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April 2000
war protesters
Photo taken at a 1972 protest at Seal Beach, California by Debby Kinsman

War Resistance, Amnesty and Exile Just the Facts
by Harold Jordan 1 | 2 | 3

As the Vietnam War fades into the past, the struggle for reinterpretation continues. One area that has received insufficient attention is war resistance. The script offered in public circles often reads like this: the war has ended for resisters; isolated numbers of people resisted military service, most of them "draft dodgers"; all of the legal issues surrounding military resisters were resolved they eventually "got off"; and people only refuse military service when they face a draft.

Draft evaders and military absentees were treated differently.

These myths, like most others about the war, are designed to influence future generations of potential warriors. The reality of the Vietnam Era is that large numbers of people resisted military service in different ways. Some were facing the draft while others resisted after enlisting in the military. Universal amnesty was never granted to war resisters.

Here are the facts:

War Resisters and the Courts

Draft Law Violators During the entire Vietnam War, 209,517 young men were formally accused of violating draft laws. Government officials estimate that another 360,000 were never formally accused. Of the former group, 25,000 indictments were handed down; 8,750 were convicted; and just under 4,000 served jail time.

Military Resisters It is difficult to say how many military service members were prosecuted for offenses growing out of opposition to the Southeast Asia War. Most estimates consider the rates at which service members went AWOL (absent without leave) or deserted – commonly referred to as "absence offenses." AWOL and desertion rates hit an all-time high during the Vietnam War, 1971 and 1972 being the peak years. The Pentagon documents 1,500,000 instances of AWOL and desertion during the war. Official estimates of the actual number of service members who went AWOL or deserted run between 500,000 (Pentagon) and 550,000 (officials in the Ford Administration). It is important to remember that not all service members who received bad discharges for offenses related to the war were absentees. Adding other types of anti-war activities for which service members were prosecuted significantly increases these figures. Many went to jail and/or received bad discharges.*

* The term "bad discharges" refers to several categories of discharge from the military (such as "Undesirable," "Other Than Honorable," etc.) that may result in post-service job discrimination, the loss of veteran's benefits, or both.

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