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

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

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

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

==============================================

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sign Up for our Newsletter
We’ll send you a weekly email with the latest articles.

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

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

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

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

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

Some notes from that exploration:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Twitter awhile back, I saw a challenge: “Describe your job in four words. I answered: “I talk to ghosts.”

I mostly meant as a gonzo-historian, something I specialized in long before the Internet : the smell of microfilm rolls of decades-old newspapers still in my nose. Now, give a woman JSTOR ass and good Google-fu, and she finds manifold ways to get herself in trouble.

Encouraging me in those tendencies is my newest mostly-unpaid side hustle: I recently agreed to coauthor a chapter of a new Oxford Handbook of Peace History. I was honored to be asked, but the research has sure made my brain more crowded. Just a few:

 Leo Tolstoy, whose pacifism was recently highlighted in the NYTimes in ref to policing, has intrigued me ever since I learned he mentored Gandhi long distance. I’ve dreamed of writing a play based on their correspondence and now that I’m on CCW’s board, drawn those “Tolstoyan” communities like the one Gandhi constructed in South Africa. (Were those in Gandhi’s all “colored” and actively resisting racism as well? How about elsewhere?) Of course Tolstoy apparently hated the idea (“I’m a writer, not a  cult leader!”)

But what has got me thinking and writing about him was perhaps the most surprising part of his peacenik bio: running a one-man GI Rights Hotline with Russian soldiers turned conscientious objectors. The famous novelist corresponded with COs, some of them inspired by his writing,, got them lawyers and sweet-talked their commands. He bore witness when some were “tortured by cold, hunger and solitary confinement.” All of this via Peter Brock, who began his career with a book about pacifism “from Jesus to Tolstoy” and knew more about this kind of writing than I ever will.

Confession: I abandoned War and Peace because the gossip of privileged Moscow families in the opening chapters bored me. I keep buying books about him but not engaging with his own prose;, but I’d better get past those warm-up chapters and into the book’s heart. In the meantime, there’s this short story, which my brain wants to re-title “Witness as Counter-Recruitment.”

Tolstoy also had traffic with Quakers, including Aylmer Maude, the first translator of his anti-war opus. “The Quakers sent me books, from which I learnt how they had, years ago, established beyond doubt the duty for a Christian of fulfilling the command of non-resistance to evil by force, and had exposed the error of. the Church’s teaching in allowing war and capital punishment.”

Tolstoy didn’t live long enough to witness their work during World War I, let alone my newest rabbit hole the Quaker Tapestry. Designed along the lines of the Bayeaux one, the Tapestry was the 1981 creation of a London Friends meeting, but its look deceives the eyes: when I saw its panel on conscientious objection, I dreamt it as much earlier, read by the likes of Wilfred Owen. Now that I’ve finally dated it properly, I’m wishing instead I’d been a fly on the wall when its founder talked to Cynthia Enloe. The panel has power, though; Tolstoy would have been all in.

So would Phil Ochs, the guy whose music gave us the book and blog’s title. He’s soundtracked my life at least since I was in college and writing a deeply mediocre play about a Vietnam draft resister, with his albums on repeat. (Though I ahistorically chose a different song for that play’s title, ”Too Many Martyrs” about Medgar Evers, but that which teases a different rabbit hole entirely). In my heart ever since, especially after the biopic his brother produced after I started writing this book, Ochs answers my call even when more current research spills over into his zone. This week that meant Chile, when I was reading/annotating an essay by Pelao Carvallo about the CO movement there.  I found myself Googling “Phil Ochs friend Chile” because I forgot Victor Jara, his soulmate in political music, with whom he was also detained in Uruguay and nearly renditioned to Bolivia, a year before the coup against Salvador Allende that also ended Jara’s life.

There were reasons for Ochs and Jara to be in Uruguay then, scary ones. During Uruguay’s military dictatorship, according to War Resisters International, “many military personnel were tried for disobedience or desertion and reasons other than refusal to obey orders were found for inflicting punishment. There were cases of military personnel who were court-martialled for fictitious charges, imprisoned and, on their release, discharged from the forces with the loss of all rights. Frequently, they were badly tortured.” By then Ochs had been singing with/for/of dissenting soldiers for years and I can’t help but wonder if some of those soldiers’ families, or those from the Chilean regime that preceded Allende had reached out to him or to Victor Jara. If I do end up doing an international version of I Ain’t Marching Anymore, those stories might belong there alongside the objectors WRI has tracked so well

Pelao Carvallo’s Chile also notes that pre-Pinochet Chile “geographically extended its borders by way of invading the territories of… indigenous people (Mapuches, Rapanuises, Onases, Kaweshkars, Yámanases, Tehuelches, and so on) through wars.” Those ghosts in all our minds.

