“My biggest fear was the war was gonna be over before I was seventeen,” Michael Patterson says, laughing. Patterson decided to enlist when he was just eleven years old, in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Today is his twenty-seventh birthday. His concern from almost two decades ago, that he might never get to fight in a war that now seems destined to last forever, feels impossibly quaint, innocent, and naive. There is little of those qualities left in any of the four people seated around the table.
They are four members of the Veterans Working Group, out for a celebratory dinner after a long day spent alongside more than one thousand members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), who gathered this past August in a crowded University of Illinois at Chicago convention hall for the organization’s biennial national convention. The convention is the site of the organization’s regular elections for positions in the national leadership, in addition to votes, debates, resolutions, and speeches.
Despite the weekend’s procedural tedium, the convention hall hummed with energy, which periodically coalesced around a single point. At times, it found a target and became hostile. More often, it overflowed into exuberant chants and songs. Over the last year, DSA has blossomed into the largest socialist organization the United States has seen in decades, and the enthusiasm among the members assembled was palpable.
The 2016 election ushered in a new moment for the long-dormant US left. DSA—the product of a 1982 merger between the New American Movement and the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee—has spent decades waiting in the wings of American politics for such an opportunity, and is now determined to capitalize on it. New chapters are springing up across the country, and by the convention, every state had at least some level of active DSA organization.
While the organization began to grow alongside Senator Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) campaign in the 2016 Democratic primaries, it exploded in the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s stunning general election victory. On the eve of the election, the organization boasted about eight thousand dues-paying members. By the time of the convention in August, that number had more than tripled to over twenty-five thousand, and it has since continued to grow.
The solidarity on display within the convention hall did not always extend outside of it. On the one hand, delegates made a running joke of the two hard-line Trotskyists selling news sheets for a quarter each, loudly decrying DSA, Bernie Sanders, and Jeremy Corbyn alike as neoliberal sell-outs. On the other, there was a clear hostility towards institutions like the Democratic Party, which speakers suggested should only be engaged with via a hostile takeover by the sort of left-wing candidates DSA supports.
Most new members cited either the Bernie Sanders campaign or the election of Donald Trump when asked why they joined DSA, but often there was an additional factor. For some, like the roughly seventy members of the DSA Veterans Working Group, that extra push came from what might seem an unlikely source: their military service.
While many DSA members started on the left and simply moved further in that direction over the last year, all four members of the Veterans Working Group interviewed by the Gate over their celebratory dinner said they—as one member put it—“went from being a conservative straight to socialism.” The US military is widely considered to lean right, and, to some extent, rightly so. The four members we spoke to were no exception to this until, suddenly, they were. What accounts for their radicalization? And why did they undergo such a rapid transition from conservative to socialist?
To answer the second question, it’s worth considering some of the ideological differences between groups like DSA and the Democratic Party. The terms “left” and “liberal” have gained traction in describing the distinction—although, as Emmett Rensin (AB ‘12) pointed out to the Gate, this obscures the fact that DSA would be more aptly described as “left-liberal;” i.e., non-authoritarian. The left clearly expresses the view that a return to the pre-Trump status quo would be not only insufficient but pernicious, masking underlying problems. In contrast, many liberals pine openly for the days of Barack Obama and the almost-presidency of his chosen successor, Hillary Clinton. In the liberal view, Stephen Colbert’s recent diagnosis that “Trump isn’t the symptom, he’s the disease” is broadly correct. For the left, Trump is only the symptom; the rot extends much deeper than a single president.
It makes sense, then, that a veteran attempting to address what they see as extreme problems (which they experienced regardless of which party held the White House) would agree with the more radical analysis offered by the left. The struggles they have experienced and witnessed are not tied to one political party but to both, and moreover to the system both parties represent. “We all recognize how intricately wrapped up into capitalism the military is,” explained Amber Mathwig, the original member of the group, a Navy veteran, and a DSA member since 2015.
Mathwig’s radicalization came during a tumultuous period after she left the military and went to graduate school. She decided to speak out about her experience as a victim of rape during her time in the military. “I got into sexual assault advocacy, which got me looking into more women’s issues, which got me looking into the military structure and why all of this stuff happened ... somewhere between all of that I got super radicalized. I was like, our system is fucked up, the way the military functions—violence has to happen in the interpersonal relationships in the military in order to make the larger violence that the military commits okay.”
