Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Becoming an All-Expense Paid Guest of Uncle Sam—Epilogue

Note—I know I promised to wind up this series on my Vietnam era Draft, justice system, and prison experiences with yesterday’s tenth post.  Evidently, I lied.  Actually, I left a few loose ends dangling.  This one ought to take care of that.
In my just completed series, I neglected to tell you how my sentence for Draft Resistance finally played out.  My bad.
When my sentence was reduced from three years to six month minus good time, I was placed on supervised probation for the unserved balance of the original sentence.  That meant I had to report to a Federal probation officer once a month and was theoretically subject to random visits to inspect my living quarters and arrangements.  In point of fact the latter never happened.
But, because I worked a day job at Dietzgen Corporation, I was required one evening a month to schlep to the Loop and the nearly deserted Dirksen Federal Building to report to a bored functionary in a cramped office.  A youngish man who acted half the time as if he was serving a sentence, he suspected  I that I was neither a hardened criminal nor a threat to society.
After the first visit where I had to fill out a lengthy form with my address, living arrangements and partners, family address, job details and “three persons who know of your whereabouts at all times,” most of each 10 to 15 minute visit was consumed by confirming that all of that information remained correct and questions about if I had been arrested on any other charges. 
Finally I would be questioned about associating with known felon, the offence that got more probation violation citations than any other.  Most people who do Federal time have family, friends, and live in neighborhoods rife with ex-cons and felons.  It was almost impossible to violate probation in this way.  In my case, I was warned, my continued association with known radicals could put me at risk.  And so it could—at the IWW I co-edited the Industrial Worker with Carlos Cortez, a pacifist who had been a World War II Draft resister—and worked regularly with my mentor Fred W. Thompson who was convicted and served hard time for Criminal Syndicalism—essentially just being a member of the IWW and selling newspapers on the streets—in California in the ‘20’s.
But I quickly realized that my probation officer didn’t give a rat’s ass about any of it unless I was actually busted for something as long as he could put his rubber stamp on my monthly report forms and get on to the next meaningless meeting and interaction.
So it went every month for over a year until one snowy and miserable night when I just skipped the appointment.  And didn’t call or anything.  After that, I never went back again. 
I was now in probation violation and theoretically subject to arrest at any time.  But I did not get any notification of violation in the mail—a regular procedure—and my probation officer never called me or attempted to find me by a field visit to my residence.  I was hardly in hiding.  My by-line appeared regularly in the Industrial Worker and my name popped up occasionally in the daily papers in connection with this or that demonstration, picket line, or meeting.
My best guess is that rather than being bothered with the extra work of an investigation, my probation officer just went on stamping my monthly reports as if nothing had happened.  But I could never be sure.
Most people thought that Gerald Ford pardoned Draft offenders as part of the political cover of “national healing” along with his Get-out-of-jail-free-card to Richard Nixon who was in danger of multiple felony indictments.  He did not.  He offered conditional release to those who had fled to Canada, gone underground, and military deserters.  And those folks had to commit to two years of community service.  His offer did not extend to those who had been charged, convicted, and/or served time for Draft offences.  That left me out.  And, by the way, few of those eligible surrendered for two years servitude.
It was not until Jimmy Carter’s first day in office in 1977 that an actual blanket pardon of all Draft offenders was issued.  Presumably that did mean me—unless a warrant had been issued on a separate probation violation charge.  I never received any paperwork for the pardon.  Turned out no one did.  You had to turn in more paperwork proving you were convicted to get a pardon document from the Department of Justice.  Sounded like a hassle to me.
Any way, if the Feds ever really wanted to find me, I wasn’t hiding.  I was registered to vote and cast a ballot in every single election—local, primary, and general—first in Chicago and later in Crystal Lake.  After I moved to bucolic McHenry County I even ran for office three times—and was soundly drubbed each time.  My name was frequently in the local newspapers.  I published a book of poetry.  And eventually I became a blogger and a presence in social media.  I never used a pseudonym or alias or in any way tried to disguise my identity—or my past.
In the mid 2000’s at the urgings of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), I even filed a Freedom of Information (FOI) request for my old FBI files.  You may remember them as that thick folder on the prosecution table that played a silent but significant part in my trial.  It took two years for the Feds to respond.
When they did answer back it was in a thin business envelope, not the bulging manila envelope I had envisioned.  The FBI regretted to inform me that my old file had somehow been destroyed.  But with my request they were glad to open a new one on me and send me the contents—my own letter requesting my files with my own name and address redacted with a heavy black marker.  Ah, the Feds.  Gotta luv ‘em.
I do remember being mildly insulted that they didn’t think I was still dangerous enough to be monitored despite a lot of anti-war activity against the messes in Iraq and Afghanistan and protests against the Patriot Act.  Guess they have me down as a harmless, eccentric old crank and geezer.
That takes care of one lose end.
The second one involves a promise to a jerk.
I regularly posted links to this blog series to a number of places on Facebook, on Twitter, and on Google Plus. One such place and pleasant hangout is the Chicago Bughouse (Washington) Square Facebook page.  I got mostly positive feedback and encouragement from friends there.  But I really ticked off one guy.  Big time. He started about mid-morning and his rage built all day.  He was posting every ten minutes or so calling me a coward and a traitor and daring me to try to explain “what I was afraid of” and a bunch of other stuff.  He would just not let it go.  He only paused to snarl at other page commentators who asked him to calm down and chill out.  Eventually, I wrote him that I would answer all of his questions in my last post.  And then I didn’t, because it was getting long and I wanted to post bright and early yesterday as promised.
