The Church, the Draft Board, and Me (8) — The Draft, Part 2: Conscience and Conflict

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The Church, the Draft Board, and Me (Installment 8 of 12)

The Draft, Part 2: Conscience and Conflict

Although I planned to continue with my college education and therefore expected further draft deferment, I would not delay filing as a conscientious objector: having reached my decision, I would act on it. When the draft board required an annual update form in June, I included with it a request for Selective Service System Form 150, “Special Form for Conscientious Objector.”

Even before requesting that form, I was considered a troublemaker by the local board and its secretary, Elizabeth Simmons. A few months earlier, I had been instrumental in stopping their stripping of deferments from me and other college students who, although considered by our schools to be full-time and “making satisfactory progress,” were not carrying a “full load” of 15 or more credits every semester. Upon receiving 1-A (“available for military service”) draft cards, some students had panicked and enlisted, but I had met with the school’s director of admissions about the policy and its effects. He had then presented the issue to the regional director of the Selective Service System, who had subsequently ruled against the local board and instructed them to restore the 2-S deferments of those of us who remained in good standing at our schools. Given that recent history, I didn’t expect the board to be kindly disposed toward me.

Realizing that I would need knowledge of conscription law and the board’s procedures, I looked for help. That search led to my first encounter with the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers. As I prepared my paperwork, I obtained free draft counseling from the American Friends Service Committee in Baltimore. (This is a good place to acknowledge, too, the indispensable assistance of C.C.C.O., the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, on whose publications the counselor and I relied.) Without even a hint of proselytizing for pacifism or Quakerism,15 the counselor helped me understand the law and the C.O. filing process.

He also stressed the need for letters of reference attesting to my sincerity. I asked five people for such letters. The first four worked at the community college: one was dean, one was admissions director, one was professor of political science, and one was guidance counselor. The fifth person was Father Robert, a Conventual Franciscan priest whom I’d known at Archbishop Curley. I asked all of them to write candidly, even if that meant stating that they did not support my claim, and to send me a copy of whatever they sent to the draft board.

I was confident that the men from the college would write in support of my sincerity. My request to Father Robert, however, was a gamble. I wanted a letter from a representative of the official Church, and I thought that one from a priest who did not agree with my pacifism yet acknowledged my sincerity would help my case. Like many of the priests I’d known, Father Robert had been conservative and authoritarian. I assumed that he would not agree with my position. I remember a little incident that illustrates his attitude.

In late winter of 1965, Archbishop Curley High was preparing to present the musical “West Side Story” under the direction of Father Claude. Perhaps as a result of his promise to my parents, he had given me the part of Indio in the play. Wanting us to look like gang members with slicked-back D.A. (“duck’s ass”) hair styles, he had obtained permission for us to grow our hair longer than the dress code permitted. One day, Father Robert approached a student in the cafeteria, produced a pair of scissors, and cut off the boy’s Beatle bangs. He then approached me. “That hair’s too long, young man,” he said; “Hold still!” Leaning back to avoid his grasp, I replied, “I’m in the play, Father.” He turned wordlessly and walked away.

But Father Robert and I had a more positive history, too. As Curley’s chaplain of the Third Order Secular of Saint Francis, an association for pious lay people, he had invested me in that order as Brother John of the Cross (the name reflected my connections with the Carmelite orders). Under his leadership, I had volunteered as a tutor in Baltimore. He could testify to both my religious sincerity and my social conscience. And although I knew that my disavowal of Catholicism, which I felt I must be frank about, would make it difficult for him to do so, I hoped that he would respond in a Franciscan spirit of love and toleration.

However, I would never know what Father Robert wrote to the draft board, or even if he did. The other four men — three of whom had served in the military, the fourth having volunteered but been rejected for physical reasons — sent me copies of letters they had written on my behalf. All four stressed my moral seriousness, sincerity, and activism. One even wrote that our conversations had caused him “to rethink my own position with respect to my own past military service and my attitude towards war.” Father Robert, who had last seen me when I was still a pious schoolboy planning to become a priest, asked me to explain my position. I replied honestly and at length, and I never heard from him again. Sidebar 2 will contain the text of my reply.

Soon after mailing my annual update and request for Form 150 for Conscientious Objectors, I received a letter from the draft board. In it, secretary Elizabeth Simmons implied that I had decided to file a C.O. claim because I expected to lose my 2-S student deferment. Here is the text of that letter.

We note from your file that you have been in college, Essex Community College, since September, 1967, and you indicate that you have completed 2 years of college. Since this is a 2-year college, and you indicate that you will be returning to the same college, next semester, you are apparently NOT making satisfactory progress. Kindly clarify the situation.

Please indicate your reason for claiming “conscientious objector” status at this time, since you did NOT make this claim when you registered … .

Kindly report in writing, your reasons, and submit when returning the enclosed SSS Form 150, by July 17, 1969.

The potential loss of the deferment was a surprise to me. Wanting to save some money before transferring, I had planned to stay at Essex Community College for a little longer as a full-time student, and I had stated that on the update report. I had not expected a problem: we had already obtained the ruling that full-time status (12 or more credits per semester) was sufficient to maintain a deferment. But I feared that the secretary’s “this is a 2-year college” argument might prevail, so I accepted that I couldn’t stay. I replied that I hadn’t known that the deferment was in jeopardy, that I was in good standing and in fact on the Dean’s List, and that, having now been advised that I could not remain at the community college, I would transfer to a four-year institution. I emphasized that my decision to file as a C.O. was not related to my deferment status.

