Captain Awkward

#1028: How do I talk about my military service in leftist spaces?

Dear Captain Awkward,

When I was seventeen, in order to escape an emotionally and physically abusive mother, I joined the Air Force. However, about six months into a four year contract, I realized that my priorities (and my politics) had shifted, and that I could no longer justify to myself being in the military as a positive or moral choice. Unfortunately, short of getting pregnant or deliberately getting in trouble (neither of which I wanted to do), I had no way of getting out early.

Now, I’ve made it. I’m less than a month away from separating, and I’ve made plans to attend college and study biology. When I’m a civilian again, the people and organizations that I most want to interact with politically are very left-leaning, often with an emphasis on criticizing the military industrial complex. In a situation like that, I don’t know how to bring up the fact that I’m a veteran. I don’t want to lie to people, but I find it embarrassing, and I also worry that people might distrust me because of it.

I guess the core of my question is, how do I talk to people about something I did in my past that I no longer condone, and even actively oppose?

A Regretful Veteran
(she/her pronouns)

Dear Regretful,

Goat Lady here, in my capacity both as a Navy veteran who participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America Veterans Working Group.

It’s true that there are some leftist groups that won’t want to have you as a member because you served. There are some fellow leftists who will indeed say very shitty things to and about you because of your service. You only have to take a look at recent discourse around the West Point Commie to see that. It sucks and it hurts to have people with whom you share goals and values reject you as irredeemably tainted because you made a hard choice to survive. But be up front about your service, because it’s better to know up front than have them discover it months down the line. Just say “Hey, I’m a military veteran, is that going to be a problem?” You don’t owe anyone further explanation or justification, and you don’t have to disclose your abuse to them if you don’t want to. Nor should you stick with any group that requires you to hate yourself as a condition of membership. We leftist vets already have quite enough complicated feelings about our service without being required to take on everyone else’s as well.

It may also help to keep a few things in mind:

1) No one is born radicalized. Even those people who will condemn you had to come to it via their own path.

2) Everyone makes choices to survive. Only the very, very lucky and/or privileged have never compromised in order to stay safe, housed, and fed. Even the great hero of labor organizing Utah Phillips was radicalized while he was in the Army.

3) No leftist revolution has succeeded without the participation of soldiers and veterans.

You will find people who will stand in solidarity with you. The PSL (Party for Socialism and Liberation) may have a lot of hard liners who reject those who have served, but their official policy is to actively recruit active duty military and veterans. The DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) membership tends to be more moderate, and their Veterans Working Group is an amazing source of solidarity and support.

Don’t give up if the first group you try is hostile. There are comrades who will welcome you with open arms out there. I realize I’m biased, but do consider the DSA and joining the VWG (particularly one of the chat channels – or as one VWG member put it when I asked for input, “tell her to slide up in the VWG DMs”) so that you at least have a reliable source of online support, fellowship, and solidarity while you look for your local activist home. Don’t be afraid to look outside your college for leftist groups as well. If you’re going to school in a major metro area there may be several groups available to you. You don’t have to stick with the first group you find if it’s not a good fit for you.

Remember too that your military experience gives you valuable perspective when criticizing the military industrial complex – what many leftists discuss in theoreticals, you have seen up close and way too personal. You also know a lot at this point about organizing people to work as a team toward a common goal, and good and bad ways to keep them motivated and focused on the way. There are reasons that right wing hate groups have pushed to recruit active duty military and veterans, and any leftist group that doesn’t see our organizing skills as valuable is being incredibly impractical.

There are some pretty common arguments from leftists who reject any form of solidarity with military members and veterans. “You were a willing agent of US imperialism.” “You pursued your own liberation at the expense of black and brown people in the global south.” “You contributed to the murder of civilians by the military industrial complex.” “You could have pursued conscientious objector status.” And you and I know, as veterans, that these things are true, and we will carry what we did and didn’t do for the rest of our lives. I don’t recommend getting into fights over these things. The people who say them are waiting for you to get defensive and try to justify yourself. My best script for you is, “That’s true. But I can’t change my past, and that’s why I’m choosing to try and change the future now that I’m out.”

And if you’re a leftist who hasn’t been in the military and a veteran shows up – we know. Believe me, we know. Generally speaking, veterans do not show up in leftist spaces (as distinct from liberal spaces) without having realized these things. You aren’t telling us anything we don’t think about with far more regularity than you do. The only people who think about it more are the victims of US imperialism. If your organization doesn’t welcome veterans or military members, just make it clear on your posters and websites and move on, and save us all some trouble.

Letter Writer, you are not irredeemably tainted by your military service. You are allowed to work in solidarity with others to change the world for the better. I promise there are people who will be in solidarity with you, who will see you as an asset and recognize that everyone makes choices for survival that they might not make in an otherwise ideal world. And I promise that you will find them.

In solidarity,
Comrade Goat Lady