My Application for Conscientious Objector status during the Vietnam War in 1968

On Conscientious Objection by Stephen D. Clemens. November 1968

[In October 1968, at age 18, I was required to register for the Military Draft under the provisions of the Selective Service Act. I chose to register as a conscientious objector, Classification I-O, and submitted these answers in response to the 4 questions from my Draft Board in Norristown, PA as required.]

1. It is my belief that participation in war of any sort or in any form is wrong, and I am thereby opposed to service in an organization (the Armed Forces) which is actively engaged in such activity. I believe that it is wrong to kill, and this is the basic goal of the Armed Forces in defeating an enemy. I believe there is one God, a Supreme Being, and it is his right alone to decide who should or should not continue living. If I am fighting as a soldier and kill a man, I am essentially playing god, because I have decided that I should live while my enemy must die. Who am I to judge that I deserve to live; yet he doesn’t?

My religious training and beliefs have led me to believe that I am to love my enemy, and I feel that taking up arms against someone is contrary to this. Although the ultimate goal or purpose of war may be honorable, such as the purpose of peace or freedom from tyrannical rule, I believe the goal may be reached through other means than the taking of other men’s lives. In the instance of war, I do not believe that “the end justifies the means.”

I believe that by participating in any way, shape, or form in the Armed Forces, not only am I condoning, but I am actually helping something with which I am religiously opposed. I am commanded, I believe, by God in Exodus 20:13, that I must not kill and therefore participation in war is morally and religiously wrong for me. In the situation of war, one is obviously subjected to the emotions of anger and hate when je sees his buddies killed before his eyes, or after he has been forced to crawl through swamps, trenches, not knowing when he will be killed or have to kill to protect his life. I believe that [the Apostle] John was correct when he claimed that hatred of the other man (in this case the enemy) is essentially the same as murder (I John 4:15), when one realizes that although only one may be a physical act, both are morally alike. The Bible claims that “man only looks on the outward appearance” (murder as a physical act) “while God looks on the heart” (hate as a state of mind), found in I Samuel 16:7.

I believe we are to be “our brother’s keeper” (Genesis 4:9-10). This does not mean that we are “our brother’s keeper” for just our allies but also for our enemies. In taking their lives, this concept is violated. I receive this concept through the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). The Good Samaritan was praised because he helped his enemy, not because he took his life or ignored him.

I do not believe in the use of force for revenge or retaliation, which is a purpose of the Armed Forces. I put my trust in God and in the Bible, which I believe is God’s word to men. It claims, “The wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.” Jesus Christ commands us to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:9), a direct contrast to the idea of war. Christ instructs us to “not return evil with evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:17) – not armed force. We are commanded to pray for, comfort, and feed our enemies, not destroy them.

We are instructed to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Surely we don’t wish to be killed. Maybe if we take the initiative and love our enemies instead of warring with them, peace might finally be established. It is man’s natural instinct to resist force, but “love conquereth all things.”

I base much of my belief on the exemplary life of Jesus Christ. One relevant example can be seen in Christ’s actions on the night before he was crucified. His enemies came to capture him and one of the disciples, Peter, drew his sword and lopped off the ear of one of the guards. Christ could have helped in the use of force against force but he didn’t. He not only told Peter to put away his weapon of force, but even went to the extent of showing love to his enemy in that he healed the man!

The Bible instructs: “Avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Romans 12:19). In the verse following the former, He also instructs us to feed and give drink to our enemies, not to heap vengeance on them. The prophecy of “beating swords into ploughshares” (Micah 4:3) shows that our efforts should be turned toward a constructive goal (plowing to support life, rather than using the sword to take away life). Christ claimed, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). The Bible instructs to “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). God has said, “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another” (I John 1:5).

2. I was born and raised in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, and as early as I can recall, I attended Calvary Mennonite Church in Souderton. I was dedicated to God by my parents in March 1951 in that church, and have attended there regularly prior to my sophomore year in high school. Since that time I’ve been away at prep school on Long Island and now I’m attending a religiously based college in Wheaton, Illinois.

It was from my parents, my father being a deacon in the church, and from the church itself along with personal investigation into the Bible, that I have arrived at my beliefs. I’ve attended Sunday school, church, youth fellowship, Sunday evening services, and Wednesday prayer meetings ever since I was a small child. I believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. I have been taught that what I believe should not be so much how my church or parents believe, but how I feel God is causing me to believe through the personal relationship which I have established with his Son, Jesus Christ; and through reading the Bible, I found in the majority of cases that I totally agree and believe in what my church and my parents believe in. However, this is from my personal investigation rather than being molded into believing and never questioning that which my parents and the church as a whole believe.

I was baptized and accepted as a member into the Calvary Mennonite Church at age 14. Most of my religious training I received through Sunday School, vacation Bible school, discussion of topics with my parents who supported their beliefs with the Bible, and trough hearing scripturally based messages.

Through daily reading of my Bible, I have my beliefs affirmed so that presently I know that God wants me to serve in some peaceful program, rather than being connected in any way with war and killing. I mentioned in the above paragraph that I feel this is an individual decision concerning one’s beliefs and therefore, I feel my decision must be a personal one. I have no right to condemn others who do not believe the same as I do.

