The Progressive Power of Military Dissent: An interview with Chris Lombardi

In 1832, military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously stated that war is merely the continuation of politics by other means.Since then, Clausewitzs statement has been proven true time and again. Massive conflicts such as the U.S. Civil War and the Second World War erupted as a result of social and geopolitical strife, forcing regular citizens to lift weapons in defense of governmental policy. Some, however, have refused to do so when they felt that the government they served had violated the principles they served. This phenomenon of military dissent is at the core of Chris Lombardis book I Aint Marching Anymore.

Published in November 2020 by The New Press, I Aint Marching Anymore provides a comprehensive record of the long history of dissent in the United States military, weaving together deeply researched narratives from the Revolutionary War through to the present day. Lombardi, a freelance journalist and a member of the Democratic Left editorial team, shows that U.S. soldiers have been aware of their roles as enforcers of policy and ideology from the very beginning. I Aint Marching Anymore shatters stereotypes about the military as a right-wing monolith, asserting that military dissenters are a powerful political force that can and should be utilized by the U.S. progressive movement. 

In this Zoomcast interview, Democratic Left caught up with Chris Lombardi to discuss the ongoing importance of military dissent within the broader progressive movement and to learn about Lombardis experiences researching and writing I Aint Marching Anymore

The interview is transcribed below. To learn more about Chris Lombardi and I Aint Marching Anymore, check out her blog and portfolio website at AintMarching.net.

Democratic Left: In your book, you write that the soldiers who volunteered to fight for the Union Army in the Civil War were themselves, in a way, dissenters against the Slave Power. When I was reading the book, I was really interested by this concept, because I felt that it contradicted somewhat the idea that the soldiers were also enlisted soldiers following orders. So how do you reconcile these two somewhat contradictory things?

Chris Lombardi: Well, there are a couple of wars people think of as the good wars” — The Civil War and World War II and people ask: how do I handle those? How do I see dissenters developing in there? I realized that, in terms of when you look at the 1860s, Lincoln was sort of running an insurgent campaign against a very powerful force [that controlled the U.S. economy]. The Union Army they hired were thinking of themselves as dissenters. And also, for both wars the other piece of it is looking at dissenters when they become veterans. So you end up with people who are powerful in movements to stop the wars that came after. Its kind of a conceit, certainly. Its a way of thinking about the Civil War that is not easily thought about in terms of military dissent, but when I talk to veterans, they kind of get it.

DL: So when you speak to veterans, many of them do feel it is possible to justify war within a larger anti-war framework?

CL: I spent a lot of time thinking about conscientious objection, because I got started on this while I was working for the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors. And theres something called selective objection, that veterans are much more into you should be able to choose which war you are supporting or not. And thats kind of contradictory, because, of course, thats not the way the military works, that you can pick and choose what you do, but whats true regardless: wars that dont have public support, thats when you get more dissent. In the War of 1812, there was massive desertion, and they should have figured out that this was not going to work. Soldiers and veterans figured that they were serving a country that has principles, and they wanted those principles upheld. 

DL: You do also cover modern dissent in the form of people like Reality Winner. Im wondering if theres a way that this phenomenon of modern military dissent dovetails with other concurrent social movements like Black Lives Matter, or other things that people are fighting for on the Left right now.

CL: Any good history has to be intersectional. And the whole thread of race what happens in terms of the African American presence in this country thats got to be a big piece of it. I was very careful to make sure to do so throughout the book. Thats why I include Lewis Douglass, Frederick Douglasss son, who then became a dissenter against the Philippine War and was a witness to what was going on with Reconstruction as well. And you go on from war to war:  in World War II, there was the Port Chicago mutiny. The Navy hadnt recruited Black people at all. When they got a cohort of Black recruits they said, youre going to load ammunition. Now, thats a very dangerous thing, and the officers (who were white) didnt want to do it. A bunch of the Black recruits, after one of the ships exploded, said, were not gonna do it either, and they were court-martialed for it. I believe that has not been addressed even now in terms of their dishonorable discharges being reversed. So theres a whole tradition of the way that the country has treated African Americans. My uncle, when he read the book, said to me, You know, its not just about war, its about race.Yeah, everythings about race, uncle. And this book is about dissent of all kinds. As I have said, If you want a revolution, its gonna come from anti-war veterans.The group who have had military experience and realized that theres something wrong have a perspective that no one else has. The whole book is a tribute to that.

