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The Wounded Generation

July 2024
14min read

The Twenty-seven Million Men of Vietnam


In August, 1974, when President Gerald Ford assumed office, one of his first acts was to appoint a nine-member President Clemency Board to administer, case by case, his program of condition clemency for men convicted of draft offenses and desertion during the Vietnam War. The board’s work took about a year. When it was finished, the Reverend Theodore M. Hesburgh of Notre Dame felt that the surprising and “monumental evidence” he and his fellow board members had assembled should be made public, not just as a formal governmental report, but also as a book more readily accessible to the American people. The Ford Foundation provided the needed funds, and two members of the group, Lawrence M. Baskir and William A. Strauss, have now written Chance and Circumstance: The Draft, the War and the Vietnam Generation , which will be published later this month by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. The following article is an excerpt from this important study.

Mr. Baskir was general counsel and chief executive officer of the Clemency Board, and Mr. Strauss was its director of planning and management and the editor of the board“s final report. To protect the privacy of individuals whose stories they cite, the authors report that they have used fictitious names.

When John F. Kennedy was inaugurated President on January 20, 1961, the new President told the nation and the world that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans,” under whose leadership America would “pay any price, hear any burden … to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” These were brave words, very well received.

This “new generation.” described by Kennedy as “tempered by war. disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.” consisted of World War II veterans then in their late thirties and forties. Their “best and brightest” would later steer the nation through a very different, much more controversial war in Vietnam. Yet this time it was not they who had to do the fighting. Fewer than five hundred members of this generation died in Southeast Asia, most from accident, disease, and other causes which had nothing to do with combat. The rest helped pay the taxes to finance this $165-billion venture. It was their children, the baby-boom generation—the product of an enormous jump in the birth rate between 1946 and 1953—who paid the real price of Vietnam.

Fifty-three million Americans came of age during the Vietnam War. Roughly half were women, immune from the draft. Only six thousand women saw military duty in Vietnam, none in combat. But as sisters, girl friends, and wives, millions of draft-age women paid a heavy share of the emotional cost of the war.

For their male counterparts, the war had devastating consequences. Twenty-six million eight hundred thousand men came of draft age between August 4, 1964. when the Tonkin Gulf Resolution marked thenation’s formal entry into the war, and March 28, 1973, when the last American troops left. Fifty-one thousand died in Vietnam—17,000 from gunshot wounds, 7,500 from multiple fragmentation wounds, 6,750 from grenades and mines, 10,500 from other enemy action. 8,000 from “nonhostile” causes, and 850 by suicide. Another 270,000 were wounded, 21,000 of whom were disabled. Roughly 5,000 lost one or more limbs in the war. A half-million were branded as criminals. More than two million served in the war zone. Millions more had their futures shaped by the threat of going to war.

These were the sons of parents reunited after a long but victorious war, parents who, in columnist George Will’s description, “were anxious to turn from the collective task of history-making to the private task of family-making. Like Studebakers and toothpaste, the next batch of children would be ‘new and improved.’” Having themselves faced depression and war, this generation of parents wanted their children to know nothing but peace and prosperity. As William Manchester noted in The Glory and the Dream , their offspring would be “adorable as babies, cute as grade school pupils, and striking as they entered their teens. After high school they would attend the best colleges and uni versities in the country, where their parents would be very, very proud of them.” The children were the Dr. Spock generation, the Sputnik generation, and eventually the Woodstock generation. But above all else, they became the Vietnam generation.

As children and teen-agers, they had grown accustomed to the existence of the draft. Some looked forward to military service as an exciting and potentially valuable experience—a chance to demonstrate their manhood, serve their country, and get some adventure before settling down. Others saw the draft as an unpleasant, but nonetheless tolerable demand on two years of their lives. Many, especially those from well-to-do families, looked upon the draft as something to avoid, an unwelcome interference with their personal plans. But most never thought much about it. Consciously or unconsciously, they put the draft out of their minds; it was something that happened to someone else, never to them.

But when the generation and the Vietnam War collided, the draft became of pre-eminent concern. In 1966 a survey of high school sophomores found that only seven per cent mentioned the draft or Vietnam as one of “the problems young men your age worry about most.” But when the same question was asked of the same individuals after their high school graduation in 1969, that number had grown to 75 per cent. Few nineteen- to twenty-six-year-olds were eager to risk their lives in Vietnam. Many saw the draft as a means of coercing them to fight a war they found politically or morally repugnant. To others, the war simply had no meaning.

Although only six per cent of all young men were needed to fight, the Vietnam draft cast the entire generation into a contest for individual survival. The draft was not, however, an arbitrary and omnipotent force, imposing itself like blind fate upon men who were powerless to resist. Instead, it worked as an instrument of Darwinian social policy. The “fittest”—those with background, wit, or money—generally managed to escape. Through an elaborate structure of deferments, exemptions, legal technicalities, and non-combat military alternatives, the draft rewarded those who manipulated the system to their advantage.

