About chrislombardi

Journalist, novelist, educator.

“The present is a moving target.”

I wrote that years ago when I was first drafting the book’s final chapter, as the “Bradley Manning” story became the complex reality that is Chelsea Manning, as new dissent appeared daily and what had seemed pretty black and white under George W. Bush moulted into a sinister purple glow under Obama. Now, this second, the moving target is the Veterans Against Trump movement birthed in the current uprising; I promised to write about it for Waging Nonviolence, but find myself checking the news after the 100th Night of Protests. Does what happened last night impact what I’m writing now?

Last week, for example, it was the LAPD that shot and killed a man for possessing a handgun. LA was already brimming with BLM even before George Floyd, and their Wall of Vets group following the latter’s lead. The head of that group just got back from the D.C. march and can’t be there.  Are these “walls” actually having an effect? One of my key questions. 

The list of orgs laying claim to the movement is dizzying: not just the ones I noted earlier, Continue to Serve and Wall of Vets, but the aggressively nonpartisan Vets for Responsible Leadership and the Working Families Party’s Vets for the People. I first learned of the latter at last month’s Veterans for Peace convention–VFP, of course, has been working toward this at least since Ferguson, when they adopted the then-controversial “Peace Abroad, Peace at Home” campaign. I can’t tell you how relieved I was when Continue to Serve founder David Smith said to me “Veterans for Peace? Yeah, I know Garett!” meaning Garett Reppenhagen, VFP’s director, who I met when he was president of Iraq Veterans Against the War in those clear-seeming Bush years. Because this present isn’t just a moving target: it’s one spinning in 4 or 5 dimensions.

Before I stop writing here and try to draft something, I did want to report on the very first published review of the book — and it’s in Publisher’s Weekly, the mag used by bookstores to decide what’s worth buying. We got a thumbs-up, as “an enlightening roundup of the long tradition of resistance within America’s armed forces.” Describes the book as “well-researched” with a “wealth of detail,” perhaps the highest compliment possible for a work of narrative nonfiction.

I’ll try to stay warmed by those words, as I act like a reporter and turn the detail I’ve managed to gather into a story about veterans acting in support of Black lives. Wish me luck.

(Image: an early draft of the book’s cover. I asked that it not be yellow, so as not to maximize the amount of time I get the book’s characters called “cowards.”)

John Lewis was a conscientious objector to war. Did you know that?

This blog, like my book, doesn’t tend to dwell on the brave folk who completely avoided military jurisdiction — the thousands in CPS camps during World War Two, the literal millions who spent the Vietnam era in alternative-service jobs. All of whom are important and honored, but to include their stories would swamp an already-capacious text.

However, when John Lewis died, I was reminded by the folk at Center on Conscience and War that part of Lewis’ iconic nonviolent resistance was becoming the first Black conscientious objector in Alabama. They suggested I write this piece, which then appeared on Waging Nonviolence.org, in a section curated by War Resisters League.

In many ways Lewis was adjacent to our story, including his direct link with our old pal Bayard Rustin. (Thus the photo above, sitting with Lewis, James Farmer and Andrew Young at the 1964 signing of the Civil Rights Act.) And Lewis’ Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee stood with with the Fort Hood Three when they announced their refusal to deploy. What would that photo I wrote about earlier look like, if Lewis had sat beside them instead of Stokely Carmichael?

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The heroic John Lewis was a conscientious objector to war, something barely mentioned in all the elegies unfurled in his honor.

I was surprised to see so many of the well-written obituaries, including in the New York Times, fail to mention Lewis’ opposition to war; so did the beautiful elegies spoken at his funeral. But to erase this vital part of Lewis’ history feels both dishonest and potentially damaging to the movements he has helped inspire.

This moment after the murder of George Floyd needs that piece of good trouble — the spirit of war resisters. That spirit is already visible, in those resisting militarized police and federal agents in camo. They know, as Lewis did, that the “infrastructure of oppression police” is international in scope; most know that nonviolent protests trace back to those resisting war. John Lewis refused to be part of that infrastructure, to join the international shock troops deployed against people of color everywhere.

In 1961, after years enacting Gandhian practices of nonviolent action in Freedom Rides and at lunch counters, Lewis told his draft board that he was a conscientious objector — defined as a person with beliefs that make it impossible to be part of war or preparations for war. Lewis modeled his actions after the great reverend James Lawson, who spoke eloquently at his funeral about teaching Lewis non-violent resistance in those 1958 workshops in the basement of his Nashville church. Lawson was himself a conscientious objector, like fellow civil rights icon Bayard Rustin — and, like Rustin, he spent years in prison for his beliefs and then went to India to study.

