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Conscientious Resistance

By Kenneth Hale-Wehmann

(first published in Gay Community News, Boston, MA, 1983)

There are posters on the subway now that read, “Selective Service Registration. It’s Quick. It’s Easy. And it’s the law.” I read them and think, so what? When I failed to register it was not because I didn’t have time. It was not because I didn’t feel mentally capable of filling out the card at the post office. It was not because I thought the government was only asking me a favor. Hundreds of thousands of men have refused to register, and some few may be persuaded by the SSS’s media campaign. Most will not.

Reasons for resisting emanate from my sense of humanity, my sexuality, my vision of social justice. The four youths on the poster haven’t convinced me to register. They are shown smiling and jostling each other, as if in anticipation of the good times to be had with buddies in “the service.” They hold their registration cards aloft like the bottles in an advertisement for beer. To judge from this scene, registration is not only quick, easy, and lawful, it’s also a hell of a lot of fun.

Alas, it is none of these things. Registration is a stamp of approval for the militarism that is causing real anguish for millions of people right now, and that actually threatens to destroy all life on earth. There is a disease of the mind that causes some to think that the good things on earth—adequate food, shelter and clothing; a sense of loving community—can be had by rapidly pursuing the path of war. Ronald Reagan, who is in the advanced stages of this disease, spends almost two-thirds of every dollar at his disposal on the trappings of war, while depriving people of the most fundamental services. Still, he talks about compassion and declares 1983 the year of the Bible.

The bomb is a force of such enormity because it is built on centuries of violence inflicted by people on other people, on animals, and on the ecosystems of the earth. It could not exist without the massive human energy poured into it, not merely during its physical invention at Los Alamos, but as millions of individual minds first conceiving of such violence, and then allowing it to remain, even thrive, in our midst. The technicians actually get paid to refine these weapons, to increase their already incredible force; other people only pay the taxes that support them, or attend universities with stock in weapons manufacturers, or register for a draft which they think will never come. The question of guilt is irrelevant; it is virtually impossible to get the blood off our hands, and even if we do we cannot be sure that no murderous thoughts remain in our minds.

But when the government demanded three years ago that I register myself with the Selective Service System, I suddenly felt that I had been given the opportunity to clear myself of some measure of responsibility for the atrocities, to make a contribution to the cause of peace, to say no to a law that my conscience told me was wrong. The penalty—$10,000 or five years in prison or both—worried me slightly, but I knew that I could not register. Now, I have informed the United States government of my choice not to register and the penalties worry me not at all. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote, “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.” While the chances of my being prosecuted are not high, I will be punished anyway next Fall, if Ronald Reagan has his way and institutes measures that would deny federal financial aid to students who cannot produce proof of registration. This singles out poor and middle-class students for punishment without due process, and violates the 5th Amendment guarantee against self-incrimination. Such considerations have not stopped Reagan before, and I anticipate difficulties in completing my degree. Nevertheless, fear of punishment has no currency with me as long as I remain convinced of the larger value of what I have done.

The more expedient-minded could (and do) offer any number of “easier” ways to avoid being used as fodder for war: become a conscientious objector, tell them I’m gay, emigrate, or simply count on their never being a draft. The fault with these tactics, the reason I lose patience at their very mention, is that while my neck would be saved, the massacre would go on unabated. To become a CO, or to accept “alternative service,” would be to cooperate with Selective Service, and, by extension with the war powers in general. By cooperating I recognize their authority to exist. By resisting, I make it clear that I’m not willing to kill other human beings or be party to the organizations whose business is to kill human beings.

I have always felt ambivalent about lesbians and gay men who demand that women be required to register as well as men, or who fight for their right to be members of the military. The gay press reports “successful” lawsuits against the military as unmitigated victories for our community, but they are a mixed blessing at best. War is global rape. The military complex is obsessed with conquest and domination, and counts human life cheap in its drive to humiliate entire cultures. The causes of fag-bashing and rape, chemical warfare and nuclear holocaust, are complex, and it would be reductionist to say that all such phenomena result from macho male frustration. There is nevertheless a connection between a battered queer and a napalmed “civilian”: at least part of their plight can be ascribed to the rapist mentality, manifesting itself on different levels. Machismo is simply institutionalized in the military, made into a patriotic virtue. The same forces that oppress me as a gay man, then, also oppress me as an earthnik. If our goal is to eliminate this violence, is ironic that we should actually petition to join forces with it.

Conservatives and liberals alike are fond of telling any people clamoring for basic rights, “Wait, and ye shall have them.” Black people in the South were told to wait. Queers were told to wait. Jews were told to wait. But this is only a way of maintaining the status quo while giving it the appearance of impending changes. The changes never come, and people continue to suffer, die, or hope in vain. Our present predicament involves the life or death of this planet, and again we are told to wait: for the basic right to peace, so that it can be established by force. But I will not acquiesce to destruction. I will not wait.

In Jesus’ Israel, in Gandhi’s India, in King’s America, the response was “We will not wait.” The Romans in Israel, the British in India, the Americans in America, were finally called to task by the very people who had imagined themselves powerless in the face of such well-organized oppression. Massive resistance accomplished what no legislation could have done: it declared the power of the oppressor null and void, and made drastic moves toward erasing it.

Conscientious resistance is not a social disorder. It is the disobedience of temporal authority, with the belief that higher laws will thereby supplant unjust measures. I have served notice to the state that I am withdrawing my support of its program of terricide in every way I can: I am refusing to register, resisting war taxes, thinking about nonviolence in my daily life. So that these acts are not merely isolated gestures, I will continue to communicate my actions to others, in hopes of inciting them to follow their consciences as well.

The truth is that each of us, 18-year-old male or not, every day, registers for the draft. We give our consent to the militarism that is ravaging the earth and her people, if not explicitly, that at least by failing to resist. By resisting draft registration, I have made the first tentative exploration of the power within me that rests equally in everyone else. It is the other side of the power that now gives the bomb place in our world. It is waiting to be tapped, and when it is by millions of individuals, it will gather such strength that violent force will be rendered ineffectual. It is only this: to conduct ourselves in such a way as to transform the destructive forces around us into implements of peace, by reinstating peace in our own lives.

[The late Kenneth Hale-Wehmann was active in draft resistance organizing at Harvard College and as part of Mass Open Resistance, a Boston/Cambridge-area collective affiliated with the National Resistance Committee, as well as in United Fruit Company, a gay men’s political action and guerilla theater group. This article was first published in Gay Community News in 1983, and reprinted by kind permission of the author in Resistance News #24, Spring 1987.]

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This page most recently modified 6 December 2021. This site is maintained by Edward Hasbrouck. Corrections, contributions (articles, graphics, photos, videos, links, etc.), and feedback are welcomed.