Presenting the work of Quaker atheists, agnostics, humanists, and others who practice Quakerism without supernatural beliefs

Confessions of a Failed C.O.

(I presented this at an adult education session at Twin Cities Friends Meeting in November 2003.  A Friend recently suggested it might spur some conversations around alternative ways of seeing and experiencing what Quakers call the “inward light.” In particular, I think the idea of the inward light as something pure, which can be experienced utterly distinct from the complications of being human in the world, is a flawed idea.)

Showdown at Coleman Barracks

In 1983, more than three years into my four-year volunteer enlistment as a journalist/soldier in the Army, I handed a letter of strike to my commanding officer, expecting a quick trip to military prison and some relief from my pained conscience. Instead I spent the next year struggling through the Army’s conscientious objector application process, meanwhile conducting my soldierly business as usual. Three weeks before my release date, I got a letter rejecting my application.

It would seem I accomplished nothing. That was certainly how it looked to me in 1983, as American forces were supporting murderous tyrants in El Salvador and around the world. I felt ineffectual, hypocritical, a pip-squeak rebel.

Even at this point I can’t pretend that my protests were some pure and principled stand for peace and justice, though concerns of that sort troubled me deeply. My rebellion was complicated, personal, riddled with doubt and inconsistency. I like to tell myself that such is the nature of rebellion, but I really don’t know. A central inconsistency was the fact that I entered the Army as a volunteer, and only after three years spoke out in a way that put me at any personal risk. Even then I largely backed off when I found there was a way to continue my protest without going to jail.


My enlistment in the Army in 1979 was similarly conflicted. Having marched against the Vietnam War with my parents at the age of 12, I was already drawn to pacifist philosophy and highly suspicious of patriotism. At the same time, I was trying to work my way through college with limited support from home. I could afford tuition and books if I lived with my parents, but that was too high a price to pay. My father had gotten through college on the G.I. Bill, which amounted to a full scholarship for military veterans. So I talked to a recruiter, and learned I could enlist with guaranteed training as a journalist, and get out four years later with $8,000 for finishing college. Perfect! I won’t be a soldier; I’ll be an observer, telling the truth about soldiers’ lives, like the great military journalists of past wars. Nothing morally questionable about that.

First, though, there was seven weeks basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Going back and reading letters I wrote home from that period is hard to take. I seemed to believe that the drill sergeants’ threats, insults and general bullying were for our own good, and the raunchy, aggressive marching songs we sang were good fun. Thinking back now, I mostly remember exhaustion and a sort of intellectual and emotional flatness, like all of my thoughts and feelings were stillborn. I think I was too tired and fearful to let my brain follow any thought or feeling out to its necessary conclusion–for instance, the conclusion that this is no way for human beings to treat each other. It was less painful somehow to float on the surface, neither questioning nor taking seriously the brutal idiocies of each day.

I was neither as physically strong nor as emotionally tough as most of the kids in my company–many were street-fighting punks from tough neighborhoods in big cities, mixed in with a good number of broad-shouldered farm kids, and a few broke and ambivalent college students like myself. I was apparently tougher than some, though; medics removed one “washout” from his wall locker in a catatonic trance. At least that was the rumor. This, too, I tried not to think about. My memory of this time is not so much of pain but of numbness.

Following basic training and a brief leave with my family, I went to the Defense Information School at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana. The transition was a shock. Military journalism was taught, suprisingly, with a fair amount of integrity, and we were treated with a startling modicum of respect, as if we were adults with functioning minds. For the first few weeks I imagined an abusive drill sergeant behind every tree; out of the blue my commanding officer asked me if there was something wrong, because of the constant look of fear on my face.

Fort Meade

After my training as an Army journalist, I was assigned to Fort Meade, Maryland, to work for the weekly post newspaper, SOUNDOFF! Fort Meade was pretty easy-going for a military installation, home to the civilian-heavy National Security Agency, a couple medical and engineering outfits, and my own “Headquarters Company,” dedicated to supporting staff and infrastructure of the post. Basically, we were a community of clerks supporting a larger community of spies and technicians.

