18 Famous US Veterans Who Became Anti-War Activists

18 Famous US Veterans Who Became Anti-War Activists

For as long as there have been wars, there have been people opposed to war. The ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes put a comic spin on the idea back in 411 B.C. with his “Lysistrata,” in which the women of Athens and Sparta mutually agree to withhold sexual favors from their husbands until the men negotiate a peace in the Peloponnesian War. 

In medieval England, groups of nobles sometimes protested against impending military actions for selfish reasons – because they didn’t want to be taxed for the purposes of raising an army, or because they didn’t want the serfs who tilled their fields to be drafted into service.

Across the centuries, anti-war activity has taken many forms: the formation of groups promoting peace; speeches and editorials; evocative works of fiction depicting the horrors and ultimate pointlessness of war; and of course demonstrations, from small-scale sit-ins at draft offices to marches flooding the streets in Washington D.C. and elsewhere with hundreds of thousands of protesters.

Anti-war sentiment grew in America between the War of 1812 and the Civil War, with the formation of numerous “peace societies,” as noted intellectuals like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote tracts against war. Perennial socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs was arrested for espionage after making a fiery anti-war speech in 1918.

One of the most powerful anti-war novels ever written was “All Quiet on the Western Front” by the German author Erich Maria Remarque, who had been conscripted into the Imperial German Army during World War I and later wrote vividly about the horrors of war and its aftermath among returning soldiers. (A new film version of the book is up for nine Oscars at this year’s Academy Awards.) It may well qualify as one of  the most accurate war movies ever made.

Like Remarque, many of the most passionate and effective anti-war protesters over the years have been those who served in the armed forces, experiencing war first-hand.

To compile a list of 18 American veterans who turned against war, 24/7 Tempo consulted sources including the New York Times, Britannica, Wikipedia, American Progress, Veterans for Peace, and The Conversation. For as long as our nation has existed, countless men and women who have served in the armed forces have become vocal anti-war activists, so this list is far from comprehensive. We have included both people who are better-known for their non-military accomplishments and those whose fame derives primarily from their resistance to war. While the veterans on this list cover a period of almost 200 years, the majority of them are known for their opposition to the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. (See these horrifying images of the Iraq War.)

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Herman Melville
> Known as: Major novelist and poet 
> Years of service: 1843-1844

The famed author enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1843, serving as an ordinary seaman on the USS United States for more than a year, as it plied the Pacific. Though he never became an anti-war activist as such, he – like his contemporaries Walt Whitman and Nathaniel Hawthorne – questioned the morality of the Civil War, and he wrote anti-war poems (“Dismantle the fort, / Cut down the fleet — / Battle no more shall be!”), and once described army recruitment advertisements as “rattraps.”

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Smedley Butler
> Known as: Major general, U.S. Marine Corps; two-time Medal of Honor recipient
> Years of service: 1898-1931

Known as “the Maverick Marine” and “Fighting Hell-Devil,” Butler served in the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War, the Boxer Rebellion, the Mexican Revolution, and World War I. He later became disillusioned, and in 1935 published a book called “War is a Racket” – which, among other things, questioned the involvement of American corporations in promoting foreign wars. He also became a frequent speaker at pacifist gatherings.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Albert Bigelow
> Known as: Lieutenant commander, U.S. Navy, turned pacifist
> Years of service: ?-1945

Serving as captain of the USS Dale W. Peterson in 1945, Bigelow heard news of the atomic bomb dropping on Hiroshima. The massive civilian death toll seemed intolerable to him, and soon afterwards he resigned his naval commission, and a few years later joined the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers), known for their pacifism. He became famous in the late 1950s and the 1960s for attempts to disrupt nuclear testing in Nevada and the Pacific, and was briefly jailed.

Source: bigbabymiguel / Flickr

Ben Bradlee
> Known as: Longtime executive editor of the Washington Post; publisher of the Pentagon Papers
> Years of service: 1942-1945

Bradlee served as a naval intelligence officer in the Pacific during World War II, and was a combatant in the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944, possibly the largest naval battle ever fought. After the war, he embarked on a journalism career, joining the Washington Post in 1965. Reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein worked under him with their world-changing reportage of the Watergate scandal. His most salient anti-war action was the decision to stand up to the Nixon administration and to join the New York Times in publishing portions of the so-called Pentagon Papers, which revealed the extent to which the government had lied to the American people about our role in the Vietnam War.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Kurt Vonnegut
> Known as: Novelist (“Slaughterhouse Five”)
> Years of service: 1943-1945

Vonnegut enlisted in the army in 1943, eventually being sent to Europe as an intelligence scout. He fought in the epic Battle of the Bulge in 1944 and was taken prisoner by the Germans. He was imprisoned in Dresden, where he lived in a slaughterhouse, and was later evacuated after Allied forces devastatingly fire-bombed the city. In 1969, after having written a number of other novels and short stories, Vonnegut published his masterpiece, “Slaughterhouse Five,” based on his experiences in Dresden. The book, bitterly anti-war, was a major influence on American protesters during the Vietnam era.

