In time of war

Delivered into Resistance coverAn essay that was included in Delivered Into Resistance, an 80-page booklet published in April 1969 by the Catonsville Nine-Milwaukee Fourteen Defense Committee.

by Jim Forest

To be born to create, to love, to win at games is to be born to live in time of peace. But war teaches us to lose everything and become what we are not. It all becomes a question of style. — Albert Camus

At most times and places in history, Camus’ observation would seem as newsworthy as announcing fire burns! But for Americans in 1968, especially those Americans for whom welfare is a tax irritant rather than food on the table, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that war need change anything or that old priorities need be stirred or shifted. Indeed, were visitors from some distant planet to descend upon almost any American community or campus, it is unlikely they would stumble upon evidence suggesting that America is in the midst of its longest, most costly and least popular war, or that there is resistance to it. The “good life” lunges forward. The refrigerators are crammed. Marlboro country is bigger than ever.

Our only rub has been the draft. But even there, for those not exempted by reason of sex or age or disability, there remain a variety of government-approved alternatives — legal dodges ranging from academic and certain vocational pursuits to alternative service for conscientious objectors. Beyond the pale of legitimacy, but enjoying various shades of toleration, are a number of other dodges which, from the government’s point of view, have the altogether salutary effect of reducing the number of head-on collisions with the American coercive process. The government has done all but roll out a red carpet for those taking their quarrelsome opinions to Canada (15,000 by count of the Southern Ontario Commission on War Immigrants, plus a good many friends, wives and relatives). And for those determined enough to enter induction centers singing Alice’s Restaurant or handing out valentine cards, the resultant 1-Ys and 4-Fs are not so much big favors to the individuals involved as acts of mercy to the sergeants and petty officers who will shortly be attempting to take charge of all those who take the obedient step forward.

And yet there is, despite the legal and not-so-legal dodges, despite the availability of the consumer life to those clever enough to grab it and addicted enough to make the necessary compromises… and yet there is a resistance: resistance to the war, resistance to the draft which fuels it, and resistance to coercion and de-humanization even in its more digestible forms.

Resistance has even reached the point of draft boards being raided of their indispensable 1-A files; in two major incidents such files have been burned with homemade napalm prepared according to a recipe provided in the Special Forces Handbook.

“In time of war,” Camus wrote, “everything is changed.” No longer is that true only of the conscript and his family, living in dread for the duration. It begins to be true of those whose allegiance is not with war.

It wasn’t long ago that dissent was almost entirely on a verbal or symbolic level:   letters, petitions, articles, speeches, marches, and vigil lines.

Peanuts - help stamp outIt was not unlike the Peanuts cartoon in which Linus, a grim SDS sort of expression on his face, marches forward with a placard in his hands proclaiming:


But following along a few paces to the rear was Snoopy, a drowsy, clerical expression on his face. He, too, is carrying a sign:


Many of us considered the war in Vietnam, the draft, racism and poverty intolerable. We didn’t hesitate to say Amen to Linus’ sign. But we marched behind Snoopy.

It was made easier because few of us had serious questions about America. Civil rights appeared reachable, the war on poverty sure of victory, the Peace Corps more expressive than the Marine Corps of America’s future, Johnson a cultural embarrassment but a man with a good domestic policy, Vietnam a tragedy but not indicative of a more serious malady affecting our national values, history and priorities.

In 1965, however, despite campaign assurances, the Johnson administration was forced to conclude that the only alternative to military catastrophe in Vietnam required a massive escalation of the war, in terms of bombing and equipment, in terms of area (the war moved into North Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and even Thailand) and finally in terms of the numbers of GIs to be committed. The war was consequently redefined as a case of aggression from the North. As it proved impossible to hide from public view the utter corruption of the Saigon government and its succession of opportunistic regimes, and as American casualties began to climb sharply upward, American opposition to the war became widespread. Teach-ins were conducted on hundreds of campuses. Increasingly large numbers of draft-age men filed with their draft boards as conscientious objectors. Books on the war began to appear, though interestingly none by Vietnamese (subsequently Thich Nhat Hanh’s anti-war book, Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire was published by Hill & Wang).

That same year a very few — David Miller, Tom Cornell, Jim Wilson and David McReynolds among them — burned their draft cards; such action had just been outlawed by Congress. All but McReynolds—in his mid-30s, apparently considered too old—were almost immediately arrested, tried and (following appeals) jailed.

With the draft card burnings, and the furor they stirred, a line of demarcation seemed crossed and, looking backward, one realizes that the Resistance was born.

