reality winner and the politics of grief

What comes to your mind when you hear the name Reality Leigh Winner?

i asked on social media, and got a range of responses: including “Exploited mistaken fool” and “traitor.” No one mentioned anything on my list, but  that’s OK: The words that cram my mind are both predictable and self-contradictory. Power lifter?Millennial? Russia? Trump? “That’s really a name?” Veteran? Drone analyst? Prisoner?Defendant? Security clearance?

For now, I’m settling on two: Veteran and Whistleblower.   That’s Winner in the spring of 2017, when she came across evidence (since publicly confirmed) that the Russian government had successfully hacked into some U.S. voter registration lists. She was spending her days, as an intelligence contractor, facilitating drone strikes in the Middle East, which under Trump have escalated the number of civilian casualties. She was doing that job while she sought opportunities to do humanitarian work overseas, where she might make amends for that damage. Her interest in doing so is now seen by prosecutors as “anti-American,” of which another veteran said to me last night: “Hey, I’ve gone abroad, I’ve done humanitarian work. Am I anti-American too?”

Kerry Howley’s  amazing New York Magazine Winner profile  quotes her boyfriend, about her work on drones: “It was definitely traumatizing…You’re watching people die. You have U.S. troops on the ground getting shot at, you miss something, a bomb goes off, and you get three people killed.” I thought of Brandon Bryant, Heather Linebaugh, and Lisa Ling when I read that. (Those names should be familiar to readers of this blog, as well as from the films National Bird and the underrated DRONE.)

The 2017 leak attributed to Winner, published by The Intercept, had nothing to do with drone strikes,  but the connection is clear to me. If there’s reason to mistrust the president who’d have been her commander-in-chief had she not left the military in 2016, she found reasons for that mistrust in her job as a contractor . She likely knew enough about the whistleblowers I’ve covered here to sense that official channels didn’t exist for what she wanted: an open discussion of these facts.

Another keyword that occurred to me, largely from the Howley profile: grieving daughter. My father-in-law died last spring, giving me a front-row seat to my wife’s journey through the year after. Winner’s father died on December 21, 2016. She wrote in a letter to Howley, “I lost my confidant, “someone who believed in me, my anger, my heartbreak, my life-force. It was always us against the world … It was Christmastime and I had to go running to cry to hide it from the family.” If her FBI investigators had any emotional intelligence, they could have evaluated her rage-filled anti-Trump social media posts with that searing fact in mind, especially since December 2016 was also when the Trump campaign became our political reality.

Instead, they’ve approached her from day one as an enemy combatant, not entitled to Miranda rights or other Constitutional protections. Most recently, they responded to a motion from her attorneys by holding a private session with the judge and the Classified Security Officer, whose proceedings are too secret for you and me.

I wonder how that session will affect this month’s hearing in Augusta, Georgia, on that same motion. I plan on being there to find out.


Marianne Hamilton, Presente! Peace Activist and Co-founder of Women Against Military Madness

I don’t remember when I first heard of MAMM, it feels so essential. Rest in power, Sister Marianne,

Rise Up Times

Her opposition to war and quest for peace, based in Minnesota, ranged across continents and took her from Vietnam to other parts of Southeast Asia and Central America.   

By Carol Masters  WAMM Newsletter  Volume 35, Number 6  December 2017

Marianne was gracious, kind, funny, fearless, and persistent—some of the words her friends and colleagues use to describe her. We remember and miss her throaty and reassuring voice, her dazzling smile.

She was a founding mother of Women Against Military Madness (WAMM), described by the Star Tribune as “the state’s most enduring antiwar organization” when it celebrated its 35th anniversary this year. She brought to the organization many gifts, not the least of which was her personal and continuing history as an activist. In a 2007 Kevin McKeever vimeo, she describes herself as the precocious child of socially engaged Catholic parents. Her mother, Sally DeFay, encouraged her in public…

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Listen to Matthew Hoh

I’ve been hoping to interview Matthew Hoh for nearly a decade, and hope to meet him next month: but meanwhile you can see this from his blog.”The most important things American veterans can do is to speak openly and plainly about what they saw during their time in the military, what they took part in the wars, and what they truly believe the purposes of the wars and the American military is. It is hard in America for people to speak against the military and the wars, because we have a culture that celebrates war, violence and the military, but veterans must find the courage to do so because through their witness and testimony people can understand the realities and the truths of America’s wars, empire and imperialism.”