The draft board declared Lewis “morally unfit” because of how often he had been arrested.

Lewis’s draft board denied his CO application in 1961. He appealed that determination repeatedly, while his commitment to nonviolence grew as he spoke at the March on Washington and mobilized hundreds to register voters during the 1964 “Freedom Summer.” At the end of the summer of 1964, Lewis’ appeal was granted, making him the first Black conscientious objector in Alabama.

The draft board reversed its decision two years later. By 1966, Lewis was nationally known for his voting-rights activism and March 1965 heroism on “Bloody Sunday” on the bridge from Selma to Montgomery. When he arrived in Selma, Lewis was carrying a book by Thomas Merton, a monk who’d hosted peace activists including Father Dan Berrigan. In August 1965, Lewis was in Washington on the day when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.

A few months later, in January 1966, the always-internationalist Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, which Lewis chaired, threw a shot at the bow of the Johnson Administration’s cornerstone military policy, not just opposing the war in Vietnam but supporting draft resistance. In their anti-war manifesto, they said, “We [also] take note of the fact that 16 percent of the draftees from this country are Negroes called on to stifle the liberation of Vietnam, to preserve a ‘democracy’ which does not exist for them at home.” Lewis didn’t write that statement, but when asked he told reporters he supported every word.

Immediately after SNCC’s Jan. 6 press conference, the FBI in Atlanta wired Washington and the Department of Defense cancelled Lewis’s 1-O status as a conscientious objector; he was now classified as 4-F or “not qualified to serve.” The draft board declared Lewis “morally unfit” because of how often he had been arrested. In those days, anti-war activists often hailed a 4F as a badge of honor and it galvanized them to keep organizing.

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Decades later, Lewis carried his conscientious opposition to war onto the Congress floor. Arguing in 2002 against the invasion of Iraq, Lewis thundered on the House floor: “What fruit will our actions bear, not just for us but for our children?” Lewis asked. “And not just for the children of our own land, but the children of the West, and the Middle East, and the world? It is the children, our little boys and girls, who must live with the consequences of our war.”

Five years later, Lewis was the first member of Congress to actively support the Appeal for Redress, an action in which thousands of active-duty military personnel appealed for a withdrawal from Iraq using their constitutional right to seek redress of grievances. Most recently, Lewis responded to the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani with the Unconstitutional War with Iran Act of 2019, to “prohibit funds from being used for kinetic military operations against Iran” without congressional authorization.

Lewis himself affirmed that in his final testimonial for the New York Times: “In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way.” How is that not worth honoring?

Getting to know our partners #2

Our own Jon Hutto on his activist evolution, Kwame Toure, and EmpowerDC’s mutual aid work.

Food for All DC

Interview by Peter Sage with Mr. Jonathan W. Hutto, Sr. from Empower DC

Jonathan Hutto is a Community Organizer with Empower DC, a community based organization in partnership with Food For All DC to support those struggling with food insecurity. Jonathan joined the Staff of Empower DC in early July of 2018 and has labored as a Human Rights Organizer since his Undergraduate student years at Howard University in the mid to late 1990’s. Over the past nearly 25 years, Jonathan has made substantial contributions to the Struggle for DC Self- Determination, for Police Accountability, for World Peace and for Housing as a Human Right for all Human Beings.

Peter –How do you make a difference through Empower DC?

Jonathan – Empower DC is an advocacy organization that builds power among those most directly impacted by inequality. We work with front-line communities bearing the brunt of crises and…

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Skip to the index: it’s poetry and all the news you need.

In this last pre-pub gasp, I had the honor of working with an expert in crafting a book’s index. She asked me to brainstorm some possible categories, so I went to books that share mine’s DNA. Looking more closely than I usually do, I’m reminded that a good index constitutes poetry, commentary and relentless fact checking.

Some notes from that exploration:

In Hersh’s Reporter the index feels a kind of critique: under “Kissinger, Henry” comes both arms control expertise of and next and attacking of unlawful targets, Chile coup. Even for Eugene McCarthy, for whom he was press sec, Hersh’s first sub-theme is black community appearances canceled by,” followed a few lines later with joint smoked by all. I’m now wondering if he’s revisiting that “long memo about racism” he wrote to McC back then, in today’s tumult. Under “Vietnam War” he has stuff like draft in and end of but also more damning terms; Mere Gook Rule, CBW use in.

