Reflections of a Conscientious Objector
[What follows is the work of my friend and colleague Rick Ashton. It's a powerful story about a subject that isn't well known or talked about these days. But it's worth telling. I am very proud to "publish" it here.]
HARVARD COLLEGE CLASS OF 1967
VIETNAM ERA MEMOIR AND REFLECTIONS OF A CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTOR
RICK J. ASHTON
MAY 27, 2016
I have told the story of the Vietnam War era and my part in it to many people who have heard it with blank expressions. My children, my younger colleagues and acquaintances, and even my contemporaries have received my story as an object of antiquarian curiosity. This has led to a certain reticence on my part. I have become reluctant to experience the incomprehension and wonderment of my listeners.
Nevertheless, I hope the present telling will have a different reception. While many of the particulars will be unfamiliar, I think most readers of this report will at least recognize the general outline. I have included what may be an unwarranted level of detail because I may be the only member of the Class of 1967 who pursued conscientious objector status. I hope to preserve at least a fragment of the small and largely forgotten niche I occupied.
On October 16, 1967, after several months of soul-searching and discussion, I submitted Selective Service Form 150, “Special Form for Conscientious Objector,” to my local draft board in Middletown, Ohio, seeking the 1-O classification. I signed the required statement:
“I am, by reason of my religious training and belief, conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form and I am further conscientiously opposed to participation in noncombatant training and service in the Armed Forces. I, therefore, claim exemption from both combatant and noncombatant training and service in the Armed Services.”
Thus began what seemed at the time to be a perilous adventure, even though half a century later, it looks more like an early life lesson in bureaucratic maneuvering. It resulted in a two-year work assignment whose unexpected lessons became an important part of my life. It shaped my religious understanding more strongly than a lifetime of church-going.
The initial task was to convince my draft board of the sincerity and validity of my convictions. Reviewing my statement now, I am struck by its cool and dispassionate tone. I recited my religious upbringing in the Presbyterian Church, enumerated my participation in various efforts toward peace and justice, and explained the circumstances under which I could support the use of force. Although it does not convey much passion, the statement was as warm as I could make it at the time:
“Constantly aware of and responsive to the universal presence of the Supreme Being in myself and in others, I could not involve myself, either directly or indirectly, in the destruction of human life. Killing another man or participating in the work of an army, whose main business is killing men, would involve a denial of the presence of the spirit in others, as well as a destruction of my own responsiveness to the spirit within me. I could neither make that denial nor destroy that responsiveness. My obligation to love, honor, and respect others because of the universal spirit in them and in me is superior to any other duty of which I am aware.”
These measured words do not begin to express the urgency or intensity of my feelings at the time. Perhaps the formality of the process guided me into the college essay mode. Or maybe this was how I habitually expressed myself after four years at Harvard. In any event, I did the best I could with the materials at hand.
Because the Selective Service System placed strong emphasis on the institutional religious basis of a conscientious objector’s belief, I cited at length a recent policy pronouncement of the United Presbyterian Church USA:
“We of the Reformed tradition oppose systems of service which force an individual to act in opposition to the dictates of his conscience, informed by the mores of the society, ethical tradition, and the power of the Spirit. Concern for reconciliation and justice is an essential attribute of our communion; and, although there be disagreement among us concerning the best means to these ends, we affirm the rights of conscientious individuals to express dissenting viewpoints. Moreover, we respect the conscience of those not of our tradition who may hold to a humanitarian life view based on training and belief which does not necessarily include a belief in a Supreme Being.”
Along with my personal statement went an original and five copies of fourteen letters of reference, all attesting, in one way or another, that I was an honest person, sincere and reliable in my convictions. These letters came from family members, Presbyterian clergy, Harvard roommates and friends, Dunster House resident tutors, and every other respectable person I could recruit. Reading those letters now, I am struck by the generous willingness of many people to affirm their belief in my seriousness, even when they did not share my view. This was most clearly stated by Francis P. Locke, the Harvard alumnus who had recruited me:
“Although I would not myself have conscientious objections to military service and although I happen to support Administration policy in this particular war, I deeply respect the view that Rick holds and the sincerity with which it is obvious to me he is setting it forth.”
