It get misty around here, but welcome.
All rights to the estate of Phil Ochs, and the noble man who posted this Bitter End film on his Youtube channel.
It get misty around here, but welcome.
All rights to the estate of Phil Ochs, and the noble man who posted this Bitter End film on his Youtube channel.
A journo friend of mine adapted the lyrics of the song above to mark last weekend’s explosion, as well as covering those events for Souciant. Like many who weren’t there, I feel the least i can do is reflect here/
As a super-late boomer (the Obama generation), I’ve spent much of my life feeling I missed out on something important, with the 1960s in the rear mirror. And growing up in a community drawn to the GOP by Nixon’s “southern strategy,” I knew damn well that the fight wasn’t over. In some ways, I’ve spent 40+ years trying to make up for that earlier absence.
But by 2017 I thought the evil had mutated, become more complex: reality-show propaganda (cf Jennifer L. Pozner), Army of One video games, cyberwar. It’s both bracing and more than a little depressing to see the original turn up in such a naked form. Like many of us, I spent much of yesterday glued to the news during the horrific events in Charlottesville, Virginia.
But will having to confront the coming KKK assault on campuses (Charlottesville was practice, apparently) help the Trumpaniacs get on with their big task of shredding what’s left of our civil rights and the country’s safety net? Or will it help unify the fight?
So grateful to have re-connected here with Jan Houbolt, who I first met when he was my boss at a Baltimore anti-hunger organization. I never picked up on hs VA accent, or knew he’d been a footsoldier in that earlier movement. You all look like giants now, Jan.
Also grateful for the young activists already taking up the thread and weaving it into something powerful.We lost one yesterday.
She was a 32-year-old paralegal named Heather, and was one of the young leftists who’d joined others confronting the Unite the Right rally, and was mowed down when a guy driving a Dodge Charger intentionally mowed into the crowd. At a vigil last night for her in Philly, so many were younger than she, giving me hope for the future.
I’m also heartened by the soldier-dissenters who immediately stepped up, including the Iraq/Afpak vets on Common Defense. And the Vietnam Veterans Against the War are gearing up to join the fight, offering this photo to connect with struggles of the past.
Those guys in 1972 probably sang that song about Kent State at the top of this post. I’ll end with the words of Ari Paul, who changed the lyrics for our time:
Tin soldiers and Donald’s coming,
We’re finally on our hill.
This summer I hear the drumming,
One dead in Charlottesville.
Gotta get down to it
Nazis are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?
The summer before Evan Thomas leaves the country, 1915 smells of war.
The smell sickens Thomas, a lean young man with a narrow face and alert eyes. Thomas hates living and working at the American Parish, the East Harlem immigrant settlement house pastored by his brother Norman. On every newsstand, headlines scream of battles in Europe and news from Mexico, whose unfinished revolution now includes tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers and sailors. The parish’s immigrants look on with anxiety: They don’t need English to count the European war’s twelve battle zones.
America is officially neutral in that conflict, unlike New York City. Two weeks ago a German submarine attacked the luxury liner Lusitania, leaving 43 Americans among 1153 dead – including one of New York’s own, the dashing millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt. Both tabloid and broadsheet newspapers call Germans “murderers” and demand vengeance. The city’s boy-mayor calls for “preparedness,” as if it’s possible to be prepared for hell.
Even Union Theological Seminary, where Thomas is pursuing a divinity degree, offers little respite. It clusters next to Columbia University, whose flagpoles urging students to “cherish, love and respect ….] the flag of peace and prosperity.” Both campuses mark the 1779 Battle of Harlem Heights. At the seminary, Thomas’ classmates discuss what “preparedness” will require of them.
On Memorial Day tens of thousands cram onto Riverside Drive, to see the veterans of five conflicts march uptown to the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial. Elderly Union soldiers and sailors, their uniforms carefully mended for the occasion, march past signs of the city’s growing wealth: At 74th Street, the veterans and some active-duty troops slowed as they passed Riverside, the three-block French castle built by German immigrant and steel magnate Charles Schwab. At the memorial, a Greek marble stand of Corinthian columns, the United Spanish War Veterans salute General Leonard Wood and retired Rear Admiral Sigsbee, who commanded the U.S.S. Maine when it exploded. Thomas doesn’t go across town to watch the spectacle.
