As DSA’s anti-war working groups share terror of Donald Trump’s lame-duck Iran threats and the probable militarism of a Biden presidency, we know that any criticism of a “strong defense” will lead neoliberals to ask,“What about September 11?” I’ve been hearing that question for decades; it seems to have supplanted the ubiquitous “What about Hitler?” I hear both from strangers when I tell them about my book, which tells the story of a dissent from war that stretches back to the American Revolution. In fact, the book actually starts on September 11, a date that recurs over the centuries. —CL
Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, was beautiful on September 11, 1777. Its succession of wooded hills made for a steep climb, both for the British and for the insurgent Continental Army. In between hills, level ground allowed for fierce fighting. Jacob Ritter, a young member of the Pennsylvania militia, watched as the active-duty “standing troops” took casualties. “The bombshells and shot fell round me like hail, cutting down my comrades on every side, and tearing off the limbs of the trees like a whirlwind.” Ritter’s unit stood ready, sweating in the summer heat.
By nightfall, hundreds were dead on both sides. Pennsylvania militia units were “ordered to march forward to the charge. Our way was over the dead and dying…” The troops all carried muskets, and some of Ritter’s platoon-mates fired into the distance. Ritter did not fire; he had already decided, without telling anyone, that to do so would be wrong.
Raised Lutheran, Ritter had been seized just that morning by the un-Lutheran conviction that “it was contrary to the Divine Will for a Christian to fight.” As he stood still amid mortars at Chadds Ford, “I supplemented [sic] the Almighty that if he would be pleased to deliver me from shedding the blood of my fellow-creatures that day, I would never fight again.” His prayer was answered, and the rest of Jacob Ritter’s life was shaped by that moment of conscientious objection to war.
September 11, 1947, was a little hotter than usual in Memphis. Tempers were running high, and local police were knocking on doors. The authorities knew that 17-year-old Charles Adams had gotten into some local scuffles of late. When they came after him, his father refused to open the door. Adams scooted. When he got to Front Street, in the older part of town, the army recruiting center shone in the morning light, “and right then and there, on September 11, 1947, I enlisted.”
In January 1948, his unit arrived in Korea, where the United States was charged with “peacekeeping” in areas formerly occupied by Japan. The sub-zero temperatures froze his bones.
Adams’s unit had lost all but ten soldiers by the time of his capture in December 1950. While he and the others marched uphill in heavy snow, American bombers overhead dropped napalm on the surrounding mountains and villages. “What really sickened me was when one of their napalm bombs hit a Korean hut. A woman with a baby on her back burned before my very eyes.” At this point, Adams exchanged looks with Richards, a fellow Black GI. “We both were thinking the same thing: If this guard shoots us, well, we deserve it because we should not be in Korea.”
Adams and others survived the rest of the march, receiving horrific treatment in their first year at the Pyoktong POW camp. When Chinese troops took over the camp, Adams agreed to communicate with them on behalf of the prisoners, securing better food, bedding, and amenities that made life in camp more bearable. In February 1953, he was among the prisoners co-signing an appeal to the U.N. General Assembly certifying that “we have been kept as comfortable as possible” and asking for an immediate end to hostilities.
After the two sides signed an armistice in December 1953, some 23 “turncoats,” including Adams, refused repatriation to the United States—not because they loved communism but because they preferred the unknown of China or North Korea to Jim Crow. “The Chinese unbrainwashed me!” Adams told reporters. “The Negro had his mind brainwashed long before the Korea War. If he stayed in his place he was a good nigger.”
Adams stayed in China for 15 years, during which he met W.E.B. Du Bois on the latter’s 80th-birthday visit to China, and only left when the Cultural Revolution shuttered the publisher he worked for. The House Un-American Activities Committee was waiting for him, as it considered expanded penalties for “assistance to enemies of the U.S. in time of undeclared war.” Adams had insisted on going home to Memphis with his Chinese wife and biracial children. There he would remain until his death in 2007, his family’s survival his last dissent.
On September 11, 2001, veteran anti-war protester Philip Berrigan, then serving a 30-month sentence for civil disobedience, “watched appalled as the second tower of the World Trade Center came down. The guards called me out, took me to the lieutenant’s office, shackled and handcuffed me, and took me to solitary,” announcing “ ‘No phone, no visitors!’” he told the Progressive. Those additional measures were not for Berrigan’s own safety: The prison’s authorities spied trouble in the 77-year-old veteran of the Second World War, a longtime protester against the war machine. Meanwhile, elsewhere the next generation of soldier-dissenters was waking up.
Fourteen-year-old Chelsea Manning, born in Oklahoma, learned about the attacks while in school in Wales, where her family had moved after leaving her army-vet dad. Brandon Bryant, in Missoula, Montana, saw the attacks on TV in his high school, in the shadow of the town’s army recruiting station. And ten-year-old Texan Reality Leigh Winner heard about it in her hyper-patriotic elementary school. And Jonathan Wesley Hutto, a staffer at Amnesty International, “was preparing a report back [from the World Conference Against Racism, held in Durban, South Africa] when BOOM, the entire agenda went up in smoke, literally.”
A lot went up in smoke that day, a day whose memory has been evoked in the decades since to justify U.S. imperialism. These twenty-first-century soldier-dissenters emerged amid twenty-first-century warfare—as the country’s stealth empire swelled, its colonies replaced by “cooperative security locations” sprinkled with well-trained Special Forces personnel and long-distance assassinations of people who could be seen, monitored, and killed half a world away. This generation also felt the country’s founding injustices, from racism to misogyny, pressing on their necks. As with those who had gone before them, carrying muskets or slogging through snow with automatic weapons, they knew to say no.
Illustration by KATIE EDWARDS