Hans Schmidt’s MAVERICK MARINE, about Smedley Butler, has a wonderful group of sub-listings under “imperialism”: from in military adventure genre literature, British/ French/Nicaraguan comments on, Mexican reaction to, “gangsterism”  terminology.

Under Haiti Schmidt has US international life in, High Commission ship of, issue in 1920 US election, 1929 uprising . See also corvee. For Marine Corps we get smaller Expeditionary mission in, means preferred over army, warrior versus centrist-technocrat conflict explanation of, core politics of, origins of bulldog and devil dog imagery in, ‘Hollywood movies and, and  see also Quantico. On Mexico we have US intervention in, SCD’s invasion plan 4 see also Veracruz. Under Philadelphia, my current hometown where Butler famously failed at enforcing Prohibition: Navy Yard, crime and law enforcement in, Contrast with Latin America, northwest unemployment really thin.

Gene Sharp’s Civilian-Based Defense has a lubricious index, including multiple definitions of nonviolent intervention. For “noncooperation” we get in 1917 February Russian Revolution, in Algeria, American colonies, objectives of, in Bolivia, conditions for, large scale in Czechoslovakia, in Finland in Haiti Indian campaigns, strategy and nonviolent coercion, in Norwegian teachers’ resistance, in Poland proxy violence and.

Under “nonviolent persuasion and protest” there’s a history list: Algerian street protest, Anti-Nazi pastoral letters, Buddhist protest in South Vietnam, a page or more ending in suffragists’ banner; “noncooperation” does a similar trick,  Under the more capacious “nonviolent action/struggle, accomplishments of,” there are three pages of index and I’m just ready to drown, though I do find the only omention of mutiny: apparently the Philippine Army stood down under Marcos.

A pair of indices from my publisher, The New Press, gave contrasting results. Francis Boyle’s Protesting Power: War, Resistance and The Law had an index with zero personality though some good guideposts. Notably, its one reference to “GI dissent” is an assertion in 2008 that such a movement re Iraq “is well established,” not knowing the damage about to be done by the election of Barack Obama (which put a pin in the balloon of the peace movement.  The other one, Michael Bellesiles’ People’s History of the U.S. Military, has an index far more enlightening than the book, which contained numerous testimonies but none that I remembered.

Unsurprisingly, it’s the index of Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars that spoke most strongly of all. I was surprised that there wasn’t a category of “Poets” or “Writers,” only individual entries for Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Pat Barker. I can guess at the arguments against–implicit self-promotion? way too obvious for a book like that?–but as a former teacher of English I missed it, and thought my students would have too.

I loved that there’s a whole column of entries just under “War,” from “group loyalty as impetus to,” “glorification of .. as exhilarating,” the names of various antiwar folk. On-brand for the author of Rebel Cinderella, that category also includes entries on socialism as preventing and as welcome to quell socialist unrest.   

“Conscientious Objectors” get their own category and are then subsumed in the strangely short category of “war resisters.”  The CO category is nicely capacious, following how such individuals were treated in prison, disenfranchisement of and what became of them afterward, including and postwar prison reform. Together, the index tells the book’s and the nation’s story in another way, and gives me more appreciation of the indexer’s craft. Good indexes are poetry, which is why I chose as this post’s image a painting by Francois Boucher (1703-1770): An allegory of poetry.

Soldier-dissent in real time

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I started this week staring at the #WallofVets. The video above bears re-watching: for its diversity of ages, for the military branches represented, for the solidarity among the protesters, the “walls” of mothers, dads and veterans converged to face federal agents sent to suppress their node of the George Floyd uprising.

The wall was created after Navy vet Chris David was beaten and tear-gassed for trying to ask federal agents clubbing protesters: What about your oath to defend the Constitution?  Veterans for Peace types note that Vietnam vet Mike Hastie was in that position  before David, under a similar principle: veterans should be protecting protesters.

Progressive vets across the country had been showing up soon after George Floyd died,  especially  after  June 1—when peaceful protesters in D.C. were chased out of Lafayette Park by the Park Police, backed up by a grudging National Guard contingent.

This week Major Adam De Marco of the latter testified before Congress about that day, quoting the late John Lewis: “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something.”

Speaking under the protection of Military Whistleblower Act, De Marco described a largely peaceful protest aggressively disrupted by the Secret Service, the D.C. Park Police, and “under law enforcement agencies I was unable to identify.” Since that day, of course, we’ve learned about the vicious braid of federal law agencies tapped by Trump to “restore order” by stomping out protest.

A few days after that moment in Lafayette Park, veterans from all over the country converged at the Lincoln Memorial, under the hashtag #Vets4BLM and #ContinuetoServe. Former Navy corpsman David Smith writes about that day: ” Veterans from upstate New York drove to DC to be a part of this protest. Veterans from across the country have been messaging me this week, asking about organization, who to contact, how to find people in their communities, what I am doing to organize a group here, how to donate, on and on and on.”

Smith, who served 2007-2019 and thus through multiple administrations, started  ContinuetoServe.vet that week. He adds that these veterans feel sworn to  “support and defend the Constitution and the citizens of this country. All citizens. Not just privileged citizens. Not just white citizens. Not just rich citizens. ALL CITIZENS.” His D.C.-based group is just once component of what’s being done in support of Black Lives Matter.

I’m working on an op-ed piece that puts this into historical context, but for right now I hope you’ll look at that video again.  Note the mix of older vets and 20-somethings like the young woman above. Or like Clint Hall, who   told the New York Times that the scene reminded him of Iraq:

After suffering through the tear gas that was shot into the crowd, Mr. Hall said that the tear gas was so strong that it was leaving burns on his skin. He said it felt worse than the tear gas he recalled from his time in the Army.

“This response from the feds is over the top,” he said.

I first noticed Hall in coverage of the Wall because of his sign: Disabled Vets For Black LivesMatter. That nod to what all this is about was common to these vets–to David Smith in D.C., to Christopher David, who kept telling journalists “I’d like to try to shift the tdiscussion back to Black Lives Matter.” These vets remind me that the historical parallels in my op-ed need to be soldiers and vets who spoke out for Black Lives. There’s no shortage of those. Stay tuned.

Notes toward an introduction

 

July 2020: As the book approaches publication WITHOUT an introduction, I decided to repost this from ten years ago, when it was still under the aegis of UC Press and Chelsea Manning was still imprisoned at Quantico. The book evolved as well, but the themes below whisper from between its pages.

It’s been a long time since I first started batting around the idea of a book about the G.I. Rights Hotline, (a book I’d still love to write someday), and instead took on this behemoth of a project. Below is what I’m calling my faux-introduction; we hope that someone with more clout (Dan Ellsberg? Cynthia Enloe?) will write the real one, but in the meantime I tried to articulate my multiple themes and my reasoning behind who I included and didn’t. For those who’ve been following my travails all along,  some of what’s below will feel familiar; my hope is that it will also explain, a bit better, why I zeroed in one the people I did.

My inspiration, kind of my gold standard, was people who’d taken the path directly from warmonger to peacemaker, like Philip Berrigan or the just-recently-lost-to-us Howard Zinn (seen as a 1944 bombardier, right). But that inspiration, and the way I frame it above, is too incomplete to be honest,  or even narratively interesting to me.

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 only the total transformers, though that’s kind of the core of the inquiry, as the partial ones along the way. For each chapter and each war, I’m asking for what ends government-sponsored violence and preparation for same were being relied on —especially, perhaps,  including odious ones like slavery and genocide of indigenous people — and honoring soldier-dissent against them, too. My old friend Sam might argue that since the means — military action — is odious, that should be enough; but it’s not.

Back 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.

I’ve usually described my criteria for inclusion in the book 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 including 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 narrowing through Vietnam and beyond —until, by  the 21st century, “we have our hands full just 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, seen 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, after three years of learning and writing.

What feels both more honest, as a journalist and historian, and equally true to the spirit of Philip Berrigan and Howard Zinn, is this:  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).  You can look up the Webster’s definition if you like.

As I write this, Howard Zinn has just died, and a 2004 Nation quote has just surfaced: “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.” It’s those surprises, in the form of challenges thrown down to the established order by soldiers, that I’m tracking, making semi-educated guesses as to which of those zigzags was pointed toward peace.

