Few writing workshops could be more poignant, or meaningful, than those held by Iraq Veterans Against the War. The group was founded in July 2004 to protest what its members perceive as a war “based on lies and deception” — nine other reasons for opposition can be found at www.ivaw.org. Now there are more than 800 members in 48 states, including Vermont, from all branches of the military.
Demonstrations and public talks help IVAW “speak truth to power,” but some of its members have also chosen a quieter means of enlightening the American people: by writing the real story of war. Make that multiple, firsthand, “boots on the ground” stories from men and women who have survived to tell them.
In January 2007, “Warrior Writers” workshops began, facilitated by Philadelphia-based editor Lovella Calica with the help of local Iraq vet Drew Cameron and Aaron Hughes of Chicago. The first such workshop was in New York City — another in Burlington in April featured readings and performances. Short, powerful pieces of prose and poetry from the first session were published in a 30-page chapbook entitled Warrior Writers: Move, Shoot and Communicate. Locally the book, which Calica dubbed “a weapon against war,” has been sold through the Peace & Justice Store and Speeder & Earl’s coffee shops; it’s also available on IVAW’s website.
A brand-new volume from IVAW contains “everything that has been written since that workshop” in Burlington, says Cameron, who notes, “This is a continuing project.” Warrior Writers: Re-Making Sense is a much larger — 208 pages — and more ambitious collection of writing, photographs and artwork. Forty-one vets from across the country are represented, plus one from Australia. Cameron himself contributed 10 pieces, including an essay entitled “Living Without Nikki,” about an essential component of his uniform in Iraq: an “M16A2 gas-powered magazine-fed rifle with an M203 grenade launcher.” An excerpt:
Nikki was her name. They encouraged us to develop a relationship with our rifles. Our rifle is our companion, an extension of our bodies that defines our effectiveness as a soldier, a methodically trained killer. She was always within reach. In my hands at the ready when I was on missions, one in the chamber, ready to switch from safe to semi-automatic. A few pounds of pressure on the trigger to let her speak.
The piece concludes: I don’t like guns anymore, but I still miss Nikki.
Warrior Writers: Re-Making Sense was printed in Barre, Vermont — “We could not have done it without the help of L. Brown and Sons,” Cameron says. And, he points out, it’s printed on Forest Stewardship Council-certified paper with soy-based inks.
That’s an important detail to Cameron, 26, who makes paper himself — including a variety incorporating discarded military uniforms, called “Combat Paper.” The former sergeant in field artillery served six years in the Army, including a nine-month tour of duty in Iraq. Now a University of Vermont student majoring in forestry, Cameron is also director of The Green Door Studio in Burlington’s Howard Space, an artists’ collective where he teaches paper workshops. Examples of his Combat Paper can be seen at the Green Door and on the studio’s website, and some will also appear in an upcoming exhibit in Rhode Island entitled “Experiencing the War in Iraq,” Cameron says. Along with other vets, he’ll soon be heading to the West Coast to lead more workshops, which will result in more collections of artwork and writing.
And, apparently, more catharsis. “Both the paper making and the writing really is what keeps me grounded, what keeps me going,” Cameron says. “It helps to deal with the past but to move on from it.” He suggests, too, that reading the Warrior Writers compilations can help others “have a new relationship with ‘support our troops.’” The stereotypic soldier may be “happy and patriotic,” Cameron says, “but if you take the time to really listen to a veteran, there’s a different side than the façade.”