A few weeks later, a similar scent suffuses Princeton, when Thomas goes down for his brother’s graduation. The site of both a 1777 battle and the 1781 Mutiny in January, his alma mater has whole rooms honoring alumni on both sides in the Civil War; at the graduation, its president tells the graduating class of the dangers of peace. If they avoid war, he says, they might lose the chance to become real men.Thomas and some fellow alumni, self-named “the Crusaders,” huddle to wonder aloud what that means for them. The group’s founder, also a Union minister, says the choice is clear: Jesus did his best to stop violence, after all. i Thomas squints into the blinding sunlight.
Thanks for the inspiration, Louisa Thomas. I hope you don’t mind how I reframed the moment you found, and wrote about in Conscience:Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family — A Test of Will and Faith in World War.
Some video reminders why this book has to exist. A simple question, posed 6 years ago by a respected journalist to an author, was already being answered Chelsea Manning, soon to be echoed by the voices of the whistleblowers above.
I discovered the first as I was reshaping – for the last time, I hope! — my World War I chapter, featuring the iconic conscientious objector Evan Thomas. His great-niece Louisa wrote a book about her family, and was interviewed by Jon Meacham below:
Watching this six years later, I was struck first by how much Thomas resembles her uncle. Then, after an engaging discussion of conscience, war and social responsibility, Meacham asks Thomas “Why does your generation not engage in this kind of dissent?” Meacham asks this despite knowing about then-Private Manning, who at that very moment was in the same prison where Evan Thomas had been tortured. (In that case, Meacham was taking the government’s side.)
Thomas’ response ignores contemporary soldier-dissenters, telling Meacham “Maybe it’s because we aren’t being forced to go to war” and suggesting that the Shark Tank crowd comprised her generation of rebels. But just as I was listening to that exchange, in my Twitter feed gave us Lisa Ling, one of those who stepped forward in Sonia Kennebuck’s documentary NATIONAL BIRD.
I can’t embed the video, but you should click on the link and watch it. Shaming that 2011 Meacham-Thomas exchange, Ling uses the phrase “poverty draft,” which I’m still astonished is not more common. As she describes her path from aspiring nurse to anguished drone operator, you can almost hear the voices of Brandon Bryant and Heather Linebaugh,both of whom honored me with interviews for Ain’t Marching.
When I’ve thought I should drop this whole project, I remember their faces and voices.
Again with the cutting-room floor — this time with a section I’d worried was superflous when I wrote it, but was irrationally seized with wondering how my two Civil War storytellers had reacted to the beginning of the 20th century.
Old Soldiers in a New Century
The morning of August 18, 1906, is seasonably hot for West Virginia; Lewis Douglass is glad to take off his shoes and walk the rest of the way.
At 66 years old, Douglass is far from the only veteran here. Among the 45 marking “John Brown Day” on the third day of the Niagara Movement’s first U.S. conference, a few other US. Colored Troops have made it, as have few “buffalo soldiers” and Philippines vets. Douglass has mostly kept quiet this week, listening as du Bois argued for hope amid the nadir of black-white relations since Emancipation: “Our enemies, triumphant for the present, are fighting the stars in their courses, but justice and humanity must prevail….We will never give up, though the trump of doom finds us still fighting.” Today, he looks away as the younger men thunder “Thank God for John Brown! Thank God for Garrison and Douglass!”
Now, as the heat rises, the crowd leaves behind their fans and parasols for the sacred walk to John Brown’s fort. Walking beside Douglass is a writer for the newspapers of Osvald Garrison Villard — grandson of the Garrison who so often hosted John Brown.. She describes carefully the now-barefoot scholars and activists singing “John Brown’s Body, ‘ just as George Garrison did with the Massachusetts 55th so many years earlier.
Before they get to the fort, someone switches the words to those Julia Ward Howe drafted for the war: He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored…” Standing in front of the aging buildings freshly trimmed of weeds, it gets louder for His truth is marching on. Douglass doesn’t mind the light morning rain.
By the time of that second Niagara meeting, Lewis Douglass had already suffered a stroke, which hadn’t quite silenced the voice that had reviled McKinley’s war. As one of the original mavericks blowing the whistle on American racism, he wasn’t prepared to let the new century repeat this original sin. Other Civil War vets were also not quite done reminding the country about that sin, and about the traumas inherent in war.
