By | September 18, 2020
New book chronicles the long tradition of dissent in U.S. armed forces
I Ain’t Marching Anymore: Dissenters, Deserters and Objectors to America’s Wars
By Chris Lombardi
The New Press
November 2020
304 pages

By Chris Ford

Chris Lombardi has recently published a book recounting the history of dissent in the military. Lombardi’s book should appeal to any student of history and, especially, to those interested in learning about dissent in American armed forces prior to the Vietnam War, a conflict well known for having engendered robust dissidence and epic protests across the nation, as well as mass dissent in the ranks. For example, fully one quarter of all Americans service members in the Vietnam War “deserted, were AWOL, refused orders or were openly mutinous” as of 1972, as recently noted in On Watch.[1] In Lombardi’s words, the Vietnam anti-war movement’s “history still shouts down its successors.”

Many alive today may consider the Vietnam War to represent the genesis of dissent in the military. However, with the steady tone of a news reporter, though one openly sympathetic to anti-war and anti-slavery viewpoints, Lombardi draws on original documents to recount in detail a tradition of dissent in American armed forces that stretches back to nearly a quarter century before the Declaration of Independence. Lombardi’s book recounts the personal stories of numerous service members, publishers, moviemakers and others who, through the generations, objected to or dissented against armed service, slavery and racial discrimination.

George Washington was no fan of dissent

Americans typically look back upon the life and work of George Washington through a prism tinted rose by centuries of public adulation made remarkable by the lack of rebuttal. And why not? Washington is the man, we were taught in grade school, who could not tell a lie (oh, the contrast between presidents 1 and 45), who cannily beat the British when they were a military superpower and who served as our first president.

Lombardi issues a modest challenge to our collective rose-tinted memories of Washington, because he acted to tamp down dissent in the armed forces. For example, soldiers in that era scrutinized enlistment contracts and expected the government to uphold its end of the bargain, but Washington was “no fan of this sense of agency among eighteenth-century grunts,” according to Lombardi.

Lombardi further relates that Washington expressed open disdain for militias in New England, a region that even then functioned as the progressive conscience of the nation. Those militia were diverse (with Black, white and Native American participants, as well as women who fought in male uniforms), and their members believed they were, or should be, full citizens; but Washington viewed them as “a nasty lot.”

Among armed forces members, however, the right to dissent was taken for granted. As far back as 1754, Continental militias “were unafraid to dissent” when called up to assist the British Army in the French and Indian War (aka Seven Years’ War), and members claimed a right to serve under their own officers, rather than British officers.

At the dawn of 1781, with the Revolutionary War not yet ended, soldiers from Pennsylvania, who had been forced to live in tents and had not been paid for a year, rebelled, demanding back pay, adequate clothing and discharges for those who had served more then three years. Those soldiers did receive the discharges and 160 acres of land among other compensation, and Washington did advocate subsequently that all Army accounts should “be compleately liquidated and settled, and that every person shall ascertained of the Ballance due to him.”

However, Washington “cracked down” on a similar mutiny led by New Jersey troops, agreeing with a general that its leader and another deserter be shot. He also increased the penalties for insubordination and threatened execution for mutiny or desertion, according to Lombardi.

Second Amendment’s conscientious objection clause

Of likely interest to conscientious objectors,[2] Lombardi quotes James Madison’s first draft of the Second Amendment:

The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed, a well-armed and well-regulated militia being the best security of a free country; but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.

Lombardi explains that this proposed language “survived weeks of negotiations before it was jettisoned, its implied national jurisdiction over state militias unacceptable to Southern legislators already angered by the Quakers’ explicit anti-slavery position.” Could it be that Southerners’ bristling in the 1780s at a constitutional amendment enshrining federal control of state militias presaged the South’s eventual treasonous act of seceding from and waging war against the United States on the basis of “states’ rights”?

War of Independence 2.0

The United States fought the British again in 1812, in what some have called a second War of Independence, at the end of which the United States promised in the 1815 Treaty of Ghent to end hostilities with Native Americans and restore their possessions, rights and privileges. Obviously, this provision was observed in the breach. Dissent in the ensuing decades centered around the atrocities the U.S. military committed in its enforcement of the Indian Removal Act, which forced Native Americans off their land and, eventually, west of the Mississippi.

