As Afghanistan erupts with redoubled violence, the author recounts the clutch of soldiers who have refused to serve or repented their service in every American war since the War of 1812.
“I joined the military to kill Iraqi people,” Kristofer Goldsmith said softly in a Congressional hearing room in May of last year.
The slim young veteran, his mohawk pulled back from his head in a half-braid, kept his eyes focused forward as news photographers scurried under the table at which he sat, saying: “I remember on September 12, 2001, looking up at the TV screen as a sixteen-year-old boy, saying we should use biological weapons and eliminate the threat in the Middle East.”
Goldsmith had already shown slides of himself as a ten-year-old Boy Scout who had always wanted to join the military. Then: a succession of images of what he had witnessed in Iraq. “Presence patrols” designed to intimidate. A man with a smashed face. His last few images displayed a wall with an Arabic inscription: Welcome America to the second Vietnam War.
Goldsmith was only one of ten veterans testifying before the House Progressive Caucus on May 15. It was International Conscientious Objector Day, which was marked mostly in reverse by Congress. Downstairs, on the first floor of the Rayburn Office Building, I was almost blinded by the ribbons and medals on the colonels who were showing off the newest Stryker vehicle at a Foreign Affairs Committee briefing on “Empowering the Soldier Through Technology.”
“I don’t know how many men, women, and children the Tennessee boys did kill. They would not take any prisoners,” Arkansas soldier Leonard F. Adams wrote in a letter home that was published in 1899. “One company of the Tennessee boys was sent into headquarters with thirty prisoners, and got there with about a hundred chickens and no prisoners.” Another, Herbert Cooper Thompson of the Second Oregon Regiment, added, “Of course I feel pity for the dead and wounded, but it all adds to the general feeling of horror for the whole business of war… Most all the men who think in the Army Corps are opposed, and have been from the start, to holding these islands. Well, I hope we may never get another weak-kneed politician in the presidential chair at a critical time like this.”
These letters, and dozens like them, were sent to Civil War veterans Carl Schurz and Clay MacCauley, who were trying to raise the alarm about Teddy Roosevelt’s glorious adventure in the Philippines. So was Mark Twain, who’d written about his own Civil War experiences before heading off to Europe and told journalists when he stepped off the boat in 1900: “I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines.” A few years after writing The War Prayer, perhaps the most-quoted warning against imperialism, Twain was in the Bahamas having dinner with Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson. It is not known whether he asked Wilson what he thought of it, or if Wilson heard its words in his head in 1917 as he contemplated drafting the next generation for war in Europe.
A generation that included young Charles Schaff, the first child of his German parents in the thriving immigrant community of St. Joseph, Missouri. When Congress passed the Selective Service Act in the spring of 1917, Schaff had just graduated college after attending at night for seven years to help support his family. By then, many people in Missouri were enthusiastically boycotting German businesses, and Schaff wasn’t yet the lawyer he would later become. From boot camp in Nevada, Schaff wrote: “Mental and physical, internal and external disturbances, made us dejected, downhearted, and listless in mind and body.”
There’s no indication in the diary Schaff left behind that he tried to resist being drafted. He wasn’t some New England pacifist like Gustav Raymond Gaeddert, a Mennonite discharged from the Army to a mental ward, or Asa Hertzler, who went to France to do relief work. And the Wilson Administration had shut down most dissent about the war by then, imprisoning hundreds of the key leaders of organizations opposed to the war and signing the Sedition Act of 1918. What was left for men ambivalent about the war was to stuff down one’s rage or to desert.
Safer then to keep one’s anger in a private diary. That of future Chicago Daily News reporter Howard Vincent O’Brien (later famous for being one of the first to publish the word “fuck”) is both acerbic and telegraphic: “So this is the ‘war to end war,’” he wrote. “What rot! If we can end this one so it won’t be a hatchery for another in our lives, we’ll be lucky.”
