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"The question was out of my hands."

Published onOct 04, 2023

Photo by Natalie Dmay:

When the order came to report to my draft physical in early spring of 1972, it was no surprise. With my low number (seven) in the lottery for young men born in 1952, I’d purposely not renewed my student deferment, so it was only a matter of time. The year before, during the holiday break of my freshman year at Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, I’d had back surgery at University Hospitals in Iowa City. I’d injured my back the previous summer while working as a dairy hand at the John Campbell Folk School in the mountains of North Carolina.

I knew when the injury occurred. Set-up for milking included wheeling a heavy wooden cart in the alleyways behind the milking stanchions and shoveling grain into troughs for the cows to eat. Lift and push. Lift and push. Then the pain. For a time, it was excruciating. This was followed by the toes in my right foot going numb. After a week or so, the pain mostly disappeared. The numbness did not.

The injury was weird because that summer I’d felt the strongest since I’d quit smoking pot in my junior year of high school. I’d always been a physical kid, but the year of smoking marijuana took its toll. I looked like the wayward teenager for the “Is your son using drugs?” poster campaign. In North Carolina, getting up early morning to herd the cows in from pasture in that sweet mountain air was healing. I was away from home for the first time, meeting new people and finding my own way without my two older brothers as my default. During that summer, my chest and arms bulked up. That was why the back injury was such a surprise. It felt like punishment for being happy.

But now that back surgery in December 1971 would be my ticket. Instead of a I-O classification, which signified I was a conscientious objector available to be called up for alternative service, or II-S, meaning any service was deferred because of study, I’d be IV-F. Physically unfit. No requirement for service. Done. The order to report, far from being a major event in my life, meant soon I’d be finished with the whole nuisance.

I know how callous that last sentence sounds.

Compared to what most young men were facing with their prospects in Vietnam, particularly those from poor families, my path was easy. I was basically a conscientious objector. I say “basically” because I believed in nonviolence, but I wasn’t sure even then if, called before the board to answer questions about my beliefs, I could have stood behind pacifism in all instances. Growing up a Quaker, I was granted conscientious objector status without having to defend it. But at age nineteen, in my second year at Cornell College and in love, the last thing I wanted was two years of alternative service after graduation—and without the back surgery, that’s what I would have faced.

My desire to avoid alternative service wasn’t political. I wasn’t a radical who believed, as my father did in World War II, that compulsory service, whether in the military or as a conscientious objector, supported the war machine. Consequently, he didn’t register for the draft in 1942 and served two years in prison while other young pacifists, who were granted CO status, gave up two years to do work of “national importance,” such as road and dam building, firefighting, or serving as orderlies in psychiatric hospitals. I put “national importance” in quotes, because for many COs it felt like make-work at the camps increasingly run like the military.

While some camps during WWII operated smoothly, with the men completing monumental tasks on the order of WPA-like projects, other camps were hot beds of tension, work strikes, and insubordination. Alternative service in WWII was a legal route sincere pacifists could take by law for an exemption from military service. Why then did it often operate like punishment? The answer is simple.

Just as in WWI when the exemption from military service was first carved out for sincere pacifists primarily from historic peace churches, the government had a stake in not making the option too attractive or the work too meaningful. In World War I, the government’s tactic to get COs to change their minds was more direct than during WWII—those young men who claimed CO status had to report to a military camp along with young men drafted into the armed services. At the camp, the COs were often harassed and pressured to “take the uniform.”

According to historian Christopher Capozzola, of the 56,830 men whose local draft boards recognized claims of conscientious objection, only 3,989 men pursued their claims after being assigned to a camp in WWI—a testament to the effectiveness of the War Department’s strategy to pressure COs into changing their mind. Of those only about 2,600 men were furloughed— either to France to work in the Friends Reconstruction Unit or to a farm. My maternal Quaker grandfather Arthur Standing was one who made it through the gauntlet. In his case, he was sent to France to help with reconstruction. In both WWI and WWII, the government had a war to fight. They didn’t want a rush of men claiming to be COs.

By the Vietnam War, the number of men claiming conscientious objector status exploded. Part of it was the war itself, unpopular and horrifying in the public eye. According to the 2008 film Soldiers of Conscience, during the war, the Selective Service recognized a whopping 171,000 men as conscientious objectors—clearly, they didn’t have this as tightly controlled as in previous wars.