It didn’t come out of the thin air. There had always been considerable opposition to conscription in America. When the Congress authorized a draft of “able-bodied male citizens” in 1863, 100,000 infantry, three batteries of artillery and a division of the National Guard were required to put down the anti-draft riots in New York on the 13th through the 16th of July. At least, 1,200 people were killed; property damage totaled $500,000 — at a time when several dollars bought a fine woolen suit. (Provision was made the following year for conscientious objectors to work in hospitals. Substitutes were allowed on payment of $300; in the south there was similar provision, but for $500.)

On May 18, 1917, six weeks after the United States declared war, conscription was resumed. Non-combatant service was permitted to those who belonged to pacifist churches. Those who refused to cooperate with the draft, or who were found ineligible for exemption as objectors, faced the most severe penalties. Seventeen men were sentenced to death, 142 to life imprisonment, three to 50 years, four to 40 years and 57 to 25 years; after considerable protest, the death sentences were commuted to life; those still serving time in 1933 were granted a presidential pardon. One of the resisters of that time, Ammon Hennacy, later to be associated with the Catholic Worker movement, served seven months of his term in solitary confinement as a consequence of having refused to register and for having published a leaflet urging others to do likewise — a leaflet which would still be usable today:



It is better to go to jail

than to rot on a foreign battlefield.


while the rich men who have brought on

this war stay at home and get richer by

gambling on food stuffs…

There was a statement to sign:


Conscription was repealed in 1919.

On September 16, 1940, more than a year before the U.S. entered World War II, conscription was again enacted. Conscientious objection was more broadly defined. Nearly 50,000 men accepted noncombatant service in the armed forces, 12,000 performed alternative service at Civilian Public Service camps and 12,000 were sent to prison. Some — such men as Dave Dellinger, Jim Peck, Lowell Naeve and Ralph DiGia — were in prison for having refused to register or in other ways cooperate with the draft. (One Italian resister, asked by the director of prisons why he had refused induction, replied without even looking up from the magazine in his hands, “Because I refuse to kill my mother.”)

Those still serving time in 1947 were pardoned by President Truman.

With only a one-year pause in 1947-48, conscription has been a permanent fixture since 1940. But until 1965, draft resistance — up to that time usually given the more passive description, non-cooperation — was almost purely a witness position: something undertaken with the long-range hope that sooner or later people would see that one war only leads to the next, that the next is always worse and more dangerous than the war which proceeded it, that the anti-fascist becomes fascist, that the real problems only get worse, and that any country which could only defend itself by threatening its populace with prison either wasn’t fighting a war worth fighting or wasn’t defending a nation worth preservation.

But without witness, futile as it is judged at the time, there is little reason to hope a societal breakthrough will eventually be achieved.

There is the example of the Catholic Worker’s protest in the mid-50s. The Worker’s New York staff openly refused to take shelter during compulsory air raid drills, instead, sitting on park benches in front of City Hall, because, they argued, cooperation with civil defense tests only gave sustenance to the myth that atomic war, like any other kind of war, might be survivable for those who ducked into a subway station. Cooperation, in effect, helped make the idea of nuclear war, if not palatable, at least survivable.

Many agreed with the Catholic Worker’s position, but for several years no more than a few individuals would join with them in their protest. Annually the eight or ten protesters, invariably Dorothy Day and Ammon Hennacy among them, would be carted off to jail. But it made people think. When in 1960, in the midst of extensive atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, the government began to place much greater stress on civil defense preparations, the gravity of the issue became inescapably apparent. At last various groups began to respond. 500 persons gathered at City Hall Park, refusing to take shelter when the sirens droned. Several paddy wagons were filled with those the police selected as leaders. The following year 2,000 gathered in defiance. More paddy wagons were filled, but New York has never again conducted a compulsory civil defense test.

Would this have been the case had it not been for the isolated — almost everyone called it futile — witness of a handful of people during more arid, apathetic years? “There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose hour has come,” the proverb goes. But for the hour to arrive, a few, at the price of jeers and rejection, must translate into life style and deed the insights they have achieved. In Dan Berrigan’s phrase, it is a matter of putting our bodies where our words are; which is to say, putting body and head together.

In the summer of 1965, Life magazine published a spread of photos of war protestors. Most of them had been taken in Washington at the Congress of Unrepresented People, an event which took place almost entirely on the streets. Across the page from a large color picture of Staughton Lynd and Dave Dellinger (the two having just been doused with red paint by a war supporter) was a less conspicuous picture of the Catholic Worker’s Christopher Kearns burning a draft card. Draft cards had often been burned by protesters, at least as far back as World War II; almost no one had paid it much attention, though presumably such acts were illegal, as the law obligates registrants to be in constant possession of their draft cards. But in Congress, the picture caught a few eyes. A bill was quickly introduced and approved which specifically forbade the willful destruction or mutilation of draft cards.

