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A conscientious objector unearths the lessons of the 'American War'

Photo: Photos by Steven G. Kellman, License: N/A

Photos by Steven G. Kellman

Skulls from the Cambodian Killing Fields.

Photo: , License: N/A

Captured U.S. tank.

Photo: , License: N/A

The author climbing out of a cramped secret bunker used by the Viet Cong in South Vietnam.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it — which is how what Gore Vidal calls the United States of Amnesia ended up invading and occupying Iraq, less than 30 years after the debacle in Vietnam. The earlier conflict, in a distant, humid land, and the recent one, in a distant, arid land, were both costly, ghastly blunders. The principal difference is that the Vietnam War was waged with conscripts, whereas the war in Iraq was fought by volunteers. Financed by deficits, not taxes, the Iraq War had little effect on the day-to-day lives of most Americans. However, during the 1960s, when millions of young Americans lived in daily anxiety over being called up and sent off to battle, the Pentagon's use of the draft concentrated minds and inspired opposition.

On October 16, 1967, while more than 500,000 Americans were waging war in Vietnam, more than 3,000 other Americans converged on the Oakland Induction Center to protest that war. Five days later, a peace rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington drew 100,000. As anti-war actions and hawkish reactions proliferated through the United States, especially on college campuses (Berkeley, Kent State, Wisconsin, Columbia), the country seemed closer to a civil war than at any other time since 1865. 

A few months before the Selective Service System selected me to receive an all-expense-paid trip (one-way at least) to Southeast Asia, I participated in the Oakland demonstration. I had moved to the West Coast to attend graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, and when I appeared before the Oakland draft board after challenging my designation as I-A (immediately available for full military service), the first question posed was: "Why the hell did you travel 3,000 miles to attend a Commie school like Berkeley?" After that moment of urbane colloquy, the conversation deteriorated. Impatient with a nuisance like me, the draft board, hoping they could dismiss me as 4-F (unfit for military service), ordered me to take a second physical exam. It was administered in the same Oakland Induction Center that was ground zero for massive protests and police riots. At the conclusion of the exam, a beaming major shook my hand. "Congratulations, son," he said. "I recommend that you enlist in the Navy. The food is better there."

The cuisine was worse in prison and even worse in the jungles of Vietnam. I respected war resisters who trusted their fate to jail or Canada, and I felt compassion for those who, out of a misguided sense of duty or an ignorance of options, served in a long and costly blunder that accomplished nothing except the deaths of 58,000 Americans and perhaps as many as 3 million Vietnamese, soldiers and civilians. Tens of thousands of American troops returned home broken in body or spirit or both. I applied for a 1-O (conscientious objector) classification, and, because my claim was based on philosophical principles rather than a belief in the Supreme Being (then the only sanctioned legal basis), the case dragged on for years. Just as the war and the draft were ending, in 1973, I was granted CO status.   

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