In the months since May 1, the president has donned an aviator’s jumpsuit, landed on an aircraft carrier, declared the end of major combat, and more than 155 American soldiers have died in hostile conditions. The number of wounded has skyrocketed to over 1,000, up 35 percent in August alone, according to The Washington Post. Exhausted, middle-aged reservists have had their tours of duty lengthened. And the administration has had to go back to the United Nations for a mandate to spur the international community to bail out the United States with additional troops and resources.
Soldiers are rightly proud of what they have accomplished so far in Iraq, and understandably irritated at the press for only focusing on the negative. Yet disgust with the Bush administration’s slipshod planning and careless use of troops is steadily mounting. At a recent gathering of current and retired military officers, retired Marine Gen. Anthony C. Zinni–who endorsed Bush in 2000, became his Middle East coordinator, but then broke with the administration over Iraq–spoke for many when he said, “My contemporaries, our feelings and sensitivities were forged on the battlefields of Vietnam, where we heard the garbage and the lies, and we saw the sacrifice. I ask you, is it happening again?” according to The Washington Post‘s Thomas E. Ricks. Last month, after Bush gave a speech to returning members of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division thanking them for their bravery, one young soldier told the Los Angeles Times, “He likes war. He should go fight in a war for two days and see how he likes it.”
Curiously, such anger towards hawkish civilian leaders who avoided putting themselves in harm’s way is not something most Americans share–at least not yet. While Bush’s poll numbers have been plummeting, the drop reflects worry over the continuing chaos in Iraq more than any growing anger at administration members for ducking service in their youth. Partisan Democrats may be furious that a president who sidestepped combat now poses as a war hero. But what really drives Democrats crazy is that Bush seems to have paid no political price for doing so.
This tolerant public attitude did not begin with Bush. In fact, in the last three presidential elections, a candidate who had served in the regular military was defeated by a candidate who had not (Clinton v. Bush in ‘ 92; Clinton v. Dole in ’96; Bush v. Gore in ’00). It has now become unremarkable for those who in their youth avoided putting themselves on the line for their country and their ideals to successfully impugn the patriotism of political opponents who served with honor. Think of Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.). He got out of Vietnam with a bum knee, but unseated former Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), a Vietnam veteran and triple amputee, with ads attacking Cleland as soft on national security. Somehow, in the public mind, the ancient link between physical courage and patriotism has been broken in this country.
One can imagine any number of reasons for this shift. One obvious factor is the end of the draft in 1973, which no longer forces every young man to consider the possibility of military service. Another is the triumph of individual market thinking in this country–the growing sense of personal freedom and individual entitlement in modern life, and the corresponding fading of the notion that one has a duty to anything outside one’s self and family. But there is another, related factor for which liberals–especially those of my generation, who came of age in the late 1960s–bear heavy responsibility. Too many of them opposed the Vietnam War in ways that required no personal sacrifice, while at the same time successfully grabbing the banner of high idealism by growing their hair long and marching in anti-war protests. Though they may not want to admit it, members of the anti-Vietnam War movement, who today dominate the opinion-making class, helped erode the connection in the public’s mind between patriotism and courage, idealism, and sacrifice. And that change in public attitude has let today’s so-called “chicken hawks” off the hook.
I was 20 in 1968 when I faced the draft. Young men of my age had to choose one of several paths. Many went to Vietnam, though often without wholeheartedly supporting the war. Whatever their motivations–whether instinctive patriotism or fear of going to prison–I respected their choices. Others were indifferent to the war or even supported it, yet used student deferments or doctors’ notes to avoid being drafted, thus assuring that someone else would have to take their place in the rice paddies. I didn’t know such people and couldn’t even have imagined their thinking. But a number of them are now running the war in Iraq. To me, theirs was by far the most cowardly and least patriotic choice of all.
Then there were those who opposed the war and were determined not to fight in it–either out of conviction or fear or, probably in most cases, both. Some fled to Canada; I had visited Canada myself in 1967, but rejected friends’ entreaties to stay there to avoid the draft. The vast majority, though, stayed in the United States and worked the loopholes, garnering student or medical deferments which let them protest the war almost risk-free, having fun or seething with rage but suffering few lasting consequences, unless they got unlucky during a demonstration. It seemed a solution tailor-made for children of privilege: the opportunity of a lifetime to don the mantle of idealism, no real sacrifice required. But it didn’t work for me. I felt that because the reasons the government gave for the war didn’t make sense, the only honest course of action was to refuse to participate in it, and to accept the consequences of doing so.
