Vietnam Series Podcast, Episode 39:

Mike Wittels’ refusal to obey orders to train for Vietnam cost him a court-martial and months in the stockade. Mike was eventually discharged from the Army as a conscientious objector. He went on to be a highly revered draft counselor, writing several books and lecturing on the subject. He is also an artist and sculptor.

In about the second week of Basic, we were issued our weapons. There was supposed to be a class on handling your M-1, and the sergeant on the stage was holding the M-1 and saying, “Men, this is your M-1. It can blow a hole the size of a grapefruit in your enemy.” I’m looking at the guy in front of me, and he’s breathing, and I thought, “Why would I want to blow a hole the size of a grapefruit into someone, just because somebody said, ‘Hey, that’s your enemy””?

“Vietnam was in the news more and more. And I thought, “You know, I don’t see the reasons for Vietnam. I knew how to read and read the papers and everything else, but it didn’t make any sense to me.”

Vietnam Full Disclosure

This Courage to Resist podcast was produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace — “Towards an honest commemoration of the American war in Vietnam.” This year marks 50 years of GI resistance, in and out of uniform, for many of the courageous individuals featured. Interview and edit by Matthew Breems. Jeff Paterson, Executive Producer.

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Transcript

Mike Wittels:
In about the second week of Basic, we were issued our weapons. There was supposed to be a class on handling your M-1, and the sergeant on the stage was holding the M-1 and saying, “Men, this is your M-1. It can blow a hole the size of a grapefruit in your enemy.” I’m looking at the guy in front of me, and he’s breathing, and I thought, “Why would I want to blow a hole the size of a grapefruit into someone, just because somebody said, ‘Hey, that’s your enemy””?

Matthew Breems:
This is the Courage to Resist podcast. My name is Matthew Breems. This Courage to Resist podcast is produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace. Mike Wittels is the podcast guest today. Mike’s refusal to obey orders to train for Vietnam cost him a court-martial and months in the stockade. Mike was eventually discharged from the Army as a conscientious objector. He went on to be a highly revered draft counselor, writing several books and lecturing on the subject. Well, hello, Mike, how are you doing today?

Mike Wittels:
I’m fine, Matt. And you?

Matthew Breems:
Doing well. Looking forward to hearing your story of activism. Well, why don’t you start off by telling us where you grew up and your mindset leading up to the time that you entered the Army during the Vietnam conflict?

Mike Wittels:
I grew up just outside of Philadelphia. My mom was an artist. My dad was a freelance writer, so he didn’t have a ordinary schedule. I didn’t like school, didn’t do well in it. I figured out a way to cut school without getting in a lot of trouble, and a lot of days cut and went out in the woods and learned a lot on my own. While I was in high school, the Vietnam War wasn’t in the news yet. I hadn’t thought much about the military. I do remember once thinking to myself, “I wish I were a Quaker so I wouldn’t have to go.” It wasn’t really a religious or an ethical or moral point. It was just, I didn’t want to spend that time.

Mike Wittels:
Anyway, after I passed my physical, I called the draft board, probably disguising my voice, and probably said I was calling for a friend, and said, “How long will it be before my friend gets drafted?” And the little old lady that ran the draft board, which is pretty much what happened everywhere, I learned later… Anyway, called her. She said I’d be drafted in a couple of weeks. So I thought, “Okay, what the hell? I’ll see the world, meet girls, have adventures.” And I started buying little tubes of toothpaste and so on, figuring I’d be drafted any minute.

Mike Wittels:
But that went on for a year, and my life as a civilian was getting better. And I thought, “Well, I don’t really want to get drafted.” I heard an ad on the radio, probably misheard it, “Join the Reserves, serve in your hometown.” Sounded to me like I wouldn’t have to go away. So there was a fellow student who I knew went to Reserve meetings, asked him. He said, “Well, I’m in the medical unit. The officers are doctors. We don’t have to wear uniforms. We don’t do anything.” So I went down to join that, and the civilian administrator said, “Oh, that’s closed, but we have a quartermaster unit.” I didn’t know what a quartermaster was, but I joined.

Matthew Breems:
You were in college at this time. Was there no deferment for you because of that?

Mike Wittels:
Yeah. I was actually in an art school, which wasn’t a college.

Matthew Breems:
Okay. So you didn’t qualify for deferment?

Mike Wittels:
I’m not even sure I KNEW about that. In other words, we were pretty naiive before the Vietnam War.

Matthew Breems:
Right. So they say, “Hey, we’ve got a quartermaster position open. Why don’t you join and be a part of that?”

