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John Banks, like all the young men of his generation, had to register for the
draft when he turned 18. In John's senior year in high school the draft was
carried out through a lottery system based on the individual's birthday. John's
was one of the first numbers picked.
John did not want to be drafted and face the prospect of ending up on the front lines of the Vietnam War. The thought of killing another human being repulsed him. A viable alternative seemed to be in joining the Air Force or Navy. He paid a visit to the local Air Force recruiter, who guaranteed John would never have to carry a weapon. John joined the Air Force in September 1969.
He knew he had made a mistake the day he arrived with a group of other enlistees for six weeks of basic training at Lackland Air Base outside of San Antonio, Texas. It was a lonely and arduous time, but somehow he survived the constant screaming of the drill instructors, the hours of marching, the physical conditioning in the desert heat, the training in the use of weapons, the barracks inspections, the scrubbing of toilets and floors, the tasteless food, and the classrooms where the soldiers were inculcated into obedience and conformity. For the first time in his life, John was exposed to young men from all over the nation, each with his own particular prejudices and dialect and mannerisms.
Near the end of basic training he was given his job assignment order. He
would be trained as a military policeman. He had to remain at Lackland Air Base
for ten more weeks of specialized training. The hand of irony had played a dirty
trick. He had joined the Air Force with the idea he would not have to carry a
weapon, but now he was to be trained in the art of combat and the use of deadly
weapons. He passed through his training without incident, but during this period
of time there grew within John an inchoate attitude of rebelliousness.
From Lackland he was transferred to Beale Air Base near Sacramento, California, where he began his job of guarding B-52 bombers that were so huge they seemed like gigantic prehistoric birds of prey. Thus began his days and nights of walking in lonely circles on the flight line in the heat and rain, thinking, changing, growing, wondering what the purpose of his life was.
John began thinking seriously about Vietnam for the first time. He had a gut feeling that the war was wrong. He began listening to the words instead of just the melodies of popular songs by Bob Dylan and the many others who were protesting the war. He also began to read the underground newspapers that were finding their way onto the base. These papers were filled with anti-war and anti-government stories about the atrocities committed in Vietnam, the Kent State shootings, the shooting of Ralph Bunch at the Presidio, and the hysteria running rampant on college campuses around the country.
Eventually John's order to go to Southeast Asia came and he was given 30 days
of leave before having to report to a base in Texas for a month of intensive war
training. From there he would be sent to a base in northern Thailand near the
Cambodian border. The war at this time had been escalated (illegally many
believed) into Cambodia, where B-52 bombers were dropping tons of napalm and
agent orange. When he left Beale Air Base for the start of his 30-day leave,
John knew he would never make it to Texas.
For two weeks he did much soul searching. He had only three options:
follow his order and go fight in a war he believed was wrong, run away to Canada, or go back to his air base and apply for conscientious objector status and probably go to prison. He chose the third option.
John returned to Beale Air Base. It amazed John how easy it was to check back onto the base without anyone questioning why he had returned instead of going to Texas. He was told to stay in the transient barracks until he received a work assignment. He had no idea how to apply for conscientious objector status, so he began just hanging out at the gymnasium, playing basketball, and going to movies at the base theater in the evenings.
One day about three weeks after returning to the base John ran into David Yavitz, another security policeman who asked John what he was doing back on the base. They went for a drive and John, feeling relieved to have someone finally take notice of him, confessed everything. David told John that he too was involved in the underground movement against the war and was writing for an anti-war newspaper being printed secretly off base in Yuba City by a man who had been discharged just two months before.
Over the next few days John found himself involved with a group of five other airmen stationed at the base, each of them in his last few months of military service. All were opposed to the war and were actively spreading anti-war propaganda around the base. They spent many hours together discussing pacifism, Gandhi, Thoreau, and the duty of civil disobedience. They were supportive of John's belief and encouraged him to go to the legal department to find out what his rights were and to set his conscientious objector application into motion before it was too late. It would not be long before the base clerks discovered he had not followed his order to go to Southeast Asia. John was told he should see a lawyer named Jerry Turnbull, who was said to be sympathetic to the anti-war movement.
