U.S. Presidents and Those Who Kill for Them

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“The Czar can send any of his officials to Siberia, but he cannot rule without them, or against their will.”

~ John Stuart Mill

What kind of a man would kill someone he didn’t know for someone else he didn’t know? I suppose our opinion of such an individual would depend on the circumstances. Most people would condemn a hit man for hire even as they would praise a man who came to the defense of a little old lady in a parking lot who was being attacked with deadly force by a gang of thugs.

But what kind of a man would kill someone he didn’t know, who had never harmed or threatened him, his family, his friends, or anyone he knew for someone he didn’t know, who didn’t know him, and had never been harmed or threatened by the person he wanted killed?

And even worse, who would do such a thing at a moment’s notice, without giving it a second thought, laugh while he did it, brag about it afterward, and then expect to be lauded as a hero?

It pains me to say that the answer is a soldier in the U.S. military.

Since World War II, the nature and role of the U.S. military has drastically changed. Now, although I believe World War II to be neither necessary (see Pat Buchanan’s Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War) nor good (see my Rethinking the Good War), and although I realize that U.S. troops, especially since the time of Theodore Roosevelt, have often been sent to countries the United States was not at war with, World War II is still a notable turning point. It marks the end of congressional declarations of war and the permanent establishment of the military as the president’s personal army instead of the defender of the country against attack or invasion.

On five different occasions, the United States has declared war on other countries a total of eleven times. The first was Great Britain in 1812 (the War of 1812). The second was Mexico in 1848 (the Mexican War). The third was Spain in 1898 (the Spanish-American War). The fourth was Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1917 (World War I). The fifth was Japan, Germany, and Italy in 1941 (World War II) and Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania in 1942 (World War II).

That Congress issued these declarations of war doesn’t mean that they should have been issued. It just means that it was recognized that a major military engagement called for a real declaration of war by the Congress according to Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution.

The Founders were united on keeping the power to instigate war out of the hands of the executive. I have given Jefferson’s thoughts on the matter here. The reason for this limitation can be seen in a letter from Madison to Jefferson: “The constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war in the Legislature.”

The executive power of the king of Great Britain to wage war at the time of the American Revolution should be contrasted with the limitation of the U.S. president’s power under the Constitution. As relayed by constitutional scholar Edwin Vieira, Sir William Blackstone explained in his Commentaries on the Laws of England that the English king was “the generalissimo, or the first in military command within the kingdom” and exercised “the sole prerogative of making war and peace,” “the sole power of raising and regulating fleets and armies,” and “the sole supreme government and command of the militia.” In the Constitution, the powers the king could exercise were assigned to Congress. As found in Article I, Section 8, the Congress has the power

  • To declare War
  • To raise and support Armies
  • To provide and maintain a Navy
  • To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces
  • To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions
  • To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States

The president is merely the commander in chief, subject to the power of Congress to do all of the above. Even that great advocate of presidential power, Alexander Hamilton, acknowledged in Federalist no. 69 that the president’s authority as commander in chief, although “nominally the same with that of the King of Great Britain,” was “in substance much inferior to it.” The danger of giving the president war powers was recognized by none other than Abraham Lincoln. He wrote in an 1848 letter on the Mexican War to his law partner William Herndon: “Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose, and you allow him to make war at pleasure.” Too bad Honest Abe didn’t heed his own advice in 1861.

Since World War II, the U.S. military has been exclusively used by the president for purposes other than the actual defense of the country: providing disaster relief, containing communism, invading countries, occupying countries, enforcing UN resolutions, nation building, etc. The fact that some of these actions were termed defense doesn’t make them so.

It all began with Korean “police action.” Korea was divided at the 38th parallel after World War II. U.S. forces withdrew from Korea in 1949, as Soviet forces had done the previous year. After North Korea invaded the South in June of 1950, President Truman ordered American troops into combat in Korea to contain communism and save the United Nations. Said Truman: “Here was history repeating itself. Here was another probing action, another testing action. If we let the Republic of Korea go under, some other country would be next, and then another. . . . And the United Nations would go the way of the League of Nations.” There was not the slightest pretense of consulting Congress. The president informed the leaders of both parties only a few moments before he issued a statement to the press. The Democratic majority in Congress closed ranks behind the president. Only a few Republican senators demurred, most notably Senator Robert Taft: “The President is usurping his powers as Commander in Chief. There is no legal authority for what he has done. If the President can intervene in Korea without congressional approval, he can go to war in Malaya or Indonesia or Iran or South America.” Over 36,000 American soldiers suffered and bled and died for their president to confirm the division of Korea.

