It was 2003? 2004? I was in my early twenties. My then-husband and I sat cross-legged on our bed, door closed. We were discussing a meeting he’d been called into with his Commanding Officer, to discuss our presence at recent anti-war events.

They told us that there could be consequences for dissent … that as a member of the military, he didn’t have the same free speech rights that civilians enjoyed. He had been warned that command was unamused with our antics. He was told that we needed to be quiet, step back, and accept what it meant to be a military family in a post-9/11 world. We sat on the bed and asked ourselves the biggest questions we’d ever needed to consider up until that point in our lives: “What is the worst they can do to us? And are those outcomes bad enough to make us stop?”

We had only been married for a short time and I was still learning what it meant to be a military spouse at all — much less during a time of war. I had laughingly thrown away the copy of The Air Force Wife Handbook gifted to me by his CO’s wife months earlier — its guidance on how to properly trim my dinner party candlewicks not at all helpful when confronted with terrorism on a global scale.

I asked him to explain the worst-case scenario and he explained that if they chose to court martial him, it could lead to anything from an angry letter, to a reduction in rank, to heavy financial penalties (including demanding repayment for every educational benefit, enlistment bonus and special pay he’d received throughout his career) to imprisonment. In other words, the worst-case scenario was financial ruin and the incarceration of my child’s father. Was that sufficient motivation for compliance? Could fear of losing everything keep us from marching against the war? The scariest part of this conversation was realizing that no — it wasn’t. Our commitment to speaking truth to power was terrifying, even to us. 

Shortly after, he left for his third (of four, ultimately) combat zone deployments and I was left behind: a young twenty-something mom with a small child and no family nearby. What I did have was the movement — dozens of other young wives and mothers around the country committed to ending the war and bringing their spouses, siblings, parents and others home for good. 

That’s how I found myself standing behind a podium in Ohio at a U.S. Labor Against the War rally. One of my allies from Military Families Speak Out held a photo of my husband’s cousin. They had grown up across the street from one another, gone all the way through school together. They were brothers in spirit and in arms. His cousin was killed in between my husband’s first and second tours. It only took 18-ish months for us to become a Gold Star Family and then my husband was returned to the base where his cousin had died. 

I read my speech, nervously in the cold, and then joined the crowd marching — to where, I don’t remember. I do remember the police presence. They were out in force, lining the road we marched down. Several K9 units were represented, and my mind kept conjuring images of Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. I had seen photos of what those dogs could do to peaceful protestors.

I can easily slip away, I told myself. My speech is done. I am here alone, just one in the crowd. If I left? No one would know. I stayed until the end. At the end of the day, I approached a pair of police officers. I thanked them for defending our rights to free speech and assembly. They told me I could “go fuck myself or go to Afghanistan” (my choice). 

Then my husband, still in a war zone, was called before his command. They had heard about my speech. 

Over the years, I saw my husband off to war four times. We’d only gotten one year together before 9/11; the person I married was not the person who came home. He came back broken by what he had experienced — violent, paranoid. He had visual and auditory hallucinations that required hospitalization. He was violent towards me, towards our pets. We divorced a few years later. 

The moral calculus of activism is unforgiving. Each one of us must choose what is worth standing up for — what we are willing to risk, and what we are willing to do to advocate for our cause. There were certain things I never did: 

I never assaulted another person.

I never refused access to our protest spaces or attempted to deny someone entry into (for example) Eyes Wide Open exhibit — not even when that person was Richard Perle, one of the architects of the war. 

I never broke into buildings or vandalized property.

I never aligned myself with those who would use my desire for peace as a wedge to destroy my community.

I somehow managed to stand firmly against the war in Afghanistan without once praising the Taliban and I opposed the Iraq War without putting on the uniform of a Ba’athist

I never saw other Americans (or Iraqis or Afghanis) as my enemy.

And I never covered my face.

Even when faced with losing everything we had, even with outcomes I could never have predicted, anonymity was never an option. I truly believed — and continue to believe — that speaking out for what I believe to be right meant putting my identity-money where my ideological-mouth was. 

This, to me, is a crucial difference between what we did twenty years ago and what I see happening today. 

It’s not an ideological difference — both then and now the message is a demand for peace. It’s a difference in integrity. Watching young people on campuses today cover their faces with masks and keffiyehs, using the language of pandemic to justify their moral cowardice, is frustrating. Seeing the encampments surrounded with makeshift barricades and cameras covered or slapped out of hands is baffling. You do not win hearts and minds by excluding those who disagree with you. (And for the record? I disagree with you.) Watching self-appointed enforcers issue wristbands to “approved” persons” or tell others that they are being denied entry due to political, religious or ideological differences? A fascinating case study in watching well-intentioned activists become the very thing they hate. 

Real activism is complex, messy. It lacks nuance and isn’t easily distilled into talking points and binaries. I risked — and in some very real ways lost — everything for a cause that, ultimately, I did not win. The war continued for another decade and a half after life circumstances forced me to step away from the cause. The worst-case scenario my now-ex and I had envisioned in our bedroom that day never happened. We didn’t lose our finances after all, or our freedom — only our family. 

The curiosity I have about the protesters today is this: 

What are you willing to lose? What are you truly risking? 

When you demand that your occupation be catered, how serious can you be? Without the integrity to own your choices, publicly and — not without fear, but despite it — how can you expect anyone to embrace your cause? 

In the absence of this moral and intellectual integrity, yours is not a movement — it’s a tantrum. 

If you cannot stand behind your words and your actions? Proudly show your face, give your name and speak your truth? If you cannot sustain your movement without asking the target of your action to subsidize it? That should tell you something.

Take off the masks. Disengage from violence. And be brave enough to own the consequences of your actions. That’s what happened in 1963

And that’s how real activism effects real change.