Having the Manhood To Be a Coward

By: Jim Fedako
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Words are funny. Strung together, they can have multiple meanings depending on the perceived context and reader’s viewpoint. I can make a statement with the intent to convey argument A, but the reader interprets my statement as not-A.

An example: Trotsky, in “What Next? Vital Question for the German Proletariat” (published as “How Mussolini Triumphed,” in Fascism: What it is and how to fight it, 1944), disparaged the Italian socialist, Turati, for saying, regarding the political battle with Mussolini’s fascist movement, “One must have manhood to be a coward.”

Given the context, it appears Turati spoke with a sense of irony, defending his political strategy. Trotsky subjected those same words to close reading in order to bolster his argument that the Italian socialist was retreating before the fascists. Turati claimed he had manhood, while Trotsky insinuated Turati was a coward.

Forgetting the internecine war among socialists, let’s examine Turati’s prescient claim in another context: the draft.

During my high school years , “Jimmy Carter signed Proclamation (Registration Under the Military Selective Service Act) in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the previous year of 1979, retroactively re-establishing the Selective Service registration requirement for all 18- to 26-year-old male citizens born on or after January t, 1960.” This made me eligible for the draft upon turning 18.

But who was I going to fight – who was I supposed to slaughter, burn, maim, etc.? In 1981, as my eighteenth birthday approached, it looked like a hot war in Nicaragua or elsewhere was possible – actually, likely. That meant I could have ended up in uniform shooting peasant farmers whose political worldview disagreed with the then-current policies of the US government – policies that changed with elections. Today’s enemy could be tomorrow’s ally.

Regardless of the side, I could have been required to do the bidding of those in power, to bloody my hands and taint my soul. As a quasi-radical, or what went for a quasi-radical in middle class, suburban Pittsburgh in the early 1980’s, I would have none of it.

In those days, I was a Deadhead – a fan of the rock group, the Grateful Dead. Each Sunday evening, a true public radio station (i.e. non-government funded) had a show that replayed recordings of the band’s concerts. Either before that show or after it (l no longer remember) was another show where antiwar activists discussed the evils of US interventions overseas – this is back when there was a strong antiwar left. That program greatly influenced me. And when there was talk about conscientious objection to war, I listened.

Initially, upon turning 18, I refused to register. However, based on information from the radio show, as well as consultations with my church minister and the antiwar mother of a friend, I learned my best chance to not being forced to point a gun – ironically, at the point of a government bayonet – was to register, but register as a conscientious objector.

However, I did not write this article as a guide to registering as a conscientious objector today – there are many resources on the internet. Instead, I wrote it to discuss the Turati-Trotsky rhetorical divide and answer the question of whether it takes manhood to be a coward. My article is also meant to encourage today’s youth to stand for peace and not war.

To answer the coward question in the context of this article, I revised Turati’s statement to read, “One must have manhood to object to war.” Sadly, that is a true statement, with an unwillingness to fight perceived by many as a sign of cowardice. This is especially so given the lack of any antiwar movement outside of libertarianism.

If the government institutes the draft and your number comes up, are you prepared? If you believe war is wrong, you need to begin documenting those beliefs well in advance of a draft. That documentation will be the primary evidence on your side as you stand before the draft board. 

Nevertheless, if your number comes up, you will be called to “serve.” And you may not get that deferral. You may end up being forced to fight. lf you choose not to, you will likely end up in prison, which is not a coward’s path. Additionally, where you would have probably been placed in a non-frontline position (most soldiers are not even near the frontlines, never coming face to face with a person in a different uniform), your objection may put you on the line as an unarmed medic. Again, not a coward’s path.

Nevertheless, folks will call you a coward. But it also takes manhood to hold your ground in face of social pressure.

Luckily, there was no draft in the 1980’s and I never had to find out whether I would have held true to my ideals – whether I truly had manhood. But you, youth of today, may not be so lucky. Plan ahead. Political positions change. War may be nearer than thought. These words, spoken by former Prime Minister Henry Palmerstone in the British Parliament in 1848, are as true in the US today, “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

And those interests may indeed lead to war.

Ask yourself whether you are willing to kill in an unjust war, whether decrees from the US government can provide sufficient moral justification for you to slaughter folks in Afghanistan or Nicaragua (in my day), or anywhere, and whether being called a coward is more frightening than selling your soul, so to speak.

For me the answer is no, but I am long past the draft age. What is your answer?

Think, consider, and act today!

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