Saturday, May 17, 2014

May 17, 1968

It was 17 May 1968 and the Catonsville Nine were ready to enter that Maryland draft board, ready to act on their long plan, ready to go up in flames. They entered the Selective Service office--the draft board--and found the files marked 1-A, the next round of boys to be sent to kill, die, wound, be wounded in Vietnam. Every single fighting man, every single Vietnamese civilian and fighter--everyone in that criminal war was wounded. Even those of us who were mere conscientious objectors to that war were spiritually wounded, knowing our brothers were doing those godawful things and having hideous things done to them.

My friend Greg came back in a chair, a paraplegic. My friend Jeff lost a toe to his own hunting rifle in a bid to make himself undraftable. My friend Dave became a medic and dropped out of sight. Dave's girlfriend's brother was killed. Every young American male of able body was a target and an agent of imperial America. Every one of us across the land knew of these remarkable lousy things happening to friends and family. For nothing. No Vietnamese had fired a single shot at America. No sampans were coming up the Hudson or Columbia or Mississippi rivers. It was not our fathers' war; it was unjust and illegal, immoral and spiritually bankrupt. By 1968, even our strongest religious figures were proclaiming that and sacrificing themselves to make it known.

The Berrigan brothers and seven others were opposed to the war and indeed, rapidly became opposed to all wars. This was Dan's natural temperament; Phil, however, had been a soldier in World War II, fighting his way across Europe, and only came to the peace movement via the Civil Rights movement. Phil only became a pacifist after being exposed to Dr. King and some of the other radical Christians.

So several of these radicals took metal wire mesh wastebaskets full of the 1-A draft files (1-A meant first to be drafted), brought them to the parking lot outside the draft board, poured homemade napalm on them, lit them up, and stood in prayer, waiting for their arrest, which indeed came. While incarcerated, the pacifists were criticized by some other clergy. Dan Berrigan, master of the image and figure of speech, wrote in response,
"Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children."
 Part of their planning were many discernment discussions and communiques. Their code word for their upcoming action became "99 and 44/100 percent pure," which was their tongue-in-cheek use of a sudsy commercial for a liquid soap--one of the main ingredients from the Green Beret recipe for the awful flaming weapon that would hit on a child's skin, stick, and burn through to the bone. The Catonsville Nine used that corporate ad language to satire the corporate frame of manufactured purity, to self-deprecate their own tendencies toward moralizing in the face of such massive war crimes, and to simply engage in the sort of gallows humor that has to lighten the knowledge of the terrible prices paid by everyone in war, even including the nonviolent resisters on their way to prison.

This one action--not the first draft board raid, but the one which literally and figuratively caught fire--continues to this day, with the draft board raids of the Vietnam War era giving way to the Plowshares movement. Those of us who engage in this sort of thing believe in public accountability--we don't skulk, flee, wear masks, or avoid responsibility. This is one of the primary differences between these actions and the smash-and-dash sneaky actions that alienate Americans. The style of the Catonsville Nine and all who have followed in their footsteps may cost the individuals more, but it builds sympathy and following and participation. Indeed, in a country increasingly looking more like an oligarchy, this is what democracy looks like.

No comments: