Those Who Refused

Should these men be grouped with conscientious objectors or are they fully entitled to their own category? The fact of the matter is that they made a choice entirely predicated on conscience, but they also were choosing for a variety of reasons, not to cooperate with a system they saw as denying everyone who was its victim their fundamental human right to not have to participate in an immoral war. That included the alternative service required of CO’s. Of the men I interviewed who made this difficult choice, there was incredibly compelling and powerful inspiration found in the civil rights movement. Not only did they make connections to the black community, but also, in all three instances, the work they engaged in provided insight into the lack of social justice that felt far more important to fight for as well as the willingness to go to jail to support one’s principles. Whether it was the actions of Martin Luther King who saw jail as a necessity in the face of the hateful laws and actions he wholeheartedly opposed or those of Muhammed Ali whose refusal to serve and inability to obtain conscientious objector status as a Black Muslim resulted in his serving time, encouragement to follow the same path was provided. It is also important to recognize that there was so much opposition to the War in Vietnam and so much resentment towards those in authority waging it that those who served time in prison were neither resented nor mistreated by their fellow inmates. The difficulty in having to go to such an institution was that it ended the efforts of those who served their time to stop the war, to ardently pursue social justice endeavors and to be free.

There were also those who refused to serve and those who resisted within the armed services. Several myths have arisen to both account for and minimize both of these responses. There continues to be a myth pertaining to the reasons behind the decision to resist and face jail time. These men are still known popularly as “draft dodgers” who only refused military service when they faced a draft. They are often grouped with those who found a variety of other means to avoid service. Separating their response from that of other men who chose alternate approaches is an essential element of this work.

There is also a myth that those in military service who refused to follow orders or protested against the war were isolated from one another. A recent film entitled, “SIR, NO SIR” comprehensively explodes this distortion of history. Through a combination of archival footage of protests by servicemen and women along with interviews with those who participated in the effort to stop the war, this extraordinary movement is captured in all of its activism and bravery. The reality of the Vietnam Era is that unprecedented numbers of people resisted military service in a variety of ways and this included those who were already in the service.

Here is how the numbers broke down:

209,517 men were formally accused of violating draft laws.
360,000 more are estimated to have also violated the law, but were never formally accused
25,000 indictments were handed down
8,750 were convicted
< 4000 served jail time

1.5 million instances of AWOL and desertion documented by Pentagon
500,000-550,000 official estimates by Pentagon and Ford Administration respectively of AWOL and deserters
Adding other types of anti-war activities for which service members were prosecuted significantly increases these figures.

I have chosen to include just a few of the countless stories that could be told herein. There are numerous outstanding books including HELL NO, WE WON’T GO Thankfully such books are there to thoroughly illuminate these choices, since my resources in pursuing these stories were severely limited. It is important to acknowledge, in terms of the timeliness of these sagas, that there have been several under-the-radar recent arrests of men accused of deserting 40 years ago. Some theorize that this crackdown, not surprising given the present government’s embattled position on the War in Iraq, coincides with efforts to dissuade soldiers from deserting their posts at a time when manpower is an issue. It is also possible to see what has happened to those who were arrested as continuing evidence of our government’s and our country’s difficulty with achieving any meaningful closure about the war in Vietnam. In either case, the several stories in this chapter illuminate a time and an experience that resulted from responses, visceral and intense, to circumstances beyond one’s control.