The Local Lens
Published• Wed, Oct 02, 2013
By Thom Nickels
When I chose to apply for conscientious objector status in 1969 during the height of the Vietnam War, I was a teenager and in a quandary: How was I to prove my objection to conscription on non-religious grounds?
Although I’d been raised a Catholic, at age 17 I began calling myself an agnostic. Years later I would reclaim my Christian identification. But that year the challenge was to prove my objections to war based on philosophical principles.
Before 1971, when the U.S. Supreme Court permitted conscientious objector status for men whose pacifism was not based on specific religious beliefs, the odds were definitely stacked against such a stance.
A non-combatant status for CO’s was approved during World War I, but for pacifists who wanted no part of the military— even as a non-combatant— the only options were imprisonment in places like Fort Lewis, Alcatraz or Fort Leavenworth, or classification as mentally ill. Not until 1940 were COs who refused to be part of the military as non-combatants finally offered alternate service as fire fighters in Washington State or in menial jobs in psychiatric hospitals.
The Vietnam War saw a marked increase of COs, largely because many young Americans were beginning to question the war’s whole "domino theory" rationale. I remember telling my family that I admired the men who fled to Canada or who became COs rather than participate in an immoral war. We argued at the dinner table, at the breakfast table, and finally agreed to disagree without resolving the tension between us.
So you can imagine the tension once I announced my decision to register as a CO. My father’s biggest concern was protecting the family name. At the time he was running for the Board of Supervisors in a very Republican suburb in Chester County; having a son who was a CO was a scandalous liability. My mother, in tears, pleaded with me to think of my father and his work as an architect. Would his business fail because of me?
I was warned that becoming a CO would destroy my future career options. Employers would reject me outright or fire me once they learned my status. Intuitively I knew this wasn’t true. Time, I was certain, would provide a different scenario; surely beliefs about the value of the Vietnam War would change.
When I formally applied for CO status, I was told by a counselor at the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors in Philadelphia that my chances were not good.
"If only you were a Quaker," he said, "or a Mennonite." Nevertheless, this Quaker counselor helped me construct an agnostic case for refusing to participate in war.
Christian objections to war— outside of the traditional pacifist beliefs of the Society of Friends, Mennonites or Church of the Brethren— were not well known in 1969. Certainly most Catholics then were probably unaware that it wasn’t until the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in 310 A.D. that the concept of a just war (to protect the innocent) became a popular concept. Before 300 A.D., however, many early Church fathers expressed their opposition to Christians taking up arms. Hippolytus of Rome, for example (170-235), proclaimed that "soldiers who become Christian are not allowed to kill and must refuse to obey orders to kill."
To be sure, conscription in the early days of Christianity wasn’t a moral issue because Jews (and by default, Jewish converts to Christianity) weren’t permitted to join the imperial Roman army to begin with.
My CO beliefs were influenced not by Church teachings but by secular thinkers like Camus, Thoreau and Bertrand Russell. These writers helped me to formulate the idea that since the advent of nuclear weapons, every war, declared or not, risks destroying the planet.
I also concluded that to agree to become a soldier puts you in the hands of a sergeant or commander who, in the panic and anarchy of the battlefield, might order you to kill many people— women and children— rather than enemy soldiers.
This notion was confirmed for me years later when an ex-Marine in Vietnam showed me photos of Viet Cong he had killed just south of Saigon, and told me stories of random killings in bars and villages of civilians suspected of aiding the enemy. Gruesome tales like these, I found, often came out of the mouths of ex-soldiers and rarely if ever paralleled even the most upsetting war stories in the mainstream media. They confirmed for me what I had suspected all along: that the so-called rules of war are only vague guidelines that have little to do with reality.
In 1969, fleeing to Canada rather than register for the draft or as a CO became a valid option for many young men. In my case, jail seemed preferable to the idea of leaving my native country, especially when the laws then barred my return to the U.S. (That changed when President Jimmy Carter extended amnesty to young men who fled to Canada during the war.)
