevac helicopters sought to evacuate the unit, but faced great difficulty navigating the thick jungle pass. They were shot down. Days later, another helicopter later landed successfully, and Foreman and twenty other men were taken away. The rest were either dead, fatally wounded, or had, in Foreman’s words, “gone mad.”

Foreman was brought to a military hospital near Da Dang, pumped with morphine, and given emergency surgery that was repeatedly interrupted by incoming heavy rocket fire. He emerged from the ordeal in a full body cast, unable to walk but alive. Despite it all, he never shot his gun. “If I were to have destroyed another human life, I would have destroyed my own at the very same time,” he said.

Veterans for Peace are now taking on perhaps their most personal project, to save their own health care system.

Foreman’s recovery back in the States was arduous and angering. At the time, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) was underfunded and unprepared to deal with a new, vexing, and invisible wound: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Foreman looked at his local VA and saw lines out the door and a volatile environment where patients suffered debilitating mental outbreaks.

Over time, Foreman’s view of the VA has changed entirely. After the American Psychiatric Association formally classified PTSD as a medical condition in 1980, VA medical staff began to develop treatments and facilitate a more welcoming hospital environment for veterans. Foreman’s care dramatically improved. The VA also sent him to arts school on the GI Bill and provided him expensive sculpting tools. For many years, Foreman shaped stone, which he today credits as “the best therapy I ever could have had.”

He also worked for twenty good years an art teacher in Milwaukee public schools. In retirement, he founded the Milwaukee Homeless Veterans Initiative. Reflecting on his life and work, Foreman makes clear that his Vietnam experience only fortified his opposition to war. Indeed, as soon as he re-learned how to walk after recovering from his injuries, one of the first places he went was to an anti-war rally. He later became a lifetime member of the Veterans for Peace (VFP).

The VA’s Defenders

Veterans for Peace was formally chartered thirty-five years ago, and it has since built up more than 120 chapters in countries across the world including Vietnam, England, Japan, and Ireland. Their chapter in Tijuana, Mexico, has been especially active in recent months, helping deported U.S. veterans secure access to VA hospital care in America.

To be sure, VFP’s roughly eight thousand dues-paying members have launched numerous projects to end war, support the poor, abolish nuclear arms, and remove cluster bombs. They’ve built freshwater treatment plants in Iraq, countered military recruiting tactics in American high schools, provided medical aid to Central America, and evacuated wounded children from war-torn Bosnia. Its membership comprises veterans of all stripes (though VFP has long been dominated by Vietnam veterans), which has allowed the organization to maintain a strain of activism that is cheeky, cutting, and communal.

Over the years, VFP has been advised and funded by an eclectic group of leftist thinkers, artists, and activists, including Yoko Ono, Ralph Nader, Oliver Stone, and Daniel Ellsberg. It’s unclear exactly how much money the group has, but it’s not much. Despite its limited resources, VFP offers grants of up to $5,000 for community projects that promote harmony. This program is named after one of VFP’s best known members, activist writer and historian Howard Zinn, whose lifelong quest for peace developed in reaction to his service as a U.S. Air Force bombardier during World War II. During the relative peace and prosperity of the 1990s, Zinn urged the group’s members to remain vigilant and aggressive toward the military industrial complex. “Even without a going war, the preparations for war, the quarter of a trillion dollars in the military budget, are starving the needs of the people, and poisoning our soul,” he said.

Veterans for Peace are now taking on perhaps their most personal project, to save their own health care system. The stakes are huge, but it may be too late. The “Save our VA” campaign’s mission is to beat back a wave of departmental privatization and preserve the most progressive agency in federal government.

The VA, among many other things, has created America’s most successful foray into socialized medicine. Today, veterans of all socioeconomic backgrounds are provided comprehensive and high-quality care—for free. The agency negotiates fair drug prices with pharmaceutical companies, and in 2018 had cut opioid-prescription rates by 41 percent over a five-year period. Physicians for a National Health Program, a universal health care advocacy group, has pointed to the VA as “another reason for single payer.”

