Conscription: Unjust Wars and Those Who Refuse to Fight Them

Fifty-five years ago this week, on October 21, 1967, almost a hundred thousand people attended a  protest against the war in Vietnam, and some 50,000 marched on the Pentagon. Anger about the war that was wreaking such destruction on that country and a draft that was sending so many conscripts to kill and die fueled this and many more protests. As the United States has fought its “forever wars” in the past decades, the anger toward  universal conscription has faded, because the conscripts of a “volunteer” army enroll primarily for economic reasons. Today, soldiers in Russia face conscription over a war none of them sought and few want to fight in. Bill Barclay reflects on the race and class issues of universal conscription.

In 1818 my wife’s ancestors left southern Germany for what was then the Ukraine.  Decades earlier, Catherine the Great, herself German, had invited Germans to settle, grow crops, and (in her view) raise the cultural level of her Russian subjects.  Immigrants were promised land and exemption from conscription into tsarist armies.  In 1874, the tsar introduced universal conscription. The imposition of universal conscription was not popular. Resistance included name changes and mutilation of trigger hands.

Wars are often most popular among parts of the population least likely to face the risk of fighting them.  Conscripts, draftees, frequently show less enthusiasm for war, whether in the 19th century,  during the U.S. imperial adventure in southeast Asia, or today in Russia.  Conscripts are rarely drawn equally from all levels of the populace, whether it be the over representation of African Americans and Hispanics serving in Vietnam while college students–disproportionately white– received deferments or the drafting of minorities and men from poorer rural areas in Russia today while urban professionals seek ways to evade Vladimir Putin’s draft.

Resistance to conscription takes a variety of forms, both individual and collective.  In the case of Vietnam, initial opposition was largely individual, as draft-eligible men crossed the border  to Canada. Similarly, more than 250,000 draft-eligible Russians have fled the country, at least double the highest estimate  of those who left the United States for Canada.  But the boundary between individual and collective draft resistance is blurry; individuals fleeing conscription find one another, and soon, at least in the U.S. case, a movement is born.    

My own Vietnam War experience illustrates the varied ways that resistance to the draft can occur and evolve.  It also highlights the variables of race and class.

My initial act was non-political.  I had dropped out of college after spring semester 1964.  I took some low-wage jobs and wondered about my future.  Then the Tonkin Gulf “incident” happened, escalating U.S. involvement in the war.  But I paid little attention to it–until I got a call for a pre-induction physical in the spring of 1965.  I passed the physical, until the very end.  At that same point in his anti-draft song “Alice’s Restaurant,” Arlo Guthrie is asked, “Kid, we only got /One question. Have you ever been arrested?” Turns out I had, for setting off fire crackers some years earlier.  My case was sent somewhere for further review.  Worried, I enrolled in summer school.  The day after I got my grades, two As, I received a letter: “Notice: You are hereby ordered to report for induction . . . .”  I still knew very little about the war, but I knew I didn’t want to go.  I took my grades and my letter to my draft board, where I discovered the clerk was the mother of a friend of mine.  She looked at the letter and grades and said, “Forget the letter.”  

This was in Raleigh, North Carolina, a city segregated by race and class that was about 35% African American.  A young African American was probably conscripted in my place.  A couple of years later, when I returned for my conscientious-objector hearing, I knew the other three applicants, all white.

In the fall of 1965, my girlfriend and I joined the small chapter of Students for a Democratic Society at the University of North Carolina.  I started writing about the war for The Left Heel, SDS’s periodic competitor to the official Daily Tar Heel.

By January 1967, when I entered grad school at Cornell University, I was a staunch opponent of the war.  There I became part of a movement dedicated to cutting off, or at least reducing, the supply of canon fodder for the military.  Opposition ranged from counseling young men facing the draft to helping those seeking to cross the border into Canada to hiding deserters or to  burning draft cards.  

I neither burned my draft card nor went to Canada.

Instead, I obtained my master’s degree and went to teach at a largely working-class community college in Corning, NY.  There, I and others, including a military veteran enrolled in the college, organized against the war.  We established a storefront draft counseling center.  We worked with 18- and 19-year-olds facing the draft, with Vietnam veterans dealing with the trauma of war, and with deserters.  I also learned a lesson about class.  

One day a NY State trooper walked in.  We had seen him before, walking back and forth in front of the center.  He was facing the draft.  

Over the next two months, I learned that he came from a small rural town; no member of his family  had ever attended  college.  After considerable hesitation, he let me accompany him to his draft board for the hearing on his case. We had the law on our side (a fatherhood deferment) but not the draft board, which rejected his deferment request.  I explained to him that we would appeal and win at the next level.  He listened closely, and then said, “The law doesn’t work for people like me.” 

He joined the National Guard.  One less cannon fodder, one more lesson about class.

I can’t predict how the Russian opposition to conscription will evolve. There is already a network of lawyers and others seeking ways to deny the Russian military its cannon fodder, but what will happen as Putin cracks down is yet to be seen. What we do know is that the elites will not be sending their sons to fight.