With my CO status in hand, I didn’t have a philosophical opposition to alternative service. I just didn’t want to do it. Maybe married, my love and spouse-to-be Jeri and I could have fulfilled the service together by working on a reservation or even returning to teach mountain kids in my beloved Appalachia. During the summer of 1970 in North Carolina, I met two young men doing just that. They were engaged in good work in the mountain communities they were sent to. One was even married. I’m not saying they were overjoyed about their compulsory service, but they were both grateful to be doing something positive rather than fighting in Vietnam.

In hindsight, I could say the experience might have even been good for me—for us. Jeri wasn’t afraid of adversity, and I could have used some broadening perspectives after my growing-up years in rural Iowa and in what was essentially a small sect religion. But I wanted none of it. The truth was I desperately wanted to be a writer and live the life of the arts. Alternative service looked like a dead-end.

 The letter said I was to report to Fort Des Moines. So, if all went well, I’d spend two nights and two days away from classes. Since I didn’t have a car at school, my plan was to hitchhike along Highway 30 from Mt. Vernon to Ames, where my oldest brother Chris and his wife Suzie lived. I’d spend the night on their couch, and then catch a bus from Ames to Des Moines. I’d stay the night at the Hotel Fort Des Moines with the rest of the young men assigned to a physical that day. The next day, with the physical over, I’d hit the road again, hitchhiking I-80, then heading north from Iowa City back to Jeri and my dorm.

With IV-F a foregone conclusion (as I was assured several times by draft counselors), it was little to suffer for my not being forced to give up two years of my life. OK, there was a war going on and young men were being sucked into that vortex who would never come back again. But was that my fault? Out of guilt for their sacrifice, should I have gladly served my two years? A failed draft physical meant I didn’t have to think about it any longer. The question was out of my hands.

I packed my few items in a backpack, said goodbye to Jeri, and walked out to Highway 30, a straight shot west to Ames. The day was sunny, but cold, with rag-tag crusts of snow hanging on from the Iowa winter. The landscape outside of town was flat, with the campus now behind me perched on its hill—the college’s iconic King Chapel at the highest point, constructed of local limestone and looking like the educational ivory tower that I suppose it was compared to the experience of fighting in Vietnam. Posting myself at the crossroads of Highway 1 and 30, I turned to face the traffic and stuck out my thumb.

For the two days, I’d miss Jeri. We’d known each other since the first day we arrived on campus but didn’t start dating until the fall of our sophomore year. We’d been put together early that fall when two professors took us on a weekend trip to Chicago for the annual Poetry Day reading sponsored by Poetry magazine. That year the poets reading were Richard Howard and, incredibly, Elizabeth Bishop, who overwhelmed us both —the love for her poetry a shared experience. Back on campus, it was only a matter of time before we were drawn together.

But if getting my IV-F was all so simple, why didn’t I feel relieved?  The whole thing felt a bit like a sham. Fifty years later, I still feel queasy. I wasn’t lying to escape service. There was nothing to feel guilty about. Thousands of young men my age would have gladly taken my place, happy to escape Vietnam. I hadn’t injured my back on purpose, and the two back surgeries that followed, the first in 1970 and then a second in 1980— had a huge impact on my life. I paid.

And yet . . . it still felt sneaky, as if I were evading something like a teenager not taking responsibility for some hurt he or she has caused. Fifty years later, I understand now that there is no separate peace. If you have any kind of human empathy, you know we don’t escape responsibility for war and the consequences for those who serve, as much as we might try to distance ourselves from their pain. Some people on the Left in those years tried to distance themselves from those feelings by demonizing the men who went, but in the end, this approach dehumanized the demonizers. The young men who went to Vietnam were no different from me, from any of us. I wasn’t some special category who deserved to escape. To my credit, I never demonized the men who went to Vietnam. I was just afraid of them and their experience.

Years later, I tried to confront my feelings about Vietnam as so many Americans do by visiting the Vietnam War Memorial. I’d come to the memorial after dark in early summer when I caught a cab from a conference I was attending in Washington, DC.  Even after dark, people were out on the walk beside the memorial searching for names, some weeping. I found the names of two men, really boys, I knew, and it was a stark reminder that their lives ended while mine went on.

I used to avoid Vietnam in conversation. Until recently, my answer when asked about my experience during those years was wishy-washy, as if I were embarrassed. Now I accept that I just tell the truth if the subject arises—I was a conscientious objector who failed the draft physical because of a back surgery, so was not required to perform any service. That was my path, but it doesn’t mean that I think I am better than that soldier who served. If someone feels that I got off easy, it’s no different than I think of myself. But once that back surgery occurred, this was how it was going to play out. There was no other way.