In mid-1968, I received a notice to report for induction in Los Angeles. I went to the induction center, passed the physical, and told them I was going to refuse. I went into a room, where an officer told me three times to step forward. I refused each time, and he asked me to write a statement saying that I had refused induction. I did so, and went home. One morning, an F.B.I. agent came to the house in the Oakland Hills where I was living. He put handcuffs on me and took me to the Oakland County jail. My housemates called a legal service. A lawyer filed papers to have me released on my own recognizance. After several trips before judges, and a couple of weeks in the Los Angeles County jail, I was sentenced, at the age of 21, to 42 months in federal prison.
Two other young men and I rode to the Federal Correctional Institution in Lompoc, Calif., in the back of a U.S. Marshal’s car. Located in a rural area north of Santa Barbara, the place boasted blue skies and ocean breezes. Eucalyptus trees lined the parking lot. The prison itself, a three-story concrete structure, looked in many ways like a standard-issue government building–say, a regional water-district treatment plant–except, of course, for the pair of tall chain-link fences, each topped with several strands of barbed wire, and for the manned guard towers standing at the corners of the grounds. After the overcrowded hellhole that was Los Angeles County jail, the prison looked almost inviting.
One of the marshals opened the back door of the dark sedan and let the three of us out. Our handcuffs were linked together by a small chain, and ankle chains limited each of our steps as we trudged toward the two glass doors that bridged the gap between the fences. A buzzer sounded, and the first glass door clicked open. As soon as we entered the room, the door closed behind us. Another buzz and click, and we walked into the prison grounds and into a basement-level room in one of the wings. A guard, in navy slacks, light-blue shirt and red tie, and a khaki-clad inmate were waiting inside. The marshals, joking with the guard, took off our cuffs and chains, and left.
We took off our street clothes, which would be sent home, and went through what would become a familiar ritual: stand naked, hold your hands out to your sides, turn them over; mouth open, raise your tongue; run your hands through your hair; turn around, bend over, reach back, and spread ’em. The inmate handed us each a set of white boxer shorts, clean, well-pressed khaki trousers and shirts, white socks, and brown leather shoes. We got dressed, and he gave us quick haircuts. We each got two blankets, two sheets, a pillow case, and a toilet kit, then followed the guard upstairs through the cell block I later learned was called “M unit.” It was late morning, and only a handful of inmates were walking in the hall. Two sets of double doors on the right opened onto a high-ceiling dining room, where I could see square tables, positioned diagonally, each surrounded by four brightly colored plastic chairs on metal legs, as if it were a fast-food restaurant with seating for a couple of hundred. From there, we were escorted to the Admission and Orientation unit, or A&O, where we would spend our first month before being dumped into the general population to sink or swim.
A&O was an open dormitory, the size of a gymnasium but with a low ceiling. Sun streamed through large windows, many of which were open to allow the ocean breeze to blow through. Bunks with dark gray blankets and neatly folded white sheets lined the right and left walls, and formed a double line down the center. Beside each bunk was a waist-high locker of tan metal. Several inmates were sprawled on their bunks sleeping. A couple sat in groups quietly talking, and others lay with their heads propped up, reading. A 15-foot area between the entrance and the dormitory was lined with sinks, urinals, and free-standing toilet bowls, eliminating any privacy. The guard gave us our bunk assignments. Donn, my scrawny seat-mate on the trip from Los Angeles, who had gotten a few years for selling 50 tablets of LSD, was two bunks down from me. We made up our bunks as best we could from looking at the others, and sat on them until the guard came by to count us, a four times-daily ritual.
In the evening, the guard unlocked the wide entrance door, and we followed the rest of the A&O inhabitants–or “fish”–to the yard. A square field encircled by a quarter-mile running track, the yard had basketball courts, backboards for handball, and a softball field. Beside the track, on the side towards the machine shop and other work areas, were basketball courts, a heavy punching bag, a speed bag, and a weight-lifting area. The section for “hippies”–the middle-class draft dodgers and drug offenders–was around the handball courts. The low-riders–working-class white youths with slicked-back hair, so named for the customized vehicles in which they cruised the streets of Pico Rivera, Fontana, and Torrance, stuck around the baseball diamond, and the blacks hung out at the basketball courts. The Mexicans kept over towards the boxing and weight-lifting equipment. As we walked across the yard, I could almost feel the spheres of menace. Pairs and trios of stone-faced young men walked with their hands in their pockets around the track. Since Lompoc was officially a youth facility, most of the inmates were under 25, with the majority in their late teens and early 20s.
