“We’re bringing about these extreme situations, we’re bringing about that choice where people have to respond just like in Iraq. We’re making people respond to us. The whole idea was to share that, because there was no way in our minds that people in the United States could think that an occupation was moving into a democracy, if they understood what an occupation was.”
Aaron Hughes’ is an an artist, activist, organizer, teacher, and Iraq War veteran based in Chicago. He uses these narratives in the development of projects that expose and deconstruct systems of oppression and dehumanization. He has worked collaboratively with a range of artists, veterans, activists, and art organizations and projects including Iraq Veterans Against the War, JustSeeds Artist’s Cooperative, National Veterans Art Museum, Warrior Writers, emerging Veteran Artists Movement, Dirty Canteen, and Prison & Neighborhood Arts Project.
Steve & Steve: So Steve and I, essentially one of things that interested both of us is if and how all of this activist artwork, works. Or at least we question if it works. How do you think it works? How do you think about thinking it works?
Aaron Hughes: So, starting with the “Drawing for Peace”. Well, the project came out of a very frustrated space: I was really angry that I had a friend who was going back to Iraq. So I walked into the middle of a busy intersection in Champaign, Il. where I was then going to college, and propped up a signboard that read: “I am an Iraq War Veteran. I am guilty. I am alone. I am drawing for peace.” And I just started drawing a picture of a bird on barbed wire, and drawing, and drawing and a lot of the cars kept driving by. A lot of kids kept walking by. But there were some that started and stopped. And the busses couldn’t move because I was in the middle of the street. I just wished people would stop for ten minutes and just think “we are killing people”.
Aaron Hughes: “Drawing For Peace”
We talk about dying, but our military is designed to kill people. We don’t talk about that, we don’t talk about how this changes people’s lives forever. There is no “immediation” anymore. I had this idea of how I was supposed to be in the war, all these ideas of what a soldier was. And none of that was true. There was no being a hero.
Like, I would pose in pictures to try and represent how I was helping people, I wasn’t fucking helping anyone. I kept trying to re-represent this idea of war that I had. And there is no mediation in that space, there was nothing creative, it was all about destruction. It was all about killing people, dehumanizing, destroying, and so I pinned my hope on this idea of creativity. That creativity can be this last stand in this space. Really it came down to desperation that there was nothing in this space but dehumanization. And creativity can be one hope against that.
So I changed my whole idea, I started reading different books and I wanted to be an artist. I changed my mind about the direction of my life and that creativity could be this thing that could share humanity. Because that’s what humans do, we create things, we build things, we share them and we build communities. Or continue a process of building. And that’s about creativity. About creating something we could be. And that’s what I thought art was. So I thought Gandhi was an artist. I didn’t realize there was this idea of an organizer. Anyway, I had never heard of the world organizer until I got home.
Anyway, back to “Drawing for Peace”, a cop dragged me out of the street and threw out my chalk and left. I went back into the street and there was a whole exchange.There was nothing more I could do, the traffic started going at that point.
S&S: Did you think that an effective action?
AH: I didn’t know what it was. I knew I had been all over reading the practice of everyday life. And I was like how do we stop this, how do we stop this perpetuation. I don’t know the full repercussions of it. I just know that I learned a lot. I learned that there can be some things that stops things. That there are symbols that people acknowledge and react to. And there are symbolic power structures that people react to – like that cop that stopped me from drawing. The fact that I had a uniform on, meant instead of smashing my face in like a college kid, you know he was calling me by my name. And I realized that taking direct action can have an effect, and it raises the stakes. It makes people make a choice: it made people chose between looking at me and seeing me and choosing to walk by. And if they chose to walk by that was on them. But at least I am here on the street, and people have to chose. I think putting people in a space where they have to chose is really important.
S&S: Why is that?
AH:We’re making false choices. When we chose between how to consume, we choose between mediated bullhshit. Even recognizing a real life event is hard for us because it is not mediated. There is all this literature about the first Gulf War and how it was mediated. And that soldiers would come home and didn’t know anything about the war until they watched in on CNN. And that’s where we are at as a culture, we don’t know what we’ve done until we see it on CNN. And that can take me into “Operation First Casualty”.