Only one person that I contacted, a well-loved high school English teacher, did not respond positively to my request for a reference. She did not respond at all.
A few days after submitting Form 150 to the draft board, I applied for a 2-S educational deferment as a graduate student in the Ph.D. program in history at Northwestern University. The student deferment was routinely granted, extending through October 1968.
I was beginning to develop bureaucratic resourcefulness. This was supported by members of the Midwest Committee on Draft Counseling, a network of volunteers in the Chicago area. As many of our contemporaries learned to their sorrow, the Selective Service System, especially at the highly decentralized local board level, was anything but transparent, logical, or predictable. Expert advice and assistance helped to pilot me through its unknown waters.
My primary draft counselor was Gary Skinner, an associate pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Evanston, Illinois, who provided excellent guidance. When the complications of my case began to outstrip his expertise, he accompanied me to see Alice Lynd, whose Quaker convictions and deep knowledge of the system provided an anchor for volunteers and registrants throughout the area. She was a well-known figure in the anti-draft sector of the anti-war movement. Her advice proved to be invaluable.
At the same time, there was school. It was not a great time to be a graduate student at Northwestern. President Johnson continued to escalate the war, civil rights efforts intensified, and student unrest disrupted a formerly quiet suburban campus. Scholarly concentration was difficult to achieve. Even the logistics of the university conspired against me. My assigned desk in the stacks of the outdated Deering Library was located next to a restroom. My work was accompanied by a day-long chorus of flushing toilets. Nevertheless, I read the books, wrote the papers, argued in the seminars, and crawled over various hurdles toward the life of a history professor.
Then came 1968. I volunteered on the Eugene McCarthy presidential campaign, an exercise in chaos. President Johnson withdrew from candidacy. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Rioting rocked Chicago. Robert Kennedy was assassinated. The Democrats nominated Hubert Humphrey while Chicago police beat up the protestors outside. Richard Nixon was elected.
From Local Board Number 10, Middletown, Ohio, came only silence until January 1969. The board informed me that it was considering my case. It offered an opportunity to appear and explain why my request for 1-O conscientious objector status should be granted. I was inclined to waive this meeting, cynically assuming in my 23-year-old wisdom that it was just a charade. I clearly needed more schooling in the workings of bureaucracy. Alice Lynd thought I should give the Selective Service System a chance. It might operate correctly and grant me the requested classification, or it might commit an error so egregious that I would have good grounds for an appeal of the local board’s decision. Lynd encouraged me to appear before the board, create a record of the proceedings, and submit that record for my file. Since local draft boards were not required to employ a court stenographer or make any other detailed record of their meetings, this was the only available method for documentation. I had learned from the clerk of my local board that the board, created in 1941, had never before received a request for conscientious objector status. They might not know what to do. So I prepared to go. Conditioned by the give-and-take of the seminar room, I would try to remember and later write down everything that was said.
The meeting was set for January 28, 1969. In Chicago I boarded an early-morning flight to Dayton. We sat on the ramp at O’Hare airport for more than three and a half hours while an airplane that had slid from an icy ramp into the mud was cleared out of the way. Finally arriving in the Dayton airport, I made a frantic phone call, rented a car, and covered the thirty miles to Middletown in twenty minutes. I burst into the draft board office, more than an hour late for my appointment, to find the members of the board quietly steaming.
As might be expected, the meeting did not go well. In addition to questions on Presbyterian theology and policy and the origins and extent of my beliefs, board members wanted to know about my willingness to move away from my present residence to perform civilian alternative service. The general tone of the conversation went something like this:
Board Member: Are you opposed to all wars, or just the Vietnam war?
Ashton: I am opposed to all wars I can conceive of.
Member: All wars?
Ashton: All wars.
Member: And when did you come to believe this?
