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Nonwar Stories 

Why We Still Need Conscientious Objectors

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"War--is--not--a game," says Robert Oliver, speaking slowly and with just a hint of exasperation that at this time such obvious statements have to be made over and over again. "People say 'USA, USA, USA,' like it was the Olympics. But innocent people are getting killed. They don't get up again like in the movies."

Oliver is better qualified to say this than some, since he spent more than four years in an Air National Guard squadron based at O'Hare. "We had an operational-readiness inspection--a war game, really--in the summer of 1989," he recalls. "In part of that game, I had to shoot a 'terrorist.' Even though I knew it wasn't real, I hesitated. And I really felt bad after I did shoot him.

"Afterward, people came around and congratulated me: 'Good job, good job,' as if I'd made a touchdown or hit a home run. It didn't make me feel any better." Now, a year and a half later, he has been honorably discharged from the Guard as a conscientious objector to war in any form.

You can find war stories just about anywhere you look, from 133rd and Brainard (the Stanley J. Sukta Veterans of Foreign Wars Post Number 5414) to Peterson and Cicero (the Billy Caldwell American Legion Post Number 806). There are more than 50 club buildings in Chicago alone where veterans can gather to talk over the good, the bad, and the horrible. But there is no Conscientious Objectors post, no designated hangout for those whose consciences would not let them fight.

Occasionally a church building or meetinghouse serves this function. And that's where I found myself Saturday, February 16--spending four hours on hard chairs in Hyde Park Union Church with about 40 other people, listening to nonwar stories from five generations of conscientious objectors and realizing that Robert Oliver is far from alone. His tradition may be unpopular to the point of obscurity, but it survives.

Why even talk about conscientious objection when there is no draft, and the administration says there won't be? Four reasons:

One, some people are already in the military when they discover their true beliefs.

Two, in case of another war, Bush could change his mind about the draft as fast as he did about taxes. Says David Finke, chairman of the board of the Midwest Committee for Military Counseling, "If anybody tells you 'There will be no draft,' don't bet your life on it."

Three, the current plan for a draft would allow just ten days from the date on your induction order to the date you're required to report. That's less than a week and a half to make a major life decision and document CO status to the satisfaction of the local draft board. A little thinking ahead of that time might be in order, which is why the American Friends Service Committee offers CO counseling in its Loop office one afternoon a week.

Four, even if there is no draft--and even if in the final analysis COs are wrong to reject war as a tool of governmental policy--their perspective is still sobering and necessary as a contrast to the barely restrained blood lust that passes for mainstream political commentary these days.

In September 1918, Lloy A. Kniss was a retiring 19-year-old Mennonite schoolteacher from the Pennsylvania backwoods. (His grandson, Fred Kniss, a Vietnam-era CO and now a graduate student in sociology at the University of Chicago, tells the story.) In World War I, even men who had grown up in historic peace churches were automatically drafted and placed under military law. Kniss, separated from his fellow Mennonites by a bureaucratic mix-up, took the night train to Georgia with a thousand or so enthusiastic young draftees. "None of the boys slept," he wrote later in amazement. "The young men on the train abandoned all restraint and self-discipline. They milled back and forth through the train, shouting and using foul language, even blaspheming, so that the situation was like a riot. It seemed to me that they were all controlled by some demonic spirit."

Kniss may have been naive and uncommonly pious, but he also had a stubbornness more than equal to the spirit of the military. On arriving at Camp Greenleaf (at Fort Oglethorpe), he sought out an officer and identified himself as a conscientious objector. The officer swore and said, with threatening irony, "You'll be proud of yourself." When the draftees began drilling, Kniss stayed in his tent until the sergeant discovered him and had him brought forcibly to the parade ground. Still he would not march or keep in step. (If he had cooperated, he might not have been considered a sincere objector.) His grandson says, "I think he founded the 'go limp' method." The draftees around him were ordered to make him march by kicking him in the shins and stomping on his toes with the heels of their heavy drill shoes. This went on every day for a week or two.

Kniss's confrontation with the Army did not end there. Though he was willing to clean up around his own tent, he would not clean up the streets of the military city. Nor would he carry the large box into which others had tossed rubbish. On one occasion when the sergeant put its handles in his hands, Kniss just let go. The sergeant then strapped his hands to the handles, but still Kniss wouldn't lift the box.

When it came time to don uniforms, a lieutenant invited Kniss to come in the night before to make sure he got a good fit. Kniss declined, but was hauled out anyway. In a room with half a dozen corporals, he was forced to disrobe and then forcibly dressed in the uniform and publicly paraded back to his tent with the shirt misbuttoned and the fly unzipped. Worse yet, his civilian clothes were packed in his suitcase and mailed back to his mother.

