From One Draft Dodger to Another

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From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
― William Shakespeare, Henry V

by Marlin Vis

I’m not included in this “band of brothers.” And neither are you, sir. I hold my “manhood cheap,” comparatively speaking, and so, sir, should you. I didn’t go to Vietnam. Neither did you.

I managed to secure four deferments between 1966 and 1970, and then, I drew a lottery number of 236, which basically meant I was not going to have to go to Vietnam. Between 1963 and 1968, you received four deferments for education and one for bone spurs in your heels. Your lucky lottery number was 356.

You and me, Mr. President, stayed home, safe and sound. We kept our heads down and our mouths shut. We played sports, drank beer, and drove around in our big cars with elbow out the window, all cool and James Dean-like. We, you and me, Mr. President, successfully dodged the draft, and left the fighting to the ten percent of our generation, our friends and classmates, who didn’t. Did you know, Mr. President, that almost two-thirds of those who fought in Vietnam volunteered? John McCain, the man you brazenly question as a true American, was one of those. You and me, no. We stayed home!

Ninety percent of us stayed home. So when you, Mr. President, and others like you, wrap yourselves in the flag, be reminded that when duty called for you and me actually to be patriots, we did not answer the call. We stayed home! And I for one feel the shame of it every single day, and will for the rest of my life. I should have gone. We all should have gone. Or none of us should have gone.

Or we should have fought against the war, maybe. I’m not as sure about that.

But this I do know, ours might be the last generation in the history of this country who actually believed that our government would not lie to us. They did! President after president knew that we were losing in Vietnam. They knew that the government there was corrupt and unpopular. They knew, and they admitted it privately, and on tape. But they also knew that they could not win reelection if they withdrew. So they lied to us and left brave men to die in a war that could not be won and should not have even been fought. We know that now.

And we knew it then too. By 1968, we knew. You knew, Mr. President, and you did nothing, except to get a medical deferment for bone spurs in your foot, or feet, you can’t quite remember which, can you? Your poor feet were sound enough to play football and run track, but not good enough to put in boots on the ground in Vietnam. I know. I understand. I was scared too. We all were scared. But some went anyway. You and me, we didn’t.

Mr. President, you are dividing us, over the same issue that divided us when you and I were young men. And you are doing so for the same reason as presidents past. You want to be reelected. You want to win. That’s all you talk about. You are a winner. You’ll get us wins.

No sir, you are not a winner. You are not getting us wins. Every single day when you send out your acid tweets, we Americans lose that which is of most value to us, and that is our trust of one another. Patriotism is not easily understood. Who is and who isn’t a patriot is difficult to say for sure. Surely you know this.

You stayed home, Mr. President. You stayed silent, Mr. President. Were you a patriot then? Are you now, all of a sudden, when it costs you nothing? You can’t make up for staying home and staying silent by pinning a flag on your lapel, and then condemning those who are exercising their right to protest. Mr. President, stop dividing us. Please!

And to my fellow ninety percent of baby boomers who stayed home with me and stayed silent as well, you can’t change what you didn’t do. But you can, with me, try to remember what it was like in the ’60s, and vow that you will not be part of that kind of divisiveness again. It is so easy to stand with hand on heart, but not so easy to admit that you didn’t stand in the recruitment lines with those who did. You didn’t go. You didn’t speak. The least you can do now is listen to the voices of those who don’t want our children and grandchildren to experience the confusion and hatred we grew up in.

I will stand for the National Anthem. I will put my hand on my heart and face the flag. I will sing. I will do this because I believe I should. I will do this in memory of my father who fought in World War II, and my many friends and classmates who went to Vietnam. I will do this because I do not want to add insult to injury for those who did and do put their lives on the line for our country, and for those who lost loved ones on the battle field, and for those mothers and sisters and wives and daughters who waited and worried – I’m sorry for your lose and your pain. I will not add to it anymore than my absence and silence already has.

But I will not deride those who take a knee. I will not judge their motives without knowing them, without trying to understand why they are doing this. I do not believe these men are against our service men and women. I do not see them as any less patriotic than me. I am not African-American. I do not know what it is to be oppressed. My history does not include three hundred years of slavery; one hundred years of being denied equal rights, and a present reality where being black makes me a target.

I was a coward. Mr. President, you were a coward. There is no politically correct way to say it. We were cowards. We didn’t go. We didn’t speak. It’s time to be brave. It is time to act with self-sacrifice and true service to our country.

How do patriots act? We pay our taxes. We don’t search for loopholes that benefit our own bottom line. We look out for the most vulnerable in our midst. We take the back seat. We step to the end of the line. We stay off the front page. Every single day, there you are, Mr. President, your face before the whole world. In other words, we serve others, not our own self-interest.

