I WAS ONCE 1-A/CO
I’m a child of The Cold War. I can still recall the terror and the
empty, hot feeling in the pit of my stomach when, in elementary
school, we had to practice what we would do in the event of nuclear war. The local fire company would crank up it’s sirens, the principal’s voice would crackle into life on the speaker system to
tell us that this was an air raid drill. We had assigned duties. Two
kids were in charge of opening all the windows. This was supposed to
help keep flying glass from flaying us alive when the detonation
occurred. Two other kids followed behind them making sure the blinds
were all the way down so that the nuclear flash didn’t blind us. Some
kids had to move all our chairs to the wall while others pushed all
our desks together in the center of the room.
Then we all crawled on our hands and knees to the center of that
collection of desks. This was to keep our bodies from being crushed if
the bomb caused the building to collapse. There we would wait, face
down in the fetal position until the sirens sounded again to announce
the end of the drill.
It was war made real in the hearts and minds of children who were
privileged enough not to be living a war zone. There were always some
tears, to be expected I guess when the adults didn’t deal down the
monsters under the bed but instead told you the monsters were very
real and they wanted to kill you.
The Domino Theory.
We don’t hear about that any more, but it was the justification for
Korea, and later Viet Nam. See, the evil, evil Communists weren’t
waging a civilized, gentleman’s war. They weren’t drawing lines on a
map. They were sneaky and insidious. Their plan was to knock off one
country after another, take one bite at a time until, inevitably,
Democracy, Liberty and The American Way was the last to fall, the last
We could not allow this to happen. We had to fight them there so we
didn’t end up fighting them here. The resonance of that shrill shout
still echoes today in The White House, the Halls of Congress and in
our streets. We’ve put a new label on it, redesigned the packaging,
but it’s still the same great war we’ve come to know and love.
Then Viet Nam became America’s first Real Life TV show. We saw it
every night on our ridiculously large black and white Westinghouse or
Philco televisions. The images of gunfire, explosions, the wounded,
the dead. We didn’t sanitize it, we glorified it. It wasn’t hidden
away it was rubbed in our faces. “Look what they’re making us do! How
many of them do we have to slaughter?”
All neatly wedged between smart, slick ads urging us to buy the
American Dream, one toy at a time.
I got the letter, as had thousands of other young men of my generation.
“Greetings … .”
I was ordered to appear at the local draft board, to put my name in
the hat. It was all very democratic. Your birth date went into a
barrel and then one by one every day of the year was pulled out until
all 365 days were accounted for. Where ever your date of birth ended
up in that list, that was your number. If your birthday was fifth on
the list, then you were in the fifth segment of young men who would be
called to duty that year.
I knew kids who had enlisted, opted out of waiting for the inevitable.
They were seen as heroes. They always got laid. There was a swaggering
bravado in them. But I knew a lot of friends and school acquaintances who
had waited until they had gotten the letter and then did what was “right.”
America needed them, and they went off to serve, rural kids, a teenage
Army fighting and dying over there. Still too young to drink or vote
but old enough to hold a rifle. I knew kids who died. I knew kids who
came back physically crippled. I knew kids who came back so mentally
fucked up that drugs, alcohol and suicide became the tripod of their
sad, stunted life.
The crowd I hung out with, we had a friend who had gotten the letter
about a year before I got mine. The last time I saw him was at the
train station in Doylestown. He had a duffel bag filled with clothes,
his guitar slung over his shoulder and $500.00 dollars in cash. His
plan was to get to Canada, become a draft dodger. A lot of my
generation opted for that, so many in fact that it also became a part
of The Reality Show. They were presented as cowards, lacking morality,
snubbing their noses, turning their backs on all of us. “Where did we
go wrong? Have we coddled them too much?”
Spin, spin, spin, we all fall down.
I remember the night my Dad sat down with me on our front porch. To
the west, over the gently rolling hills of the dairy farm, the sun was
going down in deep reds and purples. The old hickory tree was a
Japanese silhouette, the swing I no longer played on circled slowly in
the warm breeze. Behind the house ring necked pheasants were calling
to each other from their roost in the woods, and the sound of insects
hung in the air as they buzzed around being picked off by swarms of
bats. I asked about so many things that night. Personal things, the
secrets that fathers and sons share after a storm of life has washed
away the bullshit.