S&S: So how did it begin?
AH: It began at a bar. After the January 27th march, UFPJ [United for Peace and Justice] march – it was completely ineffective. There was a huge organization making a huge mess of a march on a weekend with no politicians around. There is nothing at stake but we got to voice our frustration and some crazy conservative people got to yell at us about how we were anti-American and bullshit.
S&S: Might I ask why that is ineffective? You had all those people out…
AH:Well nobody has to choose shit. Nothing is at stake. I went to a march after I got home in 2005, and I was so fucking pissed because everyone went home and slept in a fucking bed. You want to end a war? If you want to end a war you have to be willing to fight as hard as the people who are working to make the war happen. And they are willing to not sleep, or sleep in the shittiest places. They are willing are willing to not sleep for days and months. And we are saying we’re going to end the war by doing a march on a Saturday afternoon. Like, go back to your bourgeoisie fucking life. Drink your Starbucks in line, you know? You are not accomplishing anything right now. You are not putting any power structure in a space of question. It needs a space for question. We were pissed off after the march.
S&S: Why don’t you stand out and try to get people to sign a petition?
AH: It burns people out. The Green Peacer’s and all that shit that stand on corners, you have really good organizations that could be cultivating communities and building up real organizational strength within a small area instead of them running around and trying to get everyone to sign this paper. In the end it adds up to very little political weight and you’ve burnt this person out for the rest of their life.
S&S: So, Aaron, You’re back in the bar, you’re doing karaoke…
AH:We’re sitting around talking about how ineffective the march was and that we need to do something more to end the war. It was Garett Reppenhagen, Geoff Millard, and myself. We had an understanding that we had symbolic power.
S&S: What do you mean by symbolic power?
AH: The military sells a grand future about how you can be a hero, and our culture perpetuates that. Since WWII that’s the root of the military-industrial complex, that shit. That myth—fucking John Wayne. Because of that, we have power. That’s what we’re fighting, that myth, but simultaneously that myth has given us power. When we do talk about the people we’ve lost or situations around that, it’s never about the fact that we’re killing people and what the collateral damage to women and children and old people, who are clearly noncombatant, is. We wanted to bring that to the table, acknowledging words about dehumanization.
The ideas as we went around the table: Why is the media going to come out and watch that? And we were talking a lot about the media at the time, we wanted to be in the media. Anytime the media would talk about the war, we wanted them to have to talk to us —talk to a fucking veteran. Even a pro-war veteran, there’s nothing they can say that’s going to humanize a war.
So, I was like why don’t we do a patrol like that in the city? A short patrol, but every action we do is in front of a news outlet or a major capital or a major government building. And we’re going to do it in front of rush hour. And we started having a conversation about how we were going to do this, the logistics of it. We’re sitting around the table, and I was like what about the weapons? I was so fucking scared that we were going to be carrying around pink water guns.
S&S: Why were you scared of that?
AH: Why was I scared of carrying around pink fucking water guns? Because it becomes a joke. It becomes a mock patrol. It becomes artificial.
We were real. We’re real veterans, we have our real uniforms, we have real gear, and we’re going to do real patrol.We were afraid of getting stopped but we also were afraid of getting shot. Someone else said we should have wooden guns, but I said that’s still a weapon. It still can be conceived as a weapon and we’re still going to get our asses kicked. Or that’s going to be the news article, “Veterans fight police.” If you said “Iraq Veterans Against the War fight police” we’d be winning, but that wasn’t going to be the article. It was going to be “Veterans Against Police.” We wanted our messaging, “The Occupation”, to be the article. The conversation revolved around that for a little while, and I was convinced that we didn’t need to carry anything. I stood up and I said look guys, and held up my hands like I was carrying an M16 and I pointed it at Jeff, right in his gut. Right like I was going to fucking pop one right in his gut or just scare the shit out of him. I said “HALT,” and the whole fucking bar shut down because I used that military voice. The bartender dropped the beer that she was pouring behind the bar. That was the moment we realized what we were doing.