Jerry Turnbull was very interested in John's case. Jerry told John that he
had spent eight years of school studying to become a lawyer. When he was
drafted he considered going to Canada, but decided he could work better from
within the system rather than throw away his career and those eight years of
schooling. After asking John about the details concerning when John had returned
to the base and what he had said to the clerks and other security police, Jerry
said he thought John had a chance to successfully receive conscientious objector
They worked very hard together to set into motion John's application for conscientious objector status. Jerry set up a series of meetings and interviews with a variety of officers and military chaplains who asked John many questions to determine if John's beliefs and feelings were sincere. Before each of these interviews, Jerry counseled John on how to answer the questions.
John's commanding officer found out about what John was doing. The commanding officer wanted to make an example of John to the other soldiers. He did not want any more soldiers to refuse to go to war. He called John into his office. John felt as if he were a captured enemy soldier undergoing interrogation. In front of many witnesses the commanding officer threatened John with a court martial and five years in prison. He demanded John tell why he had changed, who the people were who had influenced him, where they lived, if he was part of some organization, and if he was connected with the filthy communist newspaper spreading propaganda around the base.
John gave only vague answers to all the questions. The commanding officer,
frustrated and incensed, gave up his line of questioning and formally gave John
the final order to go to war. John's answer to the order was: "I don't feel I'm
mentally or physically able to go."
John was charged with the military crime of willful disobedience to a direct lawful order. The maximum punishment for this crime was five years of hard labor in a military prison. It was also possible he would be given a dishonorable discharge. The court martial was scheduled for October 8, 1970.
The court martial took an entire day to complete. Many witnesses were questioned by both the prosecution and defense attorneys. John was called to the stand. There were no questions from the prosecuting attorney. Jerry asked the questions they had rehearsed many times. The words flowed from John's mouth in a mechanical stream, quotations from famous pacifists and resisters to the procession of history's wars. At the end of the questioning, John was given the chance to make a final statement.
He said, "My belief that the war in Vietnam, or any war, is wrong will not change. My conscience will never allow me to participate in any form of war. My feelings are the same as those of Eugene Debs.
"Eugene Debs said, 'I am accused of having obstructed the war, of being unpatriotic. I object to that accusation. It is not true. I believe in patriotism. I have never uttered a word against the flag. I love the flag as a symbol of freedom. I believe, however, in a wider patriotism.
"'Thomas Paine once said that his country was the world and to do good was his religion. That is the sort of patriotism I believe in. I am an Internationalist. I believe that nations have been pitted against nations long enough in hatred, in strife, in warfare. I believe there ought to be a bond of unity between all these nations. I believe the human race consists of one great family. I love the people of this country, but I don't hate a human being because he happens to be born in some other country. Why should I? Like myself, he is the image of his Creator. I would infinitely rather serve him and love him than to hate him and kill him. Thank you very much.'"
John rose from the stand feeling dizzy. A wave of emotion and relief swept over him. He had never been as nervous in his entire life. Jerry smiled at him. The court martial was over. The court recessed for the judge to come to a decision. An hour later the judge emerged from a grey and dingy room and called John before him. The judge said John was innocent of the charge of willful disobedience to a direct lawful order, but guilty of the lesser military crime of negligent disobedience to a lawful order. John was sentenced to six months of hard labor in a military prison.
This was John's first exposure to the power of language. The day's proceedings had boiled down to the one sentence he had used in response to his order to go to war. He had not said a direct "no." By saying instead that he felt he was not mentally or physically capable of going, he had been spared a possible four and a half years of prison time. It was staggering for him to think about.
A military policeman placed handcuffs around John's wrists and led him to a patrol car waiting to take him to the base prison. Jerry followed John to the patrol car. John forced a smile and said, "It could've been worse."
Jerry shook John's hand. "You were very brave today. I was proud of you." John got into the patrol car. The sun was resting on the rim of horizon. A cloud of dust rose behind the car as it headed toward the prison. John looked back and saw Jerry grow smaller through the brown haze until he was a tiny speck in the distance. Then John turned around to face the future.