An enormous human mystery that has gripped me since the day I refused to give orders and was ushered out of the United States Navy: how is it that so much organized human-on-human violence is done in the world, and that so few take a stand against it? How can this be changed?
Still in pursuit of some unlocking of the mystery I spent the weekend not so long ago with fellow resisters to the American war on Vietnam. We were a small cohort of a somewhat larger one of American officers, in our case Naval, who submitted conscientious objector papers for discharge, refused orders, turned in flight wings or otherwise acted to no longer cooperate with waging war on the Vietnamese. In many parts of the country, from May of 1970, military officers were forming organizing and support groups called the Concerned Officers Movement (COM); some of our small group were founding members of the San Diego chapter. These officers were, in turn, part of a larger group of enlisted objectors — whose resistance, or objections to the war made headlines, worried the hell out of the Army in particular, and contributed strongly to the willingness of the Pentagon to withdraw from Vietnam without a win. Of course, all these military resisters were part of the much larger group of draftees and draft eligible young men who filed for CO, went to jail, moved to Canada or Europe before they were ever inducted, and these were part of the millions who from very small beginnings in 1963, came to oppose the war, argue with parents and authorities, sit-in, march, strike and participate in the social upheaval that defined the era. So, we six, were a very modest ripple in the large and continuing waves of resistance to the war.
We are all in our 60s now, have all carried on lives of moderate means, raised families, voted in elections, traveled outside the US — some to the countries the armed forces we left were engaged in destroying– and, as we learned, have all retained the same sense of resistance we had then to the use of armed force on those who have not threatened us.
The purpose of our meeting was not –explicitly not– to relive old glories or conjure up youthful deeds, drugs or dames… Invited together by one who had spent his years since teaching peace internationally, we wanted to understand, even at a beginning level, why we had done what we’d done. What had motivated us — families, principles, idealism, revulsion at killing? Did fear play a part? Did love? Could we account now for what we had done then? Did any of us now think it was no more than youthful hot-hotheadedness? In what way did we share motivations and characteristics of others around the world who have resisted oppression occupation, military actions or even, corporate malfeasance? Do we speak of our actions to our children and grandchildren? What had we learned that we might pass on to others?
It turned out that although most had spend several years or more after discharge from the Navy in anti-war organizing, or other “movement” related work, none had a worked-out story of what we had done when… In fact, as we talked, most returned to events and passions that had long been left behind. More than a few emotions turned up as pages of diaries were turned, or episodes of confrontation or explanation to loved ones was recalled.
We began by building a time-line. Each man’s line opened with his date of birth, position in the family, and a skeleton notion of parents’ profession, income, attitudes to authority, patriotism and how children should behave. We each spoke of our first inklings that the military career we had chosen, and the work we were expected to do, was going to be a problem: our first crisis of conscience. The time lines became very dense in the 6 months to a year or so in which papers were filed, each appeared before boards of inquiry, were detailed to libraries for duty or sent to psych wards while officialdom made up its mind, and as our lives began to overlap in making public our opposition to the war and our choice to stop our own participation in it.
None of us did any time in the brig, though many soldier resistants did. None of us were content, in Hanna Arendt’s distinction about Thoreau’s resistance to the Massachusetts poll-tax, to be simply a Good Man. We all went beyond satisfying our individual consciences to act as Good Citizens. We all spoke publicly about the war, and our reasons for opposition. We told civilian and soldier alike why we would no longer serve, and encouraged each of them to follow their own conscience. We asked civilians to support those who were resisting.
Most of the group joined with a campaign in San Diego in the fall of 1970 to hold a public vote on whether the USS Constellation, an enormous aircraft carrier which a few had been stationed on, should return to bombing Vietnam. In the course of that several hundred people distributed leaflets, did speaking in churches and on street corners, announcing the coming vote, and the reasons to vote against the planned deployment. Over 54,000 San Diegans voted, overwhelmingly that the ship should not deploy. As it did deploy, of course, a number of enlisted men went AWOL in opposition to the war. A sanctuary was organized in a local Catholic Church. Eventually, police authorities did not honor the sanctuary, and the sailors were arrested and court martialed. As the campaign ended, those involved with the project, went on to other work.
We found in each other over the week-end, a strong streak of anti-authoritarianism, particularly to the culture of orders and obedience of the military, but beyond that to the authority of received ideas — above all from the government, but from those around us as well. As cracks began to open in our previous certainty we all watered and widened them with readings in the alternative presses, histories and fact-finding on the origins of the war, memoirs and biographies of earlier war resisters and opponents of violence.
We found that fear of combat had not been a motivation for any of us, and in fact, several aviators had chosen to fly because of the sense of risk involved. We found there had been a progression of refusals, or avoidances, a step-by-step sense of opposition to the war, and killing others. No one spoke of a sudden break, an overnight conversion. The tension in coming to a position of resistance and refusal was in all cases that between social obligation, a human universal seen in thousands of forms, and a powerful sense of individual judgement that “I” was not obliged to do great wrong. Several spoke of initially trying to fulfill the obligation accepted by joining the military (following ROTC scholarships) by choosing less war-related duties. When that was no longer possible, typically triggered by deployment orders to Vietnam, the break came: CO papers were filed, private organizing became public, orders were refused.
