January 21, 2014

Fleeing the Draft

On this day in 1977, newly elected President Jimmy Carter issued a nearly blanket pardon for all those who had fled the country to avoid being drafted during the Vietnam War. Out of slightly over 2.2 million draftees, about 100,000 chose to flee to Canada. It certainly crossed my mind at the time.

I was a college graduate and could have chosen the more genteel version of draft dodging known as grad school. Or I could have gotten married and had a kid. Neither of those options was available or viable, nor did I have any interest in pursuing them.

So yeah, I did think about going to Canada ... but not for long. My thought was that if I fled to Canada I would be stuck there for life, a fugitive from the law, never able to return to see my family except under clandestine circumstances. In a very real sense, I would be under the control of the Army for the rest of my life.

I decided I would rather roll the dice and take my chances on a tour of duty in Vietnam and be done with it one way or another, rather than flee to Canada and always have the shadow of being caught and sent to prison hanging over me. It was a "Live free, or die" moment, I guess you could say. Of course, like most folks who spout that well-known phrase, I pretty much stopped at the "Live free" part, not really considering the  "or die" aspect of the bargain.

Truth be told, I was not all that unwilling to go to Vietnam. Patriotism had nothing to do with it. I was curious, plain and simple. I grew up in the shadow of WWII and had read a lot of the books and seen most of the movies. I wanted to see for myself what it would be like. I wanted to see what I would be like.

I never regretted my choice, just as I never begrudged those who chose not to go. The year I was drafted -- 1968 -- was maybe the last year the war seemed even remotely plausible as an undertaking. If you were sitting around the house in 1970 or 1971 waiting for your draft notice, the choice of dying in what was clearly a lost cause or running for your life was kind of hard to ignore.

President Carter's decision to issue a blanket pardon was controversial, even though President Ford had also offered a more limited pardon. The traditional veterans groups like the VFW and the American Legion were bitterly opposed. Arguments were made that if we do this we would never be able to depend on conscription in the future. Those folks misunderstood the mindset of those opposed to the war and they underestimated the patriotism of that and future generations.

The problem was not with our patriotic instincts. The problem was with leaders who led the country into a war that ultimately had no demonstrable connection to our national security. Give us a reason that is persuasive, show us a clear and present danger ... folks will respond. Just look at how we answered the call after 9/11. Hell yes, I would have gone.

But then look equally hard at what happened as it morphed into a nation-building exercise in bringing democracy to tribal and religious cultures that had little experience and even less interest in it. But that's another story. Or maybe it's the same old story.

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