Veterans Day 2020

It was not a given that U.S. soldiers in the field would be able to vote or would be supported in exercising the franchise. Many obstacles were whittled away over the years, including a fear of standing armies being allowed to vote in the first place, logistical difficulties delivering the ballots, poll taxes, a multitude of state regulations, and so forth. Even now in the era of the Federal Voting Assistance Program, much work remains to be done to assure that every U.S. citizen-soldier abroad who wants to can vote.

Many of the obstacles that prevented soldiers from voting were the same obstacles that prevented others from voting. It was never just a matter of getting the ballots out to the field and back.

Voting is and was a right that many soldiers took seriously — including POWs, who in some cases held straw votes even in the face of no expectation that their vote could be counted.

In honor of Veterans Day and the ongoing struggle to truly support U.S. military personnel, here is some reading.

General Grant to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, 27 September 1864:

The exercise of the right of suffrage by the officers and soldiers of armies in the field is a novel thing. It has, I believe, generally been considered dangerous to constitutional liberty and subversive of military discipline. But our circumstances are novel and exceptional. A very large proportion of legal voters of the United States are now either under arms in the field, or in hospitals, or otherwise engaged in the military service of the United States. Most of these men are not regular soldiers in the strict sense of that term; still less are they mercenaries who give their services to the Government simply for its pay, having little understanding of political questions or feeling little or no interest in them. On the contrary, they are American citizens, having still their homes and social and political ties binding them to the States and districts from which they come, and to which they expect to return. They have left their homes temporarily to sustain the cause of their country in the hour of its trial. In performing this sacred duty they should not be deprived of a most precious privilege. They have as much right to demand that their votes shall be counted in the choice of their rulers as those citizens who remain at home. Nay, more, for they have sacrificed more for their country. I state these reasons in full, for the unusual thing of allowing armies in the field to vote, that I may urge on the other hand that nothing more than the fullest exercise of this right should be allowed, for anything not absolutely necessary to this exercise cannot but be dangerous to the liberties of the country. The officers and soldiers have every means of understanding the questions before the country. The newspapers are freely circulated, and so, I believe, are the documents prepared by both parties to set forth the merits and claims of their candidates…

Lt. Harold Norris, stationed in Britain, in a letter to Yank Magazine appearing in its 17 March 1944 issue:

Dear Yank:

Yours is a young, lusty publication that doesn’t pull its punches, and I think the soldier vote is an issue that needs some of your punching. The denial by Congress of the right to vote is an outright contradiction of the Four Freedoms, the Atlantic Charter, our Constitution or any name our war aims go by. Look, Yank, why don’t you say something on this? Secretary Stimson has said that 48 state laws make soldier voting impossible. So if we don’t have the Federal Government or the Army to administrate the voting, we’ll have vote prohibition this war.

You’re pretty sharp, Yank — can’t you see that this representatives of the poll tax and state’s rights are using that prop wash to deny the soldiers the right to vote in the same way they have denied the vote to others? A lot of us look upon this issue as one test of the sincerity of democratic intentions in the war and in the peace. And we would much rather have our right to vote than the mustering-out pay of $300, which we all may pay for through the nose through inflation anyhow. The soldier-voting issue is a morale one. Our morale is high, but there is no limit. Punch a little bit for us on this issue and our moral will hit an even higher ceiling.

Image of the Federal War Ballot used in 1944
Federal War Ballot used by soldiers to vote in 1944.

Further reading and viewing:

Those who seek to restrict the vote are the enemies of democracy.

By the way, are you a servicemember or U.S. citizen abroad who is eligible to vote in Senate runoff in Georgia on 5 January 2020? Check out the FVAP page for Georgia on how to register and request an absentee ballot.

Readings for Veterans Day, 2015

Some readings for this day when we reckon — and face — the cost of our wars.

I.

