Allen Ferguson, JD, MFA
I was born shortly after the end of World War II, in the year after the Nuremberg Tribunal convicted top Nazi leaders of war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes against peace; two years and a day after the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. My father had been a bomber pilot in the European theater of what he always referred to simply as “the war.” He often told me stories about his missions over targets in Germany, Hungary, Romania, and other countries under Nazi control. Dad said many times that he’d been “living on borrowed time” ever since a German shell went through the fuel tank in the wing of his B-17 and failed to explode. Sometimes the ex-pilot would become irrationally irritable or jumpy, critical or angry. I was frightened by these sudden outbursts of negative emotion. PTSD was not a known condition at the time.
For me, as for many boys growing up in America in the 1950’s, war was always in the air, even when there was no major war going on. Every boy, it seemed, had a collection of toy guns to shoot with and a gang of friends to shoot at. We played cowboys and Indians, “Japs” and Americans, good guys and bad guys. Our war games had elaborate rules. If a bad guy shot you, you had to fall down and lie still while counting aloud to twenty and saying “one thousand” after each number to make sure each one lasted a full second. Then you could spring back to life, pick up your weapon and go after the bad guys again, racing around the corners of houses, hiding in bushes, crouching or diving onto your belly and sneaking around behind an enemy to shoot him while a teammate distracted him by throwing a rock in a different direction.
It was easy, and a whole lot of fun, to romanticize war in a country that had hardly been bombed and had never been overrun by tanks, and a country that had been victorious in the war. I wonder whether the games boys played in the ‘50’s in Poland or Japan were the same or different from ours.
I went through Boy Scouts all the way from Cubs to Eagle. To me, the steady and challenging progression from one rank to the next, the uniforms, neckerchiefs and merit badges, the oaths and mottos, the hierarchical structure, religiosity and patriotism, were all good things. I felt committed and secure, part of an organization that was proud of itself and admired by people in the community. Combined with activities that really were fun like hiking, camping, swimming, canoeing and a good deal of joking, cutting up and messing around, it was a really good way for a kid to spend his time. Boy Scouts made the world seem comprehensible, ordered, predictable, secure, fun and extremely valuable. As a logical progression from Scouts, and in order to follow my father’s lead into the “wild blue yonder,” I decided I wanted to go to the Air Force Academy.
In the early ‘60’s, my family moved from California to the Washington, D.C. area so that my dad could take a job in the Kennedy administration. It is not an exaggeration to say I loved Jack Kennedy. His assassination began the upending of my world — not an upending of the values I had learned at home and in Boy Scouts, but the upending of my world view and my plans. Rather than going to the Air Force Academy, I went to Antioch, a truly liberal, liberal arts college. Antioch had a work-study program for all students. I worked as a teacher at an international school in Europe and as a brakeman on the railroad in Chicago.
The images on TV and in the papers and magazines of jungle combat, napalm burning human flesh, helicopter gunships, B-52’s, caskets coming home, combined with the knowledge that against my will, my government could conscript me and send me to Vietnam, had two major effects on me. First, the Vietnam War disturbed and puzzled me and caused me to ask, with Country Joe McDonald and so many others, “What are we fightin’ for?” It really wasn’t clear. That was the big difference between the war in which my dad had fought and the Vietnam War. World War II was essentially a defensive war, waged by the U.S. after the U.S. and its allies had been attacked and after many allies had been attacked, invaded and occupied. The U.S. was fighting to reverse that situation and prevent a world takeover by the forces of fascism. And in Vietnam? All this death, injury and destruction for what? In college, I protested against the war. At a speech President Lyndon Johnson gave in Dayton, Ohio, a group of us unfurled a ten foot long banner that read “THOU SHALT NOT KILL,” and held it high. The President looked our way and stopped speaking — for a couple of seconds anyway. Secret Service agents immediately ran down the aisle and jumped over rows of seats to tear the banner down. People around us spoke in low voices about traitors, cowards, communists. Some got to their feet with clenched fists.
The second and more profound effect on me of the Vietnam War, combined with the impact of the Kennedy and King assassinations, was to torpedo the sense of America and the world I had had up until then. The country and the world were no longer comprehensible, ordered, predictable, secure and fun. They had transformed rapidly into incomprehensible, disordered, unpredictable, insecure and violent places. This total shake-up of the world as I knew it made me question not only the war, but just about everything. Everything except nature, where I found solace, beauty, and something approaching peace whenever I could.
I now found the idea of my participation in war unimaginable and contrary to my philosophical and religious beliefs. I applied for conscientious objector status and eventually my draft board approved. I completed the mandatory two years of alternative service while I continued anti-war and social justice activities.
