A Quaker Reconsiders His Peace Testimony

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.

Left to right: Secretary of State Dean Rusk, President Lyndon Johnson, and defense Secretary Robert MacNamara; the men who took us into the big war in Vietnam.

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.

U.S. troops arriving in Vietnam.

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.

Arlo Guthrie, on the album cover.

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.

Me, ROTC, Colorado State University, 1962.

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?

My draft registration card.

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.

One of the most fateful books I ever read. Cost: 50 cents.

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:

The top part of my CO draft card. The bottom line is the “bottom line.”

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.

A collage from the address by President Zelensky to the U.S. Congress, March 16, 2022.

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.

The memorial for rev. James Reeb, a peaceful civil rights protester killed in Selma, March 1965.

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.)

Bayard Rustin, a Quaker who refused the draft in World War Two and served prison time.

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.

15 thoughts on “A Quaker Reconsiders His Peace Testimony”

  1. Are there not “alternatives” to submitting to the military machine of a draft signified by a registration system? For example, volunteering with one of the several international agencies assisting with refugee and medical needs in Ukraine, Poland, and other areas in the region.
    Having 2 sons who chose different paths in registration (after the draft) and a daughter who was not required to register at all, I have some reflections. My elder son chose not to register at all and faced the consequences – being able to apply to only 2 colleges, both “Quaker” that would meet Financial need since he could not qualify for any Federally funded aid. His grades and test scores qualified him to apply to any college and expect admission. My second son chose to register and he was willing to accept 1-A-O even though classification was not part of registration by the mid 80s.
    I still am reluctant to support any militarization of “peace making” and would hope to live up to what I said in my Woolman lecture on “The Legacy of Woolman, Gandhi, and King” back in the early 80’s. Peace is fought for and won not by might but by Love.

  2. Thanks for your excellent story,Chuck. I never knew you were doing alternate service when at FWI. While I never had to face a draft board experience I’ve always struggled with how well I am able to be a pacifist l. Now at age 79 about all I can do is sign petitions and post on Facebook But even that feels worth it. I shared a non violence post from AFSC and have received no “likes” on it. I know my FB friends see my posts so I can feel like I’ve at least put the idea out there, for what it’s worth. Ukraine is in our hearts and minds.

    1. Hi Anne, yes I was just beginning to learn how to be a peacenik at FWI/FWC. I joined a 3-day fast for peace there, and in the fall of 1966 organized a peace picket when LBJ came to a nearby park to campaign for congressional candidates. It was a start!

  3. Although I didn’t register, my card said 1-A-O, or something similar: married with children.
    Did you know Margie Wolfe at Friends World College?

      1. Much happened before I sat down as the only American to negotiate logistics over a week with the EU for a joint visit with the US into refugee camps after the Rwanda genocide. Part of my job was to schedule USAID experts in east and southern Africa. In any conflict, there are many working for NGOs and the occasional individual providing service. The joint visit preparations provided me opportunities to meet US Army colonels in awe of the activities of diplomats and civilians helping in conflict areas they would not be allowed to tread. There are protocols that endanger others if a soldier is hurt.

        I already knew women working on their own for food security in Somalia negotiating with war lords. There is a couple of women over 65 who left Alabama for the first time to deliver radios to Cairo during the Arab Spring. Now they are heading to deliver radios to the Ukraine. I almost went to Afghanistan with a group looking for ideas for women to support themselves but as their ideas for Iranian women fell apart, I opted out.

        I greatly appreciate Chuck sharing his thoughts. These are hard decisions and hard choices. I would not want to be armed. I would consider having armed guards because I know others might risk their lives for me if I did not have guards.

        For now I can find ways to be supportive from Chapel Hill. I find it very hard to witness democracy being in peril. Quakers are in a good position to help with the future.

  4. For the first time in my life, Ukraine has changed my feeling. In ’65 I was 13 and already both agnostic and anti-Vietnam, doing my bit vocally at home and at the adjoining military base. There is much more to that story, also. I’ve opposed US participation in every “engagement” since.

    Meanwhile within me was this seeming chunk of conflict: I knew that if I’d been alive in WWII, I would’ve actively supported anything that might halt Hitler. Despite decades of active opposition to the death penalty, I’ve always said that I could’ve thrown the switch to end Hitler’s life had I been given the chance.

    And now, Ukraine. A democratically elected head of state has asked for our country’s direct participation, repeatedly. If that happened at any point in any other conflict in my life since ’65, I am unaware. Regardless, my feelings right here and now unite with those of many of my Jewish friends: Putin is the new Hitler, and how many millions of innocents will we let him destroy before we step in?

    I’m not suggesting invasion of Russia, but I surely want us to do more than economic sanctions — a lot more, and quickly. Age and infirmity tell me that Zelenskyy would politely refuse me entry if I showed up at his border, offering help. “You’re a liability with a generous heart, still a liability,” or words to that effect.

    So after 52 years of opposing war, I want my country to step in and do something. If WWIII comes, it would’ve come anyway within 10 years as Putin invaded Hungary or Poland.

    I am at peace with my feelings.

