Conflicted But Not Ashamed

Ted Gup’s op ed piece in today’s New York Times stirred up some old emotions in me. Entitled “Why Trump Is Not Like Other Draft Dodgers” (and subtitled “Men like me who didn’t fight owe a debt to those who did”) the article tells Gup’s story of paying a psychiatrist to diagnose him as having “delusions of grandeur” so he could avoid responding to his number-one-in-the-draft-lottery-status in 1969 and so skip being shipped off to Viet Nam.

I remember the night of that lottery very well. My number was a very high one, but I had already been granted an exemption because I was to attend seminary that fall and, since the Civil War, clergy (and, by implication, divinity school students) have been eligible for such exemptions. I had agonized over the decision to avoid military service. My father had been a B-24 bomber pilot in WW II, my grandfather a balloon surveillance officer in WW I. I had done two years of ROTC at the University of Florida and always assumed I would follow my family tradition of military service.

But this was Viet Nam and I was on a campus during the turbulent 1960s. I had come to believe that the Viet Nam enterprise was not only foolish, but morally bankrupt and was not worthy of our nations’s involvement or the loss of one young life. Mr. Gup has always felt guilty for not serving, believing his actions to avoid the draft were motivated by cowardice and careerism.

I am not a coward and my “career” was not advanced by choosing not to serve in the military. I was not afraid of going to Viet Nam. I was not even afraid of facing possible death. I was morally opposed to the war. Not to all wars for I am not a pacifist. Sometimes military interventions are for the purposes of genuine national defense or to protect innocent victims of some tyrant’s brutality. Viet Nam was neither of these.

Those of us who protested that war never blamed the soldiers on the ground. We knew that they were doing their duty, that many of them behaved heroically, and we knew far too many of them as friends and lovers who never came back. We honored then, and honor now, their service. Our beef was with the government and decisions that were made which got us into that war in the first place, stretching back decades.

Since I had worked in hospitals over the years, I briefly considered going into the Army as a medic, but finally decided that any involvement in the military in those days would be tacit support for the war. And I could not do that. I finally reconciled myself to the decision by committing myself to serve my family, community, nation, and world as best I could by the dedicated life of an Episcopal priest.

Have I felt guilty about that decision? Well, I am guilty of it. Guilt is not a feeling; it is a state of being. Either you are guilty of something or you are not. Have I felt ashamed or sorrowful about it? More “conflicted,” I think, than ashamed.  I remember reading of Bill Clinton’s wrestling with this same issue and coming out on the side of avoiding military service. I expect he feels as conflicted about that decision today as I do.

I wish the idea of “alternative service” to the nation had been as well developed in those days as it is becoming today. I believe that every young person would benefit, and so would the country at large, from a couple of years of compulsory service in education, health care, infrastructure development, or other forms of national service.

Some, perhaps many, would consider me a draft dodger of the same ilk as Ted Gup and those who fled to Canada or otherwise went “underground” rather than fight in Viet Nam in those years. Clearly, I used my privilege to avoid military service. Many others were not so fortunate. I hope my life has been of some service to this country and its people as well as to my church and its members.

I still believe Viet Nam was wrong (as have been a number of wars since then). I am glad I did not support it or become involved in it.  But I grieve for those who did…and for those who died. I would make the same decision today. And would probably be as conflicted about it as I was then.

I hope we all learned some lessons from those years.

But I’m not sure we did.

2 Responses to “Conflicted But Not Ashamed”

  1. Elizabeth Koffron-Eisen Says:

    Your work as an Episcopal priest and bishop has been invaluable, especially your efforts to promote peace through interreligious understanding. Be conflicted no more.

  2. Christopher Epting Says:

    Very kind, my friend. Thanks!

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