The Common Good
January 2013

The Fracture of Good Order

by Jim Forest | January 2013

The Catonsville Nine: A Story of Faith and Resistance in the Vietnam Era. Oxford University Press

IT'S BEEN ALMOST 45 years since nine Catholic peace activists entered a draft board in Catonsville, Md., filled two wastebaskets with military draft files, and burned the papers in a parking lot. What made the headlines especially big was the involvement of two Catholic priests, Daniel and Philip Berrigan.

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For many people, me among them, the Catonsville raid was a turning point in our lives. It also triggered passionate debate about the limits of peaceful protest. Could property destruction be called nonviolent?

The prime movers of the Catonsville Nine were Phil Berrigan and George Mische. Mische had worked for U.S.-funded groups fostering labor movements in the Caribbean and Latin America. Phil had fought as an infantryman in World War II, where his courage won him a battlefield commission. Dismayed that the peace movement was having no discernible impact on events in Vietnam, Berrigan became convinced of "the uselessness of legitimate dissent." He opted for firing the cannons of civil disobedience.

Many U.S. troops were draftees; few had a longing to go to war in a country that posed no threat to the U.S. and whose borders most Americans couldn't find on a globe. The key role conscription played in keeping the war going made draft-board files an obvious target. One of the nine, Tom Lewis, called the files "death certificates."

Peters has written a complex, gripping account of what led up to the event, the raid itself, and its aftermath. One by one the participants are brought to life—an artist, a nurse, three former missionaries, an Army vet who had become a peace movement organizer, a teacher who belonged to a Catholic religious order, plus the Berrigans. It wasn't just the Catonsville Two. The book becomes much more than the story of the Berrigans and includes much more than Vietnam. Finally, the impact of the Catonsville action is evaluated. Not only were vital records destroyed, but many were inspired to refuse participation in the war.

The trial, a major drama in its own right, is in many ways the high point of the book. Federal judge Roszel Thomsen allowed a remarkable degree of latitude in his courtroom. On the trial's last day, everyone present joined in reciting the "Our Father." Sadly, during the trial he would not permit the defendants to bring forward a "justification" defense—the argument that destruction of draft records was justified as a reasonable means of inhibiting an unjust and illegal war.

Those interviewed by Peters include the women at the Catonsville draft board who struggled to protect their files, and lawyers for the prosecution, one of whom sympathized with the raid. Peters obtained previously unseen FBI records, revealing how personally obsessed FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was with the Berrigans and their collaborators.

I knew all of the nine and so come to the book with more than a bystander's curiosity. The narrative renews my compassion for who we were and why we put so much on the line, in my case a year in prison for helping burn draft records in Milwaukee.

Even for an insider, the book has its surprises. I knew that, for a time, Phil had been on the borderline of violence, but I had no idea that, prior to Catonsville, he had briefly considered bombing a draft board, albeit at night when no one was present. Later on he explored heating tunnels in Washington, D.C., playing with the idea of using explosives to disrupt work in federal office buildings linked by the tunnels. Happily, he never gave in to the temptation to speak in the language of bombs.

At the time of the Catonsville draft-record burning, novelist Walker Percy asked how it differed from Ku Klux Klan cross burnings. Peters' book succeeds in showing how great the contrast is. At Catonsville, no one wore hoods, no one was threatened, and there was no reliance on the cover of night. Acting in the full light of day, the nine insisted on awaiting the police and taking full responsibility for what they had done.

The words of Daniel Berrigan about the Catonsville action will continue to haunt and challenge us so long as wars are fought: "Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children ... And yet, and yet the times are inexhaustibly good. ... The truth rules, Christ is not forsaken."

Jim Forest's most recent books are All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day, and Saint George and the Dragon.

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