This essay also appears in CounterPunch.
Chris Lombardi’s book, I Ain’t Marching Anymore: Dissenters, Deserters, and Objectors to America’s Wars, couldn’t be more on time. As the US ramps up its proxy war in Ukraine and paves the way for even wider conflict, Lombardi gives us the knowledge we need to help rebuild the peace movement. It’s a monumental task fraught with error and risk, but we can take courage from this story of anti-war resisters who took the most difficult and dangerous of all paths to peace — a route running right through the war machine itself. I Ain’t Marching Anymore is a must-read addition to books on the US peace movement.*
Lombardi’s writing is infused with the passion and insight of an activist. Having spent years with the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors she combines deep political commitment with the skill of an accomplished storyteller and the intellect of a scholar. That alone is a huge accomplishment. It’s a very accessible page-turner and a great book for someone new to the peace movement.
Lombardi shines a light on the unexplored depths of military dissent back to the 1750s. Right from the start, she shares the stories of unknown peace heroes like William Apess, the first known Native soldier dissenter, as well as the infamous Daniel Shay of Shay’s Rebellion. Throughout this survey of war and peace, she introduces us to previously little-known actors while enriching our understanding of high-profile military dissenters like Harriet Tubman, Howard Zinn, Brian Willson, Susan Schnall, and Chelsea Manning.
We also learn a surprising fact: peace organizations led by veterans crop up in opposition to almost every US war of conquest.
Lombardi’s account of World War I is chock full of relevant history. President Wilson — one of the most racist liberals in our history and the invader of Mexico — increased military spending in preparation for war. Yet, he ran on the slogans, “He Kept Us Out of War” and “America First.” The US peace movement was deeply divided, with many repurposing their peace principles and falling into line for war. Remember WWI was sold as the “War to End All Wars” making the world “Safe for Democracy.” It was packaged as a war for peace and democracy. Today’s moral crusade against Russia relies on the same sort of lofty but deceptive appeals to convince otherwise peace-minded people of the necessity for war.
Repression of anti-war voices was rampant at that time too. Congress passed the Espionage Act in 1917; the same law is still used to torture Assange and others. Members of the anti-war union, Industrial Workers of the World, were imprisoned as was Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs. Debs had the audacity to give a speech against war. Mennonites and other Christian pacifists also did hard jail time for their faith-based resistance.
Unlike the Democrats’ current lockstep march to war, a few elected politicians were vocal opponents. Today only one or two libertarian-leaning Republicans make principled criticisms of war. The Congressional “left” is pro-war both supporting massive weapons exports and demobilizing the peace movement as Obama had before them. Although it may feel lonely standing for peace we have anti-war ancestors who saw through the lies and tried their best to oppose WWI. That war would claim 20 million lives, but with nuclear weapons and accelerating climate destruction, today’s stakes are truly cataclysmic.
The section on the Vietnam era is distinctive in Lombardi’s narrative because it takes a helpful detour from the book’s tendency to focus on conscientious objection. Yes, the COs were a vital part of that resistance but were joined by a far larger number of soldiers reacting to the lived experience of blood and brutality — the unavoidable price of US aggression in Southeast Asia.
The Vietnam Veterans Against the War was one of the most influential peace organizations in our history and 80% of its members were combat veterans. They were not, by and large, pacifists. In that sense, we could see them as selective conscientious objectors to the war they fought but that was enough to create the largest military resistance in US history.
When I did my own research on these unlikely heroes many years ago, the very first thing I discovered was that they walked and talked like veterans — that was their leading political identity. They were workers, Black, Brown, and white, but with a special form of class consciousness shaped by the work of war. What gave them their terrible wisdom and their political power was, first and foremost, the fact that they were soldiers and veterans. I treated them as such, and Lombardi did too.
These hard-core activists had not rejected the citizen-soldier role so much as transformed and refashioned it for their peaceful purposes. It was this collective, cultural and political revolution that made the Vietnam Era the high-water mark of soldier dissent in US history— a movement that continues to shape all that would come after it.
The Veterans for Peace, Iraq Veterans Against the War, About Face: Veterans Against the War and many others would respond to more recent wars by building a permanent military resistance. This movement was able to adapt to the changing terrain of the volunteer army and advances in military technology that the military hoped, and many observers predicted, would prevent resistance. It’s hard to think of a more important historical development for the peace movement.
Lombardi lets her rowdy characters and their wild adventures guide us through the contemporary terrain of high-tech warfare, gender and sexual politics, and the connection with anti-war resistance. She brings all this together when telling of the heroic resistance of Chelsa Manning. Lombardi concludes:
“Manning thus brought together almost all the 21St Century threads…She used Information-warfare techniques, her backups and algorithms, her cutting edge internet hacks, to expose torture and asymmetric warfare, while Manning herself unfurled the misogyny and racism at militarism’s core, between her own gender-dissent and the leaks exposure of US treatment of local allies.”
Mannings’s story helps us to understand that the interlocking crises of war, empire, climate chaos, racism, and misogyny call for a truly interconnected movement capable of alliances and analysis far beyond the fakery of liberal identity politics.
Lombardi navigates the tricky terrain of soldier and veteran dissent at a deep historical level. She gives full weight to the “founding injustices” of slavery, patriarchy, and conquest while not losing sight of the citizen-soldiers’ double-edged struggle. Soldiers often see military service as a means of gaining the rights and security of full citizenship, while simultaneously struggling to free themselves and their community from the very founding injustices of the state they are serving. They want entrance into a house they know is on fire. These contradictions have shaped soldier dissent throughout our history. As Lombardi’s treatment of WWI tells us, even the great WEB Dubois was unable to escape this historical briar patch.
There is so much to learn from I Aint Marching Anymore a short review cannot do it justice. But this much I can tell you (and I am confident Lombardi would agree): a peace movement that does not include, welcome, and help to organize soldiers and veterans will fail. As long as movements for social change continue to view veterans and soldiers as damaged goods and fools — or organizing in the military as a waste of time — those movements can never win.
Peace, it turns out, has a lot to do with war — it too must be waged. Soldiers and veterans can help lead the way.
*Another important work is Nan Levinson’s War Is Not A Game: The New Anti-War Soldiers and the Movement They Built.