Old soldiers, new century

biercememAgain with the cutting-room floor — this time with a section I’d worried was superfluous when I wrote it, but had been 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 U.S.Colored Troops have made it, along with some “buffalo soldiers” and Philippines vets. Douglass has mostly kept quiet this week, listening as a youngish firebrand named 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, Douglass 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 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 worlds 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 African-American “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’sBuffalo 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,” ineligible 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”—sprang into action after Brownsville.

Du Bois 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 they “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. 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 n=the white man. This, however, appears to give an unsatisfactory solution.”

This droll observation. the closest Bierce ever got to acknowledging the effects of white supremacy, was 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 used 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.

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Bayard Rustin had class: a story from Todd Gitlin

bayardrustin_drtrmhoward_civil_rights_rally_may241956Which disguised his radicalism only occasionally.

A story the invaluable Todd Gitlin told me a few years back, which I likely can’t include in the book, but don’t want lost:

In the beginning of March 1965, Rustin met with former SDS president Todd Gitlin, who was considering a protest at Chase Manhattan Bank to explore potential for multi-racial, innovative organizing. Dressed to the nines and in his trademark stentorian voice, the civil-rights leader and executive secretary of the War Resisters League had an unusual message for the earnest young students. Despite his suspicion of SDS’ hard-left allies such as the the US Communist Party’s student “W.E.B. du Bois Clubs,””1 the elder organizer also told Gitlin that SDS needed to be more radical in what they sought. “He said we weren’t being militant enough,” Gitlin remembered. “We saw him representing the seamlessness of Gandhianism — and he was saying that with a week of sit-ins at Wall Street and the banks, we weren’t risking enough.”

I can almost hear the man singing.

 

 

45 years ago, people learned what had happened in My Lai

mylainewsweekAnd all  earlier drafts of my book included a sort of big-picture retelling of those events, focusing on signature dissenters like Hugh Thompson and Ron Ridenhour. Now that I’ll be referring to those events ONLY in a leaner, character-based narrative, I wanted this blog to have this version, of which I am pretty proud.

I do wonder now who’s followed up with the quieter dissenters – the guys who said no. Any miilitary reporters want to tell me?

But these are human beings, unarmed civilians, sir”

At the end of 1969, reports flooded the U.S. newspapers about an incident not dissimilar to what had apparently happened at Liberty Bridge, bearing color photos by Army photographer Robert Haeberle, taken on March 16, 1968 in the hamlet of My Lai.

Nowadays, the name “My Lai” evokes Auschwitz, calling to mind images with which the mind has trouble coping, and Nurnberg, the small city where Nazi war ctiminals were put on trial. But the story of My Lai is often also a story of a string of dissenters.

Warrant officer Hugh Thompson didn’t plan to be one, flying over the province in support of Task Force Barker, 1st Infantry of the Americal Division. Formed in 1942 to defend the South Pacific island New Caledonia, Americal was remembered at Guadalcanal, Papua New Guinea and Quang-Tri.

The week of March 15, Task Force Barker’s mission was relatively straightforward: to wipe out the Vietcong 48th Infantry. “The operation was to commence at 0725 hours on 16 March 1968 with a short artillery preparation, following which C/1-20 Inf was to combat assault into an LZ immediately west of My Lai (4) and then sweep east through the subhamlet.”i

Despite the copies of the Geneva Conventions soldiers were instructed to carry, the Division was also operating under orders that which exempted “hot spots” like My Lai from the Conventions’ protection. Directive 525-3 from the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), “Combat Operations: Minimising Noncombatant Battle Casualties,” carefully noted that “Specified strike zones should be configured to exclude populated areas, except those in accepted VC bases.ii

As he flew over the area, Thompson knew that Charlie Company had just lost 34 men in a single grenade attack. He also knew that orders since Tet named women and children as possible Vietcong. But Thompson and his crew were still astonished at what they saw from their helicopter on the 16th: “Everywhere we’d look, we’d see bodies. These were infants, two-, three-, four-, five-year-olds, women, very old men, no draft-age people whatsoever.”iii As one platoon turned their guns full force on a farmer, U.S. Army photographer Haeberle was horrified: “”They just kept shooting at her. You could see the bones flying in the air chip by chip.” Haeberle carefully photographed those corpse-filled huts in full color, even before Thompson arrived.

