Where Have All the CO Soldiers Gone?

by Robert W. Norris


Not to graveyards yet, it would seem. Military resistance to the Iraqwar has been gaining momentum. A reserve unit of eighteen soldiersrecently refused to carry out a "suicide" mission. At least foursoldiers have fled to Canada, where they are seeking refugee status.Military families against the war are speaking out publicly and settingup websites to spread their message. A member of the California ArmyNational Guard has filed suit in federal court challenging the Bushadministration's "stop-loss" policy that forces soldiers to remain inuniform for a year or more after their contracts expire.

These and other acts of resistance from within the military are welcomeand encouraging news to this old expatriate conscientious objector fromthe Vietnam War. For the Iraq war generation, the Internet has becomethe new indispensable underground news source, enabling antiwar groupsand individuals to organize, exchange information, and spread theirstories worldwide in a manner and speed undreamed of in my day. I haveto admit to an obsessive addiction to searching such sites as CitizenSoldier, 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 anattempt to keep up with what's happening. I often send letters ofencouragement to these new conscientious objectors. I want them to knowthat they're not alone, that their actions are admirable and right, thatthey may suffer abuse, indignity, harassment, and perhaps even ostracismand imprisonment, but in the long run their lives will turn out all right.

I can certainly empathize with the loneliness, the weight, and theenormity of what goes into making the decision to resist. In your lateteens and early twenties, you are seldom able to articulate the fulldepth of your feelings, morals, and values. You are scared. You feelweak and not up to the task. You are often full of self doubt. You knowthe decision will change the course of the rest of your life. It changedmine irrevocably.

Late in 1969 I became a conscientious objector from within the Air Forceafter being hoodwinked by a recruiter into believing I'd never have tocarry a gun. Country bumpkin that I was at the age of eighteen, I boughtthat lie hook, line, and sinker. Turned out I had to undergo combattraining for the job of guarding B-52 bombers. Not long after KentState, I got my order to Southeast Asia. By that time, I was involvedwith a few GI "heads" who were putting out an antiwar paper. I refusedmy order and was court-martialed. My legal counsel was an antiwar manwho'd been drafted after he completed his law degree and decided to jointhe Air Force so he could work from within the system rather than headoff to Canada and waste all that schooling. I was his first big case andhe worked hard on it.

My court martial took place on October 8, 1970. I was charged withwillful disobedience to a direct lawful order and faced a maximum fiveyears in the brig and a dishonorable discharge. I was found not guiltyof the original charge, but guilty of the lesser charge of negligentdisobedience and sentenced to six months with no punitive discharge. Thereason I was found not guilty of the original charge was that I neversaid a direct "no" to my commanding officer when I was called before himand given the formal order. I just kept repeating "I don't feel I'mmentally or physically capable of killing another human being." It wasmy initiation into the power of language. That one sentence saved fourand a half years of my life. They sent me off to a special Air Forceprison in Colorado for nonviolent offenders who were given a chance torehabilitate, retrain into a different career field, and return to theservice with a chance to serve out their obligation and get a gooddischarge. I didn't buy into the brainwashing, adamantly refused tofollow the program, and eventually got kicked out with an "undesirable" discharge.

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

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

The following statistics taken from Heather T. Frazer and JohnO'Sullivan's We Have Just Begun to Not Fight (Twayne Publishers, 1996)serve as a good example. During World War II there were fifteenconscientious objectors for every 10,000 inductees into the military, or0.15 percent. As the Vietnam War heated up and opposition to itescalated, the number of COs increased rapidly. In 1968, the percentageof COs per number of inductees rose to 8.5 percent. In 1969, it reached13.5 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 downof the draft, for the first time in history more men were classified asCOs than were inducted: 33,041 to 25,273.

Included in James Lewis's Protest and Survive: Underground GINewspapers During the Vietnam War (Prager, 2003) are tables showingyear by year "Reported Incidents of GI Dissent," "Military AntiwarActivists Arrested," and "Average Sentence per GI Activist." The lattertable shows that in 1966 the average sentence per GI activist was overforty months at hard labor. By 1969 it had fallen to less than fivemonths at hard labor. This corresponded with a large number of"fragging" cases and a huge jump in reported incidents of dissent. Itcan be said that the GI movement played a big role in helping bring theVietnam War to an end.

With the very real possibility of the draft returning soon, thousandsmore young men and women will be faced with the issue of following theirconsciences. If they resist the war in large numbers, they have theability to bring the senseless killing to a standstill and make theirthousands of predecessors like Henry David Thoreau, Eugene Debs, MahatmaGandhi, William Stafford, Martin Luther King, Mohammed Ali, NelsonMandela, that lone Chinese student at Tiananmen Square, and, yes, PeteSeeger proud.

Wasn't it Allen Ginsberg who asked, What if they gave a war and nobodycame?


2004 - Bob Norris