CO applicants in 1969 were required to write an essay explaining one’s beliefs. If that essay was accepted, the next step was a Q and A appearance before the local draft board. After the hearing a decision would be rendered, at which point the registrant would be obligated to obey the board’s decision. A rejected applicant must enlist in the Army or face a two-year prison term. Because a fair number of COs were then in prison, I was told to be open to that possibility. It would not be easy for a fallen-away Catholic to sway a local draft board.
Years later, of course, the Catholic Church would issue a wide range of supportive about the role of COs. During South Africa’s apartheid regime, for example, many Catholic men refused to be conscripted into South Africa’s Defense Force, resulting in an open declaration by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of South Africa in 1985 that called for the eradication of conscription. Similarly, at about that time Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Slavador declared, "No soldier is obliged to obey an order counter to the law of God."
They say God works in mysterious ways. For me it came in the form of three old mammoth 19th-Century volumes of the complete works of Shakespeare, given me by my grandfather to take to college. Because the CO hearing was on a Monday following the Thanksgiving holiday, I had no choice but to lug the books in with me when I presented myself before the board. I’ve no doubt that the draft board members somehow equated the books with my case.
The men, seated at a table on the raised platform in front of me, were my father’s age— probably World War II vets. I was prepared when they asked me if I would have fought in World War II to prevent Hitler from invading the U.S. I replied that World War II was over and that we live in a different time since the advent of nuclear weapons: Wars now risk obliterating the planet, and the issues involved, as Vietnam demonstrates, are hardly as clear as they were when Nazis threatened the survival of civilization.
Although I felt great relief when the draft board granted my request, afterward my family life became more stressful than ever. My father, in a desperate moment, ordered me to stop reading books, and my mother had the unpleasant task of informing relatives and friends that Tommy was a conscientious objector.
Five months later, I boarded a Greyhound bus to Boston, not knowing where I would live or work. I’d chosen Boston as my alternative service city— it was at least 100 miles from my home, which was the requirement then— because it was near the sea and in some way resembled Philadelphia. I found a room in Harvard Square with grad students. Soon after I was hired as an operating room orderly by the Tufts New England Medical Center.
To a young man with literary ambitions, Harvard Square in 1969 was almost as good a place to live as Paris or Berkeley— one of the capitals of intellectual freedom and American bohemianism.
When my service was up I felt a vast inner numbness. After two and a half years of grueling eight- or nine-hour shifts transporting patients to and from the operating room, assisting (in a minor way) in surgeries or wheeling bodies to the morgue, I didn’t know what I wanted to do.
I headed to Colorado, where I took a job in a hotel and wrote movie reviews for a local magazine. The year in Colorado helped me focus on the future. By this time my younger brother had enlisted in the Navy and was serving in Vietnam.
Day by day, the American public’s support of the war seemed to shrink. A sea change occurred in 1971 when Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, which made clear, as Ellsberg later put it, that "my government was involved in an unjust war that was going to continue and get larger."
Now, at family gatherings, I noticed that those relatives who had disapproved of my decision two years earlier were losing the judgmental look I used to see in their faces. Protests against the war were now mainstream events, as more politicians and world leaders called for withdrawal of U.S. troops.
My mother confided that while I was away she had jumped to my defense at a family cocktail party when an uncle had called me a coward. My father had indeed lost the election for the local Board of Supervisors; but contrary to his fears, his business was flourishing and had landed a contract as resident architect for a major university. Nothing, apparently, had happened to the family name, outside of a few disparaging remarks from random neighbors or drunken uncles.
To their everlasting credit, my father and brother eventually congratulated me for my prescience in knowing that public opinion would change, and that the war in Vietnam served no purpose except to kill thousands of young men. In perhaps his ultimate act of acceptance, one day my father drew me aside and suggested that I launch a movement to change the law so that conscientious objectors could collect veterans’ benefits.
I did follow up on Dad’s suggestion, without success. But looking back on that experience nearly half a century later, I feel that I and thousands of other conscientious objectors did succeed. We demonstrated that misguided wars can be ended, if enough people are willing to say "no" and stick to their convictions.
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