As the bittersweet graduation season comes around each year, I remember David Mossner. The last time I saw him was at a Cornell University commencement in the late 1960s - the Vietnam War era in which graduation held an ominous portent for young men in the senior class.
There are countless other individuals and events that crowd my recollections of those turbulent years, but first I remember David. He was a gifted student of mine. He died in Vietnam.
I was an assistant professor of English at Cornell. Also a Quaker and pacifist, I engaged fully in the anti-Vietnam War teach-ins and protests of that time.
Although I was overage, married, a father, and recognized by my draft board as a conscientious objector - with draft status to match - in 1967, I turned in my draft card to my local board in New Jersey with a letter indicating my refusal to cooperate further with the system of conscription for the war in Vietnam. As a result, I faced "punitive reclassification" to 1-A status and a call for induction, which I had pledged to refuse.
David Mossner was an honors student in a special program for exceptional undergraduates. He'd taken one of my courses where Thoreau's "Walden" was among the readings. I frequently included Thoreau in my courses and encouraged discussion of the relevance of his essay "On Civil Disobedience" in light of then-current debates on civil rights and the Vietnam War.
I supervised David's senior honors project on Thoreau's "political" essays and lent him some of my personal books, including a fine biography of Thoreau, by Walter Harding, himself a World War II conscientious objector.
David turned in a long and thoughtful essay. He examined the interplay between Thoreau's personal conduct in the antislavery advocacy of the 1850s set against the philosophical principles Thoreau articulated in his essays on John Brown, "Slavery in Massachusetts," and chapters in "Walden."
The fundamental tension between citizen and state power, between individual conscience, corporate political authority, and social obligation lay at the heart of the matter. We discussed these principles and the clash of loyalties at length, with inevitable reference to the call to serve in Vietnam. I found David intellectually and personally committed to basing his life on consistency of conscience. I also understood him to be deeply, morally opposed to the conduct of the Vietnam War. He seemed likely to apply for recognition as a conscientious objector or in some other way affirm his stance by not going to Vietnam after graduation when his student deferment would expire.
I congratulated David on a fine piece of work. He returned my book and graduated in June. I continued teaching at Cornell, speaking out against war, and wrestling with my own issues of conscience and legal jeopardy over the draft.
In spring term the following year, I received the stunning news that David had been killed in Vietnam. I could hardly absorb the fact. I was surprised to learn he'd enlisted and gone to Vietnam while simultaneously grieving his death so soon after he arrived there.
Within days of this shock, I was leafing through my copy of the Harding biography and found there, stuck between the pages, the burned stub of David's draft card.
He had not said anything to me about putting the card in my book. Other young men in that time burned their draft cards in public as protest against conscription and the war. The very act of burning the card was a felony.
I was overcome with emotion that still brings tears to my eyes. What private and complex statement was David making by this action? Why had he shared it with me, yet not told me, so that I did not discover the card until he was already dead in Vietnam? Was the burned card a sign of David's decision to resist being drafted or serving in Vietnam, after which he changed his mind and enlisted?
I would never know. I held the card, remembered David, and wept.
I taught Thoreau often over the following years. In most of those classes I talked about David as a young man who took Thoreau seriously, who tried to base his life on moral principles, who wrestled with issues of conscience around the war in Vietnam. I shared with many students the story of David's search and final decision, his death in Vietnam, and the burned stub of his draft card as an enigmatic emblem of his deep convictions.
Nearly two decades passed before I learned more of David's story. In 1983, I took a new position as director of the Washington office for the American Friends Service Committee, the major Quaker agency in the US for humanitarian aid as well as peace and social justice work.
Soon after I came to Washington, I went to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The first name that I searched for on the long granite wall was David Mossner. He was the person I knew best of all those who were killed in the war. I touched the carved letters, as so many others were doing, as if to make real the fact of his vibrant young life and far-away death.
One of the issues that I worked on in Washington for my Quaker agency was the quest for peace in the Middle East. My efforts were channeled through a working group of staff from church-based advocacy offices called Churches for Middle East Peace. In 1987, one of my colleagues in this group shared with the rest of us a new publication on peace in the region issued by the Presbyterian Church. As I read through it, I noticed a small entry on behalf of the donor who had funded the publication, dedicating the booklet to "David C. Mossner."
I promptly inquired how to locate that donor. He turned out to be a Presbyterian clergyman devoted to public policy issues. When I reached him, he also identified himself as a relative of David's who funded various projects devoted to peace and conflict resolution to honor the memory of David Mossner. He told me more of David's story in going to Vietnam.
Upon graduation from Cornell, David was committed to a life based upon moral principle and to a career that would in some way advance the cause of peace and justice in the world. With his deferment gone, he also faced the grim reality of a draft call.
As he sought a clear way forward, apparently David reconsidered the option of refusal to serve in Vietnam.
Perhaps he was influenced by being from Texas, where conscientious objection to military service was less known and much less tolerated.
In any event, as I was told, David felt his future work for peace would lack credibility if he declined to enter and take the risks of Vietnam - the war for his generation of young men coming of age. However paradoxical, he decided his principles and dedication to peace could better be advanced if he advocated for them as a Vietnam veteran.
Once having made this fundamental decision, David enlisted rather than wait for the draft to call him. He was smart, able, and easily qualified for officer candidate training. When shipped out, he went as a junior officer in an infantry combat unit.
Some letters survive that portray his early experiences in the war. David was posted to an active war zone where he led combat patrols, the jarring realities of war all around him. He was truly earning his credibility as a witness to the violence and brutality of warfare. Before many weeks passed, however, as he led another patrol, David stepped on a land mine and was killed instantly.
Even after all these years, my sadness runs deep when I think about David. In part, this is due to the fact that I knew him personally. He puts a face, a tangible identity, on the terrible toll of the Vietnam War. David focuses my grief when I confront the thousands of names carved on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the countless Vietnamese and others who perished in the long years of the war.
Yet David's story is more broadly compelling because he symbolizes so many aspects of the struggles and the tragedy of Vietnam - student and soldier, an idealist who enlisted, antiwar principles and combat experience, doubts about the rightness of the war yet a decision to serve, to fight, to die in the far-off fields of Vietnam. Like many others of his generation, a young life of promise cut off.
Each of us has our own memories - our joys and our griefs - when we see promising young graduates enter the world of adult decisionmaking each June. In my case, I remember David Mossner.
*James Matlack is director of the Washington office of American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker agency devoted to humanitarian aid, peace, and social justice concerns.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society