Thursday, November 4, 2010
I'm just a typical American boy from a typical American town
I believe in God and Senator Dodd and keeping old Castro down
And when it came my time to serve I knew better dead than red
But when I got to my old draft board, buddy, this is what I said
Sarge, I'm only eighteen, I got a ruptured spleen
And I always carry a purse
I got eyes like a bat, my feet are flat, and my asthma's
O think of my career, my sweetheart dear, and my poor old
Besides, I ain't no fool, I'm a goin' to school, and I'm
working in a defense plant
Draft Dodger Rag
...You fasten the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion
As young people's blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud
How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I'm young
You might say I'm unlearned
But there's one thing I know
Though I'm younger than you
Even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do
Masters of War
There was never a day I didn’t think about the draft. It hovered over my head like a red white and blue guillotine. The growing dissent and unpopularity of the war in Vietnam made the ongoing struggle bearable, but for most of us, a personal confrontation with our very own draft board was always looming on the horizon. Most cities had competent draft counselors. Informative, accurate, and affordable books on the subject were easy to come by. No amount, however, of imaginary rehearsals, daydreams, or nightmares would ever be enough for the day of reckoning sure to come.
For my generation, Vietnam became the defining issue. The war divided friends and families, traumatized our moral emotions, and forced us to re-examine our understanding of U.S. history. The conclusions I was beginning to draw from studying U.S. foreign policy were reinforced in nightly newscasts. Every time I saw film of bombing runs, napalm being dropped, and villages and Vietnamese people on fire, I imagined myself an eyewitness. All the patriotic parades, the brassy marches, and uniformed heroes from my childhood seemed hollow. I was beginning to realize how manipulated and distorted the media, the history texts, and the true believers could be.
For me, the conflict centered on the ease with which most people I knew and respected could accept the brutality of war. Why didn’t they see what I saw? Why didn’t the screaming, naked children, with clothing burning or defolients used to pollute and annihilate rivers and countryside, food supply and entire villages of this ancient culture have the same impact? Who needed atomic fallout when the Dow Chemical Company could produce weapons that would have the same effects for less money? The mindless arguments regurgitated to rationalize what we all knew were the most infuriating.
“There will always be poverty and war. It’s just human nature.”
“If my country needs me I’m there. We shouldn’t question our leaders, after all they were elected by the people and this is a democracy.”
I began to feel alienated from all but my own generation. Talking to neighbors at a summer gathering or my friend’s parents proved to be too confrontational. Best to avoid them unless they would listen to another view. Vietnam soon became only the tip of an iceberg so enormous and so submerged that any simple conversation about the conduct of the war, the troops or the president could result in disparaging remarks about everything from Disneyland to Little League, to U.S. Imperialism during the Spanish American War. I braced for my community to perceive me as a radical, a communist sympathizer, a coward, and an impressionable fool. Even in the face of astonishing statements made by respected U.S. military figures, many Americans remained loyal and sacrificed critical thinking for blind faith. In March of 1968, American journalist Peter Arnett interviewed an American Major after the destruction of the village of Ben Tre. The officer’s response, serves to encapsulate all the irrational, mind-numbing, convoluted outrage that many of us felt. He said, “In order to save the village, we had to destroy it.”
Hidden, of course, were the psychological basket cases, the desensitized, shell shocked, and sociopathic, who, if they were fortunate to free themselves from an inept Veterans Administration, were released into star-spangled communities to either re-live their traumas or recreate them. For a person who had always enjoyed the support of family, teachers, Boy Scout troop masters, and other authority figures, I was now the rebel. I was the one who defied his country, his government, his elders, and certainly, in their view his God.
Television changed all that. Much as it did with the Civil Rights Movement, the war went from the jungle into our living rooms. It arrived in color, with the sound of bombed out villages, the cries of bleeding army privates, and the rolling thunder of exploding napalm enveloping the terrain and bodies of Vietnamese in the liquid fire that most often burned and maimed. There was less instant death from napalm; it rolled over and on to homes and their occupants like molten Vaseline. Human beings were doing this to other human beings. No stirring speech, military march or crisp dress uniform would ever camouflage the sickening feeling of combat video TV newscasts and documentary films presented daily.
On December 1, 1969 all the VISTAS from the entire Houston area jammed into a newly opened Project House to watch the televised draft lottery. The Project House, formerly a convent, served as a safe haven for VISTAS between living situations, new people to the area, and an increasing number of VISTA lawyers sent to the region. We watched with grim faces and hostile humor as numbers emerged, were plugged into birthdays, and our fate determined on national television. Birth dates turned into death dates. From 1 to 365, each day of the year turned into a paroxysm of grief or relief.
