Reviewed by Roger Marheine
September 1, 2021
Unconventional Combat: Intersectional Action in the Veterans’ Peace Movement by Michael Messner. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021. $27.95. Pp. 192.
“I say, I was in unconventional combat. As in every fucking day, I had to fight to not get raped. As a woman in the military. So yeah, I was in combat.” (Monisha Rios, U.S. Army)
“We need to build the capacity for anti-militarist analysis within the broader social justice canon that is already being realized across social justice spaces and across the society.” (Brittany DeBarros, U.S. Army)
Michael Messner’s Unconventional Combat: Intersectional Action in the Veterans’ Peace Movement is a compelling study of largely unknown veterans who oppose the US military’s predatory culture. He documents the lives of six survivors of racist abuse and sexual assault whose stories reveal the shocking but fundamentally toxic culture of the modern armed forces. Like their predecessors from the Vietnam era, these activists have come to oppose the U.S. “mission” to dominate world populations, but also to challenge racist and sexist biases within the military itself. Messner’s book adds to a rich canon of anti-war, resistance literature as told by those who have suffered trauma, perpetrated not from a hostile “enemy,” but from within the military ranks themselves. (1)
Michael Messner has also recently published Guys Like Me which can be read as a companion text to Unconventional Combat. Guys Like Me covers mostly older males, whose military experience brought their hearts and minds into direct opposition with the U.S. war machine. That book traces activists who, Messner declares, “understood, at least theoretically, that war and militarism are interconnected with colonialism, capitalism, racism, sexism, and environmental destruction.” Organizations like Veterans for Peace (VFP), About Face: Veterans Against the War (formerly Iraq Veterans Against the War), and Courage to Resist have for decades concentrated their efforts on assisting active duty soldiers and veterans to oppose wars in Afghanistan (America’s longest war), Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. (2)
Unconventional Combat traces a membership shift in anti-war and peace organizations that continue their work as part of resistance culture and have also encountered resistance’s many forms. Through the “lens of intersectionality,“ Messner profiles six military veterans. (3) He states that “three of them are women, all of them people of color, three of them queer-identified, one genderqueer binary person, and one identified as Indigenous Two-Spirit person” (14). In recent years, increased numbers of veterans come from the ranks of LGBTQ2s as a “woke” movement within the traditional activist organizations. (4)
Military Identity: Twenty-First Century Warrior Culture
For context to Unconventional Combat, consider how the post-9/11 military transformed itself in two specific but contradictory ways.
First, a recent Stars and Stripes article by R.F.M. Williams, clarifies that in 2003, the military sought to “craft and solidify a burgeoning warrior caste “(5). The “warriorization” branding was meant to elevate military personnel as part of the general rhetorical support for the U.S. assault of Iraq (March, 2003). Recall that in 2003, before the invasion, record numbers of mass protests, both within the US and globally, reflected a deep-seated anti-war sentiment.
Transforming the invading soldiers into “warriors” was designed to label them war heroes, as U.S. leaders anticipated a swift and easy victory. Aiding and abetting warrior culture, video games became military recruitment tools. (6) While there is much debate on whether militarist video games, featuring “heroes” as killing machines, actually do significant damage to the psyches of (mostly) young men, anti-war vets are quite clear. In one moment of pure activist theater, a group of about fifty Iraq Veterans Against the War, in their joint August 2016 convention in St Louis with VFP, marched into a video game sales convention. They chanted “War is not a video game.” As I personally witnessed the event, I found the brief protest quite exhilarating.
Williams points out, however, that by turning soldiers into a “warrior caste,” combat soldiers and marines particularly, became even more distanced from civilian life. When the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq dragged on, these troops suffered multiple tours of duty in combat zones. I personally interviewed marines at Camp Pendleton, California who had served four (or more!) combat tours in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. Their psychological strain was palpable. Williams argues that increased combat experience hindered the ability of many soldiers and marines to return to “normal” civilian life. Skyrocketing cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have become a national epidemic.