There, I met several other of the draft prisoners, and by the time I left A&O, I would know almost all of them. By home town, they were about evenly split between Northern and Southern California, though the ones from the San Francisco Bay Area inevitably had shorter sentences–18 months or so, of which they could expect to do 14. L.A. sentences tended towards three years, or 42 months in my case. There were few bona fide “activists,” who had actually taken part in organizing actions against the war. I sat on the edge of our group, watching the other draft resisters. Clean-shaven and short-haired, they looked, except for the uniforms, just like the well-behaved kids I’d gone to high school with. They didn’t spout revolutionary rhetoric or hippie slang. More often, they just listened to the guitars that several of them were playing. From time to time a couple of them got up to play handball.
Overhead, huge military transport planes, apparently just back from Vietnam, glinted red in the setting sun as they banked to land at nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base. The guitars played, and a harmonica wailed. A softball cracked against a bat. Basketballs rattled into metallic nets. Handballs whomped against backboards.
After an hour or so, the loudspeaker crackled, then blared. “This is final yard recall, final yard recall.” We stood up, shook out our legs, and walked slowly towards the gray building. The hallway was darker, more crowded and noisier than during the morning. Back in A&O, I lay on my bunk and read a magazine. All in all, I thought, it was a big improvement from county jail, and nowhere near as grim and ugly as the scenes my imagination had conjured. But after the lights went out, a young man a few bunks away began to cry. At first he tried to hold it in, but then he began sobbing audibly, saying, “Oh, great…”
For several days, I remained almost entirely unable to eat. My stomach squeezed into a tight ball at the thought of a meal. I also slept a lot that first week. It wasn’t that I was tired. Sleeping simply got me out of there, if only temporarily. I escaped into vivid dreams of love and freedom, but when I awoke, that same clenching of my abdomen reminded me where I was.
Over the next few weeks, we fish learned all kinds of useful things about the prison, both from the orientation talks we were required to attend and from other inmates. We learned to make our bunks and sweep and mop the area around them, so we would get good marks on inspection. We learned about the commissary, where we could spend $20 a month on candy, magazines, and even a cheap watch.
We also learned about the “slum” cell blocks, labeled K, L, and M, where each of us would be sent after a few weeks in A & O. The bottom two, L and M, were the classic cell blocks of prison movies, three tiers of six-by-eight-foot spaces, with vertical bars covering the front of each cell, including the doors that rolled open sideways when a guard at the head of the tier turned a crank. Anyone who walked by could see you sleeping, changing clothes or sitting on the toilet. The other units, including K, had their cells built as part of the outside walls, and at least had individual window openings on the outside world. While some fish went directly to K unit, most went to L and M. The only worse place was I-block, the isolation unit, which was the jail within the jail. It was where those who had broken serious rules got sent for punishment, and those who were in danger in the general population were kept in protective custody.
All the slum units were full of low-riders, who in particular hated us “hippies.” The blacks and Mexicans only hated each other, and whites in general. Part of it was a class issue–for low-riders, we represented the people who had looked down on them all their lives. And partly it was political, because we had chosen to oppose the war, something none of them would consider. They thought us spoiled brats and glib, unpatriotic cowards.
Early on, Donn, the middle-class LSD-dealer, began adopting protective coloration, learning to mimic skillfully the stride of the low-riders: outward-splayed feet swung forward at the end of stiff but loose-hanging legs by a lift of the pelvis, like a cross between Pinocchio and a penguin.
In A&O, we didn’t know where we would be sent, but we knew it wouldn’t be pleasant. The ultimate fear in all prisons, of course, is of overpowering homosexual rape, and there was the potential for that at Lompoc. Far more common, though, was violent extortion: threatening to beat an inmate, or actually beating him, so that he would pay for his safety, whether in commissary goods or in coerced sex. Being the target of such intimidation was known as being “pressured.” Our fear isolated us as individuals even as it gave us something in common. It isolated us because of one of the first rules we learned: Do your own time. If your friend is in trouble, he has to get himself out of it. Try to help him, and you’ll only get dragged in yourself. “If someone tries to pressure you, you have to be ready to fight,” guys told each other. “Just pick up whatever is near and hit him with it. You’ll get the shit beat out of you, but they’ll leave you alone after that.”