Also nestled inside the department are a myriad of other VA programs and benefits long advocated by the left. They include forms of free college tuition, pioneering anti-poverty initiatives, access to equitable home loans, and a rehabilitative court model that prioritizes treatment over incarceration for drug problems. The VA is even expanding broadband internet access in rural areas, and may soon offer free child care for vets in treatment.

As such, the department has become enemy number one among conservatives and corporate actors desperate to undercut “successful socialism.” These concerted efforts kicked off in 2014, when dramatic evidence showed administrators at a Phoenix VA hospital had tampered with scheduling data, leaving some veterans waiting months for an appointment.

As veterans like Mark Foreman explain, these issues develop when the VA is overburdened and underfunded. Republicans, however, packaged, framed, and fed the scandal to media outlets desperate for an Obama-era scandal. In theatrical hearings, lawmakers made Phoenix look like Benghazi.

Meanwhile, Concerned Veterans for America, a then-fledgling project of the Koch brothers, revved into action, testifying before Congress, holding press conferences, and making major ad buys. An unholy trinity of corporate lobbyists, CVA staffers, and Republican lawmakers seized this moment by quickly pushing privatization measures in Congress, as public anger and attention remained high.

Democrats almost immediately caved to their wishes. Even progressive Senator Bernie Sanders, who had publicly called out the Koch brothers for their shadowy moves during the scandal, ended up supporting the resulting law, the VA Choice Act, which pumped $10 billion and tens of thousands of veterans into the private health care industry. This emergency legislation committed just $6 billion to the VA itself, to fix the kinds of underlying problems that had caused long waits in Phoenix.

Trump made the programs set forth in the VA Choice Act permanent, albeit with his own branding. He signed the VA Mission Act in a showy bill-signing ceremony during the summer of 2018. His remarks that day were nearly coherent. “No matter where you served or when you fought, if you were in uniform—at some point, if you wore that uniform, then you deserve our absolute best,” Trump said. “And that’s what we’re doing. Right?”

Wrong. The Mission Act is set to send billions into the private sector at a time when the VA desperately needs funds to address its problems. For one, the department had roughly fifty thousand job vacancies last year, many of them for pressing clinical care needs.

Taking it to the Streets

On a snowy day last December, Foreman and fellow veterans assembled in front of the Milwaukee VA to call attention to the damage being wrought by the Mission Act. The festering job vacancy problems are as visible in Milwaukee as anywhere else, with hospital staff contending with 335 unfilled positions for crucial jobs including nurses, social workers, and psychologists.

Foreman, now seventy-two, sat for much of the protest in a two-in-one walker-wheelchair. He was clear and cogent about the impact of Trump’s privatization agenda. “There are nine million of us veterans in the United States that go to the VA every year for health care,” he told his local NPR affiliate. “I believe the private health care industry sees us as a huge potential money-makin’ deal for them.”

Foreman’s activism reveals one persistent cog in the “Save our VA” campaign. But VFP members, from San Diego to the Bronx, have held similar protests outside the VA hospitals they’re determined to save. They’ve also submitted newspaper op-eds defending the VA, left flyers in their local facilities, and begun to build alliances with other veterans’ organizations and the VA’s public sector union.

This work coalesced during a rainy week in February, when VFP activists from across the country convened in Washington to advocate for the Veterans Administration. Foreman had hoped his health would allow him to travel for the five-day lobbying blitz. But he continues to contend with his war wounds and faced a number of health complications prior to his trip. “I was very excited to go but I’m going downhill physically,” he flatly admitted during our phone interview. He then made clear that, in addition to the lobbying, he had been excited to reunite with his VFP comrades.

“Veterans for Peace is my home,” he said. “They’re the people I need to be with. They, like me, believe we should put all of our energy into creating peace and ending war. To work on that mission has been a great healer for me.”

Veterans’ efforts to halt VA privatization require them to contend with a legion of well-financed, smooth-talking private health care executives who stand to make billions in this caper.

Jan Barry, a co-founder of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and a lifetime VFP member, similarly said that preaching the gospel of peace can soothe a career of armed conflict. So can speaking to others who are engaged in the same fight. “Decades later we continue to assist each other,” he said. “If a vet says they’re having a bad day on Facebook, we all weigh in. I don’t think anybody ever thought this network would have these less tangible benefits, would create these friendships. Quite a lot of people, myself included, have gotten a lot out of this.”

