‘The War in Vietnam’ on the Homefront: Division, Resistance, A Bridge Too Far, and A Lesson in Self-Knowledge — My Story ‘Commitment’
Ken Burns’ 18-hour documentary “The War in Vietnam” was riveting TV, with its previously unseen combat footage, its useful overview of American political history during that long and brutalizing war, and its ability to let American veterans tells their own affecting stories.
However — inevitably — the documentary left a lot out. The death and destruction inflicted upon the Vietnamese by ‘the American war’ was inevitably underplayed by a story that was about ‘us,’ not ‘them.’ Here’s a link to an article on that point https://theintercept.com/2017/09/28/the-ken-burns-vietnam-war-documentary-glosses-over-devastating-civilian-toll/
The show also shorted the stories of the many young American males who chose — like Clinton, Bush, Trump, etc. — to avoid military service by any means available. And those of us, also many in number, who confronted the issue of whether to resist the war, rather than shelter in the privilege of deferment. Here’s my story, titled “Commitment.”*
“Burning your draft card may be a flashy thing to do,” professor Dalton Rawley says.
“It might make you feel good. But what does it lead to? Where does it take us? The community we are part of?”
A few heads nod in apparent agreement. But no one speaks in reply.
“But if you are committed,” the professor resumes, “there is a way to oppose the draft.”
Dalton Rawley has a soft voice and the look of a sincere, though mild-mannered man. Brown hair, brown eyes, bland dispassionate features. He looks like a Quaker, which in fact he is.
We have come to Battell Chapel, Miles and I, a simple stone building plugged into in a corner of Yale’s Old Campus — a not particularly impressive structure for an august university’s official place of worship. Professor Rawley has been vouchsafed permission to hold his forum on “draft resistance” in the chapel’s sanctuary because the university chaplain is sympathetic to the cause.
Rawley makes his pitch softly, almost passively.
“I’m not telling anyone what choice to make,” he says. “My purpose is to help you see that as young men of draft age you are making a choice. Everyone your age is. If you take that deferment notice out of the envelope and slip it into your wallet — along with your draft card that’s already in there — that is also a choice.”
His sensitive brown eyes scan his listeners, but nothing in the his manner suggests this is the right choice. Professor Rawley makes one of his pauses here, as if to allow for the responses from his listeners that never come.
The university chaplain, the popular Reverend Marcus Stiles, stands in a corner of his church, with the appearance of a man who is forcing himself to count to a thousand. There are plenty of seats but the chaplain is too energetic a personality to sit down much. His very name betrays an ‘Old Blue’ legacy of a certain Anglo-Saxon type; his great-great-grandfather was probably pounding the lectern here and telling the teenage undergraduates they would go to hell if they didn’t stop thinking so much about the fleshly bodies of women, those serpents in petticoats. Chaplain Stiles, with his ruddy complexion and ready smile, would probably tell his guys to strike while the iron is hot. I don’t know this for a fact, however, since I’ve never gone to his church services.
I keep glancing his way as Rawley discusses the concept of individual moral choice in an amoral society, wondering when the chaplain will get his chance to take over the meeting. He grins enthusiastically at the collection of fifty of so Yalies scattered over the pews and shifts his weight from foot to foot. He looks like he’ll burst if doesn’t get the opportunity.
I glance at Miles, too, to see if he notices this dynamic, but Miles keeps his eyes fixed on the speaker.
“So,” Rawley says, with an air of summing up, “there is a school of thought among opponents to this war… and war resisters across various religious perspectives and schools of thought… that while burning your draft card as a symbolic act may be an attention-getting act as well as, ah, emotionally satisfying, the truly serious act…”
He pauses, scanning the pews; we wait.
“… and arguably the more politically effective act… is to make your protest public by sending your draft card back to your selective service board and announcing your refusal to carry that card or accept deferments. This is an act that signifies your unwillingness to cooperate with the United States Selective Service System.” Pause. “As a matter of principle.”
The Quaker professor nods, fixes us all with a heavier look than we’ve received from him yet, takes a slow breath, then concludes. “That’s what we mean — what some of us mean — by draft resistance.”
We’re silent. Still, perhaps, taking this in. Professor Rawley is comfortable with silence, or at least used to it.
Chaplain Stiles isn’t.
“Now that’s for the big boys!” he calls out from his off-stage corner, showing us his determined grin. Even his teeth look determined.
Rawley does not react to this contribution from his colleague, the other authority figure in the room. He makes a final appeal for questions from the collection of students who have sacrificed an hour of their weekend to consider uncomfortable choices.
A sandy-haired boy sitting a few rows in front of me raises a hand and asks, “So how do we turn in our draft cards? Do we just mail them to our draft board?”
“We’ll take care of that for you!” Stiles booms in reply. He’s no longer standing in his gloomy corner, in motion now before his words sink in. He strides up to the dais to stand beside Rawley and share the lectern. Edging the other man to the side with the force of his excitement.
“This is where I come in,” he announces, showing us a new, mock-humble smile.
Yes, I say to myself, I think we’ve noticed that.
The plan, he tells us, is to hold a big ceremony, a kind of service.
“In the church,” he says, “but not of course religious. And then collect all the draft cards at once. It’s a kind of — “ He breaks off. “Well you get the point.
Kind of what? I think. Communion?
“Then we’ll mail them,” Stiles says, picking up his pace again, anticipating the climax, “to the General Headquarters Office of Selective Service in Washington, D.C. That way there’s no mistaking our intentions. We’ll include a short explanatory note.”