A few months after that gathering, Douglass editorialized:“Our people must die to be saved and in dying must take as many along with them as it is possible to do with the aid of firearms and other weapons.”i He was responding to a wave of lynchings – the freelance ‘executions’ of blacks by whites, often for the alleged crimes of others.ii Douglass’ war, fought against the nation’s second original sin, was nowhere near over. And like other Civil War vets , he knew he was moving against the nation’s insanely popular president, Theodore Roosevelt.
Ambrose Bierce, whose newspaper had bred the Spanish-American War, was still issuing his “War Topics” column from Washington and sniping at Roosevelt in his new book The Cynic’s Word Bookiii: “The President of the United States was born so long ago that many of the friends of his youth have risen to higher political and military preferment without the assistance of personal merit.”iv Mark Twain, who like Bierce had been invited to the White House as a national humorist, told his biographer that Roosevelt, though “perhaps the most popular man he had ever met,” was also “far and away the worst president we have ever had.” But America seemed giddy with certitude.
President Roosevelt, “the hero of San Juan Hill,” had also kept America’s international profile high, including brokering peace in 1905 between established empire Russia and the emerging colossus of Japan. Mark Twain hadn’t been impressed, calling the peace treaty the most conspicuous disaster in political history,” because Russia could now more successfully quash dissent before it turned into revolution. But most of the nation was on board, seeing it all a product of Roosevelt’s Progressive manifesto : all the world’s problems could be solved by smart people.
That Russo-Japanese treaty led to one of the very first Nobel Peace Prizes for Roosevelt, The Nation hoping that Roosevelt might “modify his own conventional ideas about the necessity of being armed to the teeth.vi” Perhaps, the magazine mused, the same Progressive energy that had built railroads could help “reliev[e] the poor of Europe from the crushing burdens of militarism.” Thus was the Spanish-American War recast in glowing terms, as a kind of pact with the future. Some of the old vets had fallen in love with the Progressive cause, which had helped doom the always-shaky Anti-Imperialist League. Twain couldn’t get his work published anymore, after his searing “To the Person Sitting in Darkness”: Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief …. for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! Twain had specifically targeted the general who’d “won the Philippines”:
Dewey could have gone about his affairs elsewhere, and left the competent Filipino army to starve out the little Spanish garrison and send it home, and the Filipino citizens to set up the form of government they might prefer, and deal with the friars and their doubtful acquisitions according to Filipino ideas of fairness and justice — ideas which have since been tested and found to be of as high an order as any that prevail in Europe or America.
We must stand ready to grab the Person Sitting in Darkness, for he will swoon away at this confession, saying: “Good God, those ‘niggers’ spare their wounded, and the Americans massacre theirs!” […..] And to show him that we are only imitators, not originators, we must read the following passage from the letter of an American soldier-lad in the Philippines to his mother, published in Public Opinion, of Decorah, Iowa, describing the finish of a victorious battle: “WE NEVER LEFT ONE ALIVE. IF ONE WAS WOUNDED, WE WOULD RUN OUR BAYONETS THROUGH HIM.”
Not surprising, perhaps, that when Twain submitted his newest antiwar essay, “The War Prayer,” to his home magazine Harper’s Bazaar, it was rejected as being unsuitable for the ladies. He didn’t even try to publish his “Comments on the Moro Massacre (March 12, 1906)”, written after 994 Filipinos were killed in a counterinsurgency operation led by U.S. Army general Leonard Wood. Twain knew that while the Philippine War was officially over, the occupation was proving just as lethal. vii
Twain’s satiric praise for General Wood alternates with headlines from U.S. newspapers: DEATH TOLL NOW NEAR 900; IMPOSSIBLE TO TELL SEXES APART IN FIERCE BATTLE OVER MOUNT DAJO. “I was never so enthusiastically proud of the flag till now!”viii He knew that this new pax Americana, this pact with the future, hadn’t been signed by those charged with enforcing it. Many of that war’s combatants, home but still in uniform, and a little worried about this new “world leader” stance.
That included some of the black “Buffalo Soldiers,” many of whom had been in Cuba with Roosevelt. Eighth Infantry chaplain and poet Charles Frederick White said so in books of blank verse; the lyrical Plea of the Negro Soldier was followed by a bitter successor The Negro Volunteer, which described both battles and foul mistreatment by white commanders.