Statistics on post-9/11 vets with severe mental health issues are staggering. There have been over 30,000 suicides by veterans, approximately four times as many as those who died in combat zones! Over 936,000 veterans have sought some form of mental health treatment. (7) Certainly, the direct contradiction of warrior culture and video game bravado with actualities of genocidal conflict and the slaughter of innocents weighs heavily on the soldiers of empire.
Messner cites “moral injury” as the profound psychological condition but also a coming to consciousness by both male and female soldiers due to increased awareness of civilian casualties in war zones. Warrior culture too often encourages a racialized dehumanization of the “enemy” and a heightened sense of camaraderie within the ranks; at all costs the warrior code demands that you support your buddy in combat and carry out the mission, without asking questions. One of Messner’s profiled women, Monique Salhab, grew up in a military family with a Grenadian Lebanese father; despite an Arabic name, she saw the military as an honorable career. Upon her own deployment to Iraq, she was stunned when a weeping Iraqi woman pointed to Salhab’s name tag and asked, “’What are you doing? Why are you doing this?’” (quoted in Messner 30). Later, Salhab concluded, “I was angry at the thought of what we were doing’” (quoted in Messner 32). Moral injury reflects increasing consciousness of unjust killings—a good thing—but it can instill a profound sense of guilt and shame. (8)
Military Identity: Gender, Sexuality, and Sexual Assault
Paradoxically, the second major shift in the military conflicted directly with patriarchal warrior culture. In this regard, Unconventional Combat highlights that significant numbers of women have joined the armed forces as the “economic draft” pushed women to seek military service as a financial option. Messner clarifies that in 1973 women made up only 2% of the military, but today they represent 16% of active duty personnel and 18% of reservists. Further, he cites statistics that show approximately one third of women in service are Black and 56% identify as a racial minority and/or as ethnically Hispanic (Messner 3).
For their efforts, women have suffered horrendous increases in sexual assault by U.S. military men; the resulting Military Sexual Trauma (MST) now plagues all branches of the US military. Quite simply, military culture is rape culture. Recent statistics in fiscal year 2020, show that out of over 6200 sexual assaults reported, only 50 or .8% came to a conviction under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) (9)
Messner’s interviews reveal shocking and graphic details of sexual harassment and assault. Wendy Barranco, an Army medic, fought off a would-be rapist attacker from her unit; her female sergeant instructed her not to say anything. Phoenix Johnson had joined the Air Force at age 18, and was sexually violated on a Florida base. Monique Salhab reported she was raped by a Veterans Administration doctor. Monisha Rios experienced constant sexual harassment from misogynist drill sergeants. An Army doctor (male) told her to leave the military. He said, “’I’ve seen so many young women who had been raped, and I don’t want that to happen to you’” (quoted in Messner 7).
Don’t Ask: Don’t Tell
Absurdly, the Clinton administration had implemented, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (1994), the clunky and insulting pseudo solution regarding gays in the military. The official position was that gays, lesbians and bi-sexual individuals were not allowed into the military, yet in practice increasing numbers of post 9/11 soldiers joined the military, and did so primarily for economic reasons.
By 2011, the Obama administration had eliminated “Don’t Ask Don’t’ Tell”, and by 2013, women could for the first time serve directly on combat missions. Messner’s fifth individual, Stephen Funk, a gay male, had joined the marines, largely he concedes for less than patriotic or economic reasons: “’I was drawn to the military partly because I was closeted [and] had my own kind of questioning about my own masculinity’” (quoted in Messner 39). Funk left the Marines after a short term in which racism and homophobia pushed him to reconsideration of his military status. By 2003, he came to a life-changing decision: “’Certainly, I’m gay, and it sucks to be gay in the military, but my biggest problem with being [in the military] is that I don’t like being forced to be a violent person. I don’t want to participate in an illegal war’” (quoted in Messner 41).
The pattern seen in Funk’s consciousness is most striking. While his reasons for enlistment amounted to a fatalistic regard for his civilian social status, the toxicity of military experience transformed him.
