FIELD NOTES DECEMBER 13TH, 2017
The Vietnam War
by Peter St. Clair
On a cold dark morning in the winter of 1967, I stood outside the induction center on Whitehall Street in lower Manhattan handing out draft facts cards to the arriving inductees. These were folded cardboard cards the size of draft cards, with information on the rights and alternatives still available to these young guys as they entered the building to face induction into the army. I had been showing up here every morning for the past few weeks as part of my organizing work as a member of the New York Draft Resistance. I was a twenty year old college dropout. On this day I was with three slightly older organizers—two women and a man—all of them local graduate students. In the early morning darkness, as despondent draftees shuffled by, accepting the cards and entering the building, a car with five or six men in it cruised slowly by, looking at us. After it circled again and pulled around the corner out of sight we began to get nervous. Suddenly we were attacked by a gang of men in plain clothes. I stood my ground, maybe foolishly, but I had recently decided to become a full-fledged pacifist and to renounce violence. It was bad timing. The others scattered and I got beat up as I refused to raise a hand in defense and, passively resisting, I crumpled to the side walk. The attackers fled and I was helped up by my returning friends and taken home on the subway to nurse my wounds. A few days later I was back again, but we now had a larger contingent of draft resisters each morning outside the induction center.
US Soldiers Moving in a Skirmish Line Through Rice Paddies. National Archives.I, like other Americans who came of age during the Vietnam War, was a child of the World War II generation, the generation that was understood to have sacrificed so much to defeat the Nazis and their Japanese allies. A working-class kid from Brooklyn raised in the 1950s in the shadow of that war, I grew up playing war games with toy soldiers along with my brothers reenacting battles like the landing at Normandy every time my family would spend a day at the beach at Reis Park. I grew up yearning to become a soldier, to relive the glory of war and “to play my own part in the patriot game.” The route that led me from that to draft resistance might have been uncommon—few from my Borough Park neighborhood or my Catholic high school became draft resisters—but we were all swept up in the same events. However, I was not the only one, as I later roomed with another working-class guy from Borough Park in the Brooklyn Draft Resistance commune.
In 1966, when I was nineteen, despite knowing I would lose my student deferment, I left Manhattan College in my sophomore year. I was rebelling against my strict Catholic upbringing. Under the influence of a growing alternative culture I had already come to oppose the war. Like many of my contemporaries I found myself in a moral bind. I was facing the draft and the possibility of being sent to fight in Vietnam. I found it impossible to justify killing or getting killed in a war I thought was morally indefensible. Opposition to the war was common among my fellow workers at the NY Public Library on 42nd Street, where I had worked part-time as a page since high school. In a copy of the underground newspaper the East Village Other, I saw an ad for draft counseling at the Draft Resistance office on Beekman Street. I met with a draft counselor who outlined my options for avoiding getting drafted. I decided to apply for conscientious objector status but, having recently decided I was an atheist, I was unable to fulfill an essential requirement for a CO: explaining how a belief in God prevented me from fighting in a war. Objecting to a particular war on the grounds that it is not morally justified is not permissible under Selective Service law. I resolved this difficulty after talking to a fellow page at the library. He told me about Pantheism, the idea that God is everything—the universe itself and everything in it is God. If I believed in the universe then I believed in God. He advised me to read an introduction to Spinoza and based on that I wrote an essay explaining my pantheistic beliefs to my Brooklyn draft board. They rejected my request. I was classified 1A and draft eligible. After another draft counseling session my options came down to going into the army or leaving the country—or refusing induction, an act of civil disobedience and a political protest against the war for which I would face a possible ten year jail sentence. I chose draft resistance. It was an agonizing decision; almost everybody I knew tried to talk me out of it. I was spurned by some of my relatives and many people I knew. My father was ashamed of me. He slapped me in the face and called me a communist.
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[JR: The “war” broke many of us. Some more than others. It’s in my mind a “national disaster” and a self-inflicted wound. One of my Prep classmates went to “Viet Nam, Republic of”, another underground, another to Canada, and others were drafted to places unknown. Luck of the draw, I spent my four years in Maryland for the most part. I’m not sure I was the “lucky ones”. Dona Nobis Pacem]
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