Conscientious objector or draft dodger? by
(166 Stories)

Prompted By Betrayal

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Being a radical in the 1960s was not just about sex, drugs, or rock n’ roll, although there was plenty of that. The resistance against the war could be terrifying, frustrating, and exhausting, but it was a joy and a privilege to live amid such intensity, passion, ingenuity, and joy. Why privilege? Because, even in the midst of weirdness and chaos, I knew what was happening. Or so I thought.

The great river of class, culture and convictions afforded me a way out.

But maybe I didn’t understand how the disparities of class and culture played out until I graduated. The comfortable umbrella of my student-exempt draft status dissolved and zoom! I became cannon fodder with the rest of the guys.

I had already vowed I would never fight in Vietnam. They could put me in jail, or I’d split for Canada. One, two, three four, I won’t fight your dirty war. But despite my boisterous resolve, I didn’t want to go to jail and I didn’t want to split for Canada. But the great river of class, culture and convictions afforded me a way out. I would apply for conscientious objector status.

In 1967, few Americans knew what a conscientious objector was. Selective Service defined it as “a firm, fixed, and sincere objection to participation in war by reason of religious training or belief.” All I had to do was go up before my local draft board and prove the sincerity of my objection. My family had attended Quaker meetings for years and the Quakers are pacifists, but I wasn’t religious. Spiritual, maybe. Still, I wrote up my argument and appeared at the New England town hall where the selective service draft board kept its chopping block and cleaver.

That evening, I walked into the musty town hall. Portraits of wigged and whiskered town fathers gazed down from the dark paneling. Late afternoon light filtered through high windows. A carpeted aisle catapulted me toward the tribunal. There they sat, high on a dais, my local draft board, three straight-nosed, ruddy-faced Yankees corseted by Brooks Brothers blazers, punctuated by school ties.

I stood before the Brothers Brooks, sweat soaking my collar, mouth full of ash. Under my own blazer, my armpits ran rivers. I felt like Kafka’s Josef K, pursued by a remote authority in The Trial. A grandfather clock ticked ponderously in the corner.

Whistling softly, a crew cut gent with a bowtie leafed through my selective service record. “Just graduated, eh?”


“Harvard, right? What house?”

Damn, I thought. I’m trying to make a life-and-death point here. I’d poured my soul into this argument. I’d drawn on every ounce of education, experience, and youthful conviction, invoked Thoreau, Emerson, Mahatma Gandhi, Wilfred Owen I’d set out to convince these guys that war is not only hell, but useless and immoral. And these guys wanted to know what Harvard house I lived in? Damn.

An age-spotted hand signaled me to get on with it.

“War is a serious matter,” I began, voice quivering, “with bitter consequences for both the victor and the vanquished…”

“The what? What’s that?” A Brooks Brother cupped a hand to his ear.

Oh wow, I thought. This guy is deaf. By the time I finished hollering for peace, my voice had stopped shaking but I felt light-headed. The bloody mary I’d chugged earlier to calm my nerves threatened to come up.

The Brooks Brothers leaned in, blue-blazered shoulders hunched, and began to mutter. Finally, they straightened up, folded their hands, and looked down upon me.

“We’ve decided to grant you status as a conscientious objector. You will need to register with the clerk in the morning.”

“Don’t he have to do community service?”

“I’m sure he’ll find something suitable.”

Hell yeah, I thought. I’ll find something suitable. I was headed to San Francisco to join a radical theater troupe. Community service that, old guys. But on that night, I was one of them. I would not be going to Vietnam. One of my high school buddies might take my place. Some of had already gone.

On that warm May evening so long ago, had a great injustice had been done. Had I betrayed my less entitled peers? True, I vowed to rail against the inequity of my acquittal and right the wrongs of war, regardless of cost. I stayed true to my plan to emigrate to San Francisco and join a guerrilla theater company in the gathering storm of the revolution. I did conspire to overthrow the government of the United States through theater, music, and film. But, in doing so, did I betray my peers, young men who went off to Vietnam to kill and be killed? You decide. Leave a comment below. Thanks.