The larger the number of draft cards in that envelope, the fatter the package, I take it, the bigger the splash.
“Now obviously you’re all going to want some time to think about it.” He scans our faces, his smile hearty but compassionate. “I’ve been thinking of setting a date for this draft resistance ceremony in the church here in about two weeks time. Will that be enough time?”
Some of the heads in front of me nod, but no one says anything. We have come to listen, apparently; and not to share our private deliberations.
Nodding, his expression man-to-man serious, the chaplain says he will be available for anyone who wishes to discuss matters in private, either after the meeting now or any time next week in his office.
The two men, the voluble chaplain and the quiet Quaker professor, remain side by side behind a lectern while the church grows more quiet, and more chilly, and the shadows of the brief November afternoon lengthen. A few guys call out questions on minor points, as if embarrassed by the silence, but no one asks the big one.
What happens next? After we turn in our draft cards to you and you send them to the government? To tell them what we’ve done. To name us as resisters, law-breakers. What does the government do.
I know I’m thinking about that.
I suspect Miles is too.
Roommates in our junior year, Miles and I spend a lot of time hanging out. We sound each other out on everything that comes up. Miles generally takes the lead, and often does more of the sounding because he is more extroverted and, to my mind, more experienced. He spent a year in France, escaping an abusive prep school and acquiring a French girl friend, a relationship that did not survive the psychic and practical import duties of his return to America. We keep late hours, dropping in on pothead friends at midnight, playing eccentric, raucous versions of snooker and table soccer in the game room while the rest of the dorm sleeps. I am more at ease with Yale, and myself, than I have perhaps ever been. And though Miles has some academic worries, mainly a language class with a rigid attendance policy, he is a willing master of the revels.
The thorn in this rose garden is the war. And the draft.
I was anti-war from the moment I set foot on the Old Campus. You didn’t need a weather man to know which way the wind was blowing, especially when you were already heading in that direction. Something inside me vibrated to the fierce, antagonistic lyrics of “Masters of War.” The music and the anti-establishment ethos celebrated love, but I took my love with a slice of hate. Being anti-war was my first personal ideology. It engaged the passions. When Buffy Sainte-Marie sang that the “universal soldier” really was “to blame” for allowing himself to be used as a weapon in the war, I thrilled to its implicit summons. The song declared war on war. I vowed that nobody would use me that way,
But it was Miles who made the personal truly political, once we began rooming together that fall. The draft, he said, as we conspired, several joints into that city of words erected between the two of us late at night as the winds of the world lashed our window, served a larger system that turned men into machines. When, he demanded, did you or I or anybody else agree to allow this system to determine our fate?
“I’m don’t mean registering for the draft,” he said. “Your parents make you register, I don’t think that counts.”
“Everybody does it.”
“Everybody does it,” he repeated, “because everybody else does it. But who has the right to make you join the army just because you’re born?”
“Salute the flag,” I said, getting into the spirit, “and fight for your country.”
“Nobody decides where they’re born,” Miles scoffed. “Because I’m born here, does it mean it’s my country?’
“You’d like France better?” He was studying French literature.
A thoughtful expression stilled his features, pulling them forward as if he were examining some alternate future. “Not during Algeria. They sent troops to Algeria and just slaughtered people.”
The same was being said about the American military machine in Vietnam. Whole villages destroyed in order to ‘save’ them, civilian massacres, chemical weapons, Agent Orange. And even if you escaped being drafted into the Army, brainwashed into a killer, and sent to fight, possibly die, for a bad cause, you suffered a loss of humanity just by being part of the system.
“They do it in your name,” Miles said. “Our name.”
The draft was just a link in the chain, a binding to a ‘system’ of control you’ve never been given the opportunity to accept or reject. The draft is the system’s wedge, the nose of the camel sneaking under the tent flap of freedom and individuality. If the system can tell us what to do now when we’re still students — register for the draft, carry your card, go when you’re called — it would have us blindly following the path laid out for us without a second thought after we graduate. We would end up like our parents — like Miles’ in particular — sending our children off to some nasty boarding school.
We say no to all this, Miles and I. We protest. We march on the Pentagon with a hundred thousand others. But after watching fellow demonstrators get knocked around by soldiers and seeing distorted accounts of the demonstration in the media, we know that mass demonstrations will not stop the war, or the draft, any time soon.
But what if the younger generation simply refused to participate? What if they gave a war and nobody came?
“So what do you think, man?” Miles asks me. “Are you going to do it?”
A week has passed since the meeting at Battell Chapel. So far we’ve only made passing references to the choice the draft resistance meeting posed for us. Naturally, it is Miles who initiates this conversation. Miles is the initiator, the actor. I am the thoughtful reactor. Miles tells me his stories. I have fewer stories. But I learn from his, process them, give them back at times in the form he needs to hear.
Now we face a decision together.
“I don’t know,” I reply, honestly, to his question. I don’t mind making trouble, but the truth is I don’t like being its object. “I haven’t made up my mind.”
“Hmm,” he says. Grows thoughtful.
I know this expression. Miles has an expressive face; square-jawed, regular features that girls find attractive. I can read his face, sense his moods. He is being ‘reflective.’ It is not a pose, but I know he has something more to say. I know if I wait, I will hear it.
“I don’t know, man,” he says, at length, “but I think somebody has to stand up to these people. If we don’t do it, who will?”
I nod, acknowledge this point. Then, because I like their sound, repeat his last words. “Who will?”
He gives me a frankly appraising look.
“Do you think we should?”
