I recall two plays from the time I was a boy growing up here in New York City. One was Waiting for Lefty, by Clifford Odets. Some students at my high school put it on and I played the part of Fats, the crooked union boss. The other play was by a man named Irwin Shaw and was called Bury The Dead. I never saw it. I think I read it: In my mind’s eye I can see a page of the text. But all I can remember from the play is one line: “Someday they’ll have a war and nobody will come.”
I presume that this is the thought that brings us all here tonight. I am immensely honored to have been asked to initiate this series of annual lectures, but I am only one of many in the room–some of whom I know, and some of whom I do not know–who have created the tradition and culture that we are gathered to honor.
Let’s honor George Houser. He was one of the Union Theological Seminary Eight who, David Dellinger included, not only refused to fight but refused to register for the draft. David says in his autobiography that at Danbury Prison, George Houser was also one of three war resisters who were the best Ping Pong players in the joint. When the Union Eight were released from prison, Union offered them readmission on condition that they would avoid any course of action that would publicize their draft resistance. Mr. Houser was one of five who refused and went instead to Chicago Theological Seminary.
Let’s honor David Mitchell. David pioneered in the 1960s the position that is also the position of Lieutenant Ehren Watada, which I wish to explicate tonight. David then, like Lt. Watada today, said that he was not a pacifist. He refused to participate in the Selective Service process because he believed that the actions of the United States in Vietnam were war crimes, as war crimes had been defined at Nuremburg after World War II. He spent two years in prison.
David’s wife Ellen Mitchell is also here tonight, despite the fact that it is her birthday. David recently sent me a speech that Ellen made in support of her imprisoned husband at the April 1968 antiwar demonstration in New York City. Let’s honor Ellen.
Finally, Elizabeth Peterson made the trip from Vermont to be here with us, along with a younger Dellinger. While David was doing his second prison term for war resistance, Betty was pregnant. David tells in From Yale to Jail how when he was on hunger strike at Lewisburg the warden came to his cell and said: “She’s dying. She has sent a message telling you to go off the strike so she can die in peace.” David said, “Take me to her.” The warden refused and David concluded, correctly, that the warden was lying. The prisoners won one of the major goals of their hunger strike, concerning the censorship of mail. David was given a pile of letters from Betty telling him that she was well and supported the strike. The Dellingers’ oldest child, Patchen, was born soon after. Betty, your presence does us honor.
In the company of these heroes and heroines we turn to the message of another hero, Ehren Watada. In the military system of justice–the system that Congress recently turned its back on in setting up military commissions–there is a proceeding similar to the convening of a grand jury. It is called an Article 23 hearing. The hearing officer decides whether there is sufficient evidence to justify a court martial. This past August 17, at Fort Lewis, Washington, there was an Article 23 hearing for Lt. Watada. Early in the hearing the prosecution played video clips from his recent speeches. In one of these speeches, to the national convention of Veterans for Peace, Lt. Watada said: “Today, I speak with you about a radical idea…The idea is this; that to stop an illegal and unjust war, the soldiers…can choose to stop fighting it.”