My Story with The Draft
By Steve Clemens
I turned 18 in the fall of 1968 while enrolled as a freshman at Wheaton College, an evangelical school located in the western suburbs of Chicago. At that time there was an active military draft and all males were required to register with the Selective Service System within 30 days of their 18th birthday.
En route to Wheaton, IL from my home in eastern Pennsylvania, my parents and I stopped in Fort Wayne, IN to visit some relatives. We attended the Mennonite Church they were members of since we arrived on the weekend. In the Sunday School class I attended, there was a discussion about a Christian response to the war and I discovered my cousin, Jon Brandenburger, was declaring himself to be a “CO”. I had heard of Conscientious Objectors and knew that many Mennonites refused to fight and chose to do alternative service instead. Because most of my relatives had left the Mennonite tradition, it was not an issue I had faced before. While there were still a few members of Calvary Church, my home congregation, who were committed to the Mennonite understanding of a commitment to nonviolence, most members seemed to feel that was another legalistic area they could leave behind in seeking a new identity as evangelical Christians rather than Anabaptists. I had been “sheltered” from the realities of the Vietnam War and the draft by attending a private college-prep high school where everyone graduating was headed to college. In most public high schools, graduation often meant “the draft” for many classmates.
Just two days after this Sunday school discussion, I was handed an M-1 rifle and a uniform as part of my enrollment as a Wheaton freshman! Wheaton College had mandated two years of compulsory military training for all male students through its ROTC program. [ROTC stands for Reserved Officer Training Corps and, at Wheaton, was connected with the U.S. Army. If one completed all four years offered, one would be commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Army upon graduation.]Twice a week we were scheduled to rise before breakfast and to drill in our uniforms with our weapons. (The firing pins had been removed and were stored in a locked area in the ROTC offices.)
My first pangs of dis-ease or conscience arose as I found myself encouraged to chant with the student troops phrases to cadences which were very demeaning to women and most people in general. I was not even slightly aware of the burgeoning feminist movement on the horizon. I just felt that “Wheaton’s kind of student” wouldn’t casually demean others because of our faith commitment. It seemed that the uniform had a way of making one’s faith commitment a secondary issue when competing with the Army’s mentality. Along with drill, we had several classes each week in military history and strategy taught by Army Officers who were granted teaching status at the college. We also went to the firing range several times to practice our weapon skills.
I had gone hunting with my dad and brothers numerous times before I went off to high school at Stony Brook. We hunted squirrels, rabbits, ducks, pheasants, and deer. Whenever we practiced shooting our shotguns or rifles, my dad [a veteran of WWII as an Army infantryman who saw action in France and Germany] would tell us, “Never, ever, point your gun at another human being. Never, ever, point your gun at something you don’t wish to kill.” He was very emphatic that we practice safety whenever we were carrying a gun, to unload it while in vehicles, how to safely cross a fence, and so on. Whenever we sighted in a gun before deer season, we fired at circular targets and we realized that those targets were representative of the area of the deer we were to aim at- usually the area where the heart and other vital organs were located.
It didn’t take long on those Wheaton firing ranges to subconsciously realize that something was very wrong. These circular target were no longer representative of deer but were now used to represent the “Viet Cong”! This “hunting” practice was no longer fun. In the classroom, we discussed military strategy and history but never the morality of whatever war we studied. The assumption seemed to be that we accepted the notion of the “Just War Theory” but never dealt with the details of how these conflicts measured up to those standards. I started to wonder how to reconcile Jesus’ command to “love our enemies” with what we were being taught by our professed Christian army officers. But I kept these questions to myself since I didn’t hear anyone else asking them either.
