Pearl River The draft was a central issue in the opposition to the Vietnam War. It touched all young men from eighteen to twenty-six, and the families that loved them. It was a terribly unifying horror that was shared throughout the country, forcing life changing, and often life and death decisions at a very, very early age that would determine your future, if you were lucky enough to have one. There was no choice to register, just as there is no choice to register for young men today, but once registered you might be on your way to Vietnam, Canada, or jail or any space in between that you could find. You might be able to avoid the draft, but you could not avoid the decision.
Though draft was universal for young men, that did not mean it was one-size-fits-all and equitable. It was class and race-biased with a vengeance. During that period, when going to college was not as ubiquitous as it is now fifty years later, if you were a student, you could get a 2-S deferment, as a special middle class your-life-is-more-important-than-mine card. If you knew someone at the local draft board, you were rolling as well, if you ran into trouble on the grades. I did time as a draft counselor and in draft resistance during that period in both New Orleans and western Massachusetts. I stopped when I felt like I was running a college service center. Dropping out of school to organize, I went through draft physicals in Springfield, Massachusetts and New Orleans. This was a working-class congregational meeting with the preponderance of draftees were people of color.
Anti-war protests were key, but the draft was the trump card in making opposition to the war grow and prevail. Working offshore on oil platforms in the summer is shift work. I was on 14 and 7. Company guys were on 7 and 7. Coworkers were from Florida, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Alabama, and of course Texas. If the money was good, the drive in and out was no big thing. You worked twelve hour shifts and were stuck out on the water. You talked, and it was surprising in 1967 when I was a teenager to hear the roustabouts and tool pushers state plainly that they would not let their kids go to Vietnam.
Look at our endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. You want to end a war, institute a compulsory service draft. You want to end it even faster, given the powers that be, draft women, too.
Not that women can’t fight. Some 17% of the US military is now composed of women on the front line, as pilots, and any other job that they are able to muster. They are no longer restricted from combat roles. As this number grows, it will give some lawmakers pause. It’s one thing for many of them to volunteer, but as their percentage increases, these old schoolers who want to control their bodies in every other way, are not going to be happy seeing them come back home to their districts in body bags.
A national commission is reportedly recommending that young women be required to register for the draft at eighteen, just as young men do. I’m all for it. It virtually guarantees that a compulsory draft will never be used again.
Wade Rathke is founder and chief organizer of ACORN and ACORN International. You can find Wade’s recent past posts here Chief Organizer Reports. And you can link to his website here Chief Organizer ACORN/ACORN International