O’Brien’s sentiments were then amplified by former Sgt. Lewis Milstein of the Army Signal Corps. Milstein’s family had emigrated from Russia only four years before the U.S. entered the war; forced to stay stateside because of his German ancestry, he’d spent the war carefully photographing the pieces of people who came home, assembling an archive for the future. Afterward, changing his last name to the non-Jewish Milestone, he struck out for Hollywood as soon as he could be discharged. He made a name for himself directing a comedy about AWOL soldiers fooling around Arabia.
After his comedy earned one of the first Oscars, Milestone was able to do some of what he really wanted. For his first sound film, he bought the rights to the novel All Quiet On The Western Front, which had rung true to what he remembered about the darkness and stink of the trenches, the fruitlessness of the war he’d fled as a boy. He convinced Universal Pictures to commit more than a million dollars to the project and turn most of the Irvine Ranch into a German war zone, with trenches so realistic that the county health inspector wanted to halt production. And he ignored scores of rising young actors to hire a kid named Lewis Ayres to play the lead character, Paul Baumer.
Playing that angry, grieving soldier changed Ayres.
Ayres, a blond teenage heartthrob who’d appeared with Greta Garbo, enjoyed all the explosions. But he never forgot how he felt as he, as Paul, addresses students in his hometown after two years in the battle zone: “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.”
Milestone went on to make numerous films, but said late in life that “I’ve probably had my greatest successes with war films because I’ve always tried to expose war for what it is and not glorify it.” His World War II movies always had a twist of some sort—A Walk In The Sun had as its main soundtrack a plaintive soldier’s ballad—and for a Korean War film, he chose the story of a fruitless battle to take “Pork Chop Hill.” But by far the most measurable, concrete effect Milestone had was on young Ayres.
Playing that angry, grieving soldier changed Ayres, who’d hitchhiked his way West at eighteen and was mostly known for his devastating effect on women. As the nineteen thirties progressed, he began studying philosophy, even as he was still playing heartthrobs, including a series of Young Dr. Kildare movies. By 1938, Hitler’s rise was making everyone nervous and causing Ayres to reflect on what he’d absorbed from that character—whether his revulsion against war had a philosophical basis. When the draft resumed in 1940, after the Germans took Paris, Ayres told the Selective Service he was a conscientious objector and talked to them about his religious and philosophical studies: “I said I don’t mind working with the Army because you do have a tremendous problem with the Hitler situation, I can’t deny these things, but I said as far as I’m concerned, I couldn’t kill, and I couldn’t go into the Army even on your side unless I did what I considered to be constructive work. They said no you may not make that choice, you have to go where we will put you, and I said well then, I won’t go at all.”
On December 7, 1941, Los Angeles was unseasonably warm for December, the wind unusually quiet. Ayres and his wife sat in their garden and listened to the radio, glued to the reports from Hawaii. Friends kept stopping by, including new friends from his medical unit, and they swore at the radio as if it had done something other than report the news. He knew what came next.
Ayres asked to go into the Medical Corps, and when he was refused, he chose the only other alternative to prison. Fans crowded his way from Los Angeles to the “conchie camp,” as the newspapers called it—the Civilian Public Service camp in northwest Oregon, where he’d do emergency first aid for the men pressed into service cutting timber. But then he was granted admission to the Army as a medic, which meant that (if he survived) he might actually have a career. He tried to think of what an older neighbor, too old for the war, had said after Pearl Harbor: “Well, at least we are now one day closer to the end of this war.”
Ayres tried to hold that thought when he went overseas to the Pacific theater, there to bind the wounds of soldiers in fierce battles on Papua New Guinea. He did well as a medic; one officer, when asked how Private Ayres was doing in the war, said, “I wish I had a battalion just like him.” He made some friendships that lasted—like with the chaplain Paul Yinger, a Mennonite who shared his philosophy—and some that didn’t, like his gentle rapport with Major William Kunstler.
If International Conscientious Objector Day wasn’t honored much in Congress that day, it wasn’t because there were no soldiers asking Congress to pay attention.
Although Ayres earned three Silver Stars for bravery in the line of fire, he was only reminded of the horror of war. And when the war was over, Ayres went back to acting and directed two documentaries about Eastern religions; he stayed away from controversy thereafter, saying not a recorded word about the Korean or Vietnam conflicts.
