Backing the GIs Who Break Rank

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #10 in October 2010]

As the War on Terror approaches its tenth year, we face the reality that our anti-war organizations and institutions must be prepared for the long haul. Anti-war veterans and service members are one community that has had a significant presence in the anti-war movement in the wake of 9/11, 2001. The largest and most active anti-war group made up of veterans and active-duty US soldiers (GIs) has been Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). The group, founded by a handful of Iraq vets in 2004, has grown into a national membership-based organization with chapters all over the country.

IVAW works to challenge the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on a number of different fronts—from counter-recruiting to publicly testifying about injustices witnessed firsthand, to organizing actions and supporting active duty GIs who refuse to fight. One of the most striking elements of this military resistance work is the fact that it is initiated by service members and veterans. Inspired by the compelling voice of anti-war veterans and the strategy of opposing war from within the ranks of the military, a number of civilian anti-war activists have dedicated time and energy to supporting IVAW and other war resisters.

Support work performed by civilians includes logistical, strategic, and personal support—everything from helping organize actions and raising legal funds for resisters to talking down a scared and angry father whose son just went AWOL. The work has been varied, at times scattered and most often fulfilled by informal networks of civilian supporters. Here in Chicago, the civilian support network is primarily made up of activists affiliated with a anti-war groups, including Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Food Not Bombs, Kick Boeing to the Curb, US Labor Against the War, Military Families Speak Out, and others. A unique element of the IVAW support work in Chicago has been the participation of radical artists. This intersection of art and anti-war organizing has been inspired by Aaron Hughes, a local artist and veteran who was formerly the president of the Chicago chapter and is now a national Field Organizer for IVAW.

On the East Coast, a small civilian collective has organized IVAW support for years under the moniker Directly Confronting the Occupation of Iraq (DCOI). DCOI played a significant role in street theater actionsOperation First Casualty in 2007 and Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008. In 2009, the group changed its name to Civilian-Soldier Alliance (CivSol), to more accurately reflect the work they were doing. In January 2010, Civilian-Soldier Alliance reached out to people doing similar work from the West Coast and Midwest. In February 2010, a group of us gathered in Baltimore to discuss the work we’ve been doing and how to best organize ourselves moving forward. By the end of the weekend retreat, we decided to make Civilian-Soldier Alliance a national organization and created an organizational structure to facilitate, strengthen, and direct our ally work with IVAW.

In developing the structure of our organization, we researched other ally-based organizations and looked to the Student/Farmworker Alliance (SFA) for guidance. The SFA is a national network of students who work in solidarity with farm workers to end conditions of slave labor in the fields. The Student/Farmworker Alliance has a formal ally relationship with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a Florida-based, membership-led organization of low-wage farm workers. With the support of SFA and other allies, CIW has won a number of successful campaigns against major food corporations, including McDonald’s here in Chicago in 2007.

Modeling our national structure after SFA’s, we set up a national strategy committee, which is currently made up of the founding members from around the country. We also established an advisory board, comprised of IVAW members, veterans, and other affected communities who are committed to this movement. Our national structure is chapter-based. Local chapters have autonomy over local decisions, and the national committee makes decisions about national campaigns, with feedback from members. Each local chapter has a point person who is in regular touch with point people from other chapters around the country.

We believe that a national organizational structure will help us move our work forward in a measured and intentional way. As individual allies, it is easy to become overwhelmed by all of the work that needs to be done: it can sometimes feel like we are scrambling to help where needed, rather than deliberately making plans and proactively building a movement. Now, as an organization of allies with a formal relationship to IVAW, we have a clear role in campaigns and projects. We can collectively chart a course for ourselves, alongside veterans and GIs. Clear lines of communication on an organizational level help us maximize the effectiveness of our collaborations and alliances.

Formalizing our ally relationship is also an essential step toward involving more civilian allies. Organizing through informal groups of people and closed collectives has made it challenging for new civilians to get involved. The high level of trust required to do this work is often a barrier to people interested in providing support. Many veterans and GIs enter this movement during a period of crisis, whether they are on the run from the military or questioning everything they once held to be true. And veteran communities themselves are emotionally intensive spaces where people help each other heal and talk through some very painful and traumatic experiences. While bringing as many people as possible into our movement, we also need to ensure that people are prepared for and committed to working with military communities and all this work entails. We hope that CivSol can help bring more people into this movement by providing formal avenues for gaining the necessary skills and knowledge.

While formalizing our ally relationship and building infrastructure is making our work function more smoothly and effectively, building a national organization also raises questions and introduces new issues into our organizing. How do we respond to crises and the immediate needs of veterans and service members while maintaining strategic vision and commitment to long-term campaigns? How do we respond to local needs without losing focus on a national strategy and vice-versa? How do we build emotional and mental health support into our group culture and structure? Having made the decision to support resistance from within the veteran and service member community, how can we also ensure that we are working to actively support other communities around the world who suffer daily from the actions of the US military? We are beginning to answer these questions through the process of building our organization and increasing our capacity. As we move forward, are reminded of the words of Francisco Ascaso, “Walking, we made the road.” ◊


To learn more or get involved with Civilian-Soldier Alliance visit: or email


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