Counting the Cars and the Wars

The rain from storms driven and worsened by global climate destruction left floods near the area on which I will travel today. It will be exactly 50 years since my wife Jan and I made similar trips on the New Jersey Turnpike while I waited for my discharge to be processed at Fort Dix, New Jersey.

Most growing up during that era of monumental changes a half-century ago know the words of Paul Simon’s “America” that fit perfectly with the feelings and impressions of those times. “Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike… They’ve all come to look for America.” When a part of the song was used in Bernie Sanders’ 2016 bid for the presidency, I thought that the power of the song still held sway and the choice of that song was perfect.  You can take the man or woman out of an epoch of great change, but you can’t take that epoch out of them. Perhaps…

On this trip, major highways in New Jersey have large digital signs that read: “Suspect Terrorism,” and list a telephone number and a website to contact. Iran, Guatemala, Iraq, Libya and many other countries where US military and clandestine interventions have taken place probably don’t come to mind when most people view these signs.

The trips to Fort Dix were the culmination of many years of my resistance to the Vietnam War.  There were well over a million men and women who resisted the war in demonstrative ways as draft resisters and military resisters. Those years began with my years in ROTC and ended when I said no to the horror that became the war in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. I began protesting the Vietnam War on my college campus in 1968. The My Lai massacre in 1968 and the massacre of students at Kent State in Ohio and Jackson State in Mississippi in 1970 led to my decision to resist the military and the war. Free-fire zones, strategic hamlets, carpet bombing, many, many massacres of unarmed civilians in Vietnam (“Killing Civilians Went Unpunished,” Los Angeles Times, August 6, 2006), Agent Orange, napalm, falsified body counts of the so-called enemy, and the insanity of mass murder as a form of anti-communism and the drive for empire did the rest. The bald-faced viciousness of military training with its dehumanization of the Vietnamese called either “Charlie,” or “gooks” was the exclamation point on the horror of that war. That much of the insanity has been sanitized and revised isn’t surprising. That revision began with Ronald Regan’s low-intensity warfare in countries in Central America and extended to today with the cheerleaders of the war in Ukraine provoked by US and NATO hegemony. The Ukraine war, however, still remains an illegal and preemptive war on the part of Russia.

Outside the gates of Fort Dix in 1973, my wife Jan could not go into a nearby diner for breakfast while I was on the base because she justifiably feared being sexually assaulted given the leering and silence that fell over that restaurant when she walked through its door one morning. She quickly exited that building and ran for the safety of her car.

The era of endless wars began, both open and clandestine, with the culmination, only temporarily on the global stage, with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Besides full-spectrum dominance of US bald-face military and economic power, the trillions of dollars made for the Pentagon and weapons manufacturers are meticulously documented by the Costs of War Project of the Watson Institute at Brown University and calculated at $8 trillion from 9/11/2001 through FY 2022.

Fifty years ago I rode on a military bus on the New Jersey Turnpike headed for Fort Dix that was packed with men, many of whom were war resisters. Documented cases of abuse of those charged with resistance by the military took place at the stockade at Fort Dix (“When Torture Was Practiced on US Soil,” CounterPunch, July 15, 2008). Here are comprehensive statistics from the Students of History site about draft and military resistance during the Vietnam War documented by the National Archives:

According to the National Archives, there were about 27 million American men eligible for military service between 1964 and 1973. Of that number, 2,215,000 men were drafted into military service. Around 15 million were granted deferments, mostly for education and some for mental or physical problems.

There were more than 300,000 draft evaders in total, of which 209,517 men illegally resisted the draft while some 100,000 deserted. Among them, around 30,000 emigrated to Canada during 1966-72.

In 1977, on his first day in office, President Jimmy Carter controversially offered a full pardon to any draft dodgers who requested one.

The language of the citation noted above is colored in the prejudices of both the Vietnam era and contemporary society. The words “evaders,” “draft dodgers,” and “deserted” are used to describe draft resisters and military resisters and the amnesty Jimmy Carter instituted included military resisters that aren’t mentioned as part of that amnesty. Gerald Ford’s earlier so-called amnesty was vindictive, especially since his predecessor, Richard Nixon, was granted a full pardon and during Nixon’s presidency, the US killed millions in Southeast Asia and tens of thousands from the US military were killed and wounded in Southeast Asia.

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