Can Wars Be Won Without War?

During the Vietnam War, Francesco Da Vinci was a conscientious objector. We talk to him about the vulnerability of Russian protestors now.


Sixties peace activist Francesco Da Vinci has great respect for the Russian people who are bravely protesting their country’s current war against Ukraine. He has chronicled his own struggles as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War in his memoir, I Refuse to Kill: My Path to Nonviolent Action in the 1960s. (In addition to his activism, for more than 20 years Da Vinci was a celebrity portrait photographer in New York City; he had a host of boldfaced clients, including Voice cofounder Norman Mailer.)

Da Vinci’s ’60s war resistance and nonviolent approach to resolving conflict are relevant today. Some Ukrainians are resisting by refusing their government’s conscription of all men between the ages of 18 and 60. Some Russians are protesting their government’s invasion of Ukraine, courting prison terms, state violence, and even death. Putin’s shutdown of independent media in order to efficiently push false invasion reporting through state-supported news will lead, some pundits conjecture, to his eventual downfall if Russian citizens learn the truth. Yet, for now, he remains firmly in power.

Although not identical (historical events never are), as in the ’60s, the “nuclear option” is the wild card. In his memoir, Da Vinci recounts one U.S. government official saying, at the time of the Vietnam War: “I have a mortal fear of nuclear attack from Russia. It could come at any time, even as we’re speaking. At least the draft will make that less likely. It’s a deterrent.”

Da Vinci spoke by phone with the Voice about the current struggles of those Russians who oppose Putin’s invasion. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Frank Pizzoli: How do you feel about releasing your memoir in current times? [The memoir was published in November 2021].

Da Vinci: This is my memoir of healing, which we need because the message of nonviolence is being lost. I kept a journal for 11 years [1960 to ’71] of the polarized times we call the ’60s, an often discredited, misunderstood time. My memoir notes that the 1960s era was nothing less than a cultural and political revolution. And with so many jam-packed major changes in only a decade, one wondered if history’s drama had reached its zenith.

Putin escalates; the West sanctions. Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports that Russia House Restaurant and Lounge, in Washington, D.C., was vandalized, with three broken windows, and owner Aaron McGovern thought this was linked to opposition to Russia attacking Ukraine. The owners of West Village eatery Sveta are told to “go home.”

The present-day discrimination of Russia reflects the Pavlovian impulse of people to hate whoever the current “enemy” is at a point in time. Remember, Putin’s inhumane actions are not the actions and values of all Russian people. New Yorkers that are discriminating against American Russians are creating unnecessary and misguided conflict themselves. They are escalating divisiveness and hatred. It would be much more constructive if anti-Russian New Yorkers had dialogue with American Russians, and helped Ukrainian refugees by donating to organizations like the Red Cross and the UN Refugee Agency.

As we speak, about 200,000 Russians are thought to have fled Russia. What do fleeing Russians fear?

Being forced into military service, or they simply hate the increasing authoritarianism and economic havoc. There will likely be a brain drain, with young professionals leaving in greater numbers. Putin put a spin on it, calling the migration a necessary “detoxification” of “scum” and “traitors.”

Russian antiwar protestors are especially vulnerable to reprisals due to new so-called “fake news” laws—they fear retaliation for speaking the truth about the invasion, which Putin calls a Special Military Operation.

How can fleeing and staying-in-place Russians be supported?

By backing them up on social media, especially the “activists-in-exile.” Those that resettle in democratic nations often have access to media to call for change. There’s an organization called the Free Russia Forum which unites Russian activists abroad to work for political change in Russia.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson told viewers that conservatives have no beef with Putin; the real enemy is the American left. Should conservatives have a beef with Putin? Is the American left an obstacle in any way regarding Putin?

Senator James Risch (R-Idaho) countered with “We [Americans] side always with countries that are democracies.” Currently, there is bipartisan support to impose more sanctions on Russia. With sanctions, I think we must always remember they affect everyone’s quality of life, not just those at whom they’re directed.

How does NATO figure into your thinking?

Noam Chomsky has called for “strategic empathy” and thinking things through, noting that we go to war way too easily. The left questions the military-industrial complex that myopically focuses on profits at the expense of We the People. Stop the focus on “lethal aid” to countries compared to long-term nonmilitary aid. Convert our war economy to a peace economy.

An estimated 20,000 foreign volunteers from multiple countries have joined the fight against Russia. What do you have to say to them? Is pacifism practical at this moment? How can we tell them not to join the battle?

Zelenskyy calls the recruits an “international legion.” Sometimes volunteers only escalate the conflict. Thousands of Ukrainian men are avoiding the war. They are widely considered outcasts. During Vietnam, 30,000 to 50,000 U.S. men went to Canada, and over 600,000 illegally avoided the draft, some as COs. As I note in my memoir, “aspersions hurled at COs were even worse than those aimed at anti-war marchers: “draft-dodgers,” “commie sympathizers,” “subversives,” “saboteurs of our country’s war effort.” Time will show us how Ukrainian war resisters are treated.

What positive role can progressives and/or the American left play in messaging?

By emphasizing these positions: Never stop diplomacy, even if Putin rejects it. By admitting our own hypocrisy when we deny our own war crimes and militarism. By meddling in the elections of other countries, we are hypocritical when we complain about Russia meddling in our elections.

We have distorted priorities, like Biden’s $813 billion military budget. Consider too our support for anti-democratic leaders that are autocratic, our defense of international law only when we happen to agree with it, and our secret support of dictators and endless shadow wars.

The progressive American left wants both military strength and ethical strength. It’s not enough for the government or anti-war forces to be “against” policies that are undemocratic. We need a proactive government that actively seeks alternatives to violence, to war.

Speaking of the American left, explain to readers your encounters with Village Voice cofounder Norman Mailer.

Over 100,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial on October 21, 1967, to make their abhorrence for the Vietnam War public. My girlfriend Jane and I stood near the front of the march, just behind the line of notables, such as novelist Norman Mailer and Dr. Benjamin Spock. Mailer had a premeditated plan to get arrested at the Pentagon to show the press that it was not simply America’s youth against the Vietnam War. Neither Jane nor I had ever participated in a march before.

Norman, I think it’s fair to say, was a volatile genius who was often on edge, erratic and combative. I knew that coming into my photoshoot with him, which he had commissioned. Yet, I was unprepared for what happened. Just after we were introduced, he said to me, “Six shots, no more, no less.” At first, I thought it was a joke, but it wasn’t. He counted every shot I took. Then, just before I was going to take shot number six, I lowered my camera and said, “How about seven shots? That’s just one more.” I half-expected Norman to walk off, but he smiled and said, “Okay, take your extra shot.”

Finally, Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan told Lit Hub, “You’ve got to live somewhere you aren’t afraid to die.” Please square this with your pacifist belief system.

My role models were Gandhi, Einstein, Cesar Chavez, and Dr. King. As I write in my memoir: Each said in effect, Stop talking about the violence. Get off your butt and be the change you want to see in the world. Resist oppressors, but nonviolently; undermine the invaders. I don’t believe in resisting by being passive; I believe in nonviolent action. Without resorting to military violence, 90% of the Jewish Danes survived the holocaust. We all face conflict, but it’s important how we react to that conflict. In my view, the most practical and moral way is by nonviolent action. Means and ends. Each of us can choose the means by which we live. We can be passive and silent, we can resist militarily, or we can conscientiously resist violence—not with being passive or silent, but with nonviolent action.  ❖

Frank Pizzoli is a journalist who has been covering politics, queer issues, healthcare, and literary celebrities for the past 25 years.

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