Amid all of the War and Mayhem… Sam’s Story

A United States wartime poster deprecating absence. Image Source: Grant, Gordon, Artist – Public Domain

Sam and Eileen had traveled in an old car across the US in 1996. They had stopped at places I had long wanted to visit like the campus of Kent State University in Ohio, the site of the May 4, 1970 massacre of students protesting the Vietnam War. They had met on a beach in San Diego, California.

By the time they met, Sam was on the cusp of being declared AWOL by the Navy. Eileen and Sam’s discussions gave him the underpinnings to consider conscientious objection to the military, something that he felt instinctively, but had not developed into a coherent narrative and strategy for countering the military. He harbored a general dislike for the harassment that is part of daily life in the military, with the subjugation of the individual and the inane daily rituals sucking the life out of individualism that is at the heart of the development of young adults in the US.

Sam’s father had served in the Navy and Sam enlisted because that was the thing to do as a member of a working-class family in the Midwest. Sam enlisted between the first Gulf War and the war in Afghanistan that continues today. He joined before the September 11, 2001 attacks and his treatment for having gone AWOL may have been different following the war hysteria resulting from those attacks and the worship of all things connected to the war and the military. Coming away with so-called good “paper” (discharge) from experiences like Sam’s was already an impossibility with war hysteria and the preparations for endless wars and war profiteering that was decades in the making. War had long been a bipartisan affair. Decisions made by the impressionable forces of youth were punished uniformly by the military if the person deviated in any way from military authority.

When Sam showed up at our door with Eileen, he may have already been declared AWOL. I arranged for him to see a lawyer who worked on cases such as Sam’s and that lawyer scared Sam to such a degree that he opened a bathroom window in the lawyer’s home and was ready to vanish into the night and anonymity. That lawyer had refused a commission in the Navy years earlier, but didn’t seem to have learned much from his experience.

Sam stayed at our home for a while. His parents visited and they reached the decision that they would accompany Sam back to the military. He returned to San Diego and began the process of separation from the military, a move that put Sam on a ship that was headed out to sea where he performed some of the same work that he considered a hassle and an affront to his sense of himself that had motivated him to leave the military. While washing down enlisted men’s bed frames on the ship, it amazed him to see how many of the frames had anti-war and anti-militarism slogans scrawled on their undersides.

It would almost 20 years before I would see Sam again. I remembered that summer’s day because colorful hang gliders dotted the sky beside the Taconic Mountains of upstate New York that bordered the road on the way to the train station where I picked up Sam and Eileen.  On the way back to our home in Massachusetts, I asked Sam if he felt that the space my family had given him was a positive or negative part of his life. He was unequivocal in his acceptance of the decisions that he had made during the part of his life when he had been in the military.

Sam was awarded a Ph.D. a short time ago in peace studies, and I recalled how my family had given him a secure place to stay while he made what I consider monumental decisions that would affect the rest of his life. Amid all the war and mayhem that is inherent in contemporary society, there is the young man who showed up at our door so long ago and then went on to live his life.

In 1979, I trained as a draft (registration) counselor and set up a counseling service at a local church. That training was in response to the Iranian hostage crisis that could have exploded into a war at anytime, but did not. I was careful in my counseling approach and ended up being a facilitator for draft registration with the memory of the attacks against some draft counselors during the Vietnam War for supporting draft resistance. Sam was like one person I had counseled in 1979, who actively followed a plan to establish his history of conscientious objection to war if a draft was enacted.

For many reasons, there will never be a draft in the US again following the draft’s unpopularity and resistance to it during the Vietnam War. Now, the military fills its ranks with people primarily from the working class and the lower-middle class. Since the reporting on wars the US fights and supports does not make much news anymore, resistance to militarism has all but vanished.

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