In the summer of 1965, Ira Robison heard the call to duty. A student at the University of Montana, he enrolled in ROTC and focused on a future in the U.S. Air Force.
But an internal struggle had begun to take shape, just as the war in Vietnam began to grow. On the way to class, he passed the silent protesters – the students keeping vigil outside the Emma Lommasson Center on campus.
While small in number, the students gathered to voice their opposition to the nation’s actions in Vietnam. Robison knew many of them by name and considered them friends, though he didn’t agree with their opinions.
At least in the beginning.
“Every week during the lunch hour, there would be a group of students standing for an hour in silent protest against the war,” Robison said. “When I was in ROTC, I would stop and argue with them. Later, I found myself standing with them.”
Seated in the silence of his Missoula home, surrounded by the trappings of a religious man, Robison considered the past and how his transformation took place during those contentious years in college.
His older brother served in the Air Force, and a career in the military seemed a noble pursuit. But his father was a Methodist minister and God was already in his heart. The conflicts he carried festered with time and his opinions began to change.
“I remember sitting in an air-science class and one of the (ROTC) professors made the comment that the purpose of the military was to kill people,” Robison said. “I stopped and thought about that and decided he was right and that I didn’t want to kill people, so maybe I didn’t belong in the military. That began to turn me against the war in Vietnam very strongly.”
Robison was born in 1946, the son of a Methodist pastor. Life in the church kept the family on the move – Anaconda, Kansas, Great Falls.
Religion played a central part of Robison’s life. He was active in Sunday school and community youth programs. But even so, he wanted to choose his own way, and the church wasn’t part of his plans.
“I was absolutely convinced I would never follow in my father’s footsteps,” Robison said. “Living in parsonages meant you were always on display. Everyone knew your business. If you made a youthful error, everyone was all over you about it. You were the preacher’s kid and you weren’t supposed to do that kind of stuff.”
Living in small towns, Robison’s efforts to fit in didn’t always work. He was the only boy in his school band. He stayed clear of basketball, even though it was a rite of passage for other boys his age.
If God was in his heart, so was music. When he moved to Great Falls and graduated, he enrolled at UM to study music. He also enrolled in ROTC, as if he had something to prove.
“I was not overly aware of what was going on in Vietnam, I just knew there were advisers over there and we were helping them battle communism,” Robison said. “I came over to Missoula with the intent of getting my bachelor’s degree in music and being commissioned to second lieutenant in the Air Force.”
Once in the program, Robison was asked if he’d be willing to go to Vietnam. He said yes, seeing little reason to answer otherwise.
But the war was quickly escalating. President Lyndon Johnson ordered 60,000 troops to Vietnam in 1965. That August, U.S. forces engaged in their first major land battle at Chu Lai, killing 700 Viet Cong troops and losing 45 American men.
“I had a number of friends at the university who were protesting the war,” Robison said. “I was in ROTC, so we would have some long discussions. As I bounced their views off the things that were important to me in my religion, I began to question our policies in Vietnam.”
Robison’s friends on the peace front believed America was killing the Vietnamese when they were trying to defend their homeland. He argued otherwise, saying U.S. forces were there to stop the dangerous spread of atheistic communism.
But he considered it longer and his thoughts fixed on the act of killing. He wasn’t anti-military, though he slowly turned anti-war. The art of war ran contrary to his own belief in the Bible and the teachings of Jesus.
“I became uncomfortable with the idea we were killing people to stop the spread of atheism,” he said. “It didn’t match up with my understanding of Jesus telling us we were supposed to love one another. I don’t see how you can love someone and kill them at the same time.”
The change had come full circle and Robison dropped out of ROTC with the permission of the Air Force. After earning his music degree, he enrolled at Boston University and its seminary program.
The religious artifacts around his Missoula home hang as daily reminders of the decisions he made as a young man during the Vietnam years.
Three Holy Bibles and a picture of Jesus sit on the mantle. His piano displays the United Methodist Hymnal and “The Faith We Sing.”
“I graduated from seminary in 1972 and came back out West to serve as a local church pastor,” Robison said. “I quietly talked with people one on one about the inaccuracies of the war. We were being told one thing and we were doing another. We were told we were trying to save South Vietnam, and yet we were destroying villages.”
Just as it had in college, “love thy neighbor” became his rule of thumb. He avoided the big demonstrations, though he worked quietly behind the scenes, talking with those around his community about Vietnam.
But the world isn’t always so black and white, and Robison still struggles with St. Augustine’s “just war” theory. On one hand, Jesus says “blessed are the peacemakers.” On the other, he says, “Let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one.”
“If there was ever a just war, World War II might be it,” Robison said, considering the issue. “When our nation is under threat, it’s a little harder to take an anti-war position. After 9/11, being anti-war was difficult, but the way we went about it, militarily and politically, made it a little easier to be anti-war.”
Robison credits his faith with shaping his opinions.
“Jesus taught us to love one another and care for one another, and I don’t see how you can do that when you’re shooting people,” he said. “Back during Vietnam, the peace symbol was often referred to around Missoula as the footprint of the great American chicken. But people didn’t realize the amount of courage it took to stand up and say no, ‘I’m against this.’ ”