Of course, what set the draft resisters apart even from other middle-class prisoners was that, by our “crime,” we had explicitly rejected violence as a solution to disputes. Other prisoners often took that to mean that we promised not to fight back if attacked. Since the fundamental rule of prison is to attack the vulnerable, that made us natural targets of intimidation. Our main defense in the face of a threat was the idealism at the heart of the so-called “movement”–that is, treating others as human beings, and insisting on the same in return. But that approach didn’t always work.
One afternoon Tom, an unusually upbeat draft resister from Sonoma, came back from his job on the farm. Everyone had returned to their cells for afternoon count, except us orderlies who had to finish sweeping and mopping our tiers. When I passed Tom’s cell, he was standing near the door. Dark globs were splattered across the bunk, walls and locker. He looked at me. His face seemed to have crumpled. “It’s shit,” he said. It was the first time I’d seen prison break through his determined cheerfulness.
Later that evening, he stopped by my cell. “I realized that whoever did it was just doing their thing,” he said. “Their thing is hating hippies.”
Like Lompoc’s other draft resisters, I waited anxiously each day for new resisters to arrive with fresh information about the outside world. In my first months there, I hoped that we were indeed the vanguard of a massive, serious effort to stop the war by refusing induction. I hoped that the thousands of college students who were then leading marches and organizing sit-ins against the war would refuse induction and let themselves be sent to prison. If they did, their cases would clog the courts, and their educated, influential parents would clog congressional phone lines with non-negotiable demands to stop the war immediately. If the antiwar movement became more influential inside the prison, it would make it easier to withstand the pervasive threat of violence and might help people who were angered or bewildered by our presence there understand that we were doing what we did because we loved our country, not because we hated it.
Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to be happening. While I was in A&O, I counted only around 45 draft resisters, out of a total prison population of nearly 1,100–and that was the high point. Besides Lompoc, only one or two other federal prisons in the West housed many draft resisters–that meant we had a sizable percentage of the entire contingent of California draft offenders. When I got moved to J-unit, there were fewer than 10 other resisters in that block, and another 20 to 30 scattered elsewhere.
Since I had never been a part of any organized anti-war activity, I particularly wanted to know the thinking of the other draft prisoners. Most certainly didn’t fit the popular image of anti-war protesters. None had been involved in violent demonstrations. In particular, none favored attacking the police or burning government buildings. Anyone expressing even mild support for the North Vietnamese or Vietcong would have earned instant rejection as a nut case. I once brought criticism on myself by simply using the word “exploitation,” as in American companies exploiting American workers, too loosely.
Tom, for one, seemed to favor playing guitar and smoking dope as his chief form of anti-war activism. Grass was available even in prison, especially for those who worked outside the fences where it was easy for friends to drop off a bag surreptitiously. Morris from Los Angeles practiced transcendental meditation, divided the world into gross and subtle forces, and eschewed drugs, even coffee. His instrument of choice was a harmonica. Despite their differences, each in his way strove to attain a state of mind that kept the crude realities of prison from “bringing them down”–that is, depressing them. Talking politics was for them almost as heavy a downer as witnessing prison violence.
Bona fide “activists,” those who shouted idealistic slogans at marches, or took more serious actions, were largely no-shows in prison. With few exceptions–such as Walt, a devout Quaker who had been arrested for burning files “liberated” from a draft board office in southern California–most anti-war activists managed to avoid serving jail time themselves.
The paucity of activists–the kind of people who literally defined the movement in the public mind–magnified for me a second fear as deeply rooted as the one that had stolen my appetite. No one talked about it aloud, but its power was obvious in the way we waited anxiously for new resisters to arrive with fresh information about the outside world. The fear–or, since I can only speak for myself, at least my reading of it–was that perhaps our going to prison for draft resistance was all for nothing. And that would not be far from concluding that it was a mistake.
