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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Tom Weiner, Called To Serve: Stories of Men and Women Confronted by the Vietnam War Draft

Weiner, Tom. Called To Serve: Stories of Men and Women Confronted by the Vietnam War Draft. Amherst and Florence, Massachusetts: Levellers Press, 2011.

A review by John J. Fitzgerald

Tom Weiner, the author of Called To Serve: Stories of Men and Women Confronted by the Vietnam War Draft, has created an important historical document that deserves a wide readership, despite its flaws.

If we really want to build a better world, it would be great to see this book on the desk of every high school guidance counselor in America. For those who wish to fathom, the dilemmas and challenges that the Vietnamese Conflict (Technically, it is not listed as a war.) brought to the young men of this country, in the 1960s and early 1970s, I recommend it. It is an important companion piece to some of the better histories of that period. (Marilyn B. Young’s The Vietnam Wars remains the best single volume on the history of the Vietnam Conflict.)

The book attempts to reveal the full spectrum of reactions to the military draft laws that all eligible males over the age of 18 faced during the years of the Vietnam Conflict. For the most part, it succeeds.

Weiner starts off with a brief history of the draft in American history. Interestingly enough, there is a long, rather well hidden, history of dissent with respect to conscription in the United States. Daniel Webster, for one, denounced it as a form of “Napoleonic despotism,” at the time of the War of 1812.

The book then gets into the different categories of response to the Vietnam era draft.

Chapter Two is entitled, “Those Who Served.” This gives us the views of seven individuals who in their own way came to join the service. As is the case for most of the book, the overwhelming majority of interviewees are from the Western Massachusetts area. None of them seem to think their service was in any way worthwhile. The reports given are not verified and there does not seem to be much fact checking. For example, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) did not refuse to recruit members who served in Vietnam. (p.43) Discharge papers are usually listed as DD214, not DD215 (p.43) But this chapter does give the narrators their chance to tell their story, as they remember it. Not all of them actually served in Vietnam. Missing are the stories of people who were and are proud of their years of military service. There were and are such folks.

This chapter is followed by “Those Who Left.” The three stories included here tell of those who went to Canada to avoid the draft. Their stories differ from each other, but eventually they all return to the USA. I was surprised to find myself without much sympathy for any of them. They chose to flee. On the other hand, none of them claim nobility for their behavior. Did all those who fled to Canada return to the USA? I am guessing that many found Canada to be a more civilized country than their birthplace

The four stories in the chapter “Those who Refused,” are gripping and unique. Each person went through their own gauntlet because of their refusal to submit. I admired the courage of these folks, but found myself wondering about their political perspective. They seemed to basically reject the authority of the government to govern their behavior. Their position seems close to anarchism.

Chapter Five deals with –“Those Who Found Ways To Beat The Draft.”

The eight stories here are the stories of “draft dodgers” and the author is quite sympathetic to them. It was his own response to the draft as well. These are the folks who joined the National Guard, faked ill health to be named 4-F, got married to beat the system, faked being crazy, and outright lied about their mental and physical health, etc. This is the largest collection of stories and suggests that this was the most widespread form of resistance. Most of the narrators express shame at their behavior. Few of them became active in the anti-war movement, except for their personal escape from the draft. However, their resistance, even if unprincipled, was an important part of the anti-war movement. Social Class seems to have been a major factor in the makeup of this group. Cf. Chris Appy, Working Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Chapter Six focuses on “– Those Who Chose Conscientious Objection.” There are four stories in this section. In many ways, these are the most noble. They object to killing and refuse to be part of the process. They don’t look for a way to dodge the question, but rather face it – head on. The principal characteristic of this group is that they are well educated. They have studied the law and they know their rights. They are assisted by people who know the legal system and who are animated by a powerful resistance to war and militarism. I found myself wondering how they differ from those cited in Chapter Four and wish the author had reflected on this.

The final chapter covers “Those Who Loved, Supported and Counseled.” There are only four stories in this section, which strikes me as grossly unfair. Only four stories? Women were exempt from the draft, but thousands of them served. They served as nurses and as Red Cross volunteers. None of those stories are told here.

And what about the anti-war women in Western Massachusetts? None of the women who objected to the Vietnam conflict were legally obliged to serve, but millions of them did speak out against the war. They spoke out publicly and articulately. They did this at “teach-ins” and anti-war rallies. They wrote letters to the editor and petitioned Congress. They organized anti-war marches and worked in anti-war political campaigns. The author does not give enough credit to those women who spoke out, even though they could have remained silent. Their dissent was never dismissed as cowardice. In fact, it was admired and respected, and in some cases feared. Surely women then, as now, did more then “loved, supported and counseled.”

This is not to take anything away from the four women who tell their stories here. One of the best is the story of Frances Crowe of Northampton. Frances was a draft counselor during the war and was one of the principal organizers of the anti-war movement in Western Massachusetts. She is one of my favorite people on this planet. I am glad to see her story told here and given the recognition it and she deserves. The Quaker tradition is a just and admirable one and she embodied that tradition in practice. In fact, she still does!

The book stirred many old memories and emotions. As a Vietnam veteran, I chose to walk down some different paths than these folks. As a Vietnam Veteran Against the War, we were heading in the same direction.

I entered the US Army in 1964 and left in 1968. I joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War in 1968 and I am still a member.

Most of those who opposed the Vietnam Conflict knew their history and acted out of thoughtful moral principles. They saw the war as a legacy of French Colonialism and modern American imperialism and militarism. It was not a war necessary for the defense of the United States. Nor was it a war for democracy and freedom. It was an unjust war and its methods were despicable. A key tool for the war machine was the Selective Service System.

