Draft Dodger Rag by
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Memorial Day weekend in Sacramento is most notable for the Dixieland Jazz Jubilee, which has occurred every year since 1974. It is an amazing four days of music and fun, with bands from all over the country and the world who make the pilgrimage to northern California to play traditional jazz. I didn’t discover it until 1980, but have been going faithfully every year since then. On Monday, the final day of the festival, in recognition of Memorial Day, the bands invariably stop at some point and ask all the veterans in the audience to stand up, whereupon they go into a long rap about honoring their service, and how they sacrificed to make our country free. While I know this is admirable and appropriate, I just can’t get into it, because to me it is all tied up with the Vietnam War.

Like most Baby Boomers, when I think of war, I think of Vietnam. Of course there have been many wars before, and a few since, but that is the one that shaped my attitude toward war and the military. I wish I could remember when I first learned about Vietnam. It might have been in a high school social studies class, although we didn’t spend much time talking about current events. It probably wasn’t from the newspaper, because I generally just read the comics and Ann Landers in those days. It could have been at the lefty summer camp I went to, where we sang civil rights and union organizing songs, but that was in 1964 and ’65, and I don’t think the war was getting that much attention yet. I do know that whenever I learned about this war, I also immediately knew that it was wrong, and I opposed it, and I wanted to get involved in the anti-war movement.

I joined the Student Peace Union while I was in high school, although I have to admit that part of the attraction was that its initials were the same as mine. I began signing my letters with a peace symbol instead of my name. I wanted to participate in the October ’67 march on Washington, and was disappointed that my parents wouldn’t let me go. I wanted to be involved with the Mobe and help levitate the Pentagon, and couldn’t understand why they were being so protective, although it seems understandable now, I was only a 16-year-old high school senior at the time. By the next summer I had graduated from high school and I did go to Washington, and then Chicago, to work for the McCarthy campaign. I really believed McCarthy would get elected and end the war, which would have saved so many lives, both American and Vietnamese. But we all know how that turned out.

There were a lot of memorable antiwar songs in that era, which certainly had a profound influence on me, especially those of my beloved Phil Ochs. His first album, All the News That’s Fit to Sing, released in 1964, had a song called “Talking Vietnam Blues” which may have been my introduction to the Vietnam conflict. It started with these lyrics:

Sailing over to Vietnam
Southeast Asian Birmingham
Training is the word we use
Nice word to have in case we lose
Training a million Vietnamese
To fight for the wrong government and the American Way.

Probably my favorite song of his was on his second album, I Ain’t Marching Any More, released in 1965. “Draft Dodger Rag” humorously described lots of different ways to get out of being drafted.

I’ve got a dislocated disc and a wracked up back
I’m allergic to flowers and bugs
When the bombshell hits, I get epileptic fits
And I’m addicted to a thousand drugs
I got the weakness woes, I can’t touch my toes
I can hardly reach my knees
And if the enemy came close to me
I’d probably start to sneeze.

I never knew anyone who actually ended up fighting in Vietnam. All the guys I knew either managed to get 4-F status, became conscientious objectors, or, after the lottery was instituted, had good lottery numbers. I am grateful for that.


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Characterizations: been there, right on!, well written


  1. John Shutkin says:

    As usual, a terrifically interesting and well-written story, Suzy, particularly about how inextricably connected war and Vietnam are in the minds of us boomers. And I had the same ambivalence as you watching the Memorial Day concert on the Washington Mall this weekend.

    But a teeny, tiny little cavil: how the hell could you NOT have mentioned Country Joe and the Fish’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag?”

    Other than that, perfect.

    • Suzy says:

      John, I didn’t forget that iconic song by CJ and the F. It didn’t come out until 1967, and by then my views on Vietnam were solid. I was trying to trace the influence of music on my antiwar stance. I suppose I should have mentioned “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” but I didn’t think of them until right now.

  2. Really beautifully crafted story of coming to awareness as Vietnam escalated. I liked the way you wove the lyrics to formative songs into the story, always returning to a reflection on your own youthful explorations. Loved the image of you reading the comics and Ann Landers.

    Also, striking the intimation of mixed feelings, still not healed, regarding Memorial Day. You evoked great sadness, having lived so close, as we did, to the destruction that war caused to all involved. Your narration carried with it such great hints of naive immortality. Couldn’t understand why they didn’t want you to levitate the Pentagon! Another great moment. Thanks!

  3. John Zussman says:

    I think of myself as a Phil Ochs fan, and have been singing the first stanza of Draft Dodger Rag in my mind all week, but I have to confess I didn’t remember that he wrote it! Thought it was Seeger, I guess. Thanks for the gentle reminder.

    Like Charles, I like this account of your dawning awareness and your continuing ambivalence toward military service. Soldiers may enlist to “serve their country,” but they are still chess pieces in a militarized foreign policy that may or may not be justified in any particular war. We should all share your ambivalence.

  4. muzziesgirl says:

    I enjoyed reading your take on becoming aware of war and its implications. We were all so unaware. I was in high school, too, when Vietnam was ramping up. I only became fully conscious of war’s impact when a grade school friend was called up and subsequently killed in Vietnam. Then my dearest cousin was drafted, went, and returned to never be the same again. I lost my innocence when my grade school friend died.

    My Dad is an old Navy man, WWII, veteran. I have great respect for everyone who serves in the military.

    Memorial Day always leaves me feeling bereft and appalled at the damage done to young men and women. I find it hard to believe that we are incapable of finding ways to solve our problems without having young men and women learn to kill and die.

  5. Betsy Pfau says:

    Suzy, it is so interesting to see how our perceptions have changed from the “good war” (WWII) to the current crop…Vietnam and beyond. We don’t know why we are there and what we are fighting for (particularly since the Ken Burns special revealed all the lying that went on and the senior officials knew that the war couldn’t be won, but didn’t pull out for political reasons) . Yet, increasingly, we honor our soldiers, volunteers now, unlike in the Vietnam era, who choose to enlist. That is a big cultural shift.

    And I, too, adore Phil Ochs. Dan and I often listen to him as we drift off to sleep.

  6. John Shutkin says:

    Thank you again, Suzy, for reflecting the anti-war movement so well in the music of our times. And I particularly thank you for remembering and celebrating the amazing Phil Ochs. Yet another one who died way too young and after battling his own demons and disillusionment.

    For those who don’t know or remember Phil, this Wikipedia excerpt about him and Dylan is worth savoring:
    “During the early period of his career, Ochs and Bob Dylan had a friendly rivalry. Dylan said of Ochs, ‘I just can’t keep up with Phil. And he just keeps getting better and better and better.’ On another occasion, when Ochs criticized ‘Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?’ Dylan threw him out of his limousine, saying, ‘You’re not a folksinger. You’re a journalist.'”

    And, as you now know from my story, here is one Vietnam slacker who had a lousy lottery number and yet didn’t get out via 4-F, CO or even sitting on the Group W Bench with the other father rapers.

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