Lombardi recounts that Edgar Allen Hitchcock, a West Point graduate, was commissioned in 1841 to investigate fraud by the Bureau of Indian Affairs against the Cherokee Nation. He prepared a report, with 100 exhibits, documenting “bribery, perjury, and forgery, short weights, issues of spoiled meat and grain, and every conceivable subterfuge” employed by whites against Indians. The report was ignored and destroyed before it could reach Congress and the press.

By the late 1840s, when the U.S. went to war with Mexico, war and slavery were “equally repugnant” to dissenters, Lombardi writes. Horace Greely, founder of NY Tribune, coined term “Slave Power” – a term perhaps with social import equivalent to such current terms “big oil” or “military-industrial-intelligence complex” – used by those who “excoriated the South’s near stranglehold on both the United States’ economy and its government.”

Meanwhile, Ulysses S. Grant, a West Point student of Hitchcock, denounced the war with Mexico as “a conspiracy to acquire territory out of which slaves states might be formed for the American Union” – a detail seemingly left out of most history books. Indeed, Sam Houston and other wealthy plantation owners in what then was northeastern Mexico fought for Texas independence, according to Lombardi, only after the young Republic of Mexico granted full citizenship to Blacks.

Fighting the South: an act of dissent

In the case of the Civil War, Lombardi suggests that the act of joining the Union Army itself was an act of dissent “against a status quo that long since had become intolerable.” However, some abolitionists initially refused to join the Union Army, complaining that President Lincoln was “politicking about ‘preserving the union’” without declaring slaves to be free, which made the effort not worth dying for.

Lombardi further notes that there was dissent against the Union Army in the North by those uninterested in freeing blacks from slavery (based on racist tropes), and in Confederate states, there were Union sympathizers who identified themselves with a “dizzying set” of secret handshakes, and on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, soldiers deserted in substantial numbers. Notably, the Civil War generated the first writings on “soldier’s heart,” a 19th century expression for what now is called PTSD.

Lombardi recounts that Black men rendered homeless in the wake of the Civil War were sent to the frontier under white commanders. These “buffalo soldiers” were used in the 1880s in the nation’s ongoing military assault on Native Americans, and, perhaps because of their background, they were less inclined than whites to desert when the going got rough.

As the 19th century drew to a close and war with Spain loomed, Lewis H. Douglass, son of Frederick Douglass and a sergeant-major in the all-Black 54th Massachusetts Regiment, wrote, as quoted by Lombardi, that another war to expand the territorial reach of the United States can only “mean[] extension of race hate and cruelty, barbarous lynchings and gross injustice to dark people.”

The press, led by West Coast publisher William Randolph Hearst, himself infamous for sensationalist reporting, cheered the war against Spain – once it became clear that whites took the side of revolutionaries. As Lombardi dryly notes, “To Americans after the Civil War, every war was a possible race war.” Hearst showed his organization to be a kind of fin-de-siècle Fox News when a New York newspaper he owned blared the salacious headline: “SPANIARDS AUCTION OFF CUBAN GIRLS.”

Waterboarding: born in the Philippines

More than half of the letters from soldiers in the Philippine theater of the Spanish-American war were “explicitly anti-war,” Lombardi reports. A captain wrote that following the attack on Maypaja, a town of 5,000, “not one stone remains upon top of another. You can only faintly imagine this terrible scene of desolation. War is worse than hell.” The desertion rate among whites in the Philippines hovered around 10 percent but was much lower among Blacks, perhaps due to “tight unit cohesion,” states Lombardi.

Lewis Douglass, as quoted by Lombardi, spotlighted the racism that underlay the nation’s burgeoning imperialism when he decried the “fact that whatever this government controls, injustices to dark races prevails. The people of Cuba, Porto Rico [sic], Hawaii and Manila know it well as do the wronged Indian and outraged black man in the United States.”

A 1902 Senate investigation into the war in the Philippines revealed a kind of brutality that would be repeated in Vietnam in the mid-20th century and in the Middle East early in the 21st: American occupiers took few prisoners, burned villages to the ground and invented what they called a “water cure” – the form of torture we know today as waterboarding.

