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:

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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?

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bowe bergdahl, who walked away from Omelas

bergdahl

I meant to post this eons ago, before Bowe Bergdahl returned to duty and began facing the prospect of court-martial for desertion. But it’s actually time now, with the new-sorta war that has everyone I know on tenterhooks — including/especially those who, like Bergdahl, have spent time in the Sandbox wondering why,

Imagine how much more you’d be if after three months home, and six weeks after talking to Army investigators, you were in limbo at Fort Sam Houston with no idea when or if your life will transform again.His attorney, the sterling mensch Louis Fidell, told reporters this week that he feels like “the Maytag repairman…I’m just waiting for the phone to ring.” That hasn’t stopped the professional talkers, from Fox News to the House of Representatives, from using Bergdahl’s release last spring as a political boomerang thrown at President Obama.

Despite all the time and spilled pixels, it feels like we know less about Bergdahl than we did when he was still a Taliban prisoner and we had only Michael Hastings’ vivid 2012 Rolling Stone portrait.  What we have instead is speculation, and the understandable anger from members of the unit he walked away from, never to return, and measured words from his parents and his attorneys.

In The Nation, Robert Musil fell back on stories of Vietnam-era deserters, to  urge  compassion for”an American kid stranded in the middle of Afghanistan who feels he has no choice but to go away from his unit.” Telegraph UK writer Tim Stanley wrote about Bergdahl, “The rebellious soldier is a paradox that is hard to process.” That word ‘paradox’ was also used by AP’s Martha Mendoza, which calls Bergdahl’s story ” a complicated paradox surrounding a complicated man.” Her narrative includes the soldier’s homesschooling with Calvinist parents, his progressive/hippie college girlfriend, his fantasies of heroism with the Foreign Legion before enlistment and his agonized letters home from Afghanistan.

The New Yorker’s John Cassidy turns to literature to unlock the puzzle: “If anything, he sounds more like Captain Yossarian, the antic antihero of Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22”—who considers his superiors to be nuts and eventually goes AWOL—than Sergeant Brody, the double-dealing protagonist of “Homeland.” In his early twenties, engaged in a war on the other side of the world that many people, including his Commander-in-Chief, would ultimately decide was counterproductive, Bergdahl, seemingly, had had enough.”

Another story that occurred to me, reading the Hastings profile, is Ursula Le Guin’s classic  “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”  In that oft-taught parable,  the inhabitants of a Utopia are shown the suffering that makes their comfort possible. Most accept it, but a few leave their home, trudging without belongings toward a city hard to fathom. “I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

Similarly, Hastings writes, “Bowe Bergdahl had a different response. He decided to walk away,”  a  sentence written after describing the alternative:  “Active ­duty soldiers in the U.S. Army are currently committing suicide at a record rate, 25 percent higher than the civilian population. Other soldiers lash out with unauthorized acts of violence: the staff sergeant charged with murdering 17 Afghan civilians in their homes last March; the notorious “Kill Team” of U.S. soldiers who went on a shooting spree in 2010, murdering civilians for sport and taking parts of their corpses for trophies. Many come home permanently traumatized, unable to block out the nightmares.”

A Times editorial added that “Thousands of soldiers desert during every war, including 50,000 American soldiers during World War II. As many as 4,000 a year were absent without leave for extended periods during the Iraq war. They leave for a variety of reasons, including psychological trauma, but whatever their mental state, it is the military’s duty to get them back if they are taken prisoner.” And not to make assumptions about their mental state either before or after such an ordeal.

That applies to us, too. To me, even though I’m currently contemplating including Bergdahl in my title. Because we still don’t know anything.

 Telegraph UK’s Tim Stanley does what I’d be tempted to do: state that the case shows ” the damage to a nation’s psyche caused by a controversial war,” note all the auxiliary issues civilians wrestle with at times like this, and conclude:  “Bowe Bergdahl should never have been in Afghanistan in the first place. Bush should never have sent him there; Obama should have brought him home sooner. War makes a Hell of men’s lives.”  I agree, but it’s not enough.

Before I write a word about Bergdahl in this book, I need to do much more reporting. I really want to talk to Matthew Hoh, himself a soldier-dissenter, who knows the family and spoke clearly about Bergdahl’s journey for CNN:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T7M33hz69A0%5D

I can only hope to talk to his attorney, one of the nation’s best-known specialists in military law, who I talked to very occasionally in the CCCO days. And just as with Chelsea Manning,  I know there’s no way I can interview the man himself, and thus am skittish about writing any actual commentary of my own here.

