I remember the moment the thought crystallized. I was looking for a parking place near the Berkeley campus, thinking about the draft closing in on me. I’d done a year as a VISTA Volunteer in hopes of serving my country in a way that would preserve my pride in being an American. “If you do nothing else with your life,” I told myself, “this refusal will be the most important thing I ever do.” That day I decided to say no. I would not allow myself to participate in an illegal and immoral war.
Deciding to refuse induction into the U.S. army was difficult for a compliant person like me. I was the one that avoided confrontation, the “good boy,” the kid with perfect attendance at school. I was the Eagle Scout, on the honor roll, the Senior Class President. But now, fresh out of college, moral compass in hand, the direction of my life finally seemed certain.
I was 22 but tired. Tired of thinking about the government lies, tired of the nightly newscasts with their scoreboard of American and Vietnamese deaths. Tired of finding the death notices of 19-year-olds I knew in local papers, and tired of living with this agonizing decision.
Saying no was much more than a convenient decision. In the minds of many neighbors and family friends it meant rejecting the values instilled since birth. I saw it differently. To me, I was rejecting mindless obedience to authority and making a strong statement about conscientiousness. In good conscience, I did not want to, could not, kill another human being in a war that had yet to be justified.
I have never regretted that decision. Along with it has come the misunderstanding that those like me might see the situation differently 40 years later. Hardly. When I go to that big warehouse wrapped in an enormous Swedish flag and see three dollar rugs made in Vietnam, I realize that the U.S. and Vietnam now have lucrative trade agreements. Who won what? Did my high school friend, who drove us all to the beach on Friday afternoons in his ’59 Ford convertible die at 20 for my right to buy cheap electronics and expensive running shoes? No.
My moral dilemma concluded with alternative service with emotionally disturbed children and the label conscientious objector. What followed that was a 35-year career in public education. Today when I see the teaching profession under attack by corporate interests who, with the ballistics of standardized testing, and a one size fits all approach to human creativity and curiosity, the words I see people in authority doing harmful things with no accountability. I worry about collateral damage. Again, I must say no and urge other colleagues of conscience to do the same.