WWI Conscientious Objectors were disrespected

In 1915 as war-in-Europe fever gripped immigrant neighborhoods in New York City and elsewhere, W.E.B. du Bois, then a college professor, author and editor of NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis, wrote of a possible U.S. entry into the Great War, “We may blunder into murder and shame … but it will not be a war. It will be a crime.”

In 1916, President Wilson sought a second term while expanding the military, using a campaign slogan that may be paraphrased as “keep the country out of war by making it strong.” Du Bois challenged any planned increase in defense spending that did not include defense of the thousands of Blacks in the United States routinely killed by lynch mobs.

In the summer of 1917, Congress passed the Selective Service Act. This law accorded conscientious objector (“CO”) status to members of certain organized religions “that forbid its members to participate in war in any form,” though COs were subject to “service in any capacity that the President shall declare to be noncombatant.” COs were ordered to build military camps, although some who refused any contribution to the war machine were accorded “farm furloughs,” i.e. allowed to stay on their own land.

According to Lombardi, COs who stayed on base were subjected to reprehensible treatment, e.g. forced to stand waist-deep in a latrine pit; chained in a solitary cell so as to be stuck in a stooping position; dragged by the hair; beaten and jabbed with a bayonet until passed out from exhaustion; and forced into years of hard prison labor at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas with soldiers convicted of theft, murder or desertion. In the ultimate act of dissent, 10,000 soldiers deserted during World War I, despite the attendant penalties (including death) that were harsher than those during the Civil War.

Political speech severely punished

Shortly thereafter Wilson signed the Espionage Act and later the Sedition Act, arguably unconstitutional efforts to squelch dissent against the war effort. The Espionage Act banned “statements showing the ‘intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces of the United States,’” Lombardi reports. Its passage led to a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings in 1919 that developed the “clear and present danger” test, initially described by Justice Holmes as an inquiry into “whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.”[3]

In a subsequent 1919 case the Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and 10-year sentence for obstructing the war by means of a speech advocating for minorities, promoting socialism and predicting its success, and adding the comment, “‘you need to know that you are fit for something better than slavery and cannon fodder.’”[4] Eight years later, in a concurrence, Justices Brandeis and Holmes sought to constrain the “clear and present danger” test’s limitation on free speech to cases in which the prosecution can show “either that immediate serious violence was to be expected or was advocated, or that the past conduct furnished reason to believe that such advocacy was then contemplated.”[5]

The evolution of speech doctrine in the decade following the passage of the Espionage Act shows that its key language arguably violated the First Amendment. Nonetheless, as Lombardi reports, the 1917 Espionage and Sedition acts provided the government a tool to stifle and imprison leaders of the Socialist Party, the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Women’s Peace Party. Meanwhile, the U.S. Postal Service would not carry author Ellen LaMotte’s “explicitly non-political” book The Backwash of War, (which had been banned in England and France), or socialist newspapers such as The Masses. Nor, would it carry newspapers deemed “disloyal,” as the Wilson Administration targeted labor organizers, journalists and citizen dissenters,[6] according to Lombardi.

Returning soldiers “welcomed” by KKK

After the war ended, veterans came home to a reinvigorated Ku Klux Klan, which was content to abuse Jews and Catholics along with Blacks, and faced lower wages or as strikebreakers upon return to civilian work. Many, of course, suffered from “shell shock” and found it difficult to assimilate into civilian life. After the Roaring Twenties crashed into the Great Depression, the nation’s 3 million veterans became “a stumbling, angry presence across both class and race lines,” Lombardi writes.

Forty-three thousand veterans in 1932 marched on Washington, D.C., one of their chants a sardonic take on the World War I-era war-booster song, Over There: “Over there, over there, Tell the world to beware, ‘Cause the Yanks are starving, the Yanks are starving.” Veterans marched in other cities, sometimes with Blacks and whites walking together. Lombardi describes the effort as “a march against invisibility, an escalation of a demand for recognition, as much as for a guaranteed pension.”

President Hoover, according to Lombardi, doomed his own reelection by ordering Col. Douglas MacArthur to evict the veterans’ camps in and around the Capital, which he did, bringing to mind Donald Trump’s use of the military to violently remove Black Lives Matter protesters from in front of the White House in 2020, so he could brandish a Bible – of all things – for a photo op in front of an Episcopal church – of all places.