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Profile photo of Charles Degelman Charles Degelman
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles. 

Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.

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Characterizations: been there, right on!, well written


  1. Suzy says:

    The old “what house were you in” story. We tell high school seniors about the importance of the house system and that this is the first question one Harvard alum asks another upon meeting. Guess it happens even at a C.O. hearing. Anyway, I vote emphatically NO, you did not betray your peers. You worked tirelessly to end the war and keep other young men from having to go. You couldn’t have done that from jail or Canada.

    • Thanks, Suzy. I did manage to convince a few of my peers about the madness of Vietnam face to face Just as often, I gave at least a suggestion to numbers of GIs who had learned the hard way what Vietnam was really all about and wanted to join the resistance after the fact.

  2. John Shutkin says:

    Beautifully written story, Charles; I especially appreciated the fine details. (But, of course, you’re a real, capital-W Writer.) And, as to the substance, I fully agree with Suzy; what you did was not in any sense a betrayal. And I would feel that way even if you hadn’t worked to end the war. You and other young men were all victims of something that was very wrong and unfair and not of any of your (our) making.

    That said, I gottta ask: what House?

    • Thank you, John! And I appreciate the support, even though I, as did so many of us, carefully thought through the causes and consequences of the choices we made in those times. I must confess that I occasionally take the issue off the shelf to test the waters re: this perennial issue and I wanted — as did you so bravely — to play the role of the betrayer.

      Harvard house? Quincy served as home to politicos and so several of us landed there. My first choice had been Adams House, and I felt that I had been pigeon-holed by the powers that be due to my family’s illustrious red history. Freshman year they teamed me up with a serious (and paranoid) working class Trotskyite from Cleveland who suffered a nervous collapse after sniffing ether for several weeks while he read Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.

      MY first semester of sophomore year, they placed me — not with my friends — but with two Republican football players with whom I had little in common, an understatement. I managed to escape mid-year to a folk-singing friend’s suite after having to challenge to a fight with the son of a mafia goombah from Providence. He didn’t show up, I did. After that I left for a year off. When I returned, I moved into an apartment off campus. I sometimes still wonder if somebody was out to get me. McCarthy’s blacklist was still in effect, even then, and my science whiz/engineer father still couldn’t land a job in the public sector in 1964, due to his allegiances with the Communist Party. Not your typical Harvard experience I suppose.

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    In the current era of white privilege and college-gate, I have been thinking about our plan had my husband been drafted. It would have been as a doctor, but still. We were also thinking Canada, and one of his friends had successfully received conscientious objector status. There was a lawyer helping guys to avoid the draft. Someone had to go, just not anyone I knew. A great essay that took me back to how I felt then and brought me to the present to question so much of what I have taken for granted. By the way, fighting in an immoral war would have been a betrayal of your values, and doing what you could to protest also served your country.

    • Great story, Laurie. So many of us had choices to make and the variations seemed endless! Draft resistance counselors were invaluable in those days. Although I went unaided into the draft board hearing, I did earn my C.O. classification. Step two, as you probably recall, was to volunteer for two years of alternate service. I had moved to San Francisco right after graduation to work with the S.F. Mime Troupe, a remarkably sophisticated anti-war theater company. So I registered for community service via the Glide Memorial Church, which had taken a powerful stance against the war. The draft counselor there heard that I was working with the Mime Troupe and said, “Why don’t we list your alternate service sponsor as the SF Mime Troupe, eh?” So, for the next two years, I traveled the from campus to campus with the SF Mime Troupe, hooking with the SDS chapters of the various universities and performing antiwar plays. Serendipitous, eh?

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    Being conscientiously against the war was a seriously thought-out position for you, Charles. There was no betrayal in it. You were true to yourself and your beliefs, through and through. You had been brought up in the Quaker tradition, even loosely and there is honor in that. You have stayed true to your beliefs throughout your life, no matter where you are or what you are doing. I see no betrayal.

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