But his example still lived on in those later movements in other ways. Both Vietnam-era draft resisters and members of the GI movement inside the military called out his name as inspiration, while his former superior officer, William Kunstler, thought of him often as his law practice evolved and he began representing draft resisters and anti-war activists, including the famed Chicago Seven trial. For that trial, he reeled in fellow World War II veteran Peter Weiss, a former interrogator who saw no honor in this war. During the 1991 Gulf War, Kunstler went to court for conscientious objectors who were refusing to be part of another illegal war.
Ayres was also cited often by Howard Zinn, another World War II veteran and opponent of most wars since. Two years after Ayres’s 1996 death, in a critique of the film Saving Private Ryan, Zinn called on the spirit of Ayres’s most famous character—the speech about the trenches, its scenes with fat, exultant generals, and its final, heartbreaking image of Ayres’s hand going quite still, after reaching for a butterfly. By comparison, Zinn concluded, “Our culture is in deep trouble when a film like Saving Private Ryan can pass by, like a military parade, with nothing but a shower of confetti and hurrahs for its color and grandeur.”
If International Conscientious Objector Day wasn’t honored much in Congress that day, it wasn’t because there were no soldiers asking Congress to pay attention.
The hearing upstairs was called “Winter Soldier on the Hill,” testimony both to the two-day session by that name months earlier and its progenitor, a 1971 event in Detroit held by Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The most famous veteran now associated with that film, now in the Senate, wasn’t present this time; if he had been, he might not have recognized the row of young men in dark suits, most with short haircuts that easily would have passed inspection, unlike the bearded witnesses in torn jeans in 1971. The suits gave the event a somber feel, like kaddish or a memorial. But he might have found familiar their testimonies, which blamed equally their own participation, command neglect, and Congressional endorsement of the occupation.
A sweet-faced young blond named Jason Lemieux described “firefights in which the rules of engagement were routinely ignored” because of “unit loyalty and camaraderie” combined with “an emphasis on minimizing short-term casualties,” he said. Troops were authorized “on numerous occasions to shoot any Iraqi that seems suspicious,” and were told that “the command will take care of you.”
Part of what made this all possible, the vets said, was racism. A previous generation’s “gook” had become “hajji,” and thus other and expendable.
Lemieux said when he submitted incident reports showing “use of excessive force,” commands either downplayed them or, in one case, actually altered the numbers. In Tal Afar, now famous as one of President Bush’s great Army successes, “more innocent civilians were injured and killed by Americans than by the enemy,” said Army scout Scott Ewing, his face blank. Ewing described arriving at homes in Tal Afar that had just been blasted by Apache helicopters: “One little boy pointed to his chest,” he said softly. “We tried to bandage their wounds.”
Ewing also showed a slide of a trashed home from a day when “thousands of soldiers were ordered to search aggressively” for weapons. Following orders, the troops kicked down doors, smashed computers, and ripped bed sheets. Overall, said Ewing, “trashing people’s homes did not win us friends in Tal Afar.”
James Emanuel Gilligan spoke of routine abuse of detainees near the Syrian border: “punching, kicking, anything we wanted.” When one was released, he said, “we would drive then to the middle of the desert,” far from the detainee’s home, and drop him off. It was also “standard procedure to drive over the corpses” of Iraqi dead, rendering them indistinguishable. Echoing Goldsmith, Gilligan added: “Many including myself did not have any intent of helping the Iraqis.”
Part of what made this all possible, the vets said, was racism. A previous generation’s “gook” had become “hajji,” and thus other and expendable. Geoffrey Millard showed a slide of a sedan blasted into fragments at a checkpoint; his commander, he said, had brushed it off, saying: “If these fucking hajjis learned to drive, that wouldn’t happen.” He has tried, he added, to reason with his peers, for whom “KBR employees who made our food, they became hajjis… I actually heard a guy say, ‘I’m going over to that hajji shop to get a hajji DVD from these hajjis.’” It was hard, he said, to get soldiers to see why that was wrong.