For Michael Patterson, an Alaskan who served with the army in Iraq and said he was raised “pretty Republican,” it was Chelsea Manning. The pivotal moment came when watching the “Collateral Murder” video she released, in which several unarmed civilians—including a Reuters cameraman carrying what looked like it might be a weapon but was in fact a camera—were gunned down from a helicopter. Patterson described watching the pilots “begging him to pick up the rifle so they could keep shooting 30 mm rounds at him … I used to talk like that, and I was in the barracks room in front of my friends and I just start crying … talk about an existential crisis: to be a Republican who went overseas to fight for God and country, and then I’m in my barracks room bawling because they killed some cameraman.”
Both of them faced a crisis of some sort, and concluded that a radical solution was required. Both also agreed on another point: that no one should be forced to undergo the same experiences as them, even for access to the expansive welfare state provided for current and former members of the military. “I’ve thought of it as this really comfortable cocoon, where you’re insulated from everything,” said Tim Hardin, another DSA member who served in the army for twelve years, explaining that he was “entirely unaffected” by the 2008 financial crisis. Mathwig, who used her VA loans to buy a house during the Great Recession, said, “It would be fabulous if everyone in our society got that same [support system].” But where conservatives (including, perhaps, their younger selves) might respond that those benefits are not deserved but earned through service, these socialists disagree: “You shouldn’t have to risk death to get a free education or healthcare,” argues Hardin.
All of these veterans became socialists either during or shortly after their service. Mathwig explained, “We are veterans and we are socialists because these experiences don’t match the popular conversation around what the military is and who serves in the military.” But just because they’ve moved left doesn’t mean everyone has. As one member of the Veteran’s Working Group recounted, conservative family and friends “have not reacted super well” to her ideological transition.
As difficult as these disagreements can become with family, they may be even more complicated when fellow veterans try to come to grips with their former comrades-in-arms’ new, well, comrades. Patterson described the experience: “It’s way more intimate than ‘I just disagree with you,’ because in the military, even the guy I hated the most in my unit, if we were downrange, I’d still jump on a grenade for him. I’d be so pissed off about it … but I still would have done that. But then you disagree so vastly on the political spectrum, it feels like a betrayal on either end … it’s something I don’t really like. But I still want to be free.”
As with family, there’s a connection between fellow veterans that cannot be easily broken. After facing enormous adversity together, it can be difficult to reconcile deep political differences. Mathwig struggled to deal with a former shipmate of hers who began to engage aggressively with her and her radical friends on Facebook. She explained to him that she wasn’t obligated to respond to his loaded questions, but, “‘That doesn’t change how I feel about you as my friend who was with me during a very tough period of time in my life.’ And he understood that.”
They also don’t feel hostility toward fellow veterans who retain the ideology they once shared. They all described their previous immersion in pro-military, often nationalist and anti-Arab propaganda as major influences in their decisions to enlist (second only to economic pressure and the relative financial stability available through enlistment). Within the military, and subject to the constant exhaustion it induces, Mathwig said, “You can’t see the system that you’re in. It’s really hard, especially when that system provides so much for you.”
What they witnessed, experienced, and did during their service left them with more hard questions than answers. Socialism, it seems, provides at least some of the answers they sought. And although the camaraderie within DSA may not be the same as that within the armed forces, there are some parallels between socialist solidarity and military fraternity, particularly in the veteran-oriented space they’ve carved out for themselves (where “we’re used to having this common mission … [and] these guys don’t care if I tell them to fuck off,” Mathwig says, playfully tapping Patterson on the shoulder).
Socialism has also given them a way to connect with the outside world as something other than a soldier or sailor. For Patterson, that was key. After years of military conditioning, he struggled to adapt to the outside world and “be a human again.” Then he participated in Occupy DC, where he began to see the outline of a new worldview. “I could be more empathetic because I could relate to people in an economic sense, because we’re all being exploited,” he said, pausing. “So yeah, I don’t know—communism made me a person again. Super weird.”
DSA, which strives to keep the “democratic” in “democratic socialism,” has also provided a model for a new organizational structure. That’s something Hardin said the military could use more of: an approach emphasizing the role of stakeholders in decision making, and a more democratic process in general. Mathwig suggests a “federalized national guard” structure, emphasizing disaster relief and humanitarian aid (but not military intervention). Currently, the power to make major decisions resides far above the heads of the ordinary service members who will bear more of their costs than any other Americans. Hardin wants that to change: “The people who wage war should have a say in what it looks like.”
The image featured in this article is taken courtesy of the author, Spencer Reed.