I want to recommend a new film and a new book. The film is called The Boys Who Said NO!
There’s more courage and moral integrity in this documentary than in any fictional blockbuster. With the wars now
underway and threatened being as unjust as those 50 years ago (and with women now being added to U.S. draft
registration) we need more saying No! We also need to recognize, as depicted in this film, the scale of the horror of
the war on Southeast Asia 50 years ago, not yet repeated anywhere, and avoid the foolishness of desiring a draft in
order to say no to it. Our planet is imperiled by military spending, and the time to learn from and act on the lessons
of this film is not in the future. It is right now.
The book is called I Refuse to Kill: My Path to Nonviolent Action in the ’60s
by Francesco Da Vinci. It’s based on journals the author kept from 1960 to 1971, with a big focus on his attempt to
gain recognition as a conscientious objector. The book is a personal memoire overlapping the big events of the ’60s, the
peace rallies, the elections, the assassinations. In that regard it’s like an enormous pile of other books. But this one
rises above in informing and entertaining, and it grows more and more engaging as you read through it.
That its lessons are badly needed today is highlighted, I think, by the opening scene in which the author and a friend
yell down from a hotel window at President Kennedy’s inauguration parade and Kennedy smiles up and waves to them. It
occurred to me that nowadays — and only in small part because of what later happened to Kennedy — those young men might
have gotten themselves shot or at least “detained.” I was also struck by how much the later murder of Bobby Kennedy
mattered, by the fact that who won an election to the White House could actually determine U.S. foreign policy in a
major way — which perhaps explains why people back then risked their lives to vote (as well as why many now yawn
thrrough each successive “most important election of our lifetime”).
On the other hand, John Kennedy had tanks and a missile in his parade — things nowadays deemed to crass for anyone but
Donald Trump. There’s been progress as well as regression since the 1960s, but the powerful message of the book is the
value of taking a principled stand and doing everything one can, and being satisfied with what comes as a result of
Da Vinci faced pushback against his stand as a conscientious objector from his family, girlfriends, friends, teachers,
lawyers, the draft board, a college that expelled him, and the FBI, among others. But he took the stand he thought would
do the most good, and he did what else he could to try to end the war on Southeast Asia. As in almost every such story
of rebellion against norms, Da Vinci had been exposed to more than one country. In particular, he had seen the
opposition to the war in Europe. And, as in almost every such story, he’d had models and influencers, and for some
reason chose to follow those models while most people around him did not.
Eventually, Da Vinci was organizing peace actions like asking an aircraft carrier not to go to Vietnam (and organizing a
city-wide vote on the question in San Diego):
Da Vinci worked with many veterans of the war he was trying to conscientiously object to. One of them told him, as he
records the conversation: “When I signed up, I bought the bunk that we were in ‘Nam to fight the Commies. But after I
was in, I figured we weren’t really protecting Saigon, we were settin’ it up so we could control it and grab stuff like
oil and tin along the way. The brass and the government were using us big time. It made me super bitter. Any little
thing could make me wanna freak out. I felt like I was heading for a nervous breakdown. Yet, I was one of two guys on my ship in charge of a nuclear key, which shows you how bad the Navy’s judgment was! . . . They
pick two guys to wear keys that can activate the nukes. I wore it around my neck day and night. Out of spite, I tried to
talk the other guy carrying a key to help me launch. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I just wanted to sabotage the Navy.
Pretty sick, I know. That’s when I told ’em they’d better find someone else.”
If you’re keeping a list of known near misses with nuclear weapons, add one. And consider that the suicide rate in the
U.S. military is probably higher now than it was then.
One quibble. I wish Da Vinci didn’t claim that the question was still open of whether the nuking of Hiroshima and
Nagasaki was a life-saving war-shortening pair of actions. It isn’t
To become a conscientious objector, get advice from the Center on Conscience and War
Prepare to mark Conscientious Objectors Day
on May 15th.
Monuments to Conscientious Objectors in London:
And in Canada:
And in Massachusetts:
David Swanson is an author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He is executive director of WorldBeyondWar.org
and campaign coordinator for RootsAction.org
. Swanson's books include War Is A Lie
. He blogs at DavidSwanson.org
. He hosts Talk Nation Radio
. He is a 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 Nobel Peace Prize Nominee.
Follow him on Twitter: @davidcnswanson
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