At the time the law was passed, David Miller, a recent graduate of LeMoyne College, a tall, Nordic athlete who could grace any recruiting poster, was asked to represent the Catholic Worker at an anti-war rally to be held October 15 at the Whitehall Street Induction Center in Manhattan. Dave, in suit and tie, said very quietly that action speaks louder than words and proceeded to burn his draft card.

The next morning it was front-page news throughout the world. Davie’s picture, the antithesis of the traditional editorial-page cartoon of long-haired, unwashed protester, became a symbol of resistance, the embodiment of a more recent slogan, “Not with my body you don’t!” A few days later he was arrested; he is now serving a two-year sentence.

More draft cards flickered during the following months, especially in New York and Boston. During 1966, conferences were convened in various parts of the country to discuss draft resistance and to find ways to better support resisters and their families—”prison widows”—and beyond that to build a resistance movement which could make the draft inoperable and intolerable, a movement which could remove to the museum one of the principal remaining vestiges of slavery. Getting rid of one’s draft card became the symbol of the movement: the cards were sometimes burned, sometimes ripped up, sometimes sent to government officials. The acts were made as visible as possible, as if such actions were not merely private events but something for public celebration — ceremonies of freedom and life.

On April 15th, 1967, the first massive burning and turn-in occurred — nearly 500 persons publicly unburdened themselves of their membership cards in the war club. On October 16th, 1,400 more followed suit, acting simultaneously in 30 cities. Within the next two months, another 600 were turned in, with local resistance groups founded and working effectively in almost every section of the country. By the time the Supreme Court got around to upholding the congressional prohibition of draft card destruction (they ruled that card destruction was not symbolic speech and hence not protected by the First Amendment), the law was for all effects and purposes inoperable; at least 3,500 cards had openly been destroyed, mutilated and turned in. “Please take my name off your mailing list” was a frequent instruction to local Selective Service officials. “I am no longer willing to be a card-carrying war monger.”

Draft card burning was never an end in itself. As was put by Michael Ferber, a Boston resistance organizer and the only one of draft-age to be convicted with Dr. Spock, “Turning in one’s draft card and refusing to cooperate with the Selective Service was the beginning — the first large, and perhaps existentially crucial act — but only the first act in a whole way of life, in the construction of a whole movement that would be different from the other student and left movements that had previously existed in America.”

Getting rid of one’s draft card also came to be seen as a way of getting at the problem of fear in American life. As Dave Harris, soon to start serving a three-year term for refusing induction, put it, “What that draft card has taught people from day to day in their lives is how consistently to live under the auspices of fear…. If we were to dispense with words like ‘left’ and ‘right’ then what you and I can say in the world today is that we live in the unanimous organized politics of fear. That fear has made men blind. That blindness has made people starve. That blindness is the fact of lives around the world today.

“What you and I can reasonably do, then,” Harris continued, “is not to say that we won’t be afraid, because I’ve never met a man who wasn’t afraid. What you and I can say is that we refuse to make that fear the central fact of our lives.”

Jeff Jacobs of the Berkeley Resistance has described resistance to the draft as “an act of decolonization, which frees people from exploitation, both physical and spiritual, which the Selective Service System represents. Non-cooperation radicalizes the people involved, frees them from ties to traditional middle-class values, and involves resisters strongly in radical action. As a result, we identify more directly with the struggles of other oppressed and gain a more revolutionary potential and perspective.”

Joining a community of risk, joining symbolized by the open severance of relations with the Selective Service, has also had the inevitable effect of making visible, or where visible more vivid, the extent to which America — in classroom, in church, in supermarket, at work — is manipulative and coercive from top to bottom. We discover that, so far as the institutions of society are concerned, we were born to be used: used as energy sources in the economy, used as purchasing waste-baskets at the end of the assembly line, used to extend the brainwashing process to our children, used to fight and kill in countries few of us could write a 250-word essay about.

No agency has been more helpful in spelling out those coercive realities than Selective Service — not only in deed but in word as well. In a providentially unabashed moment-again, in 1965 — Selective Service issued a memo for internal distribution to local board members, a detailed explanation of the wider purposes of conscription:

While the best known purpose of the Selective Service System is to procure manpower for the armed forces, a variety of related processes take place outside delivery of manpower to the active armed forces. Many of these may be put under the heading of “channeling manpower.” Many young men would not have pursued a higher education if there had not been a program of student deferment Many young scientists, engineers, tool and die-makers and other possessors of rare skills would not remain in their jobs in the defense effort if it were not for the program of occupational deferment. Even though the salary of a teacher has historically been meager, many young men remain in that job seeking the reward of deferment…

Delivery of manpower, the process of providing a few thousand men with transportation to an induction center, is not much of an administrative challenge. It is in dealing with the other millions of registrants that the system is heavily occupied, developing more effective human beings in the national interest… [stress added]

The application of the manipulative process as regards students and graduates was given particular stress:

Throughout his career as a student, the pressure, the threat of loss of deferment, continues. It continues with equal intensity after graduation. His local board requires periodic reports to find out what he’s up to. He is impelled to pursue his skill rather than embark on some less important enterprise, and he is encouraged to apply his skill in an essential activity in the national interest.

