Conscientious Objector by
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Congressman Alexander Pirnie draws the first capsule for the Selective Service draft lottery, Dec 1, 1969. Public domain. Source: Wikipedia.

There’s nothing like carrying a draft card in your pocket, knowing you could be called up at any time, to crystallize your thinking about the Vietnam War. Sure, I had a college deferment, but that only meant military service was postponed.

The wait seemed interminable, but the later our birthday was called, the less chance we had of being drafted.

Both my father and stepfather had served proudly in the Navy in World War II. But when I tried to picture myself in ‘Nam, in an Army uniform, trying to kill Viet Cong soldiers, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t see myself pulling the trigger and taking the life of another human being. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was morally and ethically against the war.

If that was true, my course was clear. I would register as a conscientious objector. If granted, I would be able to perform alternative service in a hospital or school.

I toyed with that idea through my freshman year and into the following fall, when the Selective Service announced a lottery to determine the order in which draftees would be called. Men born between 1944 and 1950 would be given draft priority according to the order in which capsules containing their birth dates were drawn from a glass jar.

On the evening of December 1, my three roommates and I gathered anxiously in our living room around the radio. The first date drawn was … September 14. We looked at each other nervously and sighed with relief. One by one, the dates were drawn. The wait seemed interminable, but the later our birthday was called, the less chance we had of being drafted.

I lucked out: 264. That meant I was almost certain not to be called during the next year. I was able to give up my deferment and, when the year expired, I was no longer eligible.

Still, it seemed too easy. I wanted to make a statement, to go on record as being against the war. I decided to file as a conscientious objector anyway.

Draft counseling was held two evenings a week at the Unitarian Church in Harvard Square. After waiting my turn, I told the counselor I was morally and ethically against the war and wanted to register as a conscientious objector.

“Cool,” he said. “What’s your draft number?”

“264,” I answered.

He guffawed.

“I appreciate your sincerity,” he said. “But all these other guys”—he motioned to the other men waiting—“are in real danger of being drafted and sent to ‘Nam. So go home and let us help those who need it. And be grateful that you don’t.”

So I did, with a silent salute to my compatriots, who had to struggle to pursue an alternative that I had just been handed, gratis. I found other ways to express my disapproval of the war. And I still feel grateful.

Profile photo of John Zussman John Zussman
John Unger Zussman is a creative and corporate storyteller and a co-founder of Retrospect.

Tags: Vietnam War, Draft, Draft lottery, Conscientious objector
Characterizations: moving, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    So well written. Those were difficult times and I appreciate your struggle, your vivid memory of the moments and your ability to share it with us.

  2. Constance says:

    Apparently I still have strong feelings about this as I teared up while reading your story.

  3. Marian says:

    I really appreciate this story from a young man’s perspective. Resonates a lot!

  4. Tim McKee says:

    Really well-told story, John!

  5. Suzy says:

    Good story. I remember that night that they pulled the numbers. Worrying about my male friends who got low numbers. Thinking about what I would have done if I had been in danger of being drafted. Those were times that profoundly affected our generation, that’s for sure!

  6. Wendy Ng says:

    John, your story is so real. Thoughtful and so well written. It gets to the heart of the moral dilemma we were in as a nation and as a generation during the Vietnam Era. My husband, who was born March 1, 1955, drew a draft number of 27. They stopped the draft that year.

  7. I, too, remember that night so well…

  8. rosie says:

    My heart skipped a beat as you announced your number. The story really brings those days back vividly.

  9. I have no memory of the lottery. Too young. I did have a POW bracelet in junior high. My husband was a CO first, then had a high enough number. It was really such a crap shoot. Thanks for the details.

  10. Great story-telling Jon and I could sure smell all those turning points! I loved the pace of your narrative; you smoothly cover the lugubrious arc with emotion and clear language. Good job. You don’t forget all that.

    What a freaky time, man.

  11. muzziesgirl says:

    I was moved by your story. It brought back lots of memories of male friends and relatives suffering from the same fear and dread. What awful times they were.

  12. Laurie Levy says:

    Your story brought back painful memories of that draft lottery and how your birth date determined your fate. Vietnam was such a painful and divisive war that we stupidly blundered into. So much loss and no reason for us to be there.

  13. Marian says:

    John, this really resonates with my “girl’s” experience of watching and waiting for the boy’s numbers. I’ve also been thinking about the 100-year anniversary of World War I and remember, as a small child, listening to my grandfather singing songs from that war. He was a true conscientious objector. He wouldn’t carry a gun but instead volunteered as a medic and survived incredibly dangerous warfare in the trenches in France. A very interesting perspective on war, the draft, and COs 100 years ago.

    • John Zussman says:

      Thanks, Marian. Your grandfather sounds like a true hero and a man of his convictions. I’d love to hear his story in more detail if you know it. My grandfather also served in WWI but, alas, I fear his stories are now lost.

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