I’ll close this essay with the ghost I’ve danced with longest: the French teenager that invented two of humanity’s worst ills, artillery and nationalism. Given the thread above, I do wonder what French antimilitarists make of the saint who forged worshiped both–or if any of them, like me, think about Jehanne Darc a lot.

I still remember the small Catholic teen biography of Joan of Arc I got from a dear aunt and uncle, during those years when I still called myself Catholic.  Being me, I only reattached to her as a lapsarian adult in grad school; instructed by the great Fred Tuten to tell a ghost story, I wrote a hallucinatory piece of flash fiction imagining Jehanne Darc as a military-rape victim. Went on to write another of my lost novels from that sketch, doomed by my tendency to overstuff;  I still dream of revising it, even though it would be joining the hundreds of other  Joan novels out there https://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/joan-of-arc-fiction and even a work of narrative nonfiction by my hero Mary Gordon.

 Could finishing the job on that novel be a throat-clearing in this time before November, when I have to do nothing but ensure it gets safely out in the world? Could the firmament support a reimagining of La Pucelle from an atheist anti-war activist?  

Photo: Mohandas K. Gandhi and other residents of Tolstoy Farm, 1910. (Wikimedia Commons)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the mother of all injustices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Chapter titles: the best outtakes

In this Week Three of the U.S. coronavirus crisis, books seem more popular than ever — though as its economic impact hits home, I do find myself wondering if anyone will be buying them in November, or burning them to keep warm.

Still, Ain’t Marching is in production now, and though its official publication date’s not till November, you can already pre-order it on Indiebound or Amazon. And things are happening really fast: have spent much of the month finalizing the text one last time, and thinking about next steps.

A

Among those final changes was one eliminating my chapter titles, in favor of simple time periods (e.g.,1754-1800). But I still miss the ones I came up with, a few of which I hope to use as headlines for an article or two.

To me, Chapter One will always be A Military Born of Dissent, and Chapter Two, about the “Indian Wars,” will always be a quote from Thomas Jefferson: “They must see we have only to shut our hand to crush them.” Next, for the period historians call “antebellum,” Chapter Three was San Patricios, Bleeding Kansas, and Violent Pacifists, while the Civil War chapter was Drafted Quakers and Soldier’s Heart. The 19th century closed out with the Philippine War and the birth of U.S. global imperialism, as Chapter Five: Unfinished Business and The First “Anti-Imperialists.”

I especially miss what I called my World War I chapter, Poets in Jail and Rebels in the Snow, and the following chapter through 1945, From “All Quiet” to “Never Again.” My Cold War title, The Iron Curtain and the Sheet of Steel, came partly from a Bayard Rustin quote about those years. The chapter ends with the Fort Hood Three, just before the Vietnam chapter, which I called Vietnam: When Everything Blew Up, and Everything Grew. I don’t miss what I called my 1980s and 1990s chapters, but I will always call the final chapter The Moral Injury of The Long War.

After all, I specialize as a writer in twisting a cliche till it hurts.

Cadences, voices, and the book’s final chapter

podcast movementThis week, I received in the mail Rosa del Duca’s book Breaking Cadence: One Woman’s War Against the War. My interest in Rosa’s story is kind of a no-brainer; I’ve been thinking of people like her even before I joined the staff of the Committee for Conscientious Objectors (link is to an archive of the org’s website during my last spring there, before it dissolved after 50+ years and handed its mission to the Center on Conscience and War). The photo on Del Duca’s website even reminds me of myself in those years: Bay Area tan-ish, with gym-toned arms and a wry smile (though I was never as pretty as she). I told the folks at Ooligan Press that I wanted to review it and talk to her, and I will; but right now I need to talk about how I found her, and how this generation of Forever War vets confounds my efforts to end this book.

I discovered del Duca first through her podcast, whose subtitle is Insights from a Modern-Day Conscientious  Objector — to distinguish her, perhaps, from Vietnam-era civilian COs or World War II figures like Desmond Doss (whose biopic Hacksaw Ridge has acquainted many with the whole concept of a military CO). Hers is among a circle of many that has served as my backdrop in recent days.