I’ll instead give the last word to that attorney, Eugene Fidell — via Sig Christensen, who’s 10X the journalist I’ll ever be and who wrote last week’s story on the Army’s delay.   “Fidell wouldn’t discuss Bergdahl’s activities here but said his client wants to focus on his education once out of the Army. “His time is up. His enlistment has long since expired. He wants to go to college [..] There are many bridges that have to be crossed before he has to make a decision on where he’s going to live.”

yet another mash note to Dexter Filkins

I’ve been impressed with the work of Dexter Filkins since long before I started on my own zig-zag path to this book. When I made the Iraq war the theme of a writing class I was teaching at La Guardia Community College in 2004, I found Filkins’ reporting from Iraq essential reading, and even assigned one of his Fallujah stories as basis for discussion. (Thanks to your reporting from Fallujah, sir, I still dream about steel rain.) I actually did write such a mash note when Filkins won his fellowship from the Nieman Center for Narrative Journalism, where he wrote the hard-to-forget The Forever War.

So it was as much for Filkins’ prose as his subject’s that I went to his piece this week in the New York Times Book Review. And Filkins’ lede reminded me why:

War is too weird a thing to make sense of when it’s actually happening. It’s not just the combat, which by its nature is unintelligible. Armed conflict so fundamentally alters the environment it takes hold of that no aspect of life escapes undistorted: not love, not friendship, not sleep, not trust, not conversation. In war, even boredom is strange.

And memory is surreal, as many vets have told us for years. Filkins is a poet at heart, as are many of the warrior writers he mentions in this review — including Phil Klay, whose short-story collection Redeployment is already winning awards.

Unknown-1“In Klay’s hands,” Filkins writes, “Iraq comes across not merely as a theater of war but as a laboratory for the human condition in extremis. ‘Redeployment’ is hilarious, biting, whipsawing and sad. It’s the best thing written so far on what the war did to people’s souls.”

George Packer, another inspiring journalist, also checked in with his thoughts on  Klay and many vet-scribes. His lede draws from the ones who sang World War I and got us all to do the same: “‘Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected,’ Paul Fussell wrote in “The Great War and Modern Memory,” his classic study of the English literature of the First World War. ‘But the Great War was more ironic than any before or since.’ The ancient verities of honor and glory were still standing in 1914 when England’s soldier-poets marched off to fight in France. Those young men became modern through the experience of trench warfare, if not in the forms they used to describe it. […]Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden, Isaac Rosenberg, and Wilfred Owen—who all fought in the trenches and, in the last two cases, died there—remained tied to the conventions of the nineteenth century while trying to convey the unprecedented horror of industrial warfare, a condition of existence so murderous and absurd that a romantic or heroic attitude became impossible.” He calls Klay’s book “the best literary work thus far written by a veteran of America’s recent wars,” a high bar considering how many voices are being heard.

 

That should be enough to get you to pick up the book, and maybe write its former-Marine author a mash note of your own. I might too. For now, I’d love to also thank Packer and Filkins, each ten times the journo I’ll ever and translators of hard truths. For the Virgil-lamp, and the inspiration.

in defense of channeling voices

I’ve long since added Jill Lepore to my list of people younger than I who fruitlessly I want to be when  grow up.  (Others include legal star Kimberle Crenshaw and my J-school classmate Jina Moore.) So it made sense when I learned, preparing to write this, that she’s one of ours – a ROTC dropout like Bayard Rustin, a 1980s Reagan-resister like Jeff Sharlet, a Warrior Writer.  She only went to college, she told an interviewer in 2005, because “I won an ROTC scholarship:

I really liked ROTC, actually, except I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in the military. Loved boot camp; hated SDI, the Strategic Defense Initiative. So, freshman year, there I was, in ROTC, playing sports, failing all my classes, when I got a letter in the mail. Or, well, my mother got it, and she forwarded it to me. It was from me.