This mistreatment was apparently the only occasion Kniss protested, in part no doubt to reassure his family that he had kept faith and not voluntarily put on the uniform. Eventually his minister's persistent correspondence with Secretary of War Newton Baker straightened the matter out. After several other tribulations and beatings, Kniss was acknowledged to be a sincere CO. He was to be furloughed to agricultural work, but the November 11 armistice intervened.

A lifetime later, in 1971, having served his church as missionary and as bishop, Kniss wrote a booklet about his experience, I Couldn't Fight. As his grandson recalls, Lloy Kniss was surprised and a little embarrassed that it made him something of a hero to the Vietnam generation of Mennonite COs--so much so that he wrote a sequel, Why I Couldn't Fight, explaining his differences with the COs of a later era. The elder Kniss was a strict nonresister: "Someone asked me later, 'Why didn't you report him [an abusive officer] to Washington?' My answer was simply, 'Then where would have been my nonresistance?'" Like Jesus, he believed in turning the other cheek; he remained faithful to his understanding of the gospel and did not try to bring about social change. His objection to the use of force extended not only to war but even to the force implicit in majority rule and the police power of the state, and certainly to "coercive" antiwar demonstrations.

Resolutely nonpolitical, Kniss wrote that he had no quarrel with "our excellent government." But as Fred Kniss notes, even such seemingly isolated acts can have unexpected influences long afterward.

The World War I generation of COs bequeathed one important legal change to their sons and grandsons: all draft laws since 1940 have allowed draftees to claim conscientious-objector status before being drafted--that is, under civilian law--rather than after. They might be hounded or ostracized, but they would not be beaten up, paraded, or kicked into marching by the military.

Later CO laws have also made room for people who object to war but are not absolute nonresisters like Lloy Kniss: a conscientious objector objects to war in any form but not necessarily to the use of force in any form. If personally attacked, he (or she) might fight back. It is not necessarily personal combat the CO abhors but war--the civilian bombings, the Cruise missiles, the organization of mass destruction, and the turning of Nintendo players into reflexive killers.

Of course you don't pick up CO lore from TV or on the playground in the same way you might pick up GI Joes and toy M16s. But in each generation a few find their way, often by chance, to the nonwar tradition. John Hundley's upbringing--he was raised a Southern Baptist in downstate Clay County in the 50s and 60s--was about as far from that tradition as could be imagined. Hundley, now a Loop lawyer with a civil practice, remembers attending a 1960 revival meeting where the preacher urged the defeat of John F. Kennedy on the grounds that, being a Catholic, he could not possibly uphold the Constitution. The then-prevalent rural religious culture gave even shorter shrift to Jews and blacks. Hundley says he can hardly separate his conversion to conscientious objection from his unlearning of that kind of fundamentalism.

First he discovered hypocrisy within his own camp, then he discovered alternatives to it. "When I was a high school senior, a neighbor and I took some animals into East Saint Louis to sell. Another neighbor went, too. We sat on the hotel's front porch and watched [the second neighbor's] truck keep going around the corner. I finally asked why he couldn't seem to find a place to park, and the neighbor explained to me he wasn't looking for a place to park, of course--he was looking for the woman he customarily picked up on that corner! And his children were some of the most respected in the school."

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Hundley left ROTC after a semester--for reasons of convenience, not conscience. He also joined the Daily Illini student newspaper, where he made friends and covered stories that challenged past prejudices. He took a course in comparative religion that suggested that common themes among different religions are more important than the details that separate them. And the details of Southern Baptistry, as then constituted, were becoming hard to swallow: "If one takes the Bible seriously, one does not have an attitude on race relations like what most of the Southern Baptist Convention and similar denominations had at that time. . . . For a time I really didn't know what I was religiously." Eventually he began attending Presbyterian services.

As Daily Illini sports editor the following year, en route from a game he overheard a conversation between two linemen who were both good enough to play pro ball. "They were struggling with the question of whether there was something more important than 'getting up every Sunday to kill those Packers.'" One of them, a five-point student and defensive lineman of the year, decided there was. "By the end of the season he decided not to go back to football his senior year, and to get involved in political activities instead. I broke that story, and it made an impression on me."

