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As my last post indicated, I served in the Army, first as a combat engineer, then as a deep-sea diver. 

It was an intensely focused and practical time. We learned the best way to do certain things and then got them done, no matter what. It gave me the money to go to college, and I had many friends and experiences that affected me deeply and shaped who I am. If you’ve served in a certain kind of military unit, many other organizations, military and civilian, often seem lackadaisical, uncaring, predatory, or not to have much of a point. This may have been one of the hardest adjustments on my return to civilian life decades ago.

When Wes Clark, Jr., son of the famous general, put out a call at the start of November for veterans to converge on Standing Rock, North Dakota, to act as “human shields” for those protecting the water and land, more than 2,000 responded. The reasoning used by Clark and his co-organizer, Michael A. Wood, Jr., that veterans had sworn to protect the country from enemies foreign and domestic, felt tenuous at best. The pipeline corporation was a declared enemy? (Interesting idea, and maybe it can, if it can be considered a person.) And unlike Marines, who won’t respond to “former Marine” or “ex-Marine,” most veterans of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard tend not to walk around saying things in present tense like: “I’m a soldier,” or, "I am a sailor." That service was in the past.

Besides, there are many pipelines in the US—2.4 million miles of them, actually—and many used for petroleum have already leaked. There are many ongoing protests around the country against other pipelines, other industrial dangers, and even the government’s right to govern or manage land. 

But something in this case got vets moving toward Standing Rock, in the winter, when they didn’t go by the thousands to help those peckerwoods in Oregon. Since the reasons vets went are complicated and multivarious, let’s start with the idea of utility, purpose, and camaraderie. 


The standoff in Standing Rock, North Dakota, between Native American water protectors (as they wish to be called) and the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) with its militarized law enforcement and private guards has only recently been much in the national news. The permit for DAPL was pulled by the Army Corps of Engineers this week. Both were accomplished in part due to Clark’s odd efforts. For now anyway, those efforts have brought some good results for the Oceti Sakowin Camp, the People of the Seven Council Fires, an alliance of seven tribes commonly called Sioux.

DAPL, owned by Dakota Access, LLC, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners, is a $3.78 billion project that will carry nearly half a million barrels of crude oil per day from northwest North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois, 150 miles east of St. Louis. The company had to get easements through four states for the line. There was much opposition—74% of Iowans disliked the use of eminent domain to force the line through—but the pipeline is nearly complete. The Army Corps of Engineers “fast-tracked” approval for water crossings, including at the Missouri River.

If you ever needed proof of systemic racism in these our United States—just in case you’re not yet convinced—the good people of Bismarck (92.4% white) didn’t want the black snake, as the Oceti Sakowin call the pipeline, upstream of their drinking water supply, so the company ran it down through land ceded to the Sioux in the Treaties of Fort Laramie of 1851 and 1868. My friend Matt, with whom I’ve just returned from Standing Rock, says the original route was a logistical problem for the company: “Not enough brown people,” he says. 

There are also possible legal objections based on the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and the 1996 Executive Order on Indian Sacred Sites.

In April of this year, the Oceti Sakowin established a camp near the Missouri River crossing site, on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, a sacred place with burial hills. When the Oceti Sakowin and their allies began to protest construction, it didn’t take long for the county sheriff and his deputies, along with gung-ho cops from around the country, and the company’s Pinks—Pinkerton-like private armies—began gunpoint capitalism. In addition to being arrested, often in violation of their rights, people were water-cannoned, maced, pepper-sprayed, tear-gassed, flash-banged, shot (sometimes at point-blank range, it’s said) with rubber bullets, and had dogs and a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) deployed against them. We’ve all seen the photos of armored military vehicles standing in reserve; concertina wire; barricades; helicopters and spotter planes. Many reporters, protestors, and veterans at Standing Rock have said they’ve been in conflicts all over the world and that this has been a particularly bad scene. Bull Connor is invoked.

Welcome to the United States at the opening bell of the Trump market. What’s been building in this country, even through the Obama era, from racial discrimination, economic disparity, mass incarceration, privatized prisons, and militarized police forces, will now come to full rotten bloom in the Trump era and be more widely acknowledged for its stink. (See this video that captures the building fear and paranoia in America.) In that, I think Standing Rock is an important event. 


Matt Snow, father, combat veteran of Afghanistan, PhD candidate in sociology at Northwestern, did his undergrad where I teach. He has social genius, and once people are in his life they don’t easily fall away. I’m lucky to be among them. Because he’s in Chicago now and I’m in Louisiana, much of our keeping-up is by Facebook. Matt curates his page tirelessly, and I could see things begin to cook in him as the Standing Rock issue came to a head after DAPL lied about using water cannons on people in freezing temperatures.