What stands out in Messner’s individual profiles, is that each signed up for military duty because their civilian opportunities were limited, but as importantly, they were victims of “War Culture.” War culture employs fascistic video games, endless TV commercials glamorizing military careers, ubiquitous camouflage military style clothing sold everywhere from Walmart to Nordstrom’s, bogus promotions of humanitarian interventions to save the Iraqis or the Afghanis, or the Syrians from Islamic extremism etc. Additionally, the U.S. military budget exceeds that of the next eleven countries combined. (10) Still, War Culture manages to hide war in plain sight. The vicissitudes of actual war remain largely hidden from the public eye.
From my own experience (U.S. Army 1966-68), I would argue that it is all but impossible to grasp military life, and especially combat conditions, before enlistment. The “free choice” of enlistment amounts to a con game perpetrated by the most skilled liars—the enlistment recruiter who promises the sky and delivers the recruit to the imperialist war machine.
All of Messner’s veterans were blindsided by War Culture. Wendy Barranco states, “’I was fucking 17. What the fuck did I know about the world? I definitely bought into the propaganda….the whole defend the country, and terrorists, and blah, blah, blah’” (quoted in Messner 21). Phoenix Johnson was amazed: “They invaded Iraq in 2003 and 90 days later I left on a fucking plane…and nobody said a word. Nobody was like, ‘Oh you’re about to go to war’” (quoted in Messner 23). Like Stephen Funk, Monique Salhab is a homosexual and joined both the Air Force and then the Army despite opposing the war. Upon being raped, however, Salhab succumbed to a suicidal mentality: “’Fuck that. I’m just going to go. I’ll go and the likelihood of me being blown up or shot is pretty high, so I won’t have to come back and deal with this’” (quoted in Messner 32). Incredibly, indeed irrationally, she subsequently became a zealous fighter, only to later regret her actions.
Brittany Ramos DeBarros’ mother was an Army officer, a source of great pride for Brittany. She was a top student, a champion high school debater, and an ROTC scholarship recipient to the University of Miami. She argued gays should be allowed in the military and women should be allowed in combat. Her indoctrination as an Army officer’s daughter and her initial zeal for her own professional military career represent War Culture’s firm ideological grip. Most revealing, “She had not developed a critique of the ‘harms of war,’ and she believed that ‘even if military policy was harmful in certain instances, that we were this force for good in the world’” (Messner 45).
Only upon being degraded personally while serving as an officer, did DeBarros develop a more accurate view of the war. Like the others, her individual, personal oppression brought her to a new consciousness. She claimed that because of multiple identities as woman, White, Latina, Black, queer, and combat veteran that “’I carry a grave conviction….there can be no true economic, racial, or gender liberation without addressing the militarism that is strangling the morality and empathy out of our society’” (quoted in Messner 44). DeBarros asserts that intersectionality brought her and the others as well to question War Culture ideology.
Messner suggests that intersectionality per se can be an organizational methodology that launches a new movement. This assertion is worth a closer look.
Thoughts on Intersectionality: A Marxist Approach
The Bolsheviks insisted that women’s status required a distinct focus. (11) Marxists have understood that class, racism, and sexism comprise a fundamental triad of inequality. Marxists assert that racism, sexism, and nationalism/nativism, religious bigotry, homophobia, etc. serve capitalist interests in two fundamental ways.
First, the intensified exploitation–the extraction of greater surplus value from the labor of women, people of color, immigrants etc.—allows for greater profits.
Second, capitalism thrives on dividing the working class into antagonistic subgroups who are all encouraged to compete against each other for crumbs from the master’s table. Slight privileges or slightly higher pay for targeted groups only intensifies the antagonisms between workers; accordingly, it prevents class solidarity that is vital in opposing capitalism. Racism, sexism, homophobia, nativism etc. are not merely inhumane and morally wrong, but as important, they undermine class solidarity.
Consider one hypothetical example–the precarious status of a lesbian immigrant from El Salvador working in a Los Angeles sweatshop. Her multiple identities include being an immigrant, homosexual, and woman of color working in a notoriously underpaid job. Her “identities” in fact become capitalist exploitation categories not only to oppress her, but to gain greater profit from her labor. Her class position determines her status. She is not paid less because she is homosexual or an immigrant woman of color; rather capitalism places her in a labor category tied to these other identities. Is it in the interests of the sweatshop owner to oppress the worker and therefore to exploit her more? Yes, absolutely!
