Opposing the Wars at Occupy Wall Street

For some demonstrators, the name of the Occupy Wall Street protest is especially ironic: those whose primary concerns are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Although Occupy Wall Street is leaderless, with a strong anarchist element, the protest's focus is on corporate power and its influence on government, especially as embodied by the banks whose towers surround Zuccotti Park. But activists opposed to the U.S. war machine have also been drawn to downtown New York, which seems somewhat counterintuitive: the White House and the Pentagon, after all, are where the orders come from.

On Saturday afternoon, at the park's western edge, a small group of citizens with connections to the military were standing next to a congeries of drummers, holding banners and signs that called for peace. I spoke first with Ken Dalton, who was a petty officer second class in the Navy during the Vietnam War. ("I got out with a good combat medal and a bad attitude," he told me, laughing.) "These people have been making money off these wars," Dalton said of U.S. corporations. "Even the ones they lose they make money off of."

"Have you ever heard of Smedley Butler?" he asked.
Indeed I had. Butler was the most decorated marine in the history of the Corps when he retired as a major general in 1931, having served in the Philippines, China, Central America, Mexico, Haiti and France. As remarkable as Butler's active duty career had been, he truly distinguished himself in retirement, writing a book called War Is a Racket and denouncing in the pages of a socialist magazine those interventions in which he'd taken part: "I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class thug for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism."

"I believe in making Wall Street pay for it," Butler said of a bonus for struggling veterans in 1933, "taking Wall Street by the throat and shaking it up." Butler supported the demonstrators of the Bonus Army, who camped in Washington, DC to demand early payment of promised benefits. His redistributionist sentiment is shared by many of those currently occupying Zuccotti Park.

"I'm here for justice," Vietnam veteran Bill Johnson told me, when I asked him what he was doing at an anti-Wall Street protest with a peace message. "Justice comes first. We can't have peace without justice."

Johnson told me how he joined the army during the Vietnam War when he was drafted, despite his belief that the war was wrong. Today, when people thank him for his military service, he rejects their gratitude.

"The fight for our country begins here," he declared, "not Vietnam, not Iraq. And though I believed in going to get Osama bin Laden and destroy Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, we are no longer there to protect democracy. There will be no justice for 9/11." He gestured northwest, towards the gleaming, half-constructed sarcophagus called One World Trade Center (no longer the Freedom Tower). "An eye for an eye is not justice."

Bill Johnson introduced me to Jan Barry, one of the founders of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. I asked Mr. Barry what he sees as the connection between financial shenanigans and military adventurism. "While we have been distracted by the two wars," he explained, "some companies have managed to do very well in the middle of a recession. And they have not provided very many jobs, not even to the veterans who've been coming home." Johnson and Barry said that veterans groups have been marching against Wall Street for the past several years, receiving very little media attention.

Standing with the veterans was Paula Rogovin of Teaneck, New Jersey, a New York City public school teacher for 38 years and a member of Military Families Speak Out. One of her sons, a marine, has served two tours in Iraq.

Ms. Rogovin, who strongly opposes both wars, said her chapter of MFSO holds weekly vigils at the local National Guard armory. "We're there no matter what the weather. We want all the troops and contractors to be home, and all the war money as well." Her own school just lost a teachers' aide due to budgetary restrictions, and New York City as a whole has cut 700 such positions, she told me.

"Every soldier in Afghanistan costs over $1 million a year," Ms. Rogovin said, echoing President Eisenhower's famous "military-industrial complex" speech. "Just imagine many homes could be built, jobs provided, teachers hired with that money."

Eisenhower, 1953: "The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement... We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people."

Nearby but standing alone was a man around thirty years old, in a Yankees cap and a subway series t-shirt, holding a sign that read, "End the Occupation of Iraq & Afghanistan. Bring All the Troops Home Now." His name was Steve, and he had just moved to New York from Syracuse looking for construction work. His ultimate goal, he said, is to get into the union, "but it ain't what you know, it's who you know." He has three daughters upstate, where he said there are no jobs. This was his fifth day in Zuccotti Park, expressing his anger at the president's perceived hypocrisy.

"He said the first thing he was going to do was bring the troops home," Steve said, conveying something close to the spirit (if not the letter) of Sen. Obama's campaign rhetoric. "Now they're not coming home except in body bags."

At the opposite end of the park I encountered Bryant Bailey, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Afghanistan in 2002. He left the Corps in 2006 and now works in tech support at a major bank, though he wouldn't say which. ("One of the few that did not receive bailout money.") Spelled out in duct tape letters on his cardboard sign: "2nd time I've fought for my country. 1st time I've known my enemy."
"It's all a big corporate machine," Bailey said about the nexus of domestic business interests and foreign policy. "A lot of my friends who went into Iraq said their first orders were to secure oil fields and refineries. That part of the world is very good to control if you want to dominate Asia and North Africa."

Next to Bailey was a heavily tattooed man with thick black discs in his pieced earlobes. He spoke philosophically about the differences between the demonstrators and the denizens of the financial district. He pointed across the street, to the offices of Brown Brothers Harriman, and said that a good friend worked for that bank, and was thus on "the opposite side of this fight." Those who work within the financial system, he said, are too concerned with getting ahead, with pleasing their superiors, to develop critical attitudes towards issues like the wars. Only those at the very top, he thought, are able to see the country honestly, from the loftiness and security of their position, though of course they have no incentive to dissent. From this perspective, the prospect of wealth and power that lures so many talented people to come work on Wall Street is one factor preventing the emergence of an influential social movement to end the wars.

No overriding answer had emerged to the question of why peace activists had come to Occupy Wall Street, which was in a sense appropriate, given the decentralized, polyvocal nature of the protest. Paula Rogovin, for one, told me she was glad to see so many "different movements talking about their own issues come together" and make common cause in at least a show of numbers and devotion. Certainly a lack of any antiwar sentiment in such a demonstration, at a time like this, would have been bizarre. But I for my part left Zuccotti Park wishing that a clearer line could be drawn from objection to Wall Street's excesses to opposition to America's wars. As a nation, we seem to make the same mistakes repeatedly in both realms, assuming that old economic and military lessons no longer apply. Smedley Butler's first fight as marine, the Spanish-American War, was launched on a trumped up pretext and soon bled into an intractable insurgency, just like Vietnam and Iraq. But whether we're bidding up real estate prices or fighting to keep some territory within our sphere of influence, we see only profits-no limitations. Bubbles, it seems, occur outside of the economy in U.S. history.