Blacks soldiers treated poorly in WWII

A new draft law provided for “no discrimination on account of race or color,” but this, too, was observed in the breach, with FDR tacitly allowing segregated units. Lombardi reports that Blacks were treated badly during World War II, even forced to train on separate bases in the South, where Jim Crow laws reigned, and whites who came to their defense also “could be disciplined.” Blacks were given menial tasks such as “cargo checker” and dangerous jobs such as munitions handler.

One group of 258 Blacks at Port Chicago in California, who refused to return to work after a large explosion destroyed two ships, flattened nearby homes and killed 300 Black seamen among the 350 who died, were tried and convicted of “mutiny.” And the Navy, Lombardi adds, “which had not accepted Black seamen until 1942, welcomed them into a system designed to extinguish them.”

Conscientious objectors were allowed to make their case during the war. Lew Ayers, male lead of the 1930 film All Quiet on the Western Front, joined 37,000 COs whom the War Department had processed by the end of the war.

Following the conflict, the American Veterans Committee, a progressive alternative to the American Legion, advocated for a GI full-employment act, “because unemployment is too dangerous a problem to be handled by the haphazard methods of the past” – a concept that certainly rings true today.

Repression in the 1950s

Lombardi ably chronicles the alarming rise in repression during the early 1950s under the banner of anti-communism: Hollywood cranked out pro-war films, and the FBI interrogated filmmaker John Huston and outright arrested W.E.B. du Bois as a “foreign agent” after he organized the signing of 1 million “Peacegrams.”

Millions were drafted or volunteered for the U.S.’s “peacekeeping” mission in Korea, but Civilian Public Service camps no longer awaited COs. Meanwhile, President Truman’s directive banning segregation not only was ignored, but Black units at times were sacrificed in Korea to save white soldiers, Lombardi reports.

Clarence Adams was among the Black service members who declined to repatriate to the United States after the Korean War, preferring the “unknown” of China or Korea to Jim Crow. “The Chinese unbrainwashed me,” he reportedly told journalists, adding, “The Negro had his mind brainwashed long before the Korea War. If he stayed in his place he was a good nigger.” The white press, of course, dismissed his reasoning as Communist propaganda.

Adams remained China for 14 years, attending university, marrying, working as a translator, speaking with reporters from around the world, and, ultimately meeting du Bois in 1952, an “unforgettable day” for Adams. Yet he suffered from PTSD, which then appears to have been called “neuropsychiatric casualty.”

When the military began shipping young Americans to Vietnam, Adams spoke to them over Radio Hanoi, noting that they came to Vietnam supposedly to free the Vietnamese, “but what kind of freedom do you have at home, sitting in the back of the bus, being barred from restaurants, stores and certain neighborhoods, and being denied the right to vote? . . . Go home and fight for equality in America.” Lombardi notes that after the Chinese asked him to go to a rural factory as part of the Cultural Revolution, he instead moved with his Chinese wife and biracial children to Tennessee, where he remained until his death in 2007, “his family’s survival his last dissent.”

Agnostics allowed in 1965 to claim CO status

Perhaps as a dress rehearsal for 21st century America’s policy of endless war, the Vietnam War, though deeply unpopular, dragged on for more than a decade. However, at its outset, the Supreme Court ruled that agnostics could declare themselves COs “if their anti-war beliefs had religion-like force,” according to Lombardi.[7] The ruling also allowed those already in uniform to attain CO status if they were able to prove their beliefs were transformed by the time they spent in the military.

The Vietnam War stands out for prevalent dissention in the ranks. By 1969, when there were roughly 540,000 U.S. service members in Vietnam, more than 150 underground GI newspapers circulated, sharing tips on how to undermine the war from within, e.g. work slowdowns, destruction of office supplies, purposely not finding enemy troops they were to search and destroy. However, according to later-declassified documents cited by Lombardi, the Army ordered personnel to “intercept and confiscate” personal mail directed to soldiers in Vietnam that contained anti-war or dissident materials.

