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2003, The Ehistory Bulletin

Film Review of "Investigation of a Flame"

Patrick Jones, The University of Wisconsin-Madison

In a poetic act against U.S. military intervention in Southeast Asia, on May 17, 1968, nine Catholic anti-war activists associated with the Interfaith Peace Mission (Tom Lewis, David Darst, Daniel Berrigan, Philip Berrigan, George Mische, Mary Moylan, John Hogan, Tom Melville and Marjorie Melville) - including three priests, an artist and a nurse - walked into the Catonsville, Maryland, Selective Service office, grabbed roughly 600 individual draft files and burned them with homemade napalm before a gathering of local television cameras and newspaper reporters. The previous year, Philip Berrigan, Tom Lewis and two other activists had entered the Baltimore Selective Service offices and poured vials of blood onto draft records in a similar incident. In both cases, a shared conviction that the United States' military actions in Vietnam were both illegal and immoral inspired participants. A statement released by the group concerning the May 17 action explained, "Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house... The time is past when good men can remain silent, when obedience can segregate men from public risk, when the poor can die without defense." The Catonsville case gave pause to many at the time and garnered significant national and international media attention because Catonsville was a quiet, middle-class suburb of Baltimore - not exactly a hot-bed of radicalism - and because the participants were not stereotypically bedraggled and bearded student activists. After a political trial, authorities convicted each of the nine protesters of federal crimes and sentenced them to prison terms of between one and three years. Two of the "Catonsville 9," as they had come to be known, opted to "go underground" rather than submit to incarceration. The controversies caused by the protest helped galvanize the national anti-war movement. They also underscored the way political action, no matter how historically important it becomes, often begins with the actions of a few courageous "ordinary" people. The story raises significant questions about civil disobedience and citizenship that are as meaningful and controversial today as they were in 1968.

Lynne Sachs' fascinating documentary, "Investigation of a Flame," provides a thoughtful meditation on the protests of the Catonsville 9. Relying primarily on both rare archival footage and recent interviews with several participants, the film probes the political and spiritual bases of the incident and places it within the larger context of the War in Vietnam and anti-war activism at home. A series of impressionistic shots, interspersed with traditional documentary images, encourages further consideration of the issues raised in the film. "Investigation of a Flame" artfully honors the U.S. tradition of dissent by making clear that these were not impetuous radicals making rash decisions, but rather people of principle and discipline acting out of a deep sense of conscience. The film suggests that the consequences of civil disobedience for both the individual and the society can be large and enduring. While the filmmaker's sympathy for the anti-war activists is clear, she also presents the opposing views of Mary Murphy, the clerk at the Catonsville Selective Service office who attempted to foil the protest, Steve Sachs, the Chief Prosecutor in the case, and a few local residents not directly involved in the incident. As a result, this intimate documentary is a superb teaching tool, providing ample food for thought and discussion on the more general issue of civil disobedience and dissent in a time of war. Contemporary political events - like the "War on Terrorism," the Middle East conflict, and the continuing use of civil disobedience by the political Right and Left in the United States - lend "Investigation of a Flame" an added sense of immediacy and relevance. Lynne Sachs' excellent and insightful treatment of this important footnote in American history deserves a wide audience.