Countercultures, or groups that that break off from a dominant or larger society because they disagree with the society’s values or beliefs, can have lasting effects on government policies or global affairs (Thomas 39). One such counterculture is the group of American draft dodgers. These individuals evaded conscription, or mandatory military service, in American since the American Civil War (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica). They rejected the American values of patriotism and national security during key wars such as World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War. Also, they broke American laws, a part of the national culture, by burning their draft cards in protest and escaping to Canada to avoid their required service specifically during the Vietnam War (Kennedy and Cohen 891). These actions employed by draft dodgers display their own ideas and voices their rejection of the larger society’s views, categorizing them as a counterculture in American history.
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Although draft dodgers can and have appeared in other countries around the world with mandatory military service, the American draft dodgers are specifically notable for their involvement in a number of American wars and polices. Draft evasion has roots in several areas from pacifism to personal unwillingness. Some countries exempted conscientious objectors to war and the draft (people who opposed bearing arms or violence for reasons related to their philosophy or religion) or provided them with specific jobs that did not require fighting, though others throughout history did not excuse these objectors from service (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica). The United States addressed conscientious objectors during the Civil War by allowing them to serve in positions that did not require the use of weaponry (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica). However, the 1940 conscript laws clarified objectors as people who were part of a known pacifist group, not individuals that claimed personal objections (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica). The United States started experiencing draft dodgers during the American Civil War when conscription was first implemented in 1861 (Michael Ray). The affluent society in the North avoided military service by utilizing a bounty system, where the drafted individuals paid substitutes, especially African Americans, to enter the military for them (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica). These citizens had an advantage over the poor and the military soon consisted of lower classes, inciting hostility towards both the wealthy and African Americans. Eventually, the Draft Riot of 1863 occurred with public unrest over this system; for four days, New York City rioters targeted African American buildings with violence (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica). After the Civil War, the draft also added to the country’s military power during the two World Wars, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. All of these wars presented opportunities for draft dodgers, but the most notable wars they affected were the American Civil War and the Vietnam War. Most people associate draft resistance with American participation in the Vietnam War, where public protest of the draft escalated dramatically. Some of the public resistance of the draft stemmed from the Selective Service System’s deferment processes which provided certain people with special opportunities to avoid the draft (Michael Ray). Some draft dodgers resisted conscription by escaping to Canada (Kennedy and Cohen 891). After the Military Selective Service Act of 1967, burning draft cards, or the registration certificates for the draft, exploded as one of the most popular form of protest even though it broke government laws (Michael Ray). Protesters argued that the First Amendment protected their right to freely express opposition to the draft with this method (Michael Ray). David O’Brien was one of the draft dodgers who burned their draft cards and ended up facing legal consequences (Michael Ray). His case eventually appeared before the Supreme Court in The United States v. O’Brien, and the final ruling stated that burning draft cards hindered government actions and was not considered protected free speech (Michael Ray).
Draft dodgers held great historical significance in American policy. In the Civil War, the draft dodgers influenced the composition of the military with the use of a bounty system to buy their way out of service (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica). Their actions in the Civil War influenced American policy during World War I by prompting the government to abolish the bounty system in the 1917 Selective Service Act (Michael Ray). However, the most active and monumental role the draft dodgers played was during the Vietnam War (Kindig). They helped fuel opposition to the war with new drastic measures of burning draft cards and fleeing the country (Kennedy and Cohen 891). Their vocal actions had an unprecedented impact on the end of American involvement in the Vietnam War and the continuing attitudes later on. Currently, the U.S. draft sits dormant since there is no direct need for it, so draft dodgers appear less frequently in society as active protesters. However, in 1980 the government required draft registration for men in case the draft ever resurfaced, and this policy still affects today’s population (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica).