S&S: So a real weapon wasn’t necessary. The symbol was enough.
AH: Yeah, and we were also concerned that people were going to get confused and think this was real or something and so we had everyone that was participating with us wear these white shirts and wear these pink bands. So when the police came up to us, we could say those people are with us and we’re doing street theater, and we don’t have to have a permit for it because you don’t need a permit for street theater. We got stopped every fucking place we went—Chicago, New York, DC, LA, Denver. All got stopped by cops. The first was crazy because they brought out secret service and shit. We had a whole day of practicing and we brought all of these kids that were going to do this with us, and we talked to them about what it probably meant to be an Iraqi and experience an occupation. We were talking about what it’s like to have a gun in front of your face, what it’s like to have someone smash the butt of an M16 into your back, how do people react and respond to that.
S&S: Why is that important?
Operation First Casualty. Washington, DC.
AH: We were trying to bring an occupation at home. We were trying to share that experience, because according to the media it was this very democratic process. There was the beginning of a rhetoric of how Iraqis needed to step up and take more ownership of their country. People do not understand what it’s like to be terrorized. To have a military patrolling your streets every single day. And when that military is not patrolling your streets, who else is patrolling your streets? We’re provoking that simultaneously. We’re bringing about these extreme situations, we’re bringing about that choice where people have to respond just like in Iraq. We’re making people respond to us. The whole idea was to share that, because there was no way in our minds that people in the United States could think that an occupation was moving into a democracy, if they understood what an occupation was.
S&S: Can you talk a bit about this idea that you brought up earlier, that you need people to make a choice, and that choice needs to matter.
AH: I just think it was just about showing people what this was and making them choose if they wanted this to continue. One of the things we hadn’t thought about was denial—the fact that even if this is completely laid out for people, it still doesn’t mean they’ve made the connection. We got some people who were just staring, gawking. Which I think is a really important response. I think that’s maybe the best. We also had a lot of older white males, specifically, being like “What the fuck are you people doing?” And I just remember being like, “We’re fucking veterans.”
S&S: You would say that to them?
AH: No. We had discipline. We told ourselves, one, you’re not talking to media. If you’re on a combat mission in Iraq, one, you can’t talk to media. Two, you can’t talk to civilians. The hard part is, if you’re on a combat patrol, which is a psychological space for a soldier, you’re constantly scanning and looking for targets. I wanted to fucking knock people over. I wanted to put people on the ground. That was the hardest thing, when we sat in a circle at the end of the day as a group we had a debrief. A lot of us started crying because we didn’t want to do that again, but it was a reality that we wanted to fucking kill people. We wanted to excel at killing people. We wanted to show people that that’s what our military does—it teaches people how to kill people. We have the most efficient killing machine ever prescribed. The killing rate is higher than it’s ever been per bullet. We’re proficient, you train that shit, you practice that shit. What do you think our military is doing? We don’t train democracy. That’s so vague, but that’s my message.
S&S: It seems like with “First Casualty”, one of the things you do as a soldier in a real occupation is terrify people.
AH: We were. We were trying to scare the shit out of people.
S&S: Ok, so back to the art. What did you hope would happen? I’m walking down the street and I see you guys come, what did you want me to do next?
AH: I wanted you just to think about that. That’s all. Just understand that fear. We did it at 8 o’clock, we’d wake up early as hell so we could be there at a fucking traffic hour coming out of Grand Central station and that DC train station. We scared the shit out of the cops who didn’t know what was going on. This is a little bit near September 11th stuff, and you have military doing military patrols and they don’t know what to do with that shit. That fear was all we wanted from people.
S&S: That fear causes a thought process. What happens as a result of the fear?
AH: I think the idea was that people would fear an occupation. You realize how terrifying that is, and that terror can’t be about something productive.
S&S: So what, I know that now. What do you want next?
AH: That was the problem.
S&S: Was it a problem, did you guys see that as a problem?