However, is it in the interest of the heterosexual male worker in the same sweatshop to degrade and discriminate against his lesbian co-worker? Absolutely not! Indeed, she may be more oppressed, but they are both ruthlessly exploited because workers’ power has been unable to wage a struggle to improve their economic conditions.
Academic proponents of intersexuality tend not to address exploitation fully; rather their emphasis focuses more on oppression. (12) Thus, the tendency is to conflate both the oppression by the sweatshop owner, which is exploitatively beneficial, with that of the heterosexual white male worker whose oppression of his lesbian co-worker is not beneficial to him; rather, it precludes class unity against their common exploiter.
Marxists call for “Wokers of the World to Unite Against Capitalism”
For Marxists, the concept of intersectionality begins as part of Superstructure in the Base/Superstructure model. Much Marxist commentary has explored the ever fluid dialectical relationship between economics and superstructural elements. Much of Superstructure encourages workers to support ideology that is against their own best interests.
Thus, nationalism rallies the masses to support imperialist wars, nativism generates hostility against immigrants, religion pacifies the downtrodden and encourages attacks on other religions, the courts discriminate against the lower classes (especially people of color), electoral politics divert radical protests into subdued murmurs of discontent. The “philosophy” of individualism, the endless spectacles that champion the rich and the famous, law and order ideology which in practice means police brutality and blatant racism, misogyny, overt homophobia etc. all contribute mightily to capitalism’s power. Superstructure’s ideologies are designed to manufacture consent of the governed to nurture mass acceptance of the corporate agenda. Marx was certainly correct in asserting that the dominant ideas of any age are the ideas that favor the ruling class.
In simplest terms, the Superstructure tends to reveal the oppressions of an era. Why do these oppressions exist? Generally, intersectionality proponents have few answers. Calls for education of oppressions are appropriate and necessary, but solutions tend toward limited appeals to morality, enlightenment, and of course electoral politics.
However, Marxists argue that oppressions can always be traced to an exploitative advantage for capital. Such oppressions support the exploitation and thus the surplus value and profit rates extracted from workers. Capitalism’s most insidious “freedom” is the freedom to extract profit from labor.
Intersectionality without class consciousness amounts to an empty quest for acceptance within class society. A poignant example includes attempts to pass “The Dream Act.“ “Dreamers” are the undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. by their parents at a young age. They are “Americans” in their world view, language, culture etc. Of course, they should pursue legal status—no one should deny that. However, if their only gesture is to pursue the American Dream, the wish for “acceptance,” their effort plays into the hands of capitalism’s manipulation.
Barack Obama represents the ultimate symbol of presidential intersectionality. As the personification of diversity, he became the “Prince of Drones.” As Neoliberalism’s implacable president, he increased incarceration rates for Blacks, intensified deportations of immigrants, exacerbated economic inequality (saving the banks in 2009 but abandoning renters and homeowners), prolonged and even expanded Middle Eastern military occupations, and compromised on health care for the uninsured–all the while being praised by many as a champion of liberal values! (13)
A New Intersectionality? Anti-Militarism and Social Justice? Anti-imperialism and Class War?
Messner demonstrates new intersectional links between Black Lives Matter (BLM), and both VFP and About Face. In 2020, About Face called for “national guard troops to stand down” and to “refuse to help in suppressing righteous protest demanding racial justice” (quoted in Messner 87). Such efforts that effectively call for mutinous actions by active duty troops carry enormous revolutionary potential. Troops who refuse to carry out orders to fire either on international populations or mass protests within the U.S., are committing the first steps in revolutionary strategy. If/when Neoliberalism’s hegemony crumbles, and it no longer has significant consent of the governed (particularly in urban America), make no mistake, that it will resort to violent methods (i.e. fascism). Electoral politics and democratic bromides will be replaced by overt state tyranny. Further, a critical question arises. Will this new intersectionality link fascistic state-sponsored racism at home with imperialist war abroad—the twin stratagems of capitalism’s dominance. Will it come to pass that a new movement against capitalism itself will emerge? The potential is there.
