Saturday, February 02, 2008
Veterans for Peace President on Activism and Iraq
interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Every week, peace activists and ordinary people concerned about the seemingly endless U.S. occupation of Iraq gather together in at least eight locations in San Diego County to say, “Enough!” — enough of war, enough of occupation, enough of the suppression of constitutional liberties and civil rights in the name of a perpetual “war on terror,” and enough of the Bush administration. Only one of these vigils, every Friday from 4 to 5:30 p.m. at the corner of Sixth and University in Hillcrest, is in a relatively “liberal” area where one might expect regular peace demonstrations.
The others are in places like Vista, Ramona, La Mesa, Poway (where the movement actually started), Encinitas, La Jolla and Carmel Valley, where Gil Field and his wife live and turn out every Sunday afternoon at 1 at the corner of Del Mar Heights Road and El Camino Real. Field is also the president of the San Diego chapter of Veterans for Peace, a nationwide organization of peace activists who have served in the U.S. military — many of them (though not Fried himself) in combat.
Zenger’s caught up with Field at the Hillcrest vigil on January 18 and interviewed him afterwards at Cofe Café, a new independent coffeehouse on Fifth and Washington that grabbed the location out from under the Starbucks mega-corporation. He talked about his organization, his hopes for peace and the effect the 2008 Presidential election is likely to have on war, peace and America’s role in the world.
Zenger’s: What branch of the military did you serve in, when, and what was your story?
Gil Field: I was not in any war. To be a veteran, you have to have 180 days of active-duty honorable service. I was in the Coast Guard from 1970 to 1974, and after my training I served three years on an island in New York harbor. The island is called Governor’s Island. It’s one of the three islands in New York harbor, along with Ellis Island and Liberty Island, There were 6,000 Coast Guardsmen on Governor’s Island doing a whole host of activities regarding the Atlantic Ocean.
I’m the exception to the rule in my organization. Most of the people in my organizations were Marines or Navy people, as you can imagine, San Diego being a big Navy and Marine center. Many of them were in the Viet Nam war. Many of them are in their early 60’s, and therefore were in the Viet Nam war in the late 1960’s.
Zenger’s: How did you come to be anti-war? Did you always feel that way, or was it a gradual conversion?
Field: No, I pretty much always felt that way. I was a mild activist in the 1960’s in college. Even during my stint in the Coast Guard in the early 1970’s, I was often involved in anti-war rallies in New York City. I lived 300 yards off lower Manhattan, so it was very easy for me to attend the big anti-war rallies in 1971, 1972, 1973.
Zenger’s: You’ve mentioned that most of your life you’ve lived in the East Coast. What brought you to California?
Field: I was working for the Department of the Navy as a contracting officer, which was a civilian civil-service job. I lived most of my life in the Washington, D.C. area, but in 1997 the Navy moved the Navy agency I was working with to San Diego from Washington, D.C. I elected to bring my family out here and continue working in my job until I retired last year. We’ve enjoyed San Diego.
Zenger’s: How did you get involved with the San Diego Veterans for Peace?
Field: Strangely enough, I ran across them at Moonlight Beach in November 2005, when they were putting up their “Arlington West” memorial, which is a series of crosses, each one with the name of a U.S. soldier killed in the Iraq war. I read about it in the paper, and my wife and I went up to see the memorial. We started helping with the memorial and met the people in the Veterans for Peace, and started to attend Veterans for Peace meetings.
Zenger’s: Had you been an activist previously since the 1970’s, or had you dropped out? And if so, what brought you back?
Field: Unfortunately, I did drop out as I got married and had children, but what brought me back was George W. Bush and the Iraq occupation. I came to realize early on that Bush was bad news, and our country was headed in the wrong direction. After the invasion of Iraq, I, like a lot of other people, saw the light and realized that this was not something that our country should be doing. Then I became more politically aware and active again.
Zenger’s: You dated it from the beginning of the war in Iraq. How did you feel when the 9/11 attacks occurred, and during the year to year-and-a-half after that, before Iraq became the main focus of our response?
Field: Like everybody else I was outraged by the 9/11 attacks, and like a lot of people I was confused as more and more the drum was sounded to attack Iraq. It seemed like an odd choice, given that we had not been attacked by Iraq and that Iraq was a rather strong secular state in the Middle East, where many of the other states were much more religiously based and therefore could be tied to al-Qaeda.
I was familiar with the writings of the Project for a New American Century. When I started reading them, I came to the conclusion that perhaps this was really the agenda of the Bush administration. They wanted to follow the plans and goals of the Project for a New American Century, and 9/11 had just been a good opportunity to do these things and get the mainstream of the country to go along. The country got snookered.
