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War No More: 250 Years of Military Dissenters and Deserters Celebrated in New Book

Issue 261

From the Revolutionary War onward, dissident U.S. soldiers have defied the brass and fought for peace.

Eleanor J. Bader Feb 2

Almost 250 years ago, in 1777, Jacob Ritter, a member of the Pennsylvania militia, assessed the carnage surrounding him on the battlefield and decided, right then and there, that he would never take up arms again. “The rest of Jacob Ritter’s life was shaped by that moment of conscientious objection, a term invented a century before,” reports Chris Lombardi, author of I Ain’t Marching Anymore: Dissenters, Deserters, and Objectors to America’s Wars.

What’s more, Lombardi notes that while Ritter’s position was not particularly popular, it was also not unique, and in the centuries since, scores of people have not only opposed war, but have resisted other aspects of militarism, from paltry wages paid to servicemembers, to opposition to the racism, sexism, homophobia, and imperialism that have long been endemic to U.S. policy.

This big-picture overview makes Lombardi’s meticulously researched text essential reading. Beginning with Ritter’s revolutionary act of conscience, she covers every armed conflict the US has engaged in and zeroes in on the many principled acts of courage that have turned flag-waving patriots into anti-war activists. The result is both harrowing and inspiring.

That said, there are some odd omissions, among them the sidestepping of Vietnam-era resistors who fled to Canada, choosing to uproot themselves from their friends, families, and communities rather than face imprisonment or ascend into harm’s way. But this is a small criticism in an otherwise sweeping look at an important piece of under-reported history.

Among the most interesting nuggets in the book is Lombardi’s deep dive into the role that social class—poverty—has always played in determining who enters military service. Prior to and during the Civil War, for example, Lombardi writes that virtually every recruit had been “wooed in advance by promised signing bonuses of three months’ pay…Many enlisted for the sake of their families, having no employment, and were promised that they could leave part of their pay for their families to draw in their absence.”

Sadly, then, as now, promises made were not promises kept and thousands of men deserted, walking away in fury and despair when the money did not materialize. This, Lombardi notes, was particularly glaring for soldiers of color. “The Army’s refusal to give Black soldiers equal wages caused some to desert rather than work without pay. A few even chose execution rather than return to duty,” she writes.

The author makes a deep dive into the role that social class—poverty—has always played in determining who enters military service. 

As enraging as this was, Lombardi adds that not every desertion was motivated by principle, with some warriors going AWOL because they were too psychologically damaged to continue fighting, suffering from what was then called nostalgia or soldier’s heart. We now know this condition as Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. In fact, between 1861 and 1866, she writes, government reports acknowledged “5,213 cases and 58 deaths attributed to nostalgia among white troops, with 334 and 16 deaths among colored troops.”

“The Civil War is where the emotional damage of war became an area of medicine,” Lombardi explains.  The War also created “the first generation of writers for whom that damage yielded dissent,” including Marine veteran Herman Melville and Army nurse Walt Whitman.

In subsequent generations, writers Kurt Vonnegut, Howard Zinn and Ron Kovic; filmmakers John Houston and Oliver Stone; and cartoonist Bill Mauldin used their military experience to create art with an explicitly antiwar message, finding in creative expression a way to affirm that war is hell.

Not surprisingly, this message is repeatedly hammered in I Ain’t Marching Anymore, but Lombardi also tackles voluntary enlistment and interviews dozens of soldiers who signed up only to later discover that they’d made a huge mistake. The many organizations that assist them—from Veterans for Peace to the War Resisters League to the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors—are showcased and Lombardi paints an ardent portrait of their day-to-day efforts. In addition, our era’s most prominent resisters—Daniel K. Choi, Stephen Funk, Chelsea Manning, and Reality Winner are introduced as exemplars of bravery and integrity, committed veterans-turned-activists who are willing to speak truth to power and assert that peace is possible.

I Ain’t Marching Anymore: Dissenters, Deserters, and Objectors to America’s Wars
Chris Lombardi
The New Press, 2019
304 pages

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