For most of the members of this generation, fighting for one’s country was not a source of pride; it was misfortune. Going to Vietnam was the penalty for those who lacked the wherewithal to avoid it. A 1971 Harris survey found that most Americans believed that those who went to Vietnam were “suckers, having to risk their lives in the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.”

Much of this sentiment reflected the public’s growing disenchantment with American involvement in Vietnam. The outspoken antiwar views of many young people helped sway public opinion and turn around the nation’s policies. Their activism often involved moral courage, but little concrete sacrifice. Except for occasional individuals who, on principle, abandoned deferments and exemptions to go to prison or take exile, opposing the war was in every draft-age man’s self-interest. The sooner the war ended, the less likely it was that he would bear personal hardship.

This sense of self-interest was best illustrated by the attitude of antiwar collegians toward their student deferments. Harvard College graduate James Glassman recalled that in 1966, before the draft calls began to rise, “students complained that the system was highly discriminatory, favoring the well-off. They called the 2-S [the student deferment] an unfair advantage for those who could go to college.” But as the war escalated, “the altruism was forgotten. What was most important now was saving your own skin.” In 1967, when graduate school deferments were abolished, the Harvard Crimson published an editorial entitled “The Axe Falls,” accusing the government of “careless expediency” which was “clearly unfair to students.”

Many students defended their deferments—and their draft avoidance—with a measure of class arrogance. A Rhodes scholar, now a corporate lawyer, observed that “there are certain people who can do more good in a lifetime in politics or academics or medicine than by getting killed in a trench.” A University of Michigan student commented that “if I lost a couple of years, it would mean $16,000 to me. I know I sound selfish, but, by God, I paid $10,000 to get this education.”

These attitudes were shared by millions of draft-age men with other deferments and exemptions. “I got a good steady job,” a Delaware defense worker said. “I’m making good money and having a ball every weekend. Why the hell should I want to go?” Why indeed? Vietnam veterans were held in little esteem, and the fate of the nation hardly lay in the balance.

“The result,” as former Yale University-President Kingman Brewster noted, was “a cynical avoidance of service, a corruption of the aims of education, a tarnishing of the national spirit, … and a cops and robbers view of national obligation.” Avoiding Vietnam became a generation-wide preoccupation. According to a Notre Dame survey, approximately fifteen million (60 per cent) of the draft-age men who did not see actual combat took positive steps to help fate along. More than half of all men who escaped the draft, and almost half of all servicemen who escaped combat, believe today that the actions they took were wholly or partly responsible for keeping them away from the fighting.

Avoiding Vietnam did not necessarily mean emerging unscathed. For one in four, it meant hurried marriages, unwanted children, misdirected careers, or self-inflicted physical impairments. But millions emerged untouched, triumphant in what New Orleans draft counselor Collins Vallée called a “victory over the government.” They never went to war, and they never faced the costly alternatives of prison, exile, or court-martial.

Avoidance was available to everyone. Ghetto youths side-stepped the draft by failing to register. High school dropouts married and had children. Young workingmen sought “critical” occupations. But by far the greatest number of escape routes were open to youths from privileged backgrounds. Through educational, employment, or hardship deferments, physical exemptions, or safe enlistments, they had little difficulty staying far from Vietnam. Even doctors, who were subject to special draft calls, were seldom involved in the war. Fewer than one of every ten medical school graduates were drafted; many of the rest found refuge in the National Institute of Health, the Public Health Service, or the reserves.

The young men who fought and died in Vietnam were primarily society’s “losers,” the same men who get left behind in school, jobs, and the rest of life’s competition. The discriminatory social, economic, and racial impact of Vietnam cannot be fairly measured against other wars in American history, but certainly the American people were never before so conscious of how unevenly the obligation to serve was distributed. Few of the nation’s elite had sons or close friends who did any fighting. Professor and critic Leslie Fiedler, commenting about his university community, wrote that he “had never known a single family that had lost a son in Vietnam, or indeed, one with a son wounded, missing in action, or held prisoner of war. And this despite the fact that American casualties in Vietnam are already almost equal to those of World War I. Nor am I alone in my strange plight; in talking to friends about a subject they seem eager not to discuss, I discover they can, they must, all say the same. …”

Racial inequities became a major scandal of the late 1960’s. The late General S.L.A. Marshall commented that he had seen “too many of our battalions come out of line after hard struggle and heavy loss. In the average rifle company, the strength was 50 per cent composed of Negroes, Southwestern Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Guamanians, Nisei, and so on. But a real cross-section of American youth? Almost never.”

