Growing up in Fresno, Calif., I believed in “my country, right or wrong,” just like everyone I knew. I could not have anticipated that when I came of age I would realize that my country was wrong and that I would have to do something about it. When I did, everything changed for me.
I went from Fresno High School Boy of the Year 1963, Stanford Class of 1967, to Prisoner 4697-159, C Block, maximum security, La Tuna Federal Correctional Institution, near El Paso.
I was among the quarter-million to half-million men who violated the law that required us to register for military service and face deployment to Vietnam — the draft. About 25,000 of us were indicted for our disobedience, almost 9,000 convicted and 3,250 jailed. I am proud to have been one of the men who, from behind bars, helped pull our country out of its moral quagmire.
I was just 20 when I first stepped outside the law. After months of late-night dorm-room conversations and soul searching, I decided doing so was my duty as a citizen. It was 1966 and draft calls were escalating every month as the American Army in Southeast Asia built up to half a million men, dozens of whom were coming home in coffins every week. I had just been elected Stanford student body president on a “radical” platform calling for an end to the university’s cooperation with the war, and I had already refused to accept a student deferment that would have allowed me to avoid the draft and probably sent a poor person in my stead. But I knew that even such valuable protest was an insufficient response to the moral arithmetic of sending an army thousands of miles from home to kill more than two million people for no good reason.
At stake was not just the nation’s soul but mine as well. So I took the draft card I was required by law to have at all times and returned it to the government with a letter declaring I would no longer cooperate. Carrying that card had been my last contribution to the war effort. If the law was wrong, then the only option was to become an outlaw.
Some would call me a draft dodger, but I dodged nothing. There was no evasion of any sort, no attempt to hide from the consequences. I courted arrest, speaking truth to power, and power responded with an order for me to report for military service. While delaying that order with a succession of bureaucratic maneuvers, I helped found the Resistance, an organization devoted to generating civil disobedience against conscription. Three or four of us lived out of my car and crashed on couches, going from campus to campus, gathering a crowd and making a speech, looking for people willing to stand up against the wrong that had hijacked our nation.
On Oct. 16, 1967, the Resistance staged its first National Draft Card Return, during which hundreds were sent back to the government at rallies in 18 cities. We staged more rallies and teach-ins. Hundreds more draft cards were returned, at two more national returns as well as individually or in small groups. We provided draft counseling for anyone, whether he wanted to resist or not.
At draft centers, we distributed leaflets encouraging inductees to turn around and go home. At embarkations, we urged troops to refuse to go before it was too late. We gave legal and logistical support to soldiers who resisted their orders. We destroyed draft records. We arranged religious sanctuary for deserters ready to make a public stand, surrounding them to impede their arrest. We smuggled other deserters into Canada. We even dug bomb craters in front of a city hall in Florida and posted signs saying that if you lived in Vietnam, that’s what your front lawn would look like.
Then we stood trial, one after another. Most of us were ordered to report for induction, then charged with disobeying that order, though there were soon so many violators that it was impossible to prosecute more than a fraction of us.
I was among that fraction. On Jan. 17, 1968, I refused “to submit to a lawful order of induction.” I had my day in court that May. As was the case in almost every draft trial, my judge refused to allow me to present any testimony about the wrong I had set out to right, saying the war was not at issue. Nonetheless, my jury stayed out for more than eight hours before finally convicting me. I was sentenced to three years. I appealed my conviction, but abandoned that appeal in July 1969 and began my sentence.
My fellow resisters and I brought our spirit of resistance to the prison system, organizing around prisoner issues of health care, food and visits. I was a ringleader in my first prison strike while still in San Francisco County Jail, awaiting transfer. After being sent on to a federal prison camp in Safford, Ariz., I was in three more strikes, at which point I was shipped to La Tuna. My first two months there, I was locked in a punishment cellblock known as “the hole” with three other ringleaders from Safford. When I was finally moved upstairs, I learned that our Army had expanded the war into Cambodia several weeks earlier.
My home was 5 feet by 9 feet. I was frisked when I was sent to work in the morning, when I returned from work in the afternoon and when I both left for and returned from evening recreation.
Doing time well required a Buddhist state of mind, of being present where you are and not thinking of yourself in places where you couldn’t be. The latter is slow torture for a prisoner. Doing time well also required being your own person despite the guards’ efforts otherwise. “They’ve got your body,” we used to say, “but they can only get your mind if you give it to them.” The result, in my case, was a running series of disciplinary violations for the likes of refusing to make my bed and return trips to the punishment cellblock.
Nonetheless, the parole board released me on March 15, 1971. The war was still going on; not long after I first reported to my parole officer, a group of Vietnam veterans protested the war in Washington and threw the medals they’d been awarded onto the steps of the Capitol.
Draft calls were now steadily shrinking as air power replaced ground troops, and military conscription would soon be gutted altogether. My parole ended the following summer. I stopped organizing eight months later when peace agreements were finally signed.
Several years after that, I was invited to testify at a Senate hearing considering pardons for our draft crimes. I told the senators I had no use for their forgiveness, but I would accept their apology. I’m still waiting to hear back from them on that.
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.
David Harris, a journalist, is the author of Our War: What We Did in Vietnam and What It Did to Us.