Jeannette Rankin from Montana was the first Congresswoman. She fought for women's suffrage and proposed a maternity and infant health bill that became law in 1921. But she'd already lost her seat by voting against entry into World War I. She returned to Congress in 1941, losing her seat again by casting the only vote against our entry into World War II after Pearl Harbor. In 1968, she made a final antiwar gesture at the age of 87 when she led the "Jeannette Rankin Brigade" to Washington, DC to protest the Vietnam War.
Veteran's Day used to be called Armistice Day, celebrating the end of the "War to End All Wars." The name changed after the next war. Instead of celebrating peace, we remember warriors with parades of antique weapons and sad memorials at cemeteries full of those who died far too young. No one celebrates those who tried to keep us from committing war, those who were ostracized by family, friends, and their government for trying to be a conscientious citizen.
I turned 18 in 1973, the last year of the draft. Every year, many Americans sat glued to the television watching birth dates being pulled out of a bingo bucket. That night determined whether they went to kill or die in Vietnam, enlisted to hopefully serve someplace else, or left for Canada. I was not a pacifist but I planned for jail. If Congressfolk weren't willing to put their butts on the line by voting on war, then I thought it was my patriotic responsibility as a citizen to keep the government honest. I figured I could protest better from our own American gulag than from Sweden or a body bag. But my number was 258.
Yet the war still affected me, not only by arguing with parents, teachers, and arresting officers, but because of 18-month-old LeeAnne. I heard her crying one day in the church nursery so I walked in and calmed her. I worked in the nursery every Sunday after that because she liked hearing a man's voice, even just a 14-year-old male's voice. And her mom needed the solace of church because LeeAnne's dad was one of the fighter pilots in Nam who was never coming home.
There are many nonmilitary veterans, people experienced in the agony of war without ever serving in the military. The families of soldiers killed and maimed in Vietnam are veterans. The parents of the children killed at Kent State are veterans. So are the National Guardsmen who killed them and the protesters and bystanders who cried over the bodies. The police and activists who fought on the streets are veterans. The college professors who lost jobs or didn't achieve tenure because they were on the wrong side according to the local politics experienced the ramifications of war.
An entire nation goes to war, not just its soldiers. In America, the land of free speech and democracy, that means we need to agree that war is worth the effort. But it must be a conscious decision, and not rely on hidden agendas of the military-industrial complex. If citizens don't want to commit war, they need to protest. Tomorrow, I honor all the war veterans -- not just soldiers, but the LeeAnnes who grew up without a father. I also honor the protesters, conscientious objectors, and the Jeannette Rankins who made us think twice about killing for peace. Sometimes it is necessary, but a declaration of war should always shake the foundations of society.