Tom Weiner

Tom is the author of CALLED TO SERVE: THE STORIES OF THE MEN AND WOMEN AFFECTED BY THE VIETNAM DRAFT and of this blog. He is a sixth grade teacher at the Smith College Campus School where he has been working for 31 years. He and his wife, Susan, have two children, ages 19 and 16 and he has two children from a former marriage, ages 36 and 32 as well as a grandson, age 8 months. He is actively involved in civil rights work in the local public schools and at the college.

There were 4 or 5 of us driving through downtown Hartford in 1969 listening to the radio. I can’t remember if we planned much of what was happening, but it was happening and I remember the tension and the intensity of the experience vividly. The radio was tuned to a station that was covering the first Vietnam War draft lottery and all of us in the car were listening for our birthdays to be called in the fervent hope that we would not be in the first 180 or so numbers since we had been told that only those above approximately 180 would be safe from the draft and what it might mean. As each birthday was called the anxiety within us increased. One of the riders was chosen in the first 30 and, if memory serves, I was next at 114. From the moment I found out I was within the range of those to be drafted, my life changed.

It wasn’t that I hadn’t been thinking about the draft already. The war and all it betokened for our country and personally had been on my mind and the minds of virtually everyone with whom I was at Trinity College for years. Whether it was hearing the latest horror stories or witnessing the shell of a man who came back to school after a clearly traumatic stint in ‘Nam; whether it was participating in yet another demonstration or having an argument with a fellow student in ROTC about whether the war was legitimate let alone effective, the late ‘60’s was more about Vietnam than it was about any and everything else – school, civil rights, rock music, drugs and, that upcoming summer, Woodstock and the moon.

So when the number landed on me I realized that the reality of the possibility of my having to choose whether to participate in this war or not was also upon me. Yes, I had until graduation in ’71 to prepare myself and yes, I had all the advantages that being white, middle class, Jewish and in college could possibly afford. Already I was realizing that my circumstances gave me access to the kind of support system – draft counseling, doctors, information about c.o. applications, family – that many others with similar and even lower numbers did not have. I also sensed that this was part of the plan – that those so united against the war would now be divided by their draft status and those facing the draft would have more personal incentive to protest than those who were now basically exempt. But mostly I remember being scared in a different way than I had ever felt before. That it loomed in the distance that fateful night did not make it any less real.

I did make serious preparations for what was more and more clearly going to happen as graduation approached. I filed a c.o. application with the support of a draft counselor. I gathered numerous letters from doctors – a back injury, an allergist, calcium deposits on my feet, a shrink – all the possible escape hatches money could buy so I would arrive when called with an armada of potential ways out. All of us in a similar boat had also first listened to and then watched “Alice’s Restaurant”, where Arlo Guthrie sang and subsequently portrayed a man confronting his draft board and resorting to temporary insanity to flunk his physical. It was, in other words, deep into the culture by the time I received my notification that I needed to report within a week of graduation to my draft board in Newark, N.J. As Arlo sang:

And the only reason I’m singing you this song now is cause you may know somebody in a similar situation, or you may be in a similar situation, and if your in a situation like that there’s only one thing you can do and that’s walk into the shrink wherever you are ,just walk in say “Shrink, You can get anything you want, at Alice’s restaurant.”. And walk out. You know, if one person, just one person does it they may think he’s really sick and they won’t take him. And if two people, two people do it, in harmony, they may think they’re both faggots and they won’t take either of them. And three people do it, three, can you imagine, three people walking in singin’ a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out. They may think it’s an organization. And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day, I said fifty people a day walking in singin a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and
walking out. And friends they may thinks it’s a movement.
And that’s what it is, the Alice’s Restaurant Anti-Massacre
Movement.”

With all of this preparation was I ready for what happened next? Not at all. I arrived in Newark feeling as anxious as I had ever felt about anything in my life. Although I had numerous possible causes for failing the physical, I was completely unprepared for being one of the only white people in the room knowing at that moment beyond doubt’s shadow that if I was successful in avoiding serving my country in a war I believed was unjust, then someone, someone very possibly who was black, was going instead of me. My succeeding in not going did not mean one less person was required. It simply meant that someone else would take my place. I remembered studying the Civil War and learning how those who could afford it were able to pay someone to take their place. Was this different? I was frightened and very confused.

And then there was the actual examination. It turned out that none of my physical ailments, though well documented, provided any exits. Once I had passed that component, however, I got to see an army shrink alluded to by Arlo above since I had a letter from the school counselor at Trinity telling about my needing therapy while a student there. What happened next, though etched in my memory, must be one of the briefest interviews in draft board history. I was asked two questions by a man sitting behind a desk. First – “Have you ever smoked marijuana?” to which I answered in the affirmative. Second and last – “Have you ever had any suicidal fantasies?” to which I again responded yes. That was it. He leaned over the paper I brought in to him and wrote very few words, called me over to the desk and handed it to me. I glanced down and to my great relief I saw the designation 1-Y, which I knew meant I was out, but right beside it I saw the words “Drug Abuse”. It was 1971 and, with the well-documented information about drug abuse in the military that has been revealed since that time, it is retrospectively much less of a surprise to discover that what I had revealed in those two very brief responses was sufficient to result in my new status. Fears about drug addicted soldiers further complicating an already major quagmire of a war were certainly enough to cause such cogs in the system as the psychiatrist who interviewed me to toss me out of the pile, knowing full well more cannon fodder waited outside his door. A recent article by Peter Beinart in The New Republic discusses this reality from the perspective of both then and now:

In 1975, James Fallows wrote a famous essay for The Washington Monthly titled, “What Did You Do in the Class War, Daddy?” In it, he recounted taking a bus to the Boston Navy Yard with other Harvard students drafted to serve in Vietnam. Soon after, another bus pulled up, this one filled with draftees from the working-class town of Chelsea. The Harvard students brought medical records carefully manipulated to show they were unfit to serve — and roughly 80 percent returned to campus “as free individuals, liberated and victorious.” The draftees from Chelsea, by contrast, “walked through the examination lines like so many cattle off to the slaughter.” Fallows remembers the moment the military doctor wrote “unqualified” on his folder. “I was overcome by a wave of relief, which for the first time revealed to me how great my terror had been, and by the beginning of the sense of shame which remains with me to this day.”

Fallows’s essay is a withering indictment of the generational elite to which he belonged. His peers, he argues, took the easy way out — neither serving nor accepting jail as a consequence of their refusal to serve — and thus never applied the political pressure that might have forced an early end to the war. But, harsh as the essay is, it still feels, by current standards, a little quaint. Shame? In the elite America in which I grew up, the military was a distant, self-contained world — populated by other Americans — with no conceivable claim on me. And now those other Americans, some my age, are dying halfway across the globe. I may feel sad, even angry, but how can I feel shame when no one ever suggested it should be any different? What did you do in the terror war, daddy? I fear my own answer, in its way, will be even worse.

So I was out, which was clearly my goal, but not only was I conscious of my place being taken by another, I also was now afraid of the damage I might have caused to my future prospects of further schooling and/or employment with this new designation as a drug abuser. Upon returning to my home in Teaneck, N.J. where I was temporarily staying while my status was clarified, I called my draft counselor and received his words, which were to become my mantra over the next several years. When I told him the Newark story and shared my concerns about having the words “Drug Abuse” follow me as albatross-esque scarlet letters, he said, “Don’t worry. You’ll be a hero someday soon.”

I never felt like or became a hero. That’s not what I wanted. He was correct that I didn’t need to worry, though. As the war wound on and it became ever clearer that our country would never succeed in either selling the war to its people or winning, my status became a non-issue and it has remained so until this day. But now it feels important to tell the story. Over the years I have heard so many stories of how the draft and the lottery took various tolls on folks’ lives, stories that I wasn’t reading anywhere. As those of us who were directly affected have begun to hit a pass through middle age, it became clear to me that if nobody ever wrote these memories down, they would pass from currency. Those who beat the draft because their number was above those called; those whose sagas included being called and somehow, like me, getting out; those who served and who did or did not come back – all those stories need to be told and chronicled.

As the years have passed since it became as clear to me as it still is that a book resided herein, I was not quite ready to begin the process, but little did I know that when I did finally start this project, the U.S. would be engaged in yet another extremely controversial war. It has been 35 years since that day in December of 1969 that the first lottery was held and, much to the bewilderment and distress of many, there is much talk of another draft to provide troops for the on-going conflict in Iraq and the war against terrorism. Here is the proposed legislation:

$28 million has been added to the 2004 Selective Service System SSS budget
to prepare for a military draft that could start as early as June 15, 2005.
SSS must report to Bush on March 31, 2005 that the system, which has lain
dormant for decades, is ready for activation. Please see website:
www.sss.gov/perfplan_fy2004.html. to view the
SSS Annual Performance Plan – Fiscal Year 2004.

The Pentagon has begun a public campaign to fill all 10,350 draft
board positions and 11,070 appeals board slots nationwide. Though this is
an unpopular election year topic, military experts and influential members
of Congress are suggesting that if Rumsfeld’s prediction of a “long, hard
slog” in Iraq and Afghanistan [and a permanent state of war on terrorism”]
proves accurate, the U.S. may have no choice but to draft.

Congress brought twin bills, S. 89 and H.R. 163 forward this year, entitled
the Universal National Service Act of 2003,”To provide for the common
defense by requiring that all young persons [age18–26] in the United States,
including women, perform a period of military service or a period of
civilian service in furtherance of the national defense and homeland
security, and for other purposes.” These active bills currently sit in the Committee on Armed Services.
College and Canada will not be options. In December 2001, Canada and the US signed a “Smart Border Declaration,”
Signed by Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs,
John Manley, and US Homeland Security Director, Gov. Tom Ridge, the
declaration involves a 30-point plan which implements, among other things, a
pre-clearance agreement” of people entering and departing each country.
Reforms aimed at making the draft more equitable along gender and class
lines also eliminate higher education as a shelter. Underclassmen would
only be able to postpone service until the end of their current semester.
Seniors would have until the end of the academic year.

It thus feels even more urgent to tell the stories of how the last draft had a devastating effect on our country. Both its inescapable failures and its so-called successes in filling quotas need to be examined. In addition, simply re-telling the stories of the men and women whose lives were disrupted in a wide variety of ways will hopefully serve as cautionary tales as we proceed inexorably towards reinstating the draft outlined above. With an election this fall, both candidates will have to pay attention to this remark as well: “The draft issue is a huge concern — I have a teenage son,” Susan Wood, 43, an undecided voter interviewed in Columbus, Ohio. Yes, we are not there yet, but will recruitment serve its role sufficiently to avoid bringing this new version of the draft back? Monica Davey wrote the following on June 14, 2004 in a N.Y. Times article entitled, “Recruiters Try New Tactics to Sell Wartime Army”:

But the world of recruiting has shifted significantly. Gone, recruiters here say, are the people looking mainly for easy cash to pay for college. Gone also, they say, are those who covet signing bonuses of up to $20,000 but hope to never leave their base. And gone are those who think enlisting in the Reserve or the National Guard will mean a few weekends training in a park.
The war in Iraq has changed the implications of signing up, and these potential soldiers’ families, especially some who came of age during the Vietnam War, have tougher questions when recruiters call — or do not want to hear the pitch at all.

“Parents will tell us all the time that `Johnny’s not joining!’ and just hang up on us,” said Sgt. First Class John J. Stover, who says he has “put in” some 35 soldiers in his two years as a recruiter at the station in Topeka. “The difference,” Sergeant Stover said, “is that no one has ever recruited during a sustained war.”
“There’s no doubt that the dynamic is changing,” he said. “Certain groups of people are no longer easy to recruit. I guess people who are afraid are less easy to recruit. Nobody nowadays can say: ‘Oh, I just came in for the college money. I never expected to get called up.’ ”

Even in wartime, Captain Hinckley said, the Army has not lowered its standards. All recruits must take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery examination, a standardized test like the SAT; a physical test; and a criminal background check. They must not have tattoos that show outside their uniform. Drug use is barred.

There it is again. What got me out. But someone else went, maybe died or experienced the nightmare of being “in country” and the PTSD that kept the war horrifying alive in one’s mind years after it ended. The draft enabled the war to continue unabated. Perhaps this time, with the cautionary tales herein contained, those of us who remember the last war and its draft, along with the many who oppose this one, will prevent another from occurring…

~ Tom Weiner