Most of the articles, books, and related material which I have taken in probably do more to affirm my already established belief and strengthen it rather than “instructing” me as such. Most of the influence of such works merely strengthen my conscience toward the subject of nonresistance and opposition to war. I have read several articles in magazines such as Christianity Today and Christian Life on conscientious objection to war. Another work which struck me as a relevant commentary on this idea was Hemmingway’s masterpiece, A Farewell to Arms. Also reading books aimed with another point of view in mind, or at least on the surface, such as The Red Badge of Courage, has convinced me that I thoroughly believe in the position which I am trying to explain.

Many people have caused me to think about my position; many disagree with the viewpoint for themselves but see how it is valid for me. A lot of times I, or someone, will bring up the question of military service in “bull sessions.” Some in the discussions help build up my belief either by saying things which I do believe but never have expressed in their way, or by opposing my beliefs, making me analyze my stand in view of their new ideas.

A special speaker here at college on Veteran’s Day unconsciously helped me see the aspect of me being “my brother’s keeper” in relation to war – in this case a specific war – Vietnam. Colonel Robinson, the speaker, emphasized that the people in South Vietnam are our “brothers”, so we must protect them by helping them militarily. But this point caused me to consider the fact of the enemy too. Just because they live under a different political structure and have a different religion, does that mean they are not are “brothers” too?

I have also talked to several people who have been classified I-O because of similar beliefs and we discussed our position. I have talked to two of my friends from my church, and also two or three friends here at college who are conscientious objectors. These talks have helped to affirm my belief and clarify it in some areas where I didn’t know how to articulate my feelings, while some of the others could understand and verbalize my beliefs.

Another encounter which points me to the stand of conscientious objection to service in the Armed Forces is my present experience in ROTC here at Wheaton. ROTC is mandatory the first two years. In there, I find myself thoroughly disgusted with the pervasive emphasis on killing and bloodshed. I strongly object to the fact that the basic “mission” of the Rifle Infantry is to seek out and “destroy (kill) or capture the enemy.” I all good conscience, I could not support such a mission.

Probably the source which I have used the most to arrive at my position is the Bible. I find that Christ preached a message of love and peace – not destruction and war. Not only have I received ideas from God (the Bible), but also through the songs of contemporary men. Donovan in his song, “Universal Soldier”, proposes that without the soldiers “there is no War. He decides who lives and dies.” I think that decision must rest with God, not the “universal soldier”. Eric Burton informs the listener in “Sky Pilot” that just the “sky pilot praying” won’t “stop the bleeding or ease the hate.” Bob Dylan also reminds us of the serious crimes of war in “Masters of War.” He goes on and adds that the soldier coming back from battle “remembers the words, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’”

3. According to my beliefs, I want no connection whatsoever with the Armed Forces because by being associated with them, I would be condoning something against my conscience. I have nothing against helping those injured or sick, but I could not do so within the confines of an organization with whose mission I am at odds.

I feel that it is my duty and patriotic privilege to serve my country in a program where I know I would be doing good rather than in the Armed Services as a non-combatant where my conscience would not permit me to serve. I am anxious to serve in a capacity similar to the Peace Corps, or work in inner-city problems. I hope to major in sociology, and I feel I could do a positive good serving my country in such a manner.

I have received information and am very interested in an organization called “Christian Service Corps,” which is similar to the Peace Corps but is not supported through the Federal Government, and whose aim, along with loving people by helping them with physical and social problems, is to help people fulfill a basic need of man, a spiritual one. In such a program I feel I can spread goodwill for the United States and also do something I know to be worthwhile.

I am not afraid to die – here, in Vietnam, or elsewhere – but when I do die, I want to die doing something which I consider to be worthwhile and morally acceptable to me. Serving as a medic I would have to face a dilemma which to me presents two distasteful choices. If while serving as a non-combatant, the base would be overrun, I would have a choice of taking up arms or not. If I take up arms and kill, I know it is wrong for me, and if I stand by and refuse to interfere while helpless patients are slaughtered, I feel I am guilty there. My only solution is to avoid such a situation, if possible, by completely cutting myself off from the Armed Forces.

4. Although I have never formally presented the views stated herein, I have discussed them in detail with several individuals. I have discussed my views with my professor of Military Science of the ROTC department. I have discussed them with my [academic] advisor and his assistant here at Wheaton [College] also. In my speech class we have briefly exchanged views. And numerous times I have been glad to explain my views to them.

I feel (as expressed in #2) that the decision of one’s military service should be on an individual basis, and I feel that I have no responsibility to persuade others to adopt this opinion against their will. This is why I have never formally presented my views on war or service in the Armed Forces. However, if someone is not sure of their position, I will explain my position to him so that he may have a clearer idea of what stands he is deciding on. It is up to the individual’s conscience in deciding this matter, and I believe it should be settled with the individual and God alone.

1 comment:

Steve Clemens said...

I certainly would word things differently today but I posted this as a road-marker on my long journey towards peacemaking.