He told me about his experiences in World War II, and how what he had
seen and done had broken his mind, of how he had been hospitalized for
what was at that time called shell shock. I’d never heard this story
before. I’d heard plenty of stories about growing up in a coal town,
and about all the fun and mischief he and his brother and sisters had
gotten into, about how times were hard and food was scarce, about the
impossibility of how the spontaneous gathering of guitar players and
banjo players and fiddlers had turned into glorious nights of reels
and jigs in the face of poverty and struggle. Songs of Ireland and
Scotland played in the wasteland of coal slags and railroad tracks and
the shacks of the coal towns, the music magically summoning up enough
grit to go on, to make it through another day or month.
He told me how the war of his generation was different than the war of
my generation, that no matter the horrendous cost of life, including
the death of his own brother, he had to believe that there had been a
seed of morality in it, a rightness, that in the face of real life
tyranny it was his duty to fight. He spoke of how Korea and Viet Nam
were not that kind of war, how they were wars of ideologies fought not
to liberate but to impose our vision on others.
He told me if I chose to go to Canada, he and my mom would
support that decision, and help as much as they could.
I was young and filled with the self righteousness of youth. I wasn’t
going to run away from this any more than I had chosen not to run away
from the protest meetings that were springing up in towns and colleges
all across America. The draft dodgers had made their choice, and I
understood why. The Sausage Factory would chew you up, it was too big, too powerful. There were millions of them, but only one you. If you stood up to them, there weren’t ten thousand others standing shoulder to shoulder, gaining strength from each other like the protest meetings. It was just you, in the moment.
I was going to make my stand here, where the War Machine had brought it’s battle to me. I would go and register for the fucking draft, but I would file as a conscientious objector. I would tell them to theirpiggy smug faces that they could put me in jail, but they couldn’t
make me kill for them.
And so when I went to register, I asked how I could become a
conscientious objector. I watched as the face of the Sergeant altered
itself from the mild disdain of having to deal with another long
haired hippie into the angry demeanor of someone who is forced to deal
with a resistor, a punk who will not shut up and follow orders. I went
from human to virus in the blink of an eye. See, I was a different
kind of Domino Theory come to shit in his office, me and my ilk taking
one bite after another out of the glorious machinery of Freedom.
“Where will we be if they all refuse?”
He got out of his chair and came around his desk. He put his face
inches from mine. He smelled of Aqua Velva aftershave and cigarettes.
He put his finger to my chest and pushed me backwards, step by step
across the little store front office, each push accentuated with a
loud angry question. “What are you- a fuckin’ momma’s boy?
You a fuckin’ pinko? You a faggot, son? You want to suck my dick?”
We ran out of office long before he ran out of anger, so when I was up
against the wall he just continued to scream at me. “You want to watch
your mother get raped by some gook? Got no balls? Go ahead, take a
swing at me you little ass wipe, I’ll break your fuckin’ neck … .””
It went on for a while like that. I just stood there, taking it. I was
angry at him and frightened and embarrassed and even more angry at
myself that my knees were shaking and I knew, KNEW, if I tried to
speak my voice would quaver.
“What do you have to say, maggot?”
“How do I become a conscientious objector?”
“How do I become a conscientious objector, Sir.,” he said, mocking me
by imitating my thin, weak voice. “You say Sir to me, faggot. You call
me Sir. Show me respect. I’ve got all fuckin’ day.”
That’s how the game went down. You fuck with them and they’ll fuck
with you. Maybe they couldn’t force you to do things their way, but
they sure as hell wanted that pound of flesh, that ego fulfilling
moment where you had to bend your knees and acknowledge that one way
or the other your life was in their hands. Maybe they’d let you go,
maybe not, the whims of the Emperor are inscrutable, but the maybe’s
depended on that moment when you caved, when you called them Sir even
as your mouth filled with the taste of shit.
That was the moment when I grew up, became an adult, lost all the
illusions I’d been fed all my life about how doing the right thing was
a strong and powerful way to live your life, that by sheer force of
will you could stand against Power. alone, and create a different
“How do I become a conscientious objector … Sir?”
He laughed. His moment of glory. He’d fed me a piece of shit, and I’d
swallowed it. Tears of fear or anger or both slid down my cheeks
against my will. And he watched it. He watched it and enjoyed it.
