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Memorial Day 2017 – Vietnam War
May 29, 2017

I was glad to see Harry Targ’s blog post yesterday, Remember Those Who Protested Wars, Too

Memorial Day observances are often uncomfortable for those of us who oppose war. But this is an chance to honor the memories of those who sacrificed their very lives in service to their country, and the many others who were wounded, physically and/or mentally.

And an opportunity to reflect on the ideas of war and peace in general.

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Vietnam War Memorial    Washington DC

I was moved, as always, when visiting the memorials last week while in Washington, DC.  This time I was thinking in particular about the Vietnam War, which was going on while I was a student at Scattergood Friends School.

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Statue of soldiers,  overlooking the Vietnam War Memorial

That meant that I turned 18 years of age during the Vietnam War.  Which meant I had to make a decision about registering for the Selective Service System (draft).

I was born into the rural Iowa Quaker community, Bear Creek, in 1951.  This community had recently been dealing with the imprisonment of nearly twenty Quaker men who refused to register for the peacetime draft.  That had a profound effect on my thinking, as I struggled with my own decision.

Quakers are considered one of the historic peace churches, which made it easier for Quakers to register for alternative service instead of military service.  The question was whether accepting conscientious objector status was cooperating too much with the war machine.DonnLauughlinLetterfor Jeff

Since I hadn’t been able to make my decision about that when my birthday arrived, I applied for, and was granted conscientious objector status by my draft board.

This letter, supporting my application, was written by Don Laughlin, one of the Iowa Quakers who was imprisoned for refusing to register for the draft.

The Vietnam War was the subject of much discussion, and numerous activities, at Scattergood School.  In 1968, Scott Hoskins and I rode with teacher Kent Van Zandt to Earlham College to attend a conference on the draft.  Following is part of the Richmond Declaration on the Draft and Conscription that was written there:

We call on Friends everywhere to recognize the oppressive burden of militarism and conscription. We acknowledge our complicity in these evils in ways sometimes silent and subtle, at times painfully apparent. We are under obligation as Children of God and members of the Religious Society of Friends to break the yoke of that complicity.

As Friends we have for many years been granted privileged status within the draft system. This has often blinded us to the evil of the draft itself, and the treatment of those not so privileged. We are grateful for all those who by resolutely resisting the draft have quickened our conscience. We are called into the community of all who suffer for their refusal to perform unconscionable acts.

The national uproar against the war, mainly on college campuses, reached a peak during the fall of 1969, with monthly National Moratorium Days Against the Vietnam War.

During the October, 15, 1969, Moratorium Day, the entire School marched into Iowa City, 14 miles away, to participate in the anti-war activities at the University of Iowa.

 

During the November 15, 1969, Moratorium Day, we held a Draft Conference at the School.

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But it was the following letter that had the most influence on my decision, which was signed by Don Laughlin (letter above) and another Iowa Friend, and cousin, Roy Knight:

An Epistle to Friends Concerning Military Conscription

Dear Friends,
It has long been clear to most of us who are called Friends that war is contrary to the spirit of Christ and that we cannot participate in it.  The refusal to participate in war begins with a refusal to bear arms.  Some Friends choose to serve as noncombatants within the military.  For most of us, however, refusal to participate in war also involves refusal to be part of the military itself, as an institution set up to wage war.  Many, therefore, become conscientious objectors doing alternative service as civilians, or are deferred as students and workers in essential occupations.
Those of us who are joining in this epistle believe that cooperating with the draft, even as a recognized conscientious objector, makes one part of the power which forces our brothers into the military and into war.  If we Friends believe that we are special beings and alone deserve to be exempted from war, we find that doing civilian service with conscription or keeping deferments as we pursue our professional careers are acceptable courses of action.   But if we Friends really believe that war is wrong, that no man should become the executioner or victim of his brothers, then we will find it impossible to collaborate with the Selective Service System.  We will risk being put in prison before we help turn men into murderers.
It matters little what men say they believe when their actions are inconsistent with their words.  Thus we Friends may say that all war is wrong, but as long as Friends continue to collaborate in a system that forces men into war, our Peace Testimony will fail to speak to mankind.
Let our lives speak for our convictions.  Let our lives show that we oppose not only our own participation in war, but any man’s participation in it.  We can stop seeking deferments and exemptions, we can stop filling out Selective Service forms, we can refuse to obey induction and civilian work orders.  We can refuse to register, or send back draft cards if we’ve already registered.
In our early history we Friends were known for our courage in living according to our convictions.  At times during the 1600’s thousands of Quakers were in jails for refusing to pay any special respect to those in power, for worshiping in their own way, and for following the leadings of conscience.  But we Friends need not fear we are alone today in our refusal to support mass murder.  Up to three thousand Americans severed their relations with the draft at nation-wide draft card turn-ins during 1967 and 1968.  There may still be other mass returns of cards, and we can always set our own dates.
We may not be able to change our government’s terrifying policy in Vietnam.  But we can try to change our own lives.  We must be ready to accept the sacrifices involved if we hope to make a real testimony for Peace.  We must make Pacifism a way of life in a violent world.
We remain, in love of the Spirit, your Friends and brothers,

Don Laughlin
Roy Knight
Jeremy Mott
Ross Flanagan
Richard Boardman
James Brostol
George Lakey
Stephen Tatum
Herbert Nichols
Christopher Hodgkin
Jay Harker
Bob Eaton
Bill Medlin
Alan & Peter Blood

I, too, came to the conclusion that accepting conscientious objector status was going along with the Selective Service System, so I turned in my draft cards and became a draft resister.  Due to a related case that came before the Supreme Court, I was not prosecuted.

While visiting the Martin Luther King, Jr, Memorial, I was reminded of how he felt he had to speak out against the Vietnam War, and the controversy that created for him.  But he recognized that global struggles are interrelated.

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Martin Luther King Jr Memorial     Washington DC

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Martin Luther King, Jr Memorial    Washington DC

I also remember Mohammed Ali’s firm and courageous draft resistance stand.

“Under no conditions do we take part in war and take the lives of other humans.”

“It is in the light of my consciousness as a Muslim minister and my own personal convictions that I take my stand in rejecting the call to be inducted. I do so with the full realization of its implications. I have searched my conscience.”

“Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong…they never called me nigger.”

It was very clear what the consequences of that decision could be, and yet he would not be persuaded to change his position, knowing he was jeopardizing his boxing career.  I was impressed by his clear vision of the universal struggle of every person for peace and freedom, and every person’s responsibility to the world community, no matter their religion, race or country.

 

 


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