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Henry David Thoreau’s writings about the military

ThoreauMost folk only know about Walden Pond and Henry David Thoreau’s reflections about the tranquility there. They think of him only as some sort of nature writer. However Thoreau was also an American anarchist whose other writings about society are not quite as well disseminated to college students. Below Henry David Thoreau writes about the American military…

A common and natural result of an undue respect for the law
is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain,
corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching
in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars,
against their wills, ay, against their common sense
and consciences, which makes it very steep marching
indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart.
They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in
which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined.
Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and
magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power?
Visit the Navy Yard, and behold a marine, such a man as an
American government can make, or such as it can make a man
with its black arts–a mere shadow and reminiscence of
humanity, a man laid out alive and standing, and already, as
one may say, buried under arms with funeral accompaniment,
though it may be,

“Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,
As his corse to the rampart we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
O’er the grave where out hero was buried.”

The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men
mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the
standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse
comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise
whatever of the judgement or of the moral sense; but they
put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones;
and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve
the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men
of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of
worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are
commonly esteemed good citizens.

from Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

One thought on “Henry David Thoreau’s writings about the military

  1. From Chris Floyd:

    But we must also recognize that the kind of civil disobedience that Thoreau preached – and practiced – is immensely more difficult today, because the power of the state is so much greater, far more pervasive, more invasive…and much more implacable, more inhuman. No one would have dared put Thoreau in “indefinite detention” without charges, or torture him, or delegate some underling in intelligence apparatus (which didn’t exist then) to kill him as a “suspected terrorist.” Of course there were many egregious suspensions of Constitutional liberties and draconian measures during the Civil War; but these occasioned fierce fights in Congress, investigations, lawsuits, and outraged protests on the streets – the worst, by far, in American history, dwarfing the urban riots and war protests of the Sixties. But only the most ignorant fool – or devious liar – could compare these short-lived, ad hoc, inconsistently applied, frequently reversed and much-disputed depredations, carried out in the midst of a massive insurrection by fully-fledged armies on American soil, with today’s thorough-going, systematic creation of an authoritarian state, on the basis of a zealous ideology of an unrestricted “unitary executive,” operating in a nebulous, self-declared “state of war” that we are told will last for generations.

    Neither Thoreau – nor any Northern opponent of the Civil War – confronted anything like this. (In fact, neither did the insurrectionists of the South, who were treated as lawful prisoners-of-war when captured – or often simply allowed to return to their homes on parole, in exchange for a simple statement that they would fight no more. No Southerner was ever subjected to indefinite detention, none were tortured, none were liquidated by secret agents.) The technology available to the government today amplifies the scope of repression immeasurably, both in the pinpoint, surreptitious targeting of individuals and in larger-scale operations.

    In a land crawling with armed – and armored – SWAT teams, with operatives from innumerable federal agencies packing heat and happy to use it, a land where more than 2 million people languish in prison (many of them captives of an endless “war on drugs” that has done nothing to curb substance abuse but has greatly augmented the power of the state and the criminal gangs whose laundered money enriches Establishment elites), a land where almost every transaction is wired up to some national grid, where national ID cards are now being imposed – a land where you literally cannot exist without placing your liberty, your privacy, your very life at the mercy of a government apparatus besotted with violence, coercion and intrusion, there is no place left for the kind of action that Thoreau advocated. His way – and that of Gandhi and King, who took so much from him – envisions a state opponent which one could hope to shame into honorable action by the superior moral force of principled civil disobedience. But the very hallmark of the present regime is its shamelessness, its utter lack of any sense of honor or principle, its bestial addiction to raw power.

    It is pointless – and counterproductive – to simply throw yourself under the wheels of such a monstrous machine in futile spasms of rage and despair. The machine doesn’t care. It will gladly chew up your life and move on. For the action of the ordinary individual to have an effect, it must be amplified by a larger social movement. And it is difficult to imagine such a movement arising in America today, in a society atomized by the engines of profiteering, its communities gutted or abandoned by elites seeking greener pastures – and cheaper labor – elsewhere, its citizens isolated from one another, locked in their own bubbles of electronic diversion, and their own struggles to keep their jobs (unprotected by unions, subject to the arbitrary whim of local bosses, or faceless corporate masters, or predatory hedge funds, etc.), hang on to their health insurance (if they’ve got it), and stay out of the hell created by the bipartisan Bankruptcy Bill for the benefit of the credit card companies.

    And despite the deep unpopularity of the regime, there is still a widespread reluctance to recognize its true nature, and what it will require to restore our constitutional republic. And truth to tell, there are a great many people uninterested in doing so. As long as the diversions keep pouring through the latest gadgetry, the monthly paycheck manages to cover the bills, and their own bodies are not subjected to the tyrant’s evil, many people are happy to accept the authoritarian system. (This is not unique to Americans, of course; it is a constant in human history.) But even where there is an interest in discerning the reality of our times, and a yearning for change, again there is no broader movement to leverage an individual’s dissent into a form large enough to thwart the tyrannical machine. And there is no American Sakharov on the horizon, someone to arise from the very center of the machine to denounce its workings and call for genuine liberty, genuine democracy, genuine economic and social justice.

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