Draft evasion is any successful attempt to elude a government-imposed obligation to serve in the military forces of one's nation. Sometimes draft evasion involves refusing to comply with the military draft policies (formally known as conscription policies) of one's nation. Illegal draft evasion is said to have characterized every military conflict of the 20th and 21st centuries. Such evasion is generally considered to be a criminal offense, and laws against it go back thousands of years.
There are many draft evasion practices. Those that manage to adhere to or circumvent the law, and those that do not involve taking a public stand, are sometimes referred to as draft avoidance. Those that involve public lawbreaking or taking a public stand are sometimes referred to as draft resistance. Draft evaders are sometimes pejoratively referred to as draft dodgers, although in certain contexts that term has also been used non-judgmentally or as an honorific.
Draft evasion has been a significant phenomenon in nations as different as France, Russia, South Korea, and the United States. Accounts by scholars and journalists, along with memoiristic writings by draft evaders, indicate that the motives and beliefs of the evaders cannot be stereotyped.
Over the years, observers have raised several large issues with regard to draft evasion. How if at all can it claim to be politically effective? Is it primarily a function of class privilege? What are its long-term effects on democracy and community? There is no clear consensus on any of these issues.
Young people have engaged in a wide variety of draft evasion practices around the world. Some of these practices go back thousands of years. The following list does not aspire to be complete - one book from the counterculture of the 1960s enumerated over 1,000 supposed draft evasion practices in one nation alone. The purpose here is to delineate a representative sampling of draft evasion practices and support activities as identified by scholars and journalists. Examples of many of these practices and activities can be found in the section on draft evasion in the nations of the world, further down this page.
One type of draft avoidance consists of attempts to follow the letter and spirit of the draft laws in order to obtain a legally valid draft deferment or exemption. Sometimes these deferments and exemptions are prompted by political considerations. Another type consists of attempts to circumvent, manipulate, or surreptitiously violate the substance or spirit of the draft laws in order to obtain a deferment or exemption. Nearly all attempts at draft avoidance are private and unpublicized. Examples include:
Draft evasion is said to have characterized every military conflict of the 20th and 21st centuries. Laws against certain draft evasion practices go back at least as far as the ancient Greeks.Examples of draft evasion can be found in many nations over many time periods:
Nineteenth century Belgium was one of the few places where most citizens accepted the practice of legally buying one's way out of the military draft, sometimes referred to as the practice of "purchasable military commutation". Even so, some Belgian politicians denounced it as a system that appeared to trade the money of the rich for the lives of the poor.
In January 1916, in the middle of World War I, the British government passed a military conscription bill. By July of that year, 30% of draftees had failed to report for service.
Canada employed a military draft during World Wars I and II, and some Canadians chose to evade it. According to Canadian historian Jack Granatstein, "no single issue has divided Canadians so sharply" as the military draft. During both World Wars, political parties collapsed or were torn apart over the draft issue, and ethnicity seeped into the equation, with most French Canadians opposing conscription and a majority of English Canadians accepting it. During both wars, riots and draft evasion followed the passage of the draft laws.
Conscription had been a dividing force in Canadian politics during World War I, and those divisions led to the Conscription Crisis of 1917. Canadians objected to conscription for diverse reasons: some thought it unnecessary, some did not identify with the British, and some felt it imposed unfair burdens on economically struggling segments of society. When the first draft class (single men between 20 and 34 years of age) was called up in 1917, nearly 281,000 of the approximately 404,000 men filed for exemptions. Throughout the war, some Canadians who feared conscription left for the United States or elsewhere.