Messner notes the charge against Marxism of economic determinism, and that “intersectional praxis presses social movements beyond the confines of linear, reductionist thinking…” (131). Some non-Marxist intersectionality advocates argue that “vulgar” Marxists have smugly asserted that class revolution will solve all other oppressions. Of course, it will not. A revolution in culture in every sphere is also needed. We need to ruthlessly criticize all that exists. Do revolutionary Marxists have an uneven track record? (14) Of course! We all carry the biases and predilections from the past. As historical materialists, we understand that it could not be otherwise. However, we attempt to scrutinize and reflect, and to remove the obstacles from our collective consciousness.
Michael Messner’s Unconventional Combat opens up a robust and dynamic set of issues to address. His text exhibits succinct, jargon free prose, scrupulous academic research, and a conscientious regard for his own position of privilege; it is a thought-provoking, welcome addition to the resistance literary canon. His interviews reveal heart breaking suffering but also resistance mindsets—his profiled individuals have been battered and bruised but mostly carry on. In that regard, they are heroic. Can they persevere? Can they make a genuine difference? Only if wokers of the world unite against capitalism. Only if they join us, and we join with them in our mutual struggle.
- For an excellent overview of Vietnam era soldiers who broke ranks and mutinied against their imperialist mission, see David Cortright’s classic Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War, Haymarket Books, 2005. Fully aware of the implications of those large-scale mutinies, Cortright notes parallels to the Bolsheviks’ strategy of “Turn the Guns Around,” which proved to be a major component of the Russian Revolution’s 1917 success. To be sure, neither Messner himself nor his profiled vets are revolutionaries or Marxists. Still, they bring a profound critique worthy of our close examination.
- See Guys Like Me: Five Wars, Five Veterans for Peace, Rutgers Univ Pr. 2019. VFP represents an umbrella of views and political ideologies. As a mass organization, its primary politics have been liberal and pacifist. However, militants, socialists, and communists enhanced its ranks in the early 2000s when VFP had its largest membership. Messner cites membership data showing VFP peaked in 2005-06 with perhaps 10,000 activists, but by 2020, its numbers had dropped to about 3000. Unfortunately, as its numbers dwindled, VFP politics moved to the center.
While Messner focuses on VFP and About Face, Courage to Resist, led by Jeff Paterson has also done much excellent work. Notably, Paterson played a critical role in the lengthy and arduous legal defense of transgender whistle blower, Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning). See www.couragetoresist.org. Messner does note that Stephen Funk, one the six individuals profiled, worked with Courage to Resist.
- “Intersectionality” has gained much academic status in recent decades. It avoids “siloing” of one-issue struggles, and clusters oppressive identities, with a tendency to level or equate the oppressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, and “classism.” Messner traces its roots primarily to authors Patricia Hill Collins and Kimberle Williams Crenshaw. He also quotes Audre Lorde’s famous statement in a 1980 speech: “As a forty-nine-year-old Black lesbian feminist socialist mother of two, including one boy, and a member of an interracial couple, I usually find myself a part of some group defined as other, deviant, inferior, or just plain wrong” (quoted in Messner 8). Also, see Ange-Marie Hancock’s, Intersectionality: An Intellectual History, Oxford U Pr. 2016.
- In a note, Messner clarifies his usage of the term LGBTQ2s: “To the more common umbrella term LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer), I purposefully include the term “2s” to be inclusive of “Two Spirit.” He notes that before the 1990s, anthropologists commonly used the now rejected term “Berdache” to refer to a third or even fourth gender category among some Native American peoples. LGBTQ has now become widely used, albeit with “Q” being the most open-ended. “Queer,” developed from meaning strange or different to a derogatory slur against homosexuals in the 20th The “Q” can also mean “questioning” or “liberating oneself” from all gender/sexual categories. See www.lgbtqnation.com for a useful overview of this very fluid concept. In the recent Olympics, U.S. female shot-putter, Raven Saunders crossed her arms above her head at the victory ceremony and declared that “It’s the intersection where all people who are oppressed meet.” Saunders also declared she identifies as LGBTQIA+. The “I” means intersexual and the “A+” can mean either asexual or allies.