I’m usually surrounded by the voices of anti-war vets, as the book slouches toward the Bethlehem of publication. But these voices are all in a medium whose power has taken time to dawn on me (a form of radio invented by the iPod).My first podcasts were the usual liberal blather from Slate and the New Yorker, as well as my guilty pleasure West Wing Weekly. My journo friends all got retrained in how to podcast, and certainly the democratic-socialist world where I volunteer is brimming with pods. Which is how, of course,  I tumbled down this rabbit hole: I discovered the DSA Veterans Working Group, which includes some of the most cogent voices from this generation of vets.

@DSAVeterans led me to Joe Kassabian, first to his addictive and powerful memoir The Hooligans of Kandahar; I had to interview Joe then, and he told me about the “anti-war lefty veteran” network of podcasts. Not just Kassabian’s own Lions Led by Donkeys podcast, but the reliably hilarious A Hell of a Way to Die, from Nate Bethea and Francis Horton, or Fortress on a Hill, hosted by Iraq vets Chris Henriksen and Daniel Sjursen. Fortress is where I first heard of Del Duca and learned about her podcast, whose subtitle gives the game away: “Insights from a Modern-Day Conscientious Objector.”

In an upcoming post, I’ll write about each of these, and a few others they’ve turned me on to, such as  Eyes Left, hosted by already-celebrities Spencer Rapone and Mike Prysner. I’ll review/recommend episodes that I find particularly strong, and muse about pods’ connection to organizing and activism. But right this second, I’m wondering whether all these pods are just distracting me from writing that still needs to be done. Or are these forever-war vets helping me think more clearly about my final chapter?

This blog’s Drafts folder is littered with beginnings with titles like “The new generation os soldier-dissenters, wherein I riffed between Reality Winner and

the other drone veterans, who broke their silence to tell truth about the drone program – and who are still traumatized by it. As warfare has changed, the routes for dissent against it change to, some measured in bits and bytes.

Then there’s Will Griffin, who I met at a No Foreign Bases conference and whose Peace Report  has long been an essential source of news about that movement. Will moved to my town last year and is burning up the links offered for dissenting veterans here, including Warrior Writers.

Or the one called “The Forever War’s forever chapter,” about what I’m still doing while we get the rest of the book flat:

Working backwards, from this year to 2001, starts to feel as challenging as the dread Vietnam chapter.

Reality Winner, whose leaks weren’t about war — but who, like Snowden, was deeply affected by watching drone strikes in near-real time.  Will Griffin, the military brat who served in both Iraq and Afpak but flipped 200 degrees after he went to Okinawa for VFP; Griffin also was part of the short-lived Veterans Stand for Standing Rock, and now runs a video-journalism outfit called the Peace Report. Matt Hoh and Rory Fanning, Afghanistan veterans who came out the other side to pursue truth. Chelsea Manning, who contains multitudes (and is now running for Senate.) Brandon Bryant and Heather Linebaugh.

Those post-2008 figures don’t mean I’ve forgotten the earlier wave: Garret Reppenhagen, Stephen Funk, Aidan Delgado, Camilo Mejia, Jon Hutto, Dan Choi, Jennifer Hogg. All of whom I need to touch base with before including them now.

I swore to start every day freewriting for the book, but every sentence instead comes out like a query letter or status report.

 

I wrote those words nearly a year ago, and they’re still true. More so now, with Will’s video blog competing with those podcasts in my ears. And I’m not even talking about the books they’re all publishing, of which del Duca’s is only one. All still teaching me about their wars, and the many across the globe as I write this.

So what war does the chapter cover, anyway?

When I go back to my first “final draft” (the one first submitted to UC Press). I see a final chapter called “The New Winter Soldiers,’ which featured vets featured frequently here, people I’ve now known for over a decade. Though it started with words from elder statesman Philip Berrigan, and with the 2001 day that prompted so many to enlist:

On September 11, I watched appalled as the second tower of the World Trade Center came down. The guards called me out, took me to the lieutenant’s office, shackled and handcuffed me, and took me to solitary. I inquired several times as to why. One guard grunted, ‘Security!’ During twelve days in segregation, no further daylight was provided. One lieutenant came to announce, ‘No phone, no visitors!’ And no stamps. I was locked down ten days before mailing out letters. The result? Limbo-incommunicado.[i] Berrigan told that story to The Progressive after his wife, Liz McAllister, finally learned what the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) in Elkton, Ohio, had done with him. Berrigan’s detention was not for his own safety but the prison’s: the 77-year-old cleric, veteran of both World War II and a career of serial civil-disobedience, was considered trouble.