Alun Richards, a VISTA originally from Wales, got number 2. I had forgotten that even non-U.S. citizens were eligible for the draft too. His usual toothy smile evaporated. Alun returned to Wales a week later. His VISTA girlfriend, Julie Shaw, cried for days. She then moved into a small vacant space at 1506 Rosewood for a short while just to be around people. With each new number called my VISTA peers breathed a bit easier. The guys with numbers over 200 tried to suppress their joy and relief. My number was 147, a decent draw for most guys. But I knew immediately it wasn’t high enough. My draft board, the second largest in the country, would easily get to 250 at least. I knew too, that I was in for a battle. But this was one fight I was willing to engage. The way I figured it, I needed to confront the system head on. Anything less would be inauthentic. I was an admirer of David Harris, the former Stanford student body president who, along with his wife at the time, Joan Baez, asked young people my age to think critically, if not differently about the entire military paradigm and its tactic of “channeling” men between the ages of 18 -26 to fight and die for a foreign policy that was deceptive and inept at worse, questionable and ineffective at best. Sleep didn’t come that night. Some of the guys who knew they would not be called were in a celebratory mood. But this was not making the basketball team, or the dreaded “being cut” in Little League. This was answering your government’s call, protecting democracy, taking a human life. No party followed. Sympathies exchanged, we filed back to our communities wondering how it would all play out.
Donovan’s version of Buffy St. Marie's "Universal Soldier" played in my mind like a broken music box. I knew all the verses, but kept hearing just four:
He’s five foot-two and he’s six feet four
He fights with missiles and with spears,
He’s all if thirty-one, and he’s only seventeen,
Been a soldier for a thousand years,
He’s a Catholic, a Hindu, an Atheist, a Jain,
A Buddhist and a Baptist and a Jew,
And he knows he shouldn’t kill,
And he knows he always will,
Kill you for me my friend, and me for you.
And he’s fighting for Canada, he’s fighting for France
He’s fighting for the USA
And he’s fighting for the Russians
And he’s fighting for Japan,
And he thinks we’ll put an end to war this way.
And he’s fighting for Democracy, he’s fighting for the Reds,
He says it’s for the peace of all,
He’s the one who must decide, who’s to live and who’s to die,
And he never sees the writing on the wall.
He’s the Universal Soldier and he really is to blame,
His orders come from far away no more,
They come from here and there and you and me,
And brothers can’t you see,
This is not the way we put the end to war.
My orders were beginning to” come from far away no more.” If thinking deeply could be measured, I was in the Earth’s core. The last line of that song became an endless loop: “This is not the way we put an end to war.” In my restlessness I conjured up the number 147. How fitting. Fours and Sevens have always been a big deal for me. Since my birthday is 4/7/1947 and my time of birth is 7:47 pm the synchronicity was not lost. If only a three had appeared. Number 347 would have made me safe; 147 only bought a few more months before the inevitable. Deeper into that night, the song became a sound track for a replay of my meeting David Harris the previous year. Harris, the former Stanford Student Body President was making headlines for his vehement war resistor stance. Marrying singer Joan Baez, already targeted by Right Wing pundits and politicos as a “Commie,” made the bulls eye on his back just a tad bigger.
On a warm spring morning in my senior year David Harris visited the UCLA campus and spoke to a modest crowd of mostly draft age students. Accompanied by Baez, who said very little but never left his side, he invited any interested students to reconvene after the official presentation concluded. About 10 of us ended up under a nearby tree. There, under the shade of the willing elm, Harris answered questions about the quirks and inconsistencies of local draft boards. His eyes were deep and clear, his resolve as genuine as gold. Harris’s voice was soft yet firm. Empowering, yes; but an air of sadness always surrounded David Harris. It wasn’t until I received a letter from him a few months later that I smiled. I’d written him asking about how his own case was going and a planned war resisters initiative scheduled for early the next year. With the lottery slated to kick in, I wanted to learn everything I could about my alternatives and the burgeoning resistance. Harris outlined the details of his case for me and noted he didn’t expect to win. Like most draft resistors, he would not be tried on the sincerity of his beliefs, but only on the fact that he refused induction. On the back flap of the green yellow and brown flowered envelope he wrote, “Please excuse the stationery, it’s my wife’s.”
David Harris and Joan Baez
My first draft board appearance came in early fall. It had taken six months to get the appearance and most of the counselors I’d spoken to felt my board would not grant the occupational deferment for VISTA.
