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The War that Won’t Go Away

Brothers in Arms: A Journey from War to Peace

by William Broyles Jr.
Knopf, 284 pp., $17.95

Chance and Circumstance: The Draft, the War and the Vietnam Generation

by Lawrence M. Baskir, by William A. Strauss, foreword by Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh
Random House/Vintage, 312 pp., $4.95 (paper)

Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation

by Myra MacPherson
Doubleday, 663 pp., $19.95

The Vietnamese Gulag

by Doan Van Toai, by David Chanoff
Simon and Schuster, 351 pp., $18.95

Memorial Day, 1986. Laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, President Ronald Reagan paid special attention, in his remarks, to “the boys of Vietnam…who fought a terrible and vicious war without enough support from home…. They chose to be faithful. They chose to reject the fashionable skepticism of their time. They chose to believe and answer the call of duty.”

Ronald Reagan was adopting for his own ends one of the enduring conservative myths of the Vietnam War, that never were so many betrayed by so few. It has become a commonplace in the conservative canon to compare the combat hardships endured by the troops in the line with the cowardice of the military deserters in the field and the draft resisters at home. The truth is more ambiguous. In what Lawrence Baskir and William Strauss call the “Vietnam era”—that is, between August 7, 1964, when the Senate passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, and March 29, 1973, when the last US combat forces left Vietnam—26,800,000 American men came of draft age. Of that number, there were 570,000 apparent draft evaders. Another 15,410,000—or 57.5 percent—were “deferred, exempted, or disqualified,” one of whom, on medical grounds, was Ronald Reagan’s eldest son.

Class was always the domestic issue during the Vietnam War, not communism. At the peak of the conflict, draftees were getting killed at twice the rate of enlistees, with the result that avoiding the draft became the preoccupation of an entire male generation, or at least that part of it which had the means and the wit to manipulate the Selective Service system to its advantage. Evading military service has a long history in American life. During the Civil War, Union conscripts could buy a substitute for $300; in the South, plantation owners could keep their sons home under the so-called 20-Nigger Law, which exempted one overseer for every twenty slaves. So many registrants had their teeth pulled to avoid induction during World War I that the War Department had to warn dentists publicly that they were liable for prosecution for abetting draft dodging. Only World War II, which mobilized 10 million draftees, could by any stretch of the imagination be called a people’s war.

The men “who fought and died in Vietnam,” write Baskir and Strauss, “were primarily society’s ‘losers,’ the same men who got left behind in schools, jobs, and other forms of social competition.” In other words, a rainbow coalition of black, brown, and redneck who, according to the Notre Dame survey which was the inspiration for Chance and Circumstance, were “about twice as likely as their better-off peers to serve in the military, go to Vietnam, and see combat.”

The documentation presented by Baskir and Strauss, and by Myra MacPherson in Long Time Passing is relentless. A survey conducted by Congressman Alvin O’Konski of one hundred draftees in his northern Wisconsin district showed that not one came from a family with an annual income of over $5,000. Another survey, in 1965–1966, indicated that college graduates made up only 2 percent of all inductees. Of the 1,200 men in the Harvard class of 1970, only fifty-six served in the military, just two in Vietnam. People disposed to the war showed no more inclination to serve than those with antiwar attitudes. “A 1970 report showed that 234 sons of senators and congressmen came of age since the United States became involved in Vietnam,” MacPherson writes.

More than half—118—received deferments. Only 28 of that 234 were in Vietnam. Of that group, only 19 “saw combat,” Only one, Maryland Congressman Clarence Long’s son, was wounded…. No one on the House Armed Services Committee had a son or grandsom who did duty in Vietnam. Student deferments were shared by sons and grandsons of hawks and doves alike. Senators Burdick, Cranston, Dodd, Goldwater, Everett Jordan and McGhee had sons who flunked the physical.

II-S was the magic classification that guaranteed deferment for college students. In the Vietnam era, male college enrollment averaged 6 to 7 percent higher than in the years immediately preceding. Graduate schools were also II-S draft sanctuaries until 1968, when the Selective Service lifted this exemption. An exception was made for divinity schools, which immediately transformed theology into a popular graduate academic discipline. The Harvard Divinity School attracted David Stockman. “Once I went to divinity school I never worried about the draft that much,” Stockman told MacPherson. In 1981, when he became Ronald Reagan’s director of the budget, Stockman moved to cut, as “a dispensable expenditure,” funding for Vietnam Vet Centers, in the process calling Vietnam veterans “a noisy interest group.”

When the potential draftees finally reported for their preinduction physicals, approximately half were rejected, which was two to three times the rejection rate for the NATO allies. There was, among those with sufficient motivation, a virtual pandemic of asthma, bad backs, trick knees, flat feet, and skin rashes. Hawks who would later describe the war as a noble cause were no more immune to this scourge than doves; Patrick Buchanan had a bad knee, Elliott Abrams a bad back, Congressman Vin Weber asthma. Congressman Newt Gingrich told Jane Mayer of The Wall Street Journal that Vietnam was “the right battlefield at the right time,” but when asked why he had not served, Gingrich replied, “What difference would I have made? There was a bigger battle in Congress than in Vietnam.” In fact, Gingrich was not elected to Congress until 1979, having spent his draft-age years during the war earning a baccalaureate, master’s, and Ph.D. at Emory and Tulane, and teaching at West Georgia College.

