Confronting the War Machine

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Confronting the War Machine: Draft Resistance during the Vietnam War. By Michael S. Foley (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2003, xv, 449. $49.95 cloth; $19.95 paper.)


Written in 2003, Confronting the War Machine looks at the New England Resistance, an organization of Boston draft resisters who decried the war in Vietnam. Author Michael Foley believes that few books fairly represent draft resisters, and tries to distinguish them from draft dodgers. In Confronting the War Machine, Foley intends to explore “the contested notions of morality, citizenship, and freedom that fueled the draft resistance movement during its brief but influential history, while also being attentive to the day-to-day experiences of the draft resisters themselves.” (9) Foley tells the story of the organization through individual recollections as well as media representations, producing an excellent work that makes the reader reconsider his duty as an American citizen.

Foley begins his tale with an interesting preface, written in the wake of the September 11 attacks and the subsequent invasion of Iraq. In Foley’s mind, “the parallels between the calls for unity and patriotism that dominate American life today with similar calls in the 1960s” (ii) He sees a sad parallel between the two eras, as “self-styled patriots” have not only shouted “down dissent, but sometimes [have] beaten it out of people.” (x) Furthermore, he hopes that Americans of this generation will not label those who oppose the current war as disloyal, but, given the treatment of dissenters in the past, he is unsure whether the American population is ready to tolerate these dissenters.

In his initial chapters, Foley makes it clear that he sees a distinction between draft resisters and draft dodgers. “Thanks to the examples of several high-profile draft “dodgers”-turned-politicians, the public’s distinction between draft evaders and draft resisters is imperceptible; anyone who violated a draft law, it seems, was and is a draft dodger. And draft dodgers, it follows, were disloyal and un-American.” (6) In Foley’s estimation, draft resisters were patriots, exercising their constitutional rights. They were, “the anti-war movement’s equivalent to the civil rights movement’s Freedom Riders and lunch counter sit-in participants.” (9) Certainly, they broke the law in refusing to show up for induction or publicly burning their draft cards, but, rather than fleeing the country or working the Selective Service system to avoid going to war, they expected and took their punishment—which included beatings as well as jail sentences. Foley does not mean to pass harsh judgment on draft dodgers. He believes “the Johnson and Nixon administrations dishonored a generation of men by making them decide between 1) fighting in a war regarded as man as immoral and illegal, 2) going to prison, or 3) evading both the war and prison. To this day, those choices haunt many of that generation and [Foley] would argue, contribute significantly to the cynicism so many Americans have come to share about the faithfulness of their government.”

In looking at the draft resisters, Foley chooses to focus his story on Boston, the center of the New England Resistance, the largest of the nation’s seventy-five resistance chapters. The Boston experience was both typical and unique. “First, there is the long heritage of disobeying authority that dates to before the Revolution and that resurfaced especially during the antebellum period, when Boston led the nation’s movement to abolish slavery…In addition, the religious tradition in Boston made it atypical among other draft resistance communities. Across the country, the location for draft card turn-ins and other public events mattered little, but in Boston they often took place in churches, where the actions of draft resisters appeared more solemn. Finally, the concentration of colleges and universities in Boston also meant that more than 100,000 students lived within a very small area, thus providing a ready-made base for protest. (15) That said, the anti-war movement in Boston was initially slow to develop. Indeed, during “the first half of the twentieth century…Boston’s history of resisting authority mostly seemed a distant memory. The city’s campaigns to root out all manner of vice led to book bannings that made famous the phrase “Banned in Boston.”” (27) And Massachusetts’ favorite sons, the Kennedys, were quick to defend the war. Soon, however, support for the war crumbled.

As people began to think about the reasons for the war, groups of youths began to turn in their draft cards, opting for jail rather than fighting in what they viewed as an unjust war. Many already had deferments, but chose to resist rather than using the system to their advantage. However, to many in the working class, this resistance smacked of condescension. (25) And as this mass of young liberals felt the disdain of their working class peers, they faced discrimination in the media. Even today, Foley argues, many Americans view the resisters as “cartoonish images of long-haired hippies burning draft cards and of cowards fleeing to Canada.” (114) But many were students who had thought long and hard about the war. Unfortunately for the movement, “the [New England] Resistance possessed “more of appearance of solidarity in the newspapers than it did in reality.” (141) Indeed, many of the resisters did not want to create a scene and join other protesters in marches and rallies. Regardless, Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were intimidated. Indeed, Nixon would later label the “draft resisters as cowards, but he also admitted that they influenced the way he approached the war.” (338)

Foley’s book has many parallels to The Brother’s Vietnam War. Both address the inequities of the draft, showing the undue burden placed upon the working class and poor. He also expands upon the Vietnam story in James Tracy's Direct Action, allowing the reader to become acquainted with the methods and the characters involved in the struggle against the Vietnam War. Finally, Foley demonstrates that the war resisters still received harsh treatment, similar to the Japanese internees profiled in [[A Peril and a Hope]]

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