After a hesitation, I say, “I think everybody should.”
It’s not exactly an answer. It’s not exactly a commitment.
But he gives me his knowing, ‘hey-man-you-know-it’ grin. He holds it, so long it almost turns into a grimace, but I realize my reply has been embraced as a ‘yes.’ He’s ready with his own commitment as well.
If I don’t say anything now to challenge that impression, then my artful equivocation will turn into a real ‘yes.’
I don’t say anything.
“We’re saying ‘yes,’” Miles declares, with an air of triumph, “to saying no.”
‘No,’ Miles knows, having read the existentialists, is an assertion of freedom. It’s the ‘no’ the Resistance said to the Nazis during the dark years of World War II. I picture a few men huddled in a dark basement by candle light, talking philosophy. Committing themselves to a dangerous course.
Am I there? Am I committing myself.
“OK,” Miles says, “let’s do it.”
I nod my assent.
“What’s the date of that service thing?”
It’s the sort of fact I’m more likely to know.
“You’re turning in your draft card?” David Weller asks, with a look of amazement. “To your draft board?”
We are telling our friends. It’s Miles’s idea. In his polite pothead way he’s barged in on the guys who live across the hall, guys we have known for three years, and asked whether he could bring something up he wants everyone to hear.
Then he makes the pitch in a couple of sentences, no long speeches. It’s the only way to stop the war: somebody’s gotta do it. Somebody’s got to go first.
“But why you?” Weller replies, incredulous. “This is crazy.”
Weller is the only kid I rub shoulders with who comes from a truly privileged background. His family owns various companies. Though he hangs with potheads and dresses on the fashion side of the hippie rig — elegant long coats, Mexican shirts, funny hats, Army-Navy stuff that isn’t used — his family lives in a big house in a fashionable Long Island town. David Weller has no apparent problems with the life his parents live or the ‘system’ they are part of. And he roomed with Miles before me.
“What exactly do you hope to accomplish?” asks a slight young man with shiny black hair, glasses, and a penetrating gaze. Kyle, one of my own former roommates.
“If guys start turning in their draft guards, the generals and the politicians will be shitting bricks,” Miles says.
“That’s if everybody does it,” Kyle responds.
Kyle’s skepticism makes me realize how tense the room has become. It’s a big suite, with the four guys who live there tucked into their familiar places, and two other guys from the entryway sitting on the floor. My guess had been that Kyle, quick to apply Marxist class analysis to social problems, would be on our side, at least philosophically. But this talk isn’t philosophical; it’s personal.
“And if everybody doesn’t do it,” Kyle adds, “you make it easy for them to pick you off. One by one.”
“And everybody won’t,” David Weller piggybacks. “So you’re screwed.”
“Well we have to start somewhere!” Miles says, his face reddening. “It will be a few people at first, and then it will grow. Turning in your draft card shows you won’t cooperate with the war machine.”
No one replies. Our friends look unhappy.
“So what do you guys think we should do?” he explodes. “You want to do nothing?”
“But why should we have to do anything?” Weller replies, after a silence. “The draft isn’t doing anything to us. What’s so hard about carrying a card, a little piece of paper, around in your wallet? We’re the lucky ones.”
“Right,” I say. “The unlucky ones go and fight in our place.”
I have to back Miles. I catch his eye, so he’ll know I’m still with him.
“And some of them will die. Is that something we want on our conscience?”
“I understand what you’re getting at, Miles,” Weller says, when it becomes clear that no one’s changing their mind. “But the way I think about it is this. The draft is just one tiny little part of our whole lives. There’s so much else to life. There’s so much going on here, at Yale — and so much else to do once we get out of here… Why make such a big hassle out of one little tiny thing and let it ruin your life?”
“Maybe that sounds selfish,” Weller adds after a moment, glancing guiltily at Miles. “But that’s the way it is.”
We sit in silence, everyone feeling selfish in his own way.
“Maybe if we’re trying to stop a war,” Kyle says, “what we should do is stop paying our taxes so there won’t be money for one.”
“We’re students,” I point out. I’m sick of this: the way talk always substitutes for action. “We don’t pay taxes. Our parents pay taxes. The government isn’t after our money…”
“It’s after our bodies,” Miles concludes.
It’s a dreary Thursday afternoon. When the hour draws near, we leave the room together, Miles in the tweedy sports jacket he wears over a sweater through as much of the cold weather season as possible. Miles is on the short side, the jacket emphasizing his broad upper body. I’m taller, thinner, already swathed in my dull khaki-colored nylon parka. We cross York Street, walk a block down Elm, then cross High Street, and enter the Old Campus by the back gate, just as if we were going to a late afternoon class or dropping in on a friend. The Old Campus looks like a gloomy old man muttering to himself, the reddish brick of an earlier era weathered to brown, the brownstone splashed with the mud of a million rainy days, the most recent downpours leaving broad puddles the size of vernal pools across zig-zagging footpaths now more mud than gravel. The sky lurks like a panhandler, November dark will soon shutter what light remains.
Battell Chapel is a hall of shadows, an off-duty sanctuary, as if the chaplain’s budget doesn’t stretch to turning on the lights in the late afternoon. The room is emptier than last time. A couple dozen Yalie undergraduates, draft-bait age, communicants in our faux-spiritual ceremony, sit in the pews in ones and twos like the time before. No one, it appears, has come to watch. The chaplain is standing on the raised dais, ‘the stage’ as I think of it, and Professor Rawley is lurking somewhere too, but I can only see the back of his head with its trimmed men’s haircut. A pool of yellowish light reveals Chaplain Stiles to us, white teeth gleaming, dark hair combed back, his barely suppressed good cheer substituting for central heating.