The preinduction examination process,” Baskir and Strauss write, “rewarded careful planning, guile, and disruptive behavior.” Draft counselors seized on a loophole in the law that gave every registrant the right to choose the site of his preinduction physical. “For most of the war,” Baskir and Strauss say,

Butte, Montana, was considered an easy mark for anyone with a letter from a doctor, and Little Rock, Arkansas, for anyone with a letter from a psychiatrist. Beckley, West Virginia, was well-known for giving exemptions to “anyone who freaked out.”… By far the most popular place to go for a preinduction physical was Seattle, Washington. In the latter years of the war, Seattle examiners separated people into two groups: those who had letters from doctors and psychiatrists, and those who did not. Everyone with a letter received an exemption, regardless of what the letter said.

For those who did not wish to chance the preinduction physical, however many medical affidavits loaded the dice in their favor, the reserves and the National Guard beckoned. In 1969 and 1970, the reserves and the Guard welcomed 28,000 more college-educated recruits than were enlisted or drafted into all the other services combined. In 1968, the Guard had a waiting list of 100,000 men; one Pentagon study showed that 71 percent of all reserve and 90 percent of all Guard enlistments wanted to avoid the draft. This was a force in which Jim Crow appeared to be the recruiting sergeant; only 1 percent of the total strength of the Guard nationwide was black. (It should further be noted that according to a 1966 report a mentally qualified white male was 50 percent more likely to fail his preinduction physical than his black counterpart.)

Professional athletes were particularly attracted to the reserves and Guard. While the magnates of professional sports have always had an almost mystical devotion to the flag, this devotion, during the Vietnam War, did not extend to volunteering their athletes to get shot in defense of it. Ten members of the Dallas Cowboys were assigned to one National Guard division, the backfield of the Philadelphia Eagles to the same reserve unit. The chances that Lyndon Johnson would mobilize all or most of the 1,040,000 in the Guard or the reserves were always minimal. This was a constituency of the white, the well-to-do, the well educated, and the better connected, and to activate them would have brought the war into the venues whose support Johnson most feared losing. In all, only 37,000 men from this manpower pool were called up, and of these, just 15,000 went to Vietnam.

The army of the underprivileged that fought was abandoned not only by the antiwar left, but also, Ronald Reagan’s revisionism notwithstanding, by the prowar right, whose rhetorical support for the conflict exceeded its interest in fighting it. The marine platoon on Hill 10, near Da Nang, that William Broyles took command of in November 1969, is a case in point. “I have fifty-eight men,” Broyles wrote at the time. “Only twenty have high school diplomas. About ten of them are over twenty-one.” Broyles goes on: “The average age of the infantryman in World War II was twenty-six; in Vietnam it was nineteen…. In another platoon there was a lance corporal who was twenty-four. He was called Pops.” The service records of Broyles’s men on Hill 10 similarly indicate a platoon of the dispossessed and the disadvantaged: “Address of father: unknown. Education: one or two years of high school. Occupation: laborer, pecan sheller, gas station attendant, Job Corps. Kids with no place to go. No place but here.”

William Broyles is one of the three people I know who served in Vietnam. In Brothers in Arms he tries to calibrate his feelings about the war, about the men he fought with, the men he fought against, and the men who did not go. “I was drafted at the age of twenty-four,” he writes, “and I had spent the previous three years doing my best to avoid military service.” A graduate of Rice University in Texas, he won a Marshall Scholarship to Worcester College, Oxford. The BBC was his link to Vietnam, the television images from Hue during the 1968 Tet offensive his crucible. “Those boys were like the friends I had grown up with in a small town in Texas,” he writes. “They were fighting a war while my friends from college and I went on with our lives. I thought my country was wrong in Vietnam, but I began to suspect that I was using that conviction to excuse my selfishness and my fears.”

He took his preinduction physical in Newark, one of four whites and 146 blacks. “The Army was their escape from the Newark ghetto,” Broyles writes. “They wanted in, not out.” Once in the Marine Corps, he expected, because of his educational advantages, to spend his three-year tour studying Chinese at the language school in Monterey, then translating documents in Washington. Instead he was commissioned as a platoon leader. On his way to Vietnam, he briefly went over the hill, planning a moral gesture against the war. Then he reconsidered and shipped out to Da Nang, finally landing on Hill 10.

The teen-agers in his platoon made it clear they would choose which of his commands to obey. “No way, José,” a nineteen-year-old Cajun point man responded when Lieutenant Broyles ordered him into a tunnel where an enemy soldier was thought to be hiding. A nineteen-year-old squad leader also refused. Broyles went in himself. “Inside the tunnel poisonous snakes might be hung from the ceiling,” Broyles says about this insidious and terrifying underground combat. “A pit might lie beneath the floor, lined with sharpened stakes—perhaps with poison on the tips…. In Vietnam the monster really was under the bed, the tunnel really did suddenly open in your bedroom wall.”

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