An interview I did with Mohsen Abdelmoumen and the American Herald Tribune: Mohsen Abdelmoumen: You are a member of the Center for International Policy. Can you tell us about the missions of this organization and what is its impact on American politics? Matthew Hoh: The Center for International Policy (CIP) is a think tank located […]

via Militarism Is One of the True Religions of the United States — Matthew Hoh

For Constitution Day, a few days late

Or, what our dissenting soldiers might have thought of the 1787 Constitutional Convention.

In Philadelphia that September, President Washington joined many signers of the Declaration of Independence to discuss revision of the Articles of Confederation, the document governing the way the country was put together. Many came with ideas: James Madison had drafted a “Virginia Plan” which contained a bill of rights, to spell out what was contained in “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.”

By then. Pennsylvanian Jacob Ritter was a busy shoemaker/preacher, converting others to the Society of Friends while traveling to sell his shoes to southern Quakers. Matthew Lyon was representing Vermont in Congress, publishing Federalist newspapers. Daniel Shays had built a fortified village in Vermont for his family, and was in touch with Regulators back home (Alas, no one has turned up any records of interaction between Lyon and his accidental neighbor.). All three, one we can be reasonably sure, followed the Convention as it was reported in the newspapers — perhaps even in Lyon’s own  Fair Haven Gazette.

Ritter, Shays and Lyon likely noticed, if too politic to mention, how few of the 55 delegates had themselves been soldiers on the front lines; Lyon certainly noticed  his soon-enemy John Adams and his well-known medical militia waivers. There were storied generals, between Commander-in-chief Washington, Pennsylvania’s John Armstrong Sr. and Jr, and Pierce Butler, who’d mobilized southern patriots to retake Charleston from the British. But to find any of lower ranks, one must dig into the fine print of delegates’ biographies, e.g.  Connecticut’s Thomas Mifflin, Army Quartermaster General until 1780.  This was a gathering of politicians and intellectuals, from Alexander Hamilton to Benjamin Franklin.  Delegates were bankers, landowners, owners of small factories; some were slave-owners.

Among delegates’ few truly shared beliefs was that they did not want to put soldiers in charge. Indeed, very few topics consumed the convention more than that of how to simultaneously defend the new nation and avoid oppressive standing armies like those of the empire.  Lyon and Shays, having started as militiamen and small farmers, were likely cheered as the Second Amendment affirmed a “well-regulated militia” as the country’s the principal defender, and set some guidelines for those militias’ future.

But where in that scheme were the likes of Jacob Ritter, or the Quakers young Colonel Washington had admired, or other doves in uniform? “This was called the land of liberty, and yet we are going to make a respectable class of citizens pay for a right to a free exercise of their religious principles?” asked delegate Aedanus Burke, a South Carolina judge deeply affected by his own militia service.

The writers of the Constitution listened, at least at first. James Madison’s first draft of the Second Amendment contained explicit language to protect the rights of conscience: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed, a well-armed and well-regulated militia being the best security of a free country; but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.” This “conscience clause” survived weeks of negotiations before it was jettisoned, its implied national jurisdiction over state militias unacceptable to many Southern legislators already angered by the Quakers’ explicit anti-slavery position.

Even Burke, the pacifists’ unlikely ally, said of the Friends’ antislavery petitions: “it gives particular umbrage that the Quakers should be so busy in this business. That they will raise up a great storm against themselves appears…very certain.” The centuries to come would not contradict him.