“It doesn’t matter what some guy’s board in Ohio says, it’s all random,” my main counselor said. “Your board is in the East Valley and they have huge quotas to fill; don’t count on it.” That was the bad news; the good news was that asking for the occupational deferment would buy time. Then, when that deferment was denied, I could file for conscientious objector status. An appearance for that request would take another six months to get.
Besides, the counselors all agree, that’s the appearance that will determine the course of you life. I needed to get over the fact that the system was so unfair, so inconsistent. Sure, some of the male VISTAS received occupational deferments for their service but my board had never granted that status to anyone. Some guys I knew made appearances and simply told their board members that they did not want to kill any body and were immediately reclassified. My board reputedly relished asking difficult questions. I knew I was in for a battle when 147 finally came up. The only unknown was the time frame for this drama to play out.
In all, I made two appearances before Local Board #82 The first one in October of 1969 went quickly. They asked me a few questions about my work in VISTA and simply concluded that while it was an honorable sentiment to serve the poor, it certainly wasn’t worthy of a wartime deferment. In their eyes, there was only one war going on. The following month I was reclassified 1-A; when my number came up, I’d receive a notice for physical exam. One option remained, declaring myself a conscientious objector and asking for a personal appearance to state my case and defend my beliefs. The way the law was written, that belief had to be based on a concept of God. I saw no problem with that because I regarded human beings created in the image of God. If human life was sacred, and humans were God, how could I kill God? You want God, I thought, I’ll give you God. I began work on my official statement the day my new draft card arrived.
During this period I went to visit VISTA Arny Reichler. Aside from being a loyal friend, Arne was an ally in my struggle with the draft. He also made me laugh. With his thick wire rimmed glasses constantly sliding down his nose, Arny loved talking about his draft board. He’d take large gulps from his coffee mug, swirl his thinning hair out of his eyes and begin his monologue.
“I’ve really figured out how to drive my board nuts. The law says they gotta put everything you send ‘em in your file. So I send ‘em telephone books and old encyclopedias.”
Arny also sent his draft board a new poem each week. He would carefully number each poem because he sensed that after a while everything would just automatically get dumped in his file. Arny had no intention of sending a #17 poem. He knew that by the time he had sent in over 100 poems he could easily make the case that the board lost #17. This procedural error might be just the ticket to keep him away from Vietnam. Like all of us, Arny knew a few other methods to buy time from the military, but he preferred to do it his way. But sharing the folk culture of draft resistors was something we did if only to keep options for others open. He’d tell me about one guy who stuck crunchy peanut butter up his ass so he could reach down during his physical in front of the army doctors and transfer the contents to his mouth. If it worked in one part of the country, it just might do the trick in another. I’d tell him that someone told me to soak a cigarette in iodine overnight and then let it dry out. Supposedly if you smoked it and slowly inhaled the smoke, your lungs would be temporarily spotted and you’d be classified 4-F. (Physically unfit)
Because the draft was a constant concern of male VISTAS, Arny and I tried to disseminate as much information as possible. We knew that the best draft counseling came from the east or west coast so we did out best to pass along anything we knew. One VISTA, Hugh Grady, from Savannah, Georgia, had a most uncommon struggle with his board. Former SDS members, he and his wife Sue had joined VISTA upon college graduation together. Hugh was straightforward with his board and told them that he had belonged to an organization that advocated overthrow of the government. He knew that there was a provision in the draft law, added during the Cold War’s inception that might disqualify him for holding that belief. The board didn’t go for it. After a lengthy battle, Hugh invited us all over for a get together where he announced that he was going to go in rather than flee to Canada. Standing in front of a wall of posters with images of Chairman Mao, Che Guevara, and Malcolm X, he spoke. “I’ve decided to organize from within,” he solemnly announced. “I think I can do more to end this war that way.” The Vietnam Veterans Against the War was just beginning to form and we all had heard stories about fragging (enlisted men killing their officers) in Vietnam. It seemed a brave and logical thing for him to do. When Hugh returned home the evening of his scheduled deployment we were dumfounded. Just before his final physical, he told a sergeant he was gay and then did his best to act the stereotype. “I was just trying to fuck with their heads, “he told us grinning like a mule eating saw brier. “See, in Georgia, I guess they’re more afraid of a gay man than one who believes in overthrowing the government.”