November 21: A photo meme with something burning in the street at Ferguson asks, “Why can’t they protest peacefully?” It’s followed by a photo of Kobe in an “I can’t breathe” shirt and the caption “Not like that”; the cast of Hamilton at the Pence attendance (“Not like that”); and Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem (“Not like that”).

November 22, 4:53 pm, a repost of Dan Rather: “Now is a time when none of us can afford to remain seated or silent. We must all stand up to be counted. History will demand to know which side were you on. This is not a question of politics or party or even policy. This is a question about the very fundamentals of our beautiful experiment in a pluralistic democracy ruled by law.”

November 22, 4:59 pm, repost of a Business Insider article about the Veterans for Standing Rock “deployment.” Matt added: “Something something veterans something something jobs... none of my business, tho.... (since contemporary social norms demand I control for other people's perceptions and prevent inferences through an elaborate series of disclaimers that inhibit actual communication: this does not confirm or deny support for dapl, trump, Clinton, nazis, big business, jokes or seriousness)”

November 22, 6:47 pm: “Anyone interested? I think I'm gonna go. 1) Gotta be the guy you want your kids to be. 2) What good is being a sacred cow if you're not daring people to kick your head in? 3) And how will history remember you? If anyone's interested, vet or not, shoot me a message or text.”

I hadn’t thought of going, hadn’t even heard of Clark’s group until Matt brought it to my attention, but I already had questions about Standing Rock from spotty media reports. Why did the indigenous people think they had a case? Why didn’t the Corps commit to a firm decision and enforce it? Where was Obama, who was said to be worried about his legacy? Did Trump sell his interests in companies involved in this project or not? And, now, what was this connection between veterans and the pipeline movement, and what did they all hope to achieve? 

I understood the Native Americans’ motives. Vets’ motives, going by social media chatter, were not uniform and often conflicted. Environmentalism, indigenous causes, anti-corporatism, anti-government libertarianism; others were looking more directly for trouble and hoped to serve somehow with skills and experience they couldn’t use as aging civilians. Matt made as much sense to me as anyone, when he said the water protectors were getting it bad from a corporate army, with more streaming in from all over the country. He said those guys were the type who got their rocks off keeping people in line, that it wasn’t even most of their fight, and he was just the guy to step between them and the prayer circles and take their abuse. 

On November 24, Matt reposted an article from Time that reported the serious injury of a young woman who had part of her arm blown away by a concussion grenade while protesting DAPL. 

“Do you want veterans?” Matt posted. “Cause this is how you get veterans. 1200 registered [for Veterans for Standing Rock] so far. I promise flash bangs will not do what you want them to do when 1200 dudes with PTSD are gathered in one spot wearing body armor.” 

I joined the Facebook group for Veterans for Standing Rock. Some of the vets were older, some had served in non-combat roles, others were hoo-rah or scary secretive types, but in any case there was much talk of body armor and cups and gas masks and ear protection. When we talked about the growing Oceti Sakowin camp and the government’s threats to abolish it by any means, Matt said this veterans’ event, if successful, could be a template for all people to use.

The week before the event was fluid, as they say. In my mind I had committed to go, but I was waiting to see if something would deflate politically, or if bad weather would give vets a reason to back out. One day it looked as if it would go that way, which would mean wasted airfare, rental car, cold weather gear, food, protective gear, etc. The next day it looked as if the state and feds would drive out thousands of people from the Oceti Sakowin camp on a date weirdly chosen by North Dakota’s governor to coincide with the vets’ arrival. This timing would pit the Morton County Sheriff’s Department, DAPL security forces, and the National Guard against the Native American camp and their allies, including some 2,000 American veterans. There were inevitable comparisons to everything from Wounded Knee to the Bonus Army March. Communication was poor; Wes Clark apologized on video for disappearing for a week. 

I began packing one of my old duffles, as if for a real deployment. (There’s an art to stuffing one as tight as a sausage.) For years after I got out of the army I had mild nightmares of being too out of shape to patrol or swim, and now here I was, nearly twice as old as my traveling companions, with a recently-torn hamstring. I couldn’t even run.

As Matt put it, all of this would be a lose-lose for DAPL. If they allowed the protest to happen peacefully, social media would record it as a triumph for the people. If the company unleashed violence, it would be a PR nightmare. Not everyone saw it that way. Conservative Facebook friends pimped Matt about burning gas to drive to protest a pipeline. He’s from Waco and says some of his Facebook friends are the worst of the regional conspiracy theorists, so: “I survived Jade Helm and all I got was this tinfoil hat,” he taunted his troll.

On the night before I left for Chicago to meet Matt and other veterans to convoy to North Dakota, I thought of how Standing Rock was a symptom, a start. Of what? 

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