White’s verses would have fit in well with accounts collected by W.E.B. du Bois, who’d already made dissent his life’s work; soldiers were definitely included in du Bois’ quest to change the realities that had replaced slavery for African-Americans. And his Movement, a few days after that second meeting of in West Virginia, responded en masse after the “Brownsville Affair,confronting President Roosevelt on behalf of of the 25th Infantry’s “Buffalo Soldiers.”
On August 13, just as du Bois, Lewis Douglass and the others were gathering in West Virginia, a shooting at a bar in that Texas town had led whites to blame the black soldiers newly relocated to Brownsville. Despite confirmation by their (white) commanders that all of the soldiers had been in their Fort Brown barracks that night, Roosevelt had ordered that all three companies – 167 men, six of whom had been awarded the Medal of Honor – be discharged “without honor,” ineligibe for veterans benefits. Roosevelt had refused to reconsider his decision even after a plea from Booker T. Washington, the biggest booster of black enlistment and supporter of Roosevelt’s wars. du Bois’ Niagara Movement, organized partly as a radical alternative to Washington, who du Bois called “The Great Accomodator”; its members sprang into action after Brownsville.
DuBois brought in his dear friend Major Charles Young, the third Black graduate of West Point and a Niagara co-founder, as members lobbied Congress. They caught the attention of Senator Robert Foraker, an ambitious politician who was also a Union Army veteran. Foraker led a call for a Senate investigation and fought for the battalion’s reinstatement; by January, Roosevelt had rescinded the part of the order, though full reversal would take a century. Foraker, for his part, ]merely felt the same about the Constitution in 1906 as Private Foraker had felt in 1862″ and would later campaign for president under the slogan “Remember Brownsville.”
Fellow Civil War vet Mark Twain didn’t speak out about Brownsville, but his late-career writings came from a similar sense of mission, and he also knew that that war hadn’t come close to abating that original sin. He’d considered a book-length history of lynching and even wrote the introductory “The United States of Lyncherdom,” before deciding (perhaps wisely) that such a book couldn’t come from a white Missouri writer. (Elisha Bliss, his publisher, told him that he “shouldn’t even have half a friend left down there, after it was issued from the press.”) Still, Twain had started 1906 with a Carnegie Hall benefit for Tuskegee University alongside anti-lynching activist Fanny Garrison Villard. The latter, William Lloyd’s daughter and ally of du Bois, was also one of the co-founders of the Anti-Imperialist League.
Twain’s fellow veteran/humorist, Ambrose Bierce, never wrote about Brownsville; his first biographer said that while he’d fought to end slavery, he “loathed” black people in their postwar form. None of which had changed his 1864 revelation that black soldiers had been his equal back at the battle of Nashville, when black troops “did not hesitate a moment: their long lines swept into that fatal obstruction in perfect order and remained there as long as those of the white veterans on their right. And as many of them in proportion remained until borne away and buried after the action. It was as pretty an example of courage and discipline as one could wish to see.”
But Bierce had by now stopped writing that“War Topics” column, and had left the Examiner/i><. It was Cosmopolitan Magazine that now bore his signature mix of misanthropy, trauma and magic. His clearest commentary on the ‘race problem’ appeared in this black-comic definition: “NEGRO n.The piece de resistancein the American political problem. Representing him by the letter N, , the Republicans begin to build their equation thus: Let This, however, appears to give an unsatisfactory solution.”
This droll observation was the closest Bierce ever got to acknowledging the effects of white supremacy, and a far cry from the 30ish columnist who’d written whole stories in the 1880s ridiculing black speech; but Bierce was nowhere near joining Twain and du Bois in challenging Jim Crow. If du Bois, Twain and Lewis Douglass were trying to build a more equitable future, Bierce’s attention was draw more to the past, including the war they had all shared.
Bierce revisited his life as a lieutenant in 1863, setting one story in his brigade’s raid on Confederates at Woodbury and another on executions he’d overseen as provost, one for desertion and the other for killing civilians, “a particularly atrocious murder outside of the issues of war.”xiii For Cosmopolitan Bierce use his signature vivid details and spooky framing, for “Two Military Executions” and “A Baffled Ambuscade.” Then, in “What May Happen Along a Road,” he remembered his last battle, in Franklin, Tennessee:
After resetting their line the victors could not clear their front, for the baffled assailants would not desist. All over the open country in their rear, clear back to the base of the hills, drifted the wreck of battle, the wounded that were able to walk; and through the receding throng pushed forward, here and there, horsemen with orders and footmen whom we knew to be bearing ammunition. There were no wagons, no caissons: the enemy was not using, and could not use, his artillery. Along the line of fire we could see, dimly in the smoke, mounted officers, singly and in small groups, attempting to force their horses across the slight parapet, but all went down. Of this devoted band was the gallant General Adams, whose body was found upon the slope, and whose animal’s forefeet were actually inside the crest. General Cleburne [pg 326]lay a few paces farther out, and five or six other general officers sprawled elsewhere. It was a great day for Confederates in the line of promotion.
