Joel Russell (unedited – not in CALLED TO SERVE)
Joel grew up in West Hartford, CT. He now resides in Northampton, MA, where he has a national practice as an urban and rural planning consultant and lawyer specializing in helping communities change the rules of development to fulfill their vision for the future and conserve their natural and cultural heritage. He lives with his wife, Mari, and is the father of two sons in their 30’s.
In the fall of ’69 I was on leave from Harvard, having taken a semester off to study in England at the beginning of my junior year. I returned to Boston on November 19, two days before my 20th birthday. I wasn’t really aware of the draft lottery at that point, because I hadn’t been around in the months leading up to it. However, I had opposed the war for a long time before the lottery was proposed. Although I wasn’t particularly militant, I felt strongly that the war was wrong. When the lottery came up and student deferments for graduate school were ended, I knew I might get drafted, so I started thinking seriously about my options. If my number came up, my only options seemed to be to seek CO (conscientious objector) status, go to Canada, or go to jail. I knew I had to get out some way, because I believed that the war was fundamentally wrong and I wanted no part of it. I was not going to risk my life for something that I believed to be rotten to the core.
My parents were also very much opposed to the war from the beginning. My father was a civil rights and anti-war activist and a financial backer of Ramparts Magazine, which focused much of its reporting on exposing American atrocities in Vietnam. I attended peace marches with my family, where it was “the party line” to oppose the war. My parents wanted me to do anything I could to get out of the draft. In fact, they would have been horrified if I had wanted to serve in the military.
I can’t remember precisely where I was when the first lottery was conducted in December of ’69. At the time I had just moved into my first apartment in Cambridge with my girlfriend. We later got married. I remember listening to the radio as they announced the numbers and I found out that my number was 156. Being right in the middle, it didn’t make me feel either safe or immediately threatened. I definitely had to do something, because there was no way to know if I would be called up, and I was absolutely determined not to be drafted.
I don’t think I ever sought draft counseling, but I had been told by many people that it would be hard to qualify as a CO unless I lied about my religious beliefs. I couldn’t say that I had a belief in God or show any history of religious observance as the basis for a CO status, which I thought was required in those days. I was under the impression that one had to both be a pacifist and prove a connection to institutional religion, which I couldn’t do, having hardly ever set foot in a house of worship. Although my beliefs were similar to those of the Quakers, I had never participated in any Quaker activities. I would have lied about my connection to religion if it would have worked, but I was under the impression that I would have had to show some kind of history of connection to a religious tradition that held pacifist beliefs, and that I’d need someone with religious credentials to vouch for me.
My ace in the hole was a medical condition; I had a history of occasional heart arrhythmia and palpitations, which made me feel dizzy and could on occasion be quite debilitating. I remember talking to my doctor about whether my heart problem would get me out of the draft. Dr. Richman was sympathetic and said that it might work if I could prove it, but that a mere letter from him would not suffice. He had observed the problem on a few occasions listening with a stethoscope. At those times he didn’t think the condition was all that serious, so he had never tried to record it on an electrocardiogram (EKG). After my lottery number was drawn, I went to see him for a check-up and reiterated my concern about getting out of the draft. I was worried that my heart would not “perform” when I was in his office where its behavior could be recorded.
That day, my level of anxiety about the draft must have been so intense that it triggered an episode of severe heart palpitations, and fortunately he was able to record it on an EKG. He said he thought that the EKG was sufficiently worrisome to cause concern in the mind of an Army doctor. This was what I needed as proof of my problem. Dr. Richman agreed to write a letter documenting my condition, with a copy of the EKG attached, which I received within a few days. As I left his office, I had a strange mixture of feelings of relief and victory, overhung by a cloud of concerns about my health. I remember thinking that, although I might just drop dead one day because of this heart problem, at least it might get me out of the draft and keep me from having to kill anyone else. My happiness at the prospect of solving the short-term problem of the draft clearly outweighed any long-term concerns about my health.
