The trailer for the upcoming Civil War drama Copperhead conveniently doesn’t mention that the movement its titular characters were affiliated with wanted the Union to make a peace with the Confederacy that would allow for the preservation of slavery, and that it was naive enough to believe the Confederacy would come back to the Union on its own terms. But given the pop culture trope of the sympathetic or victimize Confederate, I’m not actually surprised that a Civil War setting is one of the few ways we could get a movie about people who have been dramatically marginalized in our political conversations and even in civil society: war resisters.
Right now, I’m reading Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars, his terrific history of resistance to World War I. One of the things that’s striking about the book, particularly the section on the suffrage movement, is the reminders it offers that the things we do to people who have been designated enemies of the state now, Western countries did to their own citizens a century ago. Horrified by the forced feedings of hunger strikers at Guantanamo? The British government force-fed suffragettes, many of who it imprisoned for extended periods of time for civil disobedience. Angered by the treatment of people who oppose war as if they’re mentally ill or radical? Bertrand Russell lost his job at Trinity College for his pacifism and served time in jail under the Defence of the Realm Act, which among other things, forbid people from publishing writing that could cause alarm or “disaffection” among the British populace, and pacifist socialist Jean Jaurès was assassinated by a nationalist in France.
We’ve become very comfortable lionizing the risks soldiers take on the battlefield, in part because those celebrations feel like a way of paying back people who are willing to experience extreme danger and the trauma of killing other people on our behalf. But we’re still reluctant, apparently, to treat people who try and fail to keep us out of wars, or as was the case with many World War I activists, to point out the disparate impact of conscription along class lines, as if they’re reasonable, much less admirable. I’m not an absolute pacifist myself, but I do think that the courage to stand up against some conflicts is admirable, and the amount of it required is more considerable than we generally acknowledge, given the risk that you’ll be labeled treasonous or mentally ill. I just wish that instead of Copperhead, we were getting a biopic about Charlotte Despard, a wealthy British woman (and sister to British war leader John French) whose pacifism grew out of a range of social concerns, including her work on poverty and her suffragist activism — in other words, a movie that can put war resistance in its social context, rather than one that in its advertising is hiding the uncomfortable truth of the Copperheads’ acceptance of slavery.