Republished from Will Grigg’s Pro Libertate. Originally published August 23, 2006.
John Witmer’s lifeless body was returned to the tiny town of Colombiana, Pennsylvania on October 10, 1918. Those gathered to receive the 21-year-old’s mortal remains included his father Dan, his siblings, and his would-be fiancee, Nola, all of whom were members of a local Mennonite community.
Like thousands of others who shared his faith, John had been kidnapped at gunpoint from his family farm by the World War I-era draft. The local draft board had turned down John’s appeal for Conscientious Objector status, telling him that once he had enlisted he could seek recognition as a CO and receive a non-combat assignment.
Like nearly everything else originating from a government entity, the draft board’s assurance was a lie, of course.
John’s refusal to undergo military training forbidden by his religious convictions marked him as a “slacker” in the eyes of the command staff at Camp Sherman, a large training base outside of Columbus, Ohio. The reaction on the part of fellow inductees was immediate and violent, beginning on the train trip to Columbus: When John and a Mennonite friend named Harvey Blosser said grace over their meal, they were immediately singled out as “preacher boys” and treated to a fusillade of profane abuse.
The hostility escalated to physical assaults and even murder attempts before John and Harvey were reassigned to a CO camp, which was essentially a prison, given that the same facility was used to house German prisoners of war. The weather grew colder and influenza began to incubate in Camp Sherman, but John was denied requests for adequate bedding and even dry clothes. Predictably, the young man contracted the Spanish Flu – which had imported to the US because of our foolish involvement in World War I – and died.
John’s body was returned in a flag-shrouded coffin – a gesture considered an honor by most Americans, but an affront to his family’s religious sensibilities, which didn’t permit them to make acts of allegiance to anyone or anything but God. In a sense, wrapping John’s body in the US flag was one final proprietary gesture by the government that had stolen the young man from the family who loved him, the community that had raised him, and the young girl who wanted to be his wife.
A crowd had gathered at the train station to witness the arrival of John Witmer’s body, and the reaction of his Mennonite family. Most of the spectators knew that the Mennonites didn’t support the war; their principled pacifism and insularity had provoked both curiosity and suspicion. The Witmers enjoyed what could be called probationary sympathy from the crowd.
As John’s family was about to learn, few things are likelier to provoke sanctimonious violence from war-maddened Americans than a conspicuous lack of enthusiasm for killing foreigners whom the State has designated the “enemy.”
Dan Witmer sadly approached the coffin bearing his son’s body and carefully removed the flag. Given his ignorance of proper flag etiquette, it’s not surprising that Dan folded the banner as he would a blanket.
This act of perceived, but not intended, sacrilege was too much for the crowd to endure.
“The mood of the onlookers turned from one of sympathy to hostility,” recounts Lily A. Bear in her book Report for Duty.
“Mennonites!” hissed one disgusted onlooker.
“Got what he deserved!” declared another of Dan’s dead son.
“Traitor!” bellowed another outraged pseudo-patriot.
Someone hurled a stone that hit John’s younger brother in the shoulder. A second stone, missing its target, landed at the feet of the mourning father. John’s young sister Mary, puzzled and hurt by this display of murderous hatred, began to cry. After making arrangements for his son’s funeral, Dan took his family home.
This was hardly atypical of “war patriotism,” circa 1918. Across in the US, the so-called American Protective League (APL) and similar government-supported cabals of bullies sought to intimidate civilians into buying war bonds and displaying the appropriate “war will” — when they weren’t harassing and terrorizing Americans of German heritage, or acting as a quasi-private secret police.
In many communities, the APL, sometimes aided by the Ku Klux Klan, helped track down and round up those who refused to comply with draft notices.
On at least a few occasions, these effusions of “patriotism” resulted in actual lynchings.
All of this took place in the context of an unnecessary war against a distant European power, Wilhelmine Germany, that posed no conceivable threat to the United States.
There’s no better specimen of the murderous irrationality that seized our nation during WWI than the near-pogrom that occurred in Colombiana because a grief-stricken Mennonite father, distracted by the loss of his eldest son, thoughtlessly committed what his war-crazed neighbors considered an act of disrespect toward our flag.
Fast-forward nearly nine decades, and little if anything has changed.
Last May 21, Dale Croydon, who raises beef cattle near Croydon, Iowa, decided to fly his U.S. Flag upside down as a gesture of solidarity with fellow Iowa resident Terri Jones, who lost her son as a result of the Iraq war. Terri’s 23-year-old son, Jason Cooper, developed severe psychological problems while serving in Iraq. On July 14, 2005, Jason, plagued by unbearable memories and clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, hanged himself.
Since that day, Terri Jones, a member of Gold Star Mothers for Peace, has flown her flag upside down. After reading of her experience, Croydon,a veteran, decided to do likewise. In short order, he found himself on the receiving end of WWI-vintage “patriotic” intimidation and harassment.
“I went to the local Case equipment dealer and bought some parts, and the salesman comes out and asked me why I was flying the flag upside down,” Croydon told The Progressive. “So I explained it to him.”
The salesman, apparently more eager to profess proper reverence for the State than to treat a customer with respect, replied: “I’ve lost all respect for you. I’ll buy you a one-way ticket anywhere you want to go out of the country,” according to Croydon’s entirely believable account.
“The mail carrier left me a personal note” of rebuke for his protest, Croydon continues. After a local TV reporter did a story about Croydon’s protest, the rural farmer was charged with “disorderly conduct.: He was hauled before a magistrate on July 6. Terri Jones was in the courtroom to offer moral support.
But some purported patriots are not placated by the prospect of prosecuting Croydon for his political views.
“Any scout snipers live in Croydon, Iowa???” inquired a message posted on leatherneck.com, a web community for Marine veterans. “If the flag is flying upside down, it means he’s in trouble, right?” wrote another poster. “I think we Marines should show up and get him `out’ of trouble.” “Corn hole ‘m,” chipped in a third hero.
One poster, who proudly claims “the God-given title Marine,” as if that admittedly honorable title were bestowed by direct revelation from The Almighty, denounced Croydon for supposedly breaking the law by displaying his flag upside down and insisted that his protest was tantamount to treason.
“I would have NO trouble pulling the trigger at firing squad or dropping the door on the gallows against a traitor or against one of this countries [sic] citizens or one deemed by this country to be a terrorist foe,” he wrote.
Granted, since this chest-thumper recalls enlisting some 33 years ago, it’s more likely that the only PT he’s had since the first term of the Clinton administration has consisted of 16 ounce curls at the local VFW post. And the same is likely true of most of the others who have casually endorsed the punishment of anti-war views through assassination.
That guy and his ilk are bold as Achilles when they’re talking about taking down a middle-aged farmer in rural Iowa. I doubt they’d be quite as frisky if they were dealing with any of the thousands of disillusioned Marines who are mustering out of the Corps after serving in Iraq.