Show me the money. The name “soldier” is derived from the French “soldat,” meaning money: and issues of how well troops are paid was a flashpoint of dissent from day one.  The opening chapter, “A Country Born of Dissent,”  is rooted in such rebellions, including the 1754 mass desertions of colonial soldiers, the 1781 Mutiny in January that almost got Washington involved, Captain Daniel Shays’ uprising against bankers (whose veteran-troops were called “The Regulators.” Take that, Bernanke!). Class issues were alive and well, continuing when Lt. Matthew Lyon, one of Ethan Allen’s “Green Mountain Boys,” was defeated by a mutiny on July 4, 1776 when his men refused orders that involved not fighting the British but guarding absentee landholders’ property. Matthew Lyon, the commander of that 1776 mutiny and publisher of the anti-Federalist newspaper The Scourge of Aristocracy and the Repository of Important Political Truths, ended up, twenty years later, a foe of John Adams imprisoned under the 1798 Sedition Act.

There wasn’t yet a concept of an antiwar soldier, especially after James Madison nearly secured for Quakers an exemption from military service for conscientious objectors. But in the meantime, men from “peace churches” in uniform were a wild card of their own, as when Methodist minister Lee preached peace to his Continental Army brigade: “ Many of the people, officers as well as men, were bathed in tears before I was done.”

Hardcore mavericks and original sins. For the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century, one of the main tasks of the American soldier was to perpetrate those two original sins I mentioned earlier — the slave economy, and the bargain first proposed for native peoples by  Thomas Jefferson. “They will in time either incorporate with us as citizens of the United States, or remove beyond the Mississippi,” Jefferson wrote to future president William Henry Harrison, adding that if they resisted “we need only close our hand to crush them.”  Or, either become private capitalists and gentleman farmers like us or kicked off your land, which conveniently becomes ours. Precious few, especially during active duty, saw anything wrong with the latter, though half-native soldier William Apes did wonder why he was fighting in the War of 1812 against those who’d despoiled his Pequot ancestors.  His matter-of-fact “I could not think why I should risk my life, my limbs,  in fighting for the white man, who had cheated my people out of their land,” cast triangulated light on that war’s expansionist aims (for all the geopolitical context and diplomatic spittle, the war ended when the Brits exacted an immediately-broken promise not to mess with the Indians).

A few years later General Ethan Allen Hitchcock called the Jefferson-Jackson expansion policies “a blight upon the Indian.” Hitchcock, the Hamlet of American expansionism, railed in his diaries against President Andrew Jackson, who was acting to put Jefferson’s Indian policies into bloody practice. 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 negotiated peace with Mexico, even as hawks back home were chanting for his recall.

Those who actually took public action against “Indian policy”   were, almost without exception, also connected somehow to the abolitionist movement, which had begun to move from relentless newspapering and prayer to a harder core. These included Hitchcock, who found in the Civil War the fight he could finally get behind, andSilas Soule, who offered some of the rare light refusing to participate in the  massacre of Indians at Sand Hill after having volunteered for Lincoln’s war against slavery, along with two of his brothers.

Also lining up to end slavery were Ambrose Bierce’s uncle Lucius Bierce, who sent guns to John Brown before raising two regiments for the war; the iconic Charles Shaw and George Garrison, sun of the iconic William Garrison, among the white officers leading battalions of black soldiers, and the Carpetbagger officers who went South to try to enforce Lincoln’s promise. These soldiers were engaged in something intrinsically radical even when working for the President, throwing “surprises” at the powerful economic and social forces that had fed the slave economy.

Without them, we would likely not have the minority who took the next step and went on to become prominent antiwar voices when the Spanish-American and Philippine wars came along —  Frederick Douglass’ son Lewis; the younger Bierce, who William Randolph Hearst feared sending to the Philippines because of his veteran’s skepticism;   and the flotilla of grizzled vets who joined with Andrew Carnegie’s Anti-Imperialist League, like Donelson Caffery (whose brigade had fought Bierce’s at Shiloh), John Adams descendant Gettysburg veteran Charles Francis Adams. Not to mention Mark Twain, who lived to vacation with Woodrow Wilson years after the League was gone and few remembered his“The War Prayer.”  But Twain’s antiwar poems and the writing of the younger Bierce, especially his story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” would be remembered by those looking centuries later for a soldier’s story that rang true.

