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Nobody's Hero: My War Story
By Dave Lindorff
I’m certainly no hero, but since some readers of my last post have reacted by attacking my courage and integrity on the grounds that I “never served,” I want to at least set the record straight on my youthful response to war.
In 1967, when I was a senior in high school in Storrs, CT., I faced a momentous decision. In April, I would turn 18, and would have to register for the draft. The Vietnam War was by then in full swing. A year or two earlier, I’d been an avid fan of military aviation magazines, and bought into the whole anti-Communist Cold War thing. But by ’67, I had seen enough of the violence being done in Vietnam against a desperately poor peasant population—the napalm attacks on civilians, the burned babies, etc.—that I had done a 180-degree turn. I wanted nothing to do with war and killing. So I made a decision: I would fill out my registration at the draft board, and I’d get my draft card, but I would not let myself be inducted into the military.
When I told my parents, who still supported the war, of my plan, they were of course upset but supportive. My dad was an engineer and a former Marine and my mother a Navy WAVE in WWII. My paternal grandfather had earned a silver star in WWI and my maternal grandfather had had his lungs permanently scarred by mustard gas in the same conflict. A history teacher, Bernie Marlin, referred me to a junior high teacher in the school who had been a conscientious objector during the Korean War. I talked with him, a Mr. Storrs, at length, and was very impressed with his story, but I soon realized that I didn’t really think I was CO material. I did feel war could be justified sometimes—for example if America were attacked. At any rate, in early April of ’67, I went ahead and filled out my draft registration form.
That fall, I began college at Wesleyan University. By then, I had been working as a foot soldier in the anti-war movement a bit, and had already been to one anti-war demonstration and march in New York City. At college registration, there was a table for registering for a student deferment. I decided on the spur of the moment to pass that up. It seemed unfair to me that friends of mine in high school, who were not college bound, were going to get drafted, but I wouldn’t because I was lucky enough to be going to college. So unlike Vice President and Warmonger-in-Chief Dick Cheney, I just skipped it. I figured when my time came and I got an induction notice, I would just refuse, and they’d jail me.
In October, there was a huge demonstration and march in Washington against the war—the famous “Mobe” about which Norman Mailer wrote in “Armies of the Night.” I went down to DC with a few other students. We ended up near the front of the march, and then up on the Mall of the Pentagon. Through the night, federal marshals were arresting people up there on the Mall. I made it through until morning, when I was finally grabbed by the legs, yanked through a line of bayonet-armed soldiers, beaten with clubs and carried off to a paddy wagon, which took me to a federal minimum-security prison in Occoquan, VA. I spent a couple days there in the company of a hundred or so other demonstrators in a prison dormitory. It was an education like no other. Veteran anti-war and civil rights activists ran workshops about the war and about a strategy of resistance, and about how we could build a better world. I soaked it all up avidly.
When I was released, with a small fine and a 10-day suspended sentence for “trespassing” on the Pentagon, I hitchhiked back to school, all fired up to challenge the war. The night before my arrest, I had joined hundreds of other protesters in burning my draft card. I had kept the ashes in my shirt pocket, and when I got home, I put them in an envelope and mailed them to my draft board, with a note saying I would never carry that card again (a federal crime). My draft board responded by sending me a new I-A card. I tucked it in my wallet, saving it for the next card-burning opportunity.
Over the next two years, during which time I participated actively in student radical activism, building sit-ins, and draft-resistance actions, such as informational picketing of inductees at the induction center in New Haven, CT, I had occasion to burn my card and tear up my card several times—including once at a communion at the Yale chapel, where we turned our cards in to Rev. William Sloane Coffin. Each time, I’d send the ashes or the pieces of card to my draft board, and each time, they’d send me a new one. Along the way, the infamous draft lottery was established. I was number 81—a certainty to be called up.
At one point, back in the summer of 1968, I filed a CO application, but I made it clear that I was not religious, and that I was not opposed to all wars. When I had my CO hearing at the draft board, the board members were sitting at a table, with all my destroyed draft cards set in a pile in front of them. I explained to the men sitting in judgement on me that while I opposed the war in Vietnam, if I were Vietnamese, I would surely be fighting for my country against the US. That didn’t go over very well. My application was unanimously rejected.
My day came in the spring of 1969. At the time, I was in a full leg cast, having broken both bones in my lower leg just above the ankle in a ski accident. I notified the induction center that I was on crutches and in a cast and suggested they postpone my pre-induction physical until I was out of the cast and all better—a delay of about four months according to my doctor. They said no. They wanted to see me to make sure I was genuinely injured.
