Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Honoring the Other War Veterans

The story has been repeatedly told of a visit by Ralph Waldo Emerson to Henry David Thoreau when the latter was in jail for refusing to pay taxes to support the Mexican-American War.

“Henry, what are you doing in there?” Emerson asked. Thoreau replied, “Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?”

In that spirit, let us honor on this Veterans Day those who fought for peace by resisting war. The heroes who preferred disobedience, punishment and opprobrium, rather than wholesale murder in their name by their own countrymen.

In the United States scarcely any generation has lived without being sent to war, into conflicts that on the whole served the profiteering rich far more than the many in the common citizenry. Yet it is still rare to stop to consider the tradition of peace.

Benjamin Franklin foresaw such a history in the choice of the bald eagle as a national symbol:
"I wish that the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country, he is a bird of bad moral character, he does not get his living honestly, you may have seen him perched on some dead tree, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the fishing-hawk, and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to its nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the bald eagle pursues him and takes it from him. Besides he is a rank coward; the little kingbird, not bigger than a sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest of America."
Franklin preferred the native turkey. Thomas Jefferson offered the dove, a symbol of peace since biblical times.

Opponents of the 1846-1848 predatory war against Mexico included John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Giddings. In his essay Civil Disobedience, Thoreau called it "the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool."

Roughly a half century later, no less a figure than Mark Twain was a founding member of the Anti-Imperialist League, which opposed the Spanish-American War and the subsequent settlement. Twain voiced the following sentiments:
I have read carefully the treaty of Paris, and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem. It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.
Even as the ranks of pacifism thinned by 1914, when the United States entered the Great War in 1917, socialists raised their voices in opposition, echoing their brethren in Europe, who saw no benefit in workers shooting other workers for the benefit of capitalists. Eugene V. Debs was jailed for merely speaking against the war. On his side was Helen Keller, who was left alone because she was a sympathetic figure.

Even the "good war," World War II, had its share of U.S. opponents, including Catholic figures such as Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.

Finally, there's the Vietnam peace movement of the 1960s and 70s, in the aftermath of which no U.S. president felt comfortable launching a full-fledged war until this century's invasion of Iraq -- opposition to which led to the election of the nation's first black president.

So, as military veterans of war are served up a pageant to their participation in state-sanctioned, industrial-scale murder, let us recall those brave veterans of war, who resisted belligerence.

1 comment:

Anne said...

Hopefully, some day we will have a day to honor them, too. I've always thought pacifists particularly heroic.

& I think of the men and women on the "other" sides who were swept into war machines. Today a friend said his Polish grandfather under threat to his family was in the German army.

I'd like to think that shared, thoughtful intelligence will win peace.