It was February of 1968. I had been meeting with some of the Boston area Catholic anti-war activists. I joke that I had fallen among bad company.
I decided that I had to do something to stop what I considered our immoral course of action in Vietnam. I would send my draft card to President Johnson. Other war resisters had burned their cards, but I thought the President should hear my reasons.
Before I acted I wrote my provincial minister in St. Louis, Fr. Germain Schwab, told him about my plan, and asked for his permission. He wrote me back, supporting me and adding that he regretted that he had not done more to stop the war.
I sent the card to the President with a letter, saying that the card represented my participation in an enterprise that I could no longer be a part of.
A few weeks later I received a notice from the draft board in Decatur, Illinois, my home town, informing me that I had been declared delinquent for failure to have my Notice of Classification in my personal possession, and classifying me I-A, “available for military service.” The letter informed me that I had 30 days to appeal the decision.
It was at that moment that the term “conscientious objection” took on a whole new meaning for me.
I had grown up during World War II, when we Catholics were hyper-patriotic. Until that moment in 1968, I had never taken the idea of conscientious objection seriously. It was something that a few radicals did. Suddenly I realized that I was going to be expected to take up a rifle and kill people. I was a Franciscan. There was no way I was going to do that.
I appealed the draft board’s decision and asked for re-classification as a conscientious objector. It took me a while to write that letter. I asked myself whether I was asking for c.o. status because I was a coward. How could I suddenly become a c.o. when I had never been one before? The whole thing looked suspicious. Nevertheless, the over-riding fact was that I just could not see myself killing anyone.
I got supporting letters from two Decatur pastors, including the one who had baptized me. In a remarkably short time after I appealed I got notice that the Decatur board had re-classified me I-O, Conscientious Objector.
The whole experience made me realize that my earlier clerical exemption from the draft shielded me from facing the reality of what being drafted really meant. It was only when I was faced with the actual possibility of my being told to take up a weapon that I thought seriously about the issue. Before that the whole business was theoretical, and my earlier childhood opinions over-rode any serious thought about it.
What makes me reflect on this now is an article in the lastest issue of Sojourners magazine, written by a man who had served 11 months in active combat operations in Iraq and become convinced that he could no longer serve the country that way. He notes that in 2005, veterans aged 20-24 were four times more likely to kill themselves than their civilian counterparts. In January 2010 the number of suicides in the military exceeded the number of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. He argues that the moral consequences of being asked to kill another human being, and of actually doing that, damages the person. He describes his own situation: “I did not endure a physical trauma. My brain was not exposed to concussive waves or direct impact. My injury was neither exclusively physical nor mental. It was a ‘moral injury.’“
That man, Logan Mehl-Laituri, received an homorable discharge from the military in 2008, and formed an organziation called “Centurion’s Guild,” to support veterans “who wrestle with their loyalties to God and country.” He notes that the term “moral injury” is new to the clinical field. It is discussed in a 2009 article in the Clinical Psychology Review.
Too many men and women are returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, unable to free themselves from the consequences of things they have seen and done, but unable to share their feelings and thoughts with anyone else. Our society, reacting against excesses of the Vietnam era, gives heroes’ welcomes to returning veterans, and remains in denial about the psychological and moral damage that so many veterans experience.
In 1968 it was my clerical status that shielded me from thinking about what our military were being asked to do. Today the entire country is shielded from thinking about what our military are being asked to do in the Mideast.
Military people who know what it is to be in combat are often far more reluctant to use military force than are civilian politicians who know combat only in theory. They also often know more about the limited ability of force to solve a problem. It was Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, not the military, who argued that we should go into Iraq in 2003. The politician knows what will be popular with the public, and unfortunately, the U.S. public approaches all problems with a Rambo-like attitude. “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. You hit us, we will hit you back, hard! Lock ‘em up and throw away the key.”
I believe that Barack Obama thought long and hard before he authorized the “surge” in Afghanistan a year and a half ago. General Petraeus’s strategy in Iraq seemed to have worked. Hopefully it could work in Afghanistan. As Obama said in his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo that year, sometimes it is necessary for governments to use force to achieve good goals. He could not know, nor could anyone else know, whether Afghanistan was such a situation. Only time will tell.
While the geo-politicians struggle with strategies toward peace, the rest of us need to keep thinking about what happens to all the “little people” who get caught in the gears of the machine: the civilians in the areas where we are intervening, and the foot-soldiers who are doing the intervening, before, during, and after combat.