Ashton: By August-September 1967, as I wrote in my application, I had come to this position.
Member: Don’t you think everybody is opposed to war?
Member: What would happen in this country if everybody refused to fight?
Ashton: We wouldn’t get into wars.
Ashton: We wouldn’t get into wars.
Member: What about World War II? What would have happened?
Ashton: I don’t know.
Member: I’ll tell you what. This country wouldn’t be here now, would it?
Ashton: I don’t know. I suppose not.
And so on. At the end of the meeting, I submitted a supplementary written statement with four additional letters of reference from Northwestern faculty and students. I hurried off to write a near-verbatim transcript of the meeting, submitted for the file a few days later. Although I was feeling a rising sense of panic and despair about the outcome of all this, I suppressed it with paperwork, the busy bureaucrat’s refuge in time of need.
On January 29, 1969, the board issued its decision, classifying me 1-A. This triggered a formal appeal, scheduled for March 11. Along with this came an opportunity to meet with the Government Appeals Agent. The appeals agent was a local attorney, retained by the draft board to provide legal and procedural advice to the board and to individuals. I was prepared to ignore this invitation, assuming that the appeals agent, as attorney for the board, would never be helpful to me. Again, Alice Lynd patiently advised me to open all doors. She also suggested that I arrange to have a character witness, not an attorney, accompany me to the personal appearance.
This time I did not rely on an airline. I drove to Ohio a day in advance. When I met with William Rathman, the Government Appeals Agent, he mentioned that he had a master’s degree in government from Harvard. We reviewed my file. He wrote his brief report, recommending that the board grant me the requested classification. He indicated that he would argue against the local board if it became necessary to appeal their decision to the state board. He gave the report to me to hand-deliver to the board’s clerk with the suggestion that she inform the board of his recommendations.
In the draft board’s outer office, I connected with Robert Clark, the minister of St. Luke United Presbyterian Church, the congregation in which I had grown up. He had agreed to accompany me, even though there was no guarantee that he would be allowed to sit in or speak. He mentioned that he had chatted with Mr. Rathman, the appeals agent, at the Rotary Club lunch earlier that day. Mr. Rathman had told him not to worry, but this did not do much to ease my anxiety.
The second meeting was quite different from the first. The board allowed Mr. Clark to accompany me into the session. The first issue was a member’s demand to see inside my briefcase, where he suspected I was hiding a tape recorder. Had there been a surreptitious recording device, I am sure my goose would have been cooked. But the near-verbatim account of the earlier meeting had rattled the board. There was indeed no tape recorder, but the awareness that their words would be reported did seem to dampen their spirits.
Most of the discussion was between board members and Mr. Clark. They quizzed him on Presbyterian theology and policy, and he held his own. They hardly spoke to me. After about twenty minutes, they adjourned the discussion.
Within a few days, to my surprise and relief, notice of the board’s decision to grant the requested 1-O classification arrived in the mail. But there was no opportunity for celebration. The board clerk quickly went to work, making sure that I met all the administrative requirements for civilian alternative service. Almost any job that might plausibly contribute to the national health or well-being would have qualified, as long as it was more than fifty miles distant from Evanston, Illinois. The clerk delegated to me the task of finding a suitable job and getting it approved. I proceeded on.
Reflecting on the process, whose active phase lasted less than three months, I am struck by the isolation within which it occurred. Although opposition to the draft and the war is sometimes remembered as a mass movement, I had no colleagues, no cohort, no fellow conscientious objectors with whom I could claim solidarity. My support from two members of the Midwest Committee on Draft Counseling was real and effective, but it had no connection with anyone who was having the same experience as mine. No one mistreated or lied to me, and everyone seemed to be playing by the rules. I am obliged to acknowledge that the system, such as it was, actually worked.
My few chance encounters with other conscientious objectors over the years have tended to confirm this notion. Middle-class white men from educated liberal backgrounds, they have no real horror stories to tell.