Mike Wittels:
Yeah, they said, “Well, that’s the only unit open.” My point was to get the military stuff out of the way. I finally was ordered to active duty for training in August ’63. I took Basic at Fort Knox. They made me a squad leader. I took it very seriously, but I was not as gung ho as I was, “Hey, I got to help my squad,” people in the squad.

Matthew Breems:
So at this point you weren’t necessarily opposed to the Vietnam conflict or the military in general; it was just something you were trying to get through?

Mike Wittels:
Exactly. And we weren’t really hearing about the Vietnam conflict, although it came up soon. But I remember in about the second week of Basic, we were issued our weapons, M-1s. There was supposed to be a class on handling your M-1. So I got there late. There were already about 200 men in there, four companies, so I was way in the back. And in front of me was this whole sea of strangers, all looking about the same. All have drab fatigues, very short hair.

Mike Wittels:
And the sergeant on the stage was holding the M-1 over his head and saying, “Men, this is your M-1. It can blow a hole the size of a grapefruit in your enemy.” And I’m looking at these guys in front of me, I’m looking at the guy in front of me, and he’s breathing in and out. I didn’t know him or anybody else. And I thought, “Why the hell would I want to do that? Why would I want to blow a hole the size of a grapefruit into someone, just because somebody said, ‘Hey, that’s your enemy'”?

Mike Wittels:
When I got back to the barracks in the evening, I called my squad together and I said, “Men, you know, if there’s a war, I’m not going. How about you?” So as a squad leader, you’re not supposed to do this, but I didn’t know any better. The responses were interesting. Most of them said, “Nah, I’m not goin’ either,” because this is a basic human thing: you don’t just kill somebody. One guy said, “Oh, I don’t have to worry; I joined to be in the band.” And only one guy said, “Nah, I’d like to do it. I want to kill somebody,” and he mimed shooting a rifle.

Mike Wittels:
So I thought, “Well, I want to talk to somebody.” But the company commander was a brand new graduate from ROTC, so he wasn’t anybody to talk to. We used to have back then something called character guidance. It was mandatory. So everybody goes and they get a lecture from the chaplain. I thought, “Nah, chaplain’s not the guy to talk to.” So I decided, “I’ll just keep— I’m only in the Reserves for six months; I’ll continue on and deal with my qualms when I get out in six months. So after Basic, instead of sending me to Quartermaster’s, which would be supply, they sent me to Heavy Weapons Infantry, and I was put in a unit with guys who were training to become airborne.

Matthew Breems:
Any reason given to you why the change in assignment?

Mike Wittels:
No, it’s the great Army random selection system. So I don’t think it had anything to do with me personally.

Matthew Breems:
So they start training you for heavy weaponry instead of being a quartermaster.

Mike Wittels:
Right.

Matthew Breems:
What happened from there?

Mike Wittels:
Well, that was serious training. I still have a bad left ear from the 106-millimeter recoilless rifle. So I get through that, and that was really heavy duty training. And then they send me Basic Unit Training, which was essentially war games. And again, running around in the dark with weapons.

Matthew Breems:
You’d finished your Basic Training, you’d gone on and done Heavy Weapons Training, received your orders. What happened next that made you decide to completely resist going to Vietnam?

Mike Wittels:
So after six months, I’m out of active duty for training, because that was the obligation. I still had five and a half years in the Reserves, plus two more in the Inactive Reserves. I had vowed in Basic not to go to war, but, you know, this is how people are, “I’m not going to do that.” But it was kind of out of my mind until in spring of ’65, Vietnam was in the news more and more. And I thought, “You know, I don’t see the reasons for Vietnam. I knew how to read and read the papers and everything else, but it didn’t make any sense to me.

Mike Wittels:
I saw some people demonstrating against it in front of [inaudible 00:11:23] Hall, and I took a brochure but didn’t say anything. I knew my next-door neighbor Margaret was against the war, and she was a very pro Asian, so I went to talk to her, and I said, “Boy, I don’t know what to do. I’ll go,” I said to her, and I thought to myself, “I’ll go if somebody can explain it to me, but so far I’ve heard nothing but the usual cliches: you know, ‘We got to do it or the communists will take over,’ and so on.” So she said— and I said to her, “I wish I had a wise man to talk to.” She said, “Go talk to these people,” and gave me a brochure similar to the one I had.

Mike Wittels:
So I went over there. Being the idiot I was, I walked in and said, “I’d like to talk to somebody important,” something like that. And so the woman at the desk sent me upstairs to see George Lakey [sp?], Who said, “Well, I don’t have time to talk to you right now,” and he said, “Well, let me give you the Handbook for Conscientious Objectors.” I said, “I’m not a conscientious objector. I would have fought in World War II. I would have fought Hitler.” He said, “Well, I don’t have time to talk about that.”

