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.

    For
    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
    Hanoi.

    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.)