In memory and in honor of draft resister David Harris
Left: An anti-draft protest during the war in Indochina. | Right: David Harris speaks to around 20,000 people at the East Coast mobilization against the draft and draft registration on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C., March 22, 1980. | Photo from Resistance News

“The most obvious assumption of military conscription is that the lives of young people in this country belong not to those young people; the lives of those young people instead are possessions of the state, to be used by the state when and where the state chooses to use them. The decisions made by those young people are not decisions made on the terms that they find in their lives. They are rather decisions that are made on the terms of the state because those people belong to the state….

“Conscription does not exist without you and me…. The most elaborate bureaucracy for Selective Service in the world does not function without people such as you and me willing to sign our lives over to that system. Without you and me, its nothing…. American totalitarianism is participatory. Which means that if you dont buy it, it doesnt move. And I dont buy it.”

— David Harris, “The Assumptions of the Draft,” remarks at the National Student Congress, 1968, reprinted in The Movement Towards a New America, ed. by Mitchell Goodman, 1970, pp. 445-446.

After Muhammad Ali, David Harris (Feb. 28, 1946-Feb. 6, 2023) was probably the most influential figure in the resistance to the military draft during the U.S. war in Indochina, and an important ally to a younger cohort of resisters to draft registration, including me and others, since 1980.

His concise and eloquent book, Our War: What We Did in Vietnam and What It Did to Us (1996), remains the single most insightful work on the meaning and significance for the USA of the U.S. war in Indochina. In it, he wrote:

David Harris, right, protests the USS Constellation’s return to the Vietnam War at a press conference in 1971, with John Huyler and Paul Rodgers. | Wikimedia Commons

“The preexisting capacity to conscript was a given, and the purpose to which it was put did not have to seek advance justification in the political marketplace, so planners in Washington could assume unlimited manpower when they made policies. In effect, the Selective Service System was a blank check for instant and undeclared war. When the focus turned to Vietnam, there was no need to convince the nation to pledge its sons: those sons were already pledged; no need to ask permission: permission was long since given; no need to suspend the protections of the Constitution: they were already suspended. Using us was simple…. All that was required was cranking up the dial and turning the machine loose….

“We must remember, every arrangement for this war had two categories: the young and everybody else. The young were expected to sacrifice themselves on its behalf, and nothing was expected of everybody else…. Only the nations supply of young adults were issued orders for the war that had to be followed…. In retrospect, it comes as no surprise that the line separating our age group from the others soon ran throughout America. At the time, of course, this division was considered a great sociological mystery. The papers called it the Generation Gap,” and for a while national reporters showed up every couple of weeks to interview us in the hope of writing something profound about this schism. Most of the analysis was recycled tripe, but the schism itself was extraordinarily real.

“Everyone experienced it, and in truth there was little mystery to it. I suspect cannon fodder have always felt themselves a breed apart…. It was part of our victimization that…it would be left to us to stand up to the war on which our elders had decided to spend us….

“I, of course, can never forget that the war was the law, and being against the war was treated as being against both. Nor should the rest of us forget it. Thats just the way things were; to be young, scruffy, against the war, and outspoken was automatically to be treated as a suspect. from there it was a short step to outlaw, a step a lot of us made in a lot of different ways….

“We also have our own admissions with which to reckon: we sometimes drifted into the self-righteous, were plagued by a compulsion to push the envelope, to reinvent ourselves over and over again. We were faddists and could easily take ourselves too seriously and forget that our own position on the war had come at the end of a long and tormented personal migration. Too often our talk was cheap and our listening hard to come by. We latched onto simple truths no one less wanted to recognize and rode them until their wheels fell off. We were too quick to license all disbelief and too slow to reach outside our own presumptions.

“All that said, I still remember: we were also right.”

I learned of David’s death from one of my closest comrades in draft resistance, Matt Nicodemus, who saw David’s obituary in The New York Times.

In 1980, Matt was a student at Stanford University and one of the organizers of Stanford Against Conscription, one of the groups that sprang up in response to the resumption of draft registration. Years earlier, David Harris had been student body president at Stanford before his prosecution, conviction, and imprisonment for refusing induction into the military. In the 1980s and after, David supported younger draft resisters and spoke at anti-draft events on the Stanford campus and elsewhere.

One of David Harris’s most interesting and insightful articles, published during his time as a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine, was a reflection on the differences between his own and the younger generations of draft resisters in the form of a profile of Ben Sasway, the first of the 20 people indicted for refusing to register for the draft in the 1980s, “Draft Resistance, ’80s Style.” When this article was first published, Russ Ford and I, who were indicted shortly after Ben, read it in the Times in the isolation room of the hospital wing of the Federal prison in Danbury, Conn., where despite perfect health we had been quarantined lest we spread any contagious political ideas to the general population of the prison.

I met David Harris for the first time at an event at Stanford shortly after I moved to San Francisco in 1985 to join Matt Nicodemus as co-editor of Resistance News. David and I saw each other only occasionally over the years, but he remained consistently supportive of continued draft resistance and anti-draft activism. In 1988, we used the Resistance News mailing list to help connect draft resistance veterans for a reunion David hosted at his house in Mill Valley, which I was privileged to attend. Some of the conversations at that reunion are recounted in Our War.

After a chat about our prison experiences, David gave me a copy of his 1976 memoir, I Shoulda Been Home Yesterday, published not long after he was released from the custody of the Attorney General. David might have toned down some of his post-prison perspectives since then, but they resonated—and resonate still—for me:

“Night officially ended…at 6 a.m. when the lights came on. Every morning I rolled over…and wanted to throttle the guard who flipped the switch.

“We all did, and to this day I believe we were supposed to. Its not a hate I want to apologize for. I hated as a matter of survival. I hated because it was the natural response to the way I was treated. I hated because I couldnt afford to want and I couldnt afford not to. Not hating was giving in, and giving in was a good way to end up like the Attorney General. None of us wanted that. We knew firsthand what he was all about. He made his living putting folks in a cage, and that has always seemed to me like a low way to live.”

A more recent draft resistance reunion at David’s house catalyzed the production of the documentary film released in 2020, The Boys Who Said No: Draft Resistance and the Vietnam War.

I saw David for the last time when we were both invited to speak as part of a panel following a screening of The Boys Who Said No in Oakland in December 2021. It was the first in-person Bay Area public showing of the film, and possibly David’s last in-person public talk. David remained as proud as ever of his own actions and as supportive as ever of continued resistance to the draft and draft registration.

My condolences to David’s family. I honor David Harris by carrying on the tradition of draft resistance he led, inspired, and mentored. Peace.

The original Feb. 8 posting of this tribute on Edward Hasbrouck’s blog can be viewed here.


Edward Hasbrouck
Edward Hasbrouck

Edward Hasbrouck is a member of the Authors’ Rights Expert Group of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), a member of the National Writers Union, and a consultant to The Identity Project on travel-related human rights and civil liberties issues. He is the author of The Practical Nomad travel book series. He was imprisoned in 1983-1984 for organizing resistance to draft registration.