  5. Chuck, thanks for this wonderfully reflective piece. Growing up in Louisa County Iowa in the late 1960s, I sought 1-O registration. It was denied straight-away. I was also told by a representative of the county draft board that there were only 1-A draftees in Louisa County. Fortunately for me, my draft number came up as 364. I could avoid the war…which my cousin’s did not…but I would have to make my own journey to solidifying it into a peace testimony and part of that has been devoting my career to working nonprofit organizations and in helping them thrive. I tend to agree with your analysis and conclusion in this blog. My son, now age 37, said to me yesterday that if Putin’s war on Ukraine devolves into WW III every person will be draft eligible, and he is probably more right than I’d like to admit. World Wars are different animals to be sure. Sadly, we all may yet have to struggle with the decision again.

    1. I know a prominent Friend here in NC who got essentially the same answer from his local board in the earlier 1960s. He very politely said he would follow Jesus, and in fact followed him to the federal pen in Petersburg. He seems to have done right well since then. He even quietly visited some antiwar soldiers doing time in the Camp Lejeune Brig for refusing to fight in Iraq, while I was Director at Quaker House. Some might say he had rehabilitated himself; I say he was all the same, doing right.

  6. Long story short, in 1966 I ended up in graduate school and then got a high number (279) in the draft lottery.

    I had been accepted for Air Force pilot training. Word came through the grapevine that if I flunked out of pilot training, because of my newspaper reporting background I would be doing PR duty in Hawaii.

    But I ended up turning it down. A bright friend of the family said “Hank, let’s go for a drive, you drive.” I knew Joe had something in mind, and he did: a question. He knew how I felt about killing: my goal was to fly (dangerous) troop supply missions. Here’s what Joe asked:

    “Hank, if they assign you to fighter planes and you’re ordered to drop napalm on a village because otherwise our troops will all die, but you know there are women and children in the village, what would you do?”

    That question led me to being drafted.

    I have 2 questions I would ask myself in today’s Ukraine context:

    “Hank, if armed soldiers with the intent to kill all in the shelter you are guarding attempted to enter, would you shoot them?”

    And if I said no, for very good reasons, the second question: “So you would let others do the killing. Knowing the personal harm to self that comes from killing others, how fair is it for you to put that burden on others? You are OK with others, in this context, killing in order to protect, but don’t want to do it yourself.”

    I love tough questions. They force us back to our first principle: listening to and being guided in the moment by Spirit. All the rest are concepts. In the end, concepts divide and Spirit unites.

  7. Chuck, you and I are both old men. Neither of us has any reason not to know that the roots of this conflict lie not in anything that happened in 2022, but in 1989, 1991, 1998, 2004, 2008, 2014 and on into more recent times. Roughly: 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall; 1991 reunification of Germany and the promise by NATO “not one inch eastwards”, 1998 Ukraine gives up Nuclear Weapons in exchange for security guarantees from Russia, Britain and the US; 2004 US championed candidate for president of Ukraine poisoned by Russia, but still wins.. later defeated; 2008 US welcomes “aspirations” of Ukraine to join NATO over the objections of France, Germany and Russia; 2014 an illegal coup instigated by the US (authorized by Joe Biden), in defiance of the EU; the rights of the Ukrainian people; and really pissing Russia off; then president flees to Russia; fascists enforce the new normal by burn protestors in Odessa etc.; the civil war starts + Russia takes Crimea; language laws start discriminating against Russian speakers (30% of Ukraine) Russian books can no long be sold in Ukraine unless also published in Ukrainian, etc.; 2021 US announces ever greater integration of Ukraine into a NATO strategic partership to counter Russian aggression; and onto 2022 when (after 8 years of negotiating and seeking a resolution to the civil war in Ukraine which was technically agreed to in Minsk in 2015 — but never implemented by Ukraine) announces 17 Feb 2022 that it will solve the problem by military means.. 24 Feb (one week later) after no response from the US (Biden says he hasn’t read the communique and won’t be responding) this war starts. It is the silliest war, since long before my time, and not worth any one dying for. Two old men arguing about whether Ukraine will be admitted to NATO, when no nation in NATO (except possibly the US) thinks starting WW3, merely to annoy Russia a good idea. Our grandchildren’s future depends on de-escalating this war; not on escalating it yet further. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/09/01/joint-statement-on-the-u-s-ukraine-strategic-partnership/

    1. Minor correction. The Budapest declaration was 1994. In exchange for giving up its nuclear weapons, Ukraine was given the following guarantees:

      1. The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America, reaffirm their commitment Ukraine, .. and to respect the independence, sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.

      2. … to refain from the threat or use of force .. against Ukraine.

      3. … to refrain from economic coercion designed to subordinate to their own interest the exercise by Ukraine of the rights inherent in its sovereignty and thus secure advantages of any kind.

      4. … to seek immediate UN security council action if Ukraine is attacked with nuclear weapons.

      Within 10 years those pledges submitted to the 49th session of general assembly of the UN had been long forgotten by all sides. By 2004 Russia and the US were waging a contest to decide who would control Ukraine and at what price. That contest is on going. Let us hope that article 4 need never be invoked.


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