Among the last to arrive again, Miles and I sit in the back. I don’t recognize the others, our peers. Nothing in their dress or the look of these young men groups them, says ‘this is our gang.’ I don’t recognize any of these others from a seat in a classroom or a casual conversation. Will we soldier on together, we comrades of resistance?
“Well, I don’t know if anyone else is coming,” Chaplain Stiles says after a minute or two of silence. If he’s disappointed by the turnout, his voice doesn’t show it and his smile is fixed. “Some people who said they were — I don’t see them. But, never mind, we might as well get started.”
He reads a statement. Brief, unremarkable, I think, though I have trouble focusing on the words. We know why we’re here, I think. After he reads it, Stiles says he plans to release it to the news media. If anyone here wants to read it, he adds, there will be a copy posted on the chapel bulletin board.
“Does anyone here wish to speak now? Anything to add?” he asks, nodding toward the faces in the pews, looking us over. “Now is the time.”
No one responds. I hear people breathing.
Stiles looks about, gives us his open-faced inspection, then glances left and right as if seeking a cue from familiar surroundings — a choral prelude, a procession, someone to read the lesson — then finally comes back to us. He’s less ebullient than before, as if the weight of what we are about to do (or perhaps the absence of those who failed to show) is pressing down on his spirit.
“Well,” he asks, turning to those who stand in the wings, “how do we want to do this? We need something for the collection.”
The answer comes from a person I take to be the youthful assistant, a graduate student perhaps.
“Here you go, Reverend.”
The assistant walks over to Stiles and hands him his hat. Almost nobody wears a crowned hat these days; it looks new as if purchased, or borrowed, for the occasion.
“Thank you, Chris,” the chaplain says. “You stand here, Chris. You hold it.”
The young man stands beside him, a little stiffly, with the hat upturned.
Stiles looks at us.
“Well, come on up and bring them with you.”
We stand, stiff-faced undergraduates looking at one another, wait for our turn to shuffle out of the pew. Then we walk down the aisle, married to our cause, and place our draft cards into the keeping of the well-meaning university chaplain by dropping them into the proffered hat.
The chaplain looks each one of us in the eye, pumps our hand enthusiastically, and murmurs something encouraging.
“Thank you — , “ he says, glancing at my draft card before adding my first name: “Jonathan.” Holds onto my hand. “God speed.”
A knot of newly committed draft resisters stands in the aisle, sharing low-voiced murmurs, but there appears to be nothing more to the ceremony. Hard to follow up draft resistance with sherry in the rectory, perhaps. Or maybe the popular chaplain has another appointment.
Miles and I look at one other, then turn to go. Leaving the chapel, I still don’t know what consequences to expect from this act, what I’ve got myself into. But it’s clear that from here on in we are in violation of the law that requires every draft-age American males to keep his draft card on his person at all times. Even, we clever boys asked, while sleeping? Or in the shower?
“Well,” Miles observes, when we are back outdoors in the chill November air, “we did it.”
I grunt some manly sounding acknowledgment, pleased with the boldness of our gesture, if anxious about the consequences.
“Crossing the Rubicon,” he observes. “No going back now.”
In the fall semester of our senior year, when many things have changed and Miles and I are no longer living together, I receive a notice from my draft board informing me that my status has been reclassified to 1A. I should have been prepared. Stories had appeared in the papers about draft boards taking deferments away from draft resisters. The stories called it “punitive reclassification.” I must have thought — or, more accurately, hoped — my gesture would slip through the cracks.
As for that bubble of ease and irresponsibility Miles and I blew up between us the year before like some pretty glass vessel, it lay in pieces. We have things we don’t talk about now. Draft resistance fails to sweep the nation. As our friends predicted, very few young men answer the call. Our gesture begins to feel quixotic; perhaps even deluded.
Penny and are living in an inexpensive apartment at the edge of a sketchy neighborhood not far from campus. We are married, a status I agreed to as the only way Penny could leave her scorched-earth Roman Catholic parents’ home without suffering a complete, permanent break in family relations and being banished to a secular wilderness of howling, free-thinker devils. Penny’s tears at the prospect of not being able to see her younger sister until who-knows-when proved a biologically clinching argument.
Miles lives on campus with new roommates, some of those who chose not to cross the Rubicon of draft resistance. Our lives have gone separate ways. Though I still hang out some with Miles and the others at the dorm, I have a new roommate this year. A wife. The arrival of the Selective Service System’s black spot letter puts me in a slow-percolating panic. It’s suddenly clear to me that no one in my life — the life I have constructed for myself by my own choices — can help me. Not Penny, who played no part in my embrace of draft resistance, that awesome secular union, and now wrings her hands over my fecklessness. Not Miles, who had walked beside me down the path of youthful indiscretion; not any of my other student friends. Certainly not my parents.
A few days after receiving the draft board’s letter, I sit down with the counselor, Jeff, a short-haired, serious-looking man with a pale, round face, in a small office in the university’s religion department.
Jeff listens quietly to my mournful synopsis of my situation.
“Why did you turn in your draft card?” he asks, apparently serious.
Because idiots like you were encouraging me to. Of course I don’t say this. I say the usual things.
“So are you prepared to go to Canada?” he asks.
Good question. When I tell him I’m married, I can tell by his face that the news doesn’t cheer him.