I turned 18 on October 16th. This was a significant event for a male in 1968 because it meant I had to register with the Selective Service System for “the Draft”. This was a mechanism set up by the government to select which male citizens it would compel to serve in the nations Armed Forces. It was a strategy to channel some men into certain job areas by offering exemptions and deferments. It also served as a channeling device to encourage young males to continue in higher education, allowing them to postpone the date by which they would have to report for a physical exam to see if they were fit to be compelled to join the Armed Forces. By 1968, many people were noticing how the draft had a way of selecting what seemed to be a disproportional number of youth from the inner cities and/or people of color to go to serve. Many white males found ways to avoid the draft or enlisted to get a choice of military branch or assignment. Because of the high casualty rate in Vietnam, many tried to find ways to avoid being assigned to the Army infantry. Students enrolled in accredited colleges were granted deferments from the draft as long as they maintained a passing grade-point average. Some young men went to great lengths to avoid being drafted: stories abounded about kids who shot or cut off a toe, feigned mental illness or homosexual tendencies, fled the country or went into hiding, or sought to become ministers or teachers.
Fortunately for me, the Resident Assistant (RA) for my residence hall dorm wing was Dan Sharp, a quiet senior who also grew up in a Mennonite background. He asked me if I wanted to talk with him about the decision I faced with the draft. We read the Bible together and prayed and I felt that because of my Christian convictions and my understanding of Jesus’ teaching and example, I could not serve in the military. So, my next choice was “what kind of CO would I be”? At that time, when one registered for the draft, you could choose three options: Classification 1-A meant that you were available for military service. Classification 1-AO meant that you were available for military service as a non-combatant. Classification 1-O designated you as a Conscientious Objector. In order to be classified thusly, one had to fill out a lengthy form answering questions about your religious training and beliefs. One had to assert that you were opposed to all wars – if you were selective about some wars being “just” and others as “unjust”, Selective Service regulations stated that you did not qualify as a Conscientious Objector. You also had to decide whether your conscience allowed you to serve in the military as a non-combatant like a medic, a cook, or truck driver.
Despite the life-saving qualities that a medic would have, after more investigation it was made clear to me that the primary function of the medic in the military was to “fix up the wounded” in order that they could continue to fight. Serving as a truck driver or cook just freed up others to fight so I felt that I couldn’t serve in that capacity either. I did feel that I “owed” “service” to my country; and, as a Conscientious Objector, if drafted, I would be required to perform “Alternative Service”. Many COs who were drafted were assigned to work in mental hospitals, conservation or national park service, or even as subjects of medical experiments. Just like with the draft, one could “enlist” before being drafted which might allow more choice in one’s assignment. The local Draft Board was given the authority to determine ones appropriate classification and approve the “service” assignment.
At the time of my draft registration, if you were a full-time student, you could choose to “register” at either your home draft board or the draft board where your college was located. Other students told me that the Wheaton, Illinois Draft Board prided itself in never having granted an application for Conscientious Objection. [Draft Boards were comprised of local “volunteers” who were often military veterans and usually staffed by strong supporters of the present U.S. foreign policy.] My home draft board was located in Norristown, PA and had many young men from Quaker, Brethren, or Mennonite backgrounds who chose to register as Conscientious Objectors so my application would not be unusual. Since I had been baptized at age 12 at “Calvary Mennonite Church” [before the church dropped Mennonite from its identity four years later], I was almost certain my CO application would be granted. I wrote out my application for a 1-O classification and mailed it to my home draft board.
However, because I was already enrolled in ROTC, the college had automatically applied for a student deferment for me. The classification of 2-S would allow me to avoid being drafted as long as I was enrolled full-time in college and maintained a passing grade. Other deferment s were granted for those studying to be ministers, sometimes for inner-city school teachers, and for certain other occupations. Exemptions from the draft were given to ordained ministers and some other occupations. If one failed the physical exam or were declared “unfit” for other reasons (“moral” reasons like admitted homosexuality or a criminal record, or “psychological” reasons like schizophrenia) you received a classification of 4-F. The draft board kept a “pool” of those classified as 1-A, 1-AO, and 1-O and would summon a group for their induction physicals when more troops were needed.