Meanwhile the Vietnam war raged on. Shortly after Hundley became editor in chief of the Illini, in the spring of 1969, he got a call asking if he had been among the 250 or so campus leaders and editors nationwide who had pledged not to go if drafted. "I wasn't on the list, because I hadn't been in office when it was circulated. But I thought, what if I had been? What would I do?" A fellow student sent his draft card back to his draft board; he was punished by being drafted, and later he was prosecuted for refusing induction. "In that time, it was difficult not to confront those issues." Writing antiwar editorials was one thing. Beyond them lay the next step. "What does that mean for your personal life? Are you going to put your body where your mouth is? . . . By the end of the summer of 1969, I was fairly confident in my own mind that I couldn't go." He sought draft counseling and filed a conscientious-objector claim.

He asked to plead his case in person to his local draft board in Louisville (pronounced "Lewisville"), the Clay County seat. Its office door displayed a bumper sticker saying "America, Love It or Leave It." The board clerk said, "We've never given a CO before, except to a Jehovah's Witness," who didn't want it.

The board clerk said more to Hundley than any of the board members did at the hearing. They listened to him, asked no questions, made no comments, and later ruled that his objection was not sincere. In due course he was drafted; he refused to go, and was tried and convicted in federal district court in Chicago in 1972.

"I was prepared for prison and frankly expected it," says Hundley, so he was surprised when the judge sentenced him instead to five years' probation--in effect, "alternative service" not unlike what he would have performed had the local board agreed that he was a CO. The sentence was later reduced, and in 1975 Hundley was pardoned by President Ford.

Looking back, Hundley is not anxious to be labeled a hero for his action: "People were dying, and I didn't do anything affirmatively to confront the war machine. I waited for it to come to me. There were more vigorous actions I could have taken." After graduation in 1970 he worked in a nutrition-education program, and later, in the 1972 McGovern campaign ("I had to get court permission to go to Michigan with the campaign, because I wasn't supposed to leave the state"). He insists he's not an anarchist--"but with regard to the limited area of whether you kill people, the process has taught me that that ultimately is a decision you can't count on Selective Service or the legal system to make for you. You may not even receive support from church organizations. It really becomes a question of one's own inalienable right" to decide, as stated in the Declaration of Independence.

That right to decide may exist in God's eyes, or in the Declaration, but it isn't in the Constitution. It's a privilege granted by law, but it benefits the military at least as much as it does COs. As Hundley and others have come to see more clearly over the years, the CO classification exists in large part to weed out those people articulate and stubborn enough to disrupt boot camp the way Lloy Kniss did. For this reason, some people with CO convictions refuse the classification, on the grounds that it too is a part--a small part--of the war organization they oppose.

Most people don't become COs overnight or in the abstract. Usually they begin by questioning the particular war at hand, and for a variety of reasons. When I ask Hundley if Vietnam--arguably a civil war, or a colonial war in which we'd stepped into the French colonists' shoes--was an easier war to start questioning than the Iraqi conflict, he replies wryly, "At least in Vietnam we weren't defending a king!"

He adds, a little more seriously, "The more one studies the history of wars, the more cynical one becomes as to whether there ever has been anything like a just war. Not just Korea or Vietnam--look at Panama, for heaven's sake! We literally cannot capture a fugitive dictator without killing thousands of innocent people."

Most conscientious objectors make the same point: a noble goal cannot redeem a war, because the war-making process is itself immoral, and leaves no room for the individual soldier to choose only those parts he or she finds acceptable. "I talked with a young man the other day who said he didn't think he could be a CO, because he would have fought in the Civil War after Antietam. I guess the answer to that is, yes, but would you have participated in Sherman's march across Georgia?"

And that was before the invention of the air war. Says Hundley, "We're way beyond volunteers in a field shooting at each other. Right now--for 35 days, we have conducted a war which, even if you believe it is justified, has been waged on the central premise that any number of Arab lives are equal to a few U.S. lives."

Robert Oliver might have been one of those U.S. lives, except that he's that rare thing, a conscientious objector who discovers his convictions without a war to force his hand.

Oliver grew up Catholic on the south side; in October 1985, at the age of 28, he joined a combat support squadron of the Air National Guard. "I joined for the same reasons everybody else does: extra money, possibly going to college. I used to know a lot of veterans where I had worked, and I felt maybe it was time to do my share for 'democracy,' defending the United States." After he'd spent six weeks in basic training and another nine in tech school, he learned that the military defined "defending the United States" rather broadly: "It turned out that we were worldwide deployable." Not that the news bothered him. His duties as a weekend warrior were not onerous--two days a month plus a solid two weeks every summer--and in any case he was gung ho. "When I got back from tech school, Ronald Reagan wanted to bomb Libya. I was all for it, like everybody else except my mother and Jimmy Carter. I was of the opinion that might made right."

