Alan Suprenant (unedited – not in CALLED TO SERVE)
Alan is a house painter in the warm months and delivers propane to residential communities in the winter. He grew up in New Bedford, MA. He is divorced and has two children, ages 24 and 22. He is 55 years old. He has been active in the anti-nuclear movement and war tax resistance for decades, as well as in the land trust efforts in his community of Ashfield, MA. He is a member of a men’s group that has been in existence since 1978.
I graduated from high school in North Reading, MA in 1973. I saw on television what was happening with the war and the protest movement all through junior high and high school, all the while knowing the draft was pending for me. Fortunately in my high school there were several young teachers, right out of college who were teaching the Bible as literature, waking people up to the power of the media and teaching non-violence. We even read about Eldridge Cleaver (Black Panther party leader and author of Soul on Ice). For most of the students this all went right over their heads, but there were some of us for whom it made a deep impression. I know usually it’s the kids who lead the way, but these teachers weren’t a lot older than us. They were kids in the early ‘60’s.
These teachers definitely affected me, because they made me look at the bigger picture. For example, in 1971 the teacher who served as yearbook advisor was one of the ones who was bringing political awareness to the high school. That year our yearbook came out all in black and white, instead of in its typical full-color. It was a memorial; they had some black flags in pictures. It wasn’t trying to change people’s minds, just to honor those who had died. That didn’t go over too well though, and he didn’t come back the following year.
When Nixon invaded Cambodia, we put on armbands and had a walk out. There we were, the kids who liked to skip school, the kids who did drugs, and us political kids, all in the parking lot getting suspended together. But nothing more happened. Everybody went back to class and things went on and that’s kind of what went on nationally. My parents and I hardly talked about it. In fact, I don’t remember talking to them a lot about the war, definitely not as much as I talk to my son about today’s situation.
In fact, I was incredibly naive about the whole war thing except that I was against it. I had had one experience, though, that definitely disturbed me. I didn’t live that far from the Camp Edwards Air Force Base, and one day four or five helicopter gunships (Hueys) flew over where some buddies and I were in the middle of a track field competing in a track meet. They flew so low I had a flash from the newsreels about them flying like that over villages in Vietnam and Cambodia. I knew they weren’t going to shoot at us, but I heard that guttural sound and it was terribly frightening. After all, we were just standing there in this field. All of a sudden there they were. I remember thinking that this is how it was for the Vietnamese. Even if those planes weren’t any threat to us, that experience still opened my eyes to what was being shown on television, usually from helicopters. I can still feel that terror sometimes. We were totally exposed with nowhere to hide (like being in a rice paddy) except they didn’t open fire on us as they did in the TV evening news my family watched while eating supper every night.
Mostly though, I was into sports and the social scene. I didn’t really want to think about what was going on outside of my world. I didn’t directly know anyone who came back in a box because none of us were old enough. Any serious casualties would have had to have been older siblings of other students and the siblings I did know in the service didn’t die so I didn’t have that hanging over my head.
I did try not registering right when I turned eighteen, though. Three other guys and I had actually gone to the draft board. This officer sat the four of us who had gone together down and said you’re supposed to do this on your 18th birthday. You’re not supposed to wait. We all had these papers, but we didn’t fill them out or sign up. He was just being tough, severely reprimanding us, but it didn’t affect us. For us it was just another person telling us what to do. I had received a really low number, in the ‘50’s somewhere, so there wasn’t much I really could do besides get mad, but I at least I’d tried putting off the inevitable.
The night of the lottery I watched it on TV, because all of those things were televised. I don’t remember who I was with. I don’t think I was with friends. I think I was at home. I got pretty scared when my birthday got called so early. By then the war had really taken a turn for the worse and I was pretty against it.
I asked myself, “Are you going to go to Canada?” To my surprise my parents were actually supportive of my leaving the country. My dad especially surprised me. He’d been so gung-ho to fight in World War II, he lied about his age and enlisted at seventeen. But he had gotten sickened by what he saw happening in Vietnam on TV each night. I think it just hit really close to home that it was his kid, and, in retrospect, it makes me feel closer to him that he felt that way. Being against the Vietnam War was a big turn-around for him, and probably for my mom too, though I know less about her feelings.
Anyhow, with my parents’ blessing, I thought about the war and going to Canada. But I also remember not thinking about it. It was in the background and I didn’t think about it and then the war ended. My father’s worst fear didn’t happen. I got to be scared, but I didn’t have to go. Soon I was off to the University of Massachusetts.
The whole emotional roller-coaster ride seemed to have taken place in a short period of time. Looking back now, all I can think of is, that’s how you think about things: it’s all in the present. Of course, I’m watching my son, Micah, go through that right now. You go and party with your friends. You don’t really think about the war. You may read the paper, but you don’t have to think about it all the time. So I had the fear and then it went away. I saw it and I was afraid, but then I thought, okay, now I’m going to college and I enrolled at the University of Massachusetts.
The whole experience – the not knowing what would happen with the war and the draft – gives me a lot of empathy for kids today and what they have to experience. After all, our government is basically doing the same thing all over again. The difference is they’re making the rules harder and harder with tours of duty being involuntarily extended, etc. Plus the whole idea of involving so many women adds to the cannon fodder. Seeing this happen over again has opened up my understanding of who fights the wars and why. A lot of it is economically based: the white guys in power never go and neither do their children. Protesters were yelling that during the Vietnam War. However, now that I see it all happening again, I get it! Once again the American people are being sold a war over an imagined foe. In fact, if anything, the foe is even more imagined today!
I would say the entire experience with the war and the draft led me to where I am now: refusing to pay taxes because I refuse to pay for war. I had a low draft number, I had 1-A status, I could have come home in a body bag, but I didn’t. Now I want to take the life I am lucky to have, and the money I earn, and direct that in ways that are life-positive, not towards things that are life-taking. Being a conscience-based tax resister isn’t easy: I learned a lot from people all over New England who had had to think outside the box in order to not have any of their dollars pay for war. Some deliberately lived their entire lives below the poverty line, so they didn’t owe any tax. Others told the IRS exactly how much federal war tax they owed each year, but gave that amount to life-affirming non-profit organizations, risking having their automobiles and homes taken out from under them by the government. It can be really uncomfortable and really life-altering. It can prescribe choices you make that direct where you end up at fifty. It certainly has done that for me.
When I look back, I see how young I was. I see it really clearly. Either way, if I had been against the war or for it, the draft scene meant I had to think about going and all that that meant. Then I imagine how young all these kids are who are either enlisting or having National Guard duty being turned upside down on them, or even possibly getting drafted. They are too young, many of them, to know the ramifications of what they’ll go through. I think they should be able to be kids longer, to be responsible kids, to still work and do things, but not be thrown into killing situations with other kids.
I’m so tired of watching the military take advantage of young people with limited economic resources. Where can they go with their lives? Why aren’t there a lot of other options out there, economic and otherwise, so another generation of kids doesn’t have to get sucked up into more senseless wars?
You ask me how I would feel if the lottery form of draft were reinstated so poor kids wouldn’t be a majority of the ones fighting. Would you like to see another lottery going for any of these young kids regardless of the war being fought? I’m not concerned about how the powers-that-be get vulnerable youngsters to fight for them. I’m not even that interested in dealing with the symptoms that led us into these hopeless and unjustifiable wars. From what I have learned from my life, understanding what I do today, dealing with the underlying causes is what matters to me.