Following my conversation with John Casserly, I had the chance to speak with Jack Gilroy, a former high school teacher, veteran of two military services and a member of Veterans for Peace. Jack has been an activist for many decades, participating in environmental and anti-war movements. He has authored two award-winning novels and three plays - most recently The Predator, which explore the conflict between a drone pilot and her daughter’s life path - and a multiplicity of articles (some of which may have led to his VFP’s chapter not being invited to the local Memorial Day parade). During the Vietnam War, Jack and his family relocated to Australia in protest of the Vietnam war, in which five of his students died while fighting. As a high school teacher in New South Wales, Jack engaged students in environmental and nuclear testing activism.
Returning to the United States Jack continued activism with students and on his own. Jack has spent weeks in southern jails and months in a variety of federal prisons for his nonviolent actions at Fort Benning, an infantry training base that houses what Jack and other activists call a “school of assassins.” Jack entered Fort Benning carrying a coffin filled with tens of thousands of petitions to close the SOA, School of the Americas. As a prisoner of conscience he was put in chains and placed in a basement cell in Columbus, GA and then was transferred to various federal prisons including Atlanta Penitentiary and Petersburg Prison in Virginia. It’s safe to say that even now, at over eighty years old, he hasn’t slowed down much. In 2015, he served two months out of a three-month jail sentence for participating in a die-in in Syracuse.
Jack was not always been so vehemently anti-war, however. His journey to becoming a committed activist started in a small mining town near Scranton, PA, where he grew up during World War II. “People used to call it the ‘good war’,” he recalls. “Later I realized it wasn’t very good at all. Sixty million people died - the worst horror we ever had.”
The war was a huge part of Jack’s everyday life during childhood:
There was no television, though of course we had radio. We knew all the Japanese and German fighter planes. As kids we rejoiced at the movies when we saw blockbuster bombs making rubble of German and Japanese cities. We simply had no empathy for the civilian people in those city blocks who were incinerated. I was 10 years old when the atomic bomb was dropped in Hiroshima. . . [ the adults] were just joyous over it. The whole idea was it would save American forces. There was little sensitivity toward the people we called the enemy. We made no connection between burning houses and schools as we watched from our comfort zone. This is what we were taught. We were right and they were wrong.
Jack remembers that he and his classmates were “taught to hate,” and that hate never ended as new enemies were found. It evolved into a never-ending cycle of finding the next enemy, and hate has extended to include people from a variety of different places: the Russians, the Chinese, the North Koreans and North Vietnamese. More recently, it’s people from Muslim-majority countries like Iran, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Ever since we have existed as a nation, he observes, “it’s been perpetual war. Since the beginning of our nation we’ve had two hundred and twenty one years out of our two hundred and forty one years (1776 to 2017) we’ve been killing people. It just seems to fly in the face of the particular moral beliefs that I have developed.”
Though Jack is active in pro-peace groups now, he initially joined the Navy Reserves while in high school at seventeen years of age. After high school he asked for and was granted a discharge in order to join the US Army. He was placed in the mountains in Austria, where he and his fellow infantrymen were perpetually “waiting for the Russians to attack.” His time in Austria along with the death of five of his students in Vietnam, (years later) became his epiphany, the beginning of an evolution from war supporter to war resister:
“Vienna was like Berlin was in 1955. Russians were on the east side of the Danube River, and the French, British, and Americans were on the other,” he told me. “We were given all kinds of hate propaganda about the Russians." He continued:
We were dressed in battle uniforms and encouraged to create an image to the Russians of being tough. Our boots were cleated to make a harsh smashing sound on the cobblestone that covered the plaza where we were to meet face to face with our Russian soldier counterparts. No hair showed under our helmets and we were taught to be fierce looking when we came close to the Russians in the historic last change of guard of the International Sector of Vienna. All foreign troops were to leave but the key troops were Russian and American. Eventually, the time came for the Austrians to take control over their country again, and all of the foreign troops would depart. When the Russian and American commanders marched us across the Hohenzollern Palace grounds with Sec. of State Allen Dulles and his brother Allen Dulles and others looking on in this historic ending of occupation, both the Russian and our platoon were halted just a few feet away from one another. We were trained to look directly into the eyes of the Russian soldier across from them and think the nastiest things possible about these vile creatures.
Jack marched along with the other 29 soldiers, and looked into the eyes of the so-called enemy Russian soldier opposite him. But instead of seeing the Enemy, he saw just another young man, a “sad-looking kid” whose face Jack still remembers.
He had blonde hair that came over his ears, and must’ve been a little younger than me at the time. I was 19, so he must’ve been around 17 or 18. It didn’t come to me until later, exactly, but we were victims of propaganda, victims of hate. We are taught to find enemies and taught that they are always out there.
After that changing of the guard, Jack’s mindset towards war evolved because the so-called Enemy became just another Human. Our conversation eventually turned more to Jack’s activism in his own personal life, and how he has fought against the military-industrial complex, unjust wars, and environmental problems after his service. Like John Casserly, he was raised as a Catholic and, as it turns out, this religion played a huge role in his own personal anti-war activism.
