By Robert Reich
Last Wednesday, Vladimir Putin announced that Russian civilians would be drafted to bolster forces in his unpopular war in Ukraine. Almost immediately, the Kremlin faced widespread opposition, including demonstrations. On Friday, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that “citizens with higher education” would be exempt from the draft, especially those in telecommunications, information technology, banking and “systematically important” media companies.
When I heard this news I flashed back to 1968. Tens of thousands of us then graduating from college were subject to being drafted and very possibly going to Vietnam.
College students were deferred but local draft boards decided whether to continue deferments for graduate school. Many of us were not only afraid of being killed, but also thought the war insane and unjust. We demonstrated against it. Some burnt our draft cards. We did not want to be complicit in the immoral war. But what to do? Draft resistance meant going to prison or to Canada.
The handful of us who had been awarded Rhodes Scholarships for study at Oxford negotiated with our draft boards.
Bill Clinton got his extended deferment by signing a letter of intent to join the Reserve Officers Training Corps after Oxford.
On December 3 of our second year there — after Bill drew a sufficiently high draft-lottery number to ensure he wouldn’t be drafted — he wrote a letter to Colonel Eugene Holmes, the head of ROTC at the University of Arkansas, essentially withdrawing from the program.
Because Bill’s decision and letter would become controversial twenty-three years later when he ran for President, I’m reproducing the relevant portion here. (I can’t help but wonder whether it expresses the sentiments of young Russians now facing Putin’s draft.)
Dear Colonel Holmes,
First, I want to thank you, not just for saving me from the draft, but for being so kind and decent to me ….
For years I have worked to prepare myself for a political life characterized by both practical political ability and concern for rapid social progress. It is a life I still feel compelled to try to lead. I do not think our system of government is by definition corrupt, however dangerous and inadequate it has been in recent years (the society may be corrupt, but that is not the same thing, and if that is true we are all finished anyway).
When the draft came, despite political convictions, I was having a hard time facing the prospect of fighting a war I had been fighting against, and that is why I contacted you. ROTC was the one way left in which I could possibly, but not positively, avoid both Vietnam and resistance. …
After I signed the ROTC letter of intent I began to wonder whether the compromise I had made with myself was not more objectionable than the draft would have been, because I had no interest in the ROTC program in itself and all I seemed to have done was to protect myself from physical harm. Also, I began to think I had deceived you, not by lies – there were none – but by failing to tell you all the things I’m writing now. I doubt that I had the mental coherence to articulate them then. At that time, after we had made our agreement and you had sent my 1-D deferment to my draft board, the anguish and loss of self-regard and self-confidence really set in. I hardly slept for weeks and kept going by eating compulsively and reading until exhaustion brought sleep. Finally on September 12th, I stayed up all night writing a letter to the chairman of my draft board … stating that I couldn’t do the ROTC after all and would he please draft me as soon as possible.
I never mailed the letter, but I did carry it on me every day until I got on the plane to return to England. I didn’t mail the letter because I didn’t see, in the end, how my going in the Army and maybe going to Vietnam would achieve anything except a feeling that I had punished myself and gotten what I deserved. So I came back to England to try to make something of this second year of my Rhodes scholarship.
And that is where I am now, writing to you because you have been good to me and have a right to know what I think and feel. I am writing too in the hope that my telling this one story will help you to understand more clearly how so many fine people have come to find themselves still loving their country but loathing the military, to which you and other good men have devoted years, lifetimes, of the best service you could give. To many of us, it is no longer clear what is service and what is disservice, or if it is clear, the conclusion is likely to be illegal. Forgive the length of this letter. There was much to say. There is still a lot to be said, but it can wait. Please say hello to Colonel Jones for me. Merry Christmas.
As for me, I had read the Selective Service’s physical requirements for being drafted, which clearly set the minimum height at five feet. So, at 4 foot 11 inches, I assumed I wouldn’t make the grade.
Just before setting sail for England, I decided to get the matter officially out of the way. I was working in Berkeley, California at the time, and went over to the Oakland Induction Center (which had been the scene of some violent anti-war protests) to receive my 4-F classification — “unfit for military service.”
The Center was almost empty when I arrived.
An examining sergeant sitting at a desk at the end of the corridor caught sight of me. “Hey!” he shouted, beckoning me. “Just what we’ve been waiting for!”
“Sorry, sir?” I asked as I reached his desk, hoping I’d misheard. My heart raced. Was he joking?
“You’re perfect!” he said, smiling and standing up as if to give me a bear hug. “A tunnel rat!”
“A … what?”
“We need shorties like you to go into tunnels under the rice paddies! Smoke out the ‘Cong with grenades!”
I saw my life pass in front of me.
“Let’s just measure you.” He asked me to strip down to my underwear and socks, and then ushered me to the measuring stand about ten feet away.
He turned me so I was looking outward, away from the vertical measure.
“Just stand up v-e-r-y straight,” he said in a somber tone as he slid the horizontal metal strip down to the top of my head.
I couldn’t see the measurement but I could hear my heart pounding. In his enthusiasm for tunnel rats, would he declare I was five feet regardless of my one inch deficiency?
A long pause that seemed to last for eternity.
His large hand came down on my shoulder as he ushered me off the platform.
“I’m sorry, son,” he said solemnly.
Sorry? Was he sorry I was heading under the rice paddies with hand grenades, or sorry I wasn’t? OMG. Could it be that I was just over 4 feet 11 inches by enough of a fraction that he could claim I was 5 feet?
I suddenly remembered that the Army height regulation allowed examining sergeants to round up or down:
(1) If the height fraction is less than half an inch, round down to the nearest whole number in inches. (2) If the height fraction is half an inch or greater, round up to the next highest whole number in inches.
If this sergeant rounded up, I’d be down under the rice paddies with grenades. Forget Oxford. Hell, forget life.
“So,” I said, trying to hide the tremor in my voice, “Wha … what’s the measure show?”
He frowned. “You’re just too short.”
I was tempted to let out a yell but stopped myself for fear he’d take offense and draft me out of spite. So I simply nodded and said “okay,” trying my best to act disappointed.
Shit. Was I too disappointed? Was he going to round up out of sympathy?
“… Don’t give up hope,” he smiled. “Maybe you’ll grow!”
A second later he let out a loud guffaw, probably relieved I wasn’t upset by his lame attempt at humor.
Then I felt my own relief overwhelm me — the unmitigated joy of having my life back — and I laughed too.
We both laughed and laughed and laughed, out of a sense of relief that both of us felt, for different reasons.
That’s the image I’m left with now, fifty-four years later: the two of us, the examining sergeant and me, doubled up there in the Oakland Induction Center, while tens of thousands of young Americans — most of them without college degrees — and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, were being slaughtered for no good reason.