He went back to sit behind his desk, pulled out two forms. He
explained that I had to fill out the draft registration card, and on
it was a little box where I had to put an X claiming I was a
conscientious objector. On the second form I had to explain my reasons
for wanting to be a pussy little conscientious objector. It would be
reviewed, a decision would be made.
“Can I have a pen?” He smiled at me. “Sir?”
With pen in hand, I rambled. I ranted. I wrote about dead babies and
puppet governments and war mongering for profit. Sitting there in
quiet little Doylestown, half a world away from the DMZ and Hamburger
Hill, the smell of Mrs. Paul’s Fish Sticks filling the air from the
factory right around the corner where every day Blacks and Hispanics
got off the bus from Philly to clean, gut, fillet and transform fish
into neat breaded little American main dishes. This was Bucks County,
affluent white people didn’t clean fish for shit wages. We imported
our servants, and sneered at them while we did it.
At the end of my statement, running out of room, I posed the question:
Would I defend myself if someone entered the room right now with a gun
and the intent to kill me? Yes. Yes, I would. What I object to is my
government putting me in a situation where I have to take a life in
order to defend my own. That, Sir, is my objection. When my only
option is to kill or be killed, when the simple animal sense of self
preservation is the only course, yes, I’ll be the savage you want me
to be. And if I survive, if I come home, I will never forgive you.
Later, I bragged to my friends about how I’d mouthed off to the guy
and stood toe to toe with him, not backing off. How I’d called him a
baby killer. Lies, of course, but my ego demanded a cover story, a
myth that I could use to hide my fear and humiliation.
A couple of weeks went by, intense weeks where every aspect of life
seemed to have been elevated to a higher plain. I was drinking life
like it was cold lemonade at the end of a long hot day in August. I
seemed to be aware of the smallest details, and to find pleasure in
the most mundane aspects of simply being alive. I felt the air on my
skin. I felt the weight of the sky and the warmth of the sun pressing
down on me, not oppressively but gently, like a heart felt hug. I
breathed in the scent of hay growing in the field, the scent of the
dairy herd belching and shitting as they performed the magic of
turning grass and oats into milk and cheese and ice cream. I was
wrapped in a weird kind of nostalgia, not yet absent from my childhood
home, but already missing it’s presence. Being there but not being
there, touching everything with my body then touching the absence of
everything with my mind.
Another letter arrived.
I walked down the long dirt lane that led to my home, walked across
the green grass of the yard, past the swing in the hickory tree, past
the picnic table set at the edge of the woods so we could enjoy the
shade from the trees. My cousins and I had burned many a hot dog over
a camp fire there, snubbing the charcoal grill in favor of the more
primitive raw flames. The hot dogs skewered on a branch, perfect
savages that we imagined ourselves to be in a time when death was
clutching your heart dramatically while playing Cowboys and Indians,
or later where death was a flickering black and white image on the
Philco safely filtered and softened.
I climbed the ladder made from slats of wood nailed to tree, up into
the treehouse my Dad had made for me years before. It was a double
decker, the first floor a little cabin, the second floor an
observation deck, high in the trees amongst the leaves and the birds.
I’d read my comic books here, I’d slept here with the quiet
whisperings of night creatures and the occasional sudden heart
shuddering scream of a screech owl sounding like a woman being
tortured somewhere deeper in the woods. Here was where I’d laid plans
of becoming a fireman or an astronaut or a rock and roll star, in a
country where you were told you could become whatever you wanted to
be, in a time and place where we all believed that to be true.
This was my America, not the profit driven war for profit obscenity
that had grown up around us.
