A Conscientious Objector's Thoughts and Confusion
I wanted to write a few words about how the events of the past week have affected me. As some of you may know, I became a conscientious objector (from within the military) to the Vietnam War, refused my order to go to war, was court-martialed, and went to prison. Willingly. That singular decision set the course for the rest of my life and became the basis for the system of moral, philosophical, and spiritual beliefs that have guided me for the past 30 years. This system of beliefs has been absolutely clear in my mind during all that time.
I have never had any doubts that, in following my conscience, I did the right thing. Whenever I was criticized, attacked, and, yes, beaten, the words of my heroes held me firm and gave me strength. My heroes included Jesus, the Buddha, Leo Tolstoy, Henry David Thoreau, Eugene Debs, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. No, there were never any doubts.
Until September 11th.
For the past seven days my thoughts have, like everyone else's, been occupied with the horror and incomprehensibility of the terrorist attack, and the dread of the coming war. I have been filled with a rage I have never experienced before. A thirst for vengeance has crept into my heart.
But my mind has also been there the whole time, whispering, "Whoa. Wait a minute there, Bob. Do you really want to throw away everything you've held dear and sacred for all these years?"
So I've listened to my mind. Together we've reopened the debate about what exactly constitutes just and unjust wars.
But the heart is there, too, asking, "Do these concepts exist at all? Clearly, the present situation is utterly different from Vietnam. Indeed, it's unlike any war the U.S. has experienced before. There is an evil here that must be eradicated. The perpetrators must be found and severely punished, at all costs. This is an atrocity that has no peaceful resolution."
The heart is very persuasive. I say, "Yes! Yes! We must kill the bastards! And make sure their ilk is eliminated from the earth!"
The mind says calmly, "But, Bob, listen to what you're saying. I can't believe this is you speaking."
The heart says, "Tell the mind to shut up, would you? I haven't finished. There are a thousand more reasons you should listen to me."
Mind: "What about your ideals, Bob?"
Heart: "Ideals, schlemiels! Pipe dreams. Grow up, man! This is the real world!"
I go off for a quiet moment and try to meditate, empty my head. But the heart and the mind follow me and the debate continues.
Where am I going with this story? I don't know. There is no end. Only more confusion. I actually envy those of you who are sure of yourselves, sure of your opinions. I envy myself as a younger man when I was resolute and knew without a doubt what I had to do.
Now, I know only that war is inevitable. I know our leaders are doing the best they can to guide us in this. But I also think it is our job to remain skeptical of their decisions, to stay informed of what is happening and what is being expressed, not only in your own country, but in other countries as well. On the Internet you can easily find English-language newspaper editorials and news stories from all parts of the globe. Today I read opinions from newspapers in London, Paris, Moscow, Egypt, and Canada. You'd be amazed at the differences in perception.
Read! Read a lot. Don't let the television be your only source of news. Gather information and question everything. Question the reasons behind every decision. Hold onto your right to dissent if there's something you disagree with.
And for those of you who have sons and daughters in the military or of that age, the conscientious objector option is always there if they find themselves in a moral or spiritual bind. No doubt the draft will be brought back in the near future, and that's another thing for those with teenagers to think about.
I'm closing my message here because my heart and mind are at it again. I think I'll go tell my wife how much I love her. That's one thing we can all do: show our appreciation and love for one another, and do it every day.
Robert Norris was born and raised in a small logging town on the northwest coast of California. Upon graduating from high school in 1969, he entered the Air Force, went through many changes, subsequently became a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, was court-martialed for refusing to fight in the war, and served time in a military prison. In his twenties, he traveled across the United States, went to Europe twice, and made one journey around the world. He has lived in Japan since 1983, earned a bachelor's and a master's degree, and is currently an associate professor at Fukuoka International University. He and his wife live in the outskirts of Fukuoka, the main city on the island of Kyushu. Robert Norris is the author of two novels, Looking for the Summer and Toraware, and a textbook, The Many Roads to Japan, as well as many shorter works.