The word “conscientious” come from the Latin verb conscire, meaning “to be conscious” or, more specifically, “to be conscious of guilt.” A conscientious person is one who shows a strict regard for what is morally right. But who determines what is morally right? Last week, in the mayhem following the General Election Commission’s declaration of Joko Widodo as winner of the presidential election, which resulted in 8 deaths and hundreds of people injured, I was reminded that persons or parties who appear to be conscientious might not always be morally upright.
In the autumn of 1970, I was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. The previous months in the United States had been a period of anger. The killing of students at Kent State University in May had sparked national outrage and led to a 500,000 person march on Washington D.C. In August, much closer to home, a van filled with ammonium nitrate and fuel oil was detonated on the U.W. Madison campus where three of my sisters were going to school. A researcher was killed and several people injured.
After enrolling in college, I did what I could do to make my feelings known—designing anti-war posters, participating in discussion groups, even hitchhiking to D.C. to join another massive protest there—but I was safe. I was a college student with an I-S military deferment; I would not be called for induction into the military until I had graduated. This changed the following year, in 1971, when the rules governing military conscription were amended and all student deferments, except for divinity students, were ended. I could now be drafted into the military and be sent to Vietnam.
Two years earlier, in 1969, because of the unpopularity of the war in Vietnam, the country’s voluntary draft had been replaced with a lottery system and all male citizens, when reaching the age of 18, were obliged to register with their local draft board. Thus, when I turned 18, in October 1970, I registered in Richland Center, Wisconsin, my birthplace and the seat of government for a predominantly rural county where a high proportion of boys just out of high school saw the military as a way of escaping the drudgery of farm work.
The first draft lottery in December of 1970 determined the order of call for induction during calendar year 1970, for males born in 1950. (In the lottery system each day of the year was randomly assigned a number from between 1 and 365.) The second lottery, which was held in 1970, pertained to men born in 1951. That year, the highest lottery number called for possible induction was 125.
The third lottery, for males like me born in 1952, was held August 5, 1971. Naturally, I hoped that the number assigned to my birthday would be higher than at least 125. But when watching the news with my partner, Jeff, our hearts fell when both of our birthdays were assigned low double-digit numbers. It was certain that we would be called for induction.
Student deferments may have ended but there were other ways of staying out of the military. One was to move to Canada and live underground there—but this was something neither Jeff nor I considered doing. Another was to apply for a 1-AO status, more commonly known as a Conscientious-Objector or “C-O” status. A third was to apply for a “4-F,” which was given to men unable to serve in the military for medical, moral, or psychological reasons. This included homosexuality and a man who could prove that he was gay was automatically barred from military service, a relatively easy thing to do. Written testimony from the man’s partner or parent sufficed.
Securing C-O status was much more difficult and, even when conferred, the recipient might still be obliged to serve the military in a non-combatant position. Jeff and I argued about which status to apply for. While we could see nothing morally right about the Vietnam War, we also saw nothing morally wrong with being gay. But I wasn’t refusing to serve because I was gay; the war was morally wrong, I argued. It was a matter of conscience. Jeff countered that when an unprincipled government is itself engaging in immoral acts, standing on principle is futile. “By taking a 4-F, I’m telling the government to shove it,” he said. “You don’t want me. Well, I don’t want you and I am not on your team!”
(Just as an aside, while the history of conscientious objection goes back to the year 295 the 4-F classification came to be adopted during the U.S. Civil War. Men without “4 Front” teeth, which were needed to tear open gunpowder packages, were automatically barred from military service.)
In the end, Jeff and I agreed to disagree and when he was called to appear before his draft board, he, with written testimony from me, was classified 4-F. When I was called I submitted to my draft board an essay on my reasons for applying for 1-AO status. To my surprise, I received the classification and was not even required to serve as a non-combatant. In fact, so surprised was I that I looked into the reason and learned that a much higher per-capita number of men from my county had been killed in the war than nationwide and that with the equally high number of war-related obituaries in the local paper, anti-war sentiment was growing, even in rural Richland Country.
A country’s political leaders should be people of conscience with moral integrity. I have sometimes found this not to be true in the United States, both in the past and now. And here in Indonesia, where some of the same political leaders who have voiced regret about the recent violence are also alleged to have countenanced or even put money into the pockets of paid provocateurs, this appears to be the case as well. Just as young men in the United States became fodder for the war machine in year’s past, in Indonesia, too, the rakyat or “little people” are often manipulated, used, and then disabused by power-holders. Malum sit quibus malum faciunt.