Conscientious Objection and Encounters with the IRS

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James Satterwhite, 1946 – 2016

“If we could read the secret histories of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”

—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In 1969, as I was graduating from college in Florida at the height of the war in Vietnam, I faced a dilemma. Should I go into the military to fight in Vietnam, or was there another option for someone who had come to the position that violence and war are wrong? At that time I was fortunate, as I was able to do “Civilian Alternative Service” as a Conscientious Objector under the Selective Service guidelines in effect at the time.

After I completed my alternative service I began wrestling on and off with the issue of war in a different way. I no longer faced the dilemma of whether or not to physically participate in fighting, but I found that now I was being asked to fund the military even though I had not participated in it for reasons of conscience. Over the years I grappled with this dilemma, and increasingly came to the conclusion that I needed to make a statement against the use of my tax money for the purpose of killing people my country designated as enemies. This conviction became clearer in the last 6 years, so my wife, Olwen, and I decided to “withhold” about 20% each time we filed our Federal taxes, since that is the approximate amount that goes directly to support the military (if you count other costs that figure is much more than the 20%). We are asked to “pray for peace and pay for war.” Despite many attempts to get a bill through Congress, there is as of yet no “alternative service” option for taxes that serve the military.

A week or so ago there was a note in our door from an IRS Collections agent, who wanted to speak with me. We met on a subsequent day at a coffee shop in town, with a local attorney friend of mine as witness. The upshot of this meeting was as follows:

We can strike a deal with them whereby they will only take about $300 per month for 36 months from my paycheck until the about $10,000 we owe is paid. This offer of theirs is the carrot. If, however, we were to continue our “protest,” this action would invalidate such a deal, and they would take the maximum (probably close to the whole paycheck, as Olwen is working full time, and the house is paid for). This means that for 5–6 months we would be living on one income. This part is the stick.

The agent talked about possibly going after Olwen for the amount that I owed from those years that we had filed separately by calculating my share of the equity before I transferred my interest in our house to her this year. This was part of the stick — to essentially threaten to make life difficult for Olwen if I did not cooperate. (The agent even asked clearly “Do you want to make life difficult for her?”) He did say that the IRS would have to decide whether it would be worth the effort for them to go this route, but the threat was clear in any event.

The IRS agent was very sympathetic, but “just doing his job.” He indicated several times that he had not encountered a conscientious objector to war taxes before, and that he himself had not made choices of conscience in the past at several junctures when he had had the chance. I gave him a copy of my cover letter that goes with my tax returns. I felt that it was good to have the opportunity to talk face-to-face, as a further part of the peace testimony. The agent even gave me a printout of something that came across his computer screen about Philadelphia Friends [Quaker] Yearly Meeting countersuing the IRS when it tried to collect from an employee’s wages — the issue obviously intrigued him.

I have given him a definitive answer: I cannot agree to his terms, so he will have to go ahead and do what he has to do to collect the money.

I was struck again how sophisticated the system of carrots and sticks is — from the basic withholding tax, to the offer of lenient collection terms if I simply don’t think about my money going to kill people and agree to cooperate in sending them the amount “owed.” It’s insidious, really. We are part of a culture of death that has become normal.

From the December 2003 issue of More Than a Paycheck.