Thompson also left the task of investigating what had happened to his superiors: the command, he reasoned, “didn’t need me there to court-martial these renegades.”iv One of Calley’s sergeants, Michael Bernhardt, said that they were expecting an investigation, but “Some colonel came down to the firebase where we were stationed and asked about it, but we heard no further.” v The action’s official post-operation Army communique made no mention of civilian casualties, numbering the Viet Cong body count at 128 and noting that Charlie Company had recovered two M-I rifles, a carbine, a short-wave radio and enemy documents. vi

As for Charlie Company, “[Capt. Ernest ]Medina …called me over to the command post and asked me not to write my Congressman,” said Bernhardt,vii said one of a handful of Charlie Company soldiers who had not taken part in the massacre. The “lawful disobedience” practiced by this group was as varied as the war itself.

Sgt. Bunning told his squad leader that “I wasn’t going to shoot any of these women and kids.” Stephen Carter refused to shoot a woman holding a baby coming out of her hut. Paul Meadlo, who did participate when pressured by Calley, was described as “sobbing and shouting and saying he wanted nothing to do with this.” viii A year later, Meadlo told reporters who asked how: “From the first day we go in the service, the very first day, we all learned to take orders and not to refuse any kind of order from a noncommissioned officer.” Their roles that day appears to have been influenced by multiple factors including their age, whether their MOS had them were carrying light, trigger-easy M16s, their proximity to the actual giving of the illegal orders, and their personal perspective on the issue of war crimes.ix

But even the refusers never told the outside world to what had happened. It took a year before that year-long embargo was broken.

Spc. Thomas Glen, from the 11th Light Infantry, had tried in late 1968, writing the staff of Gen. Creighton Abrams that such behavior “cannot be overlooked, but can through a more firm implementation of the codes of Military Assistance Command Vietnam and the Geneva Conventions, perhaps be eradicated.”x Abrams never responded, but his assistant Major Colin Powell reprimanded Glen for speaking so vaguely, and added that “There may be isolated cases of mistreatment of civilians and POWs, [but] this by no means reflects the general attitude throughout the Division.” Just as Powell was writing, Corporal Ron Ridenhour was preparing to prove him wrong.

Ridenhour had learned the news from an old friend who had joined Charlie Company a few months earlier: “ Hey man did you hear what we did at Pinkville?…. Men, women and kids, everybody, we killed them all….We didn’t leave anybody alive, at least we didn’t intend to.” xi

Seized by “an instantaneous recognition and collateral determination that this was something too horrible, almost, to comprehend and that I wasn’t gonna be a part of it,” Ridenhour tracked down members of Charlie Company one by one. “They couldn’t stop talking,” Ridenhour said later. “They were horrified that it had occurred, that they had been there, and in the instances of all of these men, that they had participated in some way.”

In March 1969, Ridenhour wrote a letter as specific as Glen’s was vague, naming every soldier he’d interviewed and detailed their accounts, including that Capt. Medina had warned soldiers never to speak about My Lai. “I remain irrevocably persuaded,” he told the Joint Chiefs, the President and every TV network, ‘that … we must press forward a widespread and public investigation of this matter. “xii

At the closed set of hearings that resulted, Hugh Thompson and others identified the man directing the massacre as Calley. Calley insisted that he was implementing the mission set forth by his commander Captain Medina, but he was still the only one indicted for the murder of “one hundred and nine Oriental human beings.”

A freelance Pentagon reporter named Seymour Hersh soon saw the indictment. “My first thought was not wow this will end the war, but What a story!” When he went to Fort Benning to find Calley, Ron Ridenhour “gave me a company roster, and I began to find the kids.”

The resulting interviews and photos ran nationwide — the week of the moon landing in July 1969. So it took some time for all of us to get this glimpse of what we know now was standard operating procedure during that war.

It certainly didn’t get mentioned during all the laudatory moon-shot retrospectives. But attention still, I think, must be paid.

(Photo: Stephen Carter and My Lai, Newsweek)

is

ii Via Gareth Porter, “ My Lai Probe Hid Policy that Led to Massacre.” Interpress Service, March 15, 2008.

iii From remarks at “My Lai 25 Years After: Facing the Darkness, Healing the Wounds,” Tulane University, 1994. Accessed via University of Missouri (Kansas City) digital resource, “Famous American Trials: The My Lai Courts-Martial,1970.” http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/mylai/mylai.htm, December 2008.

iv Fall 2003 Lecture, Center for the Study of Professional Military Ethics, United States Naval Academy, Annapolis MD.

v Seymour Hersh, Hamlet Attack Called “Point-Blank Murder”. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 20. 1969.

vi Seymour Hersh, “Lieutenant Accused of Murdering 109 Civilians.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 13, 1969, p. A1.

vii Hersh, November 20. op. cit.

viii Peers final report….

ix Rives Duncan, “What Went Right at My Lai: An Analysis of Habitus and Character in Lawful Disobedience.” Ph.D. diss., Temple University, 1992. I owe Major Duncan full credit for use of the term “lawful disobedience,” here and elsewhere.

x Via Robert Parry and Norman Solomon, “Colin Powell and My Lai.”Consortium News, October 1996.

xi “My Lai 25 Years After,” op.cit.

xii Ibid.

a bridge for Memorial Day

(The guy who sang the song above didn’t serve, but his dad Ernest sure did, spending the rest of his life in nightmares.)

