Someone Take My Spot
Editor’s Note: The first article in this series may be read here.
In my previous essay, I discussed the common complaint regarding affirmative action in college admissions—that some other student “took the spot” of a student who was putatively equally or more “deserving” based on narrow criteria like GPA or test scores. I countered that the complaint is quantitatively untenable, even though it was the foundation of the Students for Fair Admissions’ (SFA) claim before the Supreme Court. In this essay, I reflect on a dramatically different case in which, nonetheless, a similar zero-sum construct is used. In this case, instead of a person of presumed privilege grieving that the spot to which they felt entitled was taken, now the privileged ones were delighted to give the spot away. Here again, I don’t think the take-my-spot reasoning holds, even though this time the claim is poignant and personal—and potentially a matter of life and death. I’m referring to the Vietnam draft.
Although not my academic area, studying Vietnam has become a guilty pleasure of mine. I’ve become an amateur observer of its people and culture and fascinated with what Vietnamese call the “American War” or “Resistance War Against America,” the event which occupied evening television during my elementary-school days. Colleague Fred Johnson and I have traveled with students to Vietnam several times. We have crawled through the Cu Chi tunnels, expanded to accommodate bigger, fatter American tourists (but still stress-inducing to many of us). We have visited a restricted area near the China border where few Westerners have traveled. And we have met a survivor of the My Lai massacre. The country and historical period have captured my heart and mind.
My most recent foray was been Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975, a 752-page behemoth by journalist Max Hastings. In Chapter 16—“Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”—Hastings explores the development of the antiwar movement and the emergence of “two parallel Vietnam wars”—one at home and one abroad. A key element of the war at home was the draft. Despite high-profile stories of draft-dodging, 99 percent of draft-age American men lawfully registered during the Vietnam era. The variability in men’s responses emerged after the pithy and haunting statement that arrived in the mail—“Greeting: You are hereby ordered for induction in the Armed Forces of the United States.” That prompted, in Hastings’s words, “the extraordinary range of legal exemptions available to those savvy enough to exploit them.”
Being married worked for a while. Being gay also got you exempted. Regardless of one’s current thinking on sexuality, I doubt anyone can debate the courage it took to make such a public claim 50 or 60 years ago. Some high-profile names served (John McCain, John Kerry, Bob Kerry). Many others of privilege escaped via one of the widely known strategies at the time—the National Guard (Bush 43), college (Clinton, Biden), or multiple medical deferments (Trump), the latter made easier by exemption-friendly physicians known more often to the wealthy. As Amy Rutenberg notes in a 2017 NYT essay, medical deferments were much harder for the poor to obtain.
Reading Hastings as the SCOTUS decision was announced prompted me to ponder the parallels between the claims made by SFA and some of my Christian college students regarding affirmative action and the Vietnam draft. Specifically, are they both zero-sum affairs?
Certainly poor men had fewer avenues to avoid military service. Maybe you didn’t need be a fortunate son, as Creedence Clearwater Revival proclaimed in their hit song, but you were at higher risk if you were poor. One of the neither-rich-nor-poor exemptions was my father. A 1958 graduate of Rehoboth Christian School, it was probably neither an accident nor a vocational epiphany that, after a six-year educational interlude following high school, he enrolled at Calvin College in fall 1964. After three years and enough credits to finish his pre-dental requirements, a year in the National Guard was next, then finally dental school. The son of a Christian Reformed minister, my dad was neither wealthy nor connected, but he had enough resources to navigate the system. His anti-war beliefs were undoubtedly influenced by connecting with the peacenik culture of that period in Grand Rapids and later Ann Arbor. This was not the experience of some of his Navajo contemporaries at Rehoboth who were drafted and deployed. In this case, it’s easy to think of being drafted as a one-to-one zero-sum game—did one of his Rehoboth classmates take his spot?
Although his deferral was medically based, legendary singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen also frames his experience as a zero-sum event. In his solo performance Springsteen on Broadway, he recalls receiving his 1969 draft notice on the same day as two of his then-bandmates. The three men went to the Newark draft board in what Bruce described as “probably the unhappiest bus that ever pulled out of Asbury Park” to “what we were sure was going to be our funeral.” The three young musicians tried mightily to avoid service, and all succeeded. Years later, Springsteen would ponder on stage, “I do sometimes wonder who went in my place, because someone did.”
A world away from the Jersey shore, Hastings tells of Larry Pressler, son of a South Dakota farmer, who said that his father told him and his brother not to attempt to avoid the draft because someone poorer would have to go in their place and “you’ll regret it for the rest of your lives.” And of David Rogers, a Hamilton College graduate and son of a Quaker, who registered as a conscientious objector but didn’t feel like he could stay home. “I felt it wasn’t right to let someone go in my place.” In short, whether men did or did not serve, a take-my-spot understanding of military service seemed both intuitive and popular. Indeed, Phil Ochs’ 1966 satirical song “Draft Dodger Rag” proclaims, “Someone’s gotta go over there and that someone isn’t me.”