Believing that Truman had made a tactical blunder in committing U.S. troops without consulting Congress, President Eisenhower in 1955 sought a congressional resolution authorizing the employment of American forces in any manner necessary to defend Formosa [Taiwan]. It passed both houses of Congress almost unanimously. Representative Eugene Siler (R-KY) voted against the blank-check resolution because he had promised his constituents that he would never help to “engage their boys in war on foreign soil.” Eisenhower sought another resolution in 1957 in response to perceived Soviet expansionism and instability in the Middle East. This time, instead of rallying around a Republican president, some Democrats in Congress resisted. In the end, 19 senators and 61 representatives voted against what has been called the Eisenhower Doctrine.

John F. Kennedy likewise sought two congressional resolutions during his presidency, both in 1962. The first was in response to the threat of Cuban communism in the western hemisphere; the second was in response to a crisis in Berlin in which Khrushchev challenged the right of the United States to maintain troops in West Berlin. These resolutions left it to the president to determine how and when the terms of the resolutions would be applied.

Next came the infamous Tonkin Gulf Resolution sought by President Johnson in 1964. Although the United States had already been providing military aid to South Vietnam, supporting a puppet regime, undertaking reconnaissance missions and naval sabotage operations against North Vietnam, and supplying thousands of military advisors, it was this resolution that gave President Johnson a blank check to send U.S. ground troops to Vietnam at his command. Johnson provoked a North Vietnamese attack on U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin and then falsely claimed that North Vietnam had launched a second attack. Johnson ordered retaliatory air strikes against the phantom attack and announced on national television that the U.S. response would be “limited and fitting.” After the election in which Johnson held himself out as the peace candidate, he sent thousands of U.S. troops to die in the jungles of Vietnam. There were no dissenting votes in the House. Only two senators opposed this blank-check delegation of power. Senator Gruening (D-AK) objected to “sending our American boys into combat in a war in which we have no business, which is not our war, into which we have been misguidedly drawn, which is steadily being escalated.” Senator Wayne Morse (D-OR) remarked: “I believe that history will record that we have made a great mistake in subverting and circumventing the Constitution of the United States, article 1, section 8 thereof by means of this resolution.” Johnson himself recognized that the Tonkin Gulf Resolution gave him the power to do whatever he wanted in Vietnam. “The sky’s the limit,” he said. The War Powers Act, passed over Nixon’s veto in 1973, was an attempt by Congress to limit the power of the president to conduct military actions. In actuality, however, it ceded powers to the president not authorized by the Constitution. It gives the president a free hand to engage U.S. troops in offensive military actions without the prior consent of Congress.

In 1991, George H. W. Bush went to war in Iraq the first time to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. This was after April Glaspie, the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, told Saddam Hussein: “We have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait. Secretary Baker has directed me to emphasize the instruction, first given to Iraq in the 1960s, that the Kuwait issue is not associated with America.” This was also after John Kelly, the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, testified to Congress that the “United States has no commitment to defend Kuwait and the US has no intention of defending Kuwait if it is attacked by Iraq.” Yet, soon after Iraq invaded that bastion of democracy known as Kuwait, Bush the elder sent 500,000 U.S. troops without the Persian Gulf region. Then, in January of 1991, Congress issued a resolution authorizing the president to use military force against Iraq. The actual title was “Joint Resolution to Authorize the Use of United States Armed Forces Pursuant to United Nations Security Council Resolution 678.” This was “in order to achieve implementation of Security Council Resolutions 660, 661, 662, 664, 665, 666, 667, 669, 670, 674, and 677.” Only two Republicans in the Senate and three in the House voted against the resolution.

