Word of Encouragement from and Expatriate CO

“America, love it or leave it.” That’s what a lot of us resisters and conscientious objectors heard back in the sixties and seventies. I was one of the ones who took the advice literally. The United States seemed like a foreign country to me then, and it still does now.

As an expatriate living in Japan, I rely on the Internet to get my alternative news. I have to admit to an obsessive addiction to searching such sites as Citizen Soldier, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Military Families Speak Out, SNAFU, as well as older ones like Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Veterans for Peace, War Resisters League, and several others in an attempt to keep up with what’s going on in my old “foreign country.” I find it welcoming, encouraging, and even a bit nostalgic to read that military resistance to the Iraq war is gaining momentum — some soldiers refusing to carry out “suicide” missions; a few soldiers fleeing to Canada to seek refugee status; military families speaking out publicly against the war and setting up websites to spread their message; suits being filed in federal court challenging the Bush administration’s “stop-loss” policy that forces soldiers to remain in uniform for a year or more after their contracts expire.

I often send letters of encouragement to these new conscientious objectors. I want them to know that they’re not alone, that their actions are admirable and right, that they may suffer abuse, indignity, harassment, and perhaps even ostracism and imprisonment, but in the long run their lives will turn out all right.

I can certainly empathize with the loneliness, the weight, and the enormity of what goes into making the decision to resist. In your late teens and early twenties, you’re seldom able to articulate the full depth of your feelings, morals, and values. You’re scared. You feel weak and not up to the task. You’re often full of self doubt. You know the decision will change the course of the rest of your life. It changed mine irrevocably.

Late in 1969 I became a conscientious objector (CO) from within the Air Force after being hoodwinked by a recruiter into believing I’d never have to carry a gun. Country bumpkin that I was at the age of eighteen, I bought that lie hook, line, and sinker. Turned out I had to undergo combat training for the job of guarding B-52 bombers. Not long after Kent State, I got my order to Southeast Asia. By that time, I was involved with a few GI “heads” who were putting out an antiwar paper. I refused my order and was court-martialed. My legal counsel was an antiwar man who’d been drafted after he completed his law degree and decided to join the Air Force so he could work from within the system rather than head off to Canada and waste all that schooling. I was his first big case and he worked hard on it.

My court martial took place on October 8, 1970. I was charged with willful disobedience to a direct lawful order and faced a maximum five years of hard labor in the brig and a dishonorable discharge. I was found not guilty of the original charge, but guilty of the lesser charge of negligent disobedience and sentenced to six months with no punitive discharge. The reason I was found not guilty of the original charge was that I never said a direct “no” to my commanding officer when I was called before him and given the formal order. I just kept repeating “I don’t feel I’m mentally or physically capable of killing another human being.” It was my initiation into the power of language. That one sentence saved four and a half years of my life. They sent me off to a special Air Force prison in Colorado for nonviolent offenders, who were given a chance to rehabilitate, retrain into a different career field, and return to the service with a chance to serve out their obligation and get a good discharge. I didn’t buy into the brainwashing, adamantly refused to follow the program, and eventually got kicked out with an “undesirable” discharge.

That experience was the springboard for a nomadic life that led me through many countries, many jobs and changes, and finally to Japan, where I’ve lived and worked since 1983. I can truthfully say that I haven’t regretted for a moment my decision to resist. My life has been full and rewarding. Although I could not have fathomed the thought at the age of eighteen, I now know that I’m a small but important part of a long history. As long as there have been wars, there have also been voices raised in opposition to wars. It’s a tradition of which I’m proud to be a part.

So what can we tell this new generation of COs? How can we encourage them to keep the faith and not to lose hope? How can we let them know that their actions are worthy and meaningful? One thing is to remind them that history is on their side and that the more they resist, the more others will follow and throw huge monkey wrenches in the government and military’s ability to wage illegal and unjust wars. The more military resistance grows, the weaker the Army becomes in trying to suppress it.

A good example can be taken from my Vietnam War generation. During that war the GI movement and resistance from within the ranks definitely played a big role in bringing the war to an end. According to Heather T. Frazer and John O’Sullivan’s “We Have Just Begun to Not Fight” (Twayne Publishers, 1996), there were fifteen conscientious objectors for every 10,000 inductees into the military in World War II, or 0.15 percent. As the Vietnam War heated up and opposition to it escalated, the number of COs increased rapidly. In 1968, the percentage of COs per number of inductees rose to 8.5 percent. In 1969, it reached 13.5 percent; in 1970, 25.6 percent; in 1971, 42.6 percent. In 1972, with the scaling down of American forces in Vietnam and the winding down of the draft, for the first time in history more men were classified as COs than were inducted: 33,041 to 25,273.

Another example comes from James Lewis’s “Protest and Survive: Underground GI Newspapers During the Vietnam War” (Prager, 2003). Included in that book are tables showing year by year Reported Incidents of GI Dissent, Military Antiwar Activists Arrested, and Average Sentence per GI Activist. The latter table shows that in 1966 the average sentence per GI activist was over forty months at hard labor. By 1969 it had fallen to less than five months at hard labor. This corresponded with a large number of “fragging” cases and a huge jump in reported incidents of dissent. You could say the military was losing control of its own soldiers and having to bow to pressure from within.

With the ongoing occupation of Iraq, the Abu Ghraib prison and other scandals, and the strong possibility that the draft will return soon, thousands of young men and women are faced once again with the issue of following their consciences. If they — civilians and current soldiers alike — resist the war in large numbers, they have the ability to bring the senseless killing to a standstill and make their thousands of predecessors like Henry David Thoreau, Eugene Debs, Mahatma Gandhi, William Stafford, Martin Luther King, Mohammed Ali, Nelson Mandela, and even that lone Chinese student at Tiananmen Square proud. copyright (c) 2005 – Robert W. Norris

Robert W. Norris has lived and taught English in Japan since 1983. He is the author of three novels: “Toraware,” “Looking for the Summer,” and “The Many Roads to Japan.” He is a professor and the dean of students at Fukuoka International University. Check out Norris’s homepage at www2.gol.com/users norris/