At the Indiegogo site for The Boys Who Said NO!, a film-in-progress directed by my old friend Judith Ehrlich, you can read producer Chris Jones’ 1967 letter from his draft board in San Jose, warning him of the penalty for refusing to register with the Selective Service System. A week before, Jones had sent this note to the draft board:
My non-cooperation by many will be considered traitorous. But I assure you all that it is the only course of action which I can conscientiously take. My beliefs are founded in a deep love for America, for the democracy it can be, for the lasting peace and prosperity for all people, and for the joys of little children which force me to say: Stop the war. End the draft. I refuse to register.
With a glad heart, Christopher Jones
I anticipate the film will live up to the inspiring clip they have posted for prospective donors, and hope that many others will join the folks who’ve already contributed nearly half the target amount in exchange for perks provided by the filmmakers and key characters such as Joan Baez, Daniel Ellsberg, and David Harris. The footage I’ve seen features a wonderful conversations between Harris, founder of the The Resistance and deeply committed to nonviolence, and SDS/Weather Underground veteran Mark Rudd, who now wishes he had chosen a similar path. I saw plenty of familiar faces interviewed and kept scanning the crowd scenes for more.
You see, I worked for years for a draft counseling service in San Francisco. It started out as an activity of the associated students at San Francisco State University, then got pushed off campus during the 1968 strike, settling a block or so from Mission High in San Francisco. The people who did this work of counseling young men facing the draft had different motives: one man’s conscience had been awakened while on active duty, and he wanted to help others avoid paying the same price; others were lifelong pacifists; some opposed the war on political grounds and wanted to make it impossible to fill induction quotas. I’d started out helping my husband apply for conscientious objector status and discovered it was something I could do for others. And to a great extent, we were successful: protests were massive; it indeed became impossible to fill draft quotas in the Bay Area; widespread refusal and disruption cost the system a lot; and by 1973, the baroque structure of deferments mostly gave way to a lottery as the war wound down.
No matter how we draft counselors came to the work, we all recognized a responsibility to disrupt the class and race biases that ran the system; and we all saw something sacred in these encounters with men who had been forced to interrogate their consciences, knowing that the choices they made could affect not only their own futures but the future of this country.
I’ve written about this before; for example, in 2011, concerning an earlier film about the great Paul Goodman. As I put it then:
We also often guided them through the twisting chambers of their own consciences. I wish I could convey the agony of self-examination experienced by young men torn between a love of country and a keen desire to avoid killing innocent peasants in their grass huts. I often think that our current wars would excite an altogether different response if we still had a draft. When we did, those eligible for service (and those who loved them) weren’t merely required to form opinions; they were forced into choices that literally meant life or death.
Some in my generation are seeing echoes of the sixties today, with many forms of activism on the rise: calls for racial justice, climate justice, gender justice, economic justice, and more, and a popular presidential candidate who protested the Vietnam War and applied for conscientious objector status.
For me, there are two central differences distinguishing these times. The first is overwhelming: in the sixties, the specter of apocalypse that now looms over virtually all progressive movements was not what drove us. It’s not that the threat of nuclear war wasn’t terrifying, nor that the state-sanctioned racism and sexism we fought hadn’t heaped horror upon horror. But the people I knew were motivated much more by a vision of social transformation than the urgent desire to stave off the unthinkable which is such a dominant force today. Possibility, and not merely prevention, colored our vision.
The second was the way in which U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War created the conditions that propelled personal conscience to the forefront of awareness. When virtually every able-bodied young man had to confront the prospect of being made to kill Vietnamese, politics weren’t happening “over there.” They unfolded in the pit of the stomach, in sleepless nights wrestling with oneself, in acts of desperation. The draft was deeply unfair. If you couldn’t pull strings, if you didn’t have the resources to find a medical excuse, if no one led you through the process of applying for conscientious objector status—which often meant if you were black or brown, if you’d had a run-in with the police and were offered a choice between the Army and prison, if your English wasn’t strong—you found yourself in boot camp and prayed that wouldn’t lead to Southeast Asia.
On a headlands trail the other day, I encountered a couple carrying a drone. They sent it out over the ocean to shoot video of birds, water, waves. But every time I see one of those devices, I think about the way the United States wages war now, via computerized weapons operated from thousands of miles away by individuals who may well feel so distanced from the blood they spill they might as well be playing video games. This is so different from my memories of a young man, his head in his hands, crying in anguish over the nightly news images of soldiers, guns raised, chasing old men, women, and children from their huts with prods from a bayonet.
I know the filmmakers are keen to connect what happened fifty years ago to the calls to conscience confronting us today. I’m eager to see how this story plays out in The Boys Who Said NO! When I look at the list of interviewees and filmmakers, I am sure it will be thoughtful and deep and true, and I am sure that is needed.
Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” sung live by Dione Taylor.