Source: Michael Ochs Archives / Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

Harry Belafonte
> Known as: Grammy-, Emmy-, and Tony-winning singer, actor, and activist
> Years of service: 1944-1945

Known as “the King of Calypso” for his hit Caribbean-flavored recordings of the 1950s and for his starring roles in films like “Island in the Sun” and “Odds Against Tomorrow,” Belafonte had earlier dropped out of high school and enlisted in the navy, serving for two years before the end of World War II. In the latter 1950s, he became a close associate of Martin Luther King Jr., who, in addition to his Civil Rights activism, strongly opposed American involvement in Southeast Asia – most dramatically with his “Beyond Vietnam” speech of 1967. Belafonte himself became an outspoken critic of American foreign policy, and denounced George W. Bush and Colin Powell for embroiling the country in the Iraq War.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Hugh B. Hester
> Known as: Brigadier general, U.S. Army
> Years of service: 1917-1951

Hester’s long military career began in WWI, when he was among the forces occupying Germany after its defeat. After the war, he was an ROTC instructor in Missouri, then served under General Douglas MacArthur in the Pacific during WWII. After the war, he was appointed military attaché to Australia and later commander of the Philadelphia Quartermaster Depot. After his retirement from the army, he became a critic of American foreign policy, and co-authored a book called “On the Brink” about the Cold War. He was honorary commander of a Vietnam Veterans Against the War protest in 1970 and the following year, published “Twenty-Six Disastrous Years,” calling for worldwide disarmament.

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Ed Asner
> Known as: Emmy-winning actor, former president of the Screen Actors Guild
> Years of service: 1951-1953

Best-known for playing Lou Grant in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and a dramatic spinoff called simply “Lou Grant,” Asner joined the army in 1951, serving in the Signal Corps and performing in plays on army bases around Europe. While serving two terms as Screen Actors Guild president in the 1980s, he became active in left wing politics, opposing U.S. policy in Central America. Before the country invaded Iraq in 2003, Asner signed online petitions against our involvement, and in 2005 he was a narrator of “Sir! No Sir!,” a documentary about armed forces’ opposition to the Vietnam war. Asner later lost credibility by endorsing the 9/11 “truth movement,” which maintained that the World Trade Center was destroyed by controlled demolition, not airplane attacks.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Lowell Weicker, Jr.
> Known as: Former U.S. congressman and senator; former governor of Connecticut
> Years of service: 1953-1955, 1959-1964

Born in Paris to American parents, Weicker enlisted in the army in 1953, rising to the rank of first lieutenant. In 1959, he re-enlisted as an army reservist. Long known among fellow Republicans for his liberal leanings, Weicker emerged as a vocal opponent of the Iraq War, and described himself as “an anti-war activist.”

Source: William Short / Wikimedia Commons

Donald W. Duncan
> Known as: Green Beret turned anti-war journalist
> Years of service: 1955-1965

Drafted into the army in 1955, Duncan served as an intelligence officer in Germany, and in 1961 transferred to the Special Forces, or Green Berets. Deployed to Vietnam, he won numerous medals, some of which he refused to accept. When he was asked to help write the official history of the Green Berets in Vietnam, his exposure to intelligence reports made him realize how corrupt and pointless American involvement in the country was. He resigned his commission, and became active in the anti-war movement back in America, writing magazine articles and books exposing U.S. excesses in Southeast Asia. He is perhaps best remembered for appearing on the cover of Ramparts magazine in 1966 with the headline “I Quit.”

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Fort Hood Three
> Known as: Army privates who refused to go to Vietnam
> Years of service: 1966

In June 1966, Private First Class James Johnson, Jr. and privates Dennis Mora and David A. Samas publicly refused to be sent to Vietnam, filing a federal suit against the secretary of defense and secretary of the army. Their actions were widely reported as one of the first signs of opposition to the war from within the armed forces. The men were court-martialed, discharged from the army, and given jail sentences.