For many minutes at a time broad spaces of battle were veiled in smoke. Of what might be occurring there conjecture gave a terrifying report. In a visible peril observation is a kind of defense; against the unseen we lift a trembling hand. Always from these regions of obscurity we expected the worst, but always the lifted cloud revealed an unaltered situation.
Bierce had begun to revisit his old battlefields, spending time at Shiloh and Murfreesbro and Stone’s River. He described these travels in letters, both to his editors as well as his niece Lora. One of his last pieces for Hearst was the gothic “A Resumed Identity,”in which an old veteran is revisited by the soldier he once was. Then, severing his ties with Hearst, Bierce kept moving south, headed toward the newest war: Mexico, whose recent revolution had inspired an insurgency led by Pancho Villa. His dispatches from south of the border read like a prose poem, or one of his Dictionary definitions.
December 13, 1913.might do for a listing under “Nationalism”: Ridden in four miles to mail a letter. Ride from Juarez to Chihuahua hard—nights cold, days hot. Allusion to Jornada del Muerta (journey of death) of thousands of civilian refugees, men, women and children. Train load of troops leaving Chihuahua every day. Expect (next day) to go to Ojinaga, partly by rail. Mexicans fight “like the devil”—though not so effectively as trained soldiers. Addicted to unseasonable firing, many times at random. Bierce’s note doesn’t mention Pancho Villa, but Bierce was hoping to meet this new wild card of Mexican politics, and had written to friends that he was headed to Ojinaga, which became site of a massive New Years battle between federales and Villa’s guerrilla force. xv Whether Bierce died there, or somewhere else has been debated ever since.xvi
That battle of Okinaja actually included U.S troops, there to support the federales and the government of Victoriano Huerta. If Bierce had lived to write about it, he might have wondered if history was rhyming. Afterward, with Bierce, Twain and Lewis Douglass all dead, a new generation of storytellers would be required. So would new types of dissenters.
I just got off the phone with Billie Winner-Davis, a clinical social worker in Texas who’s been in the press lately because of her daughter, Reality. Our chat was brief, and stayed away from the facts of Reality’s legal case. I still congratulated her on the support network she’d started in partnership with Courage to Resist.
Happy to talk about her daughter, Winner-Davis described Reality’s early gift for languages, including teaching herself Arabic back in high school. When she told her parents she might join the military, it was Winner-Davis who contacted the Air Force instead of the Army or Marines, hoping they’d take early advantage of her daughter’s gifts. “It was all about the languages for Reality,” she said.
Though she ended up working for a contractor after the military, Reality wanted most to travel, Billie added. “She was looking into the International Red Cross or humanitarian organizations, so she could use her skills to help people.”
Ever since Reality’s arrest, making sure she has what she needs has become a full-time job, Winner-Davis added. This is challenging because her work every day, in Child Protective Services, is of necessity all-consuming. But she hopes to retire in August, she said, when she can devote that energy to protecting her own child.
By October, when her trial is set to begin, I’ll have more free time than I do now. I hope to meet Winner-Davis there, as well as my old colleague (and Gulf War character) Jeff Paterson. I don’t know enough about the case to know whether she belongs in this book, but by threatening her with the Espionage Act the government may have put him there.
After that loooong deconstruction of the book’s title…
The following pages offer an idiosyncratic path from the country’s beginnings to the 21st century. Our guides: a handful of soldier-dissenters, who nudged that arc of history toward something resembling peace and justice.
In the 1990s, when I was on staff at the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, I used to half-joke that “if there’s gonna be a revolution, it’s going to happen because of antiwar veterans,” like those who volunteered for my branch of the G.I. Rights Hotline. Being defiantly uninterested in Marxist predictions of actual revolution, what I meant was that fundamental, progressive change has been escorted into American life with such figures, half-ignored even as they’re being lionized for other reasons.
