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Chickenhawks, Draft Dodgers and War Resisters
By Fritz Efaw
Much attention has been given lately to men in high government positions who are chickenhawks. They promote belligerence by the USA in their public speech, while in their private actions they reveal a long-standing reluctance to act on their words. In short, they're thoroughly unprincipled.
The London, England chapter of VVAW, established in 1971, was originally formed by myself and two other American draft resisters, one of whom, Frank Aller, was an Oxford student and roommate of Bill Clinton. Frank attempted to get his fellow Rhodes Scholars to join him in firmly renouncing the US war in Vietnam, but he soon realized they knew that as future members of the ruling class there was too much at stake for them ever to do so. Frank had nothing but disdain for them: they were true draft dodgers. He was a war resister.
The difference is that draft-dodging is an act of avoiding personal responsibility, while war resistance is an act of accepting and embracing responsibility, done in solidarity with the struggle of others and in the name of a higher principle than self-interest.
Draft dodgers, as I'd use the term, are those who look for loopholes to evade any accountability to their country, their conscience or their fellow citizens. Resisters, in contrast, understand their country not in terms of its leaders and rulers, but its ideals and principles. Without casting aspersion on others, and without fearing castigation, they take seriously citizenship in a post-Nuremberg world and act to whatever extent they find possible. Resistance is undertaken in the spirit of Martin Luther King, of Gandhi, of Eugene Debs, and of Henry Thoreau.
War resistance can take many forms. During the Vietnam War era, resistance began with burning draft cards, refusing induction and demonstrating. Inspired by the civil rights movement, the logic of civil disobedience led to prison terms for some, self-imposed exile for others. For me, and for Frank Aller, resistance began when we were drafted after college. For others, resistance took the form of desertion from the military, either before being shipped to Vietnam or after, upon returning to a Mickey Mouse world of the military stateside. And for others still, who took time to reflect on their military experience once the intense pressure receded, resistance took the form of understanding how their patriotic impulses had been betrayed, repudiating their past and renouncing what had been done in Vietnam in their names. Along the way there were countless incidents of disobeying orders, insubordination and in extreme cases, sabotage and fragging.
While draft resisters and deserters typically took steps after learning about the war abstractly, others learned through direct experience in the military, whether in war zones, on ships and air bases, in VA hospitals, or through the general atmosphere pervading the military and the nation.
American Exiles in London began as a mutual aid group to help deserters reach France or Sweden. We went on to organize airmen stationed in England, to encourage boycotts of California grape shipments by UK dockers when the UFW called for that, and to form links with various local organizations. Forming a VVAW chapter to join in the struggle for amnesty was an obvious next step.
American men of a certain age all have identical memories of having long ago faced a choice of what to do about the Vietnam War. To enlist or wait to be drafted. To cooperate or not cooperate with Selective Service. To pull strings to land a spot in the National Guard or not. To fake a medical deferment or not. And on and on. The secret we all know about each other is that some of us made honorable choices and others didn't. The chickenhawks didn't.
What lessons can we learn from our history of resistance to the Vietnam War? First, that concessions are not freely given, but must be seized. This was true for ending the draft, achieving limited amnesty, and gaining official recognition of the effects of Agent Orange and PTSD, and it will be true in the future. Next, while the contributions of resistance to stopping aggression and imperialist adventure aren't decisive, they are important. Resistance increases the cost of exercising illegitimate use of power. In the final analysis, it shortened the war and saved lives. Finally, as with the pointless game of comparing combat to non-combat vet, in-country to stateside, or deserter to draftee, it's futile to draw comparisons between differing degrees of resistance. Each of us knows where we stood then, how we changed, and where we stand now. Today the ranks of the chickenhawks represent the most reprehensible hypocrisy and mendacity; the ranks of VVAW represent solidarity across lines of class, nationality, race and gender.
Nobody knows right now what kinds of resistance lie ahead. Unlike Vietnam, where US power was employed to suppress a popular movement, solidarity with the Saddam Hussein regime makes no sense. In the long run, however, if American troops are used as cannon fodder to expand a world empire, and if the draft is reinstituted to provide bodies for that cannon fodder, then we can expect resistance. Let's hope members of the Vietnam generation who learned the disastrous lessons of illegal and immoral wars will then stand ready to show support for the young men and women who find themselves in harm's way.
Fritz Efaw is an Emma Goldman professor of political economy at the University of Tennessee and VVAW's contact in Chattanooga.