“Resisters don’t often tend to get married,” he says. “Marriage can be a complication.”
You bet it is, I think. But the complication works both ways. When I ask him about the likelihood of being given some kind of permanent residency status if we did go to Canada, he leans back in his chair, like a doctor weighing a prognosis.
“If you and your wife each had a thousand dollars,” he says, “I think the chances would be pretty good.”
A thousand dollars is an enormous amount of money for me. I have never had anything close to a thousand dollars. I sit, stunned: not going to Canada.
I tell Jeff that my wife does not wish to go to Canada, anyway.
“That narrows things,” he says.
Last gasp. I ask him how difficult it is to gain conscientious objector status.
“Are you a conscientious objector?” he replies, eyebrows lifted.
“I don’t know.” Is it a club, I think. A secret society?
“Mr. Russell,” he says, sounding like a man holding back a sigh, “are you a member of a religious tradition that opposes participation in war?” His tone of voice that suggests that he is appalled by my ignorance.
I shake my head. “Are you?”
“As a matter of fact, Mr. Russell, I am.”
Jeff is serious about conscientious objection — religiously, humorlessly. Serious the way that frat boys are serious about getting good bands for their parties, football players are about beating Harvard, philosophy professors are over whether p implies q or not. The way Yale’s secret society members keep their secrets.
I am serious only about staying out of the Army.
“You have to document it, you know,” he says at last. “And provide names as references.”
“Nope,” I say. “I can’t do that.”
Jeff leans back once more and avoids looking at me.
“I can write you a letter,” he says at length, “stating that you came in to discuss conscientious objector status with me. And that I counseled you.” Silence. “But that’s all.”
I tell him to write the letter and give him my PO box address, just to make him do something.
I decide to call Chaplain Stiles. Maybe he knows something Jeff doesn’t. Maybe he has a magical get-out-of-jail-free card granted to him by the authorities for use by undergraduates misled into a life of crime by his vigorous rhetoric and personal charm.
“Hi there,” he says, on the telephone, after I have explained who I am. “You’re one of the brave twenty-three.”
How are the other twenty-two? I want to ask. Are they screwed too?
I take a breath and summarize my situation and my talk with the draft counselor. What I’ve learned about CO status. What I’ve learned about Canada. He listens without interrupting, though I can hear his breathing. He’s a race horse, I think, eager to get to the track. I’m a pebble in the road.
“So what do you think my choices are?” I ask bluntly.
“Well, I think you’ve put them clearly already,” he replies.
“Any others you can think of?”
“Some people,” he says, leaving those slow spaces between his words I’ve come to expect from these, my advisers, “have faced arrest. Some are facing trial, I believe.”
This is news to me. I’m not happy to hear it.
“I can get you some names, I think, and addresses,” he says. “If you write them… maybe they will share their thought process.”
And after a moment, he adds, “These are very committed young men.”
“I’m not that committed,” I reply, blurting the truth.
The obvious question hangs between us. I can hear him holding back from asking it.
“Sorry,” he says, after a silence, “I have no easy answers. No buttons to push. No way to make it all go away.”
I wait for him to add something bracing, cheering, hopeful. He doesn’t.
Some days later the rumor reaches me of a lawyer in New York City who claims to be able to find a way to keep anyone willing to pay out of the Army — a legal out. His fee? About a thousand dollars.
Penny discovers me typing my application for conscientious objector status one afternoon in our low-rent apartment on Howard Avenue.
My “personal statement,” I tell her, on why I claim to be a conscientious objector. I am about a half sentence into the ‘statement’ when it turns into a philosophy paper.
“They won’t go for this, Jon,” Penny says, leaning over the roller to read the first few lines. “It’s too — academic.”
I look at her and am about to say, “There’s always Canada,” throwing the word out there as a trial balloon, when I hear her reply in my mind — “No, there isn’t” — and bite my tongue.
Penny has no patience for draft resistance. When I am forced to tell her that I have lost my student deferment, and explain the reason why, she looks like she wants to slap me. I would have got off easier confessing an affair.
“Why didn’t you tell me about this before, Jon?”
“Because I knew you’d hate it.”
“You’re right. I do.” She glares. I stare sulkily at my typewriter in response.
“I thought you were smart, Jon,” Penny says. “But this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Throwing away your deferment! For what?”
Her brother, who’s my age, has already changed his major in order to put himself in line for a teacher’s deferment after graduation if he can find a job. She recites the names of my high school classmates who have been drafted, including one — freshman year quarterback Billy Corin — who will not be coming back.
So no, we’re not going to Canada. We never were. I don’t want to leave Yale, my hippie on-campus friends. My blandly loving conventional Long Island parents, my emotive irrational affiliation with the entire New York City ethos, with the whole country for that matter, or my dawning affection for the gnarly gray woods of New England.
Besides even with a thousand dollars each, Penny and I wouldn’t make it for a month alone in Canada. We’re barely making it in New Haven. The list of things we don’t do together and the subjects we don’t talk about grows, like the unwashed pile of dishes in the sink.
But she’s right about my pathetic CO application.
I have slipped past indiscretions in the past, cut classes in high school, walked away from fender benders, but this time I have put myself squarely in the way of a trouble that I won’t be able to escape on the basis of my sterling reputation. I won’t be forgiven in deference to my grade point average. I am simply someone who has broken the law, for whatever reason, and will now be punished. Surely some highly privileged characters slip by the rules of the Selective Service System, but these are holders of extraordinary privileges, bearers of golden names that I can only gape at.
