Francesco Da Vinci with Cesar Chavez in 1970.

How one conscientious objector refused to kill

In his engaging new memoir, Francesco Da Vinci chronicles a young man’s principled encounters with the war system in which he refused to participate.
Francesco Da Vinci with Cesar Chavez in 1970.

Some months after my 18th birthday a letter from the Selective Service arrived in my mailbox. I had not yet registered for the draft, it stated correctly, adding that failure to do so could land me in prison for up to five years or require me to pay a hefty fine, or both. Yikes.

Growing up in an affluent Massachusetts suburb, where nearly everyone went to college and barely anyone joined the military, the U.S. war in Vietnam was almost as far away socially as it was geographically. Sure, I knew the war was on and that I’d probably be against it if I thought much about it. But it didn’t really affect me or anyone I knew. However, with the threat of prison as an alternative, I headed to the closest draft board office, signed up, and soon was issued a draft card.

The memories came back as I read “I Refuse to Kill: My Path to Nonviolent Action in the 1960s,” an engaging new memoir by Francesco Da Vinci. Born into a prosperous family in an affluent Virginia suburb, Francesco grew up without much religious training and little direct exposure to pacifism. But his psychiatrist father taught that love was a transformative power. And it was the dawn of “the 60s.”

Like others of his generation, Francesco was swept up in the idealism unleashed by the election of John F. Kennedy as president. While his best friend Jerry talked about enlisting in the armed forces, Francesco stepped tentatively into an antiwar perspective and belief in nonviolence, if not yet activism. Though his parents forbade him from attending the 1963 March on Washington, Martin Luther King’s example and the courageous acts of other civil rights activists helped shape his moral outlook. “Each call to conscience that I experienced planted a seed,” he recalls, a seed that would eventually sprout into an application for exemption as a conscientious objector, or CO.

With engaging prose and photos — many from Francesco’s own camera, which he started carrying with him in high school — the memoir chronicles a young man’s principled encounters with the war system in which he refused to participate. Along the way, he becomes a skilled photographer, falls in love, starts a peace center, and tries repeatedly to convince his Virginia draft board that his objection to war is sincere.

Like many other men of his generation, Francesco had to become intimate with the bureaucratic complexities of the draft. Exemptions. Deferments. Classifications. Inductions. And local draft boards which had the authority to determine who was eligible for what.

The system, which exists to this day despite a brief hiatus in the late 1970s, has evolved since the U.S. Civil War, when the only way to avoid conscription was to pay for someone to take your place. In World War I, members of Christian churches with established pacifist beliefs could be exempt from military service. However, they were often cruelly treated, and some 500 conscientious objectors were sent to federal prison.

By World War II, members of other religious groups could gain CO status, but they remained a minority among Quakers, Mennonites, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Brethren. Many — more than 12,000, according to the Center on Conscience and War — performed alternative service, such as forestry, farm labor and work in hospitals for people with mental illness. Other pacifists, who refused to cooperate at all with the system, went to prison.

When the U.S. waded into the “big muddy” of Vietnam, a successful CO application still required belief in a “Supreme Being.” By the time the war ended, Supreme Court decisions had expanded the definition of CO twice, first, in the 1965 Seeger decision to include religious objectors who did not believe in a Supreme Being, and second, in the 1970 Welsh decision to include those who held moral or ethical beliefs akin to religion.

For CO applicants like Francesco, the challenge was not only to articulate their views, but to show that they were sincerely and deeply held to the satisfaction of the local draft board. And since draft boards, appointed by Pentagon officials, tended to be skeptical of anyone who tried to evade military service, it was no simple task. This was especially so in conservative areas, like the Virginia county where Francesco grew up and submitted his registration form.

With a student deferment while he attended the University of Maryland, Francesco initially occupied himself with studies and recreation. “My previous goal of applying nonviolence in the service of others conveniently slipped to the back-burner,” he recalls. But as the war escalated and continued to gnaw at his conscience, Francesco began to contemplate applying for CO status and going to prison if his application was turned down.

With his girlfriend, Jane, Francesco’s antiwar journey finally stepped out of his head and into the streets when he joined a massive march on the Pentagon in 1967. In the crush of protesters, a soldier whacked him in the ribs with a rifle, but he writes, “We had reached a turning point in our lives. No longer were we watching history; we were making history.”

Francesco Da Vinci at the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968.

