A certain headline-grabbing Republican presidential candidate offered up his latest soundbite at a campaign event in Iowa on July 18 when he declared he “like[s] people who weren’t captured.” The reference was to Sen. John McCain, an ex-POW who spent five and a half years in a Vietnam prison camp. In America’s troop-worshipping society, there’s no greater offense than to disparage a soldier, especially one who “sacrificed” in this regard. Within minutes, the mainstream media jumped on the remark, with talking heads battling to see how could offer the most pro-troop commentary.
While the news outlets busy themselves covering what ought not be a newsworthy event, some of us can use it as an opportunity to distinguish ourselves from the hyper-militarist mainstream. Those who prefer peace, rather than just pay lip service to it, don’t cheer acts of war. Period. Real peaceniks celebrate neither military victories (i.e. — Victory Over Japan Day, an upcoming Rhode Island state holiday) nor honorific holidays like Veterans Day and Memorial Day. Neither do we put individual participants of war on a pedestal, like POWs. They do not deserve it.
True — it’s a tragedy any time a person is locked in a cage for any period of time. But this is unfortunately “the form of torture that our society countenances,” as Robert Anton Wilson said. Imprisonment is the traditional form of punishment for a person who sets off on a killing spree like John McCain so eagerly did in that most senseless of wars. Peaceniks can look upon McCain’s imprisonment with sadness, while at the same time holding him in contempt for his villainous acts. To a peacenik, there’s not a dime’s bit of difference between the soldier who returns home safely and the POW. Their missions are equally horrific.
There are some individuals who the peacenik does celebrate in times of war. War resisters are one such class. While McCain was off wreaking havoc in Southeast Asia, many brave Americans risked life and limb in a different battle — the one here at home. American draft resisters claimed conscientious objector status, failed to report for induction, and attempted to claim disability. Some troops went AWOL, crossing the border into Canada via “underground railroads” of antiwar supporters, leaving lives and families behind.
Muhammad Ali is one such Vietnam-era hero. At the height of his boxing career, then heavyweight champion, Ali refused to serve. Putting it plainly, he said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” As an already marginalized member of Jim Crow America, the Black-Muslim Ali subjected himself to the further scorn of his war-fevered country. For his refusal to kill, Ali was branded a communist draft-dodger. Death threats became a regular part of his new reality. But Ali would respond with peaceful eloquence, proclaiming “followers of Allah are the sweetest people in the world. They don’t carry knives. They don’t tote weapons.”
Today’s War on Terror has its brave resisters as well. Take Army Sgt. Patrick Hart, who fled to Canada in the early years of the War on Terror rather than engage in its pointless death and destruction. While Hart and other war resisters play their part in putting the brakes on war, many others are hard at work throwing a wrench into the gears of the National Security State, like Edward Snowden. These are the kinds of heroes we ought to be celebrating, instead of wasting time distinguishing between POWs and non-POWs.