Zenger’s: I remember going to one of the early anti-Iraq War demonstrations, and a heckler actually came up to me and said, “So you don’t believe we should fight back when we’re attacked?” I just looked at him nonplussed and said, “Who attacked us? Not Iraq! Where did the people who actually did 9/11 come from? Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Where did we go to war? Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Field: Right. If we really wanted the oil, we should have attacked Canada, because Canada is our number one oil source. An attack on Canada would have made more sense. And I guess I should say for the record that I don’t recommend an attack on Canada.
Zenger’s: I noticed a number of people at today’s demonstration were talking about 9/11 as an inside job: this whole idea that the Bush administration either had advance knowledge and allowed the attacks to happen, or actually sponsored them in some way. As an individual, not speaking for the Veterans for Peace, how do you feel about that?
Field: I don’t go along with that line of thought too much, although I must admit that, having listened to these people quite a bit, I have my own questions as to bits and pieces of the 9/11 activities that make me wonder. I’m concerned about Building 7 of the World Trade Center complex, and why it fell when so little damage had been done. I’m also interested in things like the bin Laden family being swept out of this country, things of this nature. But for the most part, I’m not convinced that it was an inside job or that the Bush administration let it happen. I think we got surprised.
Zenger’s: What exactly does the Veterans for Peace do?
Field: Veterans for Peace is an organization, a national organization with about 150 chapters and about 7,500 veterans and associate members who have five primary goals in their statement of purpose. The first is to increase the public’s awareness of the total costs of war. We do this by memorials, demonstrations and whatever to show people that there is a cost to war.
Secondly, we’d like to restrain our government from intervening, overtly or covertly, in the internal affairs of other nations. We have an anti-imperialism philosophy that the United States should not be intervening in the affairs of other nations.
Thirdly, the Veterans for Peace is a proponent of ending the arms race and reducing, and eventually eliminating, nuclear weapons. Fourthly, we are strong advocates for additional veterans’ benefits, which is a big issue right now as more and more people come from the Iraq occupation wounded and ill taken care of.
And lastly, we are strong proponents for abolishing war as an instrument of foreign and international policy. Our government historically has used war not only when negotiations have failed, but often as an alternative to negotiations. War has been something that our nation has gone to way too fast, and often unnecessarily.
Zenger’s: The counter-argument to that is there comes a time in the history of every nation where you do have to use some kind of military force. One of the frequent criticisms of peace activists generally is that we’d be unwilling to see force used, and oppose it, even when there was a really overarching danger that could only be met by the military. Adolf Hitler and Nazism, and fascism in general, is usually the example that is cited. How would you respond to that?
Field: The aspect of our group that may be a little different from other peace groups is that the vast majority of our members have either been to war or been involved in something approximating war. We have members from World War II, we have members from the Korean war, we have a lot of members from the Viet Nam war. We have members from the first Iraq war and we have associate members from the second Iraq war, the current Iraq occupation.
I would say, looking back at our history, that our country often goes to war for the wrong reason. We don’t go to war because we have been challenged. One of our older members recently said that he had been in the Korean conflict. He was loaded onto a ship on the West Coast — I don’t know whether it was San Diego or San Francisco — and it took him 17 days to get to Korea on the ship. During those 17 days, he came to the conclusion that if it took him 17 days to find the enemy, maybe that enemy wasn’t his enemy, because that enemy was so far away from us as to be irrelevant to the challenge facing America.
We know that the Viet Nam war was not what it was advertised at the time. We certainly know that the Iraq occupation is not anything close to a defense of America. If anything, it’s making America’s military and international position weaker by the day. I personally — and I think even the Veterans for Peace [as an organization] — would say that there are times that a military response is called for. I would say that World War II was definitely one of those times.
But when you look back at the recent military involvements of our country, going back in time with the Iraq occupation; the Grenada involvement, whatever that was about; Viet Nam, again, hard to justify that as anything other than a voluntary war; the Korean conflict, which was a U.N. action but, again, could likely have been settled by the Korean people — when you team that up with things like the military involvement in Haiti, the military and the CIA involvement in Iran in 1953, it becomes obvious that our country has a tendency to use its military or go to war when negotiations, discussions or just leaving things alone would be better.
Zenger’s: How do you see these issues playing out in the current election? Do you think that it’s going to make a difference who wins the presidency, who’s in control of Congress? What would you see your group doing after 2008 — give both scenarios: if the Republicans win, and if the Democrats win?
Field: O.K. First scenario is that a Republican president is in charge. I guess the scenario would have to go along that we’d either have a Republican Congress or a go-along Democratic Congress. We would continue to do exactly what we’re doing now, which is to push back against the policies of the administration, assuming that the Iraq occupation would be continued, made greater, or other adventures begun with Iran. Who knows what else someone would do?
Given the reality that we’re likely to get a Democratic president, and the even stronger reality that we’re likely to get a more Democratic Congress, I think the Veterans for Peace would hope to continue to influence those in the peace community, and members of Congress who are on the correct side of the issues, in such a way that the troops could be brought home, if not immediately, then as soon as possible. Then we would want to see our government cease to be interested in imperial adventures. We could be such an amazing force for good in the world, such as eradicating disease and poverty and all the things that America could be doing, when in fact we’re wasting our fine service personnel and our treasury on this misadventure in the Iraq occupation.