AH: That was something that was an issue two years ago, the idea was championed, and we thought that people would understand what the war was. We just thought it was about comprehension. Earlier tonight, you guys talked about truth. The fantasy that truth will inform us and then people will know how to act. You know what? There is no set truth—there’s a million truths out there, there’s a million different narratives of how we got to those different truths. That’s not going to make people react and we thought it would. Just because that’s how we grew up, there were truths. I grew up with truths, and that’s why I joined the military. I grew up with the mythologies of the truth of our democracy.
S&S: How did you know it didn’t change anything?
A: We can talk about the butterfly effect, but that’s not where we’re at and a lot of it has to do with the urgency. Everyday there’s kids that are participating in these wars. Our urgency was around ending that as soon as possible, and we still have this delayed effect. We supposedly elected an anti-war president. It’s hard to quantify that, although it’s real.
But more concretely, in 2008, we did “Winter Soldier” and had veterans talking about war crimes. The Department of Defense responded to us and it was written up in the Army Times so we knew that they were watching us. It was three days on Democracy Now, but we didn’t get any other press. We didn’t get any press from the New York Times, from NPR. We got international press up the wazzoo. I think it was a part of changing some of the public perspective, even if it was friends sharing with friends. But, I felt like going into the fall last year, people had heard of Iraq Veterans Against the War.
S&S: So, could that also be a way of thinking about success in this operation?
AH: Yeah. I feel like we’ve made tangible successes through the ripple effect while simultaneously it’s really painful because it’s still continuing and we haven’t ended the war. For me it’s really hard to articulate—before it was really easy, but now I don’t know how to articulate that. What I want to say is that it’s to the entire imperial interests of the United States of America but that’s obviously not going to get us anywhere.
S&S: Here you are now years later, an experienced activist, you’ve pulled out some of the best street theater things around the Iraq war, on par with Cindy Sheehan. If you want to talk about two great protests, those are the two that people talk about. What’s this coming from, this doubt of your success?
Operation First Casualty. New York, NY.
AH: I think it has a lot to do with tangible goals. We hadn’t articulated tangible goals going into “Operation First Casualty”. And we didn’t do it going into “Winter Soldier”, it was all about spectacle and media and perpetuating an idea. I feel like those things are really motivational and spark a lot of interest while simultaneously they don’t build. I feel like that’s where our organization is at. We came off of “Winter Soldier” and “Operation First Casualty” with a lot of burnout and without tangible goals for people to hang it on, like “this accomplished this.” It’s hard to quantify those successes. I’m all about pulling the stuff out if we can articulate those goals and the target too. There are people who were asking those questions when we were organizing them, but I was too into it. I was like “you don’t understand.” We had 215 veterans say “we commit war crimes, and our country doesn’t’ stop and it’s not gonna stop.” Now you’ve gotta fucking pick off those goals and move your way up. And so I guess that’s where I’m at. “Operation First Casualty” didn’t stop the machine. It wasn’t the cog. It’s a butterfly but maybe I still believe in a naive way that there is going to be a lot of branches, there’s going to be something that stops this war.
S&S: So have you abandoned that type of cultural strategy?
AH: I don’t think so. I guess I’m just thinking I’m in it for the long haul. I was reading a NYT article two or three months ago. The front of the cover was about a boy scout camp in Texas where they were training kids between 14 and 16 paramilitary skills about counterterrorism skills and one of their targets was a veteran that had gone crazy.They’re pulling 14 and 16 year olds off the street and teaching them how to hate people and how to dehumanize people and how to profile people. They’re teaching them obedience. I guess that’s where I’m at, I’m becoming more politically aware. I still haven’t read any Marx, that’s not my boat. I got home five years ago this month. Five fucking years ago I got home from Iraq. So I don’t think I’ve abandoned cultural strategy, I’ve just realized that’s one part of it. If we want to win over the hearts and minds, what is the campaign around that? How do you build some real tangible goals? How do you create a space where people feel like they’re making success so you don’t lose them after 6 months? Because we can’t keep the fight going on if we’re going to lose everybody every 6 months.