I mail in my bullshit application. The local board turns it down, informing me of my right to appeal their rejection. I mail in my appeal and am given a date to make my appeal in person before the board in Hempstead, New York, where I grew up. The date is not far in the future. All I’m doing in delaying the inevitable. Soon I’ll run out of appeals. The 1A will stand, and the board will scoop me up one of these months when a body is needed.
I tell Penny the date of the appeal.
“What are you going to say?” she asks.
“I don’t know. “
November once more. Gloomy, but mild. I gather my papers together: a copy of the original application for conscientious objector status that’s already been rejected, the few additional notes I have made for myself, the brief letter counselor Jeff wrote attesting to the fact that I have sought his assistance in examining my conscience — a statement notable only for the clear omission of any argument on his part supporting my CO claim. I put these into the ratty knapsack passed down to me from an older cousin who spent time in the Army Reserves and add to them some course readings for my major seminar, The Concept of Belief, in which, unhelpfully, notions of religion, war, God, violence, love, and conscience have never been mentioned. I add a spiral notebook I use for class notes.
I hike to the train station to save a cab fee, skipping breakfast because I have no appetite. Penny has already left for her early shift job at the hospital by the time I get out of bed. In the sparsely peopled New Haven station I catch the train to Grand Central and stare into the grime-of-ages, never-cleaned windows of the nearly empty passenger car while the old train rattles along the back end of wintry Connecticut towns to Manhattan. Nothing comes out of that knapsack. There is nowhere to look; nothing else to think about. No distractions anywhere in my life to soothe me. No one else is to blame. Not the smiley, happy warrior chaplain, or the gentle-eyed Quaker professor, or straight-assed Jeff, the CO with credentials. Not David Weller, who knew he was too selfish, too practical, to throw the monkey wrench into his life that I have thrown into mine. Certainly not Penny, who had no part in my decision and would probably have done her best to talk me out of it if we’d been together then.
Not Miles, who has held his course with no apparent regret and is guilty of nothing more than naming the dare. I accepted it.
“I know they’ll get around to me,” he says, when we speak. He has made his plans clear: go to Canada.
The train’s arrival in New York yanks me out of this fugue state of despair and self-debasement. I force myself to find the shuttle to Penn Station, and then the Long Island Railroad train that takes me to the single-story Hempstead Center station. My ‘home town,’ the place for school clothes, a public library, three little movie theaters named the Rivoli, the Calderone and the Showcase, a smart collection of five and dime stores, the bus terminal where you can buy a slice of pizza. These attractions fail to tempt me now.
The Federal Building in Hempstead Center looks like nothing much from the outside, bigger than the retail stores, smaller than the courthouse in the next town. No sign of empire or statuary, the gods of the state. I seldom spared its bland facade a glance in the days when I popped into the used book store across the street.
Inside, Selective Service is a mid-sized first floor office with worn fixtures. The room appears empty at first glance and I wonder if I need to announce myself to someone. A middle-aged woman, brown-haired with glasses, whose working life probably resembles my mother’s in the County Welfare Department, rises from behind a standard-size typewriter, nods in my direction, and takes a quick glance at a wall clock. Without looking at me she tells me to take a seat “near the door.”
It takes me a moment to realize she means the door leading to an interior room. She’ll tell them I’m here, she says, when “the other one” comes out of the hearing room.
I wonder about this ‘other one’? Two-headed? Fanged? Dangerous, or merely idiotic?
She appears to regard me as harmless. It occurs to me that the reason that I don’t need to say who I am, or she to inquire, is that this office mom who reminds me of my mother knows who I am. I am in my home town. People, some of them, know who I am. No claim for esoteric religious background will grab the wind here.
I sit in an armless table-chair by the door, exposed, a folder in my lap, unable to look at my papers or think coherently, struggling to learn anything from the murmur of voices in the so-called hearing room. Is this ‘other one’ pleading his case as a ‘delinquent’ resister as well? Or the victim of some simple bureaucratic error? Or his own omission? Here’s my college ID, my paid bill from the registrar. Or a young father-to-be arguing some claim about an ambiguity in the current regulations. Pleading for a ‘break’?
I realize that when the door finally opens and it’s my turn to go inside I still have absolutely no idea what I’m going to say. I try to imagine what this inner room, the heart of a
machine that can turn a young father to-be into a corpse in a matter of months, looks like.
The door opens.
Office Mom jumps up from her seat and signals me with a severe look — not to ‘go in,’ as I assume, but to ‘stay put’ — until, apparently, the people inside are ready for me. While I’m torn between standing up and sitting down, doing a little of both, the ‘other one’ slinks out of the room and stalks past me before I realize who he must be. I see him from the back. Trimmed curly hair, slim shoulders, stiff up-and-down walk. The body language does not say ‘happy.’
Office Mom disappears into the smaller room and closes the door behind her. I stand, unable to force my legs back down into the chair. After a minute and a half she pops back out, and I watch her without venturing any movement on my own until my instructions are clear, unwilling to risk a false step.
“I told them you’re here,” she says, again without looking at me as she heads back to her desk with a handful of papers.
I nod. She doesn’t see, because she’s not looking. Only when she reaches her desk does she notice that I am waiting to be told what to do.
“So go right on in,” she says, with a hand wave of impatience.
Is my name verboten here? She hasn’t used it once. Will I be asked to recite my registration number before the assembly of the “local board”?
Open the door. Step inside.
