Sunday, June 25, 2017

Resistance reminiscence

Vietnam-era draft refuser David Harris has shared what he learned from struggling to end the U.S. war whose horrors shaped my generation. For refusing to be drafted into the army, and organizing others to do the same, Harris served two years in prison, including tough time in solitary.

I am now 71 and the war that defined my coming of age is deep in my rearview mirror, but the question it raised, “What do I do when my country is wrong?” lives on.

For those looking for an answer today, here are some lessons I learned:

We are all responsible for what our country does. Doing nothing is picking a side.

We are never powerless. Under the worst of circumstances, we control our own behavior.

We are never isolated. We all have a constituency of friends and family who watch us. That is where politics begins.

Reality is made by what we do, not what we talk about. Values that are not embodied in behavior do not exist.

People can change, if we provide them the opportunity to do so. Movements thrive by engaging all comers, not by calling people names, breaking windows or making threats.

Whatever the risks, we cannot lose by standing up for what is right. That’s what allows us to be the people we want to be.

Harris' movement called itself the Resistance. The war and the movement against it engulfed a generation.

By the time the feds let Harris loose in 1971, the U.S. Army itself was falling apart as young citizens simply stopped playing by the rules, however they could. I was trained in "draft counseling" (advising young men about their legal options to avoid the draft) in that year. But in truth what we were doing after years of unpopular war was often trying to help unwilling soldiers who had gone AWOL stateside to figure out what options they could find. Often, the army didn't seem to want to find them. Other men served and fought in Vietnam for a cause they seldom fully affirmed. I know vets who completed high school, were drafted into the army, and quickly became addicted to the plentiful cheap heroin that Saigon supplied. Some even sabotaged the U.S. war effort from inside, so alienated were they from a war they felt was immoral and wasteful of lives, including theirs. Many had a very bumpy return to civilian life. By the 1980s, Vietnam vets were a huge proportion of the homeless population that ballooned on city streets in that decade. Believe it or not, U.S. cities weren't home to large, visible populations of homeless people before the Reagan recession of 1982.

Not surprisingly, the last thing both political elites and the military would want today is a broad compulsory citizen draft. Unwilling and unenthusiastic draftees can ruin an army. Our rulers know they must fight their wars with some mix of high tech armament and professional soldiers. This doesn't seem to much constrain them.

I think Harris's points remain germane to our current circumstances.

2 comments:

joared said...

Harris' points are definitely germane today! Thanks for the reminder and posting them here.

Rain Trueax said...

Reagan contributed to another reason for homeless on the street when he emptied halfway houses and places the mentally ill had lived. We never saw people walking down the street mumbling to themselves until after he made that change-- supposedly to help the mentally ill get out in society-- uh huh!

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