On the simplest level, some kinds of military dissent — desertion comes to mind — ALWAYS constitute a challenge to the military’s functioning, and need to be described even when it’s for non-political reasons. More profoundly, what’s come clearest as I finish the book is that my interest is not so much those converting to pacifism, though that’s at the inquiry’s core, as the partial ones along the way. For each chapter and each war, I began seeking out and honoring soldier-dissent against the ends served by government-sponsored violence –many rooted in the country’s original sins, slavery and genocide of indigenous people. My old colleague Sam Diener might argue that since the means — military action — is odious, that should be enough; but so often it’s not.
The book’s cast was chosen through as “a kind of reverse funnel,” one ending in a laser-sharp focus on truly antiwar soldiers but beginning with a much wider palette: Chapters 1-7 include mutinies over late pay and desertion in protest of the freeing of slaves (one of the least glorious moments for Civil War soldiers) and then narrow through Vietnam and beyond — until, by the 21st century, we have our hands full just sorting through the challenges thrown up to what some Iraq vets call “gee-wot” (the Global War on Terror). Earlier rebellions, such as the 1779 mutinies against price-gouging and the 1930 Bonus March, I thought of only as “important reminders, especially through the Cold War, of the immense potential power of such rebellions.” That all sounds way too glib to me now.
What feels both more honest, as a journalist and historian: Include a selection of those who, having had a significant experience in the U.S. military, have used that experience to help nudge American society as a whole away from militarism. Mili-what? Think simply of the concept of “relying on armed enforcers to protect us and our stuff” (the latter meaning land, or water, or oil, or more amorphous concepts such as national identity, ideology or “credibility” ,e.g. saving face).
How did they use that experience? By speaking, or by secretly helping those who do. By telling the story of their war, either plain or as stories (like Haldeman’s) that still resonate. Their effect can be hard to measure, but it’s undeniable nonetheless. Howard Zinn wrote in 2004 that “Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society.”i Zig-zag an essential component, given the paradox at ourinquiry’s core: people once trained to enforce U.S. foreign policy with weapons, now standing up against those same policies.
We can’t claim that any specific dissent resulted directly, or even semi-directly, in a more decent society: too many wild cards and unintended consequences, the latter of which can be as profound as planned-for missions. That doesn’t mean we can’t have a workable map, and make educated guesses about which of the surprises points toward peace.
Each was as different as his historical period, of course. The questioning soldier in a state militia in 1754 was different from a World War I grunt first witnessing mass slaughter, or a video-game-trained Iraq soldier weaned on Rambo’s machismo and used to Oprah’s emotional expression. Still, looking through their stories, some common threads emerge:
“Mavericks” who came into the military already contrarian,
Struggles over compensation and the cost of war;
Combat trauma, from “soldier’s heart” through “shell shock” to PTSD
How non-pacifist soldiers made common cause with, and stood up for, our soldiers of conscience
the gender wild card, from stealth soldiers to torment and exclusion
Echoes over the years, making chords that helped catalyze change.
Welcome to my guided tour through America’s wars.
For starters, 1754 – 1875:
A Country Born of Dissent: Soldiers As Citizens, Counting the Costs
Our opening chapter, “A Country Born of Dissent,” shows us men just beginning to formulate the word “soldier” in their lives and claiming the dissent from which the new country was forming.
Even before breaking off from England, colonists saw themselves as creating something new, and that included the Continental Army;these(mostly) young men dissented out of a sense of themselves as participants in the still-new experiment of self-government, owning the word citizen.
Some state militias, called “a nasty lot” by British-trained General Washington, elected their own officers and called them “Executors in Trust.” Soldiers writing home from the French and Indian War cited their enlistment contracts as sacred documents, bemoaning underpayment as a betrayal, as their commands’ refusal to make good on a promise Conversely, once their brief contracts expired they felt free to clear out, sometimes en masse.
After the Declaration of Independence, those letters from soldierstalked about the new Republic as theirs, too. Their dissent was clear enough through a two-stage war with England, ending in 1815. The word “maverick” was coined in the 19th century, but even earlier soldiers were whistleblowers, organizers, journalists bearing witness against heavy odds.
The chapter actually begins on July 4, 1776 – with a soldier-rebellionin Jericho, Vermont,, far north of where the Continental Congress was completing the Declaration. That rebellion complicated the command of the maverick Captain Matthew Lyon, later nicknamed “the asp of colonial politics” and editor of the controversial newspaper The Scourge of Aristocracy and Repository of Important Political Truths. We also meet Joshua Ritter, a Pennsylvania recruit turned Quaker by his experience of warfare, and Dan Shays, remembered for a 1785 uprising against bankers led by Revolutionary veterans.