Berrigan, fighting in prison the cancer that would soon kill him, was heartened by the demonstrations against what seemed a certain war in Iraq. “The American people are, more and more, making their voices heard against Bush and his warrior clones,” he wrote in the last letter he wrote before he died, six weeks before the massive February 2003 demonstrations against the war. The night before those demonstrations, Coffin echoed Berrigan at Riverside: “It is not a patriotic thing to send our brave men and women into an unjust war. That is not patriotic. If you ask if you are willing to die for your country, you must also ask if you are willing to kill for your country….War is a coward’s escape from the possibility of peace.”

These words from turbulent World War II veteran/priests could have been read as a repudiation of the newest generation of young soldiers, many of whom had joined or rejoined after the towers went down. But it was also an invitation, if one offered more explicitly by Howard Zinn, who knew from Vietnam and his old friend Dan Ellsberg how powerful those younger voices could be. And just as protestors were flooding the streets, one tall young Army sniper was walking into an alternative bookstore in Manitou Springs, Colorado and being told that before going to Iraq, he had to read Zinn’s flagship work A People’s History of the United States.

That sniper was, of course, Garett Reppenhagen, who I met when he was president of Iraq Veterans Against the War and who’s now a coordinator for the VetVoice Foundation. Garett, Stephen Funk and Aidan Delgado are among those I know I want to keep in the chapter, but I don’t really want the book’s narrative to end with the end of the Bush Administration.

This last revision process is reminding me of so many other threads that need to resonate, and for which I am so far unprepared. How can the chapter include mostly White voices, even if their movement is not as multi-racial as the U.S. military? Or am I answering my own question here?

But if this latest dance with the podcasters is teaching me anything, it’s that this generation doesn’t need me to tell their story. They’re telling it every day, in every form of media that exists. It’s my job to put it all in context, and make their part of our story sing.

 

 

Groundhog Day for women in the military?

When anyone asks me how I got started with all this, I invariably mention CCCO and the G.I. Rights Hotline in the 1990s. But it’s not often that I wake up and feel such a strong echo of those years, as I did yesterday upon news of sexual assault of recruits at Fort Benning.

Back then, the Department of Defense had no Victim Advocates, no admiral serving as a sexual-assault response coordinator. As I write this, I’m hoping to learn more about the Pandora’s box opened by that one brave recruit who reported her abuse and led to the discovery of still more.

But excuse me if I feel flashed back to the old days, some of which appears below in more outtakes from Da Book.

In December 1991, Paula Coughlin was pumped when she got to Las Vegas for the Tailhook Convention. The weather, 80 degrees with no humidity, felt a relief from the near-tropical Maryland coast where she served as a rear-admiral’s right hand at Patuxent Air Force Base. A qualified airman with eight years in the Navy, Coughlin had long looked forward to Tailhook, a prestigious if famously boozy semiannual event. She changed quickly and headed for the third floor, where her friends were waiting.

But no one had told her, she told the Washington Post six months later, about the gauntlet:

When Navy Lt. Paula Coughlin first spotted them – a youthful, clean-cut bunch of guys lounging in a third-floor hallway of the Las Vegas Hilton – it never crossed her mind that she should be afraid. After all, she recalls thinking, these were Navy and Marine pilots. Pilots just like her.

But Coughlin, a helicopter pilot and admiral’s aide, was quickly enveloped by terror. Grabbed from behind and propelled down the hallway to jeers of “admiral’s aide, admiral’s aide,” Coughlin was repeatedly pawed and molested. One man grabbed her breasts, another tried to remove her panties.

She bit down, hard, on the forearm of one of her attackers, but still the men kept coming….. “Help me,” she said to another man who seemed to be walking away. He turned and grabbed her breasts.i

After Coughlin, the daughter of a World War II aviator who’d joined ROTC as a college sophomore in 1984, told her superiors what had happened, 25 women also revealed similar assaults at the convention and by fliers attending. Six months after Navy investigators, not excluding her own boss, failed to take decisive action, she held a press conference: by the end of that week Navy Secretary Lawrence Garrett had resigned, taking responsibility for “the leadership failure which allowed the egregious conduct.” “Investigators from two separate Navy agencies had been stymied by a wall of silence put up by pilots and their commanders,” wrote Eric Schmitt at the New York Times, “but the agencies had each made their own fumbles. The Naval Investigative Service omitted important documents from its report; the Naval Inspector General’s office failed to put its chief investigator on the case.”

