Jeb was a college friend of mine. It’s hard to believe that 45 years have passed since he was sent to Vietnam and died there, performing his duties in the Army as a medic. He was a Conscientious Objector.
The two of us met in a History of Western Civilization class and would frequently study together. He was from Rhode Island, one of two children from a small family who belonged to The Society of Friends or, as most of us know them, Quakers. He was one of the most gentle, kind and thoughtful men I ever met, a man who truly lived his brief life in a spirit of peace, caring and non-violence.
When Jeb graduated he was drafted, despite his Conscientious Objector convictions. He was not one who chose to flee to Canada and was willing to do his part in our terribly misguided war effort, but he was not willing to do that while holding a gun – and that is how he ended up in the Medical Corps. The fatalities among medics ran higher than for your typical armed soldier – and he knew that.
The War in Vietnam divided the country in the 1960’s. It was one issue on which virtually everyone had a point of view – whether that was one which supported our military actions or one which opposed our involvement and escalating our efforts there. What started as a grumbling from our college students escalated to a roar as more young Americans died and their mourning siblings and parents started writing letters to Congress and took their places in the swelling ranks of those who marched in protest.
Perhaps one of the starkest contrasts between then and now is that our print and television media had their own points of view on the subject. Certain papers actively advocated our efforts in Southeast Asia and others as vehemently opposed them. The same was true for commentators who reported the day’s events in Vietnam. We had not yet grown accustomed to the “mind meld” in which our reporters had abdicated their responsibility as journalists, had accepted an official government version of “the truth” and dutifully repeated it for its audience.
And there was one even more significant difference between those times and these. Underpinning this sometimes heated and angry debate, all of us understood that we had the right to our opinion because of the First Amendment to the Constitution and, protected by this governing document, could say just exactly what was on our mind. It was precisely because of that document which The New York Times considers “antiquated” and should be abolished, that what began as the song of a small but vocal minority became the theme song for the country and the choir swelled to include the majority of Americans.
In many ways, I attribute my many years of non-gun ownership to the gentle example my friend Jeb set for me. In many respects, his and my philosophies were identical. I was not tempted to change my position that violence solves nothing even after I had been criminally mugged by three thugs and beaten unconscious and spent five days in the hospital recovering from a concussion. By the way, they were able to carry out their violent act while threatening me not with guns but with switchblades.
So why has my position on this issue of guns and one’s right to own them, or perhaps more correctly one’s responsibility to own them, evolved? Precisely because of the advocacy of The New York Times that we should abandon or, at the very least, modify our ancient relic of a Constitution to reflect today’s world.
There is little doubt in my mind that when the Constitution was adopted there were violent people in this country and throughout the world. That has not changed. But if there is no longer any protection for the voices of those in the minority to be heard, then history has shown that the majority, engorged on its own popularity, will have little difficulty suppressing those who have a different viewpoint from their own.
And if, as seems to be the case, they are successful in electing a government which shares their view that dissent is disloyalty, then those conscientious few who wish to hold on to their individual freedoms and their souls had best be prepared and be willing to do battle.
I wish that my friend Jeb had not died in Vietnam. He was a source of great insight and wisdom and counsel – and I am sorry that I cannot ask him for his guidance. But he lived his life and gave it up because of something he considered the essence of being a human being – living according to principle. And I guess that is, in itself, sufficient guidance. And now it is our turn.