Why I Went to Jail

The election of 2008 brought the culture wars back into sharp focus!  For me, that meant a reexamination of what it meant personally to resist the government; and ultimately, what it meant to go to jail.  The Republican Party attempted to demonize Barack Obama because of his sporadic relationship with the former Weatherman Bill Ayers, now a well-regarded university professor.  The rancor and fallout were so extensive that Ayers recently had an opportunity to address the issue through an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times.

I admit that I viewed the Weathermen as a valid part of the anti-war movement during the Vietnam War.  It was not until I became acquainted with a former member of Students for a Democratic Society, who had suffered a severe injury at the hands of the radical fringe of SDS that evolved into the Weathermen, that I became critical of the group.  It seems that the Weathermen lost a connection to reality when they conflated ends and means and attempted to adapt radical-left thought to resisting the war in Southeast Asia. That war would kill 3 million Southeast Asians and nearly 60,000 U.S. soldiers.

The spokespersons on the right for the culture wars tried to blame the length of the Vietnam War on anti-war activism.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  Both Johnson and Nixon reacted directly to anti-war activism, modifying their war plans due to civil unrest and anti-war resistance.  In any case, the duration of immoral wars can never be defined by the activism that intends to halt those wars.

From my perspective, the war and what I could do about it as an individual were both much simpler and more complicated.  I was in the National Guard when the Ohio National Guard killed four students in May 1970.  I knew, as the story of the resistance on the Kent State campus flashed around the world, that the war had come home for me.  I would have no part of it!

It took a protracted and ultimately lost legal battle lasting three years to see me speeding by car under military detention toward the medieval structure that was the Worcester County House of Detention in Worcester, Massachusetts. I had been arrested by the F.B.I. and turned over to military police.  So as to understand the issue in perspective, there were between 500,000 and 550,000 men who either challenged the authority of the government and military to include them in this immoral war by going AWOL, deserting, or taking legal action. An additional 600,000 men violated draft laws.

The U.S. had absolutely no strategic interests in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.  These were agrarian societies.  Vietnam posed no threat to the defense of the U.S.  Most citizens of these countries were peasants.  Here was a superpower imposing its will on a small country involved in a civil war.

The Worcester County House of Detention held military prisoners until the government got around to shipping them to a military base for processing.  The latter took place roughly once a week. Now demolished, its walls were made of blocks of gray granite in a style that belonged to 19th century penology.  Cellblocks were arranged one upon the other in tiers facing huge, arching gothic windows, whose translucent glass let in only a small amount of light.  There were no sanitary facilities in individual cells.

Most prisoners in Worcester were held for crimes such as burglary, assault, and drug offenses.  One alleged murderer was there awaiting trial.  I spent a week in Worcester, having arrived just as a busload of military prisoners was shipped to Fort Dix, New Jersey, for processing, forcing me to wait a week before learning my fate.  There seemed to be no friction between regular prisoners and military prisoners.  However, nighttime brought mocking calls of “ladies” through the cellblock, a not-so-subtle criticism of military prisoners’ perceived lack of patriotism and manliness.  I suppose those who chanted at night thought that the war was just.

The superintendent of the prison must have been sympathetic to military prisoners, since he allowed my family to visit often.  There were no taboos on touching visitors, a welcome relief in the insanity of the forced separation by the military and government.

With the culture wars flaring over the past election cycle, as they have for four decades, I thought of the pride and self-respect I developed from those days of imprisonment. Today, with two wars being fought simultaneously by the U.S., and the prospect and reality of scores of military actions on other fronts, I thought of Henry David Thoreau’s words to Ralph Waldo Emerson at Thoreau’s imprisonment for his resistance to the poll tax. Thoreau refused to pay the tax because of his opposition to the Mexican-American War and his revulsion to slavery. Emerson visited Thoreau in jail and asked. “Henry, what are you doing in there?”  Thoreau replied, “Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?”  I don’t think there is much room in discourse in the contemporary U.S. for such questions to be asked in earnest anymore. Amazingly, much of what’s left of the anti-war movement in the U.S. thinks that conversing over the Internet can dramatically impact wars!

While imprisoned, I also thought of the immortal words of Thomas Jefferson about the nature and sacrifices of a patriot.

“God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented, in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. …And what country can preserve its liberties, if it’s rulers are not
warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to the facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”

Again, Thoreau’s thoughts from Civil Disobedience (1849):

“I was put into jail as I was going to the shoemaker’s to get a shoe which was mended. When I was let out the next morning, I proceeded to finish my errand, and, having put on my mended shoe, joined a huckleberry party, who were impatient to put themselves under my conduct; and in half an hour — for the horse was soon tackled — was in the midst of a huckleberry field, on one of our highest hills, two miles off, and then the State was nowhere to be seen.”

Vietnam Syndrome, the idea that the country would be reticent in its support of war, lasted about five years until the administration of Ronald Reagan began a policy of low-intensity warfare in Central America.  So, while culture wars may rage and real wars expand, and many attempt to rationalize their reasons for resistance, or their lack of involvement in anti-war actions, I take heart in the words of patriots and resisters, one of whom wrote only miles from where the Worcester County House of Detention was located.  That is not an entirely bad company with which to identify.

HOWARD LISNOFF teaches writing and is a freelance writer.  He can be reached at howielisnoff@gmail.com.





Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).