Canada introduced an innovative kind of draft law in 1940 with the National Resources Mobilization Act. While the move was not unpopular outside French Canada, controversy arose because under the new law, conscripts were not compelled to serve outside Canada. They could choose simply to defend the country against invasion. By the middle of the war, many Canadians - not least of all, conscripts committed to overseas service - were referring to NRMA men pejoratively as "Zombies", that is, as dead-to-life or utterly useless. Following costly fighting in Italy, Normandy and the Scheldt, overseas Canadian troops were depleted, and during the Conscription Crisis of 1944 a one-time levy of approximately 17,000 NRMA men was sent to fight abroad.  Many NRMA men deserted after the levy rather than fight abroad. One brigade of NRMA men declared itself on "strike" after the levy.
The number of men who actively sought to evade the World War II draft in Canada is not known. Some historians do not consider their number significant; historian Jack Granatstein says the evasion was "widespread". In addition, in 1944 alone approximately 60,000 draftees were serving only as NRMA men, committed to border defense but not to going abroad.
During World War II, there was no legal way to avoid the draft, and failure to obey was treated as insubordination, punished by execution or jail. Draft evaders were forced to escape to the forests and live there as outlaws, in what was called facetiously serving in the käpykaarti (Pine Cone Guard) or metsäkaarti (Forest Guard).
One thousand five hundred men failed to show up for the draft at the start of the Continuation War (1941-1944, pitting Finland against the Soviet Union), and 32,186 cases of desertion were handled by the courts. There were numerous reasons: fear or war-weariness, objection to the war as an offensive war, ideological objections or outright support for Communism. Finnish Communists were considered dangerous and could not serve, and were subject to "protective custody" - in practice, detention in a prison for the course of the war - because earlier attempts to conscript them had ended in disaster: one battalion called Pärmin pataljoona assembled from detained Communists suffered a large-scale defection to the Soviet side.
The käpykaarti (forest-dwelling Pine Cone Guard, mentioned above) was a diverse group including draft evaders, deserters, Communists, and Soviet desants (military skydivers). They lived in small groups, sometimes even in military-style dugouts constructed from logs, and often maintained a rotation to guard their camps. They received support from sympatizers who could buy from the black market; failing that, they stole provisions to feed themselves. The Finnish Army and police actively searched for them, and if discovered, a firefight often ensued. The Finnish Communist Party was able to operate among the draft evaders. Sixty-three death sentences were handed out to deserters; however, many of them were killed in military or police raids on their camps. Deserters captured near front lines would often be simply returned to the lines, but as the military situation deteriorated towards the end of the war, punishments were harsher: 61 of the death sentences given were in 1944, mostly in June and July during the Vyborg-Petrozavodsk Offensive, where Finnish forces were forced to retreat.
In France, the right of all draftees to purchase military exemption - introduced after the French Revolution - was abolished in 1870.  One scholar refers to the permissible buy-out as a "bastard form of equality" that bore traces of the Old Regime.
According to London-based journalist Elisabeth Braw, writing in Foreign Affairs, draft evasion was "endemic" in the Soviet Union during the Soviet-Afghan War, which ended in 1989. A declassified Central Intelligence Agency report asserts that the Soviet elite routinely bribed its sons' way out of deployment to Afghanistan, or out of military service altogether.
In Russia, all young men are subject to the military draft. But according to a report from the European Parliamentary Research Service, an organ of the Secretariat of the European Parliament, in the mid-2010s fully half of the 150,000 young men called up each year were thought to be evading the draft.
In 2014, The Christian Science Monitor ran a headline claiming that South Korea had the "most draft dodgers in prison" The article, by veteran correspondent Donald Kirk, explained that South Korea's government, which had instituted a draft, did not allow for conscientious objection to war; as a result, 669 mostly religiously motivated South Koreans were said to be in jail for draft evasion in 2013. Only 723 draft evaders were said to be in jail worldwide at that time.
In 2015, responding to perceived threats from pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian military instituted a compulsory draft for males between 20 and 27 years of age. However, according to independent journalist Alec Luhn, writing in Foreign Policy magazine, a "huge number" of Ukrainians refused to serve. Luhn gives three reasons for this. One was fear of death. Another was that some young Ukrainians were opposed to war in general. A third was that some were unwilling to take up arms against those whom they perceived to be their countrymen.
