“I started to rethink my idea about ‘America, love it or leave it’, ‘If you’re not on my side you’re on the communists’ side’ - that kind of thing.”
“After many years, I’m completely anti-war, because war is basically a failure of people to figure stuff out.”
“We are certainly not the same society that we were when I was young, but in some ways, we’re the same, too. We still have a lot of prejudices. The whole anti-Muslim thing is bringing a lot of the worst out in some people, but it brings out the best in other people.”
Last month the United Nations Conference on Nuclear Weapons negotiated a treaty calling for the destruction of all nuclear weapons. The vote was 122 in favor of the treaty, with 1 vote against it (from the Netherlands). The U.S. government, however, has joined Great Britain, Pakistan, Russia, China, India, North Korea, and France in stating that it won’t be signing the treaty for global security reasons. In fact, the U.S. completely boycotted the event, arguing that a nuclear ban is “not a realistic option” and that nuclear weapons are necessary to deter conflict.
Meanwhile, the 72nd anniversaries of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are fast upon us (August 6th and 9th), and the U.S. maintains a massive global military footprint. We currently have over 800 military bases throughout the globe and are actively carrying out or supporting bombing campaigns in numerous countries. We are also selling arms (over $40 billion in 2015) to half of the countries in the world while carrying a military budget that is almost as large as the budgets of the next ten countries combined.
It boggles my mind to think that the United States spends so much money and energy on war, a venture that always ultimately leads to destruction and death. Though it is debatable whether war is underreported (obviously, some wars are underreported, depending on who is fighting and dying), I do think the issues of peace movements aren’t discussed enough by the news media. This led to my desire to start interviewing pro-peace/anti-war veterans and creating miniature profiles of them, starting specifically with members of Veterans for Peace. These are people who, at some point, probably saw military service as one of the highest performances of patriotism. Eventually, however, they became disillusioned with the U.S. as a military power, and for me this gives their criticisms of war even more credibility.
One of the first pro-peace veterans I interviewed was John Casserly. a resident of Canton, NY, the town where I went to college. John is a seventy-one year old Vietnam veteran, although, as he told me, he doesn’t “wear that hat” much in public.
It does give me some credibility, but I don't necessarily like that. If I have to use it sometimes, I will discreetly. It is what gives Veterans for Peace the power they have...It's a shame you have to go into the military to get that credibility. I'd rather see people given respect for their thoughts.
What is the process through which some veterans begin to question the United States’ fascination with and investment in war? When and why do they begin to question their own actions? For John, it was something that happened over the course of time. Born in 1945, he grew up on Long Island, where he went to Catholic school, and eventually went to Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY, which is also a Catholic institution. “I’m a product of a Catholic education, he notes. “And I’d like to say I’ve recovered from that - it took me a long time, but I’m pretty sure I recovered from it.” He graduated in 1967, and thereafter signed up for the Marine Corps.
John headed for Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, one of the Marine Corps’ two main camps, and was shipped off to Vietnam for 12 months and 26 days (the tour of duty). As an officer, it was quite the learning experience. Spending time with other Marines was very positive compared to the experience when he returned to Camp Lejeune after his tour of duty ended. “My job became all about picking on the troops, making it hard for them, and I turned that right off.”
Later, John was attached to a Navy ship cruising the Mediterranean. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 was a popular book at the time that changed how John and other members of the Navy viewed the military:
Well that was a big book, that was a big thing - Heller, Joseph Heller, he really made fun of the military. And then the lieutenants who read it made fun of the military...We were going to be discharged from the military, and that book has come about...It was like I was climbing out of my brain that had been so warped through my upbringing and through my military time to believe that what America said was right. You don't bother thinking in any other way, but that whole thing started to come apart. When you start to take that apart, you start to see the ridiculousness of your own thinking - you've got to fill in the blanks and start to take on a new kind of way of thinking about things. (Emphasis added.)