From “nostalgia” to“shell shock and beyond. Bierce, darling of the yellow press and bete noire of plutocrats, would eventually become what  journalist and veterans’ advocate Lily Casura has called “the quintessential, though unrealized, poster boy for PTSD,” wandering to suicide in Mexico via a tour of old battlefields. A close read of his early postwar writing. as in “What I Saw at Shiloh” which ends: I will willingly surrender an other life than the one that I should have thrown away at Shiloh;  when that same battle took place, hundreds of soldiers of both sides broke down, carried onto hospital ships with a case of what doctors called “nostalgia.” That was around the time that commanders and military doctors started tracking soldiers’ breakdowns as less “weakness” and more something related to war, even positing that the trials of battle damaged the heart muscle — both accurate and prescient, considering the complex hormonal and developmental re-wiring that we now know takes place when stress responses harden.

This, unlike the money and mavericks, is a stream I was looking for, having been near-obsessed with PTSD as a subject long before I knew I would write this book. 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, like Andrew Jackson, never got over it but subsumed it into national policy; others, like Bierce and George Garrison, turned it all inward. Still others, of course,  turned trauma into art —like World War I vet Lewis Milestone, the protagonist of whose All Quiet on the Western Front tells a group of schoolchildren: “We live in the trenches. And our bodies are earth. And our thoughts are clay. And we sleep and eat with death. And we’re done for, because you can’t live that way and keep anything inside you.”

By then, the Freudians were grabbing hold of what laypeople had called “shell shock,” a grip that was complete by the time John Huston, still having nightmares from his World War II service in Europe, made the long-suppressed documentary Let There Be Light,  whose subjects ask earnestly to be cured of their “psycho-neurotic” ailments.That suppression, added to general cold-war amnesia, meant that when Vietnam veterans started experiencing something similar, they had  to work hard to know what was going on.

The process of doing so, getting those truths near-permanently exposed and their treatment mandated, also has required a lot of those surprises, and a fair amount of dissent; like soldiers’ compensation, its psychological damage is another cost of war.

Speaking of the cold war, however,  civil rights icon Bayard Rustin once told his old friend David McReynolds that before the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, national discourse was like a brittle steel wall, and it took a mighty shake from Montgomery to fracture it. That wall squelched a lot of early postwar surprises, from Howard Zinn’s own American Veterans Committee and early organizing by Medgar Evers, while energy underneath it continued to bubble in all sort of unexpected ways, as J.D. Salinger and Joseph Heller poured PTSD onto the page and the paradigm-shattering ROTC dropout Rustin, who’d long since finished his prison term for refusing the draft, began organizing to infuse “Gandhian” principles into the fight for racial justice,  until he showed up at Montgomery to help Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. take his boycott national.

The fracturing of that wall, its accompanying surprises (the Beats, the civil rights movement), is part of the origin story of the 20th-century peace movement. As soldiers and veterans increasingly became involved in the latter, the learning was mutual:

Stand up for your beliefs, brother. How do the less-antiwar dissenters interact with the most hardcore objectors? The dynamic between the two is simultaneously twisted and heartening: From the Revolution on, non-dissenting soldiers often took note of what we’d now call “peaceniks” not with horror but with solidarity, and when the wars themselves turned explicitly bad looked to them for guidance, or at least proof that to object wasn’t insane.  Early examples included  Civil War medic Jesse Macy, who kept refusing to be shunted aside all the way to the end of the war; conscientious objectors who encouraged strikes at military prisons during World War I and II; and in-service CO’s like Desmond Doss, who saved hundreds of soldiers as a medic during the Battle of Okinawa, and Lew Ayres, who went from playing a traumatized soldier in AQWF to spending months as a medic in the Philippines, some of it under the command of Major William Kunstler.  In these new wars, many young soldiers and veterans tell similar stories: “There’s a lot of respect for what you did,” a Marine once told Stephen Funk (above), one of the founders of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

I hardly mean to claim that the pacifists were making converts left and right (certainly not right). It’s probable that the majority of the soldiers were little affected by these dissenters, but I’m not writing about the majority. And at many points on this zigzag path, there they were —the series of surprises, the wild cards in the deck, the grace notes or minor crescendos that cut against the standard music. As the book proceeds, you’ll glimpse both sides of these interactions — and watch them collude, as when some of them show up sick.