Having made it clear that “more effective human beings” do not take off time for reflection, community organizing, painting or writing, the Selective Service cinches it all by putting it under the reassuring heading, “It’s the American Way”:

The psychology of granting wide choice under pressure to take action is the American or indirect way of achieving what is done by direction in foreign countries where choice is not allowed.

As more and more began to wonder whether the American (or indirect) way of life was in fact a way of life, and as such was worth living for—not to say dying for—it simultaneously became apparent that the draft had been used to funnel enormous power from the people to the administration, with only a remote check on its use. Were it not for the draft, large numbers of Americans could never have been sent to Vietnam—there simply have never been that many Americans willing to risk their lives for such “leaders” as General Thieu and Air Marshall Ky. It is even highly questionable that there are presently a sufficient number of Americans who would hire themselves out as mercenaries were military wages to be drastically increased; this, despite the bleak prospects this nation presently extends to so many of its citizens.

In short, more of us came to realize not only that conscription is intolerable to free men in any society, but that the draft is the indispensable and lethal keystone in the American way of packaged, channeled, homogenized, government-inspected life, and death. To rid America of conscription would not only be a gift to ourselves, an opportunity to give freedom some content within America’s borders, but also would help enormously in making the planet safe for mankind.

And so it is that at the beginning of December, 1968, when this is written, 729 are in prison for refusing the Selective Service the allegiance it claims, with another 1,200 under or awaiting indictment for induction refusal; that (according to both Resist and the Harris Poll) 25,000 college seniors will refuse to be inducted if ordered; that, according to resistance organizers within the armed forces, 8.7% of the Marine Corps is presently over the hill; that tens of thousands of persons, in civil disobedience, have signed statements confessing their complicity with and economic support of the resistance; that a movement encouraging non-registration has begun in the high schools; that approximately 15,000 1-A draft files and related documents have been burned.

The tragedy is that it has taken so many deaths, so many mutilations, so many napalm-burned children, so many refugees and orphans, broken minds and suicides for resistance to develop to the point it has. Vietnam has had to be raped for us to notice the rape of ourselves. The Vietnamese have had to endure napalm for us to take note of the napalming of Guatemalans and Peruvians, and, figuratively, the napalming of our own brains. 30,000 Americans have had to die for a few parents to begin sharing with their sons the risks which resistance entails.

Yet even now, visible as the resistance is, the screams which stirred us to consciousness have penetrated too few. And even among those of us who dare listen, how much, how closely are we listening? How many minutes of the day do our lives reflect, even inadequately, the times we inhabit? Brecht said it: “Indeed I live in the dark ages. A smooth brow betokens a hard heart. He who laughs has not yet heard the terrible tidings.” Not that we join the ranks of the ashen, not that we become volcanoes of depression and discouragement. But the By-your-leave-sir mind still prospers in our nation; the number of frightened, usable men, obediently filling uniforms or filling out deferment forms, is overwhelming. And even we who struggle against the persistent, senile habits of killing and dying, even we who have had the good luck to be somewhat liberated from political myth and fiction, we too are ruled by fear, living most of our lives as if no one were being burned, no famines being suffered, as if working at change were a kind of hobby, a way of keeping the conscience polished, perhaps even a fashionable way to use up spare time.

But imagination stirs, and conscience and courage. More of us discover that to the extent that we amputate from consciousness the agonies which have been decreed for others, to that same extent we ironically remain too sightless and numb to know much of joy or love or freedom.

The liberations multiply. There is a general inching away from the Life magazine existence. Where one or two had the courage to ignite their own draft cards, communities of nine and fourteen celebrate life and freedom in the burning of those forms and papers which oppress and threaten the lives of many. Those who lived in fear and genuflected before “Void where prohibited by law” signs, now proclaim “Imagination is power” and “Be realistic — demand the impossible.”

We begin to understand. There is a prison break going on from the penitentiary of words. We begin to understand that to live at this time, in this society, and not to be delivered into resistance is not yet to be born.

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the inscription I made in my mother's copy of the booklet
the inscription I made in my mother’s copy of the booklet

Jim Forest is a co-chairman of the Catholic Peace Fellowship and one of those indicted for the destruction of Milwaukee draft records. In 1961 he was discharged from the Navy on grounds of conscientious objection. He has worked on the staff of the Catholic Worker’s New York house of hospitality and is a past managing editor of their publication. With Tom Cornell he edited A Penny a Copy: Readings from The Catholic Worker. He has written for Commonweal, The National Catholic Reporter, Ramparts, Win and other publications.

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December 1968

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