My civilian editor was a left-wing former Catholic divinity student with a Master’s degree in English literature. In fact, all the management at the Fort Meade public affairs office were civilians, and the handful of enlisted soldiers who served as reporters were considerably more thoughtful and independent-minded than the Army likes its soldiers to be. On my first day I was put on a helicopter to Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania to do a feature story on interned Cubans who had been allowed, and in some cases compelled, by the Cuban government to emigrate after the initial waves of Cuban “Marielitos” hit U.S. shores in 1980. Most were waiting to go live with relatives in Florida. I was accompanied by a Hispanic soldier-photographer who doubled as my translator in talking with the Cubans.

We sat on the steps of the beat-up, wooden World War II-era barracks, and a dozen or more Marielitos gathered around to tell their stories all at once, while their children played in the dirt nearby. I also interviewed several young soldiers serving as military police. It was an exciting, genuine encounter, a long way from the half-baked cliches I had heard about Cuban life, from the political left or the right. None had anything but scorn for Castro’s Cuba, but the stories didn’t seem to describe a monolithic dictatorship, so much as a triumph of power-hungry little bureacrats. They described poverty but not starvation–a monthly allotment of rice, fat, three quarters of a chicken and a pound of meat–which could hardly be blamed on the Communist regime; but there was also the infuriating and unappealable authority of local “committees of defense”–loyal Communists on every block of Havana who decided who gets to move, get a job, go to school, and many other central aspects of living. If a committee member didn’t like your attitude, your life would not go well. The stories, while certainly not painting an objective picture of Cuban life, had the ring of human truth.

After interviewing a dozen Marielitos at once, I headed back and wrote the story up. My editor loved it, and I was starting to feel like a competent, valuable adult for pretty much the first time in my life. Over the next couple years I wrote about a Brazilian exchange student sponsored by a military family; the loneliness of young soldiers spending their first Christmas away from home; packs of wild and abandoned dogs roaming the back woods of Fort Meade; an editorial against capital punishment that generated the only letters to the editor we ever received.

The Rebel Seed

The men at the factory are old and cunning
You don’t owe nothing, so boy get running
It’s the best years of your life they want to steal

–The Clash

Feeling more fulfilled and confident than I had ever felt before, I also was growing more and more aware of the absurdity of what I did for a living in light of my leftist/pacifist leanings. Reagan’s 1980 election, the subsequent trashing of Carter’s concept of “human rights” as a legitimate element of foreign policy, an increasing likelihood of U.S. intervention in El Salvador, all were awakening in me a sense of the hypocrisy of my life.

Then there was the Clash, punk rock’s smartest, most passionate prophets of rebellion. I blasted the barracks nightly with the six sides of Sandinista!, their messiest, most fervently political album. Songs like “The Call Up”, “Charlie Don’t Surf” and “Washington Bullets” helped me wake up and see my role in a powerful machine bent on turning the world into licensed franchises of America®. I also read and re-read Albert Camus’ book The Rebel during this time, but the three-minute rants of punk rock spoke more truly to the seed of my rebellion than Camus’s calm and immaculate reasoning.

In my overall discomfort and desire to change my life, somehow, anyhow, I started clutching at straws. I told friends and family to call me James instead of Jim. I walked through the toughest neighborhoods of Baltimore after the bars closed with vague hopes of geting mugged. I proposed marriage to a co-worker I didn’t love. She said “OK”. I think we both liked the idea because married couples could move out of the barracks into an apartment, and get some extra money toward living expenses. At some point after our engagement she told me she was a lesbian. I thought that was just fine, until some weeks later when she asked if it was OK that she was sleeping with her girlfriend on the side. I called the marriage off and asked the Army to send me overseas. Anything to get out of this mess of a life. Two months later in Germany, things got messier.


For one thing, my assignment in Germany felt like being in the army, in stark contrast to Fort Meade. My company commander, Captain Strength–no, seriously, that was his name–was what soldiers call “strack”, and ordinary people call anal retentive. His boots shone like black glass, his fatigues were starched stiff as his spine, which was in turn as narrow as his mind. I was assigned a rifle and “NBC gear” (Nuclear, Biological and Chemical) and was sent out on field exercises. We did PT–physical training–at 6 every morning, ending with a lung-bursting run around the base.