I maintained my 2-S deferment until December 1969, when, for political reasons and because of growing opposition to the War in Vietnam, President Nixon announced there would be a national “lottery” and each birth date would be assigned a number and those with lower numbers would be drafted first and fewer deferments and exemptions would be offered. I clearly remember sitting in the college dorm watching the TV screen as the numbers were drawn and assigned to each of the 366 birthdates in a year. I was very relieved to note that the number assigned to October 16th was 254 – I could be assured that I could finish my college degree and even consider graduate school without the fear of “Uncle Sam” calling. Commentators on the TV were saying that anyone with a number lower than 100 would definitely be called, those between 100 and 200 were possible draftees, and those of us with numbers greater than 200 were likely to be “safe” or less likely to be conscripted.
After a year of grad school in Social Work, I chose to do my own “voluntary service” for my country and signed up with Mennonite Central Committee to work in rural Mississippi for a summer followed by a year in the Mennonite Peace Section Office on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC for a year. After that, I continued my voluntary service for another 16 years, working primarily to build affordable housing in southwest Georgia with an organization that became the birthplace of Habitat for Humanity.
At the time of my draft registration, I was not active politically. I grew up in a home that had voted Republican and only knew a handful of people who identified themselves as Democrats. My choice to be a Conscientious Objector was not a political decision against the Vietnam War. I remember “winning” an in-class debate in 9th grade on why the U.S. should be in Vietnam – well before President Johnson’s escalation in ’67 and ’68. For me, being a CO was a personal and moral choice, not a political act. It wasn’t until a year later, after spending a summer working in the inner-city of Philadelphia, that I started to publicly demonstrate against the war. Even then, although I had heard stories of “protesters” burning draft files or their own draft cards, I didn’t know anyone personally who was that “radical”. It wasn’t until after President Nixon expanded the war by invading Cambodia that I began to re-evaluate my own position.
After one of Nixon’s TV speeches defending the war in 1971, I went in to the bathroom and burned my draft card. I scooped up the ashes and placed them in an envelope and addressed it to my local draft board without my return address. As I said, at this time I personally did not know any “resisters” and had no support group to rely on if I made my resistance to the draft system public. After several months, I was courageous enough to write on an unopened letter I received from Selective Service: “Return to sender –obscene material” and from that point on, my resistance to the draft was public. However, by then many of the jails and prisons were full of resisters and many areas of the country were choosing not to prosecute men who were publicly refusing to carry their draft cards or who had burned them. The government’s hands were full in attempting to track down military deserters or those who publicly refused induction rather than to track down other non-cooperators.
I chose to supplement my resistance by being trained as a Draft Counselor and learn the rules and regulations of the draft laws to better aid those caught up in that pernicious system. I was only able to counsel a few men before the political pressure to end the war metamorphosed into Nixon’s “Vietnamization” Program which substituted U.S. troops for more money to pay South Vietnamese to fight on our (their) behalf. My anti-war sediment continued to expand and grow as well as my commitment to nonviolence and ultimately led to my first arrest for civil disobedience in the last major demonstration against the war in March 1975, a month before Saigon “fell” and the war was over. By the end of the war, I was advocating a position of refusal to register if one had the conviction, support, and fortitude to pay the consequences of such a decision – the likelihood of a 2-4 year prison sentence.
I have mixed feelings about the draft. On one hand, I think it is essential that every citizen make up their mind about participating in a war rather than leaving the fighting primarily to those who can’t find other “jobs” in the economy or can’t afford college costs and enlist in the military to get money for education. If everyone had to personally commit, it would be harder for our politicians to “choose” to go to war. On the other hand, I believe that there are many better ways to “serve one’s country” than to be trained to kill others. By having a draft, it sends a signal to our political leaders that war is always an option. I feel that “option” must be taken off the table if our world is not only to survive but also thrive.