David Harris speaking from the steps of the U.S. Capital at the mobilization against the draft and draft registration, March 22, 1980. (Resistance News)

David Harris and the politics of draft resistance

The life and words of David Harris offer key lessons on the importance of making our own history and the deeper aims of draft resistance.
David Harris speaking from the steps of the U.S. Capital at the mobilization against the draft and draft registration, March 22, 1980. (Resistance News)

David Harris, who died earlier this month at the age of 76, was a charismatic media figure and became a figurehead of draft resistance. In that light, perhaps it is understandable that when he is spoken of today, even by people sympathetic to draft resistance, he is often used as a symbolic blank state onto which people project their own feelings about draft resistance — more than as a springboard for engaging with what he said. But that’s unfortunate, given that he wrote so eloquently and prolifically about the ideas underlying his draft resistance actions.

For the last three years, I’ve been working on a review of the memoirs of draft resisters in the U.S. during the U.S. war in Vietnam. I’ve tracked down published book length first-person narratives by more than 40 draft resisters from this cohort, including writings by David Harris from the 1960s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. Harris left one of the most extensive bodies of exposition and analysis of the motives, meaning and significance of draft resistance of anyone to date in U.S. history.

Harris was an important influence on others who, like him, were subject to military conscription during the U.S. war in Vietnam. He was also a mentor to those of my own, younger, generation who were subject to draft registration when it resumed in the 1980s — including those of us like myself, who were prosecuted and imprisoned for resisting the draft, as Harris had been earlier. 

Now, as I reflect on the lifeworks and words of this leading thinker and practitioner of resistance, I see several key lessons. In this article, I will focus on two of them: the importance of making our own history and draft resistance as anti-imperialist, anti-authoritarian and anti-ageist — not just anti-war. A third theme, resistance to the draft as resistance to a traditional concept of masculinity, has occasioned even greater controversy among activists over the years and warrants separate discussion in a follow-up article to come.

I still remember: We were right’

David Harris had an acute sense of the importance of recording and projecting our own histories and our interpretations of them. Once upon a time, he assumed that if our actions had meaning and significance, history would inevitably memorialize them. But he came to see the need for active engagement in the process through which history — or what comes to be accepted as “history” — is created. (Marxists would call that process a dialectic. Post-modernists would call it a discourse.)

Harris’ engagement in the creation of history, through writing and speaking and his role in the documentary film released shortly before his death, “The Boys Who Said No,” did not come from any desire for self-aggrandizement. Harris was assured of a place in history. All that was in doubt was how, not whether, he would be remembered. But Harris spoke often of how he had moved from the assumption that history would record whatever we do to recognition that history is recorded by the powerful — and will inevitably expunge or distort the record of dissident activities and activists, unless we work to create and preserve that record ourselves.

For Harris and many other draft resisters of his age cohort, an important part of that work was countering the false narrative that resistance to the draft and the U.S. war in Vietnam had been futile, and therefore that resistance in the present and future would be pointless or purely symbolic. While draft resistance is sometimes categorized as “civil disobedience” — and even Harris sometimes in recent years used that (perhaps more widely understood) terminology — draft resistance was intended to be, and effective as, direct action.

As suggested by the slogan “from protest to resistance,” which heralded Students for a Democratic Society’s adoption of a resolution supporting draft resistance, resistance cannot be reduced to mere “objection,” conscientious or otherwise. Resistance is different from protest, objection or complaint. Resistance is about acting with our whole lives, not just with ballots or words. As Harris said in his first book, 1970’s “Goliath,” written between being convicted and sentenced for refusing induction into the military and being taken to prison, “Our doing is the substance of our politics.” He maintained that view throughout his life — and not just about the draft, writing in 1996’s “Our War” that “We Get What We Do, nothing more.”

When Harris spoke about how the U.S. military and the system of conscription depended on active compliance by young men, that was a statement of fact and not hollow rhetoric. To say that “Uncle Sam needs you” is equivalent to saying that if enough of you won’t go, Uncle Sam won’t be able to wage that war anymore. Draft resistance was far from the only activity that undermined the ability of the U.S. government to wage a war in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, but it made a significant contribution to shortening that war and, while it continued, constraining it. Millions died anyway, but many more would have died had it not been for the resistance to the U.S. draft.

Harris made his most explicit claim to his place in “Our War: What We Did in Vietnam and What It Did to Us,” written in response and rebuttal to Robert S. McNamara’s memoir and apology/apologia, “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.” 