- Stars and Stripes remains the primary military daily read by military personnel and has existed in its current form since World War I. See R.F.M. Williams, “The Warrior problem and the American Veteran,” Stars and Stripes, July 2, 2021.
- For a useful overview of video games and war culture see Marcus Schulzke, “Rethinking Military Gaming: American Army and Its Critics,” Games and Culture: A Journal of Interactive Media, Vol 8, Issue 2, 59-76, March 1 2013.
- See Matthew Hoh, “Was it Just? America and her Suicidal Combat Veterans,” Counterpunch, July 9, 2021. Hoh worked with the State Department but resigned his commission when Obama escalated the Afghan war. Hoh is on the Advisory Board for Veterans for Peace. See also the Watson Institute’s excellent firstname.lastname@example.org for valuable data. Incredibly, recent polls show that 42% of the American voting public does not know the wars are still being fought!
- See the extraordinary 2006 film, The Ground Truth: After the Killing Ends, directed by Patricia Foulkrod (Focus Pictures). Read Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan: Eye Witness Accounts of the Occupations, by Iraq Veterans Against the War and Aaron Glantz, Haymarket Books, 2008. Also, on the profound feelings of guilt and despair in post combat veterans, see Dahr Jamail’s The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, Haymarket Books, 2009. Most recently, Daniel Hale, US Air Force vet was sentenced to forty-five months in prison for leaking information to a journalist that showed innocent civilians being killed despite claims to the contrary by then-President Obama. Courage to Resist documents Daniel Hale’s case.
- See Melinda Wenner Moyer’s “’A Poison in the System: The Epidemic of Military Sexual Assault,” New York Times Magazine, August 3, 2021.
- According to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), as of July, 2021, the U.S. war budget is $778 billion. The next eleven countries combined have a total of $761 billion. In order of spending, they are China, India, Russia, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, Germany, France, Japan, South Korea, Italy, and Australia.
- For an excellent overview of Lenin’s views and those of Bolsheviks, Alexandra Kollantai, Nadezhda Krupskaya, and the German Communist Clara Zetkin, see Joe Pateman, “V. I. Lenin on the ‘Woman Question’” Science and Society, 85, 3, July 2021, 302-331. Note also that the Bolsheviks were quite open about homosexuality and did not forbid or outlaw it.
- See Barbara Foley, “Intersectionality: A Marxist Critique,” Science & Society, 82:2, April 2018, 269-75. Foley makes a compelling distinction between oppression and exploitation. Oppression’s many forms must be exposed and considered, but working class unity and struggle are critical for qualitative social change (revolution). Oppression clarifies an individual’s pain and suffering, but exploitation clarifies the mass class action needed to overthrow the oppressors/exploiters.
- See Ange-Marie Hancock’s, Intersectionality: An Intellectual History, 6. Hancock’s recent book on intersexuality documents the confusion of downplaying class over ethnic and gender identities. At a Democratic National Committee fund raiser in 2013, Michelle Obama was heckled by Get Equal, an LBGT group, and her response was criticized by the anti-war group, Code Pink. Code Pink was in turn criticized for stereotyping the First Lady as the “angry Black woman.” Obama was clearly part of the imperialist war machine and thus was fair game for protesters. However, intersectionality advocates who privilege gender and race over class, too easily align themselves with wealthy elites.
- For an informative overview of the CPUSA’s position on homosexuality, see Normon Markowitz, “The Communist Movement and Gay Rights: The Hidden History,” Political Affairs August 6, 2013. That history is uneven. While the Bolsheviks did not outlaw or prevent homosexuality, the line changed later in the Soviet Union. The famous case of CPUSA member, Harry Hay, sheds light on these discussions. Harry Hay was a CPUSA member and also a practicing homosexual. He resigned from the party at least partly to avoid bringing the wrath of the state upon the CPUSA. According to Markowitz, the party’s position in the late 1940s and 1950s denied homosexuals membership as it was believed they represented a security risk, in which they could be arrested for illegal sexual activity, become compromised, be subject to blackmail, and subsequently betray the party.
Roger Marheine taught English at Pasadena City College and is now retired. His interests include war culture and resistance literature.