Besides helping start the VFP chapter in Broome County, NY, Jack has also been an active member of Pax Christi. “It translates to ‘Peace of Christ’ - you know, if you really are Christian, then you are supposed to be non-violent.” On their website, the organization states that they reject “war, preparation for war, every form of violence and domination,and personal and systemic racism… We are a Catholic peace and justice movement that seeks to model the he Peace of Christ in our witness to the mandate of the nonviolence of the Cross.” Their vision goes directly against the kind of us-versus-them mentality that has been prevalent in the U.S. since 9/11, with the vilification of Islam playing a key role in gaining support for military invasion and occupation. In this day and age, argues Jack, Catholics and other Christians “are living under this attitude that their new cross is the flag; it’s all about patriotism, and do whatever you want and don’t worry about any morality in it, because you’re saving your people and protecting your country.”
The Catholic tradition has turned out many pro-peace/anti-war activists. Jack tells me about two WWI and WWII-era individuals whom he hopes will get more recognition for their pro-peace stances: Ben Salmon and Franz Jagerstatter. Salmon was a conscientious objector to World War I and the United States participation in it. He refused to cooperate in the draft, stating that there was no such thing as a just war. I’ve included below a brief section of one of Salmon’s letters:
The lowly Nazarene taught us the doctrine of non-resistance, and so convinced was he of the soundness of that doctrine that he sealed his belief with death on the cross. When human law conflicts with Divine law, my duty is clear. Conscience, my infallible guide, impels me to tell you that prison, death, or both, are infinitely preferable to joining any branch of the Army. - Ben Salmon.
Later, Salmon was arrested and sentenced to 25 years in prison. He began a hunger strike during his time there, but was forcibly fed with a steel pipe in his throat- a diet of milk and eggs, Gilroy tells me, and the use of the pipe later led to many health problems. He died at only 44 years of age. His refusal to eat and his commitment to non-violence led many to believe that he was even mentally ill, along with being a traitorous non-patriot with a yellow stripe right down the middle of his back. But in recent decades, many people have thought otherwise. Daniel Ellsberg, radical priests Daniel Berrigan and John Dear, among others, were inspired by his steadfastness in his opposition to violence. Referring to Salmon, Jack posed some question:
Was it really wrong for him to say he would not kill anyone? Was it really wrong for him to not fall into what the Catholic leaders were saying at the time, urging young men to go into Europe to kill and potentially lose their own lives? Was it really wrong, or was he one of the ones that had a level-head, one who said, ‘I will not participate in any violent action against my fellow human beings’?
Another conscientious objector Gilroy admires is Franz Jagerstatter, an Austrian Catholic who was sentenced to death after refusing to fight for the Third Reich. Even after the war ended and it was acknowledged that the war was indeed unjust, many of his countrymen and others were highly critical of Jagerstatter. “In Germany and Austria, duty was everything,” observes Jack. “He did not do his duty, so he was hated.” Public opinion of him changed later, particularly when a professor from the United States named Gordon Zahn wrote a book about him called In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jagerstatter. He later was declared a martyr by the Vatican, a film about his life is coming out in 1918. The title is taken from the village of Franz, Radegund.
When we spoke on July 4, I asked Jack why we continue to believe in the Just War myth? “It’s education - lack of education,” he replied. “It starts with teaching in school of the heroic acts of the U.S. military. It’s so much a part of our culture - today’s our birthday, right? But right from the very beginning, we were born in blood. Our wars are blessed by government and even by the Christian churches...American wars are considered to be a heroic kind of thing that we just can’t seem to stop.” Referring to the current US military involvement in primarily Muslim countries, Jack asks about alternatives:
Instead of bombing people with hellfire missiles, what about ‘bombing’ them, in a sense, by giving fair distribution of ways for them to create their own jobs, make their own foods, medicines, books, etc. People say, ‘That’s a pie in the sky thing, that’ll never happen’, [but] has war really achieved peace? War does not create peace. It’s just definitely not working.
Despite the fact that war has obviously not worked in terms of creating a more just world, the unquestioning and less than-critical patriotism in the United States has certainly caused problems for organizations like Veterans for Peace. Though they are normally are allowed to participate in Jack’s local parade (usually as the last group in the procession), this past Memorial Day, the Broome County VFP chapter was uninvited from marching. The county’s Veterans Agency has recently taken control over the planning of the parade and didn’t believe that Veterans for Peace should be bringing a “political agenda” to the parade. Jack and his friends showed up anyway. “It’s called First Amendment right of assembly.”
On September 11, 2016, Jack was headed to protest a monument being established in Owego by the Town of Owego. The monument states in bronze that the 9/11 attack was done by “Islamic terrorists.” “Those people are individuals,” he says. “Using the religion [of Islam], it would be like using the words ‘Christian terrorists’,” which is language we don’t use in cases when Christians kill large groups of people. In seeking to protest the wording of the monument that sits just a few hundred yards from the number one US weapons maker, Lockheed-Martin, Jack carried a sign saying, “Lockheed Martin has blood on its hands- biggest weapons producer in the world.” While walking down the road, he was “surrounded by these goonish men,” some members of a motorcycle gang called Patriot Riders, began pushing and shoving him while the police looked on.
I asked them, ‘How many of you goons are veterans?’ None of them answered. Some of them tore up my sign. People should be angry about the Twin Towers and those crazy individuals, but most of them were from a country that we support totally - Saudi Arabia! There is so much confusion and ignorance. All you can do is try to educate and take measures. I try to educate and take measures.
Jack believes there is a certain amount of hope for the future, particularly after the rise of the so-called “Bernie Sanders movement,” which has continued to have a certain amount of organizing power even after the 2016 election. “Our biggest need,” he says, “is to search for young people who are individuals with a sense of true justice, have a sense of morality, who are not on an ego-trip, who are not on a power trip, but are more concerned with reaching out with compassion and generosity to the world.”