As time went on, the nation learned that the military’s take-no-prisoners massacres such as that at My Lai were far from isolated occurrences. In a precursor to a torture technique made infamous by George W. Bush’s privatized mercenaries in early 21st century Iraq, U.S. soldiers in Vietnam “regularly” converted field telephones into electrical torture devices used on Vietnamese.

After the Vietnam War wound down and the Nixon Administration collapsed, the gruesome reality of the effects of Agent Orange – a highly toxic “defoliant” sprayed all over Vietnam by the U.S. Military during the war – upon not only Vietnamese civilians but U.S. service members came to light. On the other hand, after some years of study, the affliction formerly known as “soldier’s heart” and “shell shock” finally attained a clinical designation as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Cultural impact of Vietnam War

The war spawned a number of feature films released during the 1980s, including Rambo, Apocalypse Now, Hamburger Hill and Good Morning, Vietnam, starring the late California comedian, Robin Williams, and Platoon, which Lombardi describes as director Oliver Stone’s “challenge to the all-healed-now-we-can-go-fight zeitgeist of the Reagan / Bush years” and an antidote to “the military glee” of Tom Cruise’s Top Gun. Another Vietnam war-related film, Born on the Forth of July, released in 1989, perhaps is the most meaningful and touching of the genre. It resulted from a 1977 meeting between Vietnam veteran-activist Ron Kovic and Stone, himself a decorated Vietnam veteran.

Lombardi comments, “These storytellers were part of how Vietnam’s soldier-dissenters shaped the next decade.” Lombardi’s book discusses at length the Vietnam War and the work of its veterans and dissidents, perhaps a reflection of the outsized impact that war continues to have on the national psyche, but also a hat-tip to the commitment on the part of those veterans who have persevered with the work of dissidence even decades after the conclusion of the war.

As the 1980s progressed, some Vietnam veterans turned their attention to the U.S.’s military meddling in Latin America, one going so far as to climb a tree at Fort Benning, Georgia with a boom box and blast an exhortation in Spanish to the 500 Salvadoran troops there for “counter-insurgency” training to think twice before killing peasants in El Salvador, “your own brothers.” Vietnam veteran and activist Brian Willson, who worked with Senator John Kerry, reacted to atrocities of which he learned during a 1980s trip to Nicaragua by observing, “I have been here before. My money is still murdering people in my name for a big lie.”

Willson and Charles Likety, sole survivor of a Tet Offensive assault that killed the rest of his platoon, fasted in protest in front of the White House for a month an a half during 1986. Los Angeles Times journalists, evidently steeped in 1980s consumerist ennui, responded with this headline: “Veterans Fast Against War, Nation Shrugs.”

All-volunteer military a “consumer item”

Lombardi relates that the Reagan Administration developed and sold the all-volunteer military “as a consumer item” that emphasized job skills and signing bonuses for high-scoring recruits. This approach drew people from families with limited resources who wanted job training, college money or to get out of an undesirable neighborhood. Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (“CCCO”) staffer and veteran Jeff Shutts offers an alternative view: The obligatory draft was replaced by a “poverty draft.”

The elder President Bush downsized U.S. military ranks from 2.17 million to 1.43 million. Bush and his defense secretary, Dick Cheney, were attempting to exorcise the dissension ghosts of the Vietnam by creating a “new kind of military,” with a training program designed to match skills with needed military occupations, bolstered by a billion-dollar recruitment marketing budget.

The 1980s culminated with President George H.W. Bush’s invasion of tiny Panama, because its leader, Manuel Noriega – a School of the Americas graduate and a former CIA asset prized by the Reagan Administration who helped the U.S. foment right-wing atrocities in El Salvador and Nicaragua – somehow had morphed into a “narcoterrorist” who had to be dispensed with. In what appears to be a practice run for its upcoming wars on the Middle East, the U.S. military, according to Lombardi, dropped incendiary devices that left whole Panamanian neighborhoods in flames, conducted house-to-house searches for “insurgents,” and reduced office building and apartment blocks to “grand-looking shells,” Lombardi writes.

Gulf War I was mass-marketed

With the embarrassment of Vietnam no doubt well in mind, political leaders lavishly marketed the first war against Iraq, with copious quantities of flags, yellow ribbons and “support our troops” bumper stickers (parodied at the time as “support our oops”). Lombardi reveals that the Kuwait government helped fund the marketing effort. Anti-war protesters were outmatched (and condemned as unreasonable by corporate journalists), except in San Francisco.

