My fate was heavily shaped by a small card that came in the mail in late September 1965.
That card, and fate, are back on my mind now, 57 years later.
I was in Selma, Alabama when the card arrived, still working with the civil rights movement. A few weeks earlier the endurance, courage and determination of the Black people of Selma and many other places in the South had been vindicated by passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Application of the act was just beginning. But after the nine long, tumultuous months of witness leading up to its enactment, full as they had been, my attention was turning elsewhere.
The bright sunlight of voting rights work was rapidly dimming under a deepening shadow that stretched more than 9000 miles, from Vietnam: the shadow of war.
Back in February, as the Selma movement heating up with marches and mass arrests, fateful decisions were made in Washington that took America’s government away from a “war on poverty” to launch a massive escalation of conventional war in southeast Asia.
By autumn, hundreds of thousands of American troops were deployed there. Enormous numbers of bombs were being dropped by U. S. Jets; wide swathes of jungle and farmland were wilting under the multigenerational poison called Agent Orange.
And every week, planes full of body bags, bearing dead American soldiers, were flying back across the world to graves at home.
A key element of this vast war machine was the Selective Service System, and the military draft it administered.
In 1951, the draft was renewed under the rubric of “universal military training.”
“Universal” was not an exaggeration. It “inducted” millions of young American men into forced military service. Every American male of my generation was required to register for the draft, and each of us has or had a draft story.
Most of those stories were undramatic; millions complied and did their service. Many others maneuvered to avoid the draft by such ruses as the faked bone spurs of a prominent politician. Others delayed facing it by staying in college, where they were deferred.
A few, like singer Arlo Guthrie, wrung from his story both a classic talking blues (& movie), Alice’s Restaurant, with rich comic aspects. All of them were personally important.
My story didn’t warrant a folksong or an auteur’s attention; but it was important to me: I was from a military family, and was in ROTC for three years in college. I don’t remember registering for the draft, but I must have, in 1960, since I still have the card they issued me.
But I didn’t think about the draft, or Vietnam until the spring of 1965, after the Selma movement’s climax. But when the war came in view, my vision had been radically rearranged by the example and tutelage of Dr. King and his colleagues. They had showed me that nonviolent action could change the world.
Dr. King believed it could replace war. I came to agree with him. But what did that mean for my draft story? When the Selective Service called, would I go, and join their war?
I knew nothing about alternatives: it didn’t occur to me to fake some disqualifying injury; escaping to Canada had not been “invented” yet. But after hearing Dr. King, all war seemed immoral; and the more I learned about the Vietnam war, the more especially immoral it seemed; still does. But what to do?
One day when I asked a colleague this question, he said, “You could apply to be a CO.”
”A what?” I answered.
He explained that the law permitted those who had religious objections to fighting wars to pursue alternatives, if their claims were judged to be legitimate. A Quaker-related group, the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (or COs) in Philadelphia could explain, and help me, he said.
They did. In a few weeks, using their Handbook for COs, I had an application ready to submit.
On it, there was an important choice to make:
The draft system categorized each of our files with status numbers and letters. For those at the front of the line for induction the status was 1-A; those who had failed their physicals were 4-F; those deferred while in college were 2-S.
For COs, there were two paths: those who for religious reasons objected to any military service at all were marked 1-O.
But some were willing to serve in the military, as long as they were not tasked with carrying a weapon and actually ordered to kill anyone. Their status was 1-A-O. They typically worked as medics, mechanics, or clerks; they could still be sent to combat areas; but would not be ordered to directly join the fighting.
I applied for a 1-O slot. I didn’t see myself as serving in the military at all. If accepted, I would have to spend two years doing “alternate service,” in some non-military service organization that was acceptable to Selective Service.
If my claim was refused, I could expect to be listed as 1-A draft bait, very soon. I could appeal, and if that failed, refuse induction, and head to the clink.
So I worried during the weeks of waiting. The decision was to be made by my local draft board, far away in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where I had graduated from high school and registered.
Finally it arrived, undramatically: just a card, a “Notice of Classification,” which I was supposed to carry with me. Here it is:
Yeah, 1-O. The Board in Cheyenne accepted my claim. I ended up doing alternative service first at Friends World College, a Quaker experimental school, and then at the Welfare Department in New York City.
Those years were also very important to me; I stayed with Quakers ever since. But that’s another set of stories, and not why I’ve filled in this background here.
I’ve done that because when I look at this card today, in March of 2022, I realize that if I was facing a similar decision now, I think I would make a different choice, especially if I was draft age and in a somewhat different setting.
Like, for instance, in Ukraine.
I think today, there, I’d pick 1-A-O: Join the Ukraine military, and work in combat areas, doing some useful work, like tending the wounded, or working with refugees.
I still feel called not to kill. But I can’t deny that, reading the stories of the Ukraine invasion, I’m not, and don’t want to be, neutral. Nor would I seek to avoid the hazards of war. (After all, in 1965, there were dangers and even deaths among the nonviolent warriors in Selma.)
One other note: while there are no reliable numbers, it seems likely that there were many Quakers during World War Two and even after, who checked the box for 1-A-O and did noncombatant military service; probably more than the several hundred who opted for what was called “Civilian Public Service,” or prison, like Bayard Rustin. The 1-A-Os wore the same uniforms.
It seems the best fit now: after all, I’m already not acting in a neutral fashion. In this war, there are many “irregulars,” not formally signed on to a Ukraine self-defense militia, and located thousands of miles away, who are doing their small, non-lethal but not meaningless bits in this life-and-death contest:
Hackers disrupting Russia’s internet propaganda; others following the oligarchs’ superyachts and exposing other ill-gotten goods. And organizing solidarity efforts in other countries.
I’m mostly in the information end. Much of what I do (like this blog) would be feloniously illegal in Putin’s Russia, because it is aimed at bringing glimmers of truth into his world of darkness and lies. That is strictly outlawed.
Which suggests to me that my, or better efforts like them, could be having an impact. And when the time comes, I hope to be of some small aid to refugees and for reconstruction.
I admit it: I want Ukraine to win this struggle. I want Putin and his enablers to lose.
If it were up to me, I’d lock Putin and his ilk up, as I don’t believe in capital punishment, but restraint for the worst.
I don’t pretend that the Ukrainian forces are exemplars of nonviolence. But I’m not a general in this struggle; just a peripheral supporter.
Millions have fled their country in search of safety as refugees; I hope they find it. Yet it appears that a great many Ukrainians who are staying are not only willing but able to fight, and are determined to do so. And I believe the outcome will make a difference. Whether I approve or not, this contest will mainly be decided by killing and being killed.
Such is our tragic human plight. And in it I don’t find a hands-off stance of purity persuasive. Further, its tragic character does not relieve me of taking a stand where it is shown to me.
So if there were another draft card coming my way, 57 years after the first one, I hope it would bear the designation 1-A-O, and I hope I could live up to it, as long as I lasted.
That is my hope even without it.