Public Comment

Commentary: Verbal Violence is Not the Same as Actual Violence

By Michelle J. Kinnucan
Friday May 19, 2006

boona cheema writes about “the peace movement’s hostility towards Vietnam soldiers.” I’m not sure what she’s talking about. I was not yet a teenager when that war ended; still, I have some memory of it and the protest movement it inspired. In the midwestern industrial town I grew up in, one way I opposed the war was by joining kids across the country and wearing a black arm band to school. I had it repeatedly ripped off my arm by other kids; mostly, I suppose, as punishment for being different rather than as an expression of support for the war. However, I don’t remember anyone being hostile to Vietnam vets; after all they were our fathers, uncles, and cousins and, less often, our mothers and aunts. MIA bracelets were popular in school then, too. 

Perhaps, cheema is referring to anti-war types spitting on returning vets but there’s little evidence that ever happened on a large-scale, if at all. The myth of the spat upon soldier has been soundly debunked by Jerry Lembke in his book, The Spitting Image. As Air Force veteran H. Bruce Franklin writes in Vietnam and Other American Fantasies, “There is no contemporaneous evidence of any antiwar activists spitting on veterans. The first allegations of such behavior did not appear until the late 1970s. The spat-upon veteran then became a mythic figure used to build support for military fervor and, later on, the Gulf War.” 

In any event, I share cheema’s concerns about hate, aggression, and abuse in today’s peace movement. As A. J. Muste pointed out, “There is no way to peace, peace is the way.” Surely, hate, aggression, and abuse can’t be very helpful although in my experience self-styled liberal peaceniks are more likely to abuse other anti-war protestors than they are to target advocates of the current war. As for anger, there’s nothing wrong with it per se. It seems to me that there ought to be a place in progressive movements for a healthy anger that focuses and energizes some of us to engage in the daunting struggles we face. 

I do not deny that there is such a thing as “verbal violence;” however, in the peace movement, I see the phrase more often used by the spiritually correct to discredit and silence those holding a critical or opposing opinion. In its World report on violence and health, the World Health Organization defines violence as “The intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation.” 

In her venerable Conquest of Violence, Joan Bondurant defines violence as: “... the willful application of force in such a way that it is intentionally injurious to the person or group against whom it is applied.” In my opinion, the peace movement would do better to reserve the word “violence” for those rare instances where force, intent, and injury really do come together. We need to work harder to understand and, where possible, resolve our substantive disagreements when merely offensive, disagreeable, or critical speech comes our way. 

Finally, yes, we ought to “Love the Soldier” but we must also remind the troops of, and hold them accountable to, the Nuremberg principles. Among these are the principles that “Any person who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international law is responsible ...” and “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government ... does not relieve him from responsibility ...” We must hold our brothers and sisters accountable in order to try to stop future and ongoing killing but also as a step towards restorative justice for their victims and healing for them. Of course, we must also consider and take responsibility for our own complicity in the death machine as consumers, voters, taxpayers, and workers. 


Michelle J. Kinnucan is a Veteran for Peace and the author of Pedagogy of (the) Force: The Myth of Redemptive Violence.