The stories collected and retold here offer insight into what war does to people and how it affects their consciences, their families and their lives. These effects are largely unintended, but nonetheless real.

I should add that the volume would have benefitted from a less confusing historical timeline (Diem was killed before JFK.), an index and a more carefully constructed bibliography. As it stands, primary and secondary sources are not indicated and there are some rather arbitrary and capricious entries. (Social Life in the Reign of Queen Anne??!) No doubt cost was a factor, but some photographs would have helped.

Tom Weiner has done his community service in compiling this collection of stories.

Our community service is to make sure his work reaches a wider audience.

John J. Fitzgerald is a Vietnam veteran. He is the co-author of The Vietnam War: A History in Documents. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. He is a member of Veterans for Peace and Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

[haw-info] HAW Notes 8/25/11: Links to recent articles of interest

Thanks to Rosalyn Baxandall, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, and William Loren Katz for suggesting articles included in the following list.  Suggestions can be sent to jimobrien48@gmail.com. 

"Ten Myths About Libya?"
By Conn Hallinan, Portside.org, posted August 24
This critique of Juan Cole's article, listed below, requires scrolling partway down the Portside page.

"Top Ten Myths About the Libya War"
By Juan Cole, Portside.org, posted August 23 (from the author's Informed Comment blog, August 22)
The author teaches history at the University of Michigan

"As Fighting Continues in Libya, a Look at Role of the U.S., NATO and Oil Firms in Libya Uprising"
Interview with Phyllis Bennis by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, posted August 23

"The Tet Offensive's Parallels to Afghanistan"
By Richard Falk, Aljazeera.net, posted August 23

"An Initial Libyan Scorecard"
By Mark LeVine, Aljazeera.net, posted August 22
The author teaches history at the University of California, Irvine

"The 'Most Notorious Liar in the Country' Gets a Memorial on the Mall"
By Jo Freeman, Senior Women Web, posted appr. August 22

"How Safe Are You? What Almost $8 Trillion in National Security Spending Bought You"
By Chris Hellman, TomDispatch.com, posted August 18

"Shaping a New World Order"
By Andrew J. Bacevich, Los Angeles Times, posted August 17
The author teaches history and international relations at Boston University

"Jane Fonda and the 'Home of the Brave'"
Bu Nancy Miller Saunders, The Rag Blog, posted August 11

"The Crisis of Humanitarian Intervention"
By Walden Bello, Foreign Policy in Focus, posted August 9

Monday, August 08, 2011

[haw-info] HAW Notes 8/8/11, including links to recent articles of interest

1.  The Web site for the September 23-24 conference in Toronto called "Looking Backward, Moving Forward: War Resisters in North America," endorsed by HAW and a number of other groups, is at http://warresistersconference.activehistory.ca.  Additional information can be obtained by writing to Luke Stewart at l5stewar@uwaterloo.ca (the first character in that address is a lower-case "l," not a "1").

2.  The October 21-22 "Peace in Asia and the Pacific" conference in Washington, DC, initiated by the American Friends Service Committee and co-sponsored by HAW and a half-dozen other groups, now has a Web site at http://afsc.org/peace-asia-pacific-conference.  The conference will take place at American University.

3.  In the listing of "recent articles of interest" that we sent out on July 27, one of the URLs was incorrect.  The correct URL for the article by Hannah Gurman entitled "War Fatigue and the Un-Critical Critics of War" is http://www.fpif.org/articles/war_fatigue_and_the_un-critical_critics_of_war.  We're sorry for the typo.  In addition, it's possible that links for some articles may not work on all computers; in that case, the URL can be marked for copying and then pasted-in to the address box in a browser.

Links to Recent Articles of Interest

Thanks to Rosalyn Baxandall, Rusti Eisenberg, Maia Ramnath, Nicolas Davies, Jerry Lembcke, and Larry Wittner for suggesting articles that are included in the following list.  Suggestions can be sent to jimobrien48@gmail.com.

"How to Save a Quarter of a Trillion Dollars"
By Lawrence S. Wittner, Huffington Post, posted August 8
The author is a professor of history emeritus at SUNY Albany

"On the Sixty-Sixth Anniversary of the Bombing of Hiroshima"

By Gar Alperovitz, CommonDreams.org, posted August 6

"Peddling Foolishness in Afghanistan"
By Conn Hallinan, CounterPunch.org, posted August 5
On geography, history, and the Pakistan-Afghanistan border

"Say It Ain't So, O!"

By Stanley Kutler, TruthDig.com, posted August 4
The author is a professor of history emeritus at the University of Wisconsin

"War, Guilt and 'Thank You for Your Service'"
By Elizabeth Samet, Bloomberg News, posted August 2

"Ballpark Liturgy: America's New Civic Religion"
By Andrew J. Bacevich, TomDispatch.com, posted July 28
The author teaches history and international relations at Boston University

"Anders Breivik, Steig Larsson, and the Men with the Nazi Tattoos"
By James Ridgeway, Mother Jones, posted July 26

"NATO in Libya Has Failed to Learn Costly Lessons of Afghanistan"
By Patrick Cockburn, The Independent, posted July 23

"Puppets in Revolt: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and the United States"
By James Petras, Information Clearing House, posted July 23

"Checkmate in the Great Game"
By Nicholas J. S. Davies, Z Magazine, July-August issue