Many of us watched the demonstrations nightly on television. So intense was the interest in political events that the library converted a storage room into a room for news-only television. It was popular not only with “hippies” but with militant blacks. Though we supposedly were political allies, the racial tensions of prison, and of the times, made it an uncomfortable mix.
One stormy evening, the topic dominating the news involved a prison in a Southern state. According to the report, militant blacks had virtually taken over the prison, running it with Gestapo-like efficiency, intimidating and controlling not only the other inmates but the guards themselves.
A few minutes later, the lights suddenly went out. Because the room hadn’t been designed for activities, it didn’t have battery-powered backup lights. Thus the blackout left us in complete darkness, unable to see anything. I froze, hardly even breathing. A chair creaked, and someone coughed quietly. For almost a minute, no one spoke. Then a voice came out of the darkness.
Then there was silence again. And out of the darkness came a kind of clarity: There was no way I could have prepared for this, no way anyone could prepare for prison. A minute or two later, the librarian opened the door, and herded us into a brighter room.
After the first six months or so, discussing the demonstrations going on in the country lost its urgency. We’d pretty much figured out everyone’s positions long before, and after that political talk became more a matter of intellectual amusement than anything else–prison was, after all, boring. We had become spectators–we assumed all the demonstrations meant something, but none of them affected us directly. After the Kent State shootings, we passed around the Newsweek issue with the famous cover photo.
In particular, no one talked about the possibility that the peace marchers weren’t really doing their part, and were leaving us holding the bag. It was like a taboo, something so difficult to think about that it was better to pretend that we didn’t. But I think we all feared that we would simply find ourselves forgotten, our draft resistance rendered irrelevant or ineffective, because so few members of the movement stood with us shoulder to shoulder, as the saying goes, by joining us in prison.
Before the political lethargy fully set in, though, some of us acted. On Oct. 15, 1969, when a nationwide “moratorium” called for people from every walk of life to take the day off from their usual activities, in protest of the war, I and a few other draft resisters decided we wouldn’t work that day. The risk we would be taking was real–our actions would go in our prison records, or “jackets,” and could delay our eventual releases on parole.
After breakfast that morning, when most of the inmates had gone to work and I was supposed to start sweeping and mopping the second tier, I approached the guard on duty in my unit. Every step was tiring, as if routine were a blanket wrapped around me so tightly I could hardly move. The guard only looked up once I was standing in the door of his cubicle. “I’m not going to be working today,” I said. My voice was shaking slightly.
A few minutes later, the lieutenant arrived. He was short and fit, had a military crew cut, and worked his jaw muscles. His navy blue slacks were tight, and revealed several inches of white sock above each shoe.
The guard put the brass key in the lock and pushed the big door open. The lieutenant and I walked the 30 or 40 yards down the hallway to I-block, the isolation or solitary confinement unit. By now the hallways felt claustrophobic. The steel door swung outward, and we went in.
Just inside was a barred cage. A guard opened a door in the cage, and walked with me to a cell on the second tier. Another guard turned the handle at the head end of the tier, and the cell door rolled open. I walked inside. Like L and M units, the three tiers of cells in I-block were in the center of the unit, facing outwards. But there was one difference: Because the windows in the outer walls were covered, it was dim all the time. I lay on the bare mattress. There was nothing to do, no coffee, no newspapers, no commissary snacks. I hadn’t realized how dependent I’d become on a daily routine. But within a half hour, several other draft resisters showed up. So did some startling news. It came, ironically, from some low-riders who had also been sent to solitary that morning.
Another draft resister who arrived soon after filled us in with the news. In the excitement, internal enmities were forgotten. There were people demonstrating outside in support of the draft resisters inside–that is, us.
I marveled at the brightness that had flooded my spirit. And as I did, I had the tiniest glimpse of how faith in someone or something beyond oneself could sustain prisoners, whether of politics or of war, through years of imprisonment without losing–and in fact, strengthening–their love for humanity, and for their country.
Indeed, part of the brightness grew from the realization that I loved being a citizen of this country. However angry we Americans might be at one another, everyone involved recognized the fundamental validity, even value, of protest. No one even considered stopping people outside a prison from demonstrating their support for those inside. I also realized how little I’d appreciated, or even been aware of, the depth to which the principles ensuring such freedom were embedded in the souls of even the most down-to-earth and non-intellectual individuals, such as prison guards and even inmates.