Passed soon after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the “Joint Resolution to Authorize the Use of United States Armed Forces Against Those Responsible for the Recent Attacks Launched Against the United States” has resulted in the quagmire known as the war in Afghanistan. This resolution authorized the president “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.” The problem with this blank check is that the president cashed it and invaded a country with a long history of religious, ethnic, and factional squabbling that was not home to any of the 9/11 hijackers, was no threat to the United States, and had never harmed any Americans. We now know that Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) was right about this resolution: “It was a blank check to the president to attack anyone involved in the September 11 events — anywhere, in any country, without regard to our nation’s long-term foreign policy, economic and national security interests, and without time limit.”

In 2002, Congress presented President George W. Bush with the “Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002.” This gave him a blank check go to war in Iraq the second time because of 9/11 because of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction because Iraq was a threat to the United States because Iraq had bought uranium from Africa because Saddam Hussein was connected with al Qaeda because Saddam Hussein tried to kill his dad because he made the decision at the first meeting of his National Security Council ten days into his presidency (a student at the University of Illinois once documented 27 reasons put forth by the Bush administration or war hawks in Congress before the war began). Only one Republican in the Senate and six in the House voted against this resolution.

In addition to these eight congressional resolutions authorizing the president to initiate military action, there were other occasions besides the Korean conflict in which the president sent U.S. troops abroad. Eisenhower sent Marines to Lebanon in 1958, Johnson sent Marines to the Dominican Republic in 1965, Nixon invaded Cambodia in 1970 and did not withdraw all U.S. troops from Vietnam until March of 1973 even though the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was repealed in January of 1971, Reagan invaded Grenada in 1983, Bush invaded Panama in 1989, and Clinton sent troops to Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999. As usual, much of the opposition to presidential warmongering was merely political. According to Representative John Duncan (R-TN), a rare Republican opponent of the Iraq war from the beginning, “Eighty percent of House Republicans voted against the bombings in the former Yugoslavia under President Clinton. I am convinced that at least the same percentage would have opposed the war in Iraq if it had been started by a Democratic president.”

And now, in addition to traditional military conflicts, Robert Gates, the secretary of defense under the current and former president, envisions new roles for the military:

Army soldiers can expect to be tasked with reviving public services, rebuilding infrastructure and promoting good governance. All these so-called nontraditional capabilities have moved into the mainstream of military thinking, planning, and strategy — where they must stay.

A military not strictly for defense of U.S. borders, shores, coasts, and skies is nothing more than the president’s personal attack force staffed by mercenaries willing to obey his latest command to bomb, invade, occupy, and otherwise bring death and destruction to any country he deems necessary. As the Future of Freedom Foundation’s Jacob Hornberger has so courageously pointed out, U.S. troops

serve not as a defender of our freedoms but instead simply as a loyal and obedient personal army of the president, ready and prepared to serve him and obey his commands. It is an army that stands ready to obey the president’s orders to deploy to any country in the world for any reason he deems fit and attack, kill, and maim any “terrorist” who dares to resist the U.S. invasion of his own country. It is also an army that stands ready to obey the president’s orders to take into custody any American whom the commander in chief deems a “terrorist” and to punish him accordingly.

Just listen to President Obama:

I — like any head of state — reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation.

Still, we are at war, and I’m responsible for the deployment of thousands of young Americans to battle in a distant land. Some will kill, and some will be killed.

And now Obama, like Bush before him, claims the power to order the assassination of anyone — including American citizens — anywhere in the world, via sharpshooter or Predator drone, based only on the suspicion that they are somehow associated with terrorism. That is assassination without charge, without evidence, without witnesses, without trial.

Although God only knows the extent of what the U.S. military at the president’s behest is now doing in Yemen, we know what has been happening in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Iraq, trigger-happy U.S. Army helicopter pilots and U.S. Special Forces slaughtered civilians and then covered up their crimes until a video was leaked exposing their collateral murder.

In Afghanistan, the DOD has finally admitted that U.S. Special Forces killed two pregnant Afghan women and a girl earlier this year. American troops recently shot up a large passenger bus, killing and wounding civilians. Of the more than thirty people who have been killed and the eighty who have been wounded in convoy and checkpoint shootings in Afghanistan since last summer, not one was found to have been a threat. “We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat,” said Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal. And then there are prisoner executions. These and other crimes in Afghanistan — like eradicating wedding parties — have been chronicled by Tom Engelhardt here.