Having secured the coveted status, I now had to act upon it, even though other big things were competing for my attention. In early April 1969, I completed my oral and written examinations and was admitted to candidacy for the Ph.D. at Northwestern. Six weeks later, I began working as an orderly in the operating room at Bethesda Hospital in Cincinnati. With many family members in southwest Ohio, my wife Marcia and I thought Cincinnati would be a reasonable location. The two years spent in alternative service, May 1969 to May1971, were personally mundane. Out in the big world, there was the Nixon-Kissinger escalation of the war, the moon landing, Woodstock, but none of this had any personal impact. A job, a marriage, and the birth of our first child kept me from worrying much about other things.
After the dramatic war-related anxiety of Harvard and Northwestern and the tense engagement with my draft board, everyday life in Cincinnati offered no excitement. We lived in an ordinary lower-middle-class white neighborhood. On the job at Bethesda Hospital, my religious and political views were unpopular, but, to my surprise, I was not persecuted for them. My bosses and co-workers were not much interested in my opinions, even though I was clearly identified as one of Spiro Agnew’s Effete Snobs for Peace. During an operation, the surgeon might chat with the anesthesiologist about golf, the stock market, or even the condition of the patient, but never about the war, the draft, or local or national politics. No one else was invited into the conversation.
Yet there was a current of unease, occasioned by my anomalous position in the hospital hierarchy. For the first time in my life, I began to see and understand more clearly a world structured by race, sex, and class.
At the top of the medical pyramid were the educated white men, the doctors. They commanded the reserved parking spots, the smoking lounge off the locker room (yes, even in 1970, some physicians smoked), and many other forms of deference to their power. If their first names were known, they were never used, only “Dr. Smith.”
The nurses, trained professional white women, ranked just below the physicians. Except for the youngest among them, nurses too lacked first names. They enforced the hierarchy. My supervisor, Mrs. Allen, certainly knew her place. She might occasionally challenge one of the younger surgeons about the schedule, the equipment, or his disrespectful treatment of her staff, but she almost always deferred to the doctors. She compensated for this by urgently bossing everyone else around. Other nurses adopted the same style.
Below the nurses ranked a mixed group. The black women who worked as surgical technicians were at the top. They were followed in no clear order by other technicians, clerks, aides, orderlies, and custodians, white and black, male and female. These workers, among whom I was numbered, had only first names or nicknames, and we took orders from doctors and nurses, willy-nilly. Someone gave me the nickname “Ranger,” derived from the children’s nature magazine “Ranger Rick,” but I did not have a clear identity to go with it.
An educated white man but not a physician, I was an anomaly. My job title and personal characteristics did not match. Although I was certainly not the first person to perform civilian alternative service in the operating room, I did not fit the expectation. Previous conscientious objectors had been Mennonite farm boys from central Ohio. They fit easily into the low-skilled ranks, and their attitudes and beliefs were at least as conservative as those of the Cincinnatians with whom they worked.
During my first months on the job, the feeling of dissonance and the occasional verbal abuse seemed more personal than religiously or politically-based. I was more likely to hear a jeering “professor” or “college boy” than “draft-dodger” or “communist.” While this was certainly not intolerable, it was sufficient to focus my attention on a solution.
The obvious answer was the work itself. It was, after all, serious business. Although the people working in the operating room did not talk about it much, we were saving lives, repairing broken bodies, and fighting to make things better for the patients we touched. Ultimately, this was what counted.
Having been promoted from orderly to operating room technician via on-the-job training, I decided to become good at my job, a valuable member of the working group. This was a rewarding experience. It became the basis of a strategy I employed throughout my work life. Even in a fundamentally unfriendly environment, the person who shows up, pays attention, keeps in touch, and maintains a cheerful demeanor can be successful. The operating room provided lessons in leadership and teamwork that later helped me through many a challenging time.