In our training and practice, we were wondering what we’d do if there were police. We decided to form up. We decided to get in a formation with our backs to backs and face outward, and we were going to have a police liaison, and that there was going to only be one person that talked to the police. Once we got surrounded by Secret Service in front of the Capital lawn. A bunch of vans, a bunch of shit. They were all coming out with their weapons and shit. And we formed up. Garrett, our designated patrol leader said “form up.” We were all back to back.They would have to come to us and take us out of that formation. They understand that this is a formation, they respect that. We were using their vocabulary, we were on the same level of them and communicating with them. We are formed up, this is where we’re at, you have to make the move. Yeah, we’re on the defensive right now but we’re fucking set.
S&S: You said you’re on the defensive, but you’re forcing people to come to you. Forcing people to make a choice, you present people with a situation where they have to make a choice and then you have some power and they have to make a decision.
AH: You have these police who are taught very specific things but they’re not taught how to deal with themselves. They’re not taught how to deal with another military force, that’s not their training. We’re forcing them to deal with something that’s as equality disciplined as they are and they have to make the choice to move forward.
S&S: Let’s talk about the choice. Is it whether to be ignorant or whether to be aware?
AH: It’s whether to be ignorant of their own structures and systems that they’re perpetuating, or to be aware of them and acknowledge that there might be a problem with it. There might be a problem with the fact that you’re not thinking about the war right now and you’re just walking to work. And that you think we are in your way, instead of realizing that we’re trying to share this with you.
S&S: So then they’re aware, they’re making this conscious choice. What happens after that?
AH: I guess that feels a lot like, at least they’ve seen what I’ve seen. I chose when I was in Iraq to stop. I feel like everybody would stop, but our social constructs are so built up. We’re so mediated. We know how to perform everything. What happens when that stops, and all of the sudden we’re not performing anymore and there’s nothing to mediate this space and you have to deal with the fact that I’m a human being and you are too.
S&S: It’s a very spiritual experience. The idea of bearing witness is super powerful.
From the War is Trauma Portfolio
AH: The media is still the spectacle. So we can rupture that shit. We can do that, but we didn’t find out how to fill the hole. We’re not going to fill that hole through media hits, because that’s just another spectacle. That’s more telling people what to think in some ways. I’m interested in creating a space for people to choose, react, or have a voice. Choose that their voice matters over something else, that their life matters over something else. Their relationship to another human being matters more than something else.
S&S: Your politics in these actions are about confrontation with humanity. You can’t do that through a spectacle or mediated relationship.
AH: But you can use that spectacle.
S&S: When you create the opportunity for them to make a choice, there’s a chance they’ll choose wrong. If you tell people what to think, then they’ll know the right thing, right?
AH: Wrong. Morally I am bankrupt, and I’m not here to tell people what choices to make. I just can’t do it. For two fucking years I didn’t say shit about the war when I got home, because I didn’t feel like I had the right to say something about it because I had just done it. I was against it, I wrote a letter to all of these people saying what I thought but I didn’t start speaking out or thinking I could have an anti war position because I was a part of it and perpetuating it.
I’m interested in mobilizing, cultivating. I don’t care what type of veteran you are, you know your experience was fucked up and it was not what fucking John Wayne showed you and you’ve got shit to say about it. And on top of that, you know you’re not getting the VA benefits you thought you were getting. Let’s go fucking get that shit, let’s go fucking end some wars, let’s go be the heroes that you think you want to be. This is a great question to pose to people: “How do you want to be a hero now that you know you’ve been mislead?” We want people’s experiences and narratives to be at the core. Whether that’s through a series of questions, through rupturing the spectacle, that’s where I’m at. Creating a space for people to think about their experiences.
S: It’s about freedom.
A: Fuck yeah it’s about freedom.
S: Being truly free, and choosing the life you want to chose minus all the mediation, minus the orders.
A: Which is the scariest thing. It’s about you being responsible for every choice you make. And other people depend upon your choices.