By Helen James
Issue 128, January - February 2005
On the eve of the Gulf War, while I was marching for peace with hundreds of other protestors, I spotted a familiar mop of shiny red hair down low in the crowd. Sure enough, it belonged to my then nine-year-old son, Adam. I hadn’t encouraged him to take up the politics of adulthood, but he and his buddies had convinced another parent to take them to the rally. We joined forces, and I walked and talked with them as they struggled to understand the deeper meaning of that day.
As I stopped to take a photo of the boys with their handmade peace signs, a tired, frail-looking man, covered with war medals and peace buttons, began limping toward me as fast as he could manage. He’d broken ranks with his group, Vietnam Vets Against the War, and had a look on his face I will never forget. He came close and embraced me, then pulled back, stared into my eyes, and said, “If my mother had done that for me, I wouldn’t be like this now.” We shared a moment of silence, then parted with a handshake.
The vet was right—my son was not being raised to be a soldier, and someday Adam might need to show his draft board the photo we’d just taken to prove that fact. While this scenario seemed only remotely possible and a long way off, I reminded myself that some parents start college funds when a child is born. I tucked the photo away.
Adam is now 22. The photo is kept in a cardboard file box, along with a two-inch-thick sheaf of paperwork, clippings, and family history, all documenting how he was raised as a conscientious objector—a “CO.” We kept adding to Adam’s CO file through easier times, even when it seemed completely unnecessary. For a while, a combination of “smart weapons,” smaller wars, high unemployment, long enlistments, the military’s intensive multibillion-dollar recruiting efforts, and claims for educational and job-training benefits created what most considered a permanent solution to providing a shrinking military with ample volunteers.
Then came “the War on Terror.”
Politicians of both parties warn us that this war will last a lifetime. Troops are being commanded to serve more time than they signed up for, and according to some, army recruiting numbers are down. It’s a fact of life—nations reinstate conscription whenever they need soldiers. Most experts agree that opening a second war front means the draft will be back. Women could be forced to serve, and neither Canada nor college will provide refuge as they have in the past. Some politicians are calling for compulsory national service for all young people, 18 through 26—a noble-sounding enterprise that could be a prelude to military conscription.
At the same time, America is teaching children to “Use words, not fists!” Public schools now routinely teach conflict resolution, and quality children’s television encourages kids to “talk it out.” Especially after the tragedy of the shootings at the high school in Littleton, Colorado, children are being raised with the message that violence is not a solution. But will they then be drafted and taught to kill?
This situation could already be creating an internal crisis for some in the military. Who knows how many soldiers may find it difficult to rationalize how they were raised with what they are now being told to do? Many young civilian men are feeling a deeply disturbing inner conflict, and some are turning toward conscientious objection. National CO organizations report increasing numbers of callers asking, for example, how to register for the draft as an objector. (The current advice is to write, in ink, “I am a Conscientious Objector to war in any form” across the middle of the registration form, and then make and keep a copy before turning it in.)
If the draft is reinstated, under existing regulations a young conscript wanting to claim CO status will need to prove that he has a “sincere” objection to all wars. He will have to show what he believes and why, how he came to believe it, and how his actions prove he practices what he believes. His belief, according to the law, must be religious, moral, or ethical, not political or pragmatic. It is unnecessary to prove church attendance, affiliation, or a belief in God.
Even though the law requires objection to all wars, it is not necessary for a CO to know what he might have done in the past or would do in the future. This interpretation of the law protects COs from such hypothetical questions as “What would you have done in 1942?” or “What would you do if someone attacked your family?”
Nor must COs be pacifists.
J. E. McNeil, executive director of the Center on Conscience and War, a Washington, DC–based interfaith peace organization, sometimes counsels COs who are also police officers, avid game hunters, former gang members, or involved in martial arts. She says, “A prize fighter could be a conscientious objector. Muhammad Ali was both. There are COs in favor of the death penalty. What makes a CO is his deep opposition to war.”
It is, however, necessary for a CO to prove his sincerity, and that’s where documentation comes in. Conscripts may get as few as ten days to put together supporting evidence for a CO claim. Should my son ever want to prove the depth of his convictions, he’ll already have a scrapbook full of documents tracing his beliefs over his entire life.