A shared sense of struggle and camaraderie resonated among the twenty-nine veterans from fourteen states who converged in Washington for the “Save our VA” campaign. They spent five days and four nights living and eating in the stuffy basement of a Presbyterian church near Capitol Hill. Were it not for a poster of César Chávez hanging on the wall, one might confuse their living quarters for those of “Private Pyle” in Full Metal Jacket. All of the veterans, some of them pushing into their seventies, slept in creaky metal bunk beds and shared the workload of cooking and cleaning. Ahead of their lobbying each morning, they discussed tactics to maximize their effectiveness.

The vets shared a sense of contagious optimism, despite the uphill battle they faced. Their efforts to halt VA privatization requires them to contend with a legion of well-financed, smooth-talking private health care executives who stand to make billions in this caper. But Veterans for Peace embody the purity of a protest song, and believe a change is gonna come.

The stakes for these veterans are high. Bob Suberi, a Vietnam Veteran for Peace from St. Louis, said he suppressed his war trauma until 2005, when he showed up at the VA in crisis. Suberi had twice attempted suicide and wasn’t convinced that the department could help him. But it did. “After having heard a lot of negative things about it, I was shocked to experience how good and effective the VA was in delivering health care,” he said. “They kept me from killing myself.”

Today, Suberi not only receives care at his local VA hospital; he also gives time weekly as a caregiver, volunteers in his local veteran treatment court and teaches six-string guitar to those who served. “What’s happening now with the privatization of the VA. . . . is really scary,” he said. “We should be putting more resources into VA and learning from their example on integrated health care.”

Ellen Barfield, an Army veteran and the National Vice President of Veterans for Peace, was blunt in her own view of these impending changes to the government’s approach to veterans’ care. “They love to use our bodies on the battlefield but then fuck us when we’re back home and needy,” she said.

Inveterate Protesters

Since the birth of this nation, veterans have been among its most successful protesters.

In 1818, Revolutionary War veterans received the first public pensions based on service, following years of pitched political battle. In the spring of 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, some seventeen thousand veterans of World War I and their families marched on Washington, D.C., to demand the immediate issuance of promised benefit payments. They subsequently set up a highly functioning tent city along the banks of the Anacostia River that featured security forces, sanitation facilities, and daily parades.

Their encampments were violently quashed by a hard-charging Army brigade under the direction of General Douglas MacArthur, but the veterans’ work yielded results. Shortly after his 1933 inauguration, President Franklin Roosevelt enlisted members of this so-called “Bonus Army” to build the Overseas Highway into the Florida Keys. In 1936, Congress approved the early issuance of the veteran payments. In 1944, following a sustained and potent pressure campaign run out of the American Legion, Congress passed the GI Bill, which enshrined a number of highly valuable new benefits for veterans, including a free college education.

It’s unclear when exactly the “Veterans for Peace” movement was born, though it appears to have first sprung up organically when vets held up signs to protest the intensifying Korean War. By 1951, a motto on a sign had morphed into an organization— The American Veterans for Peace. These forces for peace were relatively small, and they largely stayed out of the streets. But they founded a lively and engaging progressive newspaper—Vet’s Voice—whose column inches were filled with raw polemical writings from people who knew what they were talking about. Korean War soldiers and veterans also organized letter-writing campaigns to their Congress members, urging restraint and an American exit from the region.

During the Vietnam War, anger among the ranks spilled over. With roughly one in five GIs opposing the conflict, the veterans for peace movement exploded. Their actions were split between a number of groups, especially the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. These freshly scarred veterans often teamed up with their elders from Korea and both World Wars to make trouble. Their 1967 march at the United Nations drew more than a hundred thousand people. In their massive October and November 1969 actions, veterans helped coordinate the largest antiwar demonstrations in U.S. history.

The October Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam attracted roughly two million people who marched in some two hundred cities. There were speeches, teach-ins, and documentary film screenings. In Raleigh, North Carolina, activists read out the names of the nearly thirty-nine thousand American casualties over a twenty-four-hour period. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, residents staged a funeral procession. The satellite protest in London, which was held outside the American embassy, was attended by none other than Bill Clinton, who was then studying at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship (and later claimed to have organized it). Two of the three hundred people who attended this London rally were the actor Paul Newman and his wife, Joanne Woodward.

