Action from principle, the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations. It is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with anything which was.
-Henry David Thoreau
In 1944 the Allied strategic bombing campaign against Germany was at its height. At first because they could not bomb accurately, but later as part of a "morale-breaking" strategy, Allied bombers poured tons of high explosives not only on military targets, but on cities of no military importance. The destruction, as at Dresden, was frightful; the campaign itself, controversial. Britons and Americans from the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the pacifist Vera Brittain to the military theorist B.H. Liddell Hart protested. But the campaign went on, destroying one or even two German cities each week.
George Wilson was part of an American bomber crew in 1944. One night the pilot called the crew together and told them he planned to refuse to fly missions against non-military targets. He would do this, he said, even at the risk of court-martial. After a discussion which lasted almost until dawn, the crew decided to join their pilot in his refusal.
For George Wilson, and probably for the others, it was a new experience. Deliberate bombing of civilians had confronted his pilot, and now confronted him, with a choice. He had followed his conscience rather than the order. He had become-though he would put it this way only later on-a war resister. Then he rejected an order. Later he rejected all war.
War resistance today has its roots in the great religious and ethical traditions of the East and West. These have had a vision of peace which inspired some of their followers to renounce war entirely. The "peace churches" like the Society of Friends (Quakers), the Mennonites, and the Church of the Brethren, have been the best-known, but virtually all churches have a pacifist tradition within them. Others, while not pacifist, have joined with pacifists to seek peaceful solutions to conflicts and reconciliation among the world's peoples. These goals have become more urgent as war has become more and more terrible and threatened the end of humanity itself.
But for George Wilson, alone with his conscience, religion and ethics at first meant less than natural human impulse. Psychologists and anthropologists argue incessantly over whether people are natural killers. Military planners know better. They speak of war only in euphemisms (one "cleans out a bunker"; one does not methodically kill its inhabitants), as if they feared what would happen if we began to speak plainly about it. They drill recruits endlessly in the mechanics of the bayonet, the rifle, the cannon, until killing becomes automatic and one hardly realizes what one is doing. This keeps soldiers from losing their nerve but it does more: it makes them able to kill.
In a world which has seen the trenches of World War I and the concentration camps of World War II, and may see the mutual suicide of World War II, such training seems superfluous. But it does not always work. Surveying U.S. troops after World War II, Brig. Gen. S. L. A. Marshall found that in some units up to seventy-five percent of the soldiers on the line did not fire their weapons as ordered. In the last year of the active draft, 1972, more people applied for conscientious objector status than were drafted into the military; and thousands of others refused to cooperate with the draft at all. From our traditions, and from natural impulse, comes a reluctance to kill. It is small, but it gives some hope for a peaceful world.
War resistance is not in essence a mass movement. Each resister, even one from a peace church, confronts first the demands of conscience, and then the war system. When enough people are outraged by a war, they become a movement, and they can, as they did during the Vietnam era, help to stop the carnage. But men and women like George Wilson stand against war because they cannot do otherwise and live with themselves. They do not stop war. They undercut its moral basis. They become, as Einstein called them, "the pioneers of a warless world."
Modern war is neither simple nor one-dimensional. A shooting war like World War II is a "total" war: it mobilizes all, or nearly all, of the population; its target is more the enemy's country than the enemy's troops. Even in peacetime there is Cold War, and the institutions of war penetrate the institutions of society until, at times, it is difficult to see where civilian work begins and military work ends. Taxes in the United States, for example, support a military establishment whose cose is in the hundreds of billions, and nearly half of each tax dollar goes for war.
One major effect of this new complexity has been to blur the lines between traditional pacifism and the non-pacifist peace movement. The overwhelming danger of nuclear war has made such distinctions less important. Both sides can make common cause in the common emergency.
For the individual, modern war has made moral choice both easier and harder. War is now so destructive that the hypothetical questions beloved of draft boards seem foolish. One Navy man told me that he had become a conscientious objector to war in one morning when he saw nuclear missiles being loaded aboard his submarine. He had known they were there, but actually seeing them was a moral shock. "I realized that I'd been sitting on this stuff for a year, and it could actually destroy the world," he said. "I packed my bag and went UA (absent without leave)." He had found, as most resisters do, that an objection to war is a gut feeling which cuts through rationalizations and doubts to the truth of what one is.
