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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“under no circumstances will I ever embarrass my country”

Worth Fighting For - cover  I can’t stop reading Rory Fanning’s Worth Fighting For. Every time I pick it up to check something, I’m swept into this prose poem disguised as a veteran’s memoir.

moments, its first a sergeant’s 2002 shout of “Gimme 20, Tillman!” addressed to Pat Tillman,  college football legend turned Army Ranger trainee. Tillman’s dignified, defiant response, refusing to be humiliated after following orders, sets the tone for the rest: be smart, be critical, be worth admiring.

Along the route Fanning has raised $45,000 for the Pat Tillman Foundation, mostly not talking about the fact that he was also a conscientious objector or that Tillman had considered doing the same before dying by friendly fire in 2004. Fanning walked to learn more about this country and its people, and many of the moments include those people, paired with his own memories and those of the nation.

The title of this post is an excerpt from the Ranger Creed, which Fanning provides in full mid-way through, adding that “I’m sure I both betrayed and honored every word of this code.” Those words, of course, remind me of so many other soldier-dissenters: I can still hear shards of Army/Navy/AF creeds in the voices of young vets who talked to me, most then saying that it was their command violating the requirement of honesty, integrity, selfless service.

This essay is thus less a review of Worth Fighting For (which you should absolutely buy) than a meditation on what he turned up, adding a few notes to his powerful music.

In each of the book’s moments,Fanning alternates telling his (and Tillman’s) story and offering glimpses of what he learned on the road, whether it’s the amazing people who welcomed him or the history evoked by each spot.

As he hits Raleigh, NC, he flashes back to his early days at Fort Lewis, having enlisted shortly after the September 11 attacks — and to his most high-stress/low-profile Ranger mission, jumping “into a desert that may or may not have been in Iran…The Iraq War broke out at the end of this tour.” Fanning then inserts a visit to nearby Monroe, NC, site of open war in the 1960s between black residents and the Ku Klux Klan.

In Chatsworth, GA he’s back to Ranger school, which he began after “nine months intimidating poor people in Afghanistan […] Men stood in front of their clay homes in some of the most impoverished villages on earth, forced to grin as Humvees, machine guns, and bombs rolled down their streets: Any signs of disapproval and they’d be subject to the [U.S.’] violent whims….” Such reflections built toward that moment when he told a Ranger School instructor: “I don’t believe in what I am doing anymore. I want out.” For this reader, that moment recalls Lt. Fred Marchant in Okinawa after seeing photos from My Lai, tearing through the base legal library until he saw the words “conscientious objection.” I don’t want to be part of this.

Fanning instead reaches toward a different time, when in-service CO discharge didn’t exist, as he reaches in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where Ambrose Bierce recovered after numerous battles and before writing his trauma-scarred stories. Fanning contemplates evidence that most Civil War recruits died with their muskets unfired: Had he been there,”I likely would have been part of the majority who died with loaded weapons in their hands.”

Reading the above, I found myself wanting to tell Fanning about Bierce, or about the real Civil War COs: Cyrus Pringle, who starved rather than accept any military designation at all, or Jesse Macy, who fought to stay in uniform as a noncombatant. But Fanning’s four-paragraph essay on that ‘majority’ likely offered better comfort. Compression is a tool used by poets to maximize impact, and it worked.

Near the Oklahoma border, Fanning talks to veterans about Tillman, recalls being deployed again to Afghanistan as a pariah after his CO decision, and reflects on the Ranger Creed before reflecting on the real story of Oklahoma as former “Indian Territory.” He traces their fate to the tribes who supported the losing side in the Civil War, and gives the result in numbers: the 1890 census “showed 237.000 Natives living north of the Rio Grande,” a 97% decrease from their estimated numbers before colonization. This time I wanted to introduce Col. Benjamin Grierson, who intervened so often on Indians’ behalf around 1890 that his command thought him “too Quaker” for the job.

In Texas, Fanning similarly gives a lot of ink to the San Patricio Battalion, who switched sides during the Mexican-American War — after a valentine to the town of Commerce, TX, which had declared a “Rory Fanning Day” in his honor, and before meeting an activist who herself had walked across America — but in 1986, in the anti-nuclear Great American Peace March.

In New Mexico, a state whose grandeur he already adores, Fanning also puts his descriptive talent to work at the White Sand Missile Range: “That night, under all the stars and in an exhausted trance, I listened to Radiohead’s ‘Subterranean Lovesick Alien‘. Then the earth shook […] The major explosions went on for hours.” Camped just outside the testing, Fanning endures the sound of “blacked-out helicopters unloading heavy machine fire.” You almost don’t need his interstitial essay on “Trinity Site Nuclear Testing” after that.