They were also frank about their internal wounds. Many, like Kristofer Goldsmith, had attempted suicide; many, perhaps most, others had “self-medicated” with alcohol or drugs. Yet those same effects could make one ineligible for VA healthcare or the GI Bill, they noted, depending on branch of service or the language of your discharge. Goldsmith, once a Boy Scout dreaming of becoming a soldier, said that his general discharge blocks him from education benefits.
And perhaps appropriately for International Conscientious Objector Day, many spoke frankly of what they called the “dehumanization” inherent in current military training. Goldsmith described the perhaps immoral basic-training moment when the drill sergeant screams, “What makes the grass grow?” and expects to hear, “Blood, sergeant! Blood makes the grass grow!” That was the same chant cited by Gulf War veteran Aimee Allison as she described the turning points in 1991, which began her realization that she was a conscientious objector.
On Thursday, James Gilligan said in this war he watched a commander belittle a soldier who had made the same decision, using irrelevant hypothetical questions such as: What would you do if Al Qaeda went in and raped your wife, murdered your children, etc.? The soldier looked up, Gilligan said, and asked why the commander would ask such a question: “Do we do that to them?”
They also talked about Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, whose images rival the grisliest ones shared in 1971. “I was manning a checkpoint the day it broke,” said one, who wondered how it made him seem to the Iraqis meeting his eyes. James Gilligan said that detainee treatment overall has damaged any relationship possible with ordinary Iraqis: “When you meet an Iraqi teenager on the street,” he said, “they know what their cousins, their uncles have been through” at the hands of the U.S. military. “That makes it hard.”
Toward the end of the hearing, the veterans were asked if they would return to more formal House committees, such as Foreign Affairs and Homeland Security, where they would have an opportunity to testify under oath. James Gilligan’s response was typical. “I fly my flag upside down because my nation’s in distress,” he said. “I don’t think we need to wait another day.”
If the journey above didn’t make you feel unstuck in time, you’re more grounded, perhaps, than I am.
I use the phrase “unstuck in time” deliberately, of course: it’s a phrase coined by yet another dissenting soldier. Kurt Vonnegut, who said that “I would have given my life to save Dresden for the world’s generations to come,” published his novel about witnessing the World War II destruction in 1969—the year that magazines were filling with graphic photos, shot by Army photographer Robert Haeberle, of atrocities at My Lai. “There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre,” he wrote.
“I heard that sound in my head just now, the snipers. Like this: pa pa. Pa pa pa pa. Pa pa.”
Maybe not, but soldiers do keep trying.
Soldiers, especially the dissenting kind, have preoccupied me for years. Once a staffer on the GI Rights Hotline, I became a journalist just in time to wonder what the post 9/11 wars would mean to the young, mostly poor people the United States hires to enforce its foreign policy.
First I worried that a million new combat veterans represented an approaching iceberg of need. In a 2005 City Council hearing, Gulf War vet John Burnell (“J.B.”) White, a six-foot-tall former Marine with a Mississippi drawl, warned all of us that “the time to prevent veteran homelessness is now.”
White then introduced me to Franklin Aguilar, veteran of Baghdad, Tal Afar, and Tallil, who was being evaluated by the Veterans Administration for post-traumatic stress disorder. A few weeks later I saw why: The wind was high, and as I walked close to a building to avoid falling, Aguilar trembled a little: my ducking by the wall was exactly how you behaved in a firefight, he said. Right at that moment in the quiet afternoon, he added, “I heard that sound in my head just now, the snipers. Like this: pa pa. Pa pa pa pa. Pa pa.”
Aguilar also showed me some of his photographs: a woman with skin burned violet, a man lying on desert sands with his head squashed flat, a dead mother holding her equally dead children. Those images would not have been out of place in that Washington hearing room three years later.
Neither would Aguilar’s thousand-yard stare, common to most of the recent veterans I’ve met. Less so when they’re dissenting: after their 2007 Memorial Day street theater, “Operation First Casualty,” Adam Kokesh and Geoff Millard both grinned easily, puckishly enjoying onlookers’ discomfort at the group’s simulated occupation raid on city streets. Watching them, I thought that William Kunstler, famous for “guerrilla” tactics during the Chicago Seven trial, might have approved.