Mike Wittels:
I took the book, and I was dubious. So I went home and I looked at the book. The first thing is, I was very impressed by how solid and straightforward it was. There was no proselytizing, no trying to convince; it was just straightforward information. So I read it many times. I didn’t have a regular job at the time. I went to the library, read everything they had on nonviolence and related things, and I slowly came to realize that I probably was a CO. Up until that point, I thought, “Oh, they had to be religious freaks.”

Mike Wittels:
So I drafted my answers, read the book several times, went to see Arlo Tatum, who George Lakey had made an appointment with, and showed him what I— and talked to him. I was impressed by him too. Talked to him, showed him my answers. We went over them a few times. Finally, I went to my company commander at the Reserve unit. I handed it in, and after about six months of inquiring of headquarters, “What’s going on?” it was turned down.

Matthew Breems:
So this was an official application to be a conscientious objector?

Mike Wittels:
Right, because there is, which I hadn’t realized until then of course, a regulation form. So I had made the official application, and I had gotten letters of support. So I got my official denial, let’s say close to a year after I had turned it in.

Matthew Breems:
And just for some clarity for our listeners, on what grounds do they deny COs?

Mike Wittels:
Well, there were two qualifications you had to meet, sincerity and religiousness. So I didn’t belong to any organized religion, so I was turned down. They didn’t give me a reason. They just said, “You don’t qualify.” I was told to report for additional training, because I had missed meetings. And again, I had learned enough about nonviolence activities by then to know, it’s a really a good idea to keep everybody in your chain of what you were doing. So I had written the commanding officer of where I was being sent, to tell him I’d be there, but I wouldn’t wear a uniform, and I wouldn’t do anything military. So I get there, and he is polite and sends me to see a chaplain. And there was about three or four days of this, you know, trying to explain to me why I was wrong. They took me to the stockade.

Matthew Breems:
So this is because you are refusing orders during your training?

Mike Wittels:
Yeah. And anyway, so I go over to the stockade, walk over there, and they start doing my paperwork. They tell me, “Strip to your underwear and put this uniform on.” I said, “Well, I’m not going to put on a uniform,” because at that point, the uniform meant that I was a soldier, and I was trying to make the point that I had resigned. So a couple of the sergeants and some other men got around me and started pushing me around. So they threw me in the box. The box is a cell about six by six by maybe seven feet high, steel walls, a door with a square hole at about eye level. There was a dull light in the ceiling, very dull, just about enough light to read.

Mike Wittels:
I was told I had to stand up at all times until breakdown, which is lights out, and had to report with my name and serial number through that opening whenever I was told to. So I had no idea what would happen. On about the fourth day, I looked at the shirt and I realized it didn’t have any insignia on it. It just had a white armband to show I was a prisoner, and “U.S. Army.” So I thought, “Okay, I’ll accept that I’m a prisoner of the U.S. Army but not in it. So I agreed to put it on, on about the fourth day, I said, “But I’ll serve out my term here.” I wanted to show I wasn’t breaking.” And he said, “No, I need the space. Out!” So I go out into a 24-man cell.

Matthew Breems:
And how long did you end up being in the stockade this time?

Mike Wittels:
Actually, after about three or four weeks, they put me back in solitary, and I was in there for another six weeks in the second solitary. But my sentence— I was court-martialed, special court-martial, which can give only six months, and they automatically give you a month off. So I was let out after that period of time. So altogether I was in there about six and a half months. And this is when I had no idea what would happen, if you’re discharged or whatever. And I’m taken by a sergeant, which I was—his rank was too high to be driving a prisoner around—but to a new company. I’m given the same orders, “Put on your uniform and report to building such and such.”

Mike Wittels:
By the way, when they took me out the door, a guard ripped off my prisoner armband, so at that moment I was wearing a fatigue uniform. But I was told to put one on and report to such and such a building. I said to my new company commander, “You know I’m not going to do this.” He didn’t seem real interested in anything; it was just like he had been told to go through this. The company clerk there took me out while they wrote up the charges. I said, “Hey, can I borrow a dime to call my girlfriend?” And he said, “Sure.” And he said, “You know, I agree with you, but it’s too soon.” And my answer was, “Well, better too soon than too late.” So I called my girlfriend, put the word out that I was out, but I was taken back and locked up within 20 minutes of getting out.

Matthew Breems:
So you’ve been imprisoned a second time here for refusing orders. Take us through this second prison term.

Mike Wittels:
I was in the max cell. They would take some of us up to the hill, breaking up rocks, chopping wood once in a while, but under heavily armed guard. After just a couple of days being there, I was taken to the JAG, the lawyers’ offices, military lawyers, and my military defense attorney was there. He said, “Well, I can’t help you this time, because I’m now a prosecutor, but I’d like to help you behind the scenes if I could.” And he said, “Would you accept an unsuitability discharge?” and I said, “Sure, anything.” So he said, “We’ll arrange that.”