In high school, I had an English teacher who was that once-in-a-lifetime teacher who shapes everything that ever happens to you. He had given us an assignment to write a letter to ourselves five years in the future, or four years into the future, whatever it was. And he was not going to read it. We had to give him money for stamps, adjusted, I thought somewhat suspiciously, for inflation. I mean, good for him, but he charged us like fifty cents. Anyway, we addressed the letters to our parents’ houses. I had completely forgotten about that letter because—did I mention?—I have a terrible memory.

Turns out, it was a very scary letter. It said, more or less, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ and it went on like that, scolding, berating: ‘If you’re not actually doing what you’re supposed to be doing, quit everything and figure out your life for God’s sake. Get on with it!’ Apparently, I was a very difficult fourteen-year-old, but not altogether lacking in foresight. It was as if I had known that I would still be the jock who was reading in the dark. So I quit. I quit ROTC. I quit sports. I had been a math major; I switched to English.

This didn’t make me ‘become a historian.’ But later, when I thought about what I did want to do, I remembered that letter, that time capsule, and I wondered what it would be like to read old letters all day, other people’s letters, to listen to the past, and I knew I wanted to do that.

Like many, I discovered Lepore through her brilliant historical-context pieces for The New Yorkerone of which led me to her lovely Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin.  On my way there, I did note that she named herself a fellow member of the I’m-Only-Happy-When-it-Rains Club, or what my friend Joshua Phillips calls “The House of Slytherin.” She describes why she took so long to be truly interested in Ben Franklin’s semi-literate sister:  at Harvard in the late 1980s, “I was sick of attics, sick of blighted girlhood….I wanted to study war. I wanted to investigate atrocity. I wanted to write about politics.” So her first books were about documenting the atrocity-born “New World,” about 18-century New York City set afire by abolitionism and untrammeled commerce. She’d already read all the work of William Apess, the main figure of my second chapter , and in 2005 published a book answering in depth my questions about Apess’ final work, “In Defense of King Philip.”

 "Philip, King of Mount Hope, from the Church's The Entertaining History of King Philip's War," line engraving, colored by hand, by the American engraver and silversmith Paul Revere. 17.3 cm x 10.7 cm (6 13/16 in. x 4 3/16 in.) Mabel Brady Garvan Collection, Yale University Art Gallery. Courtesy of Yale University, New Haven. Conn.

“Philip, King of Mount Hope, from the Church’s The Entertaining History of King Philip’s War,” line engraving, colored by hand, by the American engraver and silversmith Paul Revere. 17.3 cm x 10.7 cm (6 13/16 in. x 4 3/16 in.) Mabel Brady Garvan Collection, Yale University Art Gallery. Courtesy of Yale University, New Haven. Conn.

In 1836, Apess was writing about Metacom, the Wampanoug warrior who led perhaps the last serious effort by those indigenous to “New England” against the colonists there in the 1670s. His essay is one of thousands of documents Lepore illuminates in The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity,  Lepore’s exploration of both the facts behind those early wars and the way ‘Philip”s defeat has been memorialized by waves of writers after. Including, as we learn from the image at left, Paul Revere, who 100 years after Philip’s defeat took up his image a s a herald of resistance to the British. Lepore does so with her signature clarity,  giving generous voice to Philip’s numerous chroniclers, including Revere, Apess, and the thoroughly unpleasant Increase Mather, who saw Indians as savages from hell and the war against  them holy. More important, she lifts beautifully the scraps and fragments that help us understand a little of that earlier world, strewing details that startle: how long Philip’s severed head loomed over Kennett Square, or how many natives of Massachusetts and Connecticut were sold by the Puritans into slavery in the Caribbean. It all goes down like an insomniac bedtime story, with endnotes nearly as mesmerizing as the text. I actually read The Name of War a few months after the equally absorbing Jane Franklin book, in which those scraps and fragments are of seemingly humbler stuff — but the second book is as much about power, memory,identity as the other. And as much about violence, if you count the sort of semi-voluntary servitude that as 13 successive pregnancies and the multiple child deaths that followed. The difference, in some ways, is that Jane Franklin did write her own story, in a language we can read and greatly helped by a writer who persuades us that her story is no less a biography of America.

PTSD in 1945: let there be truth

I was excited to see Paula Span’s piece today in the Times, “No End to Trauma for Some Older Veterans.” She follows one 80-something vet in his struggles and notes that seeking help wasn’t popular in his war: “The prevailing medical advice — even for someone like Mr. Perna, who had fought in North Africa, Italy and France, who had been wounded and spent six months in a German P.O.W. camp — amounted to “put it all behind you.”