At the end of World War II, blacks composed 12 per cent of all combat troops; by the start of the Vietnam War, their share had grown to 31 per cent. In 1965 blacks accounted for 24 per cent of all Army combat deaths. The Defense Department undertook a concerted campaign to reduce the minorities’ share of the fighting. That share was reduced to 16 per cent in 1966, 13 per cent in 1968. In 1970 the figure for all services was under 9 per cent.

Throughout the course of the war, minorities unquestionably did more than their share of the fighting and dying. Yet the most serious inequities were social and economic. Poorly educated, low-income whites and poorly educated, low-income blacks together bore a vastly disproportionate share of the burdens of Vietnam. The Notre Dame survey found that men from disadvantaged backgrounds were about twice as likely as their better-off peers to serve in the military, go to Vietnam, and see combat. These were the men President Eisenhower once called “sitting ducks” for the draft.

During the war, the government never undertook any studies of the social and economic incidence of military service. The only contemporary evidence was scattered and anecdotal. A 1965–66 survey discovered that college graduates made up only 2 per cent of all draftees. Congressman Alvin O’Konski took a personal survey of one hundred inductees from his northern Wisconsin district. Not one of them came from a family with an annual income of over five thousand dollars. A Harvard Crimson editor from the class of 1970 tallied his twelve hundred classmates and counted only fifty-six who entered the military, just two of whom went to Vietnam. By contrast, thirty-five men from the Harvard class of 1941 died in World War II, and hundreds more saw combat duty. Not many Vietnam-era troops were college graduates, and even the relatively few who joined the service had a better-than-normal chance of avoiding Vietnam.

After the war was over, however, the evidence began to mount. Postwar Army records showed that an enlisted man who was a college graduate had a 42 per cent chance of going to Vietnam, versus a 64 per cent chance for a high school graduate and a 70 per cent chance for a high school dropout. Surveys in Long Island, Wisconsin, and Salt Lake City found a very heavy incidence of combat deaths among disadvantaged youths. In the most significant study thus far, sociologists Gilbert Badillo and David Curry analyzed casualties suffered by Chicago neighborhoods with different socioeconomic characteristics. They discovered that youths from low-income neighborhoods were three times as likely to die in Vietnam as youths from high-income neighborhoods. They also found youths from neighborhoods with low educational levels to be four times as likely to die in Vietnam as youths from better-educated neighborhoods.

During World War II, conscription and combat service were matters of personal honor. Men bent the rules to get into military service. Patriotism knew no class boundaries; Winthrop Rockefeller and the president of the New York Stock Exchange were among the first ten thousand to submit voluntarily to induction. Returning veterans were public heroes. But among the tragic ironies of Vietnam was the fact that the only real heroes of the war were POWs. Most were not members of the younger generation; they were Air Force and Navy pilots, officers well beyond draft age. Returning combat troops were easily forgotten.

America was not winning the war, and many people were ashamed of what was happening. With the war calling into question so much of America’s self-esteem, and with so many young men resisting the war, the nation needed assurance that patriotism still had meaning. Draft resisters and deserters thus became the folk villains of the times. John Geiger of the American Legion spoke for a great many Americans when he called these young men “a mixture of victims of error, deliberate conspirators, and professional criminals.” Their detractors insisted that their numbers were small—Richard Nixon referred to them as “those few hundreds”—and that the judicial system dealt with them swiftly and severely. None of this was true, but it helped reaffirm traditional values.

The national conscience was also salved by comparing the cowardice of draft résistera and deserters with the courage of combat soldiers. This helped blind the nation to the fact that twenty-five million draft-age men did not serve in Vietnam, and that relatively few Americans were touched directly by the sacrifices of those two million who did.

After the fighting was over, draft resisters and deserters served one last, tragic purpose. They became scapegoats—much like Eddie Slovik, the only soldier executed for desertion in World War II. Slovik was a weak man, a misfit totally incapable of being a combat soldier. He performed so poorly in basic training that his commanding officer tried, without success, to get him discharged or transferred to a noncombat unit. Slovik never actually ran away, but he confessed to desertion as a way of staying out of the fighting. On the day of his execution, a few months before the end of the war, Slovik told a reporter: “They are not shooting me for deserting the U.S. Army. Thousands of guys have done that. They just need to make an example out of somebody, and I’m it.”

In the same way, those who feel a deep, unarticulated resentment about what happened in Vietnam have made whipping boys of the draft resisters and deserters. They are the ones to blame for the tragedy of a lost war and lost illusions, symbols of the nation’s lack of resolve to win. For those who condemn the anti-authoritarian values of the generation, the resisters and deserters represent the worst of a bad lot. For those who suffered personal tragedies in the war, these are the men who should have gone in place of loved ones.

