Dem Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Bill Ayers nod in approval.
Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day often get equated, but there is an essential distinction between the two. Veteran’s Day honors all who have served the American military in wars. Memorial Day honors those who’ve perished. It’s an annual reminder that wars have grave human costs, which must be both recognized and minimized.
Those costs are not inevitable. We ought to also set aside time to remember those throughout American history who have tried hardest to reduce them, to prevent unnecessary loss of life both American and foreign: war resisters.
American history is littered with examples of pointless wars fought for bad reasons, and with people who risked their careers and their freedom to oppose them. The Mexican-American War, for one, was a blatant land grab. While James K. Polk claimed that Mexico had struck first — saying in his war message to Congress that “Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon America’s soil” — the truth was that he had sent American troops into disputed territory between the Rio Grande and Nueces Rivers, whereupon Mexican troops, concerned by American encroachment, attacked.[…]
Desertion is an extreme measure, and it’s easy to condemn those who resisted in that manner, to claim they were cowards or fell down on their duties to their fellow soldiers. It’s easier still to point to wars of more moral clarity — the fight against Nazi and Japanese imperialism in World War II, the destruction of slavery in the Civil War — and ask what conceivable moral point resistance, especially desertion, would have served.
There’s no comparing isolationist or antisemitic opposition to World War II with clearheaded opposition to the waste of World War I or Vietnam. But advocates of war have never lacked for political backing. Relatively few have suffered for supporting a conflict that turned out to be a calamity, and even in the rare cases it’s happened the cost has been minimal. Supporting World War II was correct — but it was also easy. Opposing World War I was hard. That makes the contribution of those who did the latter all the braver and more commendable — and all the more necessary too.
Other countries have started to recognize this and honor their war resisters accordingly. A memorial in Glasgow, Scotland — a hotbed of British antiwar sentiment during World War I — commemorates “those who opposed World War One in order to challenge the purpose of the war and the waste of lives.” Monuments in Ypres, Belgium and Alrewas, England honor those World War I soldiers who, due both to disillusionment and sheer terror, deserted rather than continue killing in an unjust war. An official monument to Austrian deserters of World War II was unveiled in Vienna last year. The sculptor Mehmet Aksoy’s Monument to the Unknown Deserters of Both World Wars, debuted in West Germany in 1989, honors “the man who refused to kill his fellow man.”
The US is a long ways away from accepting, say, a memorial for those who deserted the military or dodged the draft during Vietnam. Merely deciding to spare them prosecution was controversial enough — and their counterparts from Iraq and Afghanistan still face the possibility of jail time for refusing to kill. Even the more modest step of honoring those who tried to stop war through peaceful means — organized protest, tax evasion, other forms of civil disobedience —would likely be a tall order. The Vietnam War Memorial faced tremendous opposition upon its unveiling for not being an uncritical celebration of the conflict.
But some wars aren’t worth fighting. Some causes aren’t worth sacrificing American lives for. Those who’ve fought to remind the government of those basic facts deserve our respect and our thanks.