Also in this stream are the civilians without whom the soldiers might never have been able to get the word out, from War Resisters League founders Frances Witherspoon and Tracy Mygatt to the stalwart military law experts and volunteers, from Citizen Soldier’s Tod Ensign to the indomitable Kathleen Gilberd, co-author of Rules of Disengagement, the Politics of Military Dissent. (I know that by doing so I leave out whole swaths of equally dedicated activists who did NOT focus on dissenting soldiers, but ….) In a few cases, like my old friend Steve Morse, it worked the other way just a little; Steve went from Swarthmore to joining the Army so he could better organize soldiers, though at the time he was also part of a somewhat pernicious subset of civilians who saw in soldiers (working-class  and armed!) the  perfect recruits for their brand of socialism. (That subset has remained in action, on all sides of the political spectrum  – from Ron Paul to World Can’t Wait.)

One is for fighting, one is for fun. As better scholars than I have noted, the U.S. military has long been identified with a certain kind of exaggerated masculinity, in ways that have actually increased as those other walls kept crumbling. And the mouse in all those houses is the presence of non-gender-conforming soldiers, from the women who “passed” in the pre-20th century wars to the gays who did the same (Walt Whitman’s lover Peter Doyle or Major Alice Davey Sheldon, also known as James Tiptree Jr.). By the time we get to the 1990s, women have been welcomed into the U.S. military with mostly open arms while gays remain simultaneously criminalized and ubiquitous; the resulting fights for equal treatment, sparked in part by revelations of sexual assault of women in uniform just as gay service members really began to organize, is actually where gender could stop mattering, and stop threatening the military ethos — and thus, no longer belong in this book. Stay tuned to find out if that ever happens.

Everything old is new again. So what’s happening right now, in the dual wars that some aggregate into “the long war” or the “global war on terror?” A series of new and old surprises on all the paths above, along with some new ones enabled by technology and globalization and the sheer kick-ass defiance of the soldiers themselves.

Leo Tolstoy, Phil Ochs, Joan of Arc and other ghosts

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)

Song, Struggle and Sorrow: Phil Ochs and Victor Jara

I’ve been looking into Chile’s struggle for another project, but Phil brought me home.

Occupied With Song

On May 9th, 1974, Phil Ochs organised a concert at Madison Square Garden. “An Evening with Salvador Allende” was a tribute to Chile’s peacefully elected socialist president, and a protest against the brutal military coup that had instituted a dictatorship the previous September.

Ochs had a personal reason for organising this concert. In the immediate aftermath of the coup, soldiers poured through Santiago, imprisoning thousands of Chileans in the local boxing stadium. They turned that stadium into a death camp. One of the people they arrested was the folksinger and activist Victor Jara, already a legend in Chile and a consistent supporter of the socialist government.

“Victor Jara was a friend of mine,” Phil Ochs told Harry Hampstead after Jara’s death. Jara had introduced himself to Ochs when the latter visited Chile in August of 1971. “Why don’t you come with me and sing to the workers up in the…

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“Including the corpses, pal.” Notes from this week in soldier-dissent

A flyer/ad directed at troops concerned they’ll be deployed against protests in the wake of George Floyd. Of the 3 orgs in the caption, two are my former employers (sorta).

Last year, I joined the board of the Center on Conscience And War, feeling the need to help the last org standing after the death of my former employer, the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors. I had no idea the org would soon need to respond to the first CONUS deployment against US citizens in a half-decade. Or that this year would turn out to so closely resemble the last time that happened. A year when so many were saying “Enough! No more!” in response to police killings of Black women and men.

In this fraught time, I’ve felt compelled to leave soldier-dissent behind and use my small talents on behalf of Black lives and to uplift Black voices and stories, but soldiers (in the broadest possible sense) keep dragging me back here. In the past week alone:

  • Two long-overdue responses to the epidemic of military white supremacy, from the Pentagon and from Germany, the latter dissolving an entire SOF company so riddled with Nazis it can’t be saved.
  • In the Washington Post, Greg Jaffewrites about the triply-betrayed platoon whose commander, Clint Lorance, was pardoned by Trump after/for his unspeakable crimes.
  • And speaking of triply betrayed, the death of PFC Vanessa Guillen at Fort Hood calls forth the ghosts of LaVa Johnson and other women left for dead by the military machine. I keep thinking about a father of one of is them passing out photos of his uniformed daughter, from before she ended up dying under suspicious circumstances. The fact that noticing this still counts as dissent is gutting.

Not to mention the media clinging to generals who stood up to Trump. Fred Kaplan as the expert on this at Slate? We can do better than that.

