Confronting the War Machine:

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Michael S Foley. Confronting the War Machine: Draft Resistance During the Vietnam War. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003. 385p. $26.95

Summary

Michael Foley’s goal is to document a misunderstood and thus overlooked aspect of the domestic reaction to the war in Vietnam. This aspect is the draft resistance, which the author goes to great lengths to point out, is different from draft avoidance or “draft dodging” with which it is normally associated. The distinction between the two is that the members of the resistance risked prosecution for their opposition to the war where the dodgers protested from a position of personal safety.

Foley seeks to establish ties to the past for all actors in his book. This way they are seen as carrying forward traditional modes of political behavior rather than engaging in something new or radical. He explains the draft dodgers as the spiritual descendents those who bought their way out of the 1863 draft. The 1960s draft dodger used money to pay for tuition or to live in Canada rather than as a direct payment to the draft board but the result was the same, someone else who could come up with the money went off to fight in his place.

The draft resisters were the decedents of Thoreau and his insistence that there was a duty for true patriots to engage in civil disobedience when their country was following an immoral course of action. Foley admits that by refusing induction the draft resister forced someone else to serve in his place just like the dodger but since the resister was not in a place of personal safety and in fact actively sought conviction and incarceration he was ethically superior to the dodger. Since both the resister and the dodger opposed the war Foley gives them moral equivalency.

Foley goes about making his case by concentrating on the activities of the Boston Draft Resistance Group (BDRG) from their first draft card burning on March 31, 1966 through the summer of 1968 when the focus of the movement expanded beyond draft resistance to a more revolutionary agenda and in the process lost adherents. In this way the BDRG followed the same arc as the SDS where the Port Huron Statement era members say themselves pushed aside by the more revolutionary Progressive Labor Party and Weatherman factions.

This is a history of the individuals who participated in the events. It opens with gathering three-dozen former resistance members in 1997 on the thirtieth anniversary of their first big demonstration at Arlington Street Church in Boston. The author gives a few brief sketches of middle-aged people gathered there and then goes back to Boston of 1966 to trace the story of the movement through the activities of its members and the reaction of the larger community to their protests. The book ends with an analysis of a survey that the author distributed to 310 former draft resisters. This survey along with 86 oral histories/interviews forms the primary source material for the work.

Commentary

Lee Ann Ghajar, Fall 2005

In Confronting the War Machine, Michael Foley points out that draft resisters are no-shows in the Vietnam narrative, and when they do appear, they are invariably misrepresented as long-haired hippies and cowards—images “promoted by guardians of the standing order,” including the contemporaneous press and government. I would argue, as well, that national guilt over the treatment of returning veterans helped to demonize resisters and contributed to their misrepresentation in collective memory.

Foley sets the record straight. Draft resisters—his focus, rather than draft dodgers as the above review defines—were in fact predominantly white, educated, middle class men (women joined the movement as organizers, as well), most from stable homes with professional parents holding mainstream political ideas. (129) Students predominated and all chose resistance to government policy in Vietnam as a matter of conscience. Refusing to be drafted and burning draft cards became their protest tactic. “The majority of these resisters viewed the war and the draft with a moral clarity that derived in part from earlier civil rights and antiwar work,” (116) and they considered the war obscenely immoral.

Unlike those who chose simply to avoid the draft—either as a matter of conscience or convenience—they knew their tactics subjected them to prison—and many of the earlier resisters did, in fact, spend months and years in jail—and they knew that if drafted, their refusal to go to Vietnam meant that someone else would go in their stead—likely a member of the working class without the option of deferment.

Ironically, as students, most held deferments that protected them from the draft and they could have ignored both the war and the Selective Service system. Their stories provide a platform to explore “contested notions of morality, citizenship, and freedom,” and Foley considers them as “the leading edge of opposition to the war in 1967 and 1968.” (9) The questions were simple to state; the answers were not. Is it moral to fight in an unjust war—one which many resisters viewed as genocidal? Or is there greater morality in fighting—if for no other reason than to prevent someone else from taking your place? Does patriotism and citizenship mean supporting your country right or wrong, or declaring when your country is wrong?

Foley’s book raises a few unanswered questions. How typical were the experiences of the Boston Draft Resistance Group (BDRG). Besides experienced civil rights workers and students, major intellectual figures associated with the group such as Noam Choomsky and Howard Zinn. During the days of formal organization, the Boston Five case—indictments for anti-draft activities of Benjamin Scott, William Sloan Coffin, Mitchell Goodman, Marcus Raskin and Michael Ferber (the youngest and least known of the five) attracted national attention. Although Foley begins with an introduction to the national draft resistance movement, there is no follow-up.

The draft resistance movement raises the question of the role of radical resistance or civil disobedience in American society. Did the draft resistance movement effect change? Court cases against resisters led to decisions that created greater equity in the Selective Service system until Nixon abolished it, admitting that he considered draft resisters cowards, but that they influenced the way he approached the war. (338) As Foley points out, however, for some this was a victory; others argue that ending the draft “diluted a preeminent feature of political membership—the sense of shared sacrifice and patriotic commitment to a common goal.” (345) Whether draft resistance shortened the war leads to even more ambivalence. Despite ending the draft, Nixon in fact escalated the war. When Foley put the question of the success of their movement to draft resisters meeting together in 1997, their personal opinions were divided as well.

Foley concludes that the draft resistance movement’s “confrontation with the government extends a legacy of conscience and civic engagement that dates to the earliest days of the republic and continues to this day.” (348) Noam Chomsky argues that one of the greatest legacies of the antiwar movement is that it set an example for others to follow, citing Reagan’s counterinsurgency program in El Salvador. Reagan had to back off, Chomsky says, because of public opinion. “Nobody was going to tolerate it.” As Chomsky points out, the Reagan administration then moved to a program of clandestine terror—a tactic that Kennedy and Johnson never had to consider simply because most Americans did not question foreign policy decisions. Chomsky classifies this as “a major change.” (346-347) Wisely, no value judgment is affixed.

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