Dissenting soldiers

I Ain’t Marching Anymore: Dissenters, Deserters & Objectors to America’s Wars’ by Chris Lombardi

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3 minute read
Dissident soldiers have been protesting American conflicts from colonial times the War on Terror. (Image courtesy of The New Press.)
Dissident soldiers have been protesting American conflicts from colonial times the War on Terror. (Image courtesy of The New Press.)

American servicemembers have been protesting military actions since before the Declaration of Independence, as captured in Chris Lombardi’s new book, I Ain’t Marching Anymore: Dissenters, Deserters & Objectors to America’s Wars. Spanning from 1754 to 2020, the book explores the role and evolution of the dissenting soldier throughout United States history.

A long record of dissent

Vietnam veterans throwing away their medals might be the first image most people have of dissenting soldiers. However, Lombardi demonstrates that protesting soldiers have been present at every US conflict from colonial times to the French and Indian War up through the War on Terror, opposing the war, poor fighting conditions, and the treatment of veterans after the conflicts.

Using letters, books, and other media, Lombardi presents a highly detailed narrative of soldiers and their experiences. These range from Jacob Ritter, an 18th-century Lutheran who became a Quaker; and World War II veteran and historian Howard Zinn (best known for his 1980 A People's History of the United States) to whistleblower Chelsea Manning.

Protest evolves

As the art of war became more complex with each passing conflict, soldiers’ reasons for dissenting evolved with it. Lombardi begins with conscientious objectors (people who protest war for ethical or religious reasons) in the late 1700s. But conflicts only expanded from there. Soldiers stood up against the forcible removal of Indigenous peoples from their lands; the indiscriminate killing of civilians in Vietnam, Central America, and Iraq; the nuclear arms race; and the use of drone technology to fight US battles.

Soldiers also banded together to contest their treatment within the military, along racial and gender lines, and their benefits and role in society once they left the service. Lombardi details many different forms of dissent, including refusing to fight, deserting, hunger strikes, publications, guerrilla theater, marching, going to protests, and even releasing sensitive documents to the public.

Importantly, the book shows that the featured soldiers practiced dissent at different times in their lives. Some soldiers knew they opposed the conflict at hand before they entered the military (usually through the draft), while others became disillusioned from their time in the military. Still more began to speak out after they left the service, when they came to terms with the horrors they had seen or participated in. The book also delves into many organizations, such as the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, created to advocate for changes to improve the lives of soldiers and even the people they fought against.

Citizens and soldiers

As a historian of Cold War history and culture, I appreciate the intersection of politics and social movements, so I was intrigued by the way Lombardi brings together geopolitical conflicts with cultural and social movements. Early on, she offers apt analysis on the inherent contradiction between the identities of the citizen and the soldier. As the United States was figuring out its national identity—starting with its freedom from England— part of that challenge was defining what it meant to be a citizen, someone who was self-ruling and self-sufficient.

But to achieve and protect citizens’ freedom, the country needed soldiers, who are expected to be completely obedient; noncompliance could even mean death. Therein lies a core dilemma for dissenting soldiers, who retain the citizen’s role of pushing back on expectations of perfect obedience. It’s a critical point that underlines the rest of the book; it would have helped Lombardi’s meticulous work if it had been drawn out more explicitly. The book does not have an introduction nor a conclusion, which would have been a great place to bring together this analysis and the other threads of Lombardi’s comprehensive study. But overall, I Ain’t Marching Anymore is an important contribution to our understanding of US and military history.

Image description: The cover of the book I Ain’t Marching Anymore: Dissenters, Deserters, & Objectors to America’s Wars, by Chris Lombardi. The letters of the title and the background are in shades of green military camouflage. An illustration of a camouflage army helmet seems to hang from the letters.

What, When, Where

I Ain’t Marching Anymore: Dissenters, Deserters & Objectors to America’s Wars. By Chris Lombardi. New York and London: The New Press, November 10, 2020. 320 pages, hardcover, $25.75. Get it here.

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