Eight members of Congress have taken a pledge to work to bring ongoing U.S. global military conflicts to a “responsible and expedient” end, the result of a first-of-its kind lobbying effort by military veterans on Capitol Hill.
The pledge was written and organized by a group called Common Defense, made up of veterans and military families, which advocates for scaling back U.S. military commitments overseas. Common Defense boasts of more than 20,000 veteran members in all 50 states, and it threw its endorsement behind almost 30 candidates in the last midterm election cycle.
The group’s involvement in electoral politics and Capitol Hill lobbying makes it an oddity in anti-war circles, as peace groups have historically concentrated on mobilizing opposition to war through street protests and marches. Jose Vasquez, the group’s executive director, joined the Army in 1992 and was honorably discharged as a conscientious objector in 2007, having joined the anti-war movement while he was still serving. He said that most anti-war groups believe that “all the politicians are corrupt and we’re not going to make change that way,” a mindset that goes back to the protests against the Vietnam War.
“It’s kind of the same-old, same-old anti-war: standing up, doing vigils, standing outside and yelling at the buildings, coming on a Saturday to D.C. when nobody’s here. We’d much rather be here and talk to folks,” he said as he and other vets walked the halls of the Longworth House Office Building, on their way to a meeting with staff for Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. “Protest is important; you’ve got to show your strength in numbers, but having a seat at the table is important as well.”
“Protest is important; you’ve got to show your strength in numbers, but having a seat at the table is important as well.”
All of the signatories so far are members of the Democratic caucus, and most of them are associated with the left wing of the party: Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren; Omar and other freshmen Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ro Khanna, and Rashida Tlaib; and Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Mark Pocan. Common Defense is also courting more moderate lawmakers, particularly those in swing districts and Democrats. So far, the group has also gotten the support of Montana Sen. Jon Tester, who was first elected in the heavily Republican state in 2006 after bucking advice from Washington consultants and running a populist campaign that condemned the Iraq War.
Signing the pledge was not a hard call for Omar. “War has been so much a part of the American culture. It’s so normalized,” she said. “We only talk about vets when we talk about the kind of resources they need; we never really have a conversation with vets on what defense should look like, and where our engagements are appropriate and when they’re not. And the ones we often talk to are people who might have led and might not be the ones getting shot at every day.”
The progressive insurgents in Congress have built name recognition around domestic policy ideas like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal. By lobbying members to sign the pledge, organizers for Common Defense are hoping to make U.S. military commitments a part of that conversation. The pledge by Sanders and Warren, who’ve previously been outspoken against endless U.S. military interventions, could have an impact on the 2020 Democratic primary. In an appearance on MSNBC in January, Warren broke with top Democrats by saying that President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan was “right,” and characterizing the Pentagon policy as “stay forever.” Sanders, meanwhile, has said that Trump is right to pull troops out of Syria, but added, “I don’t know that you can pull out tomorrow.”
For Common Defense, the politics are personal. “We’re watching the Taliban govern areas [in Afghanistan] where we deployed, and where our friends died,” said Alexander McCoy, political director for Common Defense. “We’re watching Trump destabilize entire regions. We’re watching our friends who we served with now on their eighth and ninth deployments. We’re seeing our kids now will be old enough to enlist and having to have hard conversations about that.”
Last week, 18 Common Defense members traveled to Washington, D.C., and held dozens of meetings with the offices of Democratic lawmakers, talking about their experiences and urging them to be among the pledge’s initial signers. The group targeted progressive offices, according to a schedule of meetings seen by The Intercept, as well as members of the Democrats’ freshman class — many of whom were recruited to run for Congress because they are veterans themselves. Common Defense is hoping that the Monday launch of the pledge will lead to more lawmakers signing it, McCoy said.
In last week’s meetings, Peter Lucier, a Common Defense organizer and Marine Corps veteran who served in the Helmand province in Afghanistan, told members how he had to watch as areas he served in have fallen under Taliban control. “The experience of war was just incredibly disillusioning.”
“The experience of war was just incredibly disillusioning.”
The pitch resonated with the veterans Common Defense met with, organizers said, but not enough to secure a commitment. Rep. Jason Crow, a freshman from Colorado and a former Army Ranger, told the vets he understood where they were coming from. “I felt heard,” said Jason Hurd, a 10-year combat medic in the Army who lives in Western Massachusetts. “He certainly agrees that this forever war needs to be wrapped up, and that dialogue is very important.”
Alexander McCoy, a Marine vet and a co-founder of the group, said that Crow was representative of most of the members of Congress they met with. “He was a good example of where the Democratic Party is on foreign policy — and where it is is confused. He strongly resonated with our stories of frustration with the war, and the two decades of no one knowing why we’re there, and seeing kids who were born around 9/11 now enlisting and deploying, but he had a lot of questions about what is a responsible alternative,” said McCoy. “How do we end it in a responsible way that doesn’t cause collateral damage?”