Last night my five-year-old granddaughter asked me if I liked you. My God, Mr. President, does that not sober you? Alarm you? Time for you to stand up, Mr. President, and not just for the flag, but for all the people represented by that symbol of freedom and unity. You didn’t stand up when it was your time to put your life on the line. Neither did I. But now you can. And now you should.

Marlin Vis a retired minister of the Reformed Church minister who lives in Zeeland, Michigan. He served as a missionary to Israel and Palestine and now serves as a consultant for Josh and Sally Vis Immersion Tours.

Comments 5

  1. I served in VN. Volunteered for the Army. Be aware that neither I nor the veterans I know have belittled either you or Trump who sought deferments. Some of us do, however, have some sharp words for the Norman Lears of the country who have the effrontery to think they get to define who “People for the American Way” are. Some of us have sharp words for the athletes who choose to protest by denigrating the country. And yes, some of us have sharp words for the dividers who seek not simply to oppose but to sabotage the president because he’s rude. Many of us dislike the rudeness while appreciating his inclusiveness that extends beyond the usual to actually include us all. Now, I do not expect you to believe that; since you’ve believed something myths about VN, you are susceptible to believing other myths promoted by the same myth-makers. But do believe me when I say: We don’t regard you as cowards and we don’t think less of you for having avoided Viet Nam.

  2. Regarding the piece by Marlin Vis at The Twelve, “From One Draft Dodger to Another,” I found Rev. Vis’ comments a sad confession.

    I guess Rev. Vis knows whether or not he was a draft dodger and I’m sorry he feels shame to this day as he says for not serving in Vietnam, but then he writes that he isn’t sure about resistance to the war in Vietnam: “Or we should have fought against the war, maybe. I’m not as sure about that.” Excuse me. He isn’t sure about what? Whether such protest was legitimate or not?

    If he had no moral compunction about what we were doing in Vietnam, then he was a hypocritical coward and I understand his shame. In which case, he certainly makes a good bedfellow with Donald Trump and, as such, is in the right place to call out Mr. Trump.

    Certainly, there were many, many, many who had no well thought through opposition to the war but were just scared of dying. I went to school with one of those persons who chose seminary for no other reason than to get out of the possibility of going to Vietnam. He later washed out of ministry because he had no clear cut calling in the first place.

    However, there were hundreds of thousands who were morally outraged by our presence in Vietnam, protested our military presence there and registered as conscientious objectors or fled to Canada.

    I was one of those persons. I protested the war and I signed up for and was granted CO status because I provided sufficient religious reason for opposing war. Based on my faith and my understanding of the words of Jesus, there was no way I could justify what we, as a country, were doing.

    I would have done alternate service in a hospital somewhere and would have been happy to do it, but my wife was having none of it as a wife and mother of an infant son. She perceived it as an insuperable disruption to our lives and after consideration I agreed with her.

    She told me that I qualified for divinity exemption which the government was obligated to grant and that I needed to
    take it. I did, but I never stopped protesting the war and advocating for moral objection to our country’s military presence in classes and with other students at WTS. I remember several such discussions with a professor who was in favor of Vietnam until he did an about face when his son was drafted.

    I think the sad thing about the draft was that you could figure out a way to avoid serving in the military if you were wealthy enough or shrewd enough, so, everyone should have served — either in the military or in alternative service if good enough reason for opposing war was made.

    I have never stood in judgment of the soldiers who served. A good friend served a tour in Vietnam as a chaplain supporting the troops. While there, he lived everyday in the fear of losing his life. He stood in moral opposition to our presence in Vietnam but he was committed to offering spiritual guidance to the young people who, also, lived everyday in fear.

    I stood in judgment on our elected leaders (a Democratic president who did great things domestically but was dead wrong on Vietnam) for sending all those youngsters into harm’s way.

    I’m glad Rev. Vis is speaking boldly to Mr. Trump, but I’m sorry Rev. Vis, a retired RCA minister, didn’t have moral reasons for opposing Vietnam, seeing the legitimacy and necessity of such opposition and acting on such opposition.

    If he had, it might have saved him from having to write this about his reason for avoiding the draft: “And I for one feel the shame of it every single day, and will for the rest of my life.”

    1. On further reflection, my hunch is that Rev. Vis is too hard on himself. My note did not reflect that. At the time, undoubtedly, he was just a fearful young man who knew he didn’t want to die in some war on the other side of the world and that probably he hadn’t thought through the issues as they presented themselves at that time. I hope he finds a way to forgive himself. Life is too short for the harsh self-regret, judgment and punishment which he has suffered for so long and I hope he can hear and accept the liberating words, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

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