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War Resistance and the Cowardice Slur

For some reason, perhaps the endless wars that the U.S. now fights and the ethos of machismo, there remains a feeling among many in the U.S., who may or may not remember the Vietnam War and the Vietnam era, that it was somehow cowardly to resist military service.

The flip side of that argument might be that there was something “noble” (to use the word of Ronald Reagan) in taking an active part in fighting that war against a people with whom we had no axe to grind and in a cause that did absolutely nothing to further the interests of the U.S. About 5 million people died in Southeast Asia during that period. More than 58,000 Americans also died.

During the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, those who served in the administration of George W. Bush, and who got out of military service during the Vietnam War, were referred to as chicken hawks.  There is no doubt that many got out of military service for the most selfish of reasons, but for tens of thousands of others it was an act of conscience that probably will never happen again in U.S. history. There most likely will never be another time in the history of this nation where individuals, and others acting in groups, will have the opportunity to say no to a U.S. policy that involves the issues of life or death and war or peace in such an immediate and pressing way.

The issue of war resistance (of both men and women) during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq saw resisters facing strong opposition for their decisions to resist war because of the support for those wars in the U.S. and the voluntary nature of their service. It was as if the exposure and individual responses to war were different when a person chose service in the military as opposed to being drafted.

In a recent interview with the renowned journalist David Cay Johnston on Democracy Now, “David Cay Johnson: 21 Questions for Trump on Kickbacks, Busting Unions, the Mob & Corporate Welfare” (August 19, 2015), the chicken hawk analogy came up once again. Johnston described alleged questionable business dealings by presidential candidate Donald Trump and conflated Trump’s behavior with his avoidance of the draft during the Vietnam War. “And I think that’s consistent with Donald having so assiduously avoided the draft.” He continues, “Donald is not a guy to put himself in any position that he thinks might represent any kind of physical danger to him whatsoever.” Wow!

Trump’s policy pronouncements sound like an interchange between characters in a Marx Brothers’ movie, but the representation of draft resistance in this manner was nothing less than insulting.

First, coming to a decision to resist the most powerful government in the world during wartime is not exactly like going on a summer picnic. It is a gut-wrenching experience that affects the war resister and his larger circle of family and friends. It involves a person’s most basic beliefs and philosophy of life. Once the decision to resist has been made, the government could ignore that decision, or it could have resulted in imprisonment or exile from the country. Whatever the outcome of a decision to resist the power of the government, the results were life altering.  While draft resisters fared far better in terms of the amnesty President Jimmy Carter instituted, many military resisters were punished with “bad” discharges and the loss of veterans’ benefits. Many other veterans were singled out for punishment through the loss of veterans’ benefits for relatively minor infractions. There was a clear class distinction in how war resisters from the Vietnam era were dealt with by the government. It was all about punishment, while Richard Nixon was granted a complete pardon by his successor, Gerald Ford.

There were many faces to resistance during the Vietnam War.  The assessment of the number of resisters varies widely. There were around 700,000 draft and military resisters according to the article “Draft and Military Resistance to the Vietnam War: We Ain’t Marching Anymore,” in Nonviolent Activist by Andy Mager (March-April 2000). Facts cited by the Justice Department show that 570,000 men violated draft laws.  The same article reports that the estimate of deserters was between 80,000 to 200,000 and that figure does not take into account the large number of active military personnel in Vietnam who resisted the war in their own way, sometimes involving the refusal to follow the order to go into battle or committing fraggings, which were the attacks against unpopular officers.

The eradication of the distaste for war known as the Vietnam Syndrome was short lived, as wars for natural resources, empire, and the unchallenged role of the U.S. as the sole superpower began. With the era of endless wars and a volunteer military long entrenched as U.S. policy, questions of whether or not to serve in times of war is different from the day the draft ended in 1973. But conflating draft and military resistance with cowardice is an issue that needs to be considered more carefully by those in positions who address significant issues.

Politicians like George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Donald Trump need to be judged on their actions, not on the perception of their military service or the lack of that service. According to Mager, the resisters that he interviewed for his article all view their resistance to the Vietnam War, and their social and political activism in the decades that followed, as a defining era and high point in their lives.

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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