But today is a new day and an opportunity to keep a promise to a troll.
What was I afraid of?  Well, of being killed, among other things.  But I was not alone in that.  Every young man who was not delusional was afraid of that back then whether they enlisted with patriotic fervor, were drafted, “dodged” the Draft in some way, or like me refused induction.  But I don’t think the very rational fear of being killed was a motivator one way or another for most of us.
I was afraid of killing people with whom I had no argument and as far as I could see were no immediate or direct threat to my country.  I was afraid of being used as a pawn in what I had come to believe was an unjust and possibly criminal war.  I was afraid that the war was turning the country that I genuinely loved into something brutal, ugly, and almost unrecognizable.
I was just one of thousands upon thousands of young men who were compelled by the circumstances of the times to do some moral heavy lifting, something that most young men are manifestly unprepared to do.  How could I respond and remain true to my deepest convictions?
I looked for an out.  I really did.  I considered conscientious objector status.  Some local Draft Boards handed CO status out like penny candy.  Others would not grant it unless you were a life-long Quaker or baptized member of an historic peace church.  My Board in Skokie was somewhere in the middle.  They would generally grant status to anyone who could bring in a letter of support from a clergyman of any denomination attesting that my opposition to war was genuine and rooted in religious conviction.  And in fact I knew several anti-war ministers who were eager to provide just such letters even if evidence of religious conviction was slight or non-existent.  No Draft Board would grant an exemption on the moral claims of Humanists, agnostics, or atheists. But I had more scruples than good sense.
I was not, in fact a total pacifist.  I believed then and now that I would have lined up at the enlistment office the day after Pearl Harbor, just as my Dad did.  My objection was not to all war—but to this war.  And I would not claim a religious faith that I did not at the time have.  I was such a Boy Scout that I wouldn’t lie to the government.
That left me with few good choices—leaving the country, going underground, or resisting the Draft.  For a lot of reasons that I mentioned earlier, I chose the latter. If I was going to stand up for what I believed in, I was going to do it openly and take the consequences.
Over the years I got to know and often become close to Vietnam veterans.  Many of them returned bitterly opposed to the war they fought in.  But even among those who thought they served in a righteous cause, I never found one that didn’t respect that decision even if they did not agree with it.  Arm chair warriors, ever eager to send someone else to do the killing and dying for them, of course, are another matter.
Do I think I was some sort of a damn hero?  Short answer, no.  Oh as a callow youth always playing the previews of the movie of my life in my head.  I briefly entertained the idea that I would be lauded by my friends and Fellow Workers.  But reality wasted no time in disabusing me of that notion.  And in point of fact my “sacrifice” was not all that great or impressive—I gave up a few months of freedom and was neither tortured nor abused.  I was merely inconvenienced.  Not the stuff of heroics in any way.
Then why do I tell the story?  I’m just boasting, aren’t I?  I tell the story because it is mine to tell and telling is what I do.  But everyone back then had a story, whether in the rice paddies or on the run.  Every one of those stories deserves to be heard.  It is up to the reader to decide what to make of them.
Finally, what do I think now?  That’s a harder one.
Back then, in addition to opposition to the war, we couched our opposition to the Draft in libertarian terms.  The Draft was involuntary servitude and an Unconstitutional tax on labor.  All of that was true.
But historically the Draft democratized the forces sent to fight.  It was far from perfect, but the sons of rich men, local merchants, and professionals slogged through the mud and gore cheek to jowls with the sons of poor men.  They called it shared sacrifice.  That even continued in the peace time drafts of the ‘50’s and early ‘60’s until the early Vietnam era when student deferrals changed the game again.  The Vietnam War was fought mostly by those who could honestly sing, “I ain’t no fortunate son.”
Of course when I refused induction, some other sap took my place—someone likely poorer, less privileged, and perhaps much darker than me.  There is a survivor’s guilt in that which never goes away.
When the Draft, monumentally unpopular across social lines, was finally suspended the result was just as critics of the move predicted.  The All-Volunteer professional army was recruited almost exclusively from among the poor, marginal, and those with dim prospects.  What middle class kids did enter the service opted for sophisticated technical training offered by the Navy and Air Force and support units of the Army.  Grunts on the ground, as always, were plebian and expendable.
The services found the volunteers more pliable and reliable than perpetually dissatisfied draftees. 
There was a brief, patriotic uptick in enlistments by middle class kids after 9/11 but that has largely subsided, though it has left a residue among senior non-commissioned officers these days.  The economic crisis of the later part of the decades and its lingering aftermath have once again filled the ranks with the poor and displaced.  Only the wide-spread use of middle-of-life National Guardsmen and Reservists, most of whom had enlisted for educational and other benefits injected many middle class troops to the war zones.
Today, I am ambivalent about a possible return to the draft.  Perhaps it would be fairer.  And I often think that the draft as part of national service requirement might do a lot to combat the rising class divisions in our society. Or maybe not.
Whatever, I am an old man now.  My fat is no longer in the fire.  Perhaps I don’t deserve a say.

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