But I was still worried about the draft. I had already been given notice of my pre-induction physical, and I didn’t know if my draft avoidance strategy would work. My heart condition seemed to be the only legally acceptable justification for avoiding the draft. It had clearly become too late to try anything else. I would have had to apply for CO status before I was called up and I didn’t do so, because I thought I would not qualify and in fact might attract attention as a “draft-dodger.”
My draft board was in Hartford, Connecticut. When my lottery number came up and I was called for the draft physical I met a friend from high school on the bus ride to New Haven. His plan was to tell everybody he was a homosexual. I knew he had some history of that, but I didn’t know much about his current life. “Whatever works,” was my thought. I believed that anyone who opposed the war had a right to avoid the draft by whatever means he could. My friend’s approach worked. He was simply told, “We don’t want gays.” It wasn’t “Don’t ask, don’t tell” back then. So he got out.
My recollection of the physical is that the first step was to take a written intelligence test. The most tempting thing, of course, was to deliberately fail that test. But if you were a Harvard student and failed an intelligence test, that would look fishy. Instead, I just haphazardly went through the test. It was pretty hard to fail. I remember then being called in to see the Army doctor. He did a perfunctory physical examination and asked if I had any medical problems. I pulled out the letter from my doctor with the fateful EKG attached, and told him I had heart problems. He looked at it with his brow furrowed for awhile. As I tried to read his face, my heart was palpitating with anxiety. This was the moment. A look of disappointment came over his face as he said, “Well, son, with an EKG like that, I just can’t…I’m afraid we can’t take you into the army.” I tried not to look too happy as he signed a paper classifying me as 4-F for medical reasons.
Being a white upper middle class person, it seemed as though everyone I knew found a way to get out. No one I knew well went into the army. I didn’t think it was fair that upper middle class kids were getting out while others had to serve, but I couldn’t blame anybody for wanting to stay out and doing whatever was necessary to do so. Years after the war ended I found out that a neighbor of mine was killed in an accident in Vietnam driving a truck in a non-combat situation. He was the only person I knew personally who died in Vietnam. All of my high school friends went to college and, as far as I know, avoided military service. I found this very unjust, that all the kids I knew, upper middle class kids like me, escaped this horrible fate. But I blamed the ”system” for getting us into the war and compounding its atrocity with class and racial discrimination.
The war just made me angry. I wasn’t angry about the lottery, which I recognized was actually an attempt to make the system a little bit fairer. I was angry about the war itself. In my mind, the draft and the lottery were tools of an evil government that I felt powerless to change. I stopped thinking about going to Canada after I flunked my draft physical. That had been my fallback option. Because of the Vietnam War I had lost what little faith I had in the US government and in all of our institutions. Like many in my generation, I was totally alienated from mainstream American society. I felt it was just plain wrong for any country to enlist its own children against those of another country who hadn’t done anything to hurt us. Once I was safe from the draft, I continued to be concerned about stopping the war and participated in anti-war protests, feeling ever more disgusted with the US and its military policies.
I didn’t live through the Holocaust, but it seemed to me that this was our generation’s holocaust. Over the years, I’ve met Vietnam veterans and heard their stories, and they’re horrifying. If everyone had known then what we know now, maybe we could have stopped it much sooner. It was a major turning point when Martin Luther King came out against the war, even though it was one factor that led to his assassination. It is unsettling that to this day the country is still divided as to whether or not we should have gone into Vietnam, and, having done so, whether we should have been even more aggressive than we were. People still argue about whether the anti-war movement deserves credit for ending the war or blame for prolonging and losing it. It saddens me that as a nation we still haven’t learned the lessons of that period, and that we have just committed almost the exact same mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan, attacking countries that didn’t threaten us and causing death and misery to our own people and theirs. Haven’t we learned anything?