Of the resistance to the draft, Harris wrote in the first person plural:

We also have our own admissions with which to reckon: We sometimes drifted into the self-righteous, were plagued by a compulsion to push the envelope, to reinvent ourselves over and over again. We were faddists and could easily take ourselves too seriously….  Too often our talk was cheap and our listening hard to come by…. We were too quick to license all disbelief and too slow to reach outside our own presumptions….

All that said, I still remember: we were also right.

We should remember, too. The war was wrong. Harris and other draft resisters were right. 

The takeaway for other activists is that we should not be ashamed to claim our victories, even partial ones. It’s worth the struggle to preserve and pass on their historical memory. Failing to celebrate our successes is a recipe for demoralization and difficulty sustaining even successful campaigns.

It’s in this spirit that I’ve devoted some of my time in recent years to preserving and passing on the history of the draft, draft registration, and draft resistance since 1980. As with the false history of the ineffectiveness of draft resistance in the years before 1973, there’s a false assumption that resistance to draft registration since 1980 has been either nonexistent or, because there has been no draft, irrelevant. But that ignores not only the pervasiveness of noncompliance with the draft registration requirement since 1980, but the effect of that quiet resistance in preventing activation of a draft based on current Selective Service contingency plans — and averting the greater carnage that would have resulted from the larger wars and greater military adventurism that the perceived availability of a draft as a “fallback” would have enabled.

I told the judge I took my wars one at a time.’

To the extent that draft resistance is touched on in courses in ‘60s history, it’s generally considered to have been a tactic of “the antiwar movement.” And to the even lesser extent that the philosophical or ideological roots of draft resistance are considered, they are generally ascribed to pacifism, nonviolence and/or a religious or religion-like “conscientious objection.”

Are these assumptions accurate? David Harris’ writings and speeches make clear that they aren’t.

Harris was, with the possible exception of Mohammed Ali, the most visible and articulate exponent of draft resistance and its rationale. He was especially effective as a speaker, and influential in moving his peers to act, because what he said resonated with his listeners.

So if we want to know why people resisted the draft, what Harris said is a good starting point.

Harris was not a pacifist, a “conscientious objector,” or opposed to war in general. He was opposed to U.S. imperialism, to the draft (which targeted only the young) and to the “Vietnam War” (which was really, as he often pointed out, an American war). He was secular, neither religious nor with a Marxist nor an anarchist antipathy to religion. His politics were explicitly situational, not driven by any absolutist ideology. He consistently refused to speculate on whether there might be some hypothetical war that he would fight.

While Harris was in prison, one of the members of the parole board came to interview him for possible release. “‘If you were drafted for a war to defend Israel, would you still refuse?’ the judge asked… I told the judge I took my wars one at a time,” he recalled in “Our War.”

Nor were Harris’ politics necessarily nonviolent. He was scathingly dismissive of those who espoused revolutionary violence within the U.S. at that time, such as the Weather Underground. But he left the door open to the possibility of legitimate violence in other situations.

He spoke and wrote as an American, in terms of American values and American actions. His concern was that what we were doing in Vietnam was wrong, not what sort of government Vietnam ought to have or what people in Vietnam or any other country ought to do.

Some progressives shy away from naming U.S. imperialism or blaming the American people for it, lest that alienate potential mass support. Harris didn’t harp on the label “imperialism,” but he pulled no punches in itemizing its attributes and its effects. The thesis of “Our War,” in accordance with its title, is a forceful argument that the war was wrong, wrong from the start, and that the U.S. was responsible. In a participatory democracy, Harris notes, war is also participatory, as the dependence of the draft on popular acquiescence exemplifies. What’s was and still is called for from the American people, he says, is not an “apology” for a “mistake” but a “Reckoning” (with a capital R) for what we, the American people, did in Vietnam.

To the extent that Harris articulated any ideological basis for his draft resistance, beyond the exigencies of a situation in which one was ordered to take an active role in a wrongful imperialist war, I think his ideas could best be described as anti-authoritarian and anti-ageist.

It’s indicative of this emphasis that one of the few theoretical essays on the politics of draft resistance, a talk by the late Staughton Lynd which was explicitly based in part on several days of conversations with Harris, was published in the 1979 anthology “Contemporary Anarchism” rather than in a collection of pacifist or antiwar theory.

Opposition to authoritarianism and to ageism were central to the New Left. I think these causes remain important today, and that our analysis of them can draw on what New Leftists said about them — including the draft resisters at the pointy end of the stick of ageist authoritarianism. But these have tended to get lost in subsequent discussions that collapse all of the issues for the “movement of movements” of the ‘60s into those of “the War” and “civil rights” (or racism).

