It takes nothing from those who served in the so-called “good war” —or who were sacrificed in more recent and more dubious wars—to observe that resisting an unjust war can also make a generation “great.”

By Mitchell Zimmerman

This year Memorial Day falls within a week of the 80th anniversary of D-Day, the costly Allied landing on the beaches of Normandy to liberate Europe from the Nazi conquest. It will be a somber opportunity to remember and celebrate those Americans who fought and died in wars—and particularly those who died in the only war in my 81-year lifetime that was actually fought to preserve the democratic way of life. Those who fought in World War II—referred to by some as the “Greatest Generation” because they also endured the Great Depression—are nearly all dead.

But it takes nothing from those who served in the so-called “good war” —or who were sacrificed in more recent and more dubious wars—to observe that resisting an unjust war can also make a generation “great.” Those who were born around the end of World War II, among whom I number myself, and came of age in the 1960s did something rare in the annals of nations: we rejected our own country’s “patriotic” call to fight, kill, and die in an unjust war.

Our generation recognized that the war in Vietnam was a barbaric crusade, a war against the people of Vietnam, and we declined to join the parade.

Our generation was not unpatriotic. But we were revolted by the images we saw each day on television and in the newspapers, visions of burning Vietnamese villages, children scarred by napalm, and bullet-ridden bodies of babies, small children, women and old men.

We came to understand that the excuses for the mass murder were lies. America was neither defending itself in Vietnam—confirmed by the fact that communism did not wash over our shores after the war was lost—nor were we defending freedom or democracy by killing millions of civilians to preserve a succession of unpopular client regimes in South Vietnam.

My generation saw the evil of the war, and determined to refuse, avoid, evade or escape “service” in that war however we could.

By the end of the war, those members of our generation who had not succeeded in avoiding conscription—those in the dissolving U.S. military forces—also organized themselves against the war. They met in anti-war coffeehouses near military bases; they published hundreds of GI-written anti-war newspapers; they led peace demonstrations both in-country and at military bases in the U.S.; and they were often jailed for refusing to fight. Their opposition was critical to ending the war.

Many of our generation did participate in a fight for freedom—not with guns or bombs and not overseas, but here in the United States, confronting violent adversaries with peaceful determination in the civil rights movement. Our freedom movement was a struggle for voting rights and human dignity, a fight against racism, segregation and white supremacy. That nonviolent movement ultimately brought down the South’s legal apartheid system and revived American democracy. And our movement triggered a resurgence of the women’s movement and inspired other movements for social justice.

America needs to acknowledge that different generations are called to greatness in different ways. The critical challenge taken up by today’s younger generations is that of climate change, which threatens the entire human race. May we live to celebrate their greatness in a future in which we have avoided the worst effects of climate change and have equitably protected those most likely to be victims of catastrophic global heating!

As we pay homage to the sacrifices of those who fought with guns, let us not glorify war itself nor see greatness most of all in violent, military approaches to the problems within and among nations. The generations of Americans who strove for justice through peaceful means are as worthy of memorialization and honor as the greatest of warriors.


Mitchell Zimmerman is an attorney, longtime social activist, and author of the anti-racism thriller “Mississippi Reckoning” (2019). Republished from Common Dreams; licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Image: State Archives of Florida / Creative Commons Attribution License

 

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