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 …

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Letters

Harvard & Vietnam December 18, 1986