Each Friday I stand on a busy street corner in Claremont, California. I stand with 20 to 30 other seniors and younger companions, each of us holding a sign which declares “Bring the Troops Home,” “or Government Unfair to Vets,” or “Ain’t Gonna War No More.” Like other citizens across our country, we’ve been there for almost five years.
These days it is rare to have a driver pump a middle finger at us screaming “Commie” or shout at us older Americans, “Go home.” At first the frequent experiences were painful. Now they make me sad, but their decreasing frequency triggers new hope and energy.
During the latter stages of WWII I was a proud member of the U.S. Navy Air Corps. While I care about the well-being of veterans and members of the Armed Forces, I reject war as a proposed solution to international problems, real or imagined. Like my weekly corner companions, I renounce our failure here at home to create a less violent culture and a more just society. My convictions result from my religious faith, work in other lands, and learning from my college and high school students. My sustaining inspiration comes from others, like Jesus, Gandhi, MLK, Mandela, Dorothy Day, and Dan Berrigan—and Mattie Stepanek, the “peace poet” who died at age 13 from Muscular Dystrophy.
But nothing has influenced me more than a childhood visit to a veteran’s hospital for “permanent residents” in New York, witnessing the deformed faces, the broken spirits. And I will never forget the 1965 experience of Selma, Alabama at the height of the Civil Rights movement. There, volunteers, hundreds of us, were told by experienced African- American college students, “If you are cursed and beaten and you can only respond with violence, you cannot stand up with us. You must go home.” Most of us stayed. It was like a new beginning for America—and me. So I’ve come to understand that there are times when citizens must engage in active non-violent resist- ence or we are only nominal citizens, potential patriots—and to believe that most of us really want to be compassionate and to foster non-violence and justice. The experience of Katrina demonstrates just that. Most of us don’t need to have more, we need to become more.
Idon’t know when, if ever, my companions and I will cease to be street corner “protesters.” Actually, we hope we are “social change-makers.” Recently, a young Marine shook my hand and said, “Thank you.” He commented that it was wrong to invade Iraq and seemed very sad. I asked him, “What would make you proud to be a Marine?” He thought for a moment and then said, “We should go to Darfur and protect the people there from that terrible violence.” Bless him. So the use of limited physical force may be needed in special circumstances, in daily life here or in genuinely collective action overseas, but Americans have to help create a non-violent and just world culture—beginning with ourselves.
Perhaps we can begin by profound efforts to learn from, as well as effectively serve, the many thousands of Americans, returning from war, so badly damaged in mind and body. And think through anew, our responsibility towards a ravaged nation. One new beginning might be to have school children sing daily Woody Guthrie’s old song: “I Ain’t Gonna Study War No More.” Or alternate that with reading poems from young Mattie’s Journey Through Heart- songs.
My hope is that someday there will be no need for old veterans to wonder what their fighting was really for or for 80-year-olds to stand on street corners carrying signs. But for now I will continue to stand with my convictions and peace-full friends, until I can stand no more.
James Lamb is an activist and retired educator.