Shortly after I arrived the sergeant who ran the brigade public affairs office put me in charge of the monthly newspaper, so he could play with chemicals in the photo lab, which he much preferred to writing or editing. In the first month I assigned myself to do a travel story on Berlin. I spent most of the trip in the music clubs of West Berlin, but my story focused on the surreal half-day I spent in East Berlin, wearing my dress uniform as required by international treaty.

The first line of my story–ironically, I thought–read “Meet your enemy for the next war.” I intended the article as a subtly subversive anti-war piece, but it may have been too subtle for the audience. The only comment I got was from a German civilian press manager, who read only the first line and tried to talk me out of it–he feared I might cause an international incident. If any controversy followed , I never heard about it.

The main entertainment for American soldiers, on- and off-base, was drinking. After the bars closed my roommates and I would drink some more in our barracks room, seldom getting more than three or four hours sleep before we had to get up for PT. Often as not I’d steer the conversation to my growing disgust with the Army and my role in it. They were good friends–months later some of them would testify on my behalf in my C.O. hearings–but they thought I was nuts.

At the time–late 1980–U.S. tensions with (Nicaragua – El Salvador) were increasing, and there were rumors of impending war. Whatever the reality, many of us believed we could be on the next plane out to squash a revolution. I was sick with fear, physical exhaustion, and a growing disconnection between my heart and my life. Desperate to make things right with my heart somehow, I fitfully wrote my declaration of strike, and spent most of the night awake imagining my future in a military prison. I did not imagine I was accomplishing anything meaningful. I wasn’t even trying to make a political statement, really. Rather, I was trying to dissolve the large stone that had formed in the pit of my stomach.

In the morning, sleepless and vibrating with fear, I reported to the company commander and handed him my declaration of strike. He read the letter, then called in his large, grizzly first sergeant and sent me out of the room temporarily. Five minutes late they called me back in. “I could beat the living crap out of you. My witness here will say you attacked me.” They interviewed me like homicide cops on television, trying to intimidate me into backing off. When I wouldn’t budge, the captain ordered me to visit the post “AG”, short for adjutant general, or military lawyer. I followed his “order” as a reasonable suggestion, and headed for the AG’s office.

Having been a pre-teen in the Vietnam years, I knew what a conscientious objector was, but assumed only wartime draftees were eligible, not peacetime volunteers who had had a change of heart. On the contrary, the AG showed me the regulations, and suddenly there was hope I might find a way out that didn’t involve military prison. The main language of the regulation applied to those whose opposition to war was broad, absolute, and long-standing, but there was also a provision for soldiers who have had a “crystallizing experience” which brought their opposition to war to the surface. It wasn’t a perfect fit, but I could imagine an honest narrative of my years in the Army which led to the overpowering realization, or crystallization, that I could not continue to serve.

Right or wrong, I backed off from my strike and began the application process. First stop was the psychiatrist, second stop the chaplain. The first attested that I was not crazy. Meeting with the chaplain, it became clear that my atheism would not work in my favor. Nonetheless, he attested that I was sincerely opposed to war and military service, and not merely trying to get out of the Army. I had trouble understanding this distinction, which also did not work in my favor.

Everything in the process took far longer than I expected. I wrote for letters of support from friends and family, lined up witnesses for a hearing. A couple of months later the hearing took place, and my formal application, with letters of support, transcripts and other materials, was sent up the lengthy chain of command all the way to the Pentagon. Captain Strength, my immediate commander, recommended rejection of my application on the grounds of insincerity-I was only trying to get out of the Army, he said. Approval was recommended at every other level on the way to the Pentagon. All that was left was to wait for final approval in Washington.

I continued doing my work in purgatory, writing and editing the newspaper, taking photos at military awards ceremonies, going on field exercises with my camera and my notebook. Drinking every night until late, and through the weekends. All the while feeling-rightly or not-that my commander was watching me like a hawk, looking for an excuse to bring me up on charges.