His first doubts? "I would have a fleeting thought that I was participating in helping to kill and destroy. Then I started having that thought every time I went out there. I felt uncomfortable, but I didn't know anything about conscientious objection, I felt I had to ride it out. I wasn't afraid of war; at the time things seemed relatively stable. But that thought kept coming to me.

"And then, it must have been late winter or early spring of 1989, I found The Disarmer's Handbook and read it. It's a handbook of warfare, theories of modern warfare, theories of deterrence. It kind of opened my eyes to a lot of things." From there he discovered organizations like the War Resisters League, Beyond War, and the World Without War Council. For the summer "operational-readiness inspection," the one where he had to shoot the "terrorist," he packed some light reading: Anthony Kenny's The Logic of Deterrence and Michael Clarke and Marjorie Mowlan's Debate on Disarmament. A growing curiosity about the "evil empire" led him to apply for a journalism fellowship to visit the Soviet Union through the New York City Center for War, Peace, and the NewsMedia, but he didn't get it.

He joined and worked with Illinois Sane/Freeze, and there he encountered the Tokyo-published book Hiroshima/Nagasaki, which might be a coffee-table book if it weren't for its subject matter. Oliver describes it: "Very graphic photographs of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and of living survivors--a young girl with her skin hanging in strips. The bodies of children, charred corpses, eyewitness drawings and paintings too horrible to describe.

"It really made an impression on me. I saw that these people were innocent. They had no say-so for their country being a part of that war. That's what war is all about--not people on a battlefield shooting muskets at each other. It's total annihilation, and everybody is involved. I could not be a part of that system anymore."

It wasn't just a gut response. "I started to become convinced that war was incompatible with the teaching of the New Testament, especially since Christians in the first century refused to go to war--I considered that a more accurate model for the Church than today's practice." He learned that others of his Pentecostal persuasion had been COs in World War I.

Oliver started contributing columns to the Defender on Hiroshima: "a tragic and evil mistake." On military recruiters: "Think before you enlist." And on patriotism: "African Americans have participated in every major war since the Revolutionary War. However, while fighting for someone else's freedom, they still had no real freedom in their own country."

In September 1989 Oliver filed his claim for discharge as a conscientious objector, not long before the Berlin Wall came down and an era of peace seemed assured. "People asked me, 'Why bother?' But I knew back then that things can change rather quickly, friends turn into enemies and enemies turn into friends." After a lengthy process including interviews with chaplains and a psychologist, a formal hearing, and approval at state and national levels, he received his discharge on January 7, 1991--just nine days before U.S. bombers hit Baghdad.

Some of his interviewers asked how his CO beliefs had changed his daily life. "I said, I don't watch war movies or TV shows. I know M*A*S*H* is an antiwar show, but I couldn't handle those olive-drab uniforms." In a sense, though, he hasn't gone far from the military even if personally he's left it behind. As associate director of the Midwest Committee for Military Counseling on East Van Buren, he has dealt with as many as 100 calls a day at peak war-scare periods. The calls range all over the place. Some are college students checking on the possibility of a draft. Then there was the woman whose only son had enlisted, counting on the recruiter's promise that he would never see combat because of his family situation. He had been sent to Saudi Arabia, and his mother was distraught. "Does that make her unpatriotic?" wonders Oliver in sardonic deadpan.

Unlike Lloy Kniss, Robert Oliver feels obliged to go beyond a personal rejection of war; he tries to bring about social change as well. One potential change his reading introduced him to is massive nonviolent "civilian defense" against enemy attack. He's been a speaker at antiwar rallies--in fact, he was late arriving in Hyde Park for his talk February 16 because he had been at a Loop rally where, he said, "a few brilliant peace activists decided they wanted to close down Lake Shore Drive. People who want to impose their will in that way are not really for peace--they're no better than Saddam Hussein or George Bush." The words could almost have been Kniss's.

Oliver says he was pleasantly surprised when most people treated him well during his drawn-out CO application process. "I was treated with respect. I can't say the same about other applicants that I've counseled. I'm really concerned about them, especially at this time.

"There's a recent Department of Defense directive--I call it the Department of War, because that's what it is--which says that people who are on orders or on alert now must apply for CO at their new permanent duty station: that is, Saudi Arabia. There have been reports of people refusing to get on the plane to Saudi and being forced on board in handcuffs and leg irons." In my mind's eye I saw Lloy Kniss being kicked and dragged across the parade ground, keeping cool, staying limp, realizing that nothing could be worse than giving in to what he knew to be evil.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.

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