And as much as that may be true, I did feel she left out an important element, as well as the role played by one of the ‘stars’ of ‘my’ World War II chapter.

I said so in a comment  I made on the Times website. Below is the one I first wrote, which takes a stab at explaining why the truth has been so long suppressed.

The piece  is wonderfully thoughtful, and tells me tons I didn’t know. Thank you – and thanks to Mr. Pena, who agreed to go on the record.

Let_There_Light_001-550wI do wish you’d been able to slip in a reference to the John Huston film ‘Let There Be Light.’  In 1945, the Army sent Huston to Mason General Hospital in Brentwood, Long Island, to film a veterans’ psychiatric unit at there.  (One of its long-term inhabitants was Dr. Jacob Ochs ( a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge), long before his son Philip sang “I ain’t marching anymore!”)  The film is a little hokey by today’s standards, earnest young men learning to call their illnesses “psycho-neurotic anxiety disorders” while assured by doctors that “we’re conducting an education campaign” to erase the stigma. Instead, just as with San Pietro, the Pentagon moved quickly to suppress Let There Be Light. “They wanted to maintain the ‘warrior’ myth, which said that our American soldiers went to war and came back all the stronger for the experience.”

The truth was probably in between, but after seeing the film the Army immediately suppressed it from public viewing for 30-plus years.The Cold War was beginning, after all, so no call for admitting any kind of “weakness” in American men.

Interestingly, the film was just included as an “extra”  in the DVD release of The Master,  whose protagonist  is a traumatized WWII vet.

Thanks again for this piece. I hope it gets some families to seek help.

I watched the film when I was just starting out on this book, before learning that Phil Ochs’ dad had been a patient there.  I look forward to seeing it again,and posted the whole thing here in case you don’t want to spring for the Blu-Ray.

Why Bradley Manning belongs here

WWI_FortMeade I’m already getting assailed for including in my title Bradley Manning, who so many have already branded a traitor — even some vets who are themselves in the book draw the line at what he’s done. But as mesmerized as I am by the case, I’m even more mesmerized by the way it’s galvanized so many people — some soldiers/vets, some civilians like me who’ve internalized that old VVAW slogan “Love the warrior, hate the war.”  It’s why I got my butt onto that Occupy bus and went down to Fort Meade for Manning’s first pretrial hearing more than a year ago.

Here’s what it was like— something I hadn’t put up here because I thought would be the prologue to this book. As I pull my manuscript apart to reshape it, some leaves fall off that might still be worth sharing — and I thought this might explain some things. I’ve posted photos of that weekend on this blog  before, and they’re not hard to find — so the image above is simply that of old Camp Meade, back when it was an army camp instead of the intelligence-HQ Fort Meade. I’m betting that the scene outside the fort last month wasn’t that different from what I described then.

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Fort Meade, MD, December 16, 2011

The morning had already begun to chill as the bus pulled onto Reece Road long past the highway signs that said FORT GENERAL GEORGE MEADE.  Were it not for that sign, it might have seemed a suburban neighborhood like any on the Beltway, streets filled with ranch houses and McMansion where barracks once stood (thanks to the DoD Privatization Initiative). Certainly no sign that this had been, in 1917, one of the first camps built for new troops in 1917, its three infantry divisions processed 400,000 soldiers (as well as 22,000 horses and mules.). Or that seven million had done the same during World War II, including the women telephone operators known as Hello Girls, and certainly no sign of  the Vietnam-era 11th ACRBlackhorse Regiment, which had beginning in 1966 powered the Sheridan tanks arriving in Phu Hoa, South Vietnam with the then-new   Armored Cavalry Assault Vehicle.

Those were long-ago days, and all that was left of those huge posts was the intelligence units that had been at their core, now morphed into the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. To look at now, you would have to look hard to find signs of either, until you arrived at the base’s low-profile main gate, where dark-uniformed personnel waved in cars and gestured to the driver of a chartered bus, that had come all he way from New York with members of Occupy Wall Street. Most were twentysomething activists, happy to be plastered with a sticker with a photo of an Army private even younger than they. The group was directed to the lawn in front of the fort, and told it was their “designated protest area today.”