Find myself at once at close quarters with the members of the local draft board. Some of the faces — I gaze at them, reading them — wear the same sort of awkward, troubled expression I must be showing. They wish they were elsewhere. This is not what they signed up for. The room is small. We are all too close to one another, our faces too naked.
The board members are distributed around a couple of desks, facing toward the door and me. The room has no windows. A third, smaller desk is close to the door that I have carefully closed behind me. I stand on one side of it, and the only other man in the room stands on the other side, neither of us speaking. Nobody speaking. I try to figure out who’s in charge. The board chairman, according to the hearing notice sent me, is a Mrs. Carmichael. I spy a short, dark-haired woman leaning over a file folder, head down, face concealed. Is that her? Or is she the person assigned to take notes. I’m aware again of the standing man, his thigh pressing the edge of a metal desk, who appears willing to meet my glance.
At a quick count, seven people of a similar age, all white. Looking like the people my mother would meet in the supermarket or my courteous Dad make a point of speaking to at the filling station. The discomfort in the room is general. It’s the same feeling I have inside — dread of this encounter. Their time with the unhappy boy I saw leaving this room has not lifted their spirits. Handmaidens of the system, they find their own hands tied by the system’s rules. They have no breaks to give him; or, I suspect, me. They’re not looking forward to hearing from me either. I’m the resister, the college radical, the New Age know-it-all. The rules require them to “hear” me, but they don’t expect to like what I’ll tell them. Abstractions, wild claims, esoteric religions, legal minutiae. References to religious or ethical teachings they cannot possibly be expected to know anything about.
And if they don’t give me what I want, they expect me to yell at them, or at least make snide remarks. Maybe shout slogans and recite propaganda. To insult them too for playing their role in an immoral system that sends baby killers to Vietnam.
They expect me to hate them.
They expect me to insist on my right of free speech. They see me as an antiwar college-hippie who goes to marches and chants slogans accusing the President of the United States of killing children. And indeed I have joined in on rounds of “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” They’re expecting the kind of stuff they’ve seen on TV.
They know what “free speech” means. It means yelling at grown-ups.
And they don’t want to be yelled at. No one does.
“Mr. Russell,” the man leaning against the desk says, after some time of silence has passed. I’m not sure if he’s addressing me or identifying me to my judges.
I nod, glance at him. Look around the room again.
“Let me introduce myself,” the man says, settling my uncertainty. “I’m Bill Lemon. Some people call me Doctor Lemon, but I’m retired now. I’m acting chairman today.”
I wait to hear why, but he doesn’t say. Retired from what?
I don’t introduce myself, since he already knows who I am, as must all the others.
“So,” he resumes, after a silence no one fills, “today we’re holding a hearing on your application…”
He looks down at the page in his hand. He has some numbers to read, some official verbiage to describe the section of law that provides for this hearing, being careful to use the right terms for the purpose of an official record. I spy the woman with the folder I’ve noticed before, and sure enough she’s already scribbling furiously.
Bill Lemon finds what he wants in his notes and finishes the sentence.
Now, I think, the whole painful, absurd, existentially inauthentic business will bump along to its unsatisfactory, inevitable conclusion. In terms of the regulations I don’t have a leg to stand on. Should I go all common sense and personal and try to win their sympathy?
Let’s be honest here, I think. I don’t believe in this war. Send someone else instead.
The board members appear to be waiting for me. I can’t seem to begin.
“So,” Bill Lemon says, after another painful silence — nobody making it easier on anybody else by just opening their mouth and babbling any old thing just to get this miserable business started — Bill’s voice suggesting he’s someone who is at least accustomed to addressing a group; that “doctor” could be education, I realize, a teacher — “we might as well get started — “
“Can I say something?”
That’s me talking. I’m as surprised as anyone.
Bill lifts his eyes from the page and looks at me.
“What?” he asks, surprise coloring his voice. It’s a real question. He wants to know what I wish to say — or why now? Maybe it’s not time for that yet.
“I’d like to make a statement.” I say this in the tone of a formal announcement. Don’t ask me where this comes from.
The world of ideas crashing around inside me head, voices running around looking for the exit, not finding it, comes to a stop.
“Now,” I add.
Bill’s glance stiffens. He may be only the acting chairman, but apparently there’s no one else in this room to tell him what to do. His inspection begins skeptically, but apparently he sees nothing in me to alarm him.
“All right, Mr. Russell,” he says, sounding more now like professor now, “go ahead.”
“I no longer object to carrying my draft card.”
I am shocked to hear these words coming out of my mouth. Though as soon as I realize what I’ve said, I also realize that they’re true. I’ve run up the white flag.
I offer no explanation for this change of heart. One sentence is all I’ve got.
No one responds at first. When he realizes I have nothing more to say, and that I’m not trying to lay some clever trap for them, Bill looks about the room at the other board members. I catch the one taking notes — slender arms, a little younger than the others — giving him a careful nod. Apparently he finds in the other faces what he needs to see.
“All right, Mr. Russell,” he says, nodding. The room exhales. Palpable relief. “In that case — I think…”
He pauses, giving everyone else (including me) time to put in their two cents. No one does.
“Then, I mean, as far as I understand matters,” he says, gaining confidence in his own understanding, “if that’s the case” — he nods to me; to my surprising declaration — “it appears to me, Mr. Russell, that you’re eligible for your student deferment to be restored. If you’re still a fulltime college student.”
I nod. I so am.
I hear some movements in the room, people relaxing (they can go home early). I catch a smile.
Bill waggles a folder, his copy of my file undoubtedly. “So, then… This hearing… about the CO application…” He looks at me.
