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.

"the illusion that they have rights"

Many people I know, especially veterans (even antiwar vets), have mixed feelings about Lieutenant Ehren Watada, whose trial was blocked today by a federal judge. Some vets saw it as a betrayal of those under his command, others that the war was best resisted from within, For other, including myself, the ambivalence stems from  the way his original decision — as the first Army officer to refuse to deploy to Iraq — was first taken up by (admittedly hard-working and sincere) front groups for front groups for the ossified sectarian left (whose militant rhetoric makes most of us giggle these days). All of which made it harder for many to simply look at what the 27-year-old college and OCS graduate was actually saying, about what he still considers an illegal order. Thank god for non-front groups like CCW and Vets for Peace, from whom I got the news today.

Those of you who’ve checked this page out more than once (why? Please comment, and lemme know!) know I’ve mostly been mired in the previous century, and mostly enmeshed in the lives of the Civil War vets who years later spoke out — opposing the annexation of what would become Watada’s home state, and joining in a grand effort to stop the Philippine War. “It is nothing but a wanton stretch of power. It is
lust for power and greed for land veneered with the tawdriness of false humanity,” wrote one, by then a U.S. senator as well as a survivor of the Battles of Shiloh and Spotsylvania. His sentiment echoes Watada’s, but the quote that gave this post a title is from far earlier, because I think it’s more relevant to what Watada faces next.

The judge in the case, Benjamin Settle, only dismissed three of the five counts against Watada:

Settle barred the military from retrying Watada on charges of missing his redeployment to Iraq, taking part in a news conference and participating in a Veterans for Peace national convention.

But the court did not rule out the possibility that the Army, after considering legal issues, could retry Watada on two counts of conduct unbecoming an officer resulting from his media interviews.

Watada’s attorney sensibly told the press that he hopes to get those charges dropped. That could be done without explicit vindication of Watada’s position. But part of me wants to see that second trial, if only to prove Sylvanus Thayer wrong.

Thayer, the “Father of West Point,” in 1819 blamed a early mutiny at the academy on “the erroneous and unmilitary impressions of the Cadets that they have rights to defend.”

Someone should write a book about soldiers and vets who hold on to that “erroneous” impression. Oh right, I forgot.

Congratulations, Lt. Watada. When can I give you a call?