How the draft dodged me

JULIAN BOND

February 18, 1992|By Julian Bond

I TOO received an exemption from the draft that kept me from fighting in Vietnam.

But my exemption didn't entail entry into the National Guard, as Vice President Dan Quayle did; I don't think the Guard in Georgia admitted blacks when I came of draft age in 1961.

And I wasn't kept out of the Army by a student deferment, as Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney was, or by deferments and promises to enter ROTC, like Gov. Bill Clinton. Unlike them, I didn't know anybody on my draft board. Georgia's draft boards were all-white, too.

No, my exemption was an unsolicited gift from my draft board in Atlanta. Here's what happened:

When I took my physical in 1961 with about 100 other young men, our last requirement -- after we had turned our heads and coughed and jumped and squinted -- was to tell the attending sergeant whether we had ever been arrested. Most of those in line before me either answered "no" or mentioned drunkenness, a traffic offense or failure to pay child support.

But when I called out my last name first, Army fashion, the sergeant told me, "I know all about you, fellow! I've got a letter here from the Atlanta chief of police. It says you were arrested in one of them sit-in demonstrations. This is serious business. You may never get into this man's Army!"

I remember being both dismayed and overjoyed and left not knowing what would happen to me. Weeks passed without a word. Then one day while I was out an envelope arrived from the Army. My mother's worst fear was that it enclosed the dreaded "Greetings" so many of my friends had received. With trembling hands, she opened the letter, which contained a card that listed my classification as 4-Y.

When there was a draft, every eligible male knew two classifications by heart: 1-A meant you were on a bus for basic training; 4-F meant you had too many heads or too few brains to serve.

My mother, married to a man too young for World War I and too old for World War II, had less familiarity with such things. She called the draft board to have the form explained. "Oh, no, Mrs. Bond," the secretary told her, "I can't tell you what it means on the telephone." This was like wartime, after all. The Berlin Wall had just gone up. American advisers were in Vietnam.

The secretary was more forthcoming when I called. "It means mentally, physically or morally unfit," she told me. "Not to be called except in case of national emergency."

I can recall receiving this news with mixed emotions. I was certainly happy not to be going. On the other hand, having been told that I had passed the physical and mental tests, I wondered what had made me "morally" unfit for service in my country's defense.

Then I realized I was being kept a civilian because of my arrest in 1960 at the segregated lunch counter in the Atlanta City Hall. That act against taxpayer-supported white supremacy had called my morals into question, at least so far as the Army was concerned. I realized that some draft boards -- early in the Vietnam conflict -- saw service as a privilege that some young American men didn't deserve.

The head of my draft board was as confused about my exemption as I was. He later told Newsweek: "That nigger Julian Bond. We sure let him slip through our fingers."

This episode may offer a word of caution to those who look critically and too generally at my generation. Not all of us manipulated the system to escape the Army. The system itself happily manipulated some of us out of harm's way. And some of us saw parallels in our own country to charges that the war in Vietnam was a war of northern aggression. Our cast-off textbooks from white schools had told us the Civil War was a war of northern aggression, too.

As we hear how common it was to use graduate school as an escape hatch from Vietnam, some of us remember a different war we were already fighting here at home.

Julian Bond is a visiting professor of government at American University in Washington.

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