I started to come unstuck in time when I decided to look deeper into the rich, crazy history of dissent among U.S. soldiers and veterans. Alternating between real-time interviews and historical documents, some from hundreds of years ago, made the boundaries between the two feel almost arbitrary. I couldn’t read about the War of 1812 without wondering if the planners of the war in Iraq knew they were echoing the 1812 War Hawk’s talk about Canada—it’ll be a snap! They love us already! Or if they knew a thing about William Apess, the half-Black, half-Pequot soldier who wondered, as he was marching to Canada, “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.”
Those questions weren’t what West Point cadet Thomas Ragland had in mind seven years later when he asked his Congressman: “Are military men, as I have before inquired, when wronged in their collective capacity, allowed to represent their grievances, and to seek redress?” West Point chief Sylvanus Thayer was horrified, telling Congress to ignore “the erroneous and unmilitary impressions of the Cadets that they have rights to defend.” I couldn’t help thinking of the 2007 “Appeal for Redress to End the War in Iraq,” when some of the Winter Soldier vets marched on Congress. Their infectious smiles suppressed, the Appeal vets claimed as their own the DoD-guaranteed “right of service members to complain and request redress of grievances against actions of their commanders.”
But the loudest historical notes—chords, really—are sounding with all the public debate about Afghanistan. “Is this another Vietnam?” the TV commentators ask. It’s an apt comparison, especially when raised by Senator John Kerry, chair of the Senate Foreign Relation Committee, whose Vietnam-era dissent is well known. But my brain flashes back first to that 1899 Philippine war, and those letters from troops sent there to fight Emilio Aguinaldo—who was perhaps the very first of the former U.S. assets (he’d helped defeat Spain) turned Public Enemy Number One.
I keep confusing Kerry with Clay MacCauley, who guessed that now-tired script after a week in the Philippine islands talking to actual soldiers. A Princeton-educated minister as well as Civil War vet, MacCauley squatting with privates from Tennessee becomes in my mind kind of a sepia Kerry, from the first Winter Soldier panel in 1971. And now I’m wondering why Kerry’s committee hasn’t called in James Gilligan, the one with the S.O.S. flag—who testified that he’d seen Afghan civilians barraged by U.S. Army Huey helicopters, and been told to blame the Taliban if anyone asked. It might give Kerry his own flashback to his own words to the committee he now chairs: “We could come back to this country, we could be quiet; we could hold our silence. We could not tell what went on in Vietnam. But we feel because of… the crimes which we are committing that threaten it, that we have to speak out.”
These new veterans hear many of the same chords I do (okay, maybe not the War of 1812 stuff). They seize on every bit of history they find inspiring: I heard a former Army sniper laud a 1779 mutiny by Colonial troops in Philadelphia against price-gouging. Between the internet and a culture that understands trauma (at least at the Dr. Phil level), they know what PTSD is and how it affects them. “Every time I hear helicopters, I think I’m in fucking Fallujah,” Gilligan told me last spring over a Philadelphia cafe table.
“Veterans know that there are no war survivors,” writes Pauline Hebert, a former nurse who served in Vietnam. “For the living, there can never be peace.” What’s not clear—and can’t be, since we’re in the first draft of history—is how the new veterans’ experiences will change the rest of us. But I have no doubt that they will. The chords are dissonant a lot of the time, but they still compel.
**Chris Lombardi**’s journalism has been published by _The Nation_, _Ms. Magazine_, _Poets & Writers_, _Women’s Enews_, the _American Bar Association Journal_, and the downtown New York weekly _Chelsea Now_; she’s also published fiction in Failbetter.com, _Minnesota Review_, _Lurch_, and _The Pearl_. Her book, _I Ain’t Marching Anymore: Soldiers Who Dissent, from George Washington to John Murtha_, will be published by University of California Press at the end of 2010.