A draft dodger, draft evader or draft resister, is a person who avoids ("dodges") or otherwise violates the conscription policies of the nation in which he or she is a citizen or resident, by leaving the country, going into hiding, attempting to fraudulently obtain conscientious objector status, or by open resistance (civil disobedience). Although it originated earlier, the term became popular during the Vietnam War to describe citizens of the United States who dodged the mandatory conscription policy, in order to avoid serving in the war, by leaving the country, originally to Sweden, but later in greater numbers to Canada, or (much less often) Mexico. The term may be applied to individuals who avoid military service by other means.
The United States has employed conscription (mandatory military service, also called "the draft") several times, usually during war but also during the nominal peace of the Cold War. The U.S. discontinued the draft in 1973, moving to an all-volunteer force.
Today, the Selective Service System remains in place as a contingency; young men aged 18-26 are required to register so that a draft can be more readily resumed. The U.S. armed forces are now designated as "all-volunteer", although, in 2004 as well as during the 1991 Gulf War, some personnel were kept in the military longer than they expected. However, this was consistent with their enlistment contracts because of a clause that permits retention based on the needs of the military, In 2003, legislation to reintroduce general conscription was defeated in the U.S. House of Representatives due to widespread disapproval among lawmakers and the American public. Similar legislation has been proposed for reintroduction recently but it has not yet been approved. One of the primary reason for opposing a reintroduction of the draft is that it could again result in the assassination of American commanding officers by their own troops (so-called "fragging") as happened in the Vietnam War.
The motivations for draft dodgers and resisters are manifold. Some are individuals who merely wish to avoid the dangers of combat (and may otherwise support the war in question). Others have political or moral objections to warfare in general, or to the circumstances of a particular conflict in which their country is fighting; or may identify with a different country altogether.
Refusing to submit the draft is considered a criminal offense in most countries where conscription is in effect.
The term draft resister specifically refers to someone who explicitly refuses military service - simply attempting to flee the draft is draft evasion.
Draft dodging should not be confused with desertion - a conscript cannot "desert" until he is inducted into the military and has thus submitted to the draft. Strictly defined, a deserter is someone, after being inducted into the military, then absconds from the service without receiving a valid leave of absence or discharge, and with the intention of never returning to the service.
The overall effect was that a large proportion of the ground troops in Vietnam were African-Americans, resulting in the saying, "White man's war, black man's fight". The effect of all of the above was to result in the assassination of American commanding officers by their enlisted soldiers (so-called "fragging") at an astounding rate - it is said that American commanding officers had a higher chance of being killed by their own troops than by the Vietcong enemy. Fragging, when done, it should be noted, was generally supported by both African-American and Caucasian enlisted soldiers, not just African-American troops.
As U.S. troop strength in Vietnam increased, more and more young men were drafted for service there and more and more of those still at home sought means of avoiding the draft. For those seeking a relatively safe alternative, service in the U.S. Navy, Air Force or Coast Guard was an option (provided one could meet the more stringent enlistment standards). Since only a handful of National Guard and Reserve units were sent to Vietnam, enlistment in the Guard or the Reserves became a favored means of draft avoidance. Vocations to the ministry and the rabbinate soared, as divinity students were exempt from the draft. Doctors and draft board members found themselves being pressured by relatives or family friends to exempt potential draftees.
Other means included finding, exaggerating, or causing physical and psychological reasons for deferment, whether in the temporary "1-Y" classification, or the permanent "4-F" deferment.
Physical reasons such as high blood pressure could get a man exempted. Various methods to worsen physical reasons included, in at least one case, a man who went to the movies, at the Biograph Theater in Chicago, every night on the week before the draft to eat buttered popcorn. In addition, antiwar psychiatrists could often find dormant mental conditions to be serious enough to warrant exemptions. Folksinger Arlo Guthrie lampooned the paradox of seeking exemption from a war many people thought crazy, by acting or being crazy, in his song Alice's Restaurant: "I said, 'I wanna kill! Kill! Eat dead burnt bodies!', and the Sergeant said, 'you're our boy'".
Many lawyers worked during the Vietnam war "pro bono" as draft counselors for The American Friend's [Quaker] Service Committee and other antiwar groups to counsel men on their options. They were aware that laws, on the books since World War I, actually forbid Americans to even counsel men how to evade the draft, therefore AFSC was careful to factually and neutrally present the young man with his choices.
Less sober texts on draft "avoidance" (as opposed to "resistance" as described below) included "One Hundred and One Ways to Avoid the Draft" by musician Tuli Kupferberg, a member of The Fugs. Methods he espoused included arriving at the draft board in diapers or feigning homosexuality. Another text popular with men subject to the draft was a 1950s cartoon novella by Jules Feiffer, Munro, in which a four year old boy is drafted by mistake. Some men, taking an idea from the book, said they might ask the sergeant at the draft examination to "button me, Mister", but usually these schemes came to naught in an era where homophobia was normed, and only partly deconstructed by the antics of the counterculture.