Yet, despite 4,409 American soldiers who have died for a lie in Iraq and 1,144 American soldiers who have died in vain in Afghanistan, Americans continue to foolishly rally around their commander in chief and his army instead of showing contempt for him and it.

In Donald Rayfield’s chilling book Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him (Random House, 2004), he recounts the destruction of the Soviet Union under Stalin:

From January 1928 Stalin gathered the power, as well as the will, to destroy the lives not only of Lenin’s Politburo, but of millions of peasants, intellectuals, and workers.

Stalin, the party, and OGPU were not worried. Apparently, putting a dozen foreign technologists on trial hurt Soviet prestige, but enslaving and exterminating millions of Russian and Ukrainian peasants did not.

Stalin’s expedition to Siberia in 1928 was a trial run for a crime against humanity. In the next two years, requisition and dispossession under the names of collectivization and “dekulakization” would lay waste virtually all the arable lands of the USSR. Arrests, deportations, and killings escalated, probably beyond what even Stalin and Menzhinsky had anticipated, into a holocaust unmatched in Europe between the Thirty Years’ War of the seventeenth century and Hitler. Stalin’s attack on the peasantry ravaged Russian agriculture and the Russian peasant to such an extent that for perhaps a century Russia would be incapable of feeding itself. It introduced irrational and unquestioned rule by fear and turned people back into beasts of burden. Stalin was now using OGPU to repress not counterrevolutionaries but a peaceful population.

Arrests and executions carried out by OGPU soared: 162,726 persons were arrested in 1929, mostly for “counterrevolutionary activity,” 2,109 were shot, some 25,000 were sent to camps and as many again into exile. In 1930 arrests doubled to a third of a million and executions increased tenfold to 20,000. The camps received over 100,000. By 1934 there would be half a million slave laborers.

Allowing for famine, violence, hypothermia, and epidemics caused by the disruption, the number of excess deaths between 1930 and 1933 attributable to collectivization lies between a conservative 7.2 and a plausible 10.8 million.

As Stalin was condemning the last of the old Bolshevik guard to death, he was also preparing his own remedy for dissidence and free thought in the general population. The ensuing “Great Terror” raged across the Soviet Union from spring 1937 to autumn 1938 and resulted in around 750,000 executions and twice as many sentences to lingering death in the camps.

In 1937, some time before Hitler, Stalin’s NKVD hit on gassing as a means of mass execution. Trucks advertising bread drove around the Urals, pumping exhaust gases into the rear compartment where naked prisoners lay roped together in stacks, until their loads were ready for the burial pits.

In 1937 Stalin authorized the use of active physical torture and the horrors at the Lubianka were replicated in dozens of provincial centers.

In southern Russia and the Caucasus, even before Stalin authorized torture, the sadism was such that the living envied the dead; few of those tortured were fit for the GULAG.

The camps could not keep up with the mass arrests; those detained in grotesquely overcrowded prisons often died of typhus, dysentery, heart, malnutrition, or torture before they could be executed.

Collectivization had brutalized victims and perpetrators to such a degree that civilized society no longer existed in the USSR. The cruelty and passivity it induced in Soviet citizens made it possible for Stalin and his hangmen to proceed to an even more violent campaign in the party and among the urban population.

Although Stalin himself was a notorious liar, forger, robber, sadist, adulterer, pervert, terrorist, revolutionary, and murderer who once seduced a thirteen-year-old girl, provoked his son to shoot himself, and whose own wife had ten abortions before she killed herself, this well-read seminarian turned murderer didn’t kill millions of people by himself.

Stalin and his hangmen were peas in the same pod:

Iagoda brought to Stalin his grimmest associates. Stanislaw Messing, Gleb Bokii, and Efim Evdokimov, who had personally tortured, executed, and raped.

Most NKVD men, like Ezhov, drowned fear for their own fates in alcohol and sadism: they hated the innocents who were slow to confess, for the interrogator who failed to secure a statement might follow his prisoner to the executioner.

Ezhov sent those he spared the bullet into the GULAG, which he expanded into a hitherto unimaginable inferno. When Iagoda fell, over 800,000 slaves were working in the GULAG, while NKVD prisons held another quarter of a million and many hundreds of thousands of exiles working in conditions indistinguishable from slavery.