His conscience was bolstered by exposure to widespread antiwar sentiment during a family trip to Europe and the antiwar candidacies of Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy. By 1968, Francesco was ready to leave his student deferment aside and apply to be a CO. It was not an easy step to take. “Just because you don’t believe in the war doesn’t mean you have to be a martyr,” his father tells him. “You realize, of course, that if you go ahead with this, you’ll end up in prison?”

While a CO exemption was perfectly legal, Francesco writes that refusal to serve in the armed forces was widely seen as a sign of cowardice and lack of patriotism. “The aspersions hurled at COs were even worse than those aimed at antiwar marchers: draft-dodgers, commie sympathizers, subversives, saboteurs of our country’s war effort,” he writes.“Many regarded the act of applying as a conscientious objector in and of itself as treasonous. Almost nowhere in the media were COs being supported, and whatever was written about them was almost invariably distorted.”

“Most conscientious objectors could state that the light of traditional organized religion guided them. In my case, I was guided by a non-religious but spiritual philosophy — a set of ethics that countered violence and racial injustice with nonviolent action. I suspected my individualistic religion of ‘nonviolent activism’ would undoubtedly put my CO case in jeopardy,” Francesco states. He was right: the Fairfax County Draft Board turned him down, 4 to 0.

“By late 1960s, an estimated 5,000 war resisters and prisoners of conscience were serving sentences for refusing to participate in any way with the war machine, even alternative service,” according to the Center on Conscience and War. Heading for his first induction physical, Francesco thought he would be one of them.

His “Kafkaesque” experience at the induction center brings to mind Arlo Guthrie’s tale of being “injected, inspected, detected, infected, neglected and selected.” Like Arlo, when Francesco declared he would not serve in the military, he was singled out for special questioning, fingerprinted and sent away. (Or as Arlo was told, “Kid, we don’t like your kind. We’re gonna send your fingerprints off to Washington.”

Francesco’s story goes on, through a move to California, a series of appeals, a succession of lawyers, exposure to the United Farm Workers and Cesar Chavez, marriage to his college sweetheart, a phase of self-righteous preachiness (“obnoxious as a newly converted non-smoker”), and the establishment of a peace center in San Diego, where he led regular trips to the bus station to leaflet young men on their way to induction. Throughout, he describes his deepening commitment to nonviolence amidst the clamor of a changing antiwar movement.

I won’t give away the ending, other than to say he does an excellent job of capturing the emotions and tensions which accompanied his chosen path. The book is full of dialogue, taken from journals Francesco began keeping in his youth, and concludes with an excerpt from his final CO application, in which he articulates his nonviolent philosophy. I appreciated the addition of context helpful to contemporary readers, like using a quotation from Colin Kaepernick to accompany his account of police brutality during the 1968 Democratic Convention. Looking back on the My Lai Massacre and the Phoenix Program, he asks, “In our democratic society, are we to remain silent in the face of terrorist activities sanctioned by our government?” It’s a question that is disturbingly timely.  

For those unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the draft, such as the difference between alternative service and non-combat military service for COs, additional details would be helpful, since young men are still required to register with Selective Service within 30 days of their 18th birthdays. In fact, an effort to force young women to register, too, is gaining traction in Congress, where it’s being promoted — by Democrats — as a step toward gender equality. Although no one has been prosecuted for years, the maximum penalty for non-compliance — even failing to provide the agency with address changes — is still punishable by up to 5 years in prison and a hefty fine, which has been raised to $250,000. I would have also liked to learn more about the non-lawyers who mastered the details of the system and conducted regular counselling sessions to help young men decide what to do.  

“I felt saddened that we were venturing to the Moon when we still had not learned how to live on Earth,” Francesco reflected about the 1969 moon landing. “In the realm of our solar system, only Earth was teeming with life. Perhaps, I hoped, space exploration would awaken humanity to the dire need for change among the super powers — a major redistribution of wealth coupled with a reduction of their excessive military budgets. Without the conversion of war economies to peace economies and without corporations paying their fair share, the gap between the haves and the have-nots would continue to widen. The result — a needless cycle of global suffering and death.” Need I say more?

In the end, my own path to nonviolent action bypassed the Selective Service. During my first year of college, everyone born the same day as me drew #6 in the draft lottery, placing us near the head of the list for induction. Selective Service sent me a form asking if I were eligible for any exemptions or deferments. Without knowing much about it, I checked the box for “conscientious objector” and sent it back. But when I received another form, asking me to explain the nature of my beliefs and demonstrate their sincerity, I had no idea where to turn for advice. Lucky for me, the draft ended, for which I can thank Francesco Da Vinci and the thousands of others who said “No,I refuse to kill.”

This story was produced by War Resisters


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