In between, Continental sailors exposed a Navy torturer in 1777; the First Company of the Philadelphia Artillery massed in Philadelphia and New York, complaining of poor treatment, followed by the 1781 Mutiny in January that almost got Washington involved.
The war for independence actually accelerated the racist genocide also taking place, as colonial governments became the land’s primary rulers. Among those charged with maintaining and increasing that rule, a rare few actually questioned why much of their time was spent fighting not the British but the land’s original inhabitants, who’d found the Redcoats a less invasive species than the hungry colonists.If the pay-me rebellions are the oldest, the next-oldest come from the mavericks defying prevailing wisdom and questioning our ”original sins,” planting deep, interconnected roots between military dissent and actions against racism and genocide, no matter how buried.
That second stage of what Phil Ochs called “the early English war” brought those truths clearer to those charged with fighting it. A few even who identified the nation’s two original sins: the slave economy and its progeny, and the bargain first proposed for native peoples by Thomas Jefferson, who wrote “They will in time either incorporate with us as citizens of the United States […else] we need only close our hand to crush them.” Protecting those two sins was the first main role of the American military.
First to question these priorities, perhaps unsurprisingly, were soldiers of color. Half-Indian Army scout Simon Girty ended his long, scattered military career after the notorious Squaw Campaign of 1789, suggesting that his fellow patriots were more interested in trampling on treaties than besting the British. Thirty years later, half-black half-Pequot soldier William Apess wondered why he was fighting in the War of 1812 against those who’d despoiled his ancestors. Apess’ musing, “why should I fight for a country that took my land?” casts triangulated light on that war’s expansionist aims. (For all the geopolitical context and diplomatic spittle, it ended only when the Brits exacted a promise not to mess with the Indians).
General Ethan Allen Hitchcock, his Vermont lineage as white as one could get, still took up Apess’ thread, calling the Jefferson-Jackson expansion policies “a blight upon the Indian.” When another president sent him to Mexico for another very-regretted war, Hitchcock made common cause with West Point dropout and rogue diplomat Nicholas Trist, who ignored the commander-in-chief and negotiated peace.
In the latter war, one of Hitchcock’s West Point students, Ephraim Kirby Smith, went from proud enthusiast to chronicler of the damage done, warning that his commander in chief “will have proved the worst enemy that Democracy ever had.” Though neither he nor Hitchock were becoming pacifists, they were unafraid of identifying sickness in the body politic, and tracing it back to those original sins.
That task would be front and center when the next war emerged.
The Civil War: Jayhawkers, Drafted Quakers and Soldier’s Heart
Most opponents of that Mexican-American war, whether soldier, civilian or veteran, were fairly clear about that war strengthened slavery, increasing the number of slave states and the South’s economic and political power. “This people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, about to spend time in jail for refusal to pay taxes to support either. Frederick Douglass, ten years after publishing his account of his life as a slave, editorialized against the Mexican war often in his abolitionist newspaper The North Star.
Douglass and his newspaper, like the abolitionist movement it was leading, moved on after 1840 from relentless newspapering and prayer– and began to contemplate direct action against what they called the Slave Power. Between Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and John Brown, they also trained and recruited countless soldiers for an actual war against that power – including Douglass’ two sons, who joined the iconic Massachusetts 54th Regiment.
This war kind of scrambles all categories in our discussion, with its complement of soldiers working directly to address that original sin. Included here are Ambrose Bierce, whose uncle sent guns to Brown before raising two regiments for the war; George Garrison, son of the iconic William Garrison, who volunteered to be one of the white officers leading black soldiers; and Jesse Macy, a Quaker who insisted on active service as a medic. Even the reviled-by-all sides Carpetbagger officers, who went South to try to enforce Lincoln’s promise. count as our dissenters; Given the powerful economic and social forces that had fed the slave economy, those officers were engaged in something intrinsically radical even when working for the President. And Silas Soule, one of John Brown’s pre-1860 “Jayhawkers” before joining the Union, distinguished himself in 1864with a singular act of rebellion against the first original sin, bydeserting and exposing the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre.