The word on the street about my board was very different. If anyone tried to claim they were gay, the Sergeant in charge would immediately bark, “Good, then you’ll love the army.” Just who they were was uncertain, but I was expecting them to be extremely testy. I knew my personal references needed to be exceptional if I was to have any chance of believability. I lined up what I considered to be three of the best. Miles Simmons was a minister. As one of my VISTA supervisors he was qualified to comment on my spiritual side. Lee Canales, my other supervisor was a veteran. A former MP in charge of guarding top-secret materials he was like so many Latinos I met in Texas in that he had a different view of the military. For Latino men who grew up in the barrio, the military represented a way out. It was three meals a day, it was a college education, and it was travel. Canales respected my position, and I his. Handing me his letter of reference to be sent in with my statement of conscientious objection, Lee could hardly contain himself.
“Wait till you read this letter Bruce, I think I’ve given them something to think about.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well there’s a line in there where after I tell them about my MP background, I say that you are about the last person I would want next to me with a gun in a combat situation!”
“Hey, that’s good,” I said, trying not to have my male ego shattered. Would I be seen as weak because I refused to take a government issue M-14 and kill people? A momentary thought. Nothing more. Certainly my Eagle Scout rank would validate my ability to survive in the wilderness. Inside, I was thinking, it’s very logical, very honest, I certainly would hesitate to kill; maybe one of those guys will have some doubt swimming upstream inside his head? I just hoped they wouldn’t ask to see my Eagle Scout badge. Shortly after the 1968 Democratic Convention I had removed the Sterling silver eagle from the medal and replaced it with a peace symbol. Hanging underneath the red, white, and blue ribbons, it seemed more functional that way.
My third letter came from my father. He was more than happy to support my beliefs and in his comments traced their origin by detailing the kind of child I was, what values my family had imbued in me and his estimation of the depth of my sincerity. I was tickled that he mentioned I achieved the rank of Eagle Scout. I wanted my board to know that this was one thinking, competent, patriotic young man who refused to participate in the national nightmare of Vietnam.
By April 10, my CO statement was ready. I argued that the basis of my claim was my belief that human beings were created in the image of God. I quoted both the Bible and the Koran and clearly stated my thesis: To kill a man is to kill God. I pointed out that my belief system held God and love as synonymous and concluded that to kill God is to also kill love.
My religious beliefs tell me that this is the greatest wrong a man
can do. God loves; he creates; and so it is for man born of Him,
born unto his likeness and oneness to so the same; to love and create
not to kill and destroy. To destroy by killing human life is not only
to perform the greatest wrong against man, it is to perform it against
life, and thus against God.*
On April 30, I flew home make my appearance. I had been in Texas 10 months. With a poor drug store photocopy of my C O statement, I took the Rapid Transit bus to North Hollywood and walked over to Colfax Avenue where Local Board # 82 stood like a sun-bleached, uninviting dental office. The Venetian blinds were ureic yellow. In front of me stood a young man already waiting at the counter. One of the secretaries, old enough to be my grandmother, was trying to contain her smile because the nineteen year old had placed a squeaking kitten on the counter and momentarily lost the handle. The ball of orange fluff scampered to the end of the countertop and I began secretly hoping he would relieve himself before being corralled. My fantasy was growing and I saw cat piss on the files, blurring the lottery numbers of all those who were scheduled to appear this day. No luck. My appearance was scheduled for 1:30. At 2:17, I was still sitting in the waiting area. I reviewed my carefully rehearsed responses to any question I might get. I knew that sometimes very unexpected questions could be hurled at very unsuspecting registrants. I also knew that there was one final question that I should ask when given the obligatory opportunity that signaled the end of the appearance: “Is there anything that I have said that makes you doubt my sincerity?” I was ready to rock and roll. Inside my head the last lines of a Phil Ochs tune played:
Call it "Peace" or call it "Treason,"
Call it "Love" or call it "Reason,"
But I ain't marchin' any more.
It was my own private pep rally. At 2:29 p.m. The door opened and I entered the tribunal.
The seating arrangement formed a square. The three board members, left center and right. To ease my growing tension I conjured up Alfalfa of the Little Rascals. I could hear him reciting the “Charge of the Light Brigade.” Only now it was “Selective Service to the Left of me, SS to the right of me…” The humor lasted an instant and the first board member, a thin, slightly gray, very bland man addressed the group. He may have introduced the other three men in the room but their names never stuck. A secretary was also present, sitting in a corner to my left. She took shorthand from the moment the first member spoke. I brought no witness.
Once the questions started, I hardly had time to breathe.