The pledge leaves room for that conversation, with the use of the word “responsible” to describe the global pullback from combat operations that began after the September 11, 2001, attacks. In 2001, Congress authorized military operations against the groups responsible for those attacks. In the years since, that congressional authorization has been interpreted broadly and has led to combat against groups, like the Islamic State, that did not exist on 9/11.
“The United States has been in a state of continuous, global, open-ended military conflict since 2001. Over 2.5 million troops have fought in this ‘Forever War’ in over a dozen countries – including Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Jordan, Niger, Somalia, and Thailand,” the pledge reads.
It continues: “I pledge to the people of the United States of America, and to our military community in particular, that I will (1) fight to reclaim Congress’s constitutional authority to conduct oversight of U.S. foreign policy and independently debate whether to authorize each new use of military force, and (2) act to bring the Forever War to a responsible and expedient conclusion.”
The lobbying campaign is possibly the first of its kind since January 2007 — when new Democratic majorities in the House and Senate were sworn in. More than 100,000 people marched on the National Mall demanding an end to the Iraq War, and the day after, hundreds of constituents met with elected officials, demanding they join the “Out of Iraq” caucus, among other things.
But the effort by Common Defense is unique in that it is driven almost exclusively by veterans and focuses on global conflicts broadly, rather than one specific war. “I think there’s a reason why an organization like Common Defense didn’t exist before and it’s because this work is hard,” said McCoy. “It’s challenging the status quo, and it’s challenging a lot of people’s preconceived notions about who veterans are.”
Founded in 2016, Common Defense grew out of one group of veterans’ protests against the Trump campaign. While fighting for the Republican nomination in January of that year, Trump boycotted a Fox News debate and instead held an event that he claimed raised $6 million for veterans.
When reporting by the Washington Post later challenged the accuracy of that figure, questioning whether veterans actually got any money, a group of veterans began protesting outside of Trump Tower in New York City. One of the organizers was McCoy, a six-year marine veteran who was studying at Columbia University on the GI Bill.
“We felt really strongly about how [Trump] was constantly using veterans as props while running a campaign that was so founded in hate and division,” said McCoy, now the political director for Common Defense.
“When veterans actually speak for themselves, it’s kryptonite to the Trumpian idea of the military.”
Perry O’Brien, an Army veteran who was organizing vets to oppose the way that Trump’s campaign and his rhetoric were inciting hate, was also regularly protesting at Trump Tower. O’Brien and McCoy started talking, and according to McCoy, the idea for Common Defense came from realizing how effective that protest was and understanding the importance of veterans speaking for themselves. “When veterans actually speak for themselves, it’s kryptonite to the Trumpian idea of the military.”
In the years since, Common Defense has translated its work into congressional advocacy by seeking to end Trump’s ban on transgender service members, advocating for support for survivors of sexual assault in the military, and advocating for the demilitarization of the border, among other things.
November’s midterm elections also saw a transformation in the Democratic Party. As a part of their strategy to take back the House of Representatives, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee aggressively courted veterans and former national security professionals to run for office. As a result, many of the freshman Democratic lawmakers, like Crow, are themselves veterans.
How their military backgrounds will shape their policy is still to be determined. But Common Defense organizers told The Intercept that a candidate being a veteran didn’t excuse silence on wars overseas — and, in some cases, may have made that person more sympathetic to the group’s pitch.
“I think that too often the [Democrats] think that running a candidate who is a veteran is a way of avoiding having to talk about foreign policy – that you can kind of hand-wave national security issues because they’re a vet, obviously they understand it,” said McCoy. “And to not have to talk about it and not have to actually make a clear case to working people about what you’re for – that’s a cop-out. Veterans in particular have a responsibility to break that.”
Omar, who immigrated to the United States as a refugee of the war in her native Somalia, said that her meeting with the vets was emotional, as she considered the toll that war also takes on those who wage it, not just those on the receiving end. “Hearing them made me a little emotional because I don’t really spend a lot of time with people who have engaged in war,” she said. “I suppose we’re all ultimately survivors and we all have to live with the aftermath of what took place. I had not really heard a clear perspective from people where were the ones with the guns.”
Shifting U.S. foreign policy, however, will take a lot of conversations, she said. “There are a lot of people here who need to have the engagement, they need to have the conversation,” Omar said, referring to her fellow members of Congress. “Our view on war really is driven by muscle memory, and there has to be a lot of unteaching that needs to take place. For the majority of members of Congress, these are people who are wealthy, who’ve led a life that is comfortable and privileged, or people who have never really left this country. What they know is what they see in the movies or what they read in the briefings and they don’t ever really get to have a conversation that is rooted in peace and justice.”