Many Americans tend to view the military as a homogeneous group, an army of automatons with the same beliefs and values — namely, that when it comes to war the American government is always in the right. Therefore, civilian opposition to U.S. invasions, bombings, huge military budgets, global military presence, or glorification of the army, the flag, and the State are all called “disrespectful,” “not supporting our troops,” “un-American,” “anti-American,” “spitting in the face of” or “giving the middle finger to” our soldiers.
Yet what of the soldiers who oppose war? What of the veterans who wish to see the military budget slashed and the 800 American bases in 80 nations shuttered? As easy as this may be for patriotic civilians (and perhaps soldiers) to ignore, some of the loudest voices demanding we “ring the bells of peace” and put “an end to war” are veterans or active servicemen.
The military (despite the immense pressure to conform and follow orders) does not seem to be full of single-minded, patriotic drones, but rather a group of independent, diverse thinkers.
Thousands of veterans join passionate anti-war groups
One example is Veterans for Peace, founded in the 1980s during the horrific U.S. military interventions into Central America under Reagan that killed tens of thousands of innocent people. Their mission is to raise awareness of the true costs of war, aid our victims, “restrain our government from intervening, overtly and covertly, in the internal affairs of other nations,” “abolish war as an instrument of national policy,” and move toward peace. After all, who better than veterans might understand the true horrors of America’s wars (see A History of Violence: Facing U.S. Wars of Aggression)?
Their ideas and language are as fierce as any supposedly “unpatriotic” civilian. Veterans for Peace wrote on Facebook on November 11, 2014 that Veteran’s Day had “devolved into a hyper-nationalistic worship ceremony for war and the valiant warriors who wage it.” On December 10, 2014 it wrote:
Sometimes it may seem that our leaders and fellow citizens simply cannot understand that militaristic values and ongoing war creates only more problems, both internationally and here within our own country. The battle is definitely uphill. However, history tells us that lessons about the futility of war has been understood in the past, no doubt by those fighting on the front-lines.
Similar groups include Iraq Veterans Against the War and Vietnam Veterans Against the War — yes, it’s still active. To quote A History of Violence: The American Slaughter in Vietnam, during that conflict, many
veterans joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which “exposed the ugly truth about US involvement in Southeast Asia and our first-hand experiences helped many other Americans to see the unjust nature of that war.” The VVAW still exists today, as “our government is still financing and arming undemocratic and repressive regimes around the world. Recently, American troops have been sent into combat in the Middle East and Central America, for many of the same misguided reasons that were used to send us to Southeast Asia.” Several other groups, like the Concerned Officers Movement, also formed and protested the war.
Many soldiers question what they are doing
Soldiers’ anti-war writings are as easy to find as anti-war groups. Smedley Butler, a Marine Corps major general and two-time recipient of the Medal of Honor, wrote a book in the 1930s called War is a Racket. He said, “War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious.” And:
I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested.
Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.
Thomas Young, a man who enlisted after 9/11, was paralyzed by a sniper in Iraq and spent the rest of his life denouncing the war (he died in 2014, at 34).
He wrote to Bush and Cheney in 2013:
I write this letter on behalf of husbands and wives who have lost spouses, on behalf of children who have lost a parent, on behalf of the fathers and mothers who have lost sons and daughters and on behalf of those who care for the many thousands of my fellow veterans who have brain injuries. I write this letter on behalf of those veterans whose trauma and self-revulsion for what they have witnessed, endured and done in Iraq have led to suicide and on behalf of the active-duty soldiers and Marines who commit, on average, a suicide a day. I write this letter on behalf of the some 1 million Iraqi dead and on behalf of the countless Iraqi wounded. I write this letter on behalf of us all — the human detritus your war has left behind, those who will spend their lives in unending pain and grief.
I write this letter, my last letter, to you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. I write not because I think you grasp the terrible human and moral consequences of your lies, manipulation and thirst for wealth and power. I write this letter because, before my own death, I want to make it clear that I, and hundreds of thousands of my fellow veterans, along with millions of my fellow citizens, along with hundreds of millions more in Iraq and the Middle East, know fully who you are and what you have done. You may evade justice but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans — my fellow veterans — whose future you stole.
After Al-Qaeda bombed American embassies in 1998, Vietnam veteran Robert Bowman wrote:
We are not hated because we practice democracy, value freedom, or uphold human rights. We are hated because our government denies these things to people in Third World countries whose resources are coveted by our multinational corporations. That hatred we have sown has come back to haunt us in the form of terrorism…. Instead of sending our sons and daughters around the world to kill Arabs so we can have the oil under their sand, we should send them to rebuild their infrastructure, supply clean water, and feed starving children…. In short, we should do good instead of evil. Who would try to stop us? Who would hate us? Who would want to bomb us? (Zinn, A People’s History of the United States)
A young American soldier wrote home during Vietnam:
Dear Mom and Dad:
Today we went on a mission and I am not very proud of myself, my friends, or my country. We burned every hut in sight! It was a small rural network of villages and the people were incredibly poor. My unit burned and plundered their meager possessions… We fired into all the huts we could… Everyone is crying, begging, and praying that we don’t separate them and take their husbands and fathers, sons and grandfathers. The women wail and moan.
Then they watch in terror as we burn their homes, personal possessions and food. Yes, we burn all the rice and shoot all the livestock.
Some soldiers refuse to follow orders, and commit “treason”
While some call them “cowards,” it is obvious that it takes tremendous courage to disobey or desert the military — risking being hunted down like an animal and imprisoned, in earlier years executed.
Whether opposing war or simply fearing for one’s life, desertion is a way servicemen can make a political statement or take back control of their fate. 40,000 deserted the U.S. military during World War II, 13,000 during the Korean War, nearly half a million from 1966-1972 during Vietnam, and 8,000 in 2006-2007 alone during the invasion of Iraq.
Other soldiers defy the State by attempting to bring to light atrocities the military seeks to cover up, such as Hugh Thompson and Ron Ridenhour after fellow U.S. soldiers massacred innocent people in My Lai, Vietnam. Or Chelsea (Bradley) Manning, a private who in 2010 exposed U.S. war crimes in Iraq, and is now imprisoned for it. Perhaps people like them understand what Howard Zinn, a World War II veteran, once wrote (and a young soldier took to heart): “There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people” (“Terror Over Tripoli,” Zinn).