Here’s what’s goes into a CO file:
A personal history and diary. In Adam’s case, his diary, or scrapbook, contains chronological entries including clippings, photos, and flyers from events we attended, such as Peace Day parades. There are a few of his relevant drawings and paintings and lists of all the antiwar books we read together, plus those he read by himself as he grew older. There are lists with comments about movies or television shows that, one way or another, influenced him toward peace. There are a few of his poems about caring for animals or people in need. As his parent, I noted significant life patterns and changes, such as his becoming a vegetarian, and recorded how he helped others—when he joined a wildlife rescue society, and when he organized a 4-H food drive. The diary also records ways Adam worked directly for peace, such as studying conflict resolution and marching in that Gulf War rally.
Letters that serve as character references and statements of family values. One summer, when I picked Adam up from camp, his counselor reported that he’d happily hiked and participated in all the activities but wouldn’t join in break-time war games. Wondering why children were even doing that in the first place, I asked her to put what she’d just told me in writing, explaining that it was for his CO file. She wrote, “Adam let the other children know he was against war games and informed them death was a very real consequence of war. I found him to be very strong in his attitude to promote nonviolence.” There is also a letter from his godmother explaining to Adam, then a child, why one may object to war. Also in the file are letters calling for peace written by adult family members to legislators and newspapers, plus personal statements of their own beliefs about war and peace, and their affiliations with peace organizations.
Documents about religious or spiritual practices. We included evidence of church membership, records of church activities, awards, etc., and quotations from our religion’s views on war. Adam worked hard for his Cub Scout religious medal; it, too, is kept in his file, along with more mature letters Adam exchanged with our pastor when Adam was in his teens. But remember, it is not necessary to have a formal religious practice or a belief in God to prove conscientious objection.
Anything that shows a child’s concern for life and the unity of nature. The documents in my son’s file aren’t so much “goody-goody” as examples of his healthy preference for pursuits that are not life-destructive but life-affirming. We also kept any and all evidence of his very autonomous thinking style and his not-so-mainstream upbringing. We have folded, stapled (but not put in envelopes), and mailed back to our family many of these documents in order to have the documents themselves postmarked, thus proving their dates. Some draft counselors suggest notarizing significant records.
Adam’s file is neither a protest nor a political statement, but a record of his continuing, heartfelt hope for a peaceful world and a summary of his and his family’s beliefs. Keeping the file was never much of a focus or issue; it was kept in the background. Still, it reminded us as parents to keep up age-appropriate discussions about the ethics of war and peace, violence and nonviolence, and it provided a continual opening to explore important moral issues while we worked together as a family for peace.
Adam’s own growing introspection and reading contributed as much as or more than anything we adults ever offered him. He’s an adult now, and a fiercely independent one. I have no idea where his path will take him, and only he will determine what values he will hold tomorrow. But at least I know that if his beliefs about war are put to the test of a draft board, Adam will be able to show them the complete record of one young man’s peaceful heart.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
For organizations that teach children about peace, see www.mothering.com/sections/extras/peace.html
www.encyclopedia.com/searchpool.asp?target=pacifism&submit.x=37&submit.y=16— General information about pacifism.
www.salsa.net/peace/justwar1.html— Bible quotes against war and explanations of Christianity’s “Just War Theory.”
www.sss.gov/FSconsobj.htm— The US Selective Service’s website page on conscientious objection and alternative service.
Children’s Books about Peace
On-line Book Lists and Sources:
www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/search-handle-form/102-8807131-2038505 — Amazon.com’s “Children: Peace.”
www.crinfo.org/documents/mapwil/bibliography.html — Conflict-resolution materials and lists from CR Info (The Conflict Resolution Information Source).
www.cynthialeitichsmith.com/healingus.html — Annotated list from children’s book author Cynthia Leitich Smith.
www.headstartinfo.org/infocenter/guides/peace bib.htm — Annotated list prepared by Head Start.
www.powells.com/subsection/ChildrensPeaceand Justice.html — Powell’s Bookstore’s list; political.
www.sol-plus.net/peace.htm — Antiwar book list, graded by age.
Helen James is a mother of four and grandmother of many more. She lives and works as a photographer in northern California.