I almost never watch anything that runs more than an hour except for a movie or a football game. If I can’t see it in one viewing, then I’m likely to not be wherever I need to be when the next part of whatever it was becomes available for watching. But I made an exception for the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary on the Vietnam War. And I am angry, not at the fact that this colossal undertaking took ten years for them to complete or that it consumed 18 hours of my life because, in all honesty, I don’t do all that much from 8 pm–9:30 pm on any given night anyway. No, I am angry at Ken Burns and Lynn Novick for the lopsided interpretation of history that was a sizable portion of my life. Their chronicle of the war itself was misleading enough (and I would love to hear how my friends, my brothers, and sisters who served in Vietnam, felt about how the war was portrayed). But Burns and Novick totally hoodwinked anyone not aware of many facts about the antiwar movement.
We saw violence in video and dialog by people like the Weathermen as well as the protesters who retaliated with violence, we saw a couple of minutes of one man who went to Canada (and there were many of them who did, and that was not making a statement. It was a cop-out). And violence is not a protest, it’s a riot. What took place with people like the Weathermen or the person who just wanted to burn and destroy is a long, long way from the protest of the 1960’s that I knew, and Burns and Novick completely ignored the peaceful resistance that I was a part of.
I would ask Ken Burns and Lynn Novick where the information is about a person like myself who not only began protesting the war in the early-to-mid-1960’s long before it was fashionable, a person who burned his draft card quietly and peacefully. In my case, much to the disappointment of my mother, I had to convince the powers-that-be to reclassify me to 1-A from 3-A—family support/fortunate son and college deferments up one arm and down the other. I also peacefully refused induction and refused alternative service. In short, I refused every way out that they offered me, and I did not run to Canada. If my brothers and sisters were putting something on the line, I had to give what I could, and what I could give was my freedom.
I will never forget the old judge, Judge McClain, who looked at me sitting in my laundry basket. Yes, my laundry basket. Since I had refused to walk and the guards didn’t want to keep carrying me (or in some cases, drag me like a rug they were taking to the junkyard), they decided to dump me in a laundry basket and wheel me about that way. I was pushed into the middle of the courtroom, and Judge McClain pulled himself up on the bench, leaned over, and peering down at me said, “I know what you will not do, Mr. Sanders, your reputation got here before you did. Will you tell me what you will do?” I thought he might burst a seam when I said I believed there are only two choices here and they were his: “The first is, if you believe in the robes you wear and the laws you have sworn to uphold, then you must send me to prison. The other is, if you do not believe in those robes and laws, take off the robes and we will go out to lunch.” He called a court recess, and in about an hour, he sent me to prison for two years with a one-year probation to follow. Not bad, I thought, since I was facing 15 years if all counts were added together.
I have given some of the details of my resistance because I know them, but I am not the only one who took this course of action. There were many more just like me who did not blow anything up or throw bombs or actively participate in a riot (although they were clubbed in places like Chicago in 1968) or run to Canada. We simply said no and gave what we could. We gave our freedom.
I sat through the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary waiting for this side of the resistance to be shown, and it never was. They claim to give all sides of an issue, but in this case, they not only missed the boat, they sank the boat, and I am about as angry as I could be about a documentary. I can’t get my 18 hours back or my two years in prison, but I would like that side of the war resistance to be told for all of those who took a non-violent path and gave all they could and lost friends and relatives and their freedom. That story has never been told.