When he left the military, he started hanging out with friends who thought differently about issues of war and peace, and he began “filling in the blanks.” “I started to rethink my idea about ‘America, love it or leave it,’ ‘if you’re not on my side you’re on the communists’ side’ - that kind of thing,” he notes. “It was really a complete revolution of my thinking.” He went to live on a commune in Ontario, an experience that basically sealed the deal in his revolution of thought. Later, John moved to Canton, NY, where he currently resides. He went on to become a middle school social studies teacher and cross country and track and field coach.
When I asked John about Smedley Butler, one of the most decorated Marines in U.S. history and famous author of War is a Racket, he told me he didn’t think Butler was as anti-war as people might think. Butler wanted to point out the that Americans who went into the military were creating wealth for the upper-class in the United States. (I’d recommend reading the book to anyone who is interested- it’s short, sweet, and still relevant.)
In comparison to Butler, John now considers himself to be “completely anti-war.” He wishes for a society without war, though it hasn’t been seen in recent memory.
After many years, I'm completely anti-war, because war is basically a failure of people to figure stuff out. And uh, usually the real causes are never really understood until way after whatever war you're talking about. I don't know...you think of the Civil War, well the Civil War pretty much devastated places in the South - their homes were destroyed, the March to the Sea, they burned it all to the ground. That was a real effect of war, that was part of a war process, part of the Civil War.
Despite his anti-war beliefs, John doesn’t think a world free of war is likely in the near future. I mentioned the recent UN treaty calling for a ban on nuclear weapons, and asked whether or not the U.S. would in the near future consider getting rid of some of its own nuclear weapons. “Are you serious?” He laughed at my question, justifiably so.
Why would the United States do that? I think the military has a ton of money going towards upgrading the whole nuclear weapons system, it's exactly the opposite...Politics is energy. If you're going to make a reform, you're going to have to have a lot of political will to do it, energy. You've got to summon up a lot of energy to create a change, and I don't see the political behind it to get rid of nuclear weapons. That's a major component of the American stand and how it presents itself to the world as a military superpower. Part of that impression it wants to give, part of that logo it wants to give, [is] its military arsenal - [including] nuclear weapons systems. We spend big money on that.
When I asked John about the Obama administration’s approach to military power, John stated that he believed President Obama was “limited in his ability to do stuff….I give him a passing grade.” With the Republican-dominated Senate and House, it was difficult for him to accomplish much. I asked if he was at all disappointed with Obama’s legacy in regards to war, but he said it was necessary to assess not just one person, but many people when it comes to our overseas conflicts.
And the Trump administration? “Everyday that Trump is president, there are consequences...certainly we’re going to suffer for it.” He had been listening to a Trump speech on the radio a few days prior that sounded like the drums of war, a raising of the flag. It sounded like an attempt to get people riled up and ready to go to war, as if Trump were saying, “‘Which side are you on? Are you willing to defend the side of [the United States]? Are you willing to suffer the consequences?’ To me, it’s like laying down the path to some kind of confrontation over values. Basically saying that the Western values are different from Muslim values, creating that stage.”
I pointed out during our conversation that if we really think about the Middle East and how we can contribute to peace-building there, it would be necessary to consider what issues we have caused in the first place. “That’s a perfect thought right there,” he responded. “It’s not in the regular media. What did the United States do to cause the original problem in the first place?” He does note that we as a society are evolving, though it isn’t enough to end the military presence and power of the military-industrial complex anytime soon.
We are certainly not the same society that we were when I was young, but in some ways, we're the same, too. We still have a lot of prejudices. The whole anti-Muslim thing is bringing a lot of the worst out in some people, but it brings out the best in other people.
John attends a current events group once a week with friends in the Canton area. It’s a chance for him and his friends to bring articles that they’ve read and discuss them. “I just try to keep rolling with this stuff,” he says, “and try to keep it current so I’m paying attention to exactly what’s going on.”
Banner image by Staff Sgt. Jamal Sutter (https://www.dvidshub.net/image/1934822) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.