The piece behind yesterday’s photos went up today at the Inquirer, with a small amount of reader mail. Ak of the latter (so far) was respectful, and some of it was of the sort that reminds one why this profession is worth something.  More than one was from people who were themselves soldier-dissenters —  some others local Quaker types, one of whom writes:

I really like your commentary.  It makes me feel better, more patriotic about Memorial Day.  It’s the sort of thing that’s needed annually to bridge us to those of us who oppose wars of choice and support defense with those who feel all wars we fight ought to be supported.

I guess that’s the point: you can say “Happy Memorial Day” if you note the huge losses the day was meant to honor.

Have a great weekend.

On Memorial Day, remember these priests, poets, politicos and pranksters!

That’s how I’ve tended to characterize the huge, diverse and boisterous movement working to stop the U.S, war against Vietnam, 1963-1975. I should have written an essay here about them last month, for the anniversary of the 1975 evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, but I could barely fit them in a chapter for the book.

A surprising number of the above, though, were recent veterans of World War II, who then popped into mind during the anniversary of V-E Day; so I wrote something that will run tomorrow in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Given space constraints, I’m informed there won’t be a photo: so here’s a photo preview of those included in the piece, which wasn’t even all of those in the movement. An honor roll of some for whom Memorial Day was an open wound, in their hearts every day:

 

 

Rev. William Sloane Coffin, greeting POW Americans in North Vietnam.

Rev. William Sloane Coffin, greeting POW Americans in North Vietnam.

 

  • Former Army intelligence officer William Sloane Coffin, founder of the hugely influential Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV).

 

 

 

 

  • howardHoward Zinn, whose long career as an historian, organizer and inspiration to us all was preceded by the young (already anti-fascist) bombardier seen at right.

 

  • Burning draft cards in Catonsville. Md.

    Burning draft cards in Catonsville. Md.

    Philip Berrigan, survivor of the Battle of the Bulge, shown here in prhaps the moment symbolizing his work during Vietnam — one of the first stops in a lifetime of anti-militarist  civil disobedience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • William_Kunstler_Former Army cryptographer William Kunstler, who followed his Pacific service by co-founding the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represented war resisters from Berrigan, above, through the years to Gulf War objector Colleen Gallagher in 1991. In  1968, his face and voice became inescapable during the trial of the Chicago Seven, as at right.

 

 

 

 

  • Kurt-Vonnegut-US-Army-portrait (2)And this skinny little private was Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, captured in the Battle of the Bulge, he became a prisoner of war — and turned that exoeriene into one of the strongest anti-war novels ever written.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ll post the link tomorrow, which includes more on all of these. There are so many more who I couldn’t squeeze l into 750 words: not Lew Ayres and the other World War II COs, not Rev. Paul Moore, who found his pacifism after the abbatoir of Guadalcanal. But I still think this is a fine Memorial Day tribute to those lost in all our wars.

No #47traitors here;The Logan Act’s namesake just wanted peace with France

If you’ve been following national politics some, you may have heard, from both the left and the right, people naming the “Logan Act” as a way to penalize those Republican senators who sent a letter to Tehran behind Obama’s back. This isn’t the site for it, so I’ll leave it to Charlie Pierce to  explain the atrocity.

What I can do, however, is make “Logan Act” less of a partisan mantra – and explain why we care about it over here. It’s actually an oooooold amendment to the Sedition Act: not the 1917 Act, whose buddy the Espionage Act is currently being used to prosecute whistleblowers, but JOHN ADAMS’ 1798 version. Trying to make like George Bush and get on with a sorta-war with France, Adams had to contend with two soldiers, a current Army medic and one veteran-chaplain-poet, neither of whom thought the newborn nation they’d fought for should take on naval kabuki as its first order of business.

220px-GeoLoganThe ink was barely dry on the Constitution when the first of America’s Wars for Unclear Purposes began: the naval duel with France known as the Quasi-War. By the time the latter ended in 1800, two soldier-dissenters had tried to prevent it—Quaker physician/militiaman George Logan {left} and former Continental Army chaplain Joel Barlow—while Matthew Lyon, now “the asp” of colonial politics, was imprisoned for publishing his objections , calling President Adams names, and publishing “confidential” memos meant for the elite.