Mike Wittels:
There was a series of false starts where I was taken out to the back gate to be taken to be processed from that discharge, and left high and dry. Then the final time I was taken there, he said, “Well, the commanding general won’t approve it. He wants you to have a general court-martial, and so you’re going to get five years.” So when my most recent commanding officer—this guy had never seen me before—but who had been told to tell me these things, “Put on the uniform and go to this building”— So he repeated that, and my attorney says, “Now, what was Whittles wearing when you gave him the order to put on his uniform?” “Well, he was wearing a fatigue uniform.” “Okay. Now, where was he when he was supposed to report at 07:30 to building such and such?” And this poor young officer said, and he was just about sweating, he said, “Well, well, he was in the stockade.”

Mike Wittels:
So the ACLU lawyer says, “Well, he couldn’t very well just walk out of the stockade and report to work, could he?” So they dropped the charges. So that was another few weeks. And then that attorney had been talking to Washington and found that I had made, unbeknownst to me, a second application for discharge. There were some people working behind the scenes to make that happen, but I had no idea about it, because the confinement officer prevented all mail from any of those people reaching me.

Mike Wittels:
My original counselor, Arlo Tatum, had known the deputy director of Selective Service, and that guy used to be in charge of CO discharge applications, at least making recommendations. Anyway, unbeknownst to me, Arlo had written a letter of support for me. I didn’t know any of this, but my civilian attorney didn’t know that detail, but he said, “I think they’re going to rule favorably on your application, so please don’t refuse any more orders.” Got the discharge in the mail in July.

Matthew Breems:
So your conscientious objector application was finally approved, the second one?

Mike Wittels:
Yeah. Under honorable conditions, which I didn’t care about. I just wanted not to be arrested again.

Matthew Breems:
You’ve paid a heavy price at this point for your antiwar activism. What did the next phase of your activism look like for you? Did you remain active, or did you just kind of go back to a normal civilian life?

Mike Wittels:
I had intended to go back to my life as an artist. That was my life, but I went over— I ran into a guy that worked for CCCO, and he said, “Could you come to the office to help out with some paperwork kind of stuff for filing?” And I said, “Fine.” They were clearly overwhelmed with people coming in and calling for counseling, and they asked me to work, and I said, “Okay, part time until you find somebody else.”

Matthew Breems:
So these are gentlemen that are looking to apply to be conscientious objectors?

Mike Wittels:
Or anything to do with the draft and the military.

Matthew Breems:
Looking for advice and counseling on how to avoid being drafted or avoid doing military service?

Mike Wittels:
Yeah. I think the “avoid” is implied, but they would help anybody. So yes, yes. So that was implied, and they were all war resistors. I was there for, well, more than five years, working day and night. To me, it was an emergency. And I counseled hundreds if not thousands, because I’d become, without trying, an expert on military laws and regulations. Well, the first thing I did was, I had been invited to Chicago to give a workshop, and people had come, lawyers and lay counselors had come from miles and miles around. And I talked for 12 hours straight.

Mike Wittels:
And I wrote a book called “Advice for COs in the Armed Forces,” in an effort to get all of my knowledge on paper. I started writing something called “The Military Counselor’s Manual” and a newsletter, which updated that. And these got to— again, for the same audiences. And these started being used by those people, and I kept getting invited to places to do workshops, from San Diego State Law School to Harvard and all stops in between. And again, I just said yes and I just kept doing stuff, until the war wound down and until the draft was stopped.

Matthew Breems:
This is quite an unexpected adventure for you, as far as becoming an antiwar counselor?

Mike Wittels:
Absolutely.

Matthew Breems:
Any final thoughts on military service that you’d want to share?

Mike Wittels:
Well, first of all, I remain completely anti-military. I think my basic philosophy is, try to make the world better. The other thing— advice I would give, based on my experience in the stockade and elsewhere— so I think my advice is to people who want to say what they believe, is to do it.

Matthew Breems:
Well, Mike, thank you so much for taking the time to share your story of activism. Quite a trial by fire that you went through, so thank you for sharing that with us.

Mike Wittels:
Thank you, Matt.

Matthew Breems:
This Courage to Resist Podcast was produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace. This year marks 50 years of GI resistance to the U.S. War in Vietnam, in and out of uniform, for many of the courageous individuals featured. This episode was recorded and edited by Matthew Breems. Special thanks to Executive Producer Jeff Paterson. Visit vietnamfulldisclosure.org and couragetoresist.org for past episodes, more information, and to offer your support.