By 1972, the belief that going to Vietnam was a glorious service to the country had already cracked. Walter Cronkite gave the daily casualty figures and fed us the horrific images of what the men were going through in a war that we were supposedly winning. It seemed incredible the number of men, material, and sheer fire power being poured into that country. It just didn’t inspire patriotism.

We were polarized in America then as we are now, but the line was about who was for the war and who was against. That didn’t mean that the country wasn’t polarized over race. We were—how could we not be—but Vietnam was the ascendent litmus test for white liberals. The whole environment about the war then was which side are you on, as the old labor song says. My family with its history of pacifism was against. My father’s arrest in 1942 and his subsequent incarceration for two years was the gold standard of protest in our family, and in many ways, his story was our family brand.

Being the first born, my oldest brother Chris perhaps suffered the most pressure from Dad about how he should respond to compulsory service. Unlike Dad, he registered as a conscientious objector, opening the door for his younger brothers to do the same. Dad didn’t tell Chris he wanted him to follow him in his footsteps by refusing to register and going to prison, but that was the unspoken message. Of course, the two situations weren’t the same. In 1942, Dad was sent to the federal reformatory first in Petersburg, Virginia, and then Ashland, Kentucky. In both places, he said he never felt threatened because the other men were mostly serving time for crimes like burglary or moonshining.

The experience for war resisters in the 1970s was vastly different in prisons where they faced a lot more violence. Like many white, middle- and upper-class young men, Chris was shielded from any service by a student deferment, so what he did next didn’t make much sense. Dropping out of the University of Iowa, he took off for San Francisco, where no longer a student studying on a deferment, he would wait out the call from the draft board.

Returning home to Napier, Iowa, during the summer of 1968 for a visit, red hair down to his shoulders and full red beard, he looked like an image of Jesus. He was there to let my father know where he stood. To avoid two years of alternative service, Chris had convinced a psychiatrist in California to lie in a letter to the draft board saying he was gay, an automatic IV-F. Chris worried that Dad was disappointed in him.

 The first death from the war that meant something to me was not even someone from our high school. Steve Rushing was a part of a group of students in nearby Ames a few years older than I that I hung around with. For a high school kid, Steve was unusual. He recited T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and Dylan Thomas poems by heart. He was on the debate team and played sports at Ames High School. Even at the time, he announced that he was a pacifist, but there were complications with his parents who weren’t sympathetic. If anyone was a pacifist at heart, it was Steve.

After high school, he entered Iowa State University and lived in the basement of the Episcopalian church. No one knew that he’d stopped going to classes, which eventually put him in the sights of the draft board. We were all shocked when he was called up and went, only to die six weeks after arriving in Vietnam in July 1970 in Binh Dinh Province. He seemed the least likely person to be a soldier. I received the letter about his death while working that summer in North Carolina. I cried. It felt like such a waste.


Arriving in Ames, my ride dropped me off just a mile or so from Chris’s place on the west side of town. I walked the final mile and was welcomed by Chris and Suzie. That night I slept restlessly on their couch. Then after breakfast, onto the bus station and a final bus ride to Des Moines. I spent the next night at the Hotel Fort Des Moines (a guest of the government!), sharing a room with a boy from a dairy farm. He was so shy that he barely said a word. He went to bed early, so I decided to do the same. It was hard to imagine him surviving Vietnam. In some small town, he must have had parents and a family who had seen him off wishing him . . . what? Luck?

I hadn’t brought any pajamas, so slept in my underwear. The room was furnished like a cheap college dorm room, and it was cold. Late into the evening, I could hear guys laughing and partying on our floor like it was the end of the world.

The process included an intelligence test and the actual physical. For some reason, I tried on the intelligence test to do as well as I could and was pleased when someone told me that I scored high enough to be stationed in Germany. At the point where I declared I was a conscientious objector, I felt the attitude toward me shift. But who cared? Unlike the rest of them, I knew I had my way out. I had brought documentation about my back surgery that one doctor read and kept for my file.

In the last room, in a group, we had to drop our pants and bend over and spread our cheeks. What astounded me was the number of men who came into the room to watch this final humiliation. One of the doctors told me to spread my cheeks wider, and I could hear the group laugh. What the hell? I was angry, but I was finished with them. I pulled up my pants and walked out.