How African Americans responded to the postwar resurgence of white supremacy reflected the depths to which the aspirations of the war and expectations for democracy shaped their racial and political consciousness. The war radicalized many African Americans and deepened a commitment to combat white racial violence. At the same time, the contributions of the soldiers, as well as peoples of African descent more broadly, to the war effort swelled racial pride. Marcus Garvey tapped into this social, political, and cultural milieu. A native of Jamaica, Garvey brought his new organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), to New York and soon attracted thousands of followers. The UNIA, predicated upon the principles of Black Nationalism and African diasporic unity, quickly became the most dominant mass movement of the postwar era. A host of other radical organizations and newspapers complemented the UNIA and signaled the arrival of the “New Negro.”

From African Americans and World War I, an essay by Dr. Chad Williams.

II.

Charles Vernon Bush was the first African American to graduate from the U.S. Air Force Academy.

He fought in Vietnam, and was awarded a Bronze Star.

A couple years before his death, Bush wrote a chapter for Attitudes Aren’t Free: Thinking Deeply About Diversity in the U.S. Armed Forces by Air University Press, February 2010:

Diversity efforts within the US government, particularly the Department of
Defense (DOD) and the intelligence community (IC), have proven to be
inadequate. Their failure is largely due to organizations approaching diversity
more as a personnel program than a critical mission element imperative to
national security. Leaders often discuss and study the importance of diversity,
but little evidence has emerged over recent years to indicate they fully embrace
it. Hence, military organizations (broadly defined to include the larger intelligence
communities outside of the armed services) fall woefully short in establishing
diversity within their senior executive and officer ranks. Moreover,
DOD and IC leaders continue to establish and communicate incongruent department
diversity mission statements, objectives, and goals that lack prescribed,
mandatory performance standards. Because there are no prescribed
performance standards, there exists no leadership accountability and thus no
leadership responsibility for monitoring diversity. Therefore, organizations deliver
poor and unacceptable outcomes on diversity objectives, which leaders
regrettably accept.

He had a Twitter account, @cvbgrf. It is not everybody who can just link to their Wikipedia biography from their Twitter profile.

III.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

— Wilfred Owen, killed on 4 November 1918, one week prior to the signing of the armistice.

IV

Female veterans battling PTSD from sexual trauma fight for redress

Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant

V

Soldat Du Droit. Picture by Gordon T. Lawson on Flickr, CC-BY
Soldat Du Droit. Picture by Gordon T. Lawson on Flickr, CC-BY

Remembrance Day – Veterans Day 2012

The holiday we celebrate as Veteran’s Day in the U.S. began as Remembrance Day in the Commonwealth countries. It is celebrated on November 11, or specifically on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, in accordance with the armistice that ended the First World War in 1918.

Nearly a century ago.

It was the last war fought with mounted cavalry. And the first war fought with tanks. It’s also the first war that brought the concept of “shell-shock” into common parlance. Today we call it PTSD.

Lord Peter Wimsey, one of the most popular (and beloved) amateur detectives in mystery, suffered from shell-shock. Just think about that for a minute. The condition was so common that Dorothy L. Sayers, who wrote the Wimsey stories during the 1920s through the 1940s, thought nothing of making her hero a victim of this debilitating condition. And she does debilitate Wimsey with it on several occasions in the series.

The Wimsey stories are still worth reading. They offer a marvelous perspective on upper-class life in the 1920s through the 1940s, and the entire series has finally been released as ebooks.

But if you are looking for a 21st century fictional perspective on World War I, particularly of the historical mystery persuasion, take a look at Charles Todd’s two series. Charles Todd is the pseudonym for the mother-and-son writing team of Caroline and Charles Todd.

They have two World War I series. The Bess Crawford series, starting with A Duty to the Dead, follows the life and occasional adventures of a combat nurse during the war. Some of the dead bodies that Bess discovers do not die from either natural causes or enemy bullets. But due to Bess’ position as the daughter of a long-serving regular-army colonel, the reader gets a picture of the British Army during the war, and also the Home Front when Bess goes on leave.

Their second, and longer-running series, featuring Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge, takes place after the war. But the war is still very much a factor, because Rutledge lives with it every day. He came back from the trenches with shell-shock, and his superiors are always waiting for it to reclaim him. The first book in the series is A Test of Wills.

And for one of the most fascinating perspectives on the First World War, take a look at Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. This is not fiction. This is a book about how history is remembered, and it’s a classic for a reason.