Long before teaching courses on ethics, Professor Mark Sheldon faced a real-life ethical dilemma: fight in a war he didn’t believe in or potentially face jail time for refusing to serve.
After serving two years in the U.S. Army without entering combat during the Vietnam War, Sheldon chose the latter. He was willing to stay and risk his life in a position he believed in, but not one that involved killing other people. For that reason, Sheldon chose to leave the army and received honorable discharge as a conscientious objector, a label which, at the time, sent many to prison or caused them to flee the country.
Sheldon received his draft notice in the summer of 1967 while a student at Shimer College in Chicago. He was allowed a deferment to finish his last semester in college only if he voluntarily signed up for three years of service, which Sheldon thought was an unfair practice.
“It seems absurd that because you were in college you got a deferment, and if you didn’t go to college or didn’t have the resources to go to college, then you got drafted,” Sheldon says. “I felt a lot of guilt about that.”
In December of the same year, Sheldon was inducted into the military. He was shipped to Fort Dix, N.J. where he completed basic and advanced training. The fact that he had a college education allowed him to progress to the extremely demanding Officer Candidate School in Fort Benning, Ga. which he says gave him insight about human beings. He met people from many different backgrounds he would not otherwise have had a chance to know.
Though Sheldon wanted to work in the medical corps, he was offered the position of 2nd lieutenant in the Infantry, which meant he would lead a platoon on the battlefield instead of holding the nonviolent position he desired. At this point, the army sent Sheldon to Fort Knox in Kentucky to be a training officer. All the while, his opposition toward the war was brewing.
“Because of what I heard from people returning from Vietnam, I ended up realizing what I suspected to be true about Vietnam was true,” Sheldon says. “I told myself I didn’t want to be in the position of killing people who weren’t my enemies.”
In 1969, despite orders to get on a plane from San Francisco to Vietnam, Sheldon had already decided he wasn’t going. He applied for discharge as a conscientious objector two weeks before he received the orders. Soon after, a chaplain and an Infantry colonel interviewed Sheldon to see if his objection was legitimate. Although the chaplain concluded that Sheldon should be discharged, the Infantry colonel thought he should still be deployed as a noncombatant in the military. Sheldon realized the medical corps were about making sure the forces on the field were in shape to fight, not saving lives. The role he once wanted to fill in the military now no longer seemed to make sense.
With his future hanging in the balance, Sheldon enlisted the help of two lawyers practicing in Washington, D.C., both of whom were WWII veterans opposed to the war in Vietnam. They helped get his case heard by the civilian court in the capital which allowed him to stay in the U.S. Meanwhile, the military assigned him the position of family housing officer at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. while his case was heard. Although he expected to be sent to jail as many were at the time, Sheldon says he felt no ill feelings toward the military.
“[The military] treated me with a great deal of respect, and it was all clear to me, in terms of anybody that I spoke with, that many of them weren’t particularly supportive of the war,” Sheldon says.
The military eventually granted Sheldon honorable discharge at the end of 1969. The experience made him realize he wanted to pay further attention to philosophy because it allowed him to reflect on ethical issues of social justice. Soon after he was discharged, he enrolled in Brandeis University to complete his graduate degree.
Sheldon remarks that it’s difficult to look back on these events, not because of the struggle he faced, but because he still wonders about the men he became friends with in the forces. After gaining discharge, he lost contact with many of his military friends, many of whom were not supporters of the Vietnam War either.
“People end up fighting for the guy next to him, not for the cause, not for the war, not for the country,” Sheldon says. “You are looking out for the guy next to you. I got to know those guys pretty well, and it was hard not to see them anymore.”
As a lecturer, Sheldon rotates teaching four classes: bioethics, ethical problems and public issues, environmental ethics and philosophy of medicine. In addition, he has talked about a variety of subjects ranging from the ethics of war and terrorism to the conflicts that arise in modern medicine. By standing up for his beliefs and through his experience in the military, Sheldon has come to see himself as someone who raises questions and examines the possible responses without any agenda.
“I think what came from my experience in the military is the very strong feeling that one needs to examine one’s life. That took me to a place where some very fundamental questions needed to be addressed,” Sheldon says. “That’s what I have taken into teaching.”