Around noon, an orderly came by with a meal. I told him I didn’t want it because I was going to be fasting for the day. He said he had to leave it anyway, even if I didn’t want it. I left it untouched, sitting on the shelf protruding through the slot in the door, until he picked it up an hour later.
Vito, the leader of the low-riders, replied, “You know, man, I don’t know what that word means, but you know what? One thing I know is any dude says that word to you, he be a bullshitter.”
That evening I witnessed, or at least heard, one of Lompoc’s legends. Mike, yet another draft resister, was spending his entire sentence in solitary confinement.
He didn’t even get visitors because, as a strict vegetarian, he refused to wear leather shoes as required in the visiting room. Although he was on the other side of the cell block, I knew it was him when the sound began to swell. Every night, Mike led the inhabitants of I-block in a songfest. It was the high point of my year to hear the toughest cons in the joint bellowing, “He loves his damned old rodeo, as much as he loves me. Someday soon, going with him, someday soon.”
The next morning, I faced a disciplinary hearing in a room at the foot of I-block. A bald, cold-eyed lieutenant with a look of permanent disgust on his face informed me that I’d been punished for refusing to do my job, and asked me whether I was ready to go back to work. I said yes, and returned to J unit. It felt almost depressing to get back into a daily routine. But I was glad I hadn’t been sent back down to L or M.
While I was gone, another orderly, a short, black-haired low-rider named Danny, had been moved into my cell, so I ended up one cell over. A couple of days later Danny approached me. He’d been moving the writing shelf from one side of my former locker to the other. When he unscrewed the mounting bolts, he found a hacksaw blade concealed between the bracket and the locker.
“No, I’m minimum security,” I told him. If I wanted to escape, all I had to do was get assigned to a job outside the fences. More overtly criminal types, including most low-riders, were classified medium security, which meant they had to stay inside the fences.
A few months later, Christmas transformed the prison. Starting in early December, inmates covered the interiors of the cell blocks with elaborate decorations. Streamers rose from the railings to the ceilings. Holiday designs cut from construction paper adorned the walls. I pondered how so many supposedly tough convicts could turn so creative, and even sentimental, so suddenly. One reason, I decided, was that for many of them, this was the closest thing to a real home they’d ever had. They were there with their homeboys, the only people who truly cared about them. And I began to understand why one biker I’d met in county jail had told me, in all sincerity, “The joint’s no fun unless you run with the low-riders.”
The hippies didn’t take part in the decorating. That was one reason the low-riders hated us: We were snobbish outsiders looking down our noses at their family party. But hippies had their own way of celebrating. Because rules on packages from home were relaxed for the holidays, they passed around things like slices of organic fruitcake and whole wheat bread. One evening, Randy, a rather spacey draft resister from the Bay Area, gave me a piece of carrot cake his wife had baked. I later found out it had been laced with the hallucinogen psilocybin. Sitting in my cell all evening, I had hardly noticed the difference.
On Christmas day, the warden stopped by each cell block. The guard released us from our cells one tier at a time, so the warden could shake our hands and give us a two-pound bag of hard candy. Oddly enough, my main feeling that day was embarrassment. Like someone alone and friendless in a big city, I didn’t want people to see me spending the holiday without a loved one, even though everyone else was doing the same. I felt like the whole world was watching my loneliness on television.
By then, the influx of draft prisoners had dwindled to little more than a trickle. I tried not to dwell on the depressing but very real possibility that we had all been suckered into believing that the movement was with us all the way, when in reality it wasn’t the least interested in what we were doing–that we’d been manipulated into going to prison by a bunch of glib and publicity-seeking “activists” who themselves had no intention of putting their own well-being at risk.
A couple of weeks after the holidays, a minor riot broke out in J unit. Some native American Indians, most of whom were in prison for hurting or killing someone while driving drunk, got drunk on home brew liquor. They attacked the guard, a mild-mannered, bespectacled man named Mr. Smith, who managed to lock himself in his cubicle and call for help. Other inmates set fires to trash cans and broke some windows. I watched through the window in the door of my cell. Inmates in K, the next unit over, watched enthralled from their windows.
Soon, 40 or 50 guards showed up, some called from their homes nearby. They streamed into the cell block in a mass of bellies. Mr. Smith, minus his eyeglasses, came out of his office and rolled open the cell doors, one tier at a time. “Get in your cells, men,” he called. The Indians got sent to I-block, and the riot was over.