Quakers were among the interests represented at the state conventions then convened to discuss the new constitution. Their sessions were notoriously brutal, from Vermont to Virginia. Lyon covered in his Federalist newspaper the proceedings of that of his home state. Daniel Shays, still a fugitive, was also in Vermont, in the fortified village he’d built for his family, but some of his fellow regulators were aggressive participants the Massachusetts convention. On February 3, 1788, Madison wrote to Washington that “We have in the Convention 18 or 20 who were actually in Shay’s army,” naming them among the “three parties opposed to it—1. all men who are in favour of paper money & tender laws; those are more or less in every part of the State. 2. all the late insurgents & their abettors. In the three great western Counties [the insurgents] are very numerous.”[1]

Then John Hancock, recently elected governor of Massachusetts, brokered the “Massachusetts Compromise”, in which the bill of rights drafted by Madison was explicitly added to the published Constitution. Hancock was also in the process of negotiating a pardon for Daniel Shays, which became final in 1788.[2] No explicit mention was made, in either the Compromise or the pardon, of Shays’ possible role in the nation’s Constitution.

While Shays got to go back home and congratulate his peers on their victory, Matthew Lyon was about to test that constitution’s boundaries, even if it was from a jail cell.


when the big hurricane killed 400 vets

key-largo-poster-282-by-365I keep wondering why, as Hurricane Irma’s storm surge barreled toward the Florida Keys, no one has thought to mention the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 — if only for the Humphrey Bogart clip, or the Ernest Hemingway article,’Who Killed the Vets?”

A new bridge between two of  Florida’s Upper Keys, Lower Matecumbe and Windley Key,  employed 700 veterans,  most encamped on the margins in the then-sleepy beach.  “Some of them were punch drunk and some of them were smart; some had been on the bum since the Argonne almost and some had lost their jobs the year  before last Christmas; some had wives and some couldn’t remember; some were good guys and others put their pay checks in the Postal  Savings and then came over to cadge in on the drinks when better men were drunk; some  liked to fight and others liked to walk around the town; and they were all what you get after a war.” In Islamorada, the closest thing to a nearby town, children being told to stay away from the strange men.  Then came 1935, and the worst hurricane anyone had ever seen.

The Labor Day Hurricane, still the most devastating in American history, took Key West by surprise, after forecasts predicted  an ocean landfall. Instead, it erased most of Matecumbe’s trees and buildings, and a train sent to rescue the veterans was crushed in its winds. The veterans were left alone.

“Panicked men flailed blindly, their limbs tangling with those of others clawing just as wildly in return.” Ernest Hemingway, who now owned a home in Key West, was outraged, convinced that the train for the vets had been ordered too late. He got the lefty magazine New Masses to underwrite a reporting trip, and to publish the result, entitled “Who Murdered the Vets?”

A few years later, Maxwell Anderson’s hit play Key Largo featured the hurricane in its narrative about the Spanish Civil War, a project then seized by John Huston for a movie starring Humphrey Bogart,

Huston turned the Maxwell Anderson project into a troubled veteran’s story.

We weren’t making all the sacrifice of human effort and lives.. .to return to the kind of a world we had after the last world war. We were fighting to cleanse the world of ancient evils. Ancient ills.

Huston was trying, like  Bogart’s character, not to give in to cynicism and fear. That wasn’t easy: 1947 was full of both.

While Huston was turning a Hollywood sound stage into Key Largo’s Florida, a “Loyalty Program” began in Washington, with government-mandated “loyalty oaths” and FBI investigation of anyone suspected of Communist ties.  And the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), including a California freshman named Richard Nixon, had decided to investigate Hollywood. That summer  Ayn Rand and Gary Cooper testified at HUAC hearings about pro-Communist themes in movies like Robert Benchley’s “Song of Russia.” Back in  Hollywood, gossip queen Hedda Hopper took up the cause of forcing every studio to require such oaths of their writers and stars.

Huston’s answer, along with Signal Corps peer William Wyler, was the Committee for the First Amendment, whose members included Humphrey Bogart,  Albert Einstein and Lewis Milestone, who’d followed his Signal Corps tour by making All Quiet on the Western Front.  Wyler told reporters that the “current climate” would have precluded his 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives,  whose soldier-protagonists come home with shattered limbs, marriages and psyches (one, played by Dana Andrews, screams in his sleep every night).    In October, during the trial of the Hollywood Ten, Huston borrowed Howard Hughes’ plane to take a raft of  celebrities to Washington, D.C. with great fanfare. Fur-clad Hollywood stars in their own TWA jet nearly overshadowed the committee’s own theatrics.

