Why they didn’t go: draft-dodging stories from the Vietnam War


“Hell no, we won’t go,” “make love, not war,” “one, two, three, four, what are we fighting for?” and “girls say yes to boys who say no” are just a few of the chants that rang out during anti-Vietnam War protests.

These chants are interspersed throughout the new book “Hell, No, We Didn’t Go! Firsthand Accounts of Vietnam War Protest and Resistance,” by Detroit-area lawyer and former advertising agency creative director Eli Greenbaum.

Greenbaum examines the popular plots and schemes carried out by young men who sought to avoid the draft through both legal and illegal means, including walking away from draft physicals with their files; playing up maladies like bad backs or vision problems to fail their physicals; signing up for alternative service, such as the National Guard or Medical Service Corps; making their way to safety in Canada; or going to prison, which some viewed as better than combat.

Greenbaum also tells his own story, which ended with him receiving a coveted 4-F classification that exempted him from the draft for physical reasons.

During the war, more than 27 million young men were eligible for the draft. In the end, 15.5 million were exempted for a variety of reasons, and 2 million were drafted into military service. Approximately 170,000 potential draftees became conscientious objectors after vigorous hearing processes with local draft boards. Some 20,000 to 30,000 men evaded the draft by moving to Canada, and 12,000 military deserters ended up there as well. Another 3,300 chose prison over service.

Greenbaum conducted extensive interviews of draft dodgers, whom he selected from a pool of friends and schoolmates and then through word of mouth.

“Not a soul regretted their actions, and the only regret I ever heard was ‘someone else had to go in my place,’” he said.

He noted that the interview process was often unsettling.

“There was a residual impact for most of those I interviewed,” he said. “I was amazed at how much stuck with people through the years. Lives were changed. It was a turning point that altered your life. Marriages and careers were delayed, girlfriends were lost, and there were family disputes.”

It became obvious to Greenbaum that avoiding the draft was stigmatized, and several interviewees asked him to use pseudonyms.

Greenbaum also details how the U.S. Selective Service System was simultaneously bungling and efficient and how each local draft board had its own operating methods.

He said it was often the “luck of the draw” for many potential draftees.

However, the interviewees’ retellings of the absurdity of draft physicals seemed universal.

“The failure of the Selective Service and the Armed Forces to maintain consistent physical exam standards for draft prospects left a lot of guys wondering why one man’s high blood pressure kept him out while another man’s was shrugged off,” Greenbaum writes.

A heart murmur meant nothing to an examining physician at Detroit’s Fort Wayne induction center, but across the border in Toledo, it meant a ticket home. Men tried everything to flunk the physical, from popping pills to using urine from another draftee who had diabetes.

Greenbaum said his first draft of the book was “awful.”

“It wasn’t integrated and was fragmented,” he said. His spouse, a book editor, helped him polish the final draft.

“She cut me no slack,” he said.

His utmost goal was to tell the interviewees’ stories accurately.

He said he’s talked with contemporary youth who find it hard to believe there was a lottery that determined who would serve in Vietnam. He remembers that night well, and most men who were between the ages of 18 and 25 at the time can tell you their lottery number at the drop of a hat.

Prior to failing his draft physical, Greenbaum explored Vancouver, Canada, as a backup plan to avoid serving. Today, he and his spouse live there half of the year; he admits the draft looming over his head sort of worked out for him in that regard.



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