The Ukrainian military itself has stated that, during a partial call-up in 2014, over 85,000 men failed to report to their draft offices, and nearly 10,000 of those were eventually declared to be illegal draft evaders.
The United States has employed conscription (mandatory military service, also called "the draft") several times, usually during war but also during the Cold War. It discontinued the draft in 1973, moving to an all-volunteer force. However, males aged 18-26 are required to register with the Selective Service System, which remains as a contemporary plan in the event that a draft is needed. Knowing and willful refusal to present oneself for and submit to registration as ordered is punishable by a maximum penalty of up to five years in Federal prison and/or a fine of US$250,000, although there have been no prosecutions of draft registration resisters since January 1986.  Failing to register though, makes the male ineligible for certain benefits, such as FAFSA aid, federal/state jobs, and in certain states, even driver's licenses (since certain states will automatically register a male with the Selective Service System).
The Selective Service Act of 1917 was carefully drawn to remedy the defects in the Civil War system by allowing exemptions for dependency, essential occupations, and religious scruples and by prohibiting all forms of bounties, substitutions, or purchase of exemptions. In 1917 and 1918 some 24 million men were registered and nearly 3 million inducted into the military services, with little of the overt resistance that characterized the Civil War.
In the United States during World War I, the word "slacker" was commonly used to describe someone who was not participating in the war effort, especially someone who avoided military service, an equivalent of the later term "draft dodger." Attempts to track down such evaders were called "slacker raids."
According to scholar Anna Wittmann, about 72,000 young Americans applied for conscientious objector (CO) status during World War II, and many of their applications were rejected. Some COs chose to serve as noncombatants in the military, others chose jail, and a third group - taking a position in between - chose to enter a specially organized domestic Civilian Public Service.
The Vietnam War (1965-1975) was controversial in the U.S. and was accompanied by a significant amount of draft evasion among young Americans, with many managing to remain in the U.S. by various means and some eventually leaving for Canada or elsewhere.
There had been some opposition to the Vietnam-era draft even before the U.S. became heavily involved in the Vietnam War. The large cohort of Baby Boomers who became eligible for military service during the Vietnam War also meant a steep increase in the number of exemptions and deferments, especially for college and graduate students. According to peace studies scholar David Cortright, more than half of the 27 million men eligible for the draft during the Vietnam War were deferred, exempted, or disqualified.
Veterans Administration statistics show that U.S. troops in Vietnam represented a much broader cross section of America than is commonly believed and only 25% of troops deployed to the combat zone were draftees (compared to 66% during World War II). A total of 8.615 million men served during the Vietnam era and of them 2.15 million actually served in the Combat Zone. Three-quarters of those deployed were from working families and poor youths were twice as likely to serve there than their more affluent cohorts although the vast majority of them were volunteers. Some draft eligible men publicly burned their draft cards, which was illegal, but the Justice Department brought charges against only 50, of whom 40 were convicted.
As U.S. troop strength in Vietnam increased, more young men sought to avoid the draft. Enlisting in the Coast Guard, though it had more stringent standards for enlistment, was one alternative. Enlisting in the National Guard was another option; however, 15,000 National Guardsmen were activated and sent to Vietnam. Vocations to the ministry and the rabbinate soared, because 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.
"Draft Dodger Rag", a 1965 anti-war song by Phil Ochs, circumvented laws against counseling evasion by employing satire to provide a how-to list of available deferments: ruptured spleen, homosexuality, poor eyesight, flat feet, asthma, caregiver for invalid relative, college enrollment, war industry worker, spinal injuries, epilepsy, flower and bug allergies, multiple drug addictions, and lack of physical fitness. Folksinger Arlo Guthrie lampooned the paradox of seeking a deferment by acting 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'!"1001 Ways to Beat the Draft was a text on draft evasion by the late 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".
Many draft counseling groups were active during the war. Some were connected to national groups, such as the American Friends Service