“I withdraw it.”
“OK,” Bill says. “Hearing over.”
The atmosphere in the room completely lightened now, board members begin to rise, nod and murmur to one another, aim a few shy smiles in my direction. I’m a kid, after all. I am forgiven. They know who I am once more. A good, smart boy led astray by some bad influences, but I’ve come back to my senses.
Bill and another lady who acts like she knows me, using my first name — maybe she’s the mother of somebody I went to high school with — escort me from the hearing room. Back in the larger office, he nods toward the all-purpose Office Mom who could not persuade herself to say my name earlier, but now must have read the faces and attitudes of the others and decides she can look at me.
Bill murmurs a quick summary to her. I don’t follow, my heart is still pounding as if I were coming down from an out-of-body experience, and however much I may later regret the actions of my disembodied self, for the moment I feel whatever has happened is a load off my frigging mind. The people still in the office are smiling. Maybe we should all go out and have a drink.
Bill steps toward me and says, quietly, “We’ll mail you the new documents.”
“You’ll get them in about two weeks. Maybe three.”
And I will slip those little white babies, the registration card and the status notification, into my wallet, I assure him with a nod of agreement, just as if nothing ever happened. And someone else will go to the war.
Bill looks like he wants to congratulate me on the wisdom of my decision, but can’t find the words for it. What would those words be? “I’m glad you’ve returned to the fold “?
“Thank you,” I say, the words sounding prim and inadequate.
In truth I have cause to be thankful. I have asked for my privileges back. The board has obliged, without a hint that anyone plans to give me a hard time over the whole episode. Is it so easy to be forgiven by your ‘enemy’? To cooperate once more with the ‘oppressor’?
I nod goodbye and head for the door.
“I’m so glad for you,” the Office Mom murmurs, as I walk past. “I truly am.”
It’s some time before I run into Miles. Unlike some of my other friends, he doesn’t come to Howard Avenue to hang with Penny and me. I am walking out of the dark-wood dining room of the residential college where we used to room together, and where I still show up occasionally to see if I can cadge some food, when our paths cross.
“I heard you had an appeal with your draft board,” he says, as we leave the building and step into the wintry air. “How did that go?”
“I dropped the CO application and they gave me back my 2-S,” I tell him.
For me that’s the story. It’s my news, the bottom line, outcome of my struggle with the draft, the system that showed me its teeth when I stepped out of line and convinced me to get back in my place. It’s an outcome I can live with, am living with. Just as I am living with Penny in a cheap apartment with the onrush of graduation like the wind in my face, and the need to put together some kind of life afterwards.
“I’m taking the teachers training course,” I add, catching him up.
“Yeah? How is that?” he asks. We talk a little undergraduate shop until we’re through the courtyard and out to the city sidewalk, where we stop. Our paths diverge here; me to class, Miles to see a professor.
“Can I challenge you on something, man?”
“Why are you accepting deferments now? I thought we made a commitment.”
Somehow I have not seen this coming. Miles’s words are clipped, but his tone is neutral and he smiles as he asks the question, his eyes dancing away from the confrontation.
“I have conflicting commitments,” I reply, hearing the stiffness in the words.
Am I angry at Miles? Or myself? Should I apologize for my failure to live up to my word?
He mutters something, an acknowledgment probably; nods, looks away.
“Penny doesn’t want to go to Canada,” I say, still explaining. “I can’t ask her to.”
“Is that still your plan?” The question holds him another moment, keeps him from walking away. “Canada?”
“Yeah.” He has made his point, apparently. He doesn’t want to talk any more.
“It’s easier for you,” I say.
It’s like going off to prep school, I think, only they won’t pick on you so much in Canada. You have left places, and people, behind before. You won’t miss the used-up Dad in New Jersey; you mother in Chicago will still get her weekly phone call. You’re a more independent person, maybe a stronger one, and don’t need many ties. Maybe you avoid them.
“Easy?” he says, eyebrows lifted. “I don’t know about that.”
“Easier,” I repeat.
“I don’t expect things to be easy for me in Canada.”
“They won’t be easy here either.”
He knows I mean being married. He doesn’t need to reply to this. He didn’t tell me to get married.
“It was easier,” I say, “when we were roommates. Before everything happened.”
“At least,” he says, shrugging, moving off on the sidewalk, “I kept my commitment.”
It’s not the last time we run into other that year, but when we do we don’t speak about anything important. The end of senior year looms on the horizon, heavy and sodden, like a storm cloud we’ve been hiding from so hard we fail to notice its steam-rolling approach. Graduation fills the campus with strangers, families, with a sea of billowing blue gowns spilling into the Old Campus courtyard. My parents arrive. Everybody’s parents arrive. I lose track of Miles and his plans. When he crosses the border, I don’t learn of it from him, but from one of our mutual friends. He makes the breach somewhere in Michigan, closer to his Mom’s home.
I wish him well, but I don’t envy him. Miles is right, I think. I need to know what it means to make a commitment, or to stop making them, but I’m not ready to make the choice he has and don’t know if I ever will be. I picture him sitting in a cafe in some city over the border; the charming American resister. His own man. He will make friends. Women will keep him company. I see him walking a street in Montreal or somewhere else in Quebec, speaking French to the natives. Miles is the boy who went away.
I’m the kid from the neighborhood who went away but not that far, and who keeps coming back. Who married a girl from high school. Who took a teacher training course when the free ride of college was over. It’s knowing who you are.
*[“Commitment” was originally published in “The 3288 Review,” Summer 2015]