Source: alan-light / Flickr

Ron Kovic
> Known as: Vietnam veteran, activist, and author (“Born on the Fourth of July”)
> Years of service: 1964-1968

Enlisting in the Marine Corps in 1964, Kovic was deployed to Vietnam the following year. In 1967, he was reassigned to a marine base in North Carolina, but he volunteered to return to Vietnam. In 1968, while on a reconnaissance mission, Kovic’s unit was attacked by a Viet Cong detachment and he was shot twice. One of his fellow marines carried him to safety, but he was paralyzed from the waist down. Back in the U.S., Kovic became a frequent and outspoken critic of the war, being arrested frequently. He later took part in demonstrations against the first Gulf War and the Iraq War. His 1976 memoir, “Born on the Fourth of July,” was a best-seller and was later made into an award-winning film by Oliver Stone, with Tom Cruise portraying Kovic.

Source: Juan Naharro Gimenez / Getty Images

Oliver Stone
> Known as: Oscar Winning director, producer, and writer
> Years of service: 1967-1968

Stone enlisted in the army in 1967, specifically asking to be sent to Vietnam. He was wounded twice in action and received numerous medals. He first made his mark in the movie business as a screenwriter, winning an Oscar for his script for “Midnight Express.” Among his many other films, Stone went on to direct three Vietnam-era movies, depicting the horrors and idiocies of the conflict – most notably “Born on the Fourth of July,” based on Ron Kovic’s dramatically moving memoir. His other anti-war activities include filming an ad for MoreOn.org’s VideoVets project, capturing the experiences of families affected by the Iraq War.

Source: statephotos / Public Domain /Flickr

John Kerry
> Known as: Former senator, secretary of state, and Democratic presidential candidate; first United States special presidential envoy for climate
> Years of service: 1966-1970

Growing up in a military family, Kerry enlisted in the Naval Reserve in 1966, rising to the rank of lieutenant. In 1968 and ’69, he served in Vietnam, and was wounded while captaining a Swift boat, earning three Purple Hearts. (During the 2000 presidential campaign, opponents questioned the truth of his military record, giving rise to the term “swiftboating” to mean an unwarranted political attack.) Back in the U.S., Kerry immediately became active in anti-war activities, joining Vietnam Veterans Against the War, taking part in the Winter Soldier Investigation of American atrocities during the war, and returning his medals as part of a demonstration at the Capitol building. He voted in favor of the Iraq invasion, believing reports that Saddam Hussein possessed “weapons of mass destruction,” but when this was proven to be false, he blasted President George W. Bush for misleading the country.

Source: Times Asi / Wikimedia Commons

Brian Willson
> Known as: Vietnam veteran, attorney, activist
> Years of service: 1966-1970

Following four years in the air force, in which he achieved the rank of captain, Willson joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace, and after earning a law degree studied and reported on U.S. policies in numerous countries around the world that he said “violate U.S. Constitutional and international laws prohibiting aggression and war crimes.” In 1987, while blocking railroad tracks to protest the shipment of American weapons to Nicaragua, Willson was struck by a train, losing both legs below the knee. He has written several books, including “Don’t Thank Me For My Service: My Vietnam Awakening to the Long History of U.S. Lies,” published in 2018.

Source: jarnocan / Flickr

Ann Wright
> Known as: Colonel, U.S. Army; former State Department official
> Years of service: 1974-2003

Wright was recruited into the army while attending the University of Arkansas, subsequently receiving a master’s degree in National Security Affairs from the U.S. Naval War College while on active duty. After 13 years of service, she transitioned to the army reserve, serving another 16 years. While in the reserves, she joined the Foreign Service, resigning from both the State Department and the Army Reserve in 2003, a day before the Iraqi invasion began. She went on to become a high-profile opponent of the war in Iraq and took part in demonstrations against the continued development of nuclear weapons in the U.S.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Stephen Funk
> Known as: Former U.S. Marine Corps landing support specialist
> Years of service: 2002-2004

After enlisting in the Marine Corps a few months after 9/11, Funk realized that he believed killing others, even in war, was wrong. He went AWOL for several months, returning to hand himself over to military authorities, telling reporters “There is no way to justify war because you’re paying with human lives.” He was court-martialed and convicted on a charge of unauthorized absence, then given a bad-conduct discharge. He went on to become an honorary founding member of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

Source: perspective / Flickr

Geoff Millard
> Known as: 9/11 Ground Zero responder; president of Washington D.C. chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War
> Years of service: 1998-2007

Millard enlisted in the New York National Guard at the age of 17, and was called into active service following the 9/11 attacks to help provide security at the smoldering World Trade Center site. In 2004, he was deployed to the Middle East as a sergeant as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Returning home the following year, he began agitating publicly against what he called “an illegal war,” and speaking out in various news media and in public forums. One of his initiatives was helping to organize the Campus Progress Iraq Action Camp, to help educate campus anti-war activists.

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