Every candidate running for president accepts war as a necessity. Sens. Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders are on the lower end of this terrible scale, but they are still ready to bomb ISIS, and unwilling to stop the drone wars respectively.
Every single politician and every good schoolchild knows that soldiers are good, and they are heroes each and every one. A few soldiers know that they didn’t become heroes just by putting on a uniform, but saying that ruins the story that must be told.
Watching seven Republican debates in which nearly everyone demanded blood at one point, I keep thinking of people who fight war, or protect its victims. Some loom large like Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler, who saved scores of thousands of imperiled Jews. Some were not given their due for decades, such as Hugh Thompson Jr. and his helicopter crew, who threatened their fellow soldiers in order to stop the My Lai massacre, and were treated as treasonous for the next 30 years.
And there are the quietly, selfishly heroic people – any draft dodger who decided no, he’d rather not go to Vietnam and add to the bloodshed there. Anti-warriors great and small the world over are invariably ignored because you simply cannot pound a podium in their name (though bless Ron Paul, he tried more than anyone).
I also often think of the Vox.com piece in which writer Dylan Matthews suggested that America start honoring war resisters. Disturbingly, conservatives and hawks – some of whom I follow on twitter – took this well-argued, positive piece as a sign that Vox was just being its usual goofy self, but even more so. The idea that America would honor people who got out of the draft or who protested wars is a big joke to far too many. Argue that holidays are silly, fine. But to argue that people who tried to stop war or even simply avoid it don’t deserve respect is to perpetuate the ghastly status quo. Which to many is exactly the point.
Barring the chickenhawk presidents we’ve had, war resisting and draft dodging generally does not pay. Consider the quiet heroism of Concepcion Picciotto, who passed away on Monday. The native of Spain spent nearly 35 years politely protesting war and nukes in front of the White House. She had to evade the Park Police for decades, but she and her helpers kept it up. She provoked some attention – and a New York Times obit – but according to Ralph Nader, “Not a single president ever walked across the street from the White House to meet her….”
Fundamentally, Picciotto was a curiosity with a good cause. It’s hard to see that she changed much of anything. She hasn’t stopped war. But she showed up. Like every soldier in the armed forces, she showed up. But she didn’t kill, or invade. She just sat and expressed her disapproval of nukes. If simply enrolling in the military makes someone a hero, as so many hawks argue (though soldiers often dispute this, to their credit), what does spending your life protesting war make you?
To quote a rather astounding film, “we perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifice.” Americans may know the names of Wallenberg or Schindler, but they are much more likely to know the names of the generals and the beaches on which thousands of men died, or the towns that were bombed during the Good War. America tells itself a heroic story about each war it involves itself in, but its victims or simply those caught in the middle of the conflict are usually tidily pushed aside. Its dissenters and its nonviolent heroes are also downplayed.
The exact same people who would accuse Picciotto of being a kook who did nothing meaningful are convinced that there’s some alchemy in putting on a US military uniform. She may not have been a big hero like Thompson Jr. or Wallenberg, but she didn’t add to the misery of the world. She didn’t carry water or file papers for the military-industrial complex. She just sat and pointed out “Live by the Bomb, Die by the Bomb.” This is mostly a laughable, hippie sentiment to the dominant class. Somehow symbolism only matters when it honors the state, and those who kill and die for it.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.