Learning about Conscientious Objection

Activist Frances Crowe of Massachusetts has worked on peace issues for several decades. She visited our meeting in Putney, Vermont, on June 21, 2002, with a message regarding the possibility of a new draft in the near future. I think she is dead right about this possibility, and I listened closely.

I was 15 years old when the Vietnam War was raging. Few young men were rushing to their local recruiter and enlisting in the service. They were confused by the war, and many took a stand against the fighting. With the blessings of our parents, my sister Marygrace and I ventured out into the world as peace activists, guitars in hand, eager to relay our message. We traveled to schools and college campuses where we sang the war protest songs of the ’60s.

Then the draft lottery came along. We sat glued to the TV screen with a room full of young people hoping and praying no one in the room would be called. We never thought our world would come to this: a day when a young man’s birthday drawn in a lottery would mean the unthinkable—drafted into the armed service and shipped over to Vietnam. I remember looking at their faces, filled with anxiety and fear, wondering how our government thought it could turn these young people into soldiers. Just give them a gun and a uniform?

We didn’t hear a lot about conscientious objectors, although I know there were many. Rather, we heard about other ways to beat the draft: act crazy, arrive filthy and high on drugs, confess to being a homosexual.

Many of these methods of getting out of the service were black marks on one’s record that would stay with the young men for a lifetime. Who thought about tomorrow? We clung to the hope of the day, the promise of tomorrow.

Frances Crowe arrived at Putney Meetinghouse armed with stacks of material about the proper way to be a conscientious objector when faced with the threat of a national draft. The first task for a conscientious objector is to establish one’s objection, be it moral, philosophical, or religious. An objector must be able to say what one is opposed to, and declare oneself a conscientious objector early, declare it often, and act on that declaration. When registering with the Selective Service at age 18, a young man will not have the opportunity to state his CO position until called for active duty—until a draft begins—so he must begin to build a file well in advance. He should collect letters and communications from teachers, friends, and churches all related to his beliefs. COs will have a very limited amount of time to get their claims in order once called so they should have their objections documented with a file in place to back it up.

The Center on Conscience and War has a "Basic Draft and Registration" packet that will help provide information about this process (address below).

Community members can help with this issue by being present at high schools when the recruiters are present, setting up a presentation about COs and why this option may appeal to students. As schools increasingly welcome recruiters, more parents, teachers, and activists are beginning to challenge schools to reject the recruiters and all they promise.

The evening concluded with words from Conrad Wilson, a member of Putney Meeting—a softspoken, gentle man who was a conscientious objector in World War II. Conrad shared his story about the process of being classified at that time as a CO and how his volunteer work overseas brought him to the horrors of a concentration camp in Germany where he sorted through the victims to save the living among the dead. His mother saved all the letters he had written to her, which he brought along to share with us. Missing from the letters were the words to describe the horrific scene before him, for there were no words in this young man’s vocabulary to do so.

Frances Crowe and Conrad Wilson are an inspiration. Their passion and enthusiasm for this work is evident.

There are several organizations that work on this concern: Center on Conscience and War (NISBCO), www.nisbco.org, (202) 483-2220; Central Committee on Conscientious Objection (CCCO), www.objector.org, (215) 563-8787 (Philadelphia, Pa.) or (510) 465-1617 (Oakland, Calif.); AFSC National Youth and Militarism Program, www.afsc.org/youthmil/choices/co.htm, (215) 241-7176.