I opened the letter. There was my draft card. “Burkett, Jacob L.” My
address, my social security number. My height, my weight, my hair and
eye color. All of me that mattered to my country, on that little slip
of paper. No place for morality or dreams, just the fact of my
existence as a mind and a body. A thing. And behind my name, in a
little box, in bold letters, slightly off kilter as if the printing
press had shuddered, was my draft classification: 1-A/CO. I was fit of
body and mind, the government said it was so, but I was unfit morally
to be a cog in the machinery of war. A pussy little conscientious
If drafted I would be assigned to a Medical Unit as a paramedic, the
first in a line of alchemists who would attempt to turn wounded,
mangled, dying bodies back into living, breathing human beings,
knowing full well that there is no Philosopher’s Stone to work that
magic. Life or death was left to luck and happen stance and the voodoo
of medicine was, really, nothing more than a wish to be greater than
Later that year, the draft was ended. Too many people had seen too
much on their Philco, Mom and Pop America were beginning to question
things, things they had no right to question. People were in the
streets, there was anger and blood, conflict and civil disobedience,
Castles were being threatened with torches. My number that year was
11. They had already enlisted 1 through 9. I had resigned myself to
what I thought would be my fate. I had conjured up in my mind all the
images I’d ever seen of the dead and the mangled in order to steel
myself against the horror, to try to form a callous over my humanity.
I would not kill, but I would live in the midst of death.
Oddly, when the draft was ended, I felt no sense of relief, no feeling
that I had escaped. I felt very alone. I had participated in anti-war
protests, and had felt the sense of community, all of us standing
united in condemning murder for profit, very vocally and with a large
degree of risk. But by putting my beliefs into action on this very
personal level I had crossed a line somehow, separated myself even
from that community. I saw that no matter the numbers, no matter the
rhetoric, there is a huge divide between being against something as a
community and taking a personal responsibility to act on your own. You
become a stray, of sorts, outside the fence, away from the herd.
I had the overwhelming understanding that somewhere a pen had edited
the script, that the story would be played out after a short hiatus,
in a different location with different story lines. There would be a
season of reruns, a moment of reflection, then a return to the new,
improved fall line up. It would be a different war for different
reasons. It would be sanitized. There would be no nightly recap, no
daily numbers of enemy dead, no lists of American dead and wounded.
War would become hidden, motives would be offered up and altered as
I was angry. I didn’t want to be saved. I wanted the fucking war to end.
From that day to this I have watched that understanding, that prescience,
become our reality.
It’s harder today, to know what to do, or even to know what to
believe. For every single problem, we are offered a number of
“approved” solutions that are mutually exclusive, and none of the
offered solutions actually address the problem. Controlled opposition,
engineered consent, media propaganda, distractions, diversions,
divisions, fear, always fear; these are the tools, the art, used to
keep us off balance, lost, confused and ultimately defeated.
“How can I move forward when I don’t even know which way I’m facing?”
The wars are so neatly packaged, so impeccably hidden from public
view. There’s a great deal of talk about the enemies, and their
horrendous acts, and their threat to us, but the real war, the death
of innocents, the suffering, the human cost, well that’s not
mentioned. Rhetoric and imagery, fact and fantasy.
There’s no draft, so the nebulous threat that you could be next
doesn’t factor into the public debate. Economic factors have become
the number one recruitment source for the all volunteer military
force, with appeals to patriotism being not much more than old, faded
advertisements that remain on the walls of a newly established
There’s an entirely new kind of draft, not military but social and
economic. We’re enlisted without notice. We need no training because
our entire lives have been spent in being indoctrinated to being
citizens in a world of consumerism where corporations drive political
machinery. There’s very much of a trapped in amber aspect to it. We
seem not to be able to free ourselves. And this is not a phenomenon
restricted to any one nation. It is global. The US and it’s allies the
UK, Canada, Australia, Israel, Saudi Arabia have all transitioned to
government run for the interests of transnational corporations.
Foreign and domestic policies and legislation reflect this.
If you’re reading this on a computer, in a home with electricity and
running water and if you know where your next meal is coming from then
you’re living a lifestyle from which 80% of humanity is excluded. We
are part of the power structure, and the conundrum is that we, the top
20% of humanity are the only ones with the means to bring meaningful
We need another generation of conscientious objectors. We need
1-A/CO’s who will find their moment, their lonely, individual moment,
to object to the never ending wars, the poverty, the hunger, the
homelessness, the death of our environment and our future. 1-A/CO’s
who understand that in the end the sociopaths will continue to decide
our fate as long as they have the power to do so, that the whims of
the Emperor are inscrutable, that there will be a demand for that
pound of flesh, but that in the end we all have the power to say “NO!”
even as they threaten us with death or prison.
We need a different Domino Theory.
Backed against the wall, angry, frightened, humiliated but still
asking, with a voice that quavers “How do I become a conscientious