Where Have All the CO Soldiers Gone?

by Robert W. Norris


Not to graveyards yet, it would seem. Military resistance to the Iraq war has been gaining momentum. A reserve unit of eighteen soldiers recently refused to carry out a "suicide" mission. At least four soldiers have fled to Canada, where they are seeking refugee status. Military families against the war are speaking out publicly and setting up websites to spread their message. A member of the California Army National Guard has filed suit 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.

These and other acts of resistance from within the military are welcome and encouraging news to this old expatriate conscientious objector from the Vietnam War. For the Iraq war generation, the Internet has become the new indispensable underground news source, enabling antiwar groups and individuals to organize, exchange information, and spread their stories worldwide in a manner and speed undreamed of in my day. 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 happening. 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 are seldom able to articulate the full depth of your feelings, morals, and values. You are scared. You feel weak and not up to the task. You are 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 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 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.

The following statistics taken from Heather T. Frazer and John O'Sullivan's We Have Just Begun to Not Fight (Twayne Publishers, 1996) serve as a good example. During World War II there were fifteen conscientious objectors for every 10,000 inductees into the military, 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.

Included in James Lewis's Protest and Survive: Underground GI Newspapers During the Vietnam War (Prager, 2003) 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. It can be said that the GI movement played a big role in helping bring the Vietnam War to an end.

With the very real possibility of the draft returning soon, thousands more young men and women will be faced with the issue of following their consciences. If they 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, that lone Chinese student at Tiananmen Square, and, yes, Pete Seeger proud.

Wasn't it Allen Ginsberg who asked, What if they gave a war and nobody came?


2004 - Bob Norris