- Power and ObedienceRestoring Pacifism to American Politics
We were four brothers, sons of the Kentucky hills who came of age in lockstep with the escalating war in Vietnam. In 1964, my oldest brother volunteered for the Air Force, following an ancient tradition in which, for the sake of education or economic advancement, men from the working classes risk our lives to fight the wars of the rich. He nearly died in an [End Page 91] aborted rescue mission in the mountains of Vietnam. My second brother received deferments that carried him through the war. My third brother volunteered in 1971, as the war was winding down. In that same year, on my eighteenth birthday and well in advance of receiving my draft lottery number, I filed with the Nelson County, Kentucky, Selective Service Board as a conscientious objector (CO).
Around the time of these events, in response to outrage over an induction system that provided escape routes for the rich (George W. Bush) or the clever (Bill Clinton), Congress largely eliminated deferments and exemptions, inaugurating a lottery instead. Men’s eligibility was determined by a number, assigned by random selection based on birth date. Of men born in 1952, those with numbers lower than 95 had been called up. I was born in 1953.
The lottery for my birth year was conducted February 2, 1972, at 9 a.m. Eastern time. The men of my California dorm rose at 6 a.m. to watch it broadcast. The women posted the birth dates of every man, with a blank for recording his draft number. Trusting to the gods, I stayed abed, to be awakened by whoops from those who had received high numbers and by an audible hush outside my door. My number was 009, the lowest in my dorm.
The following summer, though many of us were shy of induction age, men from my county were bused to the Louisville Veterans Administration Hospital for medical examinations, the goal being, I realize in retrospect, to intimidate us into volunteering. What my high school debate research taught in the abstract, that day illustrated in fact: the war was being fought by poor urban blacks and poor rural whites. The bus was filled with boys—men—some of them my grade school classmates; almost none were educated past high school. Most assumed they would be sent to Vietnam, a prospect they viewed with unbridled enthusiasm. [End Page 92]
Two weeks later I was classified 1-A, eligible for service. My local draft board denied my written application, now months old, for a CO; I filed an appeal. I submitted the paperwork in person. Emily B. Hart, the draft board secretary, studied it carefully. She knew me, of course; she’d seen my picture in the local paper—boys’ extemporaneous speaking champion of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, president of the state student senate, scholarship winner, the sort of kid about whom the locals said, “That boy will be governor someday.” “Are you sure you want to do this,” she said, a statement, not a question. “Yes, ma’am,” I answered. With a country woman’s understanding of the ways of the world she said, “Forget about a career in politics,” and of course she was right.
On the afternoon of my draft board hearing, held in August 1972, I told my mother I was going on a date and asked her to cut my hair. I borrowed the car and picked up two high school teachers who had agreed to serve as character witnesses.
The board’s first question: “What the hell is a son of P.D. Johnson doing here?” The hearing lasted two hours, during which the Kentucky boys’ extemporaneous speaking champ gave the rhetorical performance of his very young life.
Afterward, in anticipation of an appeal, I was required to record my version of the evening. I was covering page after page when Emily B. Hart emerged from the hearing room. I asked when I could learn the outcome and was told that I’d receive a letter “in a week or two.” The board met monthly. “That means they’ll make a decision tonight,” I...