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By Gerald R. Gioglio
Author's note: This and future Maggot Days submissions on are part of a work-in-progress on the 1960s, especially the war years. Feedback or suggestions welcome on the VVAW Facebook page.
I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God."
On July 3, 1968, I arrived at the Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station in Newark, New Jersey. I spent the preceding days writing an essay that detailed my reasons for opposing the war in Vietnam and why I felt I should not participate. All of twenty-years-old I na•vely believed that this document would convince those in charge that my opposition to the war was real, find me administratively unacceptable, and send me home.
I'll tell you what; it certainly got their attention. After handing it in I was told to go through a final physical examination and wait for further instructions. So, there we were, all these naked guys spreading their buttocks and being asked to cough while medical professionals held their balls and checked for hernias, diseases and abnormalities; an assembly line of naked boys all in the early stages of being disassembled and reconstructed. Nobody looked anybody else in the eye. Discussing it later I found that many felt embarrassed and dehumanized, like cattle being herded to the slaughter. It seemed like everyone who had thus far navigated the Selective Service System without getting deferred or exempted passed the physical with flying colors.
I was singled out and told to report to an office across the hall. Here I met the Officer-in-Charge, who made it very clear he was not too happy having someone upset his otherwise well-oiled machine. He said something like, "I read your stuff; you need to go see the shrink; then come back to see me." Standard practice I learned, but can you imagine?
The shrink and I had a pleasant conversation as he evaluated my mental status to determine if I suffered from any mental diseases which would disqualify me from military service. I was found to be coherent and able to distinguish between right and wrong and although opposed to the war, was not crazy and therefore qualified for induction into the Army.
He did ask why I had not filed for Conscientious Objector status with the Draft Board. I told him I got the paperwork but did not complete it or send it in. I told him I had trouble signing off on the statement asking me to agree that I was "opposed to war in any form." World War II, for example, was often cited as a just war and I was well aware of the horrors, death, and destruction fascism brought to the world and why peoples and nations rose up to stop it. I was also somewhat aware of the Catholic Church's teaching called the "Just War" theory. Believers could use this set of standards to determine whether or not participation in a war was justified. But the secular authorities did not subscribe to the notion of "selective objection" to a particular war. To be classified as a Conscientious Objector one had to be opposed to "war in any form." I struggled mightily with that as a potential draftee, but decided I could not meet that standard and I was not going to lie.
Finally, the shrink scribbled a diagnosis that went something like "Adjustment reaction to adulthood," then added presciently, "The man will follow this through."
So, there I was healthy and apparently not crazy, back in the office with the guy in charge. He was very upset as he asked, "I need to know if you are going to refuse to be inducted. Remember, if you do you will be arrested and tried for refusing induction, a violation of the Universal Training and Service Act." He continued, "If you are going to refuse I want you to do it here, not out there in front of the rest of the guys."
I was not there to make a scene. I certainly was not astute enough or radical enough to realize the impact that such a public demonstration of resistance might have on the other inductees in the room; but he apparently was, and he sure did not want it to be on his watch. The Civil Rights Movement taught me that presenting a vision of society that ran contrary to accepted norms made those in power uncomfortable, perhaps even fearful. I saw a powerful example of this in this man.
At this point he became a bit more "fatherly," suggesting that a number of guys came through there having problems with the war, saying this was not so unusual. He knew that others had difficulty taking the Oath of Enlistment or any oath; that is, swearing in front of God. He suggested that all one needed to do was say "I affirm" rather than "I swear" to the oath, and simply take a step forward when told to do so.
He said, "Look, you are obviously an intelligent and thoughtful guy; you got two years of college under your belt; that means something." "Once you get to Fort Dix they'll give you all these aptitude tests to see how best to use you." He continued, "It's not just killing and blood and guts you know. It takes a lot of support staff to run an efficient army. They can use a guy like you in any number of jobs."
I remember sitting there with my head down, tired of all the dealings with Selective Service, tired of presenting a case that nobody in power wished to recognize, tired with what felt like an endless, lonely fight to get people to look at the war—to really look at the war—and to take action to do something about it.
And then, the coup de grace. "And there's another thing young man. I see you are recently married. Even if the marriage survives, how the hell are you going to provide for your family after a felony conviction, possibly fined $10,000 after serving a three-to-five-year sentence? Who the hell is going to take a chance on you, a 'draft-dodger,' an ex-con? So, c'mon, let's get this over with."
So now it was crunch time. I tallied up the ledger. I had not "dodged" the draft by going underground, though I understood the motives and respected those who did. I refused to pack up and leave the country, stubbornly insisting that the fight to end the war was here, though I admired the courage and commitment that it took for others to do so. I did not look to join the National Guard or Reserves as a way to avoid being drafted, though I knew many who did and truly respected their decision. Similarly, I had great respect for those who entered the service firmly believing that the war was necessary, legal and just.
Indeed, I once had a student deferment and I chose to drop out of college and take my chances with the draft; nobody forced me. I got the Conscientious Objector paper work from Selective Service. However, without the support needed to work through the conundrum of being opposed to "war in any form" I took what I thought was the high road and did not send it in.
It seemed like I'd been walking down the same street and constantly running into a dead end. Perhaps I was wrong and I needed to go down another path. Feeling totally defeated, dropping the ball and in Christian terms, failing to pick up my cross, I told him, "Ok...I'll affirm."
I was aching inside; head down, distraught and defeated I joined the rest of the group on the plush, thick burgundy carpet that covered the floor. The Officer-in-Charge read the Oath of Enlistment. When he came to the part, "I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic." I got off my "pity-pot. " That got my attention. Many of us knew that the Vietnamese people posed no threat to our country—we were not defending the Constitution or the country from attack. The conflict did not appear to be constitutional since Congress abdicated their responsibility by not formally declaring war—they sure were not defending the Constitution. So, if the enemies were not foreign, then they just might be domestic—the folks who promoted this war of choice and got us into this mess. Perhaps, just perhaps, something could be done to end the war within the system, within the service. Probably not the best plan, but it lifted my spirits and gave me hope.
As we walked to the bus that was to take us to the Reception Center at Fort Dix, New Jersey, we encountered a tall, serious-looking young man handing out New Testaments. He did not say anything like "Good luck" or "God bless." This was no Bible-thumping evangelist on a soap-box; no self-serving Elmer Gantry preying on people. Still, one suspected to hear the unspoken refrain, "Onward Christian soldier!" escape from his lips. At least that is how I took it and I was mad. But, he just stood there, dour and silent, handing out books as one might deal cards during a tense and critical hand of poker. He did not scream, "Repent" or "Turn back, don't get on that bus!" He just handed out the books. I stopped, looked him dead in the eye and said, "How dare you?" "How could you?" As he reached out once again to hand me the Good Book, I threw up my hand in disgust, took the final few steps and got on the bus.
Gerald R. Gioglio, OFS, is a VVAW member, Secular Franciscan and author of "Days of Decision: An Oral History of Conscientious Objectors in the Military during the Vietnam War."