The Draft 1969

Posted inThe Daily Heller
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Often the design of official documents is intended to confound or frighten. One of the most ominous pieces of nondescript paper when I was a teen in 1969 was the card above: The draft card.

This simple registration-classification-identification card became a symbol of defiance that set the sixties ablaze. Burning draft cards (as shown on the cover of Ramparts magazine (below top), art directed by Dugald Stermer), was the most visible means of “registering” dissent. Doing so was against the law, punishable by a prison term. The catch was this: new cards were issued almost every year to reflect changes in draft status.

Those letter-number codes (below bottom) meant the difference between being shipped off to war or staying safely at home. I recall going for my physical (shortly after the premiere of Alice’s Restaurant by Arlo Guthrie – the “Group W bench” (below second from top) became a lesson in draft dodging) at the old Civil War era Whitehall Street building in Manhattan. By accident I stumbled into the swearing in room. There were so many minorities – African American and Latino – joining up simply to get out of the urban ghetto, that I knew I would not be called up (the quota would be met). To this day, I feel guilty that others laid down their lives for me. But like so many others of my generation, we were convinced the Vietnam War was unjust at worst and foolhardy at best.

That war taught me a lesson about the power of dissent. And the importance of symbols, even if they are little wallet-sized pieces of otherwise nondescript paper.