By the middle of 1970, Tom and several other resisters with shorter sentences had gone home, leaving only a few of us in J unit. The atmosphere darkened accordingly. In December of 1969, President Nixon had instated a draft lottery, which reduced the number of college students and grads at risk of being called for service and thus the opportunity to resist the draft. Thus despite the apparently huge numbers of anti-war college “activists,” only a relative handful of them had actually refused induction during the time when it could have become a mass phenomenon. The lottery had ended that possibility entirely. Ironically, anti-war activities such as the long, violent battles between protesters and police at San Francisco State University still appeared on TV every evening. Yet it was becoming clear to me that those of us then at Lompoc would be the last draft resisters to arrive. And that meant my worst fear was coming true: We were on our own.
Although the realization of what that meant sank in slowly over the months, one specific event in early summer drove home my sense of both personal and political isolation. One evening, I was cleaning the second tier after the 9 p.m. final lockup. As usual, inmates would call out as I passed, asking me to pass something to inmates in other cells–magazines, cigarettes, and the like. This evening, the calls came one after the other.
Suddenly, the whole cell block joined in: “Orderly! Orderly! Orderly!” The shouts echoed off the walls. I was humiliated, and worst of all, had become a target. There was no way to hide, no way to defuse the hatred one-on-one, and no way to fight back.
In the middle of it all, Danny, the low-rider who had been transferred to my cell during my time in I-block, came up to me and handed me a pack of cigarette papers.
When I got back to my cell, my ears burned for an hour. I thrashed on my bunk until dawn, unable to sleep. After breakfast, I went to the lieutenant in charge of job assignments and requested a transfer to the farm, where most of the remaining draft resisters were already working, and which was outside the fence.
“Oh,” he said, blinking rapidly to conceal his confusion, and turned away. I suddenly sensed that he was one of the ones who threw shit in Tom’s cell. And now they’d done the same to me, in a different way.
A couple of months after I was moved to the newly opened minimum-security camp outside the fences, word came from the main prison that Danny had escaped, along with his brother. In the middle of the night, they’d cut through their bars with that hacksaw blade, scrambled over the fences and gotten away clean. At the time, I still had six months at Lompoc before I went free.
The day I got my parole date, I was allowed to make a phone call. I called my sister and her husband, with whom I would be staying after my release. He was a Vietnam veteran, only eight months out of the service. When they’d visited me, he had told me about the fragging of officers in Vietnam. “I bet you didn’t know there was anything that heavy going on over there, did you?” he had said. I realized he felt society despised him for having gone to war. Talking about fragging was his way of saying that ordinary soldiers weren’t war-mongers; they hated the war as much as anyone else did.
“OK, well, see you later.” As I hung up, I felt the guard who’d dialed the call for me looking at me with pity. I guessed he’d observed the same thing dozens of times: young men about to return to a family and world that might not feel comfortable having them come back.
On the morning I was released, I had breakfast, said goodbye to a couple of people, and put my belongings–mainly a couple of fat three-ring notebooks–in a cardboard box. According to custom, I’d given everything else away. I got into the cheap new street clothes I’d been issued–polyester slacks, button-down shirt, and cardboard-soled shoes.
My sister and brother-in-law arrived, and we left. On the drive back to Pasadena, everything looked somehow brighter than real life. I soaked in normality as if I’d never seen it before.
Later that afternoon, I looked in the newspaper and found a reading by a local newspaper columnist who had written a book. It was at Pasadena City College, within walking distance, that night, and I decided to go.
“You really want to go there?” asked my brother-in-law. Eight months back from Vietnam, he was still having a hard time dealing with social situations.
I found myself sitting next to a blonde young woman in a smart business outfit. She tried to start a conversation, and I realized I had nothing to chat about. The only experience I could discuss was prison–it overwhelmed anything else that had ever happened to me. So I told her I’d just been released that morning. I could tell she hadn’t the slightest idea why anyone would do what I’d done.
As I listened to the writer reading his elegantly styled prose, in the corner of my vision I glimpsed her eyes looking me up and down with horror, as if she were trying to decide whether I was going to rape or kill her. I didn’t bother to try to explain that, as far as I was concerned, I had done something right, not wrong. After the reading, she got away from me as soon as she could.