Ezhov’s last competent agent was Sergei Shpigelglas, who specialized in liquidating defectors and émigrés. Shpigelglas’s final action was to murder Trotsky’s son, Lev Sedov, as the latter convalesced from an appendectomy. . . . Shpigelglas also left such a blatant trail of blood that he damaged Franco-Soviet and Swiss-Soviet relations.

Sometimes, in a cruel twist of fate, Stalin’s hangmen were on the receiving end of other hangmen:

Ezhov was taken to the secret prison of Sukhanovka outside Moscow, which he himself had had converted from a monastery and in which the church had been converted to an execution chamber with an oil-fired crematorium where the altar had been. Ezhov had hysterics; he was beaten.

Ezhov was taken in the dead of night to a slaughterhouse he himself had built near the Lubianka. Dragged screaming to a special room with a sloping cement floor and a log-lined wall, he was shot by the NKVD’s chief executioner.

Particularly notable, and particularly evil, among Stalin’s hangmen was the sadistic killer and sexual degenerate Lavrenti Beria:

Beria had proved himself as the Stalin of the Caucasus, murdering and terrorizing like Ezhov and Stalin combined.

Nobody in Stalin’s circle was so fastidious as to object to working with such a murderous, devious, ambitious, and utterly unscrupulous lecher.

Beria’s rise was speeded by sudden deaths among his colleagues, and he acquired a reputation for murder and falsification.

Lakoba’s mother was bludgeoned to death by Beria’s hangman Razhden Gangia. Beria slaughtered almost the entire Lakoba clan, keeping the children in prison until they were old enough to execute.

Like Ezhov, Beria seduced or raped women by first arresting their husbands, lovers, or fathers. Unlike Ezhov, he made his sexual predilections public.

Beria curb-crawled Tbilisi, abducting schoolgirls.

Beria inspired loathing among his party colleagues, many as murderous as he, largely because of his predilection for their wives, mistresses, and daughters.

Stalin wanted a more pliable, not a more humane, NKVD, and on occasion gave Beria orders to kill without arrest, let alone trial.

Worse were the massacres perpetrated on Beria’s orders in the newly acquired Western Ukraine: perhaps 100,000 civilian prisoners were shot in Lwow as the Red Army retreated.

Other deaths were ordered from Moscow: in November 1941, in eight days, 4,905 persons were shot on Beria’s orders.

As for Beria’s legendary sexual proclivities, he was certainly guilty of many rapes — usually by blackmail rather than force — and of violating young girls.

It was Beria who recommended to Stalin on March 5, 1940, that the Polish officers be shot in what is known as the Katyn Forest Massacre. It was Beria who presided over the deportation or extermination of ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union during World War II. It was Beria’s men who, in their determination to deport the Chechens quickly, “burned the villagers alive in barns, stables, and mosques.” It was Beria who was supposed to install a Soviet regime in each of the conquered territories after the war.

Beria, one of the few hangmen to outlive Stalin, was, like some Christians, fond of torture:

Beria went on executing army officers. Some, like Bliukher, were beaten with a brutality exceeding even Ezhov’s. Bliukher died on November 9, 1938, under interrogation, blind in one eye, of a blood clot in the lung, after his abdominal organs had been reduced to pulp.

Javakhishvili was beaten in Beria’s presence until he signed a confession; he was shot on September 30. His property was looted, his archives destroyed, his brother shot, his widow turned into a recluse for the next forty-five years.

Beria let Rodos loose on the central Asian party leadership in spring and summer 1939. Working in the specially equipped Moscow prison of Lefortovo and scorning the usual truncheons, drugs, or electrodes, he trampled victims with his boots or urinated in their mouths.

The director of a theater was falsely imprisoned as a British spy who had plotted to kill Beria. After he was tortured until mute and paralyzed, he was shot, with “Beria’s final touch being an auction of all his goods in the theater.”

