1960s >> 1968 >> no-763-march-1968

Draft Resistance and Conscience

Over Vietnam, the majority of Americans go willingly to war—or at any rate keep their fears and doubts to themselves. President Johnson, under pressure about the war, replies that this is no time to argue; American boys are in battle over there. Most Americans accept this cynically emotional appeal and close their ranks—and perhaps their minds as well.


Only a minority, now graced (or cursed) with the name Draft Dodgers, stand aside and refuse to join in the killing. These young men, opposed to the Vietnam war, refuse service in the army under the United States selective service system. They sometimes destroy their draft cards, sometimes return them to the authorities—even give them to the enemy, the Vietnamese National Liberation Front.


Some of the objectors—for example the Quakers—are acting in line with a persistent opposition to war wherever it is fought. Others resist only the war in Vietnam:

  I am not a pacifist or a conscientious objector in the narrow sense, but I am a conscientious objector with regard to the Vietnam war. I do not object to conscription as such. (Michael Haag.)
I totally want to dissociate myself from my country’s course in what I consider a disgraceful, cynical war. It is not a war against communism. (Joel Gladstone.)

(Both quoted in The American, 15/12/67.)
We can see how small a minority the draft dodgers are, from the figures issued by the U.S. Justice Department of prosecutions for draft evasion. About 160,000 men are registered for the draft each month, only a part of them being called up. In the year July 1965/June 1966 the call up was 336,530; only 658 men were prosecuted. For the year July 1966/June 1967 the figures were: call up 288,000; prosecutions 1,409.


Young Americans can apply for registration as conscientious objectors but, according to the Sunday Times (21/1/68) the only people likely to be granted this are Quakers or members of the American Friends’ Church. (In this country, during 1914/18, the C. O. Tribunals rarely accepted what they called a “political” objection to war.) Very often, then, the only way out is to evade the draft laws —refuse to register, destroy or return the draft card. The legal penalty for this can be a fine of up to $10,000 and a prison sentence up to five years. There can also be illegal penalties—victimisation in employment or, as some of the card burners have experienced, a beating up from patriotic hooligans.


The draft dodgers are the latest in a long line of war resisters—a line with a mixed pedigree. There were the Christians who refused to serve in the Roman militiae; the Quakers who went by sledge to Moscow to protest against the Crimean War; the unenduring resolutions of the Second International. In this there is a discernible change; the development of capitalism had its effect on the anti-war movement. For capitalism made war total, with everyone under fire and with a modem state machine recruiting all its resources—including people—if necessary by compulsion. But at the same time capitalism needed to school its people in its productive techniques, which gave rise to a working class with political fights, often seeing capitalism’s problems as political issues. Thus when conscription came in, the opposition to it was often in political terms. Pacifism, in the words of Christopher Driver tended to become secularised.


In his book Pacifism and Conscientious Objection Professor G. C. Field, who sat on a C.O. Tribunal from 1940 to 1944, recalls among the people who came before him:

  . . . adherents of fifty one different religious bodies . . . those, comparatively few in number, whose objections were based on ethical or humanitarian grounds independently of any religious beliefs . . . a few whom we classified as political objectors and a few, also, who could only be described as objectors on aesthetic grounds.

This was the result of a development which started in 1914. Before the First World War, Britain was the only major European power to rely on a volunteer army. As the war drew closer, a conscription pressure group grew in strength and in 1902 gave birth to the National Service League (President the Duke of Wellington; supporters Rudyard Kipling, the Duke of Westminster, the Bishop of Chester.)


The outbreak of war, and the growing threat of conscription, threw up an opposition—the No Conscription Fellowship (Chairman Clifford Allen; supporters Fenner Brockway, Bertrand Russell, Bernard Boothryd.) On December 3 1914 the NCF declared itself:

  . . .  it would, we think, be as well if men of enlistment age who are not prepared to take a combatant’s part, whatever the penalty for refusing, formed an organisation for mutual counsel and action.

Stage by stage, as the war settled down into a pattern of interminable murder, the government progressed towards conscription—its appetite, as Philip Snowden pointed out, growing by what it fed upon. In March 1916 the final blow came; the Military Service Act gave the unmarried man of military age a choice between enlisting immediately or being called up in his group. If he did neither he would be “deemed to have enlisted”—in other words he was a soldier whether he liked it or not.


This was a vital provision. It meant that an objector who was turned down by his tribunal was instructed to report to his unit. If he did not go he was a deserter; if he was taken and then refused to put on a uniform he was disobeying a military command. As he was legally a soldier he was subject to army discipline; he could be sent to a military prison, court martialled, sentenced to undergo such experiences as Field Punishment Number One or even—as happened to thirty four men—could be sentenced to be shot.