Following my release, I thought less about the question that had seemed so important back in A&O: whether the “idealism” of the movement had been real or posture. After all, what did it matter? The war was winding down, and no one seemed to care, or even realize, that it could have been over by 1970 or earlier, instead of dragging on for several more years, at the cost of nearly 10,000 more American lives, if the movement’s self-proclaimed anti-war activists–millions of college students–had given up their deferments in the preceding years and clogged the courts, instead of plotting more marches, sit-ins, teach-ins, or building takeovers.
In the years since I was released from prison, I haven’t talked much about my experiences. Most people I’ve mentioned Lompoc to, like the woman at the book reading, have seemed unsettled by it–they haven’t been able, or even wanted, to wrap their minds around why I did it. Had more of us resisted the draft, had the experience been more effective in changing the government’s war policy, or at least in entering the conscience of my generation, it might have been different. Veterans of all stripes have been able, slowly and painfully, to convey what they went through and to support one another, and the anti-war activists have had more than their fair share to say. There were too few of us draft resisters to share our story, and so what we did has largely been invisible to history. But now I think there is a point in bringing it up.
In 2003, it turns out that my questions about the anti-war movement do again matter. The reality of a major war launched by the Vietnam generation for reasons that, just as with Vietnam, didn’t quite make sense, finally drove me to think through the implications of Lompoc’s missing activists. I quickly concluded that the anti-Vietnam War liberals and the pseudo-patriotic neocons were more alike than different. Both embodied a privileged elite claiming to be paragons of idealism and patriotism, while hiding behind college or medical deferments to avoid putting themselves on the line, either in rice paddies or in prison. Indeed, there’s a case to be made that, for conservative draft dodgers, one of the biggest benefits of the war with Iraq has been its extreme (and certainly intentional) divisiveness, which helps obscure how closely, in terms of character and integrity, they resemble anti-Vietnam War draft dodgers.
But more important, I realized that the success of the anti-war movement in selling itself as idealistic, while never showing up to do the hard time, directly paved the way–in fact, pioneered the techniques–for neocons to sell themselves as courageous patriots, after having never shown up for service in Vietnam. And with neocon draft dodgers now trying to prove their patriotism at the cost of American lives, that leaves anti-Vietnam War liberals with a lot to answer for.
George W. Bush, President
In 1968, George W. Bush, the son of a Texas congressman, applied for a position with the Texas Air National Guard, a popular way to avoid being drafted for combat. Although there was a long waiting list, and Bush had received only mediocre scores on his pilot aptitude test, he was quickly accepted. Bush’s service was supposed to last until 1973, but in 1972 he received a transfer to a guard unit in Alabama, allowing him to work on the Senate campaign of a friend of his father. When he failed to take his annual flight physical, guard officials grounded him, and he never flew again. His final officer-efficiency report from May 1973 noted only that supervisors hadn’t seen him or heard from him.
Dick Cheney, Vice President
Vice President Cheney, who explained that he “had other priorities” at the time, received two draft deferments –one for being a student, and one for being married. In 1965, the government announced a change of policy: Married men would now be drafted, unless they were also fathers. Nine months and two days after that announcement, the Cheneys had their first child.
John Ashcroft, Attorney General
Ashcroft received six student deferments during Vietnam, plus another “occupational deferment,” on the grounds that his civilian job–teaching business law to undergraduates at Southwest Missouri State University–was critical. “I would have served if asked,” he has said.
Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense
Wolfowitz received a student deferment, allowing him to attend Cornell, then do graduate work at the University of Chicago, where he remained until the draft was over.
Tom Delay, Speaker of the House (R-Texas)
Delay received a student deferment, and in 1969 drew a high number in the draft lottery, meaning he did not have to go to Vietnam. At a 1988 press conference defending his and vice presidential nominee Dan Quayle’s failure to serve in Vietnam, Delay argued that so many blacks volunteered to serve as a way to escape poverty that there was no room for patriotic conservatives like him and Quayle.
Richard Perle, Pentagon Adviser
Perle received a student deferment, enabling him to go to graduate school at Princeton, then went to England to work on his doctoral thesis. Fed up with Perle’s constant war-mongering last year, Sen. Chuck Hagel, (R-Neb) who volunteered for Vietnam and earned two Purple Hearts, suggested that perhaps “Mr. Perle would like to be in the first wave of those who go into Baghdad.”