They, and the Selective Service System itself, emphasized that there was no such thing as an "exemption" from the draft, only a "deferment". Even the coveted status of 4-F (which by the late 1960s had lost its shameful connotation) was technically a deferment, implying that even 4-Fs might have to serve if America were invaded, as a home guard. The reasons for this were historical: during the first American draft of the Civil War, rich men or their parents could purchase an actual exemption for the then-large sum of three hundred dollars, and this caused the New York Draft Riots of that era, a major civil disturbance.
Evading the draft through loopholes or technicalities took planning, literacy and education; therefore, it was much easier for young men with middle or upper class backgrounds to finagle a deferment, even after deferments were ended for graduate students and limited for undergraduates in 1969. These men were more likely to have access to college educations, letters from psychiatrists, and pro bono advice from lawyers. Men without these resources were less able to avoid being drafted. To compensate for this inequality, the U.S. government changed to a lottery system which would treat all citizens equally in 1969.
The most famous example of the difference social class made for many people was the ability of President George W. Bush to get into the Texas Air National Guard. Another was former President Bill Clinton, who was of a lower social origin but excellent scholastically, who was subject to the draft before graduate student deferments were ended in 1969; He had agreed to officer training to meet his obligation but then (as he admits in his autobiography) went back on this commitment from a mixture of motives including fear (primarily of career disruption) and doubts about the war.
The draft was unpopular both for its impact on those drafted and as a focal point for opposition to a controversial war, therefore, beyond the evasive methods identified above, methods of more positive and assertive resistance existed.
Rather than submit to conscription, tens of thousands of young men migrated to Canada, which did not support war in Vietnam. Conscription ended in 1973. The end came after a series of lawsuits challenged the draft upon its re-enactment and renewed conscription in 1972 without regard to the 90-day waiting period required in the original Korean War era draft law (section 20 of the Act) that remained in the 1972 Act (which U.S. Attorneys defending conscription argued was as a result of a legislative drafting error). After a series of challenges to the draft under section 20 in 1971 and 1972, leading to an injunction against induction in the geographical area encompassed by 9th Circuit Court of Appeals by Justice William O. Douglas (where, legend has it, Justice Douglas posted the injunction on a tree near a camp site while hiking in the Cascade Mountains), it became so difficult for the Selective Service System to unwind the mess the Section 20 cases caused (and to draft men according to the priorities required by law -- the "order of call" named after the "order of call" defense), that the draft was quietly ended -- just in time for the wind down of the Vietnam War. The then-young Harvard Law school graduate who engineered the Section 20 cases, and the end of the draft, has never been acknowledged for his contributions to ending the war in Vietnam, and the draft.
During the Vietnam War, about 100,000 draft dodgers, in total, went abroad; others hid in the United States. An estimated 50,000 to 90,000 of these moved to Canada, where they were treated as immigrants. Though their presence was initially controversial within Canada, the government eventually chose to welcome them. Draft evasion was not a criminal offense under Canadian law (during the two World Wars when conscription was enacted in Canada those who attempted to evade the draft illegally were pursued by military officials, forced into the Army and then court martialed if they refused to obey an officer). The issue of deserters was more complex, because desertion was a crime in Canada, and the Canadian military was strongly opposed to condoning it. In the end, the government maintained the right to prosecute these deserters, but in practice left them alone and instructed border guards not to ask questions relating to the issue. Eventually, tens of thousands of deserters were among those who found safe refuge in Canada, as well as in Sweden, France, and the United Kingdom.
Those that went abroad faced imprisonment or forced military service if they returned home. The U.S. continued to prosecute draft dodgers after the end of the Vietnam War. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter issued an amnesty in the form of a pardon to all remaining draft evaders, as part of a general climate of "cultural reconciliation" after the end of the controversial and unpopular war.
Some draft dodgers returned home to the United States after the 1977 amnesty, but according to an estimate by sociologist John Hagan, around 50,000 settled in Canada. This young and mostly educated population expanded Canada's arts and academic scenes, and helped push Canadian politics further to the left. Notable Canadians who were draft dodgers include Jay Scott and Michael Hendricks.
During the Vietnam War an active movement of draft resistance also occurred, spearheaded by the Resistance organization, headed by David Harris. The insignia of the organization was the Greek letter omega, Ω, the symbol for electrical resistance. Members of the Resistance movement publicly burned their draft card or refused to register for the draft. They were then drafted, refused to be inducted, and fought their cases in the federal courts. These draft resisters hoped that their public civil disobedience would help to bring the war and the draft to an end. Many young men went to prison as part of this movement.
Although there is no longer a draft in the United States, the issues of desertion and conscientious objection remain for soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some military personnel, both active and reservist, have attempted to find asylum in Canada and Europe, though not in the numbers that did so during the Vietnam War. A recent ruling in Canada supports asylum claims based on "being forced to participate in military misconduct, even if it stops short of a war crime" , however, a Canadian Court has now deported an Iraq era deserter for the first time (there are reported to be at least 50, perhaps 200, currently in Canada) . Many deserters and draft evaders from the Vietnam era also remain in Canada, though the evaders were granted a general pardon by President Carter.