The U.S. did win its first Gulf War – against an adversary said to have an economy the size of Kentucky’s – and the corporate press exulted that the U.S. had gotten over the “Vietnam syndrome.” That recruitment increased in the wake of this assault demonstrates that the marketing of Gulf War I may have been more successful than the military effort.

But reality swooped in to tamp down the jubilation. As Lombardi notes, reports were appearing of Gulf War syndrome ­– marked by dizziness, blurred vision, loss of concentration, headaches, rashes, lack of muscle control and gastro-intestinal irritation – while “memos began to fly” about whether public concern over depleted uranium (“DU”), which had become “integral to U.S. warfighting technology,” would render its use “politically unacceptable.” The government, of course, denied researchers’ requests for information. CCCO publication The Objector, edited by Lombardi, published one of the first public discussions of the use of DU and its possible consequences.

The elder Bush’s Iraq war killed an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 Iraqi soldiers and 25,000 to 50,000 civilians, “with many more maimed,” reports Lombardi. United Nations accounts used such terms as “near apocalyptic results” and “relegated to a pre-industrial age.” U.S. Forces bombed an Iraqi shelter for women and children, obliterating as many as 2,000 inside. The U.S. also bombed power stations and plants with water-treatment chemicals, while damaging water and sewer systems.

Lombardi also discusses the MLTF’s own Kathleen Gilberd, an anti-war activist since Vietnam, “well known for her tireless and brilliant advocacy for military personnel.” Gilberd fought mandatory AIDS testing in the military, helped gay people fight discharges, and became a national expert on sexual assault and discrimination against women in the military. Lombardi also notes, however, that General Evelyn Foote attempted to usurp the sexual assault issue and made it one of readiness, which dovetailed with military “readiness” marketing of the Clinton presidency’s final years, during which bombing of Iraq resumed.

High-tech yet barbaric blood lust

The 21st century dawned with the September 11, 2001 attacks on the 1960s-vintage Twin Towers in New York City, and U.S. military finally acknowledged openly its embrace of permanent war. In Lombardi’s words: “A lot went up in smoke that day, whose memory has been evoked in the decades since to justify U.S. imperialism.” Lombardi describes the new military’s replacement of colonies with “cooperative security locations” guarded by special forces (and, of course, private mercenaries), while the military-industrial-intelligence complex “enable[s]” remote-control assassinations of “human beings half a world away.”

This high-tech yet barbaric blood lust has produced its own crop of dissenters. One dissident, according to Lombardi, said, “[T]here was something not right about this unfolding appetite for destruction.” This appetite included instructions to a sniper to shoot farmers going out to water their crops at night, on the supposed logic that anyone not at home must be an “insurgent.” Another soldier observed that men in his unit kept soft drink bottles in their Humvees and broke them over the heads of civilians they passed in their vehicle.

The soldier who observed the bottle smashing had submitted his CO application when his unit was assigned to Abu Ghraib prison, where a desk position allowed him to learn about the lives and families of the “Hajis” he was instructed to hate. These younger dissenters viewed G.W. Bush’s war in Iraq as a conflict for profit for companies like Dick Cheney’s Halliburton, which, according to the Wall Street Journal, received a no-bid supply contract during the war.

Intolerance for discrimination increases

A positive development in the 21st century U.S. military is increasing intolerance for racism and gender discrimination. Lombardi relates the story of one African-American seaman who was told by a petty officer that another Black sailor “could use a lynching.” The petty officer illustrated his point by pulling down a noose from an overhead vent. The seaman’s report of this outrage resulted in a reduction in rank for the perpetrator and non-judicial punishments of other petty officers, and an anonymous survey of enlisted personnel that reported a pattern of sexism and racism by petty officers.

A creative form of urban-warrior protest cited by Lombardi and carried out in New York City featured uniformed soldiers in Union Square detaining “suspicious” persons with the use of hoods and handcuffs. The “suspects” were civilian volunteers. Group members handed postcards to passersby that explained, “Scenes like this occur every day in Iraqi cities and towns, conducted by American soldiers and funded by your taxes.”

