A U.S. Air Force veteran who confronted former Vice President Joe Biden over his Iraq War record in March during the Democratic primary is demanding that President Trump stop using a dated viral video of the incident to “misconstrue it” as a gesture of support for the president.
Michael Thurman, 32, is an active member of the anti-war veterans’ organization About Face: Veterans Against The War (formerly called Iraq Veterans Against the War). He says it has been “very stressful” and “disconcerting” to see the Trump administration “using veterans as props for their own political gain against the wishes of those veterans, myself included. That’s beyond wrong.”
On Super Tuesday, Thurman confronted Biden at a diner in Oakland, California, where the former vice president was making a campaign stop. In a video that has since gone viral, Thurman can be heard saying to Biden, “We are just wondering why we should vote for someone who voted for a war and enabled a war that killed thousands of our brothers and sisters, countless Iraqi civilians.”
Joe Biden not only voted to authorize the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, but played a lead role in convincing Democrats and the public to support the war. According to Thurman, the confrontation was part of a larger effort among his organization to highlight the importance of anti-war positions in the presidential election.
In the video, Thurman said to Biden, “You enabled that war and you also gave a medal to a man who caused that war. This blood is on your hands as well. You are disqualified sir, you are disqualified. My friends are dead.” Thurman was referencing Biden’s presentation of the Liberty Medal to George W. Bush and Laura Bush in November 2018.
Biden can then be heard saying that his son Beau, who served in Iraq for a year, was also dead, before walking away as Thurman said, his voice raised, “My brothers and sisters died in Iraq and Afghanistan. He enabled that to happen. He is disqualified.”
On September 6, Donald Trump Jr. shared the video on Twitter, writing, “Wow, an Air Force vet calls Biden out for voting for the Iraq War.” President Trump then retweeted his son’s post on September 7.
Thurman worries that viewers will think the video captures an incident that happened recently, rather than during the Democratic primary campaign. Thurman says, “This was treated by Donald Trump Jr. like it just happened. The video was posted on Super Tuesday.” His concern that viewers might misinterpret the video as an expression of support for Trump, due to the president’s boosting, prompted Thurman to release his own video statement condemning the president.
Thurman told In These Times that important nuance did not come across in the video. At one point, during the confrontation, Thurman said to Biden as the latter was walking away, “Trump is more anti-war than Joe Biden.”
Thurman explains that in the hectic moment of confronting a national politician, it can be difficult to express complexity. He says he was trying to highlight the problem of bipartisan support for wars, and attempting to make the point that Biden, at the time, was to the right of the Democratic field when it comes to war and militarism. “I thought most of the other Democrats had a better record than Biden,” he explains. “I was more for Sanders and Warren. I definitely thought that Biden was the worst one out there.”
Thurman says that, whatever his criticisms of Biden, he thinks Trump is more harmful. “I think Trump is worse than Biden,” he says. “It’s a really hard pill to swallow having to vote for Biden, but as a harm reduction approach, I feel like there is going to be less harm inflicted with Joe Biden as president than Trump.”
“This has been taken out of context and misconstrued,” says Thurman. “Trump is not anti-war. The wars that were started by George W. Bush and continued by the Obama administration, he has continued himself and expanded those wars. He has tried to foment more wars abroad with Iran, and he is fomenting a civil race war at home.”
In 2018, the Trump administration dropped a record number of bombs on Afghanistan, with 5,213 weapons released from manned and unmanned aircrafts between January and the end of September. Trump has also escalated U.S. participation in the Yemen war (initiated by the Obama-Biden administration), has overseen spikes in civilian deaths there, and has vetoed efforts to end U.S. involvement in the war. At the beginning of 2020, Trump brought the United States to the brink of direct war with Iran when his administration assassinated Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force and a ranking official of Iran. Trump also withdrew the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, popularly known as the Iran nuclear deal, and imposed devastating “maximum pressure” sanctions on the country.
Thurman says he is concerned that Trump’s sharing of his video is part of a larger effort to falsely brand the president as anti-war. Trump has appeared to be on a spree of spreading anti-war sentiments, recently retweeting a tweet by the journalist Glenn Greenwald which notes that, in his farewell address, former President Dwight D. Eisenhower “had 16 minutes on TV to warn Americans of what he thought they most needed to know, and used it primarily to emphasize the dangers of Pentagon growth, weapons spending, and the threats of Endless War.”
In remarks made at the White House on September 7, Trump presented himself as an opponent of the military-industrial-complex. “I’m not saying the military’s in love with me — the soldiers are, the top people in the Pentagon probably aren’t because they want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy,” he said.
In fact, Trump has overseen bloated military budgets, a buildup in nuclear weapons, and the appointment of former defense industry lobbyists like Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to top positions in his administration.
Thurman, who served in an intelligence wing of the Air Force stateside, says he became a conscientious objector in 2008 “after I was exposed to things in my service I couldn’t conscientiously be a part of anymore.” A San Francisco - Bay Area resident, Thurman is asking for Trump to immediately stop sharing the video.
“Donald Trump and his administration,” says Thurman, “is the embodiment of everything we oppose as we fight for a more just, peaceful and free world.”
Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times. She tweets at @sarahlazare.