One cannot understand the draft resistance movement of that time without understanding the resurgence of anti-authoritarianism, tending towards anarchism, or the youth movement, of both of which it was part. Or vice versa. The draft was a central motivator for those movements.

In his remarks on “The Assumptions of the Draft” at the 1968 National Student Association Congress, which he attended in his capacity as president of the Stanford University student body, Harris located the sources and the evil of the draft in authoritarianism and ageism:

The most obvious assumption of military conscription is that the lives of young people in this country belong not to those young people; the lives of those young people instead are possessions of the state, to be used by the state when and where the state chooses to use them. The decisions made by those young people are not decisions made on the terms that they find in their lives. They are rather decisions that are made on the terms of the state because those people belong to the state.

He maintained this point of view, and expanded on it, more than 25 years later in “Our War”, identifying the evil of the draft with its authoritarian (i.e. undemocractic) character:

The preexisting capacity to conscript was a given, and the purpose to which it was put did not have to seek advance justification in the political marketplace, so planners in Washington could assume unlimited manpower when they made policies. In effect, the Selective Service System was a blank check for instant and undeclared war. When the focus turned to Vietnam, there was no need to convince the nation to pledge its sons: those sons were already pledged; no need to ask permission: permission was long since given; no need to suspend the protections of the Constitution: They were already suspended. Using us was simple…. All that was required was cranking up the dial and turning the machine loose.

Given the ageism of the draft, opposition to the draft was inextricably linked to the movement for youth liberation. “We must remember, every arrangement for this war had two categories: the young and everybody else,” Harris wrote. “The young were expected to sacrifice themselves on its behalf, and nothing was expected of everybody else…. Only the nation’s supply of young adults were issued orders for the war that had to be followed.”

War tax resisters would quibble with his claim that “nothing” was expected of those older than draft age. But there’s a qualitative difference between having to pay war taxes and having to kill or be killed. As Harris observed, “In retrospect, it comes as no surprise that the line separating our age group from the others soon ran throughout America…. The papers called it ‘the Generation Gap.’…  Everyone experienced it, and in truth there was little mystery to it. I suspect cannon fodder have always felt themselves a breed apart… It was part of our victimization that…. it would be left to us to stand up to the war on which our elders had decided to spend us.”

Some absolute pacifists see “selective conscientious objection” as a “less radical” or incomplete philosophy, or perhaps as a “stage” in the progression toward societal enlightenment in pacifism. But there was nothing “less radical,” half-hearted or half-baked about Harris’ actions and arguments. The draft resistance movement that called itself “The Resistance” was not an organization. It defined its “membership” by what people did, not by what (if anything) they said. Harris was very vocal, of course, but some of the most respected draft resisters were very taciturn. The intrinsic radicalism of draft resistance, its effectiveness, and its appeal were all strengthened by the fact that it did not depend on agreement as to its motives (other than to stop the draft and the war) or with any laundry list of principles of unity.

In all of this, Harris’ perspective and the arguments he made aligned with his audience.

Harris’ status as a leader of the resistance to the draft did not come from any organizational or decision-making authority. His influence came from the example of his actions, from his words, and from the fact that other resisters found that his actions and words expressed what they wanted to do and say.

Harris acquired leadership not merely because he was charismatic (which he was) and articulate (which he also was), but because he was neither pacifist nor per se antiwar but anti-imperialist, opposed to a particular war, anti-authoritarian and anti-ageist. This is why his message resonated so much with an audience that, in general, shared these implicit principles.

If we would emulate the success of the advocacy, outreach, and organizing engaged in by Harris and other draft resisters of his cohort, it’s important to recognize the basis for its appeal — both what that was and what it wasn’t. Perhaps we should pitch ourselves less to a (today largely nonexistent) “peace movement,” and focus our messaging more on imperialism, authoritarianism and ageism. These were the issues to which Harris successfully appealed in building and leading a movement of resistance to the draft during the U.S. war in Vietnam.

Draft resisters, including David Harris, were among the best and brightest of their generation. There is much for us to learn from his, and their, words as well as their deeds.

This story was produced by IPRA Peace Search

Founded in 1964 to advance research on the conditions of peace and the causes of war and violence — with five regional associations covering every corner of the planet — the International Peace Research Association (IPRA) is the world’s most established multi-disciplinary professional organization in the field of peace, human rights and conflict studies.

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