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Those who wouldn’t go

They resisted the Vietnam-era draft and now recount the consequences of their decision

Gregg Reese | 5/30/2013, 6 a.m.
One spring day, some 40 years after the turmoil of the Vietnam Era had died down, Ayuko Babu found himself ...

One spring day, some 40 years after the turmoil of the Vietnam Era had died down, Ayuko Babu found himself in Venice Beach, examining a memorial dedicated to veterans of the Iraqi-Afghan War then under way.

Also present were several middle-aged African Americans who had come of age during the Vietnam War, many of them homeless, and eventually the conversation turned to these men’s experiences as combatants in that conflict, and the misfortune that had befallen them in the interim.

In recalling the events that led to their current destitute situation, Babu, a draft resister, questioned the rationale behind their compliance in obeying the call to arms. Their basic explanation was the desire to “not get into trouble.” Babu then noted that this wish to avoid punishment was actually the root cause of their decades-long condition of physical privation and emotional misery.

In some circles, the draft is associated with class inequity, as the working and lower class are disproportionally represented among the actual combatants in a given war. This sentiment has been echoed recently, during the course of the military intervention in the Middle East, by Korean War veteran and U.S. Representative Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), who has suggested a return to the draft to create a more equitable make-up of the armed forces, more accurately reflecting the U.S. population.

To drive this point home, it might be helpful to peruse a brief list of notables who avoided participation in the war that caused so much dissension on the home front:

John Ascroft, Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton, Bill O’Reilly, and Karl Rove, student deferments; Pat Buchanan, Pete Coors, Clarence Thomas, and Donald Trump, medical and student deferments; Mitt Romney (exempted to spend his time as a Mormon missionary in Paris, France); Sylvester Stallone (Rambo himself) who fled the country to go to Sweden to coach girl’s volleyball; and Ted Nugent (classified “4-F,” not qualified for physical, mental, or moral standards).

Babu agrees with Rangel’s assessment: “It’s become a mercenary army—made up poor people and foreign people eager to get their green cards and citizenship, and bring their families into the USA.”

Of course, the most famous figure to emerge from the draft resistance movement of this era is Muhammad Ali. His landmark statement “No Viet Cong ever called me nr,” resounded among a generation of disenfranchised Black youth, helped lift him to the mantel of cultural icon, and the statement itself was propelled into the strata of mythology, where even historians are not sure these were the exact words the champ said.

Babu’s upbringing in Wyoming and experiences as an athlete (he came to Los Angeles as a basketball player for Cal State L.A.) increased his awareness of the racial realities and social injustice existing in the United States. These feelings were accelerated with the increase of hostilities in Indochina, and the push for equality across America.

His first formal conflict with institutional racism as expressed through the law came during a March 1965 “sit-in” (a form of nonviolent protest popular during those times) at the Federal Building downtown to protest the beating and tear-gassing of civil rights workers on “Bloody Sunday,” at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. As one of the deputized officials kicked a female African American student, Babu grabbed and pushed the man away to prevent the woman from further injury.