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.