There was no clear pattern in the progression to saying no among the six of us, though in all cases the decision had been taken, initially, alone; none were ‘talked into’ resisting. None did it for a perceived material benefit –a promised job, a war-refuser’s bounty… All had much to lose, and knew it. For each, the future, heretofore pretty clear, became clouded when the significant No had been said. For most, the opposition and taking a public position against participation in the war did not release them from the military significantly early. In a few cases, they were granted CO status almost on the day their tours, and obligation, would have ended. The value was not simply to walk away, but to take a stand, to honor the call of conscience.
The culture of the times, music and marches, had been a context for most. And of course, the war, and opposition to it had been going on for some years. For each of us, the impulse to resist had come from within, but from where within, and why, remains, as far as logic goes, a mystery. A few identified with a complete no-war position, others saw themselves as unjust-war refusers. Some found support among other resisting officers, some found legal help. Some had supportive families, though others were opposed by their families. Some were religious, some were not.
Interestingly, all spoke of acting out of a sense of higher citizenship, or of coming to the sense that the government, and the millions of citizen supporters of the war, were not acting according to often professed American ideals. If we believed in freedom for Americans to determine their own destiny how could we deny the Vietnamese the same? It turns out, in the literature of resistance [see accompanying review], this is not uncommon; that is, a resister often acts in order to do what he believes are the moral guidelines of all.
As interesting, is that following the years of organizing and resistance, all have carried on fairly typical lives with connections to communities at all levels of American life; none became loners, removed from society, in a permanent state of opposition.
Much went on in the two days that has yet to be worked out, and would be of little interest to outsiders, though we came away with a sense of unearthed pride in what we had done, and the sense we should be talking more about it to those around us. Many people, someone pointed out, when meeting strangers will get around to talk of where they grew up, where they went to college, and what year. Just so, identification as war resisters should be more of a point of pride with us: Princeton, 1967; War Resister, 1969.
The last hours together we watched the marvelous movie, Soldier’s of Conscience, made in 2007, about soldiers during the US invasion of Iraq who were wakened to the unexpected calls of their consciences — while in uniform . A different war and different men, but the struggle with conscience was very familiar, the emotions of leaving friends in danger in a war competing with those of refusing to kill another. The soldiers spoke eloquently about themselves, and the roads they had traveled — not dissimilar to the conversations we had been having for the past days.
The question still to be answered for me is: what makes it possible for some to act, while others, even those who hold very similar oppositional views, do not. And many many others yet, do not seem to ask themselves the question: is this an action I can do?
Were our actions, and those of other resisters or whistle-blowers around the world, simply the results of random gamma-rays striking us, the brush of an angel’s wing, or devil’s horn? Or is there something discover-able in the human psyche, or social arrangements than can explain why some stand up to evil, something that is teachable, or at least can be passed on to others in the way love of reading or fly-fishing is passed on? Is it possible that non-cooperators don’t have the same barriers of distance or willingness to accept avowals of non-responsibility, so famously revealed in the Milgram experiments, which are the norm in most? Are non-cooperators “empathetes” of some kind, whose mirror neurons are more strongly developed than the norm, as an athlete is more developed physically? Do some smell the burned flesh of humans while others see only empty bodies? Can this be strengthened through ‘exercise?’
Or, are resisters, in the main, simply more idealistic, the power of the ideal trumping ties of community and family? Or are these bonds already less for some than others? Or perhaps the bonds reach further, the distance that defines the “other” is much further. The Iraqi wife and child being gunned down from the air is a neighbor of mine; how can I not care? Or is it that resisters simply stumbled on, or were born with, a cautious skepticism — including to all assertions by those in power?
We traded titles of books that had made an impression on us, before resistance or since. We opened up the possibility of talking, together or individually, to writers or film makers looking at war resistance of those years.
I feel almost as clueless about why we acted as we did after the meeting as before. I do think the mysterious germs of resistance can at least be incubated in circumstances we can help to grow, even as we grow older. Those you resisted can cease being silent. Modesty, in my book is always becoming, but I can learn to say, without looking for a fight, ‘USNA 65, War Resister ’67.” War resistance should be as common in our stories as war is. Stories should be told, and written. The skein of common knowledge should include the names of war resisters and whistle blowers as well as those of captains of the armies and of industry. Sylvia Pankhurst and Charlotte Despard, WW I resisters in England, should not be unknown outside the readers of Adam Hochschild’s marvelous To End All Wars. Aleksander Jevtić’s courage, as told in Beautiful Souls should send shivers down the backs of thousands, not just a few. The courage of Israeli soldiers who refused to participate in the invasion of Lebanon, or to serve in the occupied territories are worthy of comic-book treatment; heroic deeds in difficult times.
When a nephew or a neighbor speaks of military service it should be unremarkable to speak of human service You want excitement son? Human Rights Watch could use you, or any one of dozens of disaster and humanitarian relief organizations. I’ll help you find a few and help you write your resume. There are a hundred ways to serve others which is, often enough the reason children join the armies of the world –even we resisters in our younger years.
The secret is still to be unlocked but there is much ordinary resisters like ourselves can do.
I am working on a review of a wonderful, pertinent book, Beautiful Souls: A Review Click here, or look on All In One Boat in a few days, to find it.