But  the Committee was deflated after that trial, in which member after member of the Ten refused to speak. (Bogar even disowned the project on the cover of Photoplay: I’m No Commie”). HUAC raged on with help from the Federal Bureau of Investigation,  destroying the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions (HICCASP), accusing  it sheltering commies” in Hollywood.  

By 1948,  FBI attention was also focused on another group of young veterans, far beyond the movies:  returning African-American soldiers who found themselves resisting Jim Crow laws. This  included Medgar Evers, who’d come home remembering that Europeans “treated him just like he was one of the people,” his sister said later. “Not black or white.” Evers and his brother Charles Evers had both returned believing their father, who said that their service would make society “treat them with dignity. My children will be able to vote. ” It also included Lt. Jack Robinson, court-martialed in 1944 for refusing to go to the back of an interstate bus. Robinson’s action occurred  two years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Morgan decision declared such segregation unconstitutional– and three years before Robinson first took the plate at Ebbets Field, breaking the major leagues’ color barrier.

Some loose thoughts about Jacob Ritter (1757-1841)

Gaol_in_Walnut_Street_Philadelphia_Birch's_views_plate_24_(cropped)He didn’t speak English when he joined General Washington’s army.

And by 1790, he was both a combat veteran and a torture survivor.

No wonder he became and stayed a Quaker.


A careful reading of his 1840 memoir (a smash in Quaker circles)  yields both facts, but I confess I was too distracted by what I already knew was there: his account of becoming a conscientious objector during the Battle of Brandywine.

Now, after reading more carefully about his time as a prisoner of war in Philadelphia under cruel British Colonel Cunningham, I’m realizing that as a student of PTSD, I have a lot more to learn from him than I’d thought.

This summary of Ritter’s experience in that prison has the basics: “Historian Watson interviewed a survivor of the Walnut Street Jail some years after the War’s end. The veteran, Jacob Ritter, recalled that prisoners were fed nothing for days on end and were regularly targets of beatings by the British guards. The prison was freezing as broken window panes allowed snow and cold to be the only blankets available to the captives. Ice, lice, and mice shared the cells. Desperate prisoners dined on grass roots, scraps of leather, and “pieces of a rotten pump.” Rats were a delicacy. Upward of a dozen prisoners died daily. They were hauled across the street and slung in unmarked trenches like carcasses from an abattoir.”

That excerpt doesn’t mention that Ritter was beaten severely because he turned down English pounds offered by Cunningham if this young man was willing to defect to the British Army.

Or that when he was released, it was into the care of a local Quaker, trusted by the British to get Ritter safely home.

On top of his memories of standing at Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania while mortars rained on him, Ritter had those beatings, those days without food or water. His early twenties were laced with trauma. I’m kind of amazed he could talk.

Right now, he’s inspiring me to open my first chapter — and thus the entire book — with his story, instead of Matthew Lyon’s.

But I also may finally check out my local Friends meeting, to see what yields such strength.






A Quaker at the Battle of the Brandywine, 1777

Should my book START with this guy?

Christopher Densmore

Jacob Ritter and a Vision of Light, 1777 

 The Battle of the Brandywine,September 11, 1777, was fought in the midst of a largely Quaker inhabited region of Pennsylvania, and the major clash between the British and Patriot forces took place around the Birmingham Friends Meetinghouse. While the battlefield site and museum recall the single day of conflict, the presence ofBirminghamand Old Kennett Friends meetinghouses should recall a commitment to peace. While September 11, 1777, was for most a day of battle, for one twenty year old Pennsylvania soldier, it was the beginning of a commitment to peace.  Among the solders defending the crossing at Chadds Ford was Jacob Ritter from Bucks County. Jacob was the child of German immigrants who came to America as indentured servants. He had youthful doubts about war, but his misgivings were overcome by a sermon from his Lutheran pastor on the duty of  “standing…

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