Not surprisingly, “soldier’s heart” has persisted into the current century, with an American Medical Association report cited by Lombardi stating that fully one third of veterans return from the Middle East with psychological disorders, at times accompanied with substance abuse issues or traumatic brain injuries.

Privatization exploded under Obama

Barack Obama’s 2008 election temporarily deflated the young anti-war movement, partly because studies cited by Lombardi showed that anti-war movement’s appeal in the first years of the current century lay more in hatred of the GOP than of war. Obama, according to Lombardi, did not so much seek to end the nation’s wars, but rather to run them better. In the wake of the G.W. Bush presidency’s privatization efforts, Obama’s national security infrastructure included “blend of newly named agencies and well-paid private contractors” – by 2010 numbering 1,271 and 1,931, respectively(!), operating in 10,000 locations across the country.

As is well known in National Lawyers Guild circles, Obama replaced some larger military bases around the world with numerous “lily pad” outposts used by special forces and/or drone operations. Obama carried forth G.W. Bush’s military policies largely unchanged except, as Lombardi notes, for a dramatic increase in assassinations (described with the more sanitized term, “targeted killings”). In short, Obama’s military policy engendered greater secrecy, more surveillance, and more remote-control killings than even that of G.W. Bush’s administration. He also, according to Lombardi, resuscitated use of the Espionage Act to punish dissidents.

Military-internet-complex dissenters

But the next generation of war dissenters, dubbed the “military-internet complex” and arguably led by Chelsea Manning, would arise to inform the public of the utter waste, lawlessness and brutality of U.S. military policy. Manning’s famous upload of date spanning 2004 through 2009 showed, among other things, Army helicopters attacking and killing civilians, including two Reuters journalists. Lombardi recounts the stories of other Internet-age dissenters who could no longer take the remote-controlled slaughter of both foreigners and Americans and felt compelled to speak out.

It is not trite to say that these dissidents are the nation’s true heroes, military (or military “contractor”) members with a conscience. Lombardi mentions one present-day dissident whose master’s thesis explored “moral injury,” the trauma resulting from harming others. The Veterans Administration has developed treatments for moral injury.

Finally, Donald Trump, true to form, seems most interested in stifling leakers, but he also increased airstrikes. Lombardi does not devote many pages to the man described by a recent dissenter as the “orange fascist,” but he does note that active duty dissent would be needed to thwart Trump’s legally questionable policy of deploying soldiers at the southern border in the absence of a military threat from the other side.

In summary, Lombardi’s work is comprehensive and readable, and it introduces the reader to numerous Americans who, over the course of many generations, stood up against unjust militarism, slavery, racism and imperialism, often at great personal risk. Additionally, the book includes many historical facts omitted from more mainstream publications, making it a valuable addition to any personal library.

Chris Ford, a former newspaper reporter and editor, is an attorney licensed in California and Arizona whose practice focuses on civil appellate and trial-level litigation.


[1] Chris Ford, Book Review: Debacle in Vietnam informs today’s costly militarism, On Watch (Fall 2019), at 19, at https://nlgmltf.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/MLTF-OnWatch-xxx.3-Fall-2019.pdf.

[2] Lombardi notes that he worked for the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors during the 1990s.

[3] Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47, 52 (1919).

[4] Debs v. United States, 249 U.S. 211, 214 (1919).

[5] Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 376 (1927) (overruled in part in Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444, 448-49 (1969)).

[6] Wilson’s 1910s targeting of “citizen dissenters” brings to mind an incident reported in 2003 in the Sacramento Bee in which a retired telephone worker, after a spirited debate in a San Francisco gym in which he criticized George W. Bush’s bombing of Afghanistan, was awakened in his apartment by FBI agents seeking to speak with him about his political beliefs. Chris Ford, Fear of a Blackened Planet: Pressured by the War on Terror, Courts Ignore the Erosion of the Attorney-Client privilege and Effective Assistance of Counsel in 28 C.F.R. 501.3(d) Cases, 12 Washington & Lee J. C.R. & Soc. Just. 51, 69 (2006).

[7] United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163, 184 (1965) (setting forth as the test for a CO: “does the claimed belief occupy the same place in the life of the objector as an orthodox belief in God holds in the life of one clearly qualified for exemption”).