A sociological perspective and a sociological imagination can help people understand how draft dodgers’ actions affected the world. With a sociological perspective, people view others’ actions using scientific reasoning instead of everyday explanations (Thomas 4). It contends that everyone is a social being with hidden meanings behind his or her actions (Thomas 5). Clearly, draft dodgers did not protest the draft purely because of a disapproval of the implementation and process of the draft, although that did play a purpose in their actions. Using the sociological perspective, the actions of draft dodgers often target a larger intent to protest conscription in general and warfare as a method to solve conflict. A significant number of conscientious objectors objected to violence and bearing arms for religious or philosophical reasons, and since some governments did not excuse these objectors from service, they were forced to become draft dodgers in order to uphold their beliefs (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica). The American draft dodgers’ actions during the Vietnam War also had these sentiments, after media coverage of the war displayed unpleasant scenes that conflicted with their morals (Kennedy and Cohen 891). Draft dodgers conveyed the arguments for pacifism and nonviolence in their actions, two themes that apply to any country in the world. A sociological imagination, created by C. Wright Mills, allows people to connect their personal actions and experiences with the larger world in order to recognize the effects (Thomas 5). This viewpoint displays the great effects of draft dodger actions on larger bodies such as the United States of American and even the world. They significantly affected United States domestic and foreign policy. The Draft Riot of 1863 over the unfair bounty system influenced later domestic policy in the Selective Service Act of 1917, in which the process was prohibited (Michael Ray). They also influenced interpretation of the First Amendment when the Supreme Court case The United States v. O’Brien arose from the protest method of burning draft cards that became popular during the Vietnam War (Michael Ray). The limitations of free speech were clarified for the American public, influencing later forms of protest. On the global perspective, foreign policy during the Vietnam War also received the impact of draft resistance since the protests amplified an opposition to American participation in the war. Their actions influenced the removal of American troops from Vietnam.
Ethnocentrism is conviction that one group of people reigns supreme over other inferior groups (Thomas 35). Draft dodgers had an element of ethnocentrism in their actions, contributing to their classification as a counterculture, specifically during times of war. The draft dodgers who were conscientious objectors for religious or philosophical reasons believed that their values of pacifism or their faith were superior to the American sentiments of patriotism, leading them to resist the draft and conscription. Other draft dodgers felt that the value of life, including their own lives, was superior to patriotism, national security, or U.S. global power. They expressed their superior views by attempting to fulfill the requirements for exemption from service (deferment from Selective Service boards for academic or family reasons), burning their draft cards, or fleeing the country in order to not risk their own lives and protest the danger imposed on others’ lives (Michael Ray). Their ethnocentrism encouraged draft dodgers to protest and fight for their beliefs rather than just duly accepting their fate as American citizens, resulting in their counterculture status.
Cultural relativism practices that the standards of cultures different from one another, so a culture could only receive judgement based on their own point of view (Thomas 36). Using cultural relativism, draft dodgers avoid conscription because of their connection to the American culture from which they split. The American culture emphasized freedom to express and act according to an individual’s beliefs (within obvious limitations). These draft dodgers, surrounded by the ideas that sharing opinions is acceptable and appreciated, naturally protested their opposition to drafts and conscription based on their own values and interests. In fact, one could argue that they protested the draft to save their own lives and the lives of their families, a priority for a number of people. A pacifist who is not a part of a formal organization would not receive exemption from conscription but would still have difficulty if drafted because the violence would conflict with his personal values, and may even die before fighting and breaking his values; therefore, draft avoidance could save his life (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica). The draft sent men off to war whether they wanted to go or not, and unfortunately not all soldiers return home to their families. The families of the men who never return to war are left with a hole in their family structure, especially if the man was unwilling to fight. In this case, protesting and dodging the draft could protect a man’s family, a formidable incentive to avoid conscription. Cultural relativism allows other individuals to understand the importance of draft evasion for men and their loved ones.
Despite the incentives to evade conscription, I personally do not agree with all of the philosophies of the draft dodgers. The draft dodgers rightfully protested the unfair draft systems such as the bounty system during the Civil War or the subjective deferments of the Selective Service Board and I agree with the ideas of pacifism and resolving conflicts without violence that spurred draft dodgers to reject conscription. However, the draft should remain a possible tool today with modifications that require women to register as well as men to guarantee a suitable fighting force for national security. I cannot see the value in protesting a draft if the whole country faces peril and destruction as a result of a lack of volunteers to a war effort (with hope that such a situation never arises in the future). Also, there is no harm in registering when the government may never activate draft again in one’s lifespan, and if the draft is reenacted, then there must be a dire need for soldiers with the already impressive advancements in military power through technology and volunteers. Although I cannot agree with their ideas, the fact remains that draft dodgers impacted American policies, values, and history significantly as longstanding counterculture.
Kennedy, David M. and Lizabeth Cohen. “The American Pageant: A History of the American People.” Boston: Cengage Learning, 2016. Textbook.
Kindig, Jesse. Vietnam War: Draft Resistance. 2008. Website. 3 March 2017.
Michael Ray. Selective Service Acts. 10 September 2015. Website. 3 March 2017.
The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. Conscientious Objector. 30 June 2010. Website. 3 March 2017.
-. Conscription. 16 6 2011. Website. 3 March 2017.
-. Draft Riot of 1863. 16 June 2011. Website. 3 March 2017.
Thomas, W. LaVerne. “Sociology: The Study of Human Relationships.” Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2003. Textbook.
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