That has left the Defense Department Inspector General’s office, a larger agency with subpoena powers, to gather up thousands of pages of Navy interviews and try to make sense of them. That could take two or three months, and lawmakers are exasperated. “We now have investigators investigating investigators,” said Senator Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee. The committee is venting its frustration by holding up more than 4,500 Navy and Marine Corps promotions until the officers are cleared of any involvement in the scandal.ii

Schmitt knew that the prospect of delaying promotions, interrupting normal military business, for a question of misconduct toward women was unprecedented, and created enormous backlash. Some pointed out that Tailhook, in particular, was a notorious bacchanal, and that Coughlin had therefore “knew what she was getting into” and now had no cause to complain.

Still others, not for the last time, chose this as the moment to question women’s inclusion in the armed forces to begin with. James Webb’s 1979 “Why Women Can’t Fight” was resurrected, and GI’s howled at now-mandatory sexual harassment trainings. Such abuse, they added, was different than women being molested by the enemy, as two POWS had been during the recent war (a fact unveiled during congressional inquiries in the aftermath of Tailhook).

Then, Major Rhonda Cornum told reporters later, her “mission focus” had completely shifted to staying alive.iii That assault hadn’t been made public for multiple reasons; when it was, it was seized by the Elaine Donnelly crowd as yet another reason women didn’t belong in the military. But the truer challenge to established order came not from some random Iraqi, but from the domino effect of multiple reports like Coughlin’s that would reach critical mass by the end of the decade.

When the call came from ABC News, Kathleen Gilberd sat back: This wasn’t a distressed soldier calling the Military Law Task Force, or even a vet like Margarethe Cammermeyer. Then almost immediately she sat up straight again. “Aberdeen Proving Ground? Yeah, basic training. These trainees are usually only 18.” She listened, swallowing hard. ‘”How many are saying they were raped?”

Gilberd was by then well known for her brilliant advocacy for military personnel’ . Bridget Wilson, a former Navy captain and full-time attorney in San Diego, told me that Gilberd’s legal strategies had often “set the bar, especially during the AIDS crisis.”iv In 1992, Gilberd and MLTF had initiated a lawsuit when the Pentagon instituted mandatory AIDS testing in the early 1990s. In their mission to keep the information confidential, Gilberd told the Associated Press: “The rights of people in the military need to be protected against a system which is both institutionally and informally discriminatory.” v

And as the gender wars unfurled, Gilberd became a national expert on dealing with women who reported sexual assault as well as discrimination. That phone call in 1996 was about a rape scandal at Aberdeen Proving Ground, described at the time by Washington Post reporter Jackie Spinner:

From the first allegations of rape late last year to the acknowledgment by the Army that something had indeed gone terribly wrong. To the filing of criminal charges against 11 sergeants and one captain. To the further acknowledgment that there were problems Army-wide. To the national hot line set up that recorded 1,288 complaints of abuse in its seven months in operation, 353 of which resulted in criminal investigations. To, most of all, the trial this spring of Delmar Simpson, an Aberdeen drill sergeant who was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison for raping six female soldiers under his command.vi

Those six young women, whose behavior contained all the paradoxes of eighteen-year-olds but who knew that you weren’t “supposed” to complain about your sergeants, also knew five years after Tailhook that they could. They knew partly because of Paula Coughlin and the other 20 women who’d refused to let it go after Tailhook. They’d seen, as kids, the 1995 TV-movie made about the case, and the ongoing reports about the lawsuits Coughlin and her co-plaintiffs won against the Tailhook Association and Hilton Hotels, charging that their safety had been endangered. They might even have heard of the landmark study out of the Minnesota VA, in which nearly a third reported some level of abuse.

After all these years, “women in the military” was as fiercely contested an issue as ever – but now, after 6000 women served in the Gulf, female trainees like those at Aberdeen were seen as essential by both sides, and after Coughlin their charges more likely to be taken seriously. Thousands more women came forward, of every rank and branch of service, giving testimony to their members of Congress, reporters (as did Dorothy Hanson, the WAC mentioned in Chapter Seven) or to their local VA hospital, some of which were developing treatment programs for rape survivors. By 1998, the volume would spur a Department of Defense Task Force headed by General Evelyn Foote, another former WAC who told me, years later, that sexual harassment and abuse had long been endemic.

Foote’s participation in the debate placed the issue as one of “readiness,” a move away from dissent welcomed by advocates pressing press for the final lifting of all restrictions on women in combat.Similar arguments bolstered hopes for gay personnel, who over the decade secured victories in the courts and in the establishment of nonpartisan research and advocacy groups that recorded the costs of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It would take a few more decades for all this energy to be translated into change, and military gender issues would remain a trope of partisan politics.

