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A Different Kind of War Story

By Don McEvoy

Don McEvoyOn the first weekend of December, 1941, I hitch-hiked from my home in Tulsa,  to the campus of Phillips University in the western Oklahoma town of  Enid to begin the registration process of enrolling to study for Christian ministry.

On the trip home, on Sunday afternoon, in the car of a stranger who had offered me a ride, I learned that Pearl Harbor had been bombed.

At that time I was three weeks shy of my 17th birthday, and a senior in High School.  The Class of 1942 completed our final year in a nation at war.

One of our classmates enlisted on Monday morning, December 8. Six weeks later we learned he had been killed in action on a Pacific island with a strange sounding name.  That is how ill-prepared the nation was and how quickly untrained boys were thrown into deadly battle.

In September I began my ministerial studies and on my December birthday registered with the military draft.

That college registration was one I had looked forward to for at least three years since I made the decision to enter the ministry.  Registering with Selective Service was something else.  For as long as I could remember I had identified myself as a pacifist.  I was opposed to war.  Any war.  All war.  War was the ultimate obscenity and could not be justified regardless of the provocation.  I heard all the horror stories about the enemy’s atrocities, but was reluctant to believe them.  Had we not been told similar tales about Germany during the first World War, only to learn later they were false?

I don’t know whether my anti-war attitude could be attributed to the teachings of my mother or the teachings of my church.  They seemed to complement one another.  Whatever the primary source, my opposition to the war was intense.  War was wrong, and I could have nothing to do with it.

For me, the choice seemed clear.  I would register as a Conscientious Objector and do whatever my government required, either in a federal prison or in a non-combatant assignment.

I don’t believe I have ever been as frightened in my entire life as I was when I stood before the assembled Draft Board and haltingly tried to explain myself and my petition.  When I was finished I was excused from the room and instructed to wait in another location while they conferred with one another.  Perhaps twenty minutes later I was called back inside.

“Let me get this straight” said the chairman.  “You are enrolled in the Bible College at Phillips.  You are studying to become an ordained minister.  Right?  That means you automatically qualify to be given 4-D Draft status.  4-D.  You already have a deferment.  So, why are you here trying to complicate our lives?  Take what you’ve already got, and be grateful for it.  I couldn’t possibly disagree with you more about what you have said about this war we are in.  We all hate it.  But our nation was attacked and we have no choice but to fight back.  You may not like that, but that is the real world.  I hope you’ll understand that when you grow up.”

That is why I never went to war, was never involved with any branch of the Armed Services.

Above the stairwell of the student housing unit in which I lived there was a hand-lettered poster. The eight of us who lived there never went out to face the world without reading its message:

LEST I CONTINUE IN MY SELFISH WAY

HELP ME TO REMEMBER

THAT SOMEWHERE, OUT THERE,

SOMEONE DIED FOR ME TODAY.

More than seven decades have passed.  I have yet to resolve the inner conflict.  I was a little bit right.  I was a whole lot wrong.

Sometimes in later years I have fantasized about joining the heroic German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who evolved from pacifism into active participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler.  I know it is only a fantasy.

Still, I take comfort in what I heard from Bonhoeffer’s closest friend, Eberhardt Bethge, when I asked him a few years ago what he thought Dietrich would be doing if he had not been executed.  Without a moment’s hesitation he responded: “He would be trying to help people live with ambiguity.”

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Don McEvoy served churches in Oklahoma City and Chicago for sixteen years before assuming an ecumenical ministry with the National Conference of Christians and Jews.  He was regional director for the two states of Georgia and Alabama during the critical years of the Civil Rights revolution.  He then transferred to the New York headquarters and was Senior Vice President for National Program for nearly two decades.

 

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