Stuart, who awoke to nightmares when he saw what he was part of, had realized that he could not support war. But what was he to do? How could he stop being part of an all-pervading system? His first solution was simple and direct: leave the Navy at once, regardless of consequences. Later he applied for discharge as a conscientious objector and gained his freedom. Others find the path less clear. There are no untouched woods to withdraw to, and most resisters want to stop the system as well as divorce themselves from it. This has lead to a variety of actions-all of them, in one way or another, compromises, but all actions against war.
It is action which distinguishes war resisters from others who merely deplore war or lament over its tragedy. Men and women like Stuart or George Wilson put themselves on the line. They oppose war with their lives and their bodies, often at great personal cost. Because war uses the young, most of them are young. But older people often resist war by refusing to pay taxes or engaging in civil disobedience during demonstrations.
Not all war resistance is illegal, though we usually think of it that way. When thousands of men in the early 1970s exercised their rights under the draft law, the system broke down under its own paperwork. Following the law became, in effect, a kind of draft resistance. And by stifling a ready source of manpower, it became war resistance on a large scale.
The mass refusal of the draft during the Vietnam era is now thought of as a classic form of war resistance. It has become relevant again because of the Administration's use of draft registration as a geopolitical tool. Many young people -certainly more than the Selective Service System is willing to admit-see that the distinction between registration and an actual draft is less important than Administration rhetoric has made it sound. Thousands of letters to the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, a major national draft counseling group, repeat the same themes: registration is the first step toward the draft; and the draft, in the context of a more and more bellicose American foreign policy, is one more step toward war and disaster. These people would not-could not-be part of it.
So they refuse to register. Or, if they choose to register, they try to file for conscientious objector status despite Selective Service's refusal to consider such claims until inductions are reinstated. Some non-registrants took public stands, thus increasing their risk of arrest. Others simply stayed home.
There are many reasons for draft refusal. Some resisters oppose not only war, but conscription. They believe that, if they apply for conscientious objector status, they will actually help the system to operate. Some argue that the system is so unjust that they cannot accept what they deem to be a privileged status. Others object only to particular wars and could not gain conscientious objector status in any case.
The consequences of draft resistance are unpredictable. The law provides a maximum penalty of five years in prison and $250,000 fine for draft offenses. Much, however, depends on fate: where one lives, where one is when the offense takes place, and the attitudes of federal prosecutors and judges in one's district. Even more crucial is whether or not one took a public stand.
Selective Service has tried to find quiet non-registrants by comparing its files with other computerized lists of draft-age men-most commonly, lists of licensed drivers purchased from the states. Over 300,000 men found in this way have been reported to the Justice Department for investigation. But this massive effort, with its attendant threats to individual privacy, has borne little fruit. Of nineteen draft refusers prosecuted since 1980, all but one took a public stand.
For many men, the worst penalty attached to draft resistance is loss of federal aid for college or job training. The so-called "Solomon Amendments," which make registration a requirement for federal aid, are now considered the most effective means of enforcing draft registration. The government has virtually abandoned prosecution as an enforcement tool.
This is hardly surprising. Most "public" draft resisters are not deterred by threats of prosecution, and the sheer numbers of private resisters make prosecution unlikely in any particular case. And many resisters, both public and private, see what they have done as a statement of conscience which will be all the stronger if they end in court or prison.
One way to renounce war is by refusing to pay for it. As the defense budget has grown, the issues raised by war taxes have become more and more significant. The number of war tax resisters is small, but their witness has been one of the most dramatic in recent years, when the draft was inactive and the military less visible than during the Vietnam era.
There is no legal way to refuse war taxes. One can claim many dependents or try to live on so little income that one has no tax liability. But in most cases, the Internal Revenue Service will disallow the deductions and inform the resister that he or she owes taxes, usually with interest and penalty.
If the resister does not pay IRS's bill, he or she could face prison, but probably will not. U.S. tax laws give Internal Revenue broad powers to collect money owed them-by taking it from the resister's bank accounts, by placing levies against the resister's salary, or even by confiscating the resister's property and selling it at auction. IRS agents can also practice harassment with an impunity denied to most law enforcement officers. They can, for example, fine a resister $500.00 for filing a "frivolous" tax return. In the end, they get their money.
In this sense, war tax resistance can seem like an exercise in futility. The government gets its money despite the resister's best efforts. If a resister simply withholds part of his or her taxes (the part which goes for war), Internal Revenue can still get the balance. And there is no guarantee that the "civilian" part-payment sent in by the resister will not go to the military. This may be why tax resistance has never been as popular as draft resistance or resistance from within the military. Many war resisters consider it ineffective.
Effectiveness as we usually think of it, however, is a criterion that hardly applies to war resistance. Resistance can stop a war, and it has done so. But the individual's act in refusing to be drafted or pay for war is effective primarily on a different level. It is a witness; it raises the issue of war and makes clear that the issue is moral, not merely strategic or political. By putting the war resister on firm ground morally, it makes possible further actions against war. Considered in this light, war tax resistance may be the most effective of all.
Even war tax resistance involves compromise. The nature of our society makes it impossible to be morally pure. Men and women in the military who decide to renounce war face this dilemma in its strongest form. By being where they are, they automatically compromise themselves. Yet if they leave or refuse orders, they not only risk penalties, but may make resolving their problems even more difficult.
Stuart, who went AWOL from the Navy, found that upon his return he could not simply apply for discharge. The Navy would not consider a claim for discharge until they had decided whether to court-martial him. It was even possible that he could be returned to duty.
All this mattered little to him on the morning when he saw the missiles. Then the overwhelming need was to get away. During the Vietnam era, half a million soldiers and sailors shared this need. Even today, 200-300 military personnal go AWOL each day. The military, which finds such figures embarrassing, attributes them to poor quality recruits. But if 200-300 East Berliners a day crossed into West Berlin, the government would say that they were voting with their feet.
Only a small number of AWOLs-though no one will ever know how small-is consciously anti-war. But AWOL, by its very size as a problem, can become a kind of mass war resistance. It is at least a statement about conditions in the military, where pay is low by civilian standards, promises are not kept, and training is often meaningless.
AWOL is an unsatisfactory approach to discharge. It leaves the problem unresolved and may lead to prison time and further delay in getting out. The legal channels for discharge are few and difficult, but in the long run they are a resister's only choice. Some seek discharge as conscientious objectors; the military finds others unsuitable; still others qualify for other discharges.
For resisters who oppose only some aspects of the military, such as nuclear war, but are willing to remain inside, there are few options. The Army allows soldiers to refuse a transfer to work with nuclear weapons, but other military branches do not. The courts have held that military personnel can speak out against bombing of civilians or other acts which they oppose. But a discharge is usually the best solution for these people as well.
War resistance in its many forms is an individual act, but en masse it has accomplished astonishing things. The French Army ground to a halt in 1917 when soldiers refused to take part in further pointless, bloody offensives. Draft resistance, both legal and illegal, made the Selective Service System unworkable during the early 1970s; and resistance within the military at the same time made withdrawal from Vietnam necessary if the military was to survive.
Local draft boards are fond of asking war resisters what would happen if everyone followed their example. Some resisters regard their stand as theirs alone, without implications for others. They find the question meaningless. But an answer to the question is implicit in the actions of even these non-political resisters.
By "everyone," the draft board usually means "everyone on our side." Thus they talk past the war resister, who, by his or her action, invites everyone in every country to refuse to be part of war. Be responsible first for the evils which are done in your name, says the resister, and you will help others to stop the evils done in their names.
Resisters, the ones I have known at least, believe in personal responsibility: it is no good blaming history. Historical analysis has its place, but in the end each person must choose what to do. What war resistance shows above all is that there is a choice-that war is not inevitable, and that one can refuse to do as the government bids.
In a world where "rational" officials plan the deaths of millions of their fellow humans, this is a powerful message. It is so powerful, in fact, that war resisters have suffered imprisonment, fines, and even execution for their convictions. Every country penalizes them; every country treats them as a threat.
This is hardly surprising. War resistance is a threat to the power of governments. If the citizenry refused to fight, the government might fall, or at least have to adopt peaceful policies. The whole structure of power would be transformed.
Eighteen war resisters, or a thousand, or even a hundred thousand, will not transform the world. But by risking their lives and their freedom, they show that change is possible. It is a small but crucial hope.