“History isn’t repeating itself. It isn’t even rhyming,” I tweeted yesterday. “It’s condensing into a poisonous fog.”

A fog that mostly doesn’t belong in Ain’t Marching. But maybe it’s the book after this one?

Before Evan Thomas became an iconic conscientious objector

sailorsandsoldiersmonument
The summer before Evan Thomas leaves the country, 1915 smells of war.

The smell sickens Thomas, a lean young man with a narrow face and alert eyes. Thomas hates living and working at the American Parish, the East Harlem immigrant settlement house pastored by his brother Norman. On every newsstand, headlines scream of battles in Europe and news from Mexico, whose unfinished revolution now includes tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers and sailors. The parish’s immigrants look on with anxiety: They don’t need English to count the European war’s twelve battle zones.

America is officially neutral in that conflict, unlike New York City. Two weeks ago a German submarine attacked the luxury liner Lusitania, leaving 43 Americans among 1153 dead – including one of New York’s own, the dashing millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt. Both tabloid and broadsheet newspapers call Germans “murderers” and demand vengeance. The city’s boy-mayor calls for “preparedness,” as if it’s possible to be prepared for hell.

Even Union Theological Seminary, where Thomas is pursuing a divinity degree, offers little respite. It clusters next to Columbia University, whose flagpoles urging students to “cherish, love and respect ….] the flag of peace and prosperity.” Both campuses mark the 1779 Battle of Harlem Heights. At the seminary, Thomas’ classmates discuss what “preparedness” will require of them.

On Memorial Day tens of thousands cram onto Riverside Drive, to see the veterans of five conflicts march uptown to the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial. Elderly Union soldiers and sailors, their uniforms carefully mended for the occasion, march past signs of the city’s growing wealth: At 74th Street, the veterans and some active-duty troops slowed as they passed Riverside, the three-block French castle built by German immigrant and steel magnate Charles Schwab. At the memorial, a Greek marble stand of Corinthian columns, the United Spanish War Veterans salute General Leonard Wood and retired Rear Admiral Sigsbee, who commanded the U.S.S. Maine when it exploded. Thomas doesn’t go across town to watch the spectacle.

A few weeks later, a similar scent suffuses Princeton, when Thomas goes down for his brother’s graduation. The site of both a 1777 battle and the 1781 Mutiny in January, his alma mater has whole rooms honoring alumni on both sides in the Civil War; at the graduation, its president tells the graduating class of the dangers of peace. If they avoid war, he says, they might lose the chance to become real men.Thomas and some fellow alumni, self-named “the Crusaders,” huddle to wonder aloud what that means for them. The group’s founder, also a Union minister, says the choice is clear: Jesus did his best to stop violence, after all. i Thomas squints into the blinding sunlight.

Thanks for the inspiration, Louisa Thomas.  I hope you don’t mind how I reframed the moment you found, and wrote about in  Conscience:Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family — A Test of Will and Faith in World War.

Who has Reality Winner’s back? We do.

I just got off the phone with Billie Winner-Davis, a clinical social worker in Texas who’s been in the press lately because of her daughter, Reality. Our chat was brief, and stayed away from the facts of Reality’s legal case. I still congratulated her on the support network she’d started in partnership with Courage to Resist.

Happy to talk about her daughter, Winner-Davis described Reality’s early gift for languages,  including teaching herself Arabic back in high school. When she told her parents she might join the military, it was Winner-Davis who contacted the Air Force instead of the Army or Marines, hoping they’d take early advantage of her daughter’s gifts.  “It was all about the languages for Reality,” she said.

realitywinnerThough she ended up working for a contractor after the military, Reality wanted most to travel, Billie added. “She was looking into the International Red Cross or humanitarian organizations, so she could use her skills to help people.”

Ever since Reality’s arrest, making sure she has what she needs has become a full-time job, Winner-Davis added. This is challenging because her work every day, in Child Protective Services, is of necessity all-consuming. But she hopes to retire in August, she said, when she can devote that energy to protecting her own child.

By October, when her trial is set to begin, I’ll have more free time than I do now. I hope to meet Winner-Davis there, as well as my old colleague (and Gulf War character) Jeff Paterson. I don’t know enough about the case to know whether she belongs in this book, but by threatening her with the Espionage Act the government may have put him there.