Those who Found Ways to Beat the Draft

CHAPTER 3 – THOSE WHO FOUND WAYS TO “BEAT THE DRAFT”

In many ways it is the kind of stories in this chapter that are most directly responsible for this book. In the immediate aftermath of the physical of a friend the accompanying story would be told and it became quite clear early on that some extraordinary efforts were being put forth to “beat the draft”. There were the actual occurrences themselves and then the mythologizing that invariably accompanies such tales. The archetype for such approaches is Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant”. One of the men I interviewed was actually an extra in the film and several others make reference to its influence on their decision and/or behavior surrounding the draft. That such responses could be somehow societally accepted if not sanctioned is indicative of the level of malaise this particular war gave rise to as well as of the determination on the part of those involved to avoid the war. That it is past time to separate fact from myth is also a factor. Each man who shared his experience was invariably plunged back into the turmoil that surrounded the choice to find some way, any way, to get out.

Prior to the lottery there were already many precedents for employing both legal and illegal means to escape service. Men who saw the writing on the wall and knew that either graduating high school with no further education planned or finishing college would propel them into the 1-A category, had a decision to make. If that decision was based on either supporting the war or being willing to serve regardless of the government’s policies toward S.E. Asia, then the decision was essentially straightforward. If the draftee was either morally or politically opposed to the war and had no readily deferrable condition, then social class and access to doctors, lawyers and therapists could very well become factors.

Depending upon how much one’s circumstances vis a vis the draft were allowed to impact daily life, the planning that seeking to flunk the physical entailed would occur. For those who chose to remain distanced from the possibility of serving, little preparation would occur. For those who felt the draft breathing down their necks well in advance of its arrival, the planning could be long-range, intense and elaborate with numerous avenues investigated and pursued. The responses of family and friends were varied as well and, as the following stories will illuminate, had a variety of effects on the men involved.

I made the decision to move beyond recounting the stories of only those who were affected by the lottery, as was true for me, to those whose lives were irrevocably changed by the draft because it became clear as this project unfolded that the draft – pre and post- lottery – was the essential piece in the story, not the lottery. Yes, there were those for whom the lottery provided an instant escape route, but more significantly, the draft was what required a response. Even many of those who were exempt due to a high number prepared themselves in advance of the lottery with tactics that would enhance the likelihood of their never having to take the physical or being assured of flunking. That some men enlisted to avoid what they thought and were told would be a certain tour in Vietnam if they waited to be drafted, is indicative of the power the draft had to affect lives.

After the first lottery in December, 1969, a divide occurred vis a vis those who continued to be confronted by the draft and those whose luck had resulted in their being deferred. The draft lottery was intended to even the playing field since there were so many men, almost all white, who were finding loopholes as a result of their economic standing. The result, similar to the current make-up of the army based as it is on those who enlisted in the National Guard and the Reserves, is an armed force that is over-represented by economically disadvantaged men (and women) and people of color. The desire to improve one’s economic circumstances during peacetime is what led many currently serving in the war in Iraq to enlist. In the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s the lottery did contribute to a slightly more balanced fighting force, but as the following stories make clear, the loopholes were still there, the advantaged still took advantage of the “privileges” wealth afforded and a disproportionate number of poor people served.
But the divide did not have the effect of squelching the ever-growing protest movement. Many men felt an on-going sense of responsibility to participate in the anti-war efforts regardless of their number, since what had inspired them in the first place, before the lottery, was a sense of the immorality and futility of such a war.

Once again a word must be mentioned about the difficulty of selecting those narratives to include as well as the challenge of determining when to stop interviewing. The truth of the matter is that each story is compelling, illuminating of the times and circumstances and revealing of the trauma the draft resulted in regardless of the individual outcome. Yes, many of the men I interviewed currently live in Massachusetts where I could most readily access them and their stories, but they originated across the country and their home town draft boards represent a cross section of the boards that were set up to deal with this draft. The hope is that those who read this account of these stories will be inspired to come forth with their own and that there will be a gathering place on-line much as there has been for a variety of Vietnam War related experiences. In the meantime the narratives that follow will suffice to indicate at least part of the range of experiences possible.