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January/February 2023 -   -  


Classroom Dilemma: A student's contempt for Vietnam War draftees

I was busily (and for the most part happily) studying for my PhD in English literature when I was drafted in 1969. I finished all my Army training—BCT, Vietnamese Language School, Clerk School — and served out my time in Vietnam, first as an Operations Clerk at Long Binh, and then teaching English to ARVN noncoms in Vung Tau.

When I got out, I went straight back to graduate school and finished my PhD as quickly as I could. In the summer of 1973, I was offered an entry-level position as an Assistant Professor at the University of Mississippi, where I stayed until I retired forty years later.

As far as I know, my patriotic military service (being drafted and deployed to Vietnam) had no beneficial effects on my career as an English professor. I have no reason to think that my status as a Vietnam War veteran helped me get my job in the first place. It added nothing of advantage to my subsequent applications for tenure and promotion. It certainly had no bearing whatsoever on decisions about my salary or raises over the years.

As a professor, the fact that I was also a veteran seemed to me to be largely irrelevant. For that reason and an abundance of others, I decided to keep quiet about my military service. I did not make a point of it to my students, and I did not look for ways to introduce my experiences into the courses I taught. If asked, I did not deny that I was a veteran, but I also self-consciously avoided volunteering that I was.

Now that I have retired, I have sadly decided that not being more open about my time in the Army was a mistake. I would have been a better professor, and I would have given my students a better education, if I had not been so reluctant to tell them what I knew about the military, about living as a young man with the prospect of the draft hovering over me, and about living in a country at war.

Most of the time, I avoided situations in which my military experience might have complicated my life as a professor, but even after decades, the war could still make me uncomfortable. Every now and then, my academic life and my former military life intersected in ways that would have enabled me to be that better teacher, and each time that happened, I was disappointingly unprepared for it. One episode in particular, which occurred in 2007, well after I had been teaching for many years, is particularly painful to recall.

An eloquent antiwar statement 

At Ole Miss, I regularly taught a course in fiction for juniors and seniors, mostly English majors. In it, I encouraged students to think about how writers tell their stories and how differences in their methods affect the stories they tell. For the course, I assigned a diverse collection of novels, including Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo.

The protagonist is a young American, Joe Bonham. Joe is drafted during World War I, and even though he wants to stay home with his girlfriend, he boards a train and makes the journey that eventually takes him to the front. An explosion leaves him without arms and legs, without a face, unable to see, hear, or speak, and almost completely incapable of voluntary movement. About all that he has left to call “life” is his consciousness, but even that is problematic because he must learn to distinguish his thoughts from his dreams.

Isolated and confined to his thoughts, Joe suffers through a period of intense anger and despair. He bitterly concludes that being conscripted for a war he does not understand and consequently ending up like “a “side of beef” that can think is a bad bargain for “little guys” like him.

Although the novel makes an eloquent antiwar statement, I did not assign it primarily for that reason. Rather, I wanted students to think about Joe’s plight: What would it mean to endure a forced existence, almost entirely unable to perceive, let alone to communicate with, the world around him?

Hoping my class would understand the question as a prompt to imagine for themselves Joe’s anger and despair, I asked them what they thought about military conscription. By 2007, no one had been drafted into the American military for over three decades. None of my students, therefore, could have had any direct experience with the draft or draftees.

A student who usually did not participate in class discussions unexpectedly spoke up. He was a veteran, recently back from Iraq, and enrolled in the university’s ROTC program. All semester he had been quiet, and his body language strongly suggested that he was bored and would have preferred to be elsewhere. He disliked the novel, he announced, because Joe Bonham was a draftee.

“I spent ten months in Iraq, and I wouldn’t have wanted anyone with me who hadn’t volunteered,” he said. “I hate this guy [Trumbo].” The virulence of his antipathy, not just to Trumbo and the novel but to draftees, startled me. Then, to my further surprise, the class in general reacted as if they mostly agreed with him.

Remarkably, the general sentiment was that draftees would necessarily be inferior soldiers. They would want most of all to save their own lives, so they would more than likely be cowards, more likely to run away, and more likely to freeze up in combat and be unable to function. No one wanted an Army with draftees. No one wanted to be drafted.

I had not anticipated the veteran’s remarks, especially not the degree of their hostility. His contempt for draftees — and to a lesser extent, the uncritical assent of the whole class — offended me, although I tried to disguise my reaction. Since the Army in which he served included no draftees, maybe I should have been more charitable, but for me, even in that moment, his accusation was personal.

From the moment I was inducted, through my tour in Vietnam, I appreciated — as did every other draftee I met — that my survival was at stake, and that others depended on me just as I depended on them. We did our jobs, even though we did not want to be there.

It was evident that no one in the class was aware of draftees’ history in the U.S. military, or else no one cared. In either event, they were simply wrong about draftees. They had no clue that during World War II, for instance, the conflict waged and won by America’s “Greatest Generation,” 66 percent of those serving in the armed forces were drafted. Perhaps they were thinking of young people in their own generation, maybe seeing their self-absorption, abbreviated attention spans, and sense of privilege as indicators that they would not make responsible soldiers. I suspect, though, that they all had my generation in mind when they distrusted the service of draftees. After all, we made draft-dodging a cliché; we were the baby killers no one welcomed home.

The numbers, however, suggest an alternate story. During the Vietnam war, some 1.8 million men were drafted; 648,500 of them served in Vietnam. Of the more than 58,000 American deaths in the war, just over 30 percent were draftees. In a supplementary Introduction to Johnny, published in 1970, Trumbo offered another method of measuring the cost of the war. By his formula, the 17,671 draftees killed during the war would equal more than 1,325 tons of bone and flesh, 54,780 pounds of brain matter, and almost 22,089 gallons of blood. That’s a hefty amount of sacrifice from cowards and malingerers.

The dilemma 

My students’ unsubstantiated prejudices about draftees created a troubling dilemma for me, as a professor and as a veteran. My first inclination was to disabuse them, especially the veteran, of their misconception. Thanks to the fact that he had served in Iraq, he was a certified American Hero. His record afforded him special regard, particularly among the other students, all close to his age. I knew well that arguing with such a student—correcting him, in fact—especially in front of a class of his peers, was a delicate matter.

Insisting that I knew better easily could be perceived as bullying or taking unfair advantage of my authority. If I argued too vigorously that he was wrong, he might interpret my disagreement as an insult to his experience or to his judgment, or perhaps to his honor. Pursuing the topic most likely would have alienated him further and certainly would not have endeared me to the rest of the class.

But then there was also the matter that I was one of the draftees he so casually maligned. I lived through the period of open hostility and contempt for veterans, drafted or otherwise. I accept that veterans should respect one another. I subscribe to the founding principle of Vietnam Veterans of America: “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.”

My student’s prejudice placed unrelenting stress on the sense of camaraderie that I would have preferred to share with him.

In the end, I elected not to risk conflict with my student. I settled for lame, indecisive responses and did my best to deflect the discussion onto another subject. Even years after the fact, my failure to challenge my student troubles me in multiple ways. Hero or not, he badly misjudged draftees. By not correcting him, I failed all the students in the class.

I did not replace a demeaning myth about draftees with something at least closer to the truth. The students deserved that much at the minimum. Even worse, I betrayed men with whom I served. In the U.S. and in-country I lived and worked with hundreds of draftees. Some became my closest friends. By not standing up for their honor, I did a disservice to all the men who have been drafted and sent to war zones, and I effectively abandoned my own generation of veterans.

I have rehearsed this episode in my memory more times than I care to recall. Each time, I regret what I did not say. Yet I still have no suitable answer to my central problem. How should I have told a class of young people, including an American Hero, that they did not know what they were talking about? How could I, a veteran and a draftee, have told them all, but especially a fellow veteran, that when it came to judging draftees, they were full of shit?




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