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By Gerald R. Gioglio (reviewer)
Conscientious Objector:A Journey of Peace, Justice,Culture, and Environment
by Wayne R. Ferren Jr.
(Archway Publishing, 2021)
Full disclosure: the author uses a quote from my book Days of Decision: An Oral History of Conscientious Objectors in the Military During the Vietnam War; he also cites one I edited; I Refuse: Memories of a Vietnam War Objector by Don Simons.
Wayne Ferren has a story to tell. Several actually. It's a story of childhood and the geological wonders of Southern New Jersey; a story of intellectual explorations and the attraction to science; it's a story of countercultural and spiritual pursuits, of the festive and turbulent 60s; of the history of Vietnam and its cultures, and of course, dealing with the Vietnam War, the signature event of our lives. Importantly, it is also the story of one man's quest to be recognized as a conscientious objector (CO) to war and to perform civilian work in lieu of being drafted into the military.
Ferren is many things, initially just a kid from southern New Jersey who became interested in earth science with a developing passion to care for creation. Early on he came to the conclusion that man-made institutions, like war, have a devastating impact on the living earth. More than anything else, this realization would lead him to become conscientiously opposed to war. In addition, his spiritual journey through Christianity, Buddhism and transcendentalism directly influenced Ferren's anti-war beliefs and eventually led him to become a minister for the Universal Life Church, a person who appears to be no stranger to the metaphysical, one able to tie material and nonmaterial phenomena into a cohesive anti-war position.
What we have in Conscientious Objector is a sweeping look at social, cultural, political and environmental conditions in the United States during the tumultuous 1960s and early 1970s, and how this brought the author to a position of civilian conscientious objection and war resistance.
This all-encompassing memoir is fact-based, academically formal and scrupulously footnoted with dates, illustrations and a great deal of personal and historical detail. All the pieces are joined into a fairly complete picture of a life. Indeed, given the global nature of the work, one might argue the book is more autobiographical than memoir. For example, one could suggest there is an overabundance of personal and early educational experience presented here, but as the subtitle suggests, it is a story of one young person's journey, so rather than split hairs let's leave it to the scholarly community to battle this out.
One notes a decent synopsis of the youth culture of the time, complete with lyrics from some of the songs that served as the soundtrack of our experiences. There is also detail on peace and social justice activity that occurred in the Southern New Jersey/Philadelphia area, along with a comprehensive timeline of prominent national and local events occurring in 1970.
The early narrative provides context leading up to the main event, i.e., the formal quest for CO status. For peace activists and anti-war veterans, the action heats up in Chapter 8 with a survey of 1969. The personal and societal turmoil continues in 1970 with his pursuit of CO status taking flight in Chapters 10, 11, and after something of a diversion, Chapters 13-15.
One great strength here is the presentation of a vast quantity of original material—letters, summaries of interactions with the Selective Service System (SSS), return replies and supporting documentation the author amassed, saved and used in this book. The presentation of this material gives us a rare, detailed look at one registrant's experience with a local draft board, especially as it relates to acquiring CO status. We don't see this much. This type of material is exceedingly difficult to find. Indeed, as the author points out, local boards destroy individual records submitting only draft cards for storage by the National Archives.
As an in-service conscientious objector and former draft counselor, I can say no matter how you slice and dice it acquiring CO status was not easy, whether one was applying to enter the military as a noncombatant (which did help local boards meet their induction quota), or especially if applying for civilian service. The cards are stacked against those who take either position; indeed, as Ferren's experience demonstrates, it takes a yeoman's effort on the part of the applicant to be successful.
Ferren was up for the challenge. He freely admits he was the beneficiary of the Welsh vs US decision which established an expanded definition of conscientious objection. But more, he had the schooling, experience, and support to stand up for his rights and prepare his unusual, ecologically focused, case for conscientious objection. His good fortune in having these tools guided his interaction with the SSS, leading him to astutely follow Selective Service requirements, guidelines and deadlines, like making sure he submitted paperwork on time and responding to local board expectations. In addition, although he doesn't mention it, he seems to have understood if you want to get something done you have to establish a good rapport with an office's administrative assistant. It appears the secretary of Ferren's local board was respectful, dutiful and might have even liked the guy. In any case, she did her job monitoring his paperwork and maybe, just maybe, ran a little bit of flack for him along the way.
With this documented overview of his experiences Wayne Ferren provides an important service for historians and future men and women who may have to deal with the Selective Service System, or some sort of mandatory civilian National Service scheme.
Finally, expect to find a lot of opinions expressed throughout the 426 pages ahead of the backmatter. Some will resonate with you, some not so much. However, all are well-considered and thoroughly examined.
We'll end with words the author uses to close the book as he expresses the hope that: "…my life and the times in which I have lived will inspire others to take a stand and to take the necessary action required to bring about a peaceful, equitable, and harmonious world."
Amen to that brother.
Gerald R. Gioglio is a member of VVAW and the author of the upcoming book Hunger and Thirst: A Journey from We Shall! to Hell No! Due to be published in Spring 2022 by ACTA Publications.