With roughly one in five GIs opposing the conflict, the veterans for peace movement exploded.

The follow-up November protest in D.C. attracted more than a half-million people, including musicians and artists. An indelible image that day came in front of the White House, as Pete Seeger sang a moving rendition of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.” As thousands of protesters’ hands rose up in signs of peace, Seeger called out over the White House fence: “Are you listening, Nixon? Are you listening, Agnew? Are you listening, Pentagon?”

These demonstrations didn’t bring immediate peace. But because it was spearheaded by veterans it added credence to the anti-war cause and rebuffed the popular right-wing myth that the anti-war movement was nothing more than the work of some stoned-out hippies. In a 2016 interview, Ellsberg—a Marine veteran and the leaker of the Pentagon Papers—revealed that the November actions prevented the escalation of the Vietnam war to include nuclear weapons:

People didn’t understand the Joint Chiefs were pressing throughout this period for a bigger war and Nixon was threatening and planning a bigger war. [The Moratorium] did not shorten the war significantly, but it did keep a lid on the war. Without the Moratorium, there would have been an escalation, possibly the use of nuclear weapons in November 1969.

After peace came to Vietnam in 1975, most civilians and some veterans saw their protracted struggle as over. Yet the veterans’ peace movement never disbanded. In 1985, an eclectic crew of former fighters incensed by the global nuclear arms race and America’s military interventions in Latin America re-formed under the banner of Veterans for Peace. This organization has survived until today, staying largely true to its radical, from-the-ground-up nature of its earlier activism but also formalized in important ways, including by creating a membership network and chapters across the country.

Veterans vs. Foreign Wars

On Easter Sunday in 1987, VFP launched its first major action, a bicoastal protest in opposition to America’s support and coordination of the infamous counter-revolutionary Contras, who worked to crush the fledgling Sandinista government that had ousted long-time Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Hundreds of veterans simultaneously gathered outside President Ronald Reagan’s Santa Barbara mountain abode and Vice President George H.W. Bush’s oceanfront compound on the Maine coast. In front of Reagan’s gate, veterans pounded crosses into the ground, each bearing the name of a murdered Nicaraguan campesino.

Among those in attendance was legendary VFP member Charles Liteky. An Army chaplain during Vietnam, Liteky earned a U.S. Medal of Honor due to his quick and brave action during a December 1967 firefight in Bien Hoa Province. In a matter of minutes, Liteky rescued twenty-three wounded colleagues amidst mortars, landmines and direct machine gun fire. He pulled off this divine intervention without a weapon, helmet, or flak jacket. Even as he suffered from wounds in his foot and neck, Liteky administered last rites to soldiers.

In 1986, Liteky became the first and only soldier to renounce his Medal of Honor and refuse its monthly cash stipend. His decision stemmed directly from Reagan’s support for military dictators in Latin America, and from his own work as a VA counselor tending to the physical and mental wounds of war. Liteky became a staunch anti-war activist for the rest of his life, and was imprisoned repeatedly for his protests, which included post-9/11 trips to Iraq to oppose the impending invasion. Asked why he had transformed from soldier to social activist, Liteky’s answer was simple. “It’s to save lives,” he said.

While VFP has long been composed largely of older, white men, there are a number of notable exceptions, including the organization’s two top officials. The president of VFP’s New York City chapter is Susan Schnall, a former Navy nurse who, during Vietnam, found herself increasingly distraught over the mental wounds she saw in returning GIs.

“It became more and more obvious to me as I took care of these guys and physically got them better that I couldn’t heal them psychologically, and I certainly couldn’t heal their souls,” she said in a podcast interview last year. “And I thought, ‘I’ve become a part of the military. I need to do something about this, and we need to end this war.”

In a dazzling manifestation of her feelings against war, Schnall packed into a prop plane in October 1968 and dropped thousands of anti-war leaflets over five military bases in northern California. For this radical work, Schnall was dismissed from the military and sentenced to six months of hard labor. But her commitment to the cause never let up. The former nurse’s most lasting legacy inside Veterans for Peace has been her spearheading of efforts to better understand the public health affects of Agent Orange on American veterans and the Vietnamese.

