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the author of Called To Serve: Stories of Men and Women Confronted by the Vietnam War Draft, has created an important historical document that deserves a wide readership, despite its flaws.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