DL: So, as you said, theres such a strong through line of racial justice throughout all these tales of military dissent. And its not just racial justice that motivates dissent throughout your book. Its really people fighting against systems of oppression of all kinds. There are military dissenters who fought against Dont Ask, Dont Tell and in favor of the rights of LGBT service members. There are countless women who you recount either disguising themselves as men in earlier wars or fighting for the rights of female service members later on. This core idea of fighting against oppression is something that is very progressive, its very much a left-wing ideal. But you do in your book cover a few right-wing military dissenters, people like Timothy McVeigh. Do you feel that there is something about the military experience that pushes most dissenters in the military towards the left? Or was it more of a conscious choice for you to avoid covering as many right-wing dissenters in your book?

CL: More the latter, because a lot is being written about them already. For example, Kathleen Belew wrote this amazing book called Bring the War Home about the Vietnam veterans who basically created the white power movement in this country in the 20th century. Also I made a choice because I didnt have that much room. I really wanted to highlight people who are on this progressive path. I mentioned Timothy McVeigh because he broke the 90s in half, it had to happen. But I dont give it as much work as I give the others because I wanted to track this other thing. But I think that right now, with January 6, theres almost a turf battle, because youve got all these veterans who crashed the Capitol, but Ive written articles about all the veterans on the other side whove been working to support causes like Black Lives Matter. And so its trying to give some support to a very vital area of activism. 

DL: Since we are a DSA magazine, I do want to ask about how socialism, specifically, works into the instances of military dissent that you mentioned. Youve told me that there is  a contingent of military dissenters working within DSA already. And you also cover some notable socialists throughout the narrative of I Aint Marching Anymore. Could you tell me a little bit more about the specific history of socialism in the military, even if it isnt necessarily the dominant voice in military dissent?

CL: You mentioned that I guest edited an issue of Democratic Left two years ago, Summer 2019, the anti-imperialism issue. At that time I talked to a guy named Joe Kassabian, who is a science fiction writer and has a memoir called The Hooligans of Kandahar about his time in Afghanistan. Hes a member of the DSA Veterans Working Group, which is not as active as we would like it to be but, you know, people have priorities in their lives. He said to me at one point that we should have an article about the fact that the military is like ideal socialism. He said in the military you get health coverage, you get everything you need. And its interesting that the structure of the military is basically a national service. In an ideal world, thats everything you want. People who join the military are usually people who dont have the most resources in the world, something we call the poverty draft, and with the military they have this institution that is giving you everything. The understanding that you want to extend that to everybody else– that is part of what makes these guys go. 

In terms of whos in the book, when we were talking about race over email I mentioned to you W.E.B. DuBois.  DuBois only gets in the book (one criterion for inclusion was that you had to have had some interaction with military) because he was commissioned for something like one day. And then Southern legislators and the management of NAACP said, nope, you dont want to do that. But he ended up a communist and was arrested in 1954 because he was doing peace work about the Korean War.  In his articleThe African Roots of Warhe wrote very deeply about how war is at its bottom racism and colonialism. And every time I read something like Roxanne Dunbar-Ortizs work, I realize I dont give near enough attention to what was done to the Natives in this country. But I do have a couple of characters who were Native themselves that are in the book as well.

DL: I thought your discussion of Silas Soule was poignant as well; you brought that in in a pretty serious way. 

CL: I want them to make a Silas Soule movie, but that hasnt happened yet.

DL: I would watch that. I also was just speaking about how you qualify people as dissenters. I loved some of the more shoehorned examples, like Mark Twain, who certainly fits the bill. I think you gave him just the amount of attention that his military service deserved. I thought that that was an interesting aspect of your book, acknowledging that military service comes in a lot of forms. I do want to talk a little bit more about the specific creative process behind the creation of this book. One thing I really enjoyed was how you use some sort of narrative nonfiction elements: you kicked off each chapter by sketching out an actual scene, and in some cases actually using dialogue. I was wondering how many of these snippets of dialogue are real quotes that you were able to find? And/or how much of these scenes were just sort of re-creations based on anecdotes that you may have heard? And why did you decide to use this sort of narrative nonfiction to tie the narrative together?