The group’s membership rolls spiked as anger against the 2003 invasion of Iraq hit a boiling point. VFP was unsparing in its portrayal of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney as kingpins of a criminal administration, whether through hunger strikes or a massive 2007 rally against a troop surge in Iraq. They also gathered outside military bases from Fort Wainwright in Alaska to Fort Dix in New Jersey to talk to servicemembers about their ideas for peace. They also targeted the government’s sadistic stop-loss policy, which was drafted in the wake of Vietnam to empower the president to extend enlistment contracts, even against soldiers’ wishes.

In an effort to diversify their ranks and mentor a new generation of peace activists, VFP also incubated the Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). This group’s activism was triggered by outrage and resentment they felt at the lies that justified the invasion in the first place. Like VFP, IVAW’s work had mixed success. Their most notable work was Winter Soldier, an event in concert with VFP where more than two hundred veterans, soldiers, scholars, and Iraq and Afghanistan civilians spoke in detail about the horrors of those wars. During the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, nearly four thousand protesters led by IVAW marched and called for Obama to end U.S. involvement in Iraq and improve health care for veterans. This activism helped fundamentally change public perceptions of Iraq. And while the group has disbanded, many former members have gone on to other important policy and advocacy work at places like Vietnam Veterans of America and Common Defense.

The wars in the Middle East have largely receded from public view, but VFP’s actions have not faltered. In recent years, members have been arrested in Manhattan for opposing the Forever Wars, protested outside of a Nevada drone base and organized a wild anti-Trump rally featuring subversive sixties rockers, The Fugs. The group, founded by Beat poets in 1964, wrote the anthem “Kill for Peace,” which kicked off an FBI investigation into their activities. The band was active in opposing the Vietnam War and, in 1967, its members descended on Washington to recite an incantation to levitate the Pentagon and exorcise it from it the military’s worst warmongers. In their 2017 VFP protest, which occurred fifty years after this original happening, The Fugs similarly called upon the “malevolent spirits in the White House to be banished.”

Congressional Neglect

The last time veterans publicly agitated in Washington for better health care, they won. On April 18, 1971, an intrepid platoon of nearly one thousand Vietnam veterans and Gold Star parents descended on D.C. for a five-day protest campaign code-named “Operation Dewey Canyon III.” The first two Dewey Canyons were secret military offensives into Laos but, for the third, hundreds of people camped on the National Mall in what they called a “limited incursion into the country of Congress.” Events included marching, singing, and guerrilla theater led by the cast of the Broadway musical Hair.

Some veterans marched to the Pentagon and turned themselves in as war criminals, while others, in a riveting convergence, threw their military medals and battle ribbons onto the steps of the Capitol. Veterans also stormed the Hill with sixteen specific demands, including “immediate legislation to provide proper care and service for all veterans in VA hospitals; to make available job training and placement for every returning veteran; and to provide the funds and means necessary for their educational and vocational endeavors.”

During the following year, fourteen federal laws were passed strengthening veterans’ benefits. These new initiatives expanded health care and student assistance eligibility, extended certain VA benefits to widowers, and established mortgage life insurance policies for the severely disabled. Washington took further actions. The city today hosts seventeen monuments, museums, and memorials dedicated to veterans. Vets enjoy generous discounts on their hotel rates and restaurant bills. When I accompanied a cadre of the Veterans for Peace into the House Longworth building on a dreary February day, the first sign we saw advertised a “Valentines for Veterans” drive on the third floor.

The vets I accompanied—most sporting pins, T-shirts, and baseball caps noting their service—were welcomed warmly as they walked through the marble hallways of Congress. Handshakes and back-pats were common. “Thank you for your service,” was a repeated refrain.

As they headed to their first “Save our VA” meeting, the vets entered an elevator with a lobbyist for the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States (EANGUS). There were swift acknowledgements of one another’s service and wishes of good luck. Yet while EANGUS appeared on the surface to be a natural ally of veterans, the group has sucked up corporate money from health care companies interested in profiting from VA privatization and for-profit schools looking to exploit the GI Bill.