So on a cold late-winter day, I found myself on a bus riding from the draft board in Rockville, CT to New Haven with a bunch of frightened young men. I handed out informational packets to everyone, telling them their rights, how to apply for CO status, etc., and talked about what was wrong with the war.
When we arrived, I joined everyone in taking the so-called intelligence test. Then we went for our physicals. I was pulled from the line and told I needed to go to see a consulting physician at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Since the address was a mile or so away, and the sidewalks were icy, I said I’d need cab fare. I was told by the head of the medical unit that the government didn’t pay for transportation. He informed me there was a bus that stopped outside that would take me there.
I replied that I was on crutches, and that I hadn’t asked to be sent to a consultation—in fact I had asked for a postponement until my leg was healed—and said that if they wanted to send me anywhere they could fucking well pay for the transportation. That didn’t make the guy very happy. He had a screaming fit, and called the head of the center, who came down. “What’s the problem?” he asked. I explained the situation, and said that if they wanted me to go all the way to a hospital because they didn’t trust that my leg was truly broken, they could pay my fucking cab fare. The guy got angry, called me a “little prick,” but then took out his wallet and threw some bills at me. I picked the money up off the floor and went down to the street. Seeing no cab, I went over to the bus stop. I looked up and saw the Induction Center commander looking out of a window, so as the bus pulled up, I flipped him a one-finger salute and got on.
At the hospital, I discovered that the office of the doctor in question was closed for the day. Angry that I’d wasted all this time for nothing, I got back on the bus and returned to the Induction Center. This time, I went directly to the office of the head of the center, and tossed an envelope of X-Rays from my doctor on his desk. “It’s no wonder you’re losing the fucking war!” I said. “You guys can’t even arrange a doctor’s appointment. The office was closed.” I told him that he could check my X-Rays, and added, “But I’ve come down here once already, and it’s the last time I’m coming. If you want me back, you can send the FBI to bring me.” I hung around until the end of the day and rode home on the bus to my draft board.
When I got there, I went into the office, where the office secretary, an older woman with a neat grey perm, was still at her desk. “Excuse me,” I said. “But I’m really pissed off.” She started at my coarse language. I recounted my experience and she said, “Well, I think they owe you an apology.” To my astonishment, she picked up the phone, called the Induction Center, and asked to speak to the head of the operation—the guy who’d thrown the money at me. “I have a young man here who is very angry,” she said into the phone. “And I think you owe him an apology.”
She handed me the phone.
“All right, you little prick,” he said, sounding like he was gritting his teeth. “I’m sorry.”
“You fuckin’ oughta be,” I said, again shocking the secretary.
I put down the phone, thanked the secretary and left.
A month later, to my astonishment, instead of FBI agents at my door, I got a letter from my draft board. It was a card declaring me to be IV-F—“unfit for military service.”
Clearly, there was no medical justification for my rejection. My leg bones healed up just fine a few months later, and I spent part of the next year loading heavy boxes in a warehouse and driving semi-trailer trucks. I suspect that, it being 1969, and the army in Nam being by then in a state of near insurrection, the Army had concluded it didn’t want people like me anymore. Perhaps a year earlier, before Tet, I might instead have been sent into the infantry.
I tell this story because while it may not be heroic, and while other war resisters paid heavily for their stands, I nonetheless think it contrasts well with the likes of a Dick Cheney, who hid through the war years behind student deferments and his wife’s skirt, or of a George Bush, who joined the Air National Guard and made care to check a box saying he would be “unavailable for overseas duty”—something the poor guys in the Guard now doing multiple tours in the Iraqi desert on Bush's orders didn’t have the option of doing.
I don’t apologize for my opposition to the Vietnam War. And while being prepared to go to jail for a principle may not rank on the courage meter anywhere near to standing one’s ground under fire during an enemy assault, or jumping on top of a live grenade, I’m proud that I did my best to oppose it, and that I never once tried to duck responsibility for my own actions. Furthermore, I’ll stand my actions up against any of those in the Bush administration or in Congress who are so quick to support wars, but who hid behind student deferments or used powerful connections to avoid military service or combat duty themselves when it was their turn to “serve.”
DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. His latest book is "The Case for Impeachment" (St. Martin's Press, 2006 and now available in paperback). His work is available at www.thiscantbehappening.net