I didn’t really notice any social divisions caused by the lottery itself. Before the lottery, the draft was more divisive because it clearly discriminated against the poor and minorities. The lottery was an attempt, albeit flawed, to overcome the class and racial biases that existed in the draft system before the lottery was instituted. But the lottery played an important role because it personally threatened middle class white kids, and focused our attention on something that many had not paid much attention to as long as we had our student deferments. At age 20, my personal life was also in so much turmoil that at times I had to remind myself that there was a war going on. All the people I knew were intensely opposed to the war and would have been upset no matter what number they got.
I was also aware from an early age that, as a white child of privilege, everything I did was likely to hurt someone who was poorer and not white. My parents told me not to take a job when I was in high school, because I’d be taking it away from a black kid (“Negro” back then) who needed it more. I was raised with an extremely high consciousness about race. Taking a job is one thing, but it’s quite another to take an action that means that someone else must go into the Army and risk his life for an immoral cause. I’m not sure that I really let myself think about the unfairness of the draft in relation to race and class distinctions. What I focused my attention on was staying out of the war, because it was wrong and I didn’t want to be part of it under any circumstance. I couldn’t keep others from participating, whether by choice or against their will, but I would have done anything to avoid being drafted, including going to Canada or to jail.
I continue to hate our country’s foreign policy and its military policy. There are so many ways to avoid situations where we have to consider drafting huge numbers of people. I feel enraged when I think about this, even as we repeat the atrocities of Vietnam in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere. I probably would not object to mandatory public service for young people, as long as there were socially useful options and no risk of being coerced into military service. At this point we essentially bribe people who have limited choices in life to make them fight our wars for us. It was wrong during Vietnam and it’s still wrong.
Today I still think about the Vietnam War on occasion, especially when I see its mistakes repeated, but I don’t usually think about the part I played personally. I remember how intensely stressed I was, and how for years after, I was unable to trust any organization or institution that was part of “the establishment.” I became so deeply suspicious of people in positions of power that I could not imagine myself being in any job or career that was connected to the mainstream American economy. Not surprisingly, my career, such as it was, got off to a very rocky start and I had no idea what to do with my life, other than to try to change things. While I was not one of the more militant protesters of the time, I’ve watched the careers and lives of people who were, and I find it interesting that so many settled into mainstream careers fairly quickly. How could they have been so distressed at the system and next thing you know, become part of it? Yet what choice did they have? We inherited a world we had not made, and we had to find some way to make sense of it and find our place in it. That was very difficult for me, and the long shadow of that era still looms over my life, albeit in ways of which I am barely conscious.
I guess I thought that most people had sold out by the time they turned thirty. I’ve had to struggle to hold onto the feeling that I haven’t, trying to find the right balance between accepting the world as it is and doing something, even in a small way to make it better. I’m anti-materialistic, because I think materialism and consumption are a big part of the problem with this country, driving us to devalue the needs of other people in the world for the sake of our own selfish consumption. However, I have lightened up, become a bit less moralistic, and realized that whatever is wrong with the world, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying life.
My outlook is a lot brighter now than it was in my early twenties, and I often forget how much of the bleakness I saw in the world was a result of my experience confronting an immoral war fought in the name of my country. I used to be very critical of people who ran off to become doctors, lawyers, and bureaucrats. But then I went to law school, although I did it because I wanted to change things, not to become a lawyer. As a result, I’ve had to work hard to find a niche and make a living in a way that I can live with. In my youth, I was convinced that anyone who succeeded had to be a whore. Life experience has forced me to rethink all of this, and to be less judgmental of others and myself. I have come to realize that I can define success according to my own lights, and that I can find a path that is true to who I am and still make a living. However, the formative experiences of the Vietnam War era still color the way I see the world. The continuing blunders of our powerful and greedy elites, destroying our economy for personal gain, increasing the gap between rich and poor, continuing to fight wars of choice rather than necessity, and destroying our climate and the fragile planet that depends on it, have only vindicated my early experience of the moral bankruptcy of our political system.