Of the three congressional meetings I attended, only one aide expressed genuine interest in what the vets had to say about their VA care. For the other meetings, staff listened and nodded performatively as veterans shared their love of the VA, and how it saved their lives. At the twenty-minute mark, these veterans were ushered out, and reps from various special interests were welcomed in.

Like their colleague and fellow veteran, Howard Zinn, they argue for an abolition movement against war like the one that led to the abolition of slavery.

After embarking on a number of these meetings, John Ketwig, a Vietnam veteran with a bushy white mustache, remarked on the phoniness of the whole experience. “The folks over there in those buildings are professionals at telling you what you wanna hear and then doing what they’ve been paid to do by their donors,” he observed. Indeed, in recent years, donations from health care interests to members of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees have doubled. These and other corporate interests have also begun laundering donations through a series of dubious, “astro-turf” veterans’ groups, and have employed powerful lobbyists with deep connections to the VA.

Veterans for Peace visited thirty-three Congressional offices, to share their personal and, at times, painful messages of support for the VA. But just three Congress members signed on as co-sponsors to HR 701, a simple, largely symbolic bill expressing support for full funding and staffing at the VA.

Republicans have long supported privatization of government services, so their silence on this issue is not surprising. What’s been most startling is how Democrats have remained silent or even become complicit in this work, even refusing to explicitly defend the VA. One notable exception is New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who signed on to HR 701 and, during a Bronx town hall meeting in support of the VA last year, called out the brazen efforts of the right to privatize service under the guise of fixing a dysfunctional department.

“They are trying to fix the VA for pharmaceutical companies, they are trying to fix the VA for insurance corporations and, ultimately, they are trying to fix the VA for a for-profit health care industry that does not put people or veterans first,” she thundered. “If we really want to fix the VA so badly, let’s start hiring, and fill up some of those forty-nine thousand [staff] vacancies.”

Coming Around to Peace

Perhaps the oddest irony in this fight is that the most effective player in privatizing the VA—the Koch-backed group Concerned Veterans for America (CVA)—has recently taken up the mission of peace. In recent months, the Kochs have funded and aired slick ads, flown veterans to Washington to lobby lawmakers, and set up a policy shop all in the name of ending the so-called Forever Wars.

This work has helped move the needle in Washington. On the last day of February, President Trump announced a peace deal between the United States and the Taliban. While far from perfect, it has brought some hope to the people of Afghanistan. Yet what the Kochs hold in power they lack in passion. Their opposition to American foreign policy carries a message focused on fiscal responsibility and champions the Pentagon as our “key to safeguarding American prosperity.” It also comes late in the game, with an estimated two hundred thousand civilians deaths in Iraq alone.

The Veterans for Peace understood how this war would play out from day one, and they framed the decision to invade Iraq with lessons learned in Vietnam. VFP’s power lies in a message that contends that conflict is inherently evil, that it kills children, starves families, decimates infrastructure, interrupts education, and breeds hate. While most everyone assumes the Pentagon is too powerful to be challenged, levitated, or destroyed altogether, the VFP fights these battles, regardless. They stand as unimpeachable witnesses, demanding that we cage the hawks, free the doves, and love each other. Theirs is a universal message, and it has yielded them tangible results along with all the heartache they endure as wars continue to proliferate but achieve nothing. Like their colleague and fellow veteran, Howard Zinn, they argue for an abolition movement against war like the one that led to the abolition of slavery.

Zinn urgently conveyed this truth in the run-up to the invasion in Iraq. In a 2004 essay, he reckoned with the untold civilian killing he saw and even facilitated during World War II. Yes, Zinn acknowledged, this war sought to stop fascism. Yet the tactics for this noble goal were barbaric. He concludes his essay by suggesting that virtually all veterans come around to peace, sooner or later, and he expressed his regret over his own role in the leveling of Royan, a small French town on the Atlantic coast, which he bombed, despite the fact that World War II was essentially over—and everyone, including the officers who ordered the attack, knew it.

“I don’t want to honor military heroism—that conceals too much death and suffering,” Zinn wrote. “I want to honor those who all these years have opposed the horror of war.”