Many in our Reformed families faced this emotional decision. In the late 1990s I sat at a West Michigan watering hole with a 1970s Christian school alum. Thirty years later, he still teared up when he recalled the arrival of his older brother’s draft letter. He remembers the kitchen-table conversation, similar to one occurring all over the country. His dad said serve. His mom said go to Canada, arguably an extreme stance for a 1960s Christian Reformed matron. His brother enlisted and was deployed to combat. He was killed less than a month into his tour.
Less is known about Vietnamese conscription, although it’s clear that exemptions were fewer and tours were longer. While Americans draftees served one year (Marines 13 months), some soldiers in the North Vietnamese Army fought both the Americans during Tet in 1968 and the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Hastings tells the story of Pham Thung Hung, a 17-year-old who had just finished his first year at Hanoi University in spring 1972. Believing himself to be more a poet than a soldier, he would have likely been able to avoid service via his father’s connections had it not been for the severely depleted state of NVA forces. The night before his physical exam, Hung and his friends sat on the roof of their dormitory, imagining how to escape service. The students drank tobacco-laced coffee, believed to spike blood pressure.
When I am in Washington DC, I visit The Wall. Sometimes I sit and watch others and imagine their stories. Sometimes I look for particular names—from my hometown, from my current town, someone portrayed in the Ken Burns documentary, the drummer in Springsteen’s first band. In 2021, a man approached me and asked, “Who are you here to see?” “No one,” I said. “I just love coming here. How about you?” His big brother died in Da Nang and he flies to DC every year on brother’s birthday and spends the day sitting with his memory. Hearing the stories was a sacred moment for me. Such personalized encounters make it even more tempting to frame these tragic stories in terms of zero-sum events—one person’s loss means a one-to-one gain for someone else. After all, if someone else had been working when Da Nang was bombed that day, his brother would have not have died.
In my first essay, I challenged the claim of my students that the college-admission process is zero-sum. What about the draft? The argument that poor men served at a much higher rate seems unassailable, with estimates as high as 80 percent of draftees coming from poor or working-class families. But the emotions that these stories evoke does not necessarily mean that draft selections were zero sum. Reflections by both Springsteen (who didn’t serve) and Larry Pressler (who did) are poignant and selfless. And at the risk of being uncharitable, these claims seem higher in virtue and humility than my students’ grievances about affirmative action, with their overtones of entitlement and privilege.
Selflessness notwithstanding, the take-my-spot understanding doesn’t work any better with the draft as it does with affirmative action. As noted in my first essay, tens of thousands of students get rejected from elite schools that accept just a few hundred African American students. With respect to the draft, of the 27 million draft-eligible men between 1964 and 1973, the Veterans Administration says that 2.7 million served in the Republic of Vietnam. A far greater number—15 million—received deferments. But that still leaves millions of non-evaders who were not drafted and/or did not serve in-country.
When such thinking is applied to large groups, we begin to wade waist deep into muddy thinking. Bruce Springsteen’s spot was not taken by a CRC kid from West Michigan. My dad’s spot was not taken by another student from Rehoboth. In the same way, a white student from a tony suburb did not have her spot taken by an African American student with the same SAT score. Such personalized stories have great power, and that power can be either virtuous (Pressler, Springsteen) or petty (some students’ claims). Either way, such powerful storytelling does not translate into the kind of zero-sum thinking argued by my students or SFA at the Supreme Court. From a strict quantitative perspective, a take-my-spot argument is hard to make because the numbers are so fluid. U of M’s first-year cohort has grown from 5,550 in 2002-03 to 7,050 in 2022-23. And the number who served in Vietnam was most certainly not static. LBJ declined General Westmoreland’s request for troop increases following the 1968 Tet offensive, and also declined the recommendation of his advisors to call up the National Guard. These decisions show how variable the final number could have been, making the take-my-spot argument difficult to wrap one’s head around.
This is where the two scenarios look similar—there were far more men who didn’t serve than were deployed, just as there are far more white students who are rejected from elite colleges than there are spots available. It’s easy to complain that someone took your spot when you know someone with the same SAT score got accepted. And it’s virtuous to ponder who went to Vietnam in your place when you received, like Springsteen, a medical deferment. But it’s difficult to understand something as a zero-sum event when the number who are “in” (i.e., accepted at an elite college or drafted to Vietnam) is so much smaller than the number who are “out” (i.e., got rebuffed by an elite college or didn’t get deployed to Vietnam).
My sense is that progressive Christians are quick to see the weakness in the white students’ complaints about affirmative action but perhaps less likely to criticize the claims that draft-evaders’ spots were filled by less fortunate replacements. Conservative Christians might flip that script. But if one agrees that these two events are similar in how we should think about them, we must be consistent in our reasoning, despite our political or theological dispositions. Above all, Christians are called to be truth-tellers. Our Creator-endowed reasoning skills should be used to improve our understanding of such complex phenomena and to tell the truth about them, even if such understanding might not align with our views of world events, present or past.
The author is grateful to Dr. Jim Bratt for his generous and wise feedback and editing on this essay.