On July 14, 1969, I filed the completed Form 150. The filing included my responses, which filled 20 pages, to the form’s four questions, along with supporting materials such as excerpts from the research paper and other of my writings. Much of my young mind’s moral reasoning on war is summed up in the following excerpt from my response to the form’s first demand, “Describe the nature of your belief which is the basis of your claim and state why you consider it to be based on religious training and belief.”

Perfection in love is our goal: it is the very purpose of our existence. … For love to destroy its beloved would be for it to destroy itself. Thus war and the service of violence is [sic] incompatible with love. War is a compromise with evil, a rejection of the demands of divine love, and as such must be considered immoral. The ethics of love can never condone the purposeful destruction of human life, especially of innocent non-combatants, as in all modern wars, for the preservation of an abstract and arbitrary national boundary or principle, or worse, the accidental material wealth of a small segment of the world population which has no right to that wealth in the midst of poverty and starvation anyway.

Unwilling either to kill directly or to assist in the killing by serving as a medic or other support staff, I requested the classification of 1-O, “conscientious objector available for civilian work contributing to the maintenance of the national health, safety, or interest.” There was an additional reason for my refusal to serve even in a non-combatant role in the military, something that applied to Catholicism as well: the required surrender of conscience. Here is an excerpt from my discussion of that issue:

It is required of every person who is a member of the military to swear an oath that he will obey all orders of his superiors, whether such orders are moral or not. But love must remain free if it is to remain alive. … Jesus Christ said, “Do not swear any oaths.”

Love cannot promise to destroy itself and its objects for any reason. … Especially in a situation where violence and hatred are present, man must be free to make every decision that comes up in accordance with the demands of the Spirit of Love rather than the demands of a military operation by any government … .

A few years later, in 1975, I would visit a Quaker congregation and learn that, like my refusal of military service and oath-taking, my beliefs in perfection in love, freedom of conscience, and submission to the Spirit were consonant with the Quaker tradition. The Religious Society of Friends would welcome me with open arms, eventually accepting me into membership. In 1969, however, the draft board responded to my statement of conscience by reclassifying me 1-A, “available for military service,” on August 8.

In the meantime, I had transferred from the community college to the University of Baltimore. As required, when the board was notified of my acceptance at the university it rescinded the 1-A and gave me another 2-S deferment. (Elizabeth Simmons typed an expiration date of only eleven days later on the new draft card, though, triggering a request from me for a corrected card. After some argument, she produced one.) Around the same time, I requested a personal appearance in order to present my C.O. case to the board. While waiting for that hearing, I sent them more documents in support of my declaration of conscience.

Other stresses of my changed life were mounting as well. I was grieving my loss of the Catholic faith, which had provided meaning despite the repression and fear, even as I continued to feel deficient because I had not “made it” to the priesthood — irrational, yes, but somehow invincible. Newly aware of social realities, I was shocked by, and reacting against, the callous and casual racism and other injustices of U.S. society. Relationships at home had become increasingly difficult. My father was unable to accept my new beliefs and activities for peace and social justice, eventually saying that “They should lock you up and throw away the key” for refusing military service. My mother tried to help, despite her disappointment in me, but she was caught between us. I needed to move out of the house — and, in case I hadn’t figured that out for myself, was told so. Increasingly alienated from faith, family, and prevailing social mores, and under threat from my own country’s government, I found my depression worsening.

I would soon drop out of school. Not long after starting at the University of Baltimore, I was permanently expelled from a logic course for questioning the possibility of absolute knowledge. My question was polite and tentative, but the professor took offense, calling me “part of the subversive element that’s ruining our country.” While brooding over that, I also acknowledged that I would not be able to attend school after moving out of the family home: I’d need to work full time then, and the draft board did not grant deferments for part-time students. Investing energy at the university seemed pointless. I stopped attending, telling myself that I would find a way to complete my education after resolution of the draft issue. (I didn’t expect that almost 20 more years would pass before my baccalaureate, and then another 16 before my master’s, but that’s how things would work out.)

After allowing myself a few more weeks under the 2-S deferment, in late November I officially withdrew from the university, notified the draft board that I had done so, and reiterated my (already denied) request for 1-O classification. I also transferred from my part-time grocery cashier position to a full-time job stocking shelves at night. Earnings from that job allowed me to move into a small rental townhouse with two others — who would leave during the year’s lease period, to be replaced by a variety of impecunious hippies. Despite the resolution I’d made years before on the athletic field, at twenty I was a college dropout working a boring, dead-end job; spending most of my pay on rent and food; and facing the possibility of felony conviction and imprisonment, with the ensuing lifelong career limitations, for refusal of induction.16 The vocation director’s “at least don’t waste your potential” was proving all too prescient.

Next: Sidebar 2: Letter to Father Robert
[15]. My expectations shaped by the Catholic model, I assumed that the AFSC spoke and acted officially for the Religious Society of Friends. I understand differently now.

[16]. “A conviction for the felony of draft refusal may have many adverse long-term consequences, such as loss of citizenship rights and diminished private and public employment opportunities. Chief among those effects may be disqualification for those occupations which require state licensing.” — “Admission to the Bar Following Conviction For Refusal of Induction,” Yale Law Journal 78(8), 1969, p. 1352.


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