When my oldest son was 4, a neighborhood bully his own age would regularly intimidate him by raising a fist and threatening to hit him. One day I came home from work to find Jamie in the playground and, across the commons, the bully riding around on Jamie's new bike. I decided that my son wasn't going to be bullied. I went to Jamie and told him to go get his bike back.
"But he'll hit me."
"Then hit him back, and hit him harder. Now go get your bike."
Jamie began edging reticently toward where the bully was riding. Every two or three steps, Jamie would look back at me, and I'd sternly motion for him to go. Finally, the bully saw him coming and jumped off the bike and began approaching him. The two of them got about 10 feet away from each other and stopped. And then they both started swinging.
They stayed like that for a minute or two, swinging away, nowhere near each other. I stifled a laugh and called out to Jamie, again insisting that he go get his bike. Finally, my son stepped up to the bully and made contact. Utterly surprised, the bully dropped his hands, and after a moment of shocked silence, began wailing as he ran home. Jamie turned around and looked at me with a look as surprised as the bully's. Then he smiled. And I smiled, and inside my heart glowed. My son had defended himself.
During the Vietnam War, I was discharged from the Navy on grounds of conscientious objection. While the Supreme Court had ruled that conscientious objectors must be opposed to all wars, I was never quite sure where I would have stood during WW II, but for the sake of registering this, my personal protest against Vietnam, I argued that I opposed to all wars. I never argued, however, that I opposed all violence. When the Naval commander who interviewed me inquired what I would do if someone attacked my mother, I answered that I would stop the attacker if I could, and kill him if I had to. I went on to say, somewhat flippantly, that I would not go on to murder his family, burn down his house, and destroy his village. Flippant though it was, that response seemed to satisfy the commander, even though I hadn't really answered the serious question at the heart of his analogy, and he ultimately recommended that I be discharged as a C.O.
That was 1972, and nothing since then has made me question my conscientious objection to war. Until now. A good friend reminds me of Gandhi's line that "an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind." And another conscientious objector, the American poet Robert Lowell, once wrote of a future earth "orbiting forever lost" in "small war on the heels of small war." Most of us, I think, see the truth in Gandhi's words, and work in our own small ways to obviate Lowell's dispiriting prophecy. But not the men of Al Qaeda. Deaf to any kind of dialogue with the West, adamantly refusing to talk, they insist on the threat of violence against all reason. I think this is the first time in my lifetime that the U.S. has truly been put in a position where it has no other option. We must stop them if we can, and kill them if we have to.
When I was 18, in my father's mind there was no question about how I would respond to Vietnam. If called, I would serve. But in my mind, that was precisely the wrong thing to do. Last year, my son Jamie, now 18, registered with the Selective Service, and I told him at the time that if they ever started drafting people again, I'd help him apply for a deferment on grounds of conscientious objection. But last night we talked about the attacks on New York and Washington, and I alluded to our earlier conversations about the draft. And I reticently acknowledged that, of course, that's his decision, not mine.
Jim Hale is a father of five and an assistant professor of English at UAS.