Already on the lawn were reporters sheltering their notepads from the wind shadowing a mix of weathered activists, some young (like the Occupants)  and some who looked like they could have been at Woodstock, including a scattering of veterans from wars spanning three decades. Many wore stickers or held signs with the three words being chanted by the rest: FREE BRADLEY MANNING.

Almost none of holding those signs saying “Free Bradley Manning” had even met the 24-year-old Army private in question, or even seen him. This was definitely true of the thousands of around the world who had written, rallied, or donated toward his defense and the Bradley Manning Support Network. It was even true of those who, either now or elsewhere, had worn the well-circulated mask with a photo of Private Manning’s smiling face and the words “I AM BRADLEY MANNING.” All had their own reasons for doing so, and not all of them about the case itself: some were fuzzy about the details, though all knew that Private Manning was being charged with the largest intelligence leak in 50 years.

For some supporters,  it was enough that Manning’s alleged actions challenged the U.S.’ national-security apparatus. Those opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were wowed by the probability that he had leaked footage of an Apache helicopter raid, later nicknamed Collateral Murder. “He saw what needed to be public, and made it so!”  And for most of those from the loosely-termed Occupy Network, it got even morer specific: Manning had allegedly linked diplomatic cables that are often credited with sparking the “Arab Spring”  with  long-suppressed truths about dictators Tunisia,  Yemen, Egypt, The protests in the Arab world had then helped spur the first ‘Occupy’ encampments. “I asked Why? And when I heard ‘Bradley Manning’s trial,’ I said hell yea,” a slim blond woman from Occupy Newark had told this reporter at 5 a.m., before we climbed the bus from New York’s Zuccotti Park.

Aboard that bus was also Captain Lawrence Rockwood, also a whistleblower of sorts, who’d himself been court-martialed back in 1994 when he refused to ignore conditions in Haitian prisons (during Clinton’s Operation Restore Hope). “I haven’t been back here since I was in uniform,” he said before he departed the bus.

A few feet away, talking to a reporter, was Jeff Paterson, who had refused in 1991 to board the plane taking him to the Gulf War, dragged off the tarmac in handcuffs. “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” he liked to say.

Behind Paterson was former Marine Corps Reserve lieutenant Michael Thurman, 24, who thanks to help from Paterson bore with a brand-new discharge on the grounds of conscientious objection.  “Were you court-martialed?” he was asked by Lt. Dan Choi, not that much older than Thurman  and still in his Army dress blues, though since being expelled for coming out as gay he’d mostly worn his uniform for TV or protests like these.

As morning turned to noon, the Vietnam-era rebel soldiers turned up, first recognizable from afar in their lined faces and graying heads.    A few had gotten up early enough to be allowed into the courtroom, like Nate Goldschlag, who toward the end of that war had founded one of the largest underground GI  newspapers at his German base.

The latter group hugged each other in greeting before holding signs and asking motorists to honk. Colonel Ann Wright, 64, who had quit the State Department in 2003 when war was declared against Iraq, had a voice as girlish as her round blond  face as she led a chant: “Free Bradley Now!”  Beside her was Bill Perry, who decades earlier had testified before TV cameras about atrocities he had seen in Vietnam as an Army sergeant, at a hearing in Detroit known as “Winter Soldier.”

Ward Reilly, his gray hair reaching his shoulders, wore a hand-crafted pendan, made from his mutilated dog tags, reshaped into three letters: FTA (Fuck the Army).  “I was court-martialed four times,” he told Thurman and Capt. Rockwood. “My platoon sergeant wanted to put me away for 20 years. But the platoon was short of good marksmen, we just kept getting sent back to the infantry. During Vietnam,” he explained for the civilians listening, “a prison sentence was kind of a promotion.”  The vets just laughed, in that kind of soldier-solidarity not usually available outside the American Legion.

As the sky darkened, and the air chilled further, the crowd splintered a little — some took breaks in warmer spaces, others huddled together under the Occupy tent.  Thurman went off to the theater that had been set up for remote viewing of the legal proceedings, though he hadn’t gotten admitted to the courtroom. He came back and sad he’d seen Nate Goldschlag stand up and shout “Bradley Manning is a hero!” before being ushered out by military police. Goldschlag was exuberant, only somewhat because he knew his outburst would lead the evening news.  Less exuberant at end of day was Lt. Dan Choi, who said he had been manhandled by security as they escorted him out of the courtroom. “They tore my dress blues!”