Zenger’s: But isn’t the history of the United States since World War II one of imperialism basically being bipartisan? The Korean war was started under a Democrat, the Viet Nam war was started under a Democrat, and while both Iraq wars were started under Republicans, in between Clinton ordered at least two major air attacks on Iraq. And all three of the major Democratic candidates for President have pledged that U.S. troops will remain in Iraq at least until the end of their first terms.
Field: All very true. Everything you just said is very true. I would hope that, having seen the horrible outcome of the Iraq occupation in terms of blood and money and poor standing in the world, that this may be the time that America could wake up and understand that we can’t gain advantages in the world by being a bully, but instead by being a good citizen in the world. We have such an abundance of wealth and an abundance of talent. I think about the Peace Corps in the 1960’s, and how that was on a small scale such a major influence in the world, and how we were welcomed into some of the most hostile countries in the world, because we sent these 25-year-olds, 22-year-olds there.
You always have to hope that in the 21st century we have the ability to see the errors of our ways as a country, and to cease imperialism, bipartisan though it may be, and start thinking in terms of being a good citizen in the world.
Zenger’s: One statistic that haunts me is that the United States contains six percent of the world’s population and uses, depending on what source I read, between 25 and 33 percent of the world’s resources. Doesn’t the U.S. have to remain an imperialist power to keep being able to do that?
Field: Well, does it have to? On the one hand, if we are to maintain our use of oil and our wasteful lifestyles here, there is some degree to which you could say that we almost have to be an imperialist power, because I think the clock is running down against us. We know that the oil in the world is going to be gone in 80 to 100 years. We know that the price of oil will go through the roof once people realize that we’re on the second half of the oil situation, particularly with China and India coming on line with oil use.
But on the other hand, we have the ability through technology, through our own lifestyle changes, and through a certain amount of government intervention, to radically reduce the oil that we use and go to alternative sources of energy, fuel, and reduce the need for oil to the point that we won’t need to be an imperialist force. We pull about 40 percent of the oil that we use out of the United States, and we import 60 percent. I really don’t believe that it would be out of the question that someday we could operate on the 40 percent that we’re pulling out of our own country, and stop worrying about the politics of the Middle East so much.
Zenger’s: Could you tell me about the campaign the Veterans for Peace is currently doing, the “Enough!” campaign, the vigils like the one we just went to?
Field: Actually, the San Diego Veterans for Peace are not specifically in charge of the “Enough!” rallies. The “Enough!” rallies are an independent grouping of individual weekend vigils, and the San Diego Veterans for Peace participate in the vigils, but we are not specifically the sponsor of the “Enough!” rallies. Many of our members are participants, and a variety of our members actually lead certain of the vigils, but the Veterans for Peace are not sponsors of the “Enough!” vigils.
Zenger’s: As you mentioned, there are quite a few of them, and they’re in some places that you’d think of as pretty unlikely venues for peace activism in San Diego.
Field: Yes, very true. My wife and I lead the one in Carmel Valley. We started it. July 28 was our first vigil. Having heard of the Poway vigil three weeks before, and being distressed by what we thought was the nature of the average Carmel Valley resident, who we thought was a Republican and also perhaps pro-war, or certainly not anti-war, we e-mailed a dozen of our friends and said, “We’re going to be down on the streetcorner at 1 o’clock on Sunday with a few signs against the war, against the Iraq occupation. We’d really like you to join us and see what happens.”
The first week we had 15. And within three or four weeks we had 30 on a regular basis on the corner. The positive responses versus the negative responses are running anywhere from 25-1 to 50-1. We have just been overwhelmed with the positive responses from the average Carmel Valley resident driving by on a busy Sunday, which has made us feel amazingly good with the fact that if Carmel Valley is against the war, then San Diego and the rest of the country has to be even more so against the war.
Zenger’s: If you’ve got all these people against the war, why does it continue, and what do you see as the “push” that we will need to defeat or stop it?
Field: The “war” itself is actually over, of course. It ended about three weeks after we invaded Iraq. We’re now into the fifth year of the Iraq occupation. I guess the only reason it’s continuing is we were unfortunate enough to elect George Bush in 2004. He’s still our President, and notwithstanding what Congress either could do or won’t do, and notwithstanding a 75 to 80 percent negative response to the war, George Bush is still our commander in chief, and by the nature of our constitution, he makes the calls of this nature. And our Congress was foolish enough back in 2002 and 2003 to give him the authority to do this.
How will it end? I hope it will end when we elect a new President who will bring the troops home, if not immediately, then quickly. I see a handful of Democrats as good candidates to do this,. I don’t see any Republicans in the current crop as offering to do this. So I guess I would have to say, in a non-partisan sort of way, that I hope a Democrat is elected President in 2008.