By the time Fanning reaches that west coast, we’ve learned the whole story of Fanning’s journey and the crucial ways Tillman supported it. One finishes having learned, we feel, nearly as much as Rory, and grateful to him for taking us along.

In addition to my own obvious desire for a dialogue between Fanning’s book and mine, I read this with a mix of admiration and deep sadness, for the string of broken promises he notes. But that could have as much to do with this year’s entry into Iraq War III as anything else.

Most of all, I felt myself savoring his poem, and glad that we’ll likely be having this conversation for years to come.

 

 

 

“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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Notes toward an introduction

It’s been a long time since I first started batting around the idea of a book about the G.I. Rights Hotline, (a book I’d still love to write someday), and instead took on this behemoth of a project. Below is what I’m calling my faux-introduction; we hope that someone with more clout (Dan Ellsberg? Cynthia Enloe?) will write the real one, but in the meantime I tried to articulate my multiple themes and my reasoning behind who I included and didn’t. For those who’ve been following my travails all along,  some of what’s below will feel familiar; my hope is that it will also explain, a bit better, why I zeroed in one the people I did.

My inspiration, kind of my gold standard, was people who’d taken the path directly from warmonger to peacemaker, like Philip Berrigan or the just-recently-lost-to-us Howard Zinn (seen as a 1944 bombardier, right). But that inspiration, and the way I frame it above, is too incomplete to be honest,  or even narratively interesting to me.

On the simplest level, some kinds of military dissent — desertion comes to mind —  ALWAYS constitute a challenge to the military’s functioning, and need to be described even when it’s for non-political reasons.

More profoundly, what’s come clearest as I finish the book is that my interest is not only the total transformers, though that’s kind of the core of the inquiry, as the partial ones along the way. For each chapter and each war, I’m asking for what ends government-sponsored violence and preparation for same were being relied on —especially, perhaps,  including odious ones like slavery and genocide of indigenous people — and honoring soldier-dissent against them, too. My old friend Sam might argue that since the means — military action — is odious, that should be enough; but it’s not.

Back when I was on staff at the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, I used to half-joke that  “if there’s gonna be a revolution, it’s going to happen because of antiwar veterans,” like those who volunteered for my branch of the G.I. Rights Hotline. Being defiantly uninterested in Marxist predictions of actual revolution, what I meant was that fundamental, progressive change has been escorted into American life with such figures, half-ignored even as they’re being lionized for other reasons.

I’ve usually described my criteria for inclusion in the book as “a kind of reverse funnel,” one ending in a laser-sharp focus on truly antiwar soldiers but beginning with a much wider palette:  Chapters 1-7 including mutinies over late pay and desertion in protest of the freeing of slaves (one of the least glorious moments for Civil War soldiers) and then narrowing through Vietnam and beyond —until, by  the 21st century, “we have our hands full just challenges thrown up to what some Iraq vets call “gee-wot” (the Global War on Terror).” Earlier rebellions, such as the 1779 mutinies against price-gouging and the 1930 Bonus March, seen only as “important reminders, especially through the Cold War, of the immense potential power of such rebellions.” That all sounds way too glib to me now, after three years of learning and writing.

What feels both more honest, as a journalist and historian, and equally true to the spirit of Philip Berrigan and Howard Zinn, is this:  Include a selection of those who, having had a significant experience in the U.S. military, have used that experience to help nudge American society as a whole away from militarism. Mili-what? Think simply of the concept of “relying on armed enforcers to protect us and our stuff” (the latter meaning land, or water, or oil, or more amorphous concepts such as national identity, ideology or “credibility” ,e.g. saving face).  You can look up the Webster’s definition if you like.

As I write this, Howard Zinn has just died, and a 2004 Nation quote has just surfaced: “Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society.” It’s those surprises, in the form of challenges thrown down to the established order by soldiers, that I’m tracking, making semi-educated guesses as to which of those zigzags was pointed toward peace.

Show me the money. The name “soldier” is derived from the French “soldat,” meaning money: and issues of how well troops are paid was a flashpoint of dissent from day one.  The opening chapter, “A Country Born of Dissent,”  is rooted in such rebellions, including the 1754 mass desertions of colonial soldiers, the 1781 Mutiny in January that almost got Washington involved, Captain Daniel Shays’ uprising against bankers (whose veteran-troops were called “The Regulators.” Take that, Bernanke!). Class issues were alive and well, continuing when Lt. Matthew Lyon, one of Ethan Allen’s “Green Mountain Boys,” was defeated by a mutiny on July 4, 1776 when his men refused orders that involved not fighting the British but guarding absentee landholders’ property. Matthew Lyon, the commander of that 1776 mutiny and publisher of the anti-Federalist newspaper The Scourge of Aristocracy and the Repository of Important Political Truths, ended up, twenty years later, a foe of John Adams imprisoned under the 1798 Sedition Act.

