By Ron Kokish
Memorial Day 2023 is history, July 4th is near, and I’ve been thinking about heroes, fallen soldiers, and how I became a conscientious objector.
My Jewish parents fled from Nazi Austria to America in 1938. I was raised on stories about what and who they lost and on propaganda about heroic victories against “despicable Krauts and Japs.” I remember how frightened I was when the Korean War started, but I never doubted that we, the good guys, had to fight it. When bored in school I sketched American Sabre Jets shooting down Migs.
When my university required basic ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) training, it was no big deal. I began having doubts though, the morning a veteran Master Sergeant taught us about the Browning Automatic Rifle.
“Can anyone tell me?” he asked, “what the flash-hider on the Browning Automatic Rifle, model M1, a2 is for?” I raised my hand.
“Yes, Trooper?” (Trooper? I was 17, majoring in bacteriology.)
“It keeps the flash out of the gunner’s eyes,” I answered.
“That is correct trooper,” Sarge said, looking more pleased with himself than with me. “The flash hider on the Browning Automatic Rifle model M1, a2 keeps the flash out of the gunner’s eyes. It does NOT hide the flash from the enemy because it is impossible to hide the flash from the enemy. If the enemy is directly in front of the weapon, the enemy WILL see the flash.” I couldn’t resist.
“Sargent,” I asked, trying to keep from laughing, “if the enemy is directly in front of the weapon, what difference does it make if he sees the flash?” Sarge looked less pleased.
“That is not the point,” he said emphatically. “The point is that it is impossible to hide the flash from the enemy because…” My first personal encounter with military thinking was uninspiring.
Sarge’s words were still fresh in my memory a few years later when I met Big Abe while working at a summer camp. Five years my senior, Abe was one of the gentlest, most self-assured, and most inspiring people I’ve known. He was also a conscientious objector to war who, at the height of the Cold War, believed that our best chance for survival was unilateral disarmament.
What? If we, the good guys, stood down, the bad Russians and Chinese would invade us and we wouldn’t have a chance. “How do you know they even want to?” Abe asked. I had no good answer because, like Sarge, I was just repeating what the people in charge had always told me. “What if we dismantled 10% of our weapons?” Abe suggested. “We’d still have plenty to defend ourselves, but if they responded in kind, we could do another 10%. If we want peace, isn’t it worth a try?” By the time camp ended, I was convinced. When Vietnam heated up, I registered as the conscientious objector I had become.
That ludicrously tragic war popularized many anti-war songs. My favorite was/is Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “The Universal Soldier.”
He’s five-foot-two, and he’s six-feet-four
He fights with missiles and with spears
He’s all of 31
And he’s only 17
He’s been a soldier for a thousand years
He’s the universal soldier, and he really is to blame
His orders come from far away no more
They come from here and there and you and me
And brothers can’t you see
This is not the way we put the end to war?
What if universal soldiers refused to fight? Occasionally, it happens. Usually, we call them deserters, and often, we shoot them for it.
One of my favorite peacenik stories happened in 1914. “In the week leading up to 25 December, French, German, and British soldiers crossed trenches to exchange seasonal greetings and talk. In some areas, men from both sides ventured into no man’s land on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to mingle and exchange food and souvenirs. There were joint burial ceremonies and prisoner swaps, while several meetings ended in caroling. Men played games of football with one another, creating one of the most memorable images of the truce.” (Wikipedia)
This brings me back to Memorial Day, Independence Day, Veterans Day, etc. I don’t want to dishonor dead soldiers for doing what they saw as their duty, but I wish they hadn’t done it and I can’t sincerely honor them either. How on earth, after playing football, sharing rations, singing, and burying their dead together, could they go back to killing one another?
The best I can do is feel sad for them and for all soldiers making the same mistake today. Like me, they grew up drawing things they didn’t understand. They heard countless stories about their countries’ righteous victories without being told or taught to ask who profited from those victories, what unspeakable cruelties their forebears perpetrated to forge those victories, or what unspeakable deeds they might be asked to do to earn their own places in “glorious” stories yet to come. But, unlike me, they never spent a summer with Big Abe.
Mature Content is of monthly feature from Age-Friendly Carbondale.