Beria got it in the end. He had the gall to complain that he was going to be gotten rid of “without trial or investigation, after five days’ incarceration, without one interrogation.” Witnesses accused him of engineering murders and having sex with minors. His own hangmen give graphic accounts of prisoners beaten on Beria’s orders and by his own hand. He was tried in secret with no defense lawyers. He was finally shot after his mouth was stuffed with a towel. Even Khrushchev considered Beria utterly ruthless and depraved.

Soldiers who kill for U.S. presidents are not unlike the hangmen who killed for the tyrant Stalin. No, I wouldn’t equate even the worst U.S. presidents with Stalin; and no, the typical U.S. soldier is not the equal of one of Stalin’s hangmen. But what does it say about Americans that so many who are not as bad as Stalin’s hangmen are willing, like those in the picture below boarding a plane for Afghanistan, to bomb, kill, maim, and destroy on the command of the man who occupies the Oval Office who is not as bad as Stalin? And what does it say about Americans that so many who claim to follow Judeo-Christian ethics are willing to bomb, kill, maim, and destroy on the command of the man who occupies the Oval Office who claims to follow Judeo-Christian ethics?

Soldiers who go to Iraq and Afghanistan, like those who went to Korea, Vietnam, and all the other countries where U.S. forces had no business going, go as part of the president’s personal army. They are not defending the country. They are not protecting Americans. They are not spreading democracy. They are not safeguarding the American way of life. They are not resisting terrorism. They are not fighting over there so we don’t have to fight over here. They are not stabilizing the region. They are not looking after American interests. They are not liberating the oppressed. They are not holding back the Muslim hordes. And they certainly aren’t defending anyone’s freedoms.

The Korean War should have been a wake-up call. Each of the 36,000 American soldiers who died in Korea and came home in a flag-draped coffin, a body bag, or not at all should have sent a resounding message to the American people. But instead, it doesn’t seem to matter where U.S. troops go, why they go where they go, how long they stay, how much it costs to keep them there, how many foreigners die at their hands, how much hatred against America is stirred up, and what the troops actually do when they are there — support for the troops as they follow their commander in chief is sacrosanct.

What kind of a man operates a Predator drone for the military? What kind of a man tortures for the CIA? What kind of a man kills for the president? What is it that makes them any different from Stalin’s hangmen?

Contrast the modern-day soldier who is willing to kill for U.S. presidents with Benjamin Salmon (1889—1932). Soon after the United States declared war on Germany during World War I, Salmon wrote to President Wilson:

Regardless of nationality all men are brothers. God is “our father who art in heaven.” The commandment “Thou shalt not kill” is unconditional and inexorable. . . . The lowly Nazarene taught us the doctrine of non-resistance, and so convinced was he of the soundness of that doctrine that he sealed his belief with death on the cross. When human law conflicts with Divine law, my duty is clear. Conscience, my infallible guide, impels me to tell you that prison, death, or both, are infinitely preferable to joining any branch of the Army.

Salmon soon began writing letters, giving speeches, and distributing pamphlets against the “Great War.” He returned his Army registration questionnaire with a note explaining why he was refusing to fill it out: “Let those who believe in wholesale violation of the commandment, u2018Thou Shalt not Kill’ make a profession of faith by joining the army of war. I am in the army of peace, and in this army, I intend to live and die.” He was subsequently arrested, tried, and convicted. While out on appeal, he was then re-arrested for refusing to report for induction into the Army. After being charged with desertion and spreading propaganda, Salmon was court-martialed on July 24, 1918, and sentenced to death. The sentence was later commuted to 25 years. All charges could have been dismissed if Salmon had agreed to make a deal and serve as a clerk in the Army, but he refused to cooperate with what he said was an institution “antithetical to Christianity.”

The armistice soon ended the war, but not Salmon’s prison time in Leavenworth. After suffering in solitary confinement for five months, he was transferred to a military prison in Utah where he was beaten, starved, and stripped; that is, he was treated like some U.S. prisoners at Abu Ghraib. After spending two weeks on a hunger strike, Salmon was force-fed and then sent to a mental hospital. Thanks in part to the ACLU, he was dishonorably discharged in 1920 — from an army he never joined.

Although initially denounced by the New York Times and forsaken by his own church, Salmon persevered in his refusal to kill for Wilson. God only knows how many Americans have willingly killed for U.S. presidents since then.

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