There wasn’t yet a concept of an antiwar soldier, especially after James Madison nearly secured for Quakers an exemption from military service for conscientious objectors. But in the meantime, men from “peace churches” in uniform were a wild card of their own, as when Methodist minister Lee preached peace to his Continental Army brigade: “ Many of the people, officers as well as men, were bathed in tears before I was done.”

Hardcore mavericks and original sins. For the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century, one of the main tasks of the American soldier was to perpetrate those two original sins I mentioned earlier — the slave economy, and the bargain first proposed for native peoples by  Thomas Jefferson. “They will in time either incorporate with us as citizens of the United States, or remove beyond the Mississippi,” Jefferson wrote to future president William Henry Harrison, adding that if they resisted “we need only close our hand to crush them.”  Or, either become private capitalists and gentleman farmers like us or kicked off your land, which conveniently becomes ours. Precious few, especially during active duty, saw anything wrong with the latter, though half-native soldier William Apes did wonder why he was fighting in the War of 1812 against those who’d despoiled his Pequot ancestors.  His matter-of-fact “I could not think why I should risk my life, my limbs,  in fighting for the white man, who had cheated my people out of their land,” cast triangulated light on that war’s expansionist aims (for all the geopolitical context and diplomatic spittle, the war ended when the Brits exacted an immediately-broken promise not to mess with the Indians).

A few years later General Ethan Allen Hitchcock called the Jefferson-Jackson expansion policies “a blight upon the Indian.” Hitchcock, the Hamlet of American expansionism, railed in his diaries against President Andrew Jackson, who was acting to put Jefferson’s Indian policies into bloody practice. When another president sent him to Mexico for another very-regretted war, Hitchcock made common cause with West Point dropout and rogue diplomat Nicholas Trist, who negotiated peace with Mexico, even as hawks back home were chanting for his recall.

Those who actually took public action against “Indian policy”   were, almost without exception, also connected somehow to the abolitionist movement, which had begun to move from relentless newspapering and prayer to a harder core. These included Hitchcock, who found in the Civil War the fight he could finally get behind, andSilas Soule, who offered some of the rare light refusing to participate in the  massacre of Indians at Sand Hill after having volunteered for Lincoln’s war against slavery, along with two of his brothers.

Also lining up to end slavery were Ambrose Bierce’s uncle Lucius Bierce, who sent guns to John Brown before raising two regiments for the war; the iconic Charles Shaw and George Garrison, sun of the iconic William Garrison, among the white officers leading battalions of black soldiers, and the Carpetbagger officers who went South to try to enforce Lincoln’s promise. These soldiers were engaged in something intrinsically radical even when working for the President, throwing “surprises” at the powerful economic and social forces that had fed the slave economy.

Without them, we would likely not have the minority who took the next step and went on to become prominent antiwar voices when the Spanish-American and Philippine wars came along —  Frederick Douglass’ son Lewis; the younger Bierce, who William Randolph Hearst feared sending to the Philippines because of his veteran’s skepticism;   and the flotilla of grizzled vets who joined with Andrew Carnegie’s Anti-Imperialist League, like Donelson Caffery (whose brigade had fought Bierce’s at Shiloh), John Adams descendant Gettysburg veteran Charles Francis Adams. Not to mention Mark Twain, who lived to vacation with Woodrow Wilson years after the League was gone and few remembered his“The War Prayer.”  But Twain’s antiwar poems and the writing of the younger Bierce, especially his story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” would be remembered by those looking centuries later for a soldier’s story that rang true.

From “nostalgia” to“shell shock and beyond. Bierce, darling of the yellow press and bete noire of plutocrats, would eventually become what  journalist and veterans’ advocate Lily Casura has called “the quintessential, though unrealized, poster boy for PTSD,” wandering to suicide in Mexico via a tour of old battlefields. A close read of his early postwar writing. as in “What I Saw at Shiloh” which ends: I will willingly surrender an other life than the one that I should have thrown away at Shiloh;  when that same battle took place, hundreds of soldiers of both sides broke down, carried onto hospital ships with a case of what doctors called “nostalgia.” That was around the time that commanders and military doctors started tracking soldiers’ breakdowns as less “weakness” and more something related to war, even positing that the trials of battle damaged the heart muscle — both accurate and prescient, considering the complex hormonal and developmental re-wiring that we now know takes place when stress responses harden.

