I originally wrote the essay below for Democratic Left, but the magazine’s editorial team wisely feared getting creamed by music publisher’s; my recounting of Phil Ochs’ lyrics goes way beyond “fair use.” But this blog is a bit more ephemeral, and I’ll comply if ordered to take this post down by the industry powers that be. Still felt right, as Thanksgiving week closes, it felt right to end November with the song that helped me for so long, by the guy whose first album was entitled “All the News That’s Fit to Sing.” From the beginning, then:
I marched in the Battle of New Orleans, at the end of the early British War; The young men started going, the young blood started flowing
In a country founded on dissent, soldiers started rebelling against their commands early. On July 4, 1776 itself, as the Declaration of Independence was being debated, Captain Matthew Lyon was facing a mutiny by soldiers in “Upper Canada” (now Vermont) who realized that they were only there on behalf of wealthy absentee landowners. On September 11, 1777, Jacob Ritter stood still and fired on no one, believing that “it was contrary to the Divine Will for a Christian to fight.” And the War of 1812, the “early British war” Ochs referenced above, included whole platoons refusing to invade Canada and a young Native American recruit, enlisting because he was broke, wondering “why I should risk my life, my limbs, in fighting for the white man, who had cheated my people out of their land.”
I’ve killed my share of Indians in a thousand different fights/I heard many men lying, I saw many more dying
In those early years, soldiers’ main task was enforcing the dispossession of indigenous Americans. Even before Apess’ question above, numerous Native soldiers questioned their own involvement in U.S. forces. Simon Girty, a scout and interpreter at Fort Pitt, in Pittsburgh, who’d never shunned native dress or the language of his childhood,began to doubt his homecoming after being ordered to march with Pennsylvania militiamen who held “four women and a boy . . . of whom [only] one woman was saved.” After seeing how his peers regarded all Indians, Girty ended his scattered army career, fought on the side of loyalists, and died decades later in Canada.
Ethan Allen Hitchcock spent his half-century military career agonizing over the policies he was ordered to implement. Reverend Noah Worcester, whose New Hampshire militia had fought in the Battle of Bennington, began preaching against war in 1812, and in 1815 started the American Peace Society.
For I stole California from the Mexican land
“My heart is not in this business,” Hitchcock wrote in 1845. “It looks as if the government sent a small force on purpose to bring on a war, to have a pretext for taking California and as much of this country as it chooses.” Meanwhile, opposition to the war, which had been most supported by pro-slavery legislators who wanted new slave states, mobilized the abolitionist movement: Frederick Douglass inveighed regularly against the war in Frederick Douglass’ Monthly.
Fought in the bloody Civil War/ Yes I even killed my brother and so many others
The Civil War kind of flips the script on the subject of dissent. Members of the Union Army, called up by the official government, were dissenters against an intolerable status quo. Like many a group of young revolutionaries, they felt they were creating something entirely new and were willing to die for it.
Their ranks included Ambrose Bierce, whose enlistment with the 9th Indiana honored an uncle who had broken laws to supply John Brown with weapons, and Harriet Tubman, a Union spy soldiering when women could not (she was often disguised as a male field hand). And Frederick Douglass’ sons would be among the very first African-Americans in the U.S. Army. Each of these dissenters defied society’s expectations for their lives, for the sake of the future they wanted.
Douglass’ son, Lewis H. Douglass, would survive that war and go on to become a clarion resister to the next war, one that Ochs doesn’t mention: the one in the Philippines, an explicit race war eventually brought down after soldiers exposed its brutality. And Civil War veterans were key to an Anti-Imperialist League opposing that war, including Mark Twain, who was writing his searing “The War Prayer” as Ambrose Bierce was inventing a new kind of war literature.
For I marched to the battles of the German trench/In a war that was bound to end all wars
I’ve written before about World War I resisters, for Armistice Day (now known as Veterans Day)—about Evan Thomas, whose father Norman would become a leader in the Socialist Party. Joining them in dissent was the NAACP icon W.E.B. Du Bois, who briefly secured commission as an Army officer so he could better advocate for Black conscripts but remained an anti-war tribune (and would arrested decades later for spreading “Peacegrams”). The World War I chapter also includes the hundreds who went on strike at Fort Leavenworth in 1919, some of whom named their barracks Lenine, Anarchia, and Internationale. It introduces both Walter Waters, who after serving in that war eventually organized a “Bonus March” to fight for veterans’ compensation, and Edward Estlin Cummings, who eventually described treatment of conscientious objectors in the searing “I sing of Olaf glad and big.”
For I flew the final mission in the Japanese sky/Set off the mighty mushroom roar
By the time the U.S. entered World War II, millions had seen the film All Quiet on the Western Front, made by veteran Lewis Milestone; the film’s anti-war testimony convinced its star Lew Ayres, to become a conscientious objector in the next war. The chapter [AL2] also describes the struggles of Black servicemembers, including the Port Chicago Mutiny, and the genesis of the later-suppressed American Veterans Committee, whose membership list is a Who’s Who [AL3] for postwar progressivism. That war ended up birthing a generation that bred the Vietnam anti-war movement, including William Kunstler, Philip Berrigan, and Howard Zinn.
Now look at what you’ve done with a razor and a gun/Tell me is it worth it all?
Ochs doesn’t actually address the war he was living through: he was part of the movement against it, led by priests, poets, politicos and pranksters. I called the chapter about them “When Everything Blew Up and Everything Grew.” In addition to those World War II vets, the chapter includes then-infantrymen Ron Kovic and Bill Perry; Navy officer Susan Schnall, arrested after she marched in uniform at the GI March for Peace; Fred Marchant, a poet who became a conscientious objector after the My Lai massacre, and Marine Paul Cox, radicalized by a war crime he witnessed in real time just as the country was learning about another at My Lai.
Call it, “Peace” or call it, “Treason,” Call it “Love” or call it, “Reason”
But I ain’t marching any more
Ochs killed himself in 1976, after the movement he helped birth collapsed under government suppression and its own contradictions. But I didn’t end my book there, and went on to chronicle what came next: the 1980s dissent of Philip Berrigan and the Plowshares Eight, Roy Bourgeois at the School of the Americas, and the early days of Veterans For Peace.
I wish Ochs had lived to sing about them, or about those who resisted the Gulf War, like Jeff Paterson and Aimee Allison. And if he’d lived to become an old Boomer like the Vietnam vets who helped me at the GI Rights Hotline, he might have mentored young soldiers like Chelsea Manning or Jon Hutto. I sometimes imagine the songs he might have written for the Black Lives Matter movement—perhaps standing next to Vietnam veteran Mike Hastie, who in July 2020 stood in the Wall of Veterans protecting protesters in Portland. Instead, it’s up to all of us to support those struggles, and I hope reading Ain’t Marching helps a little.