On Twitter awhile back, I saw a challenge: “Describe your job in four words. I answered: “I talk to ghosts.”
I mostly meant as a gonzo-historian, something I specialized in long before the Internet : the smell of microfilm rolls of decades-old newspapers still in my nose. Now, give a woman JSTOR ass and good Google-fu, and she finds manifold ways to get herself in trouble.
Encouraging me in those tendencies is my newest mostly-unpaid side hustle: I recently agreed to coauthor a chapter of a new Oxford Handbook of Peace History. I was honored to be asked, but the research has sure made my brain more crowded. Just a few:
Leo Tolstoy, whose pacifism was recently highlighted in the NYTimes in ref to policing, has intrigued me ever since I learned he mentored Gandhi long distance. I’ve dreamed of writing a play based on their correspondence and now that I’m on CCW’s board, drawn those “Tolstoyan” communities like the one Gandhi constructed in South Africa. (Were those in Gandhi’s all “colored” and actively resisting racism as well? How about elsewhere?) Of course Tolstoy apparently hated the idea (“I’m a writer, not a cult leader!”)
But what has got me thinking and writing about him was perhaps the most surprising part of his peacenik bio: running a one-man GI Rights Hotline with Russian soldiers turned conscientious objectors. The famous novelist corresponded with COs, some of them inspired by his writing,, got them lawyers and sweet-talked their commands. He bore witness when some were “tortured by cold, hunger and solitary confinement.” All of this via Peter Brock, who began his career with a book about pacifism “from Jesus to Tolstoy” and knew more about this kind of writing than I ever will.
Confession: I abandoned War and Peace because the gossip of privileged Moscow families in the opening chapters bored me. I keep buying books about him but not engaging with his own prose;, but I’d better get past those warm-up chapters and into the book’s heart. In the meantime, there’s this short story, which my brain wants to re-title “Witness as Counter-Recruitment.”
Tolstoy also had traffic with Quakers, including Aylmer Maude, the first translator of his anti-war opus. “The Quakers sent me books, from which I learnt how they had, years ago, established beyond doubt the duty for a Christian of fulfilling the command of non-resistance to evil by force, and had exposed the error of. the Church’s teaching in allowing war and capital punishment.”
Tolstoy didn’t live long enough to witness their work during World War I, let alone my newest rabbit hole the Quaker Tapestry. Designed along the lines of the Bayeaux one, the Tapestry was the 1981 creation of a London Friends meeting, but its look deceives the eyes: when I saw its panel on conscientious objection, I dreamt it as much earlier, read by the likes of Wilfred Owen. Now that I’ve finally dated it properly, I’m wishing instead I’d been a fly on the wall when its founder talked to Cynthia Enloe. The panel has power, though; Tolstoy would have been all in.
So would Phil Ochs, the guy whose music gave us the book and blog’s title. He’s soundtracked my life at least since I was in college and writing a deeply mediocre play about a Vietnam draft resister, with his albums on repeat. (Though I ahistorically chose a different song for that play’s title, ”Too Many Martyrs” about Medgar Evers, but that which teases a different rabbit hole entirely). In my heart ever since, especially after the biopic his brother produced after I started writing this book, Ochs answers my call even when more current research spills over into his zone. This week that meant Chile, when I was reading/annotating an essay by Pelao Carvallo about the CO movement there. I found myself Googling “Phil Ochs friend Chile” because I forgot Victor Jara, his soulmate in political music, with whom he was also detained in Uruguay and nearly renditioned to Bolivia, a year before the coup against Salvador Allende that also ended Jara’s life.
There were reasons for Ochs and Jara to be in Uruguay then, scary ones. During Uruguay’s military dictatorship, according to War Resisters International, “many military personnel were tried for disobedience or desertion and reasons other than refusal to obey orders were found for inflicting punishment. There were cases of military personnel who were court-martialled for fictitious charges, imprisoned and, on their release, discharged from the forces with the loss of all rights. Frequently, they were badly tortured.” By then Ochs had been singing with/for/of dissenting soldiers for years and I can’t help but wonder if some of those soldiers’ families, or those from the Chilean regime that preceded Allende had reached out to him or to Victor Jara. If I do end up doing an international version of I Ain’t Marching Anymore, those stories might belong there alongside the objectors WRI has tracked so well
Pelao Carvallo’s Chile also notes that pre-Pinochet Chile “geographically extended its borders by way of invading the territories of… indigenous people (Mapuches, Rapanuises, Onases, Kaweshkars, Yámanases, Tehuelches, and so on) through wars.” Those ghosts in all our minds.
I’ll close this essay with the ghost I’ve danced with longest: the French teenager that invented two of humanity’s worst ills, artillery and nationalism. Given the thread above, I do wonder what French antimilitarists make of the saint who forged worshiped both–or if any of them, like me, think about Jehanne Darc a lot.
I still remember the small Catholic teen biography of Joan of Arc I got from a dear aunt and uncle, during those years when I still called myself Catholic. Being me, I only reattached to her as a lapsarian adult in grad school; instructed by the great Fred Tuten to tell a ghost story, I wrote a hallucinatory piece of flash fiction imagining Jehanne Darc as a military-rape victim. Went on to write another of my lost novels from that sketch, doomed by my tendency to overstuff; I still dream of revising it, even though it would be joining the hundreds of other Joan novels out there https://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/joan-of-arc-fiction and even a work of narrative nonfiction by my hero Mary Gordon.
Could finishing the job on that novel be a throat-clearing in this time before November, when I have to do nothing but ensure it gets safely out in the world? Could the firmament support a reimagining of La Pucelle from an atheist anti-war activist?
Photo: Mohandas K. Gandhi and other residents of Tolstoy Farm, 1910. (Wikimedia Commons)