And the post title? From the quote I’ve used as an avatar for decades, from the great John Berryman:

— It takes me so long to read the ‘paper,
said to me one day a novelist hot as a firecracker,
because I have to identify myself with everyone in it,
including the corpses, pal.’

Photo: A flyer/ad developed for outreach to troops subject to CONUS deployment during the protest,

the mother of all injustices

Right this second I’m listening to the Supreme Court debate Native American treaty rights, but first I had to watch the West Wing episode above, which asks its Native characters how they keep fighting amid the “mother of all injustices.” The answer, of course, is a question: “What’s the alternative?”

As a non-Native journalist, I know that my words aren’t the ones that count here as McGirt is being argued: better to read Ruth Hopkins at Indian Country Today, or the Twitter feed of Debbie Reese. But I listen in part because I’ve written a little about the Mashpee Wampanoag, the tribe featured in most tales of the First Thanksgiving. That Nation is at this moment in danger of being “disestablished” by the Dept of the Interior, an issue being fought in court right now. As the Harvard Crimson explains well, the Mashpee have been fighting for sovereignty for 200+ years. Indian Country Today tells us that on May 20, in DC, the tribe already fighting the pandemic will stand up and tell the court why it should not be disestablished.

Neither ICT, the Crimson nor the Justices mention William Apess, who I’ve been reading, writing and thinking about for more than a decade, including on this blog. Though that 2011 post doesn’t give you why Apess, a soldier in the War of 1812 born to a Pequot father and formerly enslaved mother, led me to the Mashpee:

“Apess’ last home was in Boston, a hotbed of anti-removal activism. In 1832, William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, whose masthead included a symbol of broken treaties, noted, “A short interview with [Apess] has given us a very favorable opinion of his talents and piety.” Garrison was also a key supporter when, in the following year, Apess was arrested in what the newspapers called the “Mashpee riot.”

On a visit to the Groton Pequot reservation soon after he met with Garrison, Apess was told by his father that if he truly wanted to help Indians, Apess had to go north and minister to the Mashpee. A tiny, 329-strong nation, the Mashpee had tried without success to disrupt their absentee overseers, but were blocked by an assigned, Harvard-paid white Congregationalist missionary. When Apess arrived, the Mashpee adopted him so that he could advocate for them. He either wrote or heavily influenced the petition with an accompanying four-point autonomy plan that the tribe presented to Governor Josiah Quincy. The petition mentioned Mashpee warriors who had died while in the Continental Army.

Apess was certainly at the Mashpee plantation when four white lumbermen showed up and began to cut wood from the tribal forest, only to be informed by some large, armed Indians that they had better stop and leave. Governor Quincy, reportedly fearing a Nat Turner-style rebellion, sent in the state militia and ordered the “rioters” arrested, including the “Indian preacher.”

For the next six months, Apess became famous and/or notorious, in the now-classic role of civil-rights-organizer-as-outside-agitator. One issue of The Liberator swooned over Apess’ statement before the state House of Representatives. “He illustrated the manner in which extortions were made from the poor Indians, and plainly declared that they wanted their rights as men and as freemen,” Garrison wrote. The following year, with support from “Garrisonian” legislators, a far-reaching law gave the Mashpee more autonomy over their lands.[i]

Such limited victories hardly spelled the kind of justice for which Apess was riding around the country. His final work was the passionate Eulogy for King Philip, referring to Metacom, the 17th-century Wampanoag leader who had fought the Puritans. “Does it not appear that the cause of all wars was and is: That the whites have always been the aggressors, and the wars, cruelties and blood shed, is a job of their own making, and not the Indians?”[ii] |


[i]       Kim McQuaid, “William Apess, Pequot: An Indian Reformer in the Jackson Era. “The New England Quarterly,” 50: 4 (1977), 605-625.

[ii]      The Black Panthers,150 years later, could have borrowed that sentence intact.”

The above has just been officially copyrighted by New Press, along with the rest of Da Book (pre-order now if you like). I found Apess as I was looking for Native soldier-dissenters, previously only represented in Ain’t Marchin’ by Simon Girty, a “White Indian” who deserted the Continental Army when he witnessed open genocide. Now, I find myself thinking Apess would address that May 20 hearing with the same answer given by that Native character on The West Wing, seeing no alternative than a return to the battlefield.

I can only hope that his story will be present that day, and that it helps cut the base out from under the foundational injustice.