One night I met a German girl in a Heidelberg bar, walked her home, kissed her at the door, found my heart and mind filled with something other than the stink of my life in the Army. For weeks we spent as much time together as we could manage, fell into some sort of desperate love. I asked her to marry me. It wasn’t quite a marriage of convenience, but we both knew that married soldiers were normally allowed to live off-base with their families, and even received extra pay to help cover living expenses. We married in Denmark, Europe’s version of Vegas for quickie marriages. Within two weeks we were living together in a little apartment outside Heidelberg. My wife of the time had recently lost her job, and had time to drive me to the post every morning by 6 a.m. in time for PT. Afterwards she would look for work. It was a long commute, we were sleep-deprived and impoverished, and from the start there were signs of trouble in our relationship. Yet, an enormous weight had been lifted from my shoulders. There was some real tenderness between us, and the end of every work day took me far away from soldiers and their uniforms.

The boiling desperation that had overwhelmed me months earlier slowed to a simmer. I did whatever I could to avoid thinking about it, though I still expected my application to be approved. In late September, I found a packet from Washington in my inbox. Nothing conscientious about my objection, wrote the general. I was a phony, a slacker.

Three weeks later I was a civilian.


7 responses to “Confessions of a Failed C.O.”

  1. Hi James,

    How did you become a civilian if your application was rejected?
    Are you still friends with [your then-wife]?

    Your story really hooked me.

    What your post shows to me is how sharing our stories is a way for humans to commune, even when we exist in different universes (our previous dialogues were from completely opposite worldivews).

    Thanks for sharing such a powerful narrative of your complicated life.

    In the Light,

    Daniel Wilcox

  2. Hi, Daniel. Thanks for your kind words.

    I became a civilian at the end of my 4-year enlistment, with an honorable discharge, after going through the CO application process for maybe 8 months. Strange.

    After seeing your post I decided it would be best to remove my previous wife’s name from the piece, and from your response. But, no, we have not talked in years.

    I agree: stories from our lives can connect us. Personally, I can often connect with and be close friends with others who have very different worldviews. If I couldn’t, I’d have a hell of a time making friends, because I see things very differently from most people.

  3. Thanks for sharing your story, James. Your honesty really connected with me. You must have really been struggling to have felt like you had such a big stone in the pit of your stomach for so long. I would imagine that you also felt very alone in the midst of your struggle.
    Your dad was a veteran but took you to anti-war protests as a kid. Did he understand the conflict you were having while you were in the army? Could he empathize with you at all?
    I grew up during the vietnam era and was scared to death that I would get drafted and killed in one of those bamboo traps they showed in the John Wayne movie, The Green Berets. Fortunately for me the war wound down and I didn’t get drafted but I have sometimes felt conflicted that I didn’t serve and didn’t prove to myself that I could make it through boot camp. Anyway I’m glad you made it out via “time served” if not via the C.O. status. And you made it out alive!

  4. You’re welcome, Chuck, and thanks for taking the time to read my story. I’m glad it spoke to you.

    Yes, I did feel very alone, sometimes among good friends.

    My dad is a good, smart, and tough-minded guy. I would say, yes, he understood the conflict I was having, in fact he helped me to better understand some of the complications I speak of on this page. He was sympathetic, but not blindly or uncritically. He is not an across-the-board pacifist. He didn’t think my decision was wrong per se, but he did see, perhaps better than I did, that my motivations were a personal response to authority as much as an idealistic response to the injustice of military violence. Separately from his words to me, he wrote a helpful letter of support for the C.O. record.

    I served during “peacetime,” so I was never put in harm’s way. I put “peacetime” in quotes to suggest that the mere readiness to do violence in service to one’s nation is perhaps a subtle form of violence in itself. In any case it is threat, sometimes outright extortion. And it did seem likely to me at the time that a dirty little war might break out in Latin America.

  5. Have just caught up with your story, James. A wonderful example of how to write honestly about the messiness of human experience. Thanks!

  6. This was a really good read. I never knew anything about the C.O. process that you went through. I cant imagine what it was like being in a world where you disagree with the whole system and still attempt to maintain your sense of “rebel self.” Pretty damn cool.

  7. Hey, Aaron, thanks. It’s great to hear from you here! I wouldn’t recommend it, but being there, it seemed like the only thing I could do.


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