In Bethesda’s old-fashioned Blue Cross hospital environment, there were no resident physicians in training, no medical students, and no high-tech tools or monitoring equipment. A portable x-ray machine was the fanciest device in the operating room. For most major operations, only five or six people were present: surgeon; hospital-employee physician working as the surgeon’s assistant; anesthesiologist; technician working as scrub nurse; technician circulating to provide instruments and supplies; and nurse/supervisor doing paperwork and managing communications. In order to complete three to five substantial procedures in a work day, this small team had to function well. Each person must pay full attention and perform in the assigned role without hesitation or error. Each person must anticipate and respond to the actions of all the others. This was not just a matter of organizational convenience. It also served the patient by minimizing trauma, bleeding, and time under anesthesia. Even though the patient might be called “the ten o-clock hernia,” not “Mr. Miller,” the team worked for his benefit.
When surgical teamwork was at its best, it produced the detached feeling that psychologists have described as “flow.” Time seemed to be suspended. Spoken communication was largely unnecessary. As my skills as a scrub nurse developed, I developed a personal work measure. I tried to hit the surgeon’s palm with next required instrument without any verbal prompt from him, every time. When I managed to achieve that through an entire two-hour gall bladder operation, I was definitely in the flow. It often appeared that other team members were functioning in a similar way.
The best surgeons were team leaders who understood this dynamic and made good use of it. They won the respect of all the players by calling people by name, thanking people, praising good work, and using “we,” not “I.” When problems or complications arose, they remained focused, issued clear directions, and accepted responsibility. And they did not forget about the person on the table.
On those rare occasions when a patient died in the operating room, the most effective surgical leaders cemented the team by owning the failure themselves. After one hopeless case, the traumatic death of a man whose motorcycle had plunged through a barbed-wire fence, the surgeon thanked the team for its efforts and apologized for his inability to stop the patient’s bleeding. Then he went out into the waiting room and said “I’m sorry” to the man’s family. This was a leader whose team would go all-out to support him.
At the other end of the scale was the surgeon who cursed the blood bank clerk while his very sick patient slipped away. Then he directed a nurse to deliver the bad news by phoning the patient’s family in the waiting room. During the remainder of my two years, I never heard a positive word about him. People who worked on his cases seemed to have less energy, to move a bit more slowly.
At later stages of my working life, I have thought about those small teams and those surgeon leaders in good times and bad. When I have been tempted to dodge or redirect the responsibility for some failure, the remembered facial expressions of my operating room co-workers remind me: own the blame. This unexpected lesson remains the most valuable remnant of my work experience as a conscientious objector.
In more immediate terms, the two-year detour off the career path dramatically changed my professional prospects. I returned to academic life, spent two more years completing the Ph.D., and tried to find a job as a college history teacher. By 1973, when I finished my degree, employment prospects had deteriorated badly. That fact, coupled with the recognition that I did not really enjoy performing before a classroom full of bored adolescents, cut off my future as a historian. So I moved sideways, progressed, and started on a rewarding forty-year public service career in the library world. I have no regrets.
Recently my thoughts about conscientious objection have become more complex. Claims of religion-based exemptions from general laws not related to military service have driven this. Some employers have raised religious objections to the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employer-provided health insurance include coverage for contraceptive services. Some businesses and some public officials have claimed religious grounds for denying services connected with same-sex marriage. Some state legislatures have passed so-called “freedom of religion” laws to validate these positions.
My first reaction to these forms of conscientious objection has been, like that of most liberals, disdainful. I consider them a travesty, a perversion of Christianity, a parody of the meaning of the First Amendment. Once I finish spluttering, however, I am forced to ask how these claims are different from my own conscientious objection to military service. If individual conscience supersedes the law in one case, why not in the other? In the words of Pope Francis, originally spoken in a vastly different context, “If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them?”
Judgment of others’ beliefs aside, I am grateful for my role and my experience as a conscientious objector. If I had not been challenged to define and defend my faith fifty years ago, I doubt that I would be a practicing Christian today. That effort to explain myself, as cold and stilted as it now seems, forced me to inject a human dimension, the presence of the Spirit in all people, into my thinking. That, above all else, is where my faith still rests. Amen.