CL: Narrative nonfiction is absolutely the hardest thing anyone can write. As someone who spent a long time trying to be a novelist, I can tell you that narrative nonfiction is harder. You write something, it has to be true. If you write that it was February, it better be cold that day. I love the idea of a book creating a dream-state. And I wanted that piece for the readers. In terms of how I got the pieces, there are only two chapters that open with actual dialogue. One was Susan Schnall flying over California, which she told me about when I interviewed her. The second one, about Lewis Milestone and the Klan guy: I found that in Milestones unpublished memoir that I uncovered at the Beverly Hills Library100 pages of memoir that Lewis Milestone wrote and never got published.

DL: For our watchers, Lewis Milestone was the director who created All Quiet on the Western Front.

CL:  As the story goes: its 1921 or 22 or something like that,  and Milestone is on line at the Warner studio; everybodys in line waiting for the speakeasy to open. This young man with a clipboard is going around and getting people to sign up for something. Now, this is Lewis Milestone, who was born Lewis Milstein. So he asks, what are we signing up for? And the guy says, its the Klan, and Milestone said, Well, you dont want me. I couldnt make that up, just had to use it.

DL: Yeah, for me as a Jewish American myself, that was a poignant anecdote, and the idea of him changing his name to become more American is something that is part of my own familys story as well. So Im glad you included that. And that bit about you digging that out of his unpublished memoir is a really interesting detail. Something I wanted to say in general was I appreciated how thoroughly you cited all of your research in this book; it was a work of narrative nonfiction, but it also was and is an academic work that hopefully will be built on by future writers the same way that you built on seminal works of military history in your own book.

CL: I did put in footnotes at first, I was putting them in to keep myself honest. Because so often people who write nonfiction have the attitude that they know its kind of true. And I wanted to make sure that I knew I had evidence. I didnt know that it was going to get published that way. I said to my editor: just so you know, its all real. And they wanted to keep them.

DL: Interesting, I didnt know that that was just a relic of your own editorial or authoring process. But I actually went through all the footnotes and compared them to the passages.  It really improved my experience of reading it. Im glad that they were in there. So taking a bit of a pivot, I wanted to get to this question before we run out of time. You discuss, obviously, All Quiet on the Western Front, which is one of the most powerful pieces of military cinema ever created. But the concept of military dissent has been portrayed in countless books and films since then. Most recently I remember watching Da 5 Bloods, the Spike Lee movie, which covers a lot of the same ideas of racial justice and injustice with regard to the Vietnam War that youve covered in your book. Aside from All Quiet on the Western Front, what, in your opinion, are the most accurate or powerful portrayals of military dissent in cinema or literature or popular culture?

CL: The easiest person to mention is, of course, Oliver Stonehis films Da 5 Bloods and Platoon, of course. But his Born on the Fourth of July is one of the only portrayals of actual military dissent, not just a portrayal of how horrible war was thats harder to find, actually. But in Born on the Fourth of July, Ron Kovics whole course, or curve, from Vietnam to being active in Vietnam Veterans Against the War, is really honoring that. Stone actually then went on to make Snowden. I didnt manage to include Edward Snowden in my book, but Oliver Stone did what I was going to do and traced Snowdens commitment back to having had basic training and learning the Army values and all of that. Whats interesting to me about these people is that they want to be part of something bigger, and they learned some basic values that they take seriously.  When I talk to people, they will recite the Army values, the Navy values. And so when they think that their command isnt upholding those values, its a big deal.

DL: You talk about these concepts like Army values, Navy values, and obviously youve immersed yourself in this world. Its something youre very familiar with, but it feels very personal when you talk about the military nowadays. That brings me to another one of my questions. What motivated you to write this book? Did you have some kind of personal connection to the military that got you interested in this subject in the first place?