This, unlike the money and mavericks, is a stream I was looking for, having been near-obsessed with PTSD as a subject long before I knew I would write this book. The relationship between the military and traumatic stress is a complex one, as noted by experts like Col. David Grossman, author of On Killing: The Psychological Consequences of Learning to Kill on War and Society. Some, like Andrew Jackson, never got over it but subsumed it into national policy; others, like Bierce and George Garrison, turned it all inward. Still others, of course,  turned trauma into art —like World War I vet Lewis Milestone, the protagonist of whose All Quiet on the Western Front tells a group of schoolchildren: “We live in the trenches. And our bodies are earth. And our thoughts are clay. And we sleep and eat with death. And we’re done for, because you can’t live that way and keep anything inside you.”

By then, the Freudians were grabbing hold of what laypeople had called “shell shock,” a grip that was complete by the time John Huston, still having nightmares from his World War II service in Europe, made the long-suppressed documentary Let There Be Light,  whose subjects ask earnestly to be cured of their “psycho-neurotic” ailments.That suppression, added to general cold-war amnesia, meant that when Vietnam veterans started experiencing something similar, they had  to work hard to know what was going on.

The process of doing so, getting those truths near-permanently exposed and their treatment mandated, also has required a lot of those surprises, and a fair amount of dissent; like soldiers’ compensation, its psychological damage is another cost of war.

Speaking of the cold war, however,  civil rights icon Bayard Rustin once told his old friend David McReynolds that before the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, national discourse was like a brittle steel wall, and it took a mighty shake from Montgomery to fracture it. That wall squelched a lot of early postwar surprises, from Howard Zinn’s own American Veterans Committee and early organizing by Medgar Evers, while energy underneath it continued to bubble in all sort of unexpected ways, as J.D. Salinger and Joseph Heller poured PTSD onto the page and the paradigm-shattering ROTC dropout Rustin, who’d long since finished his prison term for refusing the draft, began organizing to infuse “Gandhian” principles into the fight for racial justice,  until he showed up at Montgomery to help Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. take his boycott national.

The fracturing of that wall, its accompanying surprises (the Beats, the civil rights movement), is part of the origin story of the 20th-century peace movement. As soldiers and veterans increasingly became involved in the latter, the learning was mutual:

Stand up for your beliefs, brother. How do the less-antiwar dissenters interact with the most hardcore objectors? The dynamic between the two is simultaneously twisted and heartening: From the Revolution on, non-dissenting soldiers often took note of what we’d now call “peaceniks” not with horror but with solidarity, and when the wars themselves turned explicitly bad looked to them for guidance, or at least proof that to object wasn’t insane.  Early examples included  and Civil War medic Jesse Macy, who kept refusing to be shunted aside all the way to the end of the war; conscientious objectors who encouraged strikes at military prisons during World War I and II; and in-service CO’s like Desmond Doss, who saved hundreds of soldiers as a medic during the Battle of Okinawa, and Lew Ayres, who went from playing a traumatized soldier in AQWF to spending months as a medic in the Philippines, some of it under the command of Major William Kunstler.  In these new wars, many young soldiers and veterans tell similar stories: “There’s a lot of respect for what you did,” a Marine once told Stephen Funk (above), one of the founders of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

I hardly mean to claim that the pacifists were making converts left and right (certainly not right). It’s probable that the majority of the soldiers were little affected by these dissenters, but I’m not writing about the majority. And at many points on this zigzag path, there they were —the series of surprises, the wild cards in the deck, the grace notes or minor crescendos that cut against the standard music. As the book proceeds, you’ll glimpse both sides of these interactions — and watch them collude, as when some of them show up sick.

Also in this stream are the civilians without whom the soldiers might never have been able to get the word out, from War Resisters League founders Frances Witherspoon and Tracy Mygatt to the stalwart military law experts and volunteers, from Citizen Soldier’s Tod Ensign to the indomitable Kathleen Gilberd, co-author of Rules of Disengagement, the Politics of Military Dissent. (I know that by doing so I leave out whole swaths of equally dedicated activists who did NOT focus on dissenting soldiers, but ….) In a few cases, like my old friend Steve Morse, it worked the other way just a little; Steve went from Swarthmore to joining the Army so he could better organize soldiers, though at the time he was also part of a somewhat pernicious subset of civilians who saw in soldiers (working-class  and armed!) the  perfect recruits for their brand of socialism. (That subset has remained in action, on all sides of the political spectrum  – from Ron Paul to World Can’t Wait.)