As important a symbol as the draft resisters and deserters have been, Americans know little about them. They are, like the Vietnam combat veterans, society’s losers—disproportionately black, poorly educated youths from lew-income families. Had they been better advised or more clever, most could have found one of the escape routes used by so many others. The disadvantaged not only did more than their share of the fighting; they also have paid much of the penalty for not fighting.

Vietnam-era draft and military offenders number more than a million. An estimated 570,000 men committed draft violations that could have sent them to prison for five years. Yet fewer than half were reported to federal prosecutors, 25,000 were indicted, and fewer than 9,000 convicted. Only 3,250 went to prison, most of whom were paroled within a year. In the military, a quarter of a million men were punished with Undesirable, Bad Conduct, or Dishonorable Discharges, branding them as deserters or military criminals of other sorts. Yet only 13 per cent of them were convicted by court-martial, and even they seldom spent more than a few months in prison. Another 300,000 servicemen were sent home with General Discharges which label their service as less than fully honorable and handicap their ability to find jobs.

A great many escaped the brunt of the law because of legal or administrative problems. Over 100,000 draft cases were dismissed because of draft boards’ failure to obey court-imposed rules. The overburdened military justice system gave 130,000 servicemen Undesirable Discharges as plea bargains, sparing the armed forces the expense of trying and imprisoning them. But in part, this leniency reflected the views of many prosecutors, judges, and military officers that these individuals did not deserve the stiff punishments the public thought they were getting.

It would be inaccurate to say that the “evaders,” as a group, did anything fundamentally worse than their twenty-four million peers who also escaped Vietnam, but by legal means. The term “evader” says little about each individual’s attitude toward his responsibility to serve in the military. A great many men who legally avoided combat service would have been evaders had the necessity arisen; the Notre Dame survey found that 15 per cent of all draft avoiders would have seriously considered breaking the law if that had been their only recourse. As one résister commented, “Almost every kid in this country [was] either a draft evader, a potential draft evader, or a failed draft evader.” According to Michael Brophy, a Milwaukee draft counselor, the epithet has been misapplied: “To evade is to avoid something by deceitful means. The draft evaders are in the Reserves and the National Guard, seminaries, and other educational institutions. … A man who [breaks the law] may do so to avoid the draft, but he is not deceiving anyone.”

The opprobrium of “evader” is inappropriate forlarge categories of Vietnam-era offenders. About one-third of all draft resisters could have avoided the draft through deferments, exemptions, and legal loopholes, but they insisted on accepting exile or punishment as the consequence of their beliefs. One-fifth of all deserters never evaded Vietnam service. They finished full combat tours before running afoul of military discipline back home, often because of postcombat readjustment problems.

The law has worked its will on the offenders. By the mid-1970’s all but a few thousand had paid the legal price of their actions. They were prosecuted, punished, and officially forgiven. Still, the question remains whether the American people will continue to condemn them.

Until Americans evaluate the conduct of these men in the context of the entire generation’s response to the war, there can never be any real understanding of the tragedy of Vietnam. The memory of the war may be too bitter for anyone to be cast as a hero. But perhaps the American people can begin to understand the extent to which so many young men, veterans and lawbreakers alike, were victims. And, with the passage of time, critics of the generation may stop setting victim against victim, fixing blame that only exacerbates the tragedy of the war.

Vietnam wrought havoc on millions of lives in a manner which most Americans may never understand. The war was, at root, the personal calamity of the generation called upon to fight it. They are the ones who faced the terrible choices, and they are the ones who suffered. “You were damned if you did go and damned if you didn’t,” said Ursula Diliberto, whose son was killed in Vietnam two weeks before the end of his tour. “My son was a victim, my family was a victim, all boys of draft age were victims in one way or another.”

The members of the Vietnam generation are now in their late twenties and thirties. Vietnam was and always will be their war, just as World War II belonged to their parents, and World War I to their grandparents. The war stories of older generations—stories about mustard gas, Guadalcanal, or the liberation of little French towns—have little meaning for those who came of age during Vietnam. … These twenty-seven million men have their own stories, but they are seldom told with pride. Their battles were with the police, their narrow escapes involved draft boards and courts, and the enemy was their own government. Some feel guilty, others lucky. Many have a faint sense of disquiet from having been involved but not really involved, from having left the fighting and dying to others.

The war affected them in complex ways, but it engendered a strong sense of kinship. Vietnam was a crisis they all faced—whether in the barracks, on the campus, or in the streets. Unlike other Americans, most members of the Vietnam generation seem reluctant to judge a man by his personal response to the war. They feel that the labels-sucker, opportunist, evader, deserter-are part of the tragedy of Vietnam.

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