Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Lest we forget: soldiers who end wars

On the anniversary of the end of the "war to end all wars", Canadian Prime Minister Harper is planning to extend the endless war in Afghanistan. On November 11, let’s remember soldiers who ended past wars and support those trying to end current wars. As Einstein said, “The pioneers of a warless world are the young men and women who refuse military service.”

FIRST WORLD WAR: from fraternization to mutiny
soldiers during the Christmas truce, 1914
     November 11 is remembered as Armistice Day, the day the First World War ended. But how it ended--soldiers refusing to fight--is often forgotten. On Christmas Eve 1914 100,000 British and French soldiers fraternized with their German counterparts (depicted in the recent film Joyeux Noel), singing carols and meeting in no-mans-land to exchange gifts. The high command responded with orders to shoot “the enemy”, and in subsequent years rotated troops so they couldn’t get to know each other, and ordered aerial bombardments during Christmas to prevent fraternization.
     By 1917-18 refusal to fight escalated into mutinies and revolutions. In the French army 30,000 soldiers mutinied after the disastrous Nivelle offensive, causing the high command to arrest thousands of soldiers and execute dozens. Russian soldiers joined their 1917 revolution to dissolved the eastern front, while German soldiers joined their 1918 revolution that forced the signing of the armistice on November 11. It was young men and women, refusing military service, that ended WWI and gave us a day to remember.

SECOND WORLD WAR: bringing the “war for democracy” home
     The Second World War made the barbarism of trench warfare pale in comparison--with the holocaust, the atomic bomb, and the firebombing of cities. Despite declaring a "war against fascism", the Allied Powers ignored fascism in Spain and had no problem with early fascism in Germany--the Nazis hosted the Olympics in 1936 and honoured Henry Ford for his company's firm support in 1938, while the US honoured Hitler as Time's "man of the year" in 1938, and NASA hired Nazi scientists like Wernher von Braun after the war. During the holocaust American war planed refused to bomb the train tracks to Auschwitz, while Canada turned away Jewish refugees. At the same time the “war for democracy” denied basic rights for women, blacks, aboriginals, gays and lesbians sent to fight abroad.
Rustin (2nd from right) during WWII before his arrest
     For all these reasons soldiers stood up for peace and justice during and after the war. During WWII, 1 in 6 inmates in US federal prisons were war resisters, including Bayard Rustin. Upon his release from jail Rustin pioneered the Freedom Rides to spread democracy in the South, and became the main organizer for the historic March on Washington—where Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech. The great documentary Before Stonewall documents how gay and lesbian soldiers returning from the war began demanding equal rights as well.
     But there were not enough war resisters to end WWII, and after the war the international community addressed this problem with the Nuremburg Principles--stating soldiers cannot claim to "just be following orders" and instead have an obligation to refuse participation in war crimes.  

VIETNAM: the paws quit playing
    During the Vietnam War, injured soldiers returned home to find that those who sent them to fight did not care about their health, and began asking questions. As Ron Kovic wrote in his famous memoirs, Born on the Fourth of July:
“The wards are filthy. The men in my room throw their breadcrumbs under the radiator to keep the rats from chewing on our numb legs during the nights…the sheets are never changed enough and many of the men stink from not being properly bathed. It never makes any sense to us how the government can keep asking money for weapons and leave us lying in our own filth…I still tell people, whoever asks me, that I believe in the war. But more and more what I tell them and what I am feeling are becoming two different things. The hospital is like the whole war all over again”
    Gradually these doubts turned into action. In his inspiring book A People's History of the Vietnam War, Jonathan Neale provides a detailed account of the mass anti-war movement that grew within the military—from 245 different antiwar newspapers distributed on bases, to 200,000 draft dodgers who refused to go to Vietnam, to those who went who refused orders or threatened their own officers with fragging. In 1971 marine Corps historian Colonel Heinl said that “by every conceivable indicator, our Army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse…only exceeded this century by the French Army’s Nivelle Mutinies and the collapse of the Tsarist armies in 1916 and 1917”. When Nixon turned to an air war, air force and navy troops refused to fight, including sailors who declared that “the only way to end the genocide being perpetrated now in South East Asia is for us, the pawns in the political game, to quit playing.”
    Those who refused to fight in Vietnam also contributed to other campaigns—like Rex Weyler, who went on to found Greenpeace. Others contributed to the growing disability rights movement.

IRAQ, AFGHANISTAN: support the troops, bring them home
    The best way to honour soldiers who died in the past is to stop soldiers dying in the future, by supporting those refusing to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US has numerous pro-soldier/anti-war organizations such as Iraq Veterans Against the War, Courage to Resist, and Military Families Speak Out, and more US soldiers are speaking out against the Afghanistan war. There are also individual troops like Bradley Manning, and other anonymous heroes who leaked files to wikileaks, ensuring the shocking and awful truth about the Iraq War is revealed. Britain has Military Families Against the War, and Joe Glenton has been jailed for being the first British soldier to refuse to fight in Afghanistan. 
     In Canada we have the War Resisters Support Campaign, supporting brave soldiers who honour the Nuremburg Principles and refused to participate in the illegal Iraq War.  And military families are starting to speak out against the war in Afghanistan. As a mother of a Canadian soldier in Afghanistan recently explained:
“My support extends beyond mere sending of care packages, or attending meetings of relatives organized by the military, or boasting and giving moral support to my son. I’m taking on a flawed government policy, that resulted in the loss of 152 lives, and therefore withdrawal is the only solution to stop the cycle of violence.”
     If this sentiment connects with broad layers of troops they could end the endless war in Afghanistan. Harper is spending $18 billion on fighter jets while cutting veteran pensions, raising the same questions Ron Kovic asked himself a generation ago. This Remembrance Day week veterans rallied across the country against proposed cuts to their pensions, and the general way they've been treated by the government. According to Gary Best of the Canadian Peacekeeping Veterans Association:
“We have people serving in Afghanistan that are coming home with amputations, and these people, when they get hurt, they figure their fight’s over. When they get home, they realize it’s just starting.”
    These soldiers need to know they have support in the broad peace movement in their fight, as the majority of Canadians want to show real support for troops by bringing them home safe. The fusion of a peace movement with anti-war soldiers points the way to a healthy and peaceful tomorrow. As Ron Kovic explained on his first peace protest:
“I was never going to be the same. The demonstration had stirred something in my mind that would be there from now on. It was so very different from boot camp and fighting in the war. There was a togetherness, just as there had been in Vietnam, but it was a togetherness for a mch different kind of people and for a much different reason. In the war we were killing and maiming people. In Washington on that Saturday afternoon in May we were trying to heal them and set them free.”


  1. Good to hear about this. Another question being posed on the internet, by is "Is Remembrance Day more about war than peace?" My response is Remembrance Day is about remembering. The information here is something worth remembering for sure.

  2. Thanks for this.

    During the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq, I read book after book about WWI, mostly about war resisters and the peace movement from that era - some nonfiction, some historical fiction. I learned so much about our present situation from studying that crazy, useless bloodbath.