Vietnam, Donald Trump and Me
If Donald Trump was a draft dodger, so were most of us
I don’t share much with Donald Trump, but I do share one thing: the refusal to fight in the Vietnam War.
Lately, social media is filled with cries of “Cadet Bone Spurs,” “Draft Dodger, and “GI Joke,” along with angry denunciations of cowardice directed toward him and anyone who didn’t fight in Southeast Asia. Only it isn’t coming from the usual jingoistic right — which will excuse any Trump behavior, past or present.
No, this time it’s from the left, where many see an opening to attack a notably reprehensible president. And Trump’s weaselly and ludicrous defenses amplify — but also wildly distort — the image of draft resistance as something unusual and despicable. Maybe they’re too young to remember the war, but the vast majority of people yelling “draft dodger” are exactly the people who — had they lived at that time — would have found a way not to go. They seem to have no idea who went to Vietnam and who didn’t. Nor the moral issues involved.
First of all, Trump was far more the norm than exception: upper middle-class men simply didn’t go. Nor, for the most part did the middle class. Out of the massive pool of men who registered for the draft, most avoided it — the overwhelming number legally. Using data from the National Archives, a Vietnam War history site noted:
· Surprisingly, the draft only supplied one-third of the military: two-thirds were enlistees.
· Twenty-seven million were eligible for the military between 1964 and 1973. Out of this huge pool 2,215,000 entered the armed services — eight percent.
· 15.4 million were granted deferments, usually for education, physical and mental reasons, marriage and family difficulties. The lottery instituted in 1969 accounted for many more de facto exemptions.
· Of those who were sent to Vietnam, one quarter were poor, more than half working-class and twenty percent middle-class — although what constitutes middle or working class is fluid and not agreed upon. Very few were upper class. The mechanism of avoidance was usually college deferment.
· Some — though not many — openly defied the military. About 200,000 illegally resisted the draft and 100,00 deserted. About 30,000 went to Canada and elsewhere.
Aside from the statistics there’s a moral component. I hated the Vietnam War pretty much from the get go: it was illegal, based on fabrications and above all murderous in the extreme. We were killing and maiming people at an increasingly furious rate — bombing, shelling, poisoning and torturing. A people who had never done anything to the United States. In a fight that was more about national liberation than the Communist doctrine that propelled and organized them.
So, no, I wasn’t going to go — although surprisingly I agonized over that decision. It wasn’t about it being inconvenient to my career or that Vietnam was too far away. I wasn’t privileged; my father died a few years before and we were actually quite poor. I didn’t wish for someone to go in my place: I didn’t want anyone to go. Sure, I didn’t want to be killed in a war that was just wrong, but equally I didn’t want to kill Vietnamese in an immoral war.
I didn’t go to Canada nor did I register as a conscientious objector. I didn’t disappear and go underground. Being married no longer helped, so like many I marshaled a bunch of doctors’ statements. The draft board was unimpressed. But what mattered at that time was evidence of drug use. In two years, they wouldn’t have blinked at that, but in 1967 it was still a barrier to the army: I was classified 1-Y. Certainly it wasn’t heroic, but it worked.
I imagine there are millions of Americans who still think that I was a traitorous coward. But these are the same people who think that in spite of a million Vietnamese deaths and continuing destruction to the country, the worst thing that happened in the war was Jane Fonda. In the end, I’m just glad I didn’t kill anyone and I’m glad my name isn’t on the Vietnam War Memorial. And just to put this in perspective, if that memorial included Vietnamese names, it would stretch from the Mall to beyond the Beltway. To me and many others, this war wasn’t about honor and patriotism — it was about death and devastation.
And our actions helped end the war. However, while resistance from the middle class was important, but what turned the tide was the antiwar GI Movement “In the end,” said Ron Carver, editor of the upcoming book, Waging Peace in Vietnam: U..S. Soldiers and Veterans who Opposed the War, “it was, in fact, the active soldiers who rebelled within the military that ended the ground war and forced a withdrawal.”
For most men of the Vietnam era, it wasn’t so-called draft dodging; it was levels of resistance — sometimes acknowledged, often not — to a war that never should have happened. To many, this makes us unpatriotic; but the vast majority of American men voted by their actions to refuse the war. And even though he manages to make even ordinary actions seem evil, so did Donald Trump.
It’s unfortunate that we have to revisit this issue repeatedly — often in anger. But as Pulitzer Prize winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote, “All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.”