Why have you come before the board today? You say you’re against the Vietnam War, why didn’t you express that belief when you first registered? What religion are you? You know this classification is not granted to anyone, you have to be religious. I referred the members to my statement and letters of support. They were not moved my Kenneth Patchen’s poetry or the words of Dr. King or Gandhi. Not religious enough. When I told them I had recently received a degree in history in response to a question about my education, out came the heavy artillery.
The line of questioning that followed traced my beliefs to the popular culture of the age. The oldest board member, who I am sure was a retired officer, asked me how my beliefs would translate to other situations.
“What other situations,” I said, “I am against violence in any form and could not participate in any organization that used violence to pursue its objectives.”
“What about the Nazis, they were brutal killers who massacred Jews. Would you just stand by and let that happen?
There it was, the Nazi question. I was expecting the rape of my grandmother to come next.
“This is obviously a difficult question to answer, but for me I must tell you that my religious beliefs do not permit me to use violence.”
“So you’d sit there and let people be massacred?”
I referred to my statement and reminded the board that my beliefs did not permit met to use violence in any form. I repeated that there were non-violent alternatives to war.
“Does the same hold true for members of your own family when threatened by violence?” Would you just stand there and watch? You mean you’d do nothing if your own family were threatened by physical violence?
I held my ground. In my mind I knew I would do what I must. I also knew I would have none of this illegal, immoral war.
“So, Mr. Greene, it seems as if your beliefs will allow you to serve on a non-combatant basis? Wouldn’t you agree that your beliefs would allow you to serve as a medic?”
“Again, I must respectfully remind the board that my beliefs do not permit me to be part of any organization that advocated the use of violence. But I am willing to accept alternative service. In fact, that is one reason why I volunteered to serve my country in VISTA.”
A few short questions about my work in Vista followed, but it was clear that Local Board #82 wasn’t interested in my efforts to promote poetry or musical knowledge, or welfare rights in the Houston ghetto. If they read the entirety of my statement they would have read two of my poems dealing with conscientiousness. They would have also read an excerpt from a Kenneth Patchen poem I included.
There is only one truth in the world:
Until we learn to love our neighbor,
There will be no life for anyone.
The man who says, “I don’t believe in war
But after all somebody must protect us”
Is obviously a fool and a liar.
That who supports murder is a murderer?
That who destroys his fellow, destroys himself?
By the end of my appearance, I was certain that I had convinced no one. By using the Patchen quote I had essentially called them all fools and liars. I felt satisfied. In truth, Patchen, King and Gandhi were worthy of worship more than a God who sanctioned napalm, anti-personnel bombs, and Agent Orange.
The personal appearance gave me an opportunity to check in with a few friends I left behind. It also insured that I’d be able to complete my VISTA service because it would take anywhere from two to six months to receive the board’s decision, be reclassified to 1-A, take a physical, and then deal with the business of refusing induction.
Before returning to Houston I found time to see my friend Kenny. His daughter Alex had died two months earlier. I didn’t know that her one-year of life began and end on the same day.
“She died on her birthday,” Kenny said clearing a place to sit in my old bedroom. His face drained. He brushed his shoulder length hair aside. His voice was barely audible.
“We were on the way to the hospital and stopped at a gas station first. I knew she wasn’t going to make it; I think she might already have been gone. It was so strange not bringing her home with us.”
I felt like crying but held in everything to protect Kenny. We all knew that Alex, who had been born with a brain abnormality, was going to have an uphill struggle. Perhaps this was for the best. I didn’t even have time to see Carol, but he intimated that she wasn’t into visitors right now. I was concerned for their future together. We tried to talk about music and sports. It didn’t work. There would be no stopping by the Ash Grove, our favorite music venue. No late night drives through Laurel Canyon or trips to Westwood Village. No human be-ins, love-ins, or teach-ins. My life was no longer in Southern California. It was hovering, on hold, somewhere between Texas and Vietnam.
The spring of 1970 saw the Southeast Asian war widen to Cambodia. Not surprising, new outrage and demonstrations at home followed close behind. I had two months to finish my work in Texas and prepare to deal with the inevitable collision coming with my beliefs and the Selective Service System. If my government was dragging its heels on an exit strategy from Vietnam, my own plan for exiting the war at home took vivid shape. I would complete all work and current obligations by early May, travel the length of the country, and position myself for a final confrontation with Local Board #82. I considered myself a draft resistor not a dodger. The expression “draft dodger filled me with anger and contempt. I was avoiding nothing; I was facing the selective service system head on. Despite my fear of prison and the consequences for my family, my resolve was inviolable, my decision made. If saying to my government that I will not kill a human being became the defining moment of my life, I could live with that.