Some chapters of Veterans for Peace had brought identifying  banners, including Baltimore’s PHILIP BERRIGAN CHAPTER and the Massachusetts SMEDLEY BUTLER BRIGADE, both bearing names of vets who had famously written against war. In addition to those ghosts, supporting from afar was Daniel Ellsberg, the former Marine whose similarly huge Pentagon Papers had helped end the war in Vietnam, and Scott Olsen of Iraq Veterans Against the War and Occupy Oakland, now famous for being injured by a police tear-gas canister.

For this reporter, there were many other virtual allies at the rogue soldiers’ backs — many elsewhere that day, others long dead.  Major Hugh Thompson, who’d stopped the bloodshed at My Lai. Lt. Silas Soule, who’d done the same during an 1864 massacre against Indians. Evan Thomas, one of the World War I objectors whose tortures were vividly described by poets. As the vigil broke up, everyone knew it wasn’t near over.

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And it isn’t of course. Neither is the trial, which I’ll cover here eventually. I’m making no declarations about his heroism or not: but this is an important moment, in our “post-9/11” world, and these guys are definitely shaping it.

“Hollywood’s conscientious objector.” The subtitle wrote itself.

I’ve been reading a lot of biographies of late. These days, most are marvels of narrative nonfiction. I just finished Jean Harvey Baker’s  work on Mary Todd Lincoln,  (via Michelle Dean at the New Yorker), which taught me that the much-reviled First Lady was less a loon than a feminist that coulda been.

And sometimes  the most enjoyable part of my research for Ain’t Marching has been checking in with bios: Roy Morris’ Alone in Bad Company, about Ambrose Bierce, and Kate Larsen’s spectacular Harriet Tubman bio, Bound for the Promised Land: Portrait of an American Hero.  

coffin ayres bioAnd now I’m blown away by a book about one of my favorites in my WWII chapter: Lewis Ayres, who went from being Greta Garbo’s last silent screen kiss to being the iconic Paul Baumer in All Quiet on the Western Front to earning the apt subtitle given a new book by Lesley Coffin.  I started the book meaning to only read the opening chapters and finish it that night — and couldn’t put it down, racing to the end like a tween just gifted with The Hunger Games.

Coffin, who tweets at @filmbiographer, hooks us early with Ayres’ Minnesota childhood (he worked as a golf caddy at 10 years old and dropped out of high school at 14 to help out) and his early days as a silent starlet who loved to make music.

drkildareWe then watch him grow into the singular figure that compels me, through a Hollywood lens that includes his cash cow Dr. Kildare series (at right), and a lifetime of feature and character roles.

EBRB100ZAn alert reader can see in the earnest young man the Ayres I’ve spent much time with, the one who went to the “conchie” camp in 1942 and then became one of the most famous 1-A-O objectors, training as a medic and then becoming a chaplain’s assistant as his unit deployed to Asia. (At left, YANK Magazine shows Sgt. Ayres in action.)  And true to its cinematic focus, the book also lets us in to how war first had Ayres swearing off Hollywood, promising to dedicate himself to the ministry, and then changed his mind, after he realized how important movies were to the common soldier.

I’d known about this book from its beginnings, actually. I’d tracked down Ayres’ son Justin (who looks more like his dad every day, at least from his photos on Facebook) who said to me instantly, “But you have to meet Lesley!”

I wasn’t surprised that she finished her book before I did, and am glad to report that it not only has exceeded my expectations, but taught me a lot. I hope it made it into the Christmas stockings of many movie fans, who’ll thrill to its glimpse of 50 years of Hollywood history (including Ayres’ early marriages to Ginger Rogers and his romance with Jane Wyman before she met Ronald Reagan). I AM sort of glad her only mentions of Howard Hughes were as a romantic rival, and she left out the hilarious Western Union message in which Hughes told All Quiet director Lewis Milestone how little he thought of Ayres’ acting.I’m hoping to include that one in Ain’t Marching!

It also sent me scurrying to as many of the old movies as I could find (though Kildare is kind of a jerk), and wishing I could see some of the visual art to which he devoted himself in old age. Read Coffin’s book for a multi-faceted portrait whose prose is a joy.

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