The Civil War also highlighted two of our other themes: combat trauma/PTSD, and solidarity between pacifists and fellow soldiers.When Jesse Macy, part of Sherman’s March to the Sea, repeatedly refused to carry a gun, his peers in the XXX had his back POI09U9U89TIUHIUGINPIH. Ambrose Bierce eventually wandered to suicide in Mexico via a tour of old battlefields, long after writing I will willingly surrender an other life than the one that I should have thrown away at Shiloh. What is now called post-traumatic stress disorder has existed for about as long as war has, creating multiple unintended consequences. And if thin paychecks can make a soldier feel betrayed, being ignored, stigmatized or dismissed for their own combat stress can feel like another war.
Hundreds of soldiers broke down after the aforementioned Battle of Shiloh, carried onto hospital ships with a case of what doctors called “nostalgia.” During that war military doctors started tracking soldiers’ breakdowns differently, conceiving of a “soldier’s heart” whose muscle is damaged by the trials of battle — both accurate and prescient, considering current understanding of the complex hormonal and developmental re-wiring contained in PTSD.
The relationship between the military and traumatic stress is a complex one, as noted by experts like Col. David Grossman, author of On Killing: The Psychological Consequences of Learning to Kill on War and Society. Some in this book, like Andrew Jackson, perhaps never got over it but subsumed it into national policy; others turned it all inward, like George Garrison. Bierce (often called“the quintessential, though unrealized, poster boy for PTSD”) was the first to turn combat trauma into art that empowered future dissent.
Many of those listed above crossed over into anti-war figures for the next war, fought far away from home before the wound they’d fought to abate was near healing.
I need to learn and write more about this newest target of the Espionage Act, but for today I’m boosting the signal from Courage to Resist, as ever the first to publicly support a dissenting servicemember. The link above also has a petition, urging that charges be dropped. (Full disclosure: the latter organization is also a supporter of this book via Kickstarter.)
WHAT DOES INDEPENDENCE REALLY MEAN TO AMERICANS TODAY? WHAT IS THE MEANING OF FREEDOM?
By Courage to Resist
This 4th of July millions of Americans will be barbecuing, drinking beers and celebrating independence from tyranny. But one young American will not be enjoying her freedom. This young woman sits behind bars for allegedly acting upon her own commitment to stand up for a government free from tyranny.
Reality Leigh Winner is an Air Force veteran and military contractor who has been arrested for allegedly leaking an NSA document to news media. The classified document in question details Russian cyberattacks against a voting machine software company and more than 100 elected officials. This is the most detailed information that has still yet to reach the American public regarding the government’s investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections.
Charged under the Espionage Act, which some argue does not sufficiently address needed whistleblower and First Amendment protections, Ms. Winner is now the first criminal leak case of the Trump era. With the White House declaring less than two months ago an imminent crackdown on those who leak classified information, many are concerned that Ms. Winner is a sitting duck in this politically-motivated shooting range. “Espionage Act charges carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison, although conventional leak cases have typically resulted in prison terms of one to three years.”
Held without bail in federal prison since early June, Ms. Winner made her first court appearance this past week for a bond hearing and her court date has now been set for October 23rd. When asked by local news media of the status of his defense strategy Mr. Titus Nichols stated, “At this stage the only thing we have (evidence) is a press release from the deputy attorney general and an application for a search warrant. In all my time as a prosecutor, that’s never been sufficient to either try a case or to even prepare for a case.”
While addressing the dubious political motivations for the aggressive prosecution of Ms. Winner her lawyer stated “My client has no criminal history. She’s a veteran. She served the Air Force for six years but now she’s been pulled into this political windstorm where there’s a much larger debate going on that this administration is choosing not to focus on. Instead of focusing on the question of was Russia involved in interfering with the election, now we’re focusing on the extent of punishment for this low-level government employee.”
A recent video of incarcerated Ms. Winner shows her making use of the prison grounds to practice the yoga poses crow, full wheel and headstand. These are all exercises which can assist one’s focus and gaining a different perspective while managing chaos, fear or inflexibility.
While celebrating our independence this July 4th, let’s also take the time to practice focus and courage. We can ask ourselves what would I do to defend or gain freedom for myself or others? And how can I support and defend those who may seek to do the same?
Reality Leigh Winner (right) with her mother Billie Winner-Davis.
For Reality Winner’s case, she needs widespread, transpartisan public support. Please share this article on social media, or post a photo of yourself with a “I Stand with Reality” sign.