CL: No, I was your basic sort of liberal writer 25, 30 years ago. In 95, I got a job with the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, editing a magazine called The Objector. This was the early 90s, and the GI Rights Hotline girights.org had just been formed. My coworker was getting all these calls from GIs, and then I got trained to do it, too. Suddenly, part of my job was talking to soldiers every day. And that completely blew my mind. I was just like this San Francisco liberal, and suddenly Im talking to people from all over the country. And they want to know how to get out. I realized that these were people that were really earnest. I coordinated a group of volunteers there, most of them were Vietnam veterans. A guy named Steve Morse taught me about the GI movement. He actually handed out literature on dissent and trained people inside of the military to become activists. He joined several GI dissenter organizations because he wanted to work against the war; the whole GI movement was a big deal. And so when I went to journalism school at Columbia, I talked to Sam Freedman, who runs the book seminar, and I said, I want to write a book about the GI Rights Hotline. So it was kind of interestingon one side, you had these people at Fort Benning or wherever who are calling the GI Rights Hotline, and then you had people like me, or ministers or hippies or whatever. But Sam Freedman, in 2005, said, you know, you should write a narrative history of soldiers who dissent this is a year after John Kerry did not become president. And it took me 15 years to do. But thats how it happened.

DL: Its so interesting that you mentioned John Kerry, because I have to say the section about Kerry was one of the most eye-opening parts for me as a 26-year-old person reading the book. John Kerry is someone who I associate with the Democratic Party. I dont think of dissent when I think of John Kerry, I think of a very staid Boston Brahmin, Democratic Party politician. And for me, he was part of my awakening as a liberal. The 2004 election was one of the earliest elections that I really was aware of in any way. So it was mind blowing to me to read about John Kerry as this almost radical dissenterarguably the most prominent Vietnam veteran who spoke out against the war. Im just wondering about you, as someone who has studied and been writing about this work for years what was your reaction to seeing John Kerrys transformation over the many years from radical dissenter to U.S. presidential candidate? And do you think that such a loss of radical ideals is something that is inherent to running for office like that?

CL: Id like to think that the second part is not true. You know, [Bernie] Sanders managed to run for president without completely giving away his ideals. John Kerry, when you think about him now, the fact that hes kind of a Boston Brahmin, coming from a privileged family . . . but Vietnam was just an extreme place. I have tried often to connect with Kerry, to interview him, or at least let him know that Ive written about him. Because the arc sounds somewhat predictable in some ways like a rich guy can only dissent this far, but then forget the rest of it. But I dont understand to this day why he doesnt talk about it more. His campaign bio actually mentions Operation Dewey Canyon, and all those veterans showing up in DC to practice democracy in April of 1971. Fifty years ago, guys.

DL: Right, which is what launched his political career. More or less.

CL: Yeah. And he spoke to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that week. And the fact that he doesnt touch back on it now, when he has nothing to lose . . . You know, hes trying to make dramatic action on climate, people need to really be all hands on deck. Why he doesnt say: by the way, I was challenging everything at this time 50 years ago I dont know why he couldnt do that.

DL: Yeah, its a fascinating transformation. And really, its heartbreaking in some ways, just to see what he was before I was aware of John Kerry. Well, Im sorry to end on such a depressing note. But I wanted to ask if you had any shout-outs you wanted to give or just any any interesting topics that we sort of touched upon but didnt get to elaborate on. Was there anything else that you wanted to discuss?

CL: One thing is that were having this interview on Juneteenth. So to just have a moment for Juneteenth.

DL: Oh, yes.

CL: And this is important. You mentioned Reality Winner. The other thing that happened this week is that Reality Winner has been moved to home confinement.  Reality who, by the way, was a drone veteran who was working for NSA uncovered evidence that the Russians had gotten Trump elected, and she let the public know about it.  Shes been in prison ever since. So shes home and yet shes not. Were still fighting for her to get a full pardon or commutation. And so people: Go to standwithreality.org and see what you can do! 

DL: All right, you heard it here, folks, standwithreality.org. Thank you for mentioning that.

CL: Otherwise, AintMarching.net is where you find out more about me, and also you can get the opportunity to buy the book by any means you like: Amazon, bookshop, or whatever.