One is for fighting, one is for fun. As better scholars than I have noted, the U.S. military has long been identified with a certain kind of exaggerated masculinity, in ways that have actually increased as those other walls kept crumbling. And the mouse in all those houses is the presence of non-gender-conforming soldiers, from the women who “passed” in the pre-20th century wars to the gays who did the same (Walt Whitman’s lover Peter Doyle or Major Alice Davey Sheldon, also known as James Tiptree Jr.). By the time we get to the 1990s, women have been welcomed into the U.S. military with mostly open arms while gays remain simultaneously criminalized and ubiquitous; the resulting fights for equal treatment, sparked in part by revelations of sexual assault of women in uniform just as gay service members really began to organize, is actually where gender could stop mattering, and stop threatening the military ethos — and thus, no longer belong in this book. Stay tuned to find out if that ever happens.

Everything old is new again. So what’s happening right now, in the dual wars that some aggregate into “the long war” or the “global war on terror?” A series of new and old surprises on all the paths above, along with some new ones enabled by technology and globalization and the sheer kick-ass defiance of the soldiers themselves.

Quakers in uniform: oxymoron, or profound truth?

I spend so much time celebrating the courage of soldiers that some might wonder where the old peacenik had got to. (If some old classmate from Binghamton stumbled here, e.g., what they might remember most is my play Too Many Martyrs, a  melodrama about the U.S.-to-Canada draft resister underground railroad.) But as I construct my Civil War narrative, I’m also cheered to report some appropriately complicated pacifist characters, whose deep abolitionist beliefs made them conflicted about what was that century’s “good war.” An early glimpse:

  • Jesse Macy, who may have invented the character of CO medic. Offered the role of cook and horseman when he shared his membership in the Society of Friends, he refused, insisting he would train and travel with his unit only if he could work for the Army surgeons, and thus help care for the war’s relentless casualties.
  • George Garrison, who after the Emancipation Proclamation went so far as to enlist and become an officer with the Massachusetts 55th Division of the United States Colored Troops  (USCT). Thus breaking the heart of his father Lloyd, the renowned abolitionist, (note to picky historians:  I know the Garrisons weren’t exactly Quakers, but Lloyd himself characterized their paths as “nearly identical.”) Garrison endured enough rough strife to explain how afterward, despite numerous efforts to get him established in business, he drifted from job to job, interested mostly in veterans’ reunions. (Unfortunately for my narrative, he did not join fellow USCT veterans Charles Francis Adams and Lewis Douglass at the end of the century in the Anti-Imperialist League of America, also known as U.S. Out of the Philippines.
  • Of course, some were less conflicted, and offer more or less the classic Quaker story. Cyrus Pringle, whose travails in 1863 Vermont eventually came to the attention of Washington. Before then, as Wikipedia notes, “Refusing to perform all military duty, he was subjected to severe
    discipline. The Friends were kept for days in the guardhouse in company
    with drunks and criminals. Finally, on October 3, 1863, at Culpepper, Doctor Pringle was staked to the ground, with his arms outstretched and his legs cruelly racked; he was left in this position for hours, until ‘so weak he could hardly walk or perform any exertion.’  He was even threatened with death if he would not give up, but his only reply was, ‘It can but give me pain to be asked or required to do anything I believe to be wrong.’ After a day of extreme pain he wrote in hisdiary, ‘This has been the happiest day of my life, to be privileged to fight the battle for universal peace.’ “

These ghosts mingle with those whose journeys had nothing to do with Quaker qualms, sharing their horror at the blood soaked into the ground during those grueling four years. And — just as much earlier and later – they didn’t inspire the kind of revulsion from their fellow soldiers that many civilians assume. Macy even writes that by the end, when he was standing up to his command just as his unit was joining Sherman’s march through Geotgia,  his peers “had agreed to stand together in forcible resistance in case extreme measures were instituted against me. I could not ask for treatment more uniformly respectful and friendly than that which I received from officers and men alike in Sherman’s army while on the March to the Sea.”  Integrity respected, perhaps above all.

Not so unlike the respect shown by Major William Kunstler to C.O. medic Lew Ayres during World War II, or by the anonymous soldiers in Baquba, Iraq, who shot surreptitious peace signs to the authors of the early underground blog Fight to Survive. I don’t mean to imply it’s all kumbaya, to minimize the real differences; but it’s kind of cool to see how long that respect has existed, among factions traditionally painted as enemies.