Under army detention the C.O.s were subjected to a variety of brutality and torture. In the civil prisons they fared only a little better. J. Allen Skinner was one who spent time in both Wandsworth and Wormwood Scrubs during 1916/17. In 1960 he was in prison again—in Brixton after a Ban the Bomb demonstration. He told the Governor of Brixton of his earlier sentences. “That”, said the governor feelingly “must have been a terrible experience.” (See The Disarmers by Christopher Driver.)


And so it was—for Skinner and for all the other objectors to that war. There were about sixteen thousand of them (12,000 with “political” objections) and seventy three died as a result of the treatment they received.


The pacifist movement, dying down after 1918, came back to life in 1935, once more at the approach of a major European war. That was the year when the Peace Pledge Union was formed; over 100,000 signed its renunciation of war. The PPU was swept along on a wave of enthusiasm; in 1937 its Leader, the Rev. Dick Sheppard, was elected Rector of Glasgow University.


The 1939 war, as many thought it would, exposed the Pledge. (Professor Field claimed: “. . . a clear-sighted pacifist friend said to me, the Peace Pledge was really a piece of bluff”) Only about 65,000 men registered as C.O.s during the entire war and of course not all of these had signed the Pledge. British capitalism had learned a lesson. Conscription was in force before war was declared, the tribunals operated with a lighter hand (about seventy per cent of objectors were found to he “genuine”) nobody was “deemed to have enlisted”, sentences (there were about four thousand of them) were served in civil prisons. There was no torture, no death sentences, hardly any discernible victimisation, no outrages worthy of the name.


The Second World War saw a decline in the numbers of “political” objectors; from about 12,000 in 1914/18 to about 3,250 in 1939/45. This can be explained by the fact that most of these in the first war were members of the ILP which was then part of the Labour Party. By 1939 the ILP had all but disappeared arid the Labour Party no longer had any doubts about its support for capitalism’s wars.


What of the pacifists? The word covers a multitude of opinions on war, but implies the basic agreement of regarding war in the idealistic sense, as an evil in itself which can be abolished by a policy of righteousness. Thus Dr. Alfred Salter in his pamphlet Religion of a C.O. (1914):

There is a great place waiting in history for the first nation . . . that will dare to base its national existence on righteous dealing, and not on force . . .

This is typical of the pacifist attempt to deal with war in isolation from the very surrounding conditions which cause it. It avoids the all-important question of why governments base their existence on force—even a government like the Attlee administration, which included men who were objectors with Dr. Salter in 1914/18. What did their pacifism do for their policies, when they had the chance to try a little righteous dealing?


This same question was still being evaded when the Second World War came. On September 8 1939 the PPU Council agreed that “. . .  in all ways possible the PPU should strive to make the Government publish terms of peace by consent.” In August 1944 they were demonstrating for a negotiated peace and “just peace terms”. (See I Renounce War by Sybil Morrison.)


It is a massive contradiction to accept all the pre-conditions for war and social violence—to accept the capitalist system and its governments, its diplomacy, its “peace” talks and treaties—and at the same time to object to war. This basic fallacy runs like a thread through pacifist thought. The people who marched from San Francisco to Moscow in 1961 distributed a leaflet along their route which said:

  We believe that the Soviet Union and the United States with other countries should pool their resources to remove such suffering—by using the money now wasted on weapons of destruction.

And Richard Gregg, in The Power of Nonviolence, says:

Nonviolent resistance is more efficient than war because it costs far less in money as well as in lives and suffering.

Pacifists like Gregg believe that war and violence are an effect of inferior ideas (“. . . a large part of the activities of the state are founded upon a mistake, namely, the idea that fear is the strongest and best sanction for group action and association.”) But it is impossible to conceive of capitalism without war. The private ownership of the means of production divides the world into antagonistic classes, competing firms, rival nations and international power blocs. It is this competitive nature of capitalism which causes its wars, which are as much a part of the system as the governments, the money and the treaties which the pacifists are prepared to accept.


Modern war is fought to settle the squabbles of capitalism’s master class; it does not involve the interests of the ordinary people except that it brings them nothing but suffering. If the working class refuse to fight—as we say they should—it should be on these grounds—and this should apply to all war, not just to Vietnam, or Korea, or Algeria. If the pacifist, idealist objection to war is futile how much more so is that which stands out against only one particular war?


The draft dodgers may claim to have made a start. If so, they must go on to realise that there is nothing special about Vietnam— nothing special about its causes, its history, its horrors. The war resisters have won the honourable distinction of showing that capitalism need not have it all its own way—that even in face of overwhelming propaganda the working class can recognise a problem and protest. They have shown their power, and that courage does not have to wear a uniform. These qualities will stand us in good stead, when we have a society where war is only a black memory.