The two who tried to prevent it were both Francophiles. Logan, whose grandfather had been secretary to William Penn, was a physician who had spent the war attending medical school in Switzerland and traveling in Europe; upon his return, he hobnobbed with his local militia and began serving in the Pennsylvania legislature.

Fluent in French and something of early enthusiast for the French Revolution, Logan watched closely as Adams responded to French naval maneuvers, made uneasy by unresolved treaty obligations and a new U.S.-Britain treaty. Also watching closely was Yale poet Barlow, veteran of the Battle of Saratoga, now living in France, having rushed to help the French with their Revolution. Barlow wrote home and encouraged Madison to send commissioners to meet with Talleyrand, horrified when said envoys were unable to get him that appointment.  As naval insults continued and anti-French sentiment was high in Congress, Logan took it upon himself to go to France, to see if he could possibly talk to the Directory and test the waters for peace.

While Logan was taking the Quaker path and listening, back home Adams had secured new funds for the U.S. Navy and recalled General Washington in preparation for a ground war. He also acted to crack down on the Federalist press, which in classic 18th-century flavor was a flood of insults to the “tyrant” Adams. Congress then passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, the latter of which made it a crime to criticize the President. Fines were set of up to $2,000 for any person convicted of uttering, writing or printing any “false, scandalous and malicious statement against the Government of the United States; or either House of the Congress of the United States, with intent to defame… or to bring them […] into contempt or disrepute.”

There was a special Logan Amendment added to the Act, written especially for George Logan, whose freelance diplomacy was regarded as traitorous. Logan had, however, met with Talleyrand; after securing the release of some captured U.S. sailors, he sailed for home in August carrying a list of possible terms for peace negotiators. When he arrived in November, he was immediately, if briefly, arrested.

Thinking about all this is enough to turn me into Alanis – as in, “Isn’t it ironic…” To rail against GOP senators who love war against Iran by threatening to use legislation meant to stop an enthusiastic Quaker from preventing a war – that’s jujitsu of a worthy sort.

96-year-old outtake: fort leavenworth goes on strike

Even when you’re mistakenly thinking you’re taking advice from William  Faulkner. it’s not so easy to kill your darlings. I learned about the riot at Fort Leavenworth early in my natterings at the Swarthmore Peace Collection, and it’s taken a long time to declare the riot less relevant to Ain’t Marching’s story than I thought.  Most of what’s below has been now excised from the text, but you might be as compelled as I was. Drawn on a magazine story by Winthrop Lane, buddy of Emma Goldman, for its dialogue:

**********************

 

Leavenworth_View_of_Building_caThe steam hissed through the pipes, but not enough to warm the prisoners at Fort Leavenworth.

Temperatures that normally averaged just at freezing, for January in Kansas, hovered nearer the ten-degree mark. Which meant that the steam pipes kept banging and whistling, trying to keep up, and none of it cooled the blood of the 3,560 men packed together like tightened gears.

Two months after the Armistice, the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth was full to bursting. Workers on the 75-year-old sandstone fortress, on 12 acres surrounded by a 40-foot concrete wall, had built more barracks a mere two years ago, in 1917, so that it could hold 1,500 men — soldiers convicted of theft, murder, deserting the Great War. But the War itself had brought all sorts of new offenders to the prison, many of them dumped by other military installations who’d found they couldn’t handle them. In late January, if the Barracks were a person, it would have been obese, with a high fever and a case of nervous exhaustion.

Certainly Colonel Sedgwick Rice, the prison’s commandant, was trying to prevent such a state that month, when the prisoners went on strike.

The rebellion had begun with a melee after a card game between black and white soldiers, who weren’t used to being in such close quarters. Rice could deal with that. But then they’d started to refuse to work. The real problem, Rice thought, was those troublemaking conscientious objectors, who claimed to “oppose war” and simply refused to do anything. He knew some of them were from the peace churches, but others were more political, probably communist agitators. Like that Evan Thomas guy, brother of a buddy of President Wilson’s: The brawl over the card game had started after Thomas and 112 other objectors were released with $400 in each man’s pocket. Now all work had stopped: no one was cooking, or cleaning the toilets, or painting the new training grounds across the way. Now, everyone was claiming to be “on strike.”

On the morning of January 29, five days after the melee over cards, Sedgwick made his way down to the boiler room, where the strike organizers were doing their work. A large man with a relaxed bearing, he spoke matter of factly to the skinny “objectors” and tired workmen, who looked at him with a mix of rage and fear. “Who here thinks he has a grievance?” A slender young man with cheeks flushed by cold stood. Something about him, about the way he held his cigarette, told Col. Rice that the guy was a Red.

  1. Austin Simons stood carefully, for the colonel’s inspection. A poet and sometime journalist, he knew better than to be surprised when the older man asked: “Are you with the I.W.W. [International Workers of the World]?”

Simons could barely make himself heard over the steam pipes. “No, sir,” he said carefully. He knew a lot was at stake here – right now, his ability to bargain on behalf of the other soldiers. “I never belonged to that organization.”

Rice also asked if Simons was a “constitutional objector – one who objects to all forms of government and order.”

“No, sir, I do not.”

“Well, most Socialists do,” said Rice.

Others in the group approached with complaints ranging from their individual sentences to the “rotten” meat served the prisoners. “The war is over,” cried W. Oral James, a small-bodied man shivering in his thick raincoat. “The government has already released 113 of our fellows. Has it had time to investigate the justice of other claims?”

After three agonizing days, as Rice negotiated face-to-face with the prisoners and sent telegrams to Washington, the various “strike committees” assembled on February 1. Holding a telegram from the capital in his hand, Rice tried not to look as cold as he felt. He read aloud a statement from Secretary of State Dean Baker, which promised that each of their cases would be reviewed. “I fully appreciate that the cessation of hostilities and the return of conditions approximating those of peace,” Rice intoned on Baker’s behalf, “render it just and proper that clemency should now be exercised.”

It’s not recorded, even by journalist Winthrop Lane, who followed the strike carefully, whether the prisoners cheered at the words. Or whether they laughed bitterly, since the author of the statement was the chief architect of “the present war” – without which none of them would have been crowded within these walls to begin with.

Long after the Armistice was signed in November 1918, open rebellions continued to startle military authorities, including the conglomeration of deserters, CO’s and malcontents that stuffed the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks . While the uprising at Leavenworth was covered by major newspapers, especially the Chicago Tribune, the most detailed account was Winthrop Lane’s “The Strike at Fort Leavenworth,” published in the February 1919 issue of the left-leaning Survey Magazine.

Lane, who had visited Emma Goldman in prison and written famous investigations of Harlem poverty and the coal mining industry, had been hired by the National Civil Liberties Bureau to investigate Kansas jails. His perspective is thus explicit, but he was still trusted by Colonel Rice to witness their negotiations. Lane observed quickly that the prison population was singular: “In private life the soldier had been a clerk, a mechanic, a day laborer, a politician, a business man…He may have quitted his post for five minutes, he may have been absent without leave for a week, he may have intentionally deserted.”

They stood at attention or saluted when these officers passed. An unquestioning obedience was expected of them that is not expected of men in civil prison. Yet they organized themselves in the approved labor union way and presented their demands just as if they had the full power of collective bargaining.

H.A. Simons, one of the “elected representatives,” was a poet whose main obsession before the war had been whether his poems would be published in the Little Review. His educated manner helped Simons negotiate with Colonel Rice and others, but he still had to deny first that he had ever been a member of “the I.W.W.” . Pentagon sources, quoted in contemporary accounts, consistently blame the the International Workers of the World for the disturbances at Leavenworth, right up until they started blaming “the Bolsheviks.” The I.W.W., founded in 1905 and nearing the crest of its power with scores of affiliates, had long refused to endorse Wilson’s war.

Objectors were hardly immune to the time’s fervor. After the war, Simons would join his friend Wallace Stevens in writing for The Masses and for The Liberator, “the premier journal of American radicalism,” while Evan Thomas’ brother would be hailed in 1918 as “Comrade Thomas” by the “Queens Socialist Party,” having joined the Party in 1918 and just as his brother was released from prison.

Russia’s infant revolution was also exciting to some at Leavenworth, curious about “class war.” And thus began, perhaps, the nervous, complex love-hate romance between rebellious G.I.’s and the sectarian left that has lasted for nearly a century. Lane tells of the strikers’ “last soviet” with Simons, who said that one worker could be moved “but together, we are immovable.”.

The January strike was only the first in a series. The last ended in July 1919, after most of the conscientious objectors had been released and the remaining prisoners were demanding a full-fledged amnesty. Appropriate to the period, they’d nicknamed their barracks Lenine, Anarchia, and Internationale, according to contemporary newspaper accounts.

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If you’ve read this far, you may be struck by the fact that dissenting soldiers have been a tempting target for sectarian-left organizers for as long as both have existed. I still wonder how  this will end up in the book. Any suggestions?