Taking risks to effect change

Jerry Elmer doesn’t miss the danger. The danger scared him. When he
was raiding a draft board and destroying files, he would worry about
being surprised by a young and inexperienced cop who would react too
quickly and shoot him.

Still, those were heady times. He was young and on the move and
absolutely convinced that he was on the right side of the struggle to
save the country’s soul.

“It was very exciting, very
exhilarating to feel we were trying to make history and to influence
government policy on a very important issue.”

He is a lawyer in
Providence, R.I. He was sworn in to practice before the federal bar in
November 1991 in the same courtroom where he had been sentenced 20
years before for interfering with the Selective Service.

When he graduated from Harvard Law School the year before, he was the only convicted felon in the class.

It’s all in his book _ “Felon for Peace: The Memoir of a Vietnam-Era
Draft Resister.” It’s a book about a time when the military draft
overshadowed young lives and some people took huge risks to break into
draft boards and get between the military and its talent pool.

And it’s a book being published in Hanoi in its Vietnamese translation.
According to the Vanderbilt University Press, which published the book
this year, this is the first time a book by an American peace activist
has been published in Vietnam in Vietnamese.

Elmer was a
pacifist before he graduated from high school in Great Neck, N.Y., and
refused to register for the draft. He says the fact that his parents
were Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe shaped his thinking about the
dangers of keeping silent in the face of a government’s crimes.

“During the first 18 months after I graduated from high school, I
burglarized 14 draft boards in three cities on the East Coast,
destroying the files of men eligible to be drafted and rendering those
draft boards inoperable,” he writes in the introduction to his book.

Elmer made no attempt to avoid arrest. In fact, he scheduled a news
conference on the steps of the federal building. The news conference
didn’t get far. He was arrested by the FBI. He faced multiple charges,
but he eventually pleaded guilty to the single charge of interfering
with the Selective Service and was sentenced to two years probation.
The prosecutor in his case was U.S. Attorney Lincoln Almond.

15 years after those days of life on the road, in the draft boards and
in the courts, he worked for the American Friends Service Committee.
The job put him back on the road with similar goals but different
tactics. He spent a lot of time in Southeast Asia working on
human-rights issues. The trip later this month will not be his first to

But it will be his first as the author of a memoir that
is tied so strongly to the country where the American peace movement
was a distant but vital part of a very long war.

In the months
since his book has been published, Elmer has visited some college
campuses. He has made it clear that he will go to any classroom where
the book has been introduced into the curriculum. He has been to
Princeton, Tufts, the University of Maine, Bryant.

He is an
articulate connection to a time when a letter in the mailbox could
change a young life forever. The draft notice is just a dusty artifact
now, but it was once a piece of paper that changed lives and divided a
whole generation. There is no way for someone coming out of high school
or college now to realize how the words “Greetings From the President
of the United States” could force a cold sweat and some hard decisions.

“That question of the draft comes up with great regularity,” says
Elmer. “There is the question ‘Did the draft fuel the antiwar
movement?’ And ‘Did the absence of the draft stymie things?’ “

There is renewed interest in the draft, he says, because of the war in Iraq.

And there are lessons for Americans from the war in Iraq, he says, that are the same as the lessons from the war in Vietnam.

(Bob Kerr is a columnist for The Providence Journal. He can be reached by e-mail at bkerr@projo.com.)