I had a family by this time that needed not only love, but whatever financial security could be obtained with a BA in philosophy. To devote my full effort and attention to my family, I drew back from protesting and activism. I took a job as an investigator with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). My time at the NLRB convinced me that it is possible, though not easy and not necessarily very common, to work effectively for social justice from inside the system – even from within the federal government. Enforcing a law that guaranteed worker rights and prohibited some kinds of abuses by employers and unions seemed worthwhile and important. It was (and is) a type of government work that, despite serious flaws and weaknesses, brings about a degree of justice to take the place of organized violence. Could the NLRB serve as a model for resolving disputes that lead to a type of organized violence far more destructive than labor strikes ever were.
I decided to complete the legal education I had started years before and enrolled in Catholic University of America School of Law in Washington, D.C. The most interesting and important subject to me in law school was public international law, especially the law of war and peace. It was in the public international law class that I first learned about the prohibition in the UN Charter against the use of force and the parallel Nuremberg principle of Crimes Against Peace – the principle that starting a war is illegal.
After receiving my law degree and taking the bar, I returned to the NLRB, working at the agency’s Washington headquarters. While there, I handled cases in a majority of the United States Courts of Appeals. In my first such case, I successfully defended the NLRB’s decision that a union representing mine workers had a right to obtain company reports about conditions in the mine that had led to a fatal accident, so that the union could better fulfill its duty to represent the workers. I felt, as I had as an investigator years before, that I was effectively working for social justice from inside the system. Much of the work was based upon the idea of fundamental fairness, a legal concept which at its core is an ethical concept.
I never knew how good I had it until I had left the NLRB to go into private practice. Working for a large, Washington, D.C. law firm, I got a glimpse of how power and money, profits and privilege often shape public policy and law.
A family tragedy led my wife and me to re-evaluate our lives. We had been living in large, crowded, impersonal and often violent metropolitan areas for 15 years. Needing a radical change, we moved to where the gentle slope of the high desert meets the spine of the southern Rockies .
After moving to the Southwest, I practiced law as a solo practitioner, as an assistant attorney general for the state, counsel to state agencies, and municipal attorney. While some of this work was interesting and important – particularly the work in the attorney general’s office – it was all left brain, mainly tedious, often unnecessarily adversarial, and sometimes irrelevant or even inimical to social justice. After years of such work, I felt deeply tired and saw much grayness all around, even though I was in a sunny and scenic locale. The practice of law, for me, had lost its connection to ethics and heart.
Recognizing my need and desire to become more alive and creative again, to develop the right side of my brain, I enrolled in the Antioch University Los Angeles Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program in creative writing. I had a poetry teacher who led me to the realization that in order to effectively work against war, a person must be guided by an inner vision of peace. Without such a vision, it is too easy to get lost, or worse, to unknowingly feed the cycle of violence. This is a lesson I find I need to continually re-learn.
In the MFA program, I also revisited the war and peace theme that had been with me from childhood by writing a novel about the Vietnam War era in America, from the points of view of two young people who lived through it. The novel’s theme is the struggle between love and fear in the context of the violence and hypocrisy of the Vietnam era.
Although my work as a lawyer involved only United States law, I never lost interest in international law. In many ways, international law, especially law concerning war and peace, seemed more important and more urgent than domestic law. Its importance and urgency become only too obvious when you consider that it deals with a phenomenon that has the potential of putting a sudden end to civilization – to the entire human project. I realized, too, that the law of war and peace is inextricably bound up with ethical considerations. The Nuremberg Tribunal made this connection explicit when it said, “War is essentially an evil thing.” All of this came clearer to me in light of the massive death and destruction involved in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I decided I needed to pursue this particular field of law further by learning more about it, and by teaching.
With students from 83 other countries, I attended a post-graduate summer program in public international law at The Hague Academy of International Law in the Netherlands. The primary focus was international law of war and peace. Some of the presenters, all of whom were highly esteemed academicians, focused on ways in which international law could be interpreted to allow numerous exceptions to the basic non-use of force rule — that is, how it could be interpreted to allow nations in a variety of circumstances to go to war. I became convinced that only by bending, ignoring, and misinterpreting international law could these academicians support their conclusions. It seemed to me that these professors were trying to lend legitimacy to state terror by casting off legal principles intended to constrain nations and leaders from waging war. As a result, I felt called upon to do more to educate people in the countervailing principle that international law outlaws the initiation of war by nations, and provide documents such as the Nuremberg Judgment and the UN Charter which show this.
Before and after attending The Hague Academy, I designed and taught a course entitled “Law and Ethics of War and Peace,” which I taught four times at the University of New Mexico. The original title was “International Law of War and Peace,” but I changed it based on the realization that many of the legal documents and principles in public international law are based on, and inextricably bound up with, ethical principles.
A couple of years ago, I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. At camp one evening with hundreds of other hikers who were on the mountain to ascend it in the full moon, a couple of the African guides started playing drums and singing in the bright pale moonlight at 15,000 feet. Soon a crowd of people of all ages and from all over the world had gathered and was clapping and dancing to the music, smiling, laughing. This, I thought, is a vision of what the world could be. This website is devoted to that vision.