One of the young army doctors followed me out of the room to tell me that with the paperwork I’d provided about my back surgery, I’d be classified IV-F. He seemed to be apologizing for what just happened, but I was still angry and just nodded. I retrieved my backpack, walked out the door, and hit the road.


In the summer of 1968, Peter, Paul, and Mary came to Ames to sing in the Iowa State University armory building. The trio were unabashedly anti-war as were many in the audience. When they sang The Great Mandala written by Peter Yarrow, tears stung my eyes. The song about a young conscientious objector who refuses to register for the draft and ultimately dies on hunger strike in prison to protest war felt at the center of my life, but I wasn’t sure how to reconcile it with myself personally. It seemed more about my father. But with the song’s story being narrated by the boy’s father, the song was as much about fathers and sons as it was about war. My father had gone to an extreme during WWII, even enduring a hunger strike of something like a week, when he lived on white bread and water in the hole. I knew I couldn’t go that far.

I love the song sung by the trio, but the version by Richie Havens and Peter Yarrow can still put me over the edge. Havens’ voice makes you feel all the moral conflict in your soul. Is the boy a hero for refusing to eat in his cell because of the killing going on? It’s a troubling question because the hunger strike leaves no way out. He’d already made his point by refusing to register for the draft and going to prison, and the step to refuse to eat removes any other possibility for action in the future.

Unlike the boy’s fast, Gandhi’s fasts had a strategic element to them. If he’d died, the British would have found themselves in a situation veering out of control. Gandhi wasn’t just making a personal moral statement. He was using his potential death as leverage for change. That’s why the boy’s action in the song feels more futile. The boy’s father understands that with the boy’s death nothing changes. The killing goes on.  

The mandala, the lyric’s central metaphor, surely signifies all the choices we make and their ramifications. We go through life mostly unconscious of this cause and effect, but it’s there. Whether you call it karma or conscience or whatever term you want to use, the choices we make profoundly impact ourselves and others.

Was Chris right or wrong to get the letter from the psychiatrist saying he was gay to avoid two years of alternative service, a choice that he felt put him at odds with our father? Years later he worried that the information might be accessed by the wrong people and used against him, but his worry elicited no sympathy from our father. Was Steve right or wrong to drop out of university, an action that put him in harm’s way and forced his moral dilemma? If he’d continued in school with a student deferment, he might have eventually avoided the decision altogether, and his death. But for some reason, he chose something else. Your place on the great mandala is always a moving target, always more complicated than you can sort out in front of you.

Were the Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire—surely an action with grave karmic consequences—right or wrong? What about the young men who ended up going to Vietnam? Or those we sent to Iraq and Afghanistan? What responsibility do we have for the trauma they suffered? What is a life? What is a death? Why are we here? The Great Mandala says the only thing we know for sure is that our lives are played out on that mandala that we are constantly constructing by our choices like the Tibetan monks who spend hours placing grains of colored sand in a pattern on the ground to form a mandala only to destroy it upon completion with one swipe. That’s our life.

In essence, our choices, conscious or unconscious, are the only thing that remains of us, the only thing that matters, and those choices are always spreading outward, moving into and out of other people, even after our deaths. Our choices ramify inward as well, organizing and reorganizing our memories and our beliefs, strengthening or weakening us, an ongoing process that continually churns as long as we are alive. That churn is how our ancestors live in us and how we live in those who come after us, even as the memory of our particular life fades.

Hitchhiking went quickly. A nun even picked me up outside Des Moines on I-80. She was driving home to care for an ill family member. Why she stopped for a lone young man I don’t know, but I was tempted to tell her not to ever do it again. There were just too many crazies out there.

Late in the afternoon, frazzled and cold, I found Jeri in my room waiting for my return. I was chilled to the bone from hitchhiking and took a shower before we went to the dining room for dinner. That night we slept together in my single dorm room bed. I put my arm over her back and pulled myself close to her body under our blankets. Whatever happened, being with her was the right thing. She would have followed me into alternative service if that had been necessary, but it wasn’t. I had my IV-F.

Jonathan Griffith grew up in Iowa and is a 1974 graduate of Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, and a 1978 graduate of the University of Iowa Fiction Writing Workshop. He has published stories and essays in literary quarterlies, including among others Nimrod, Prairie Schooner, and Flock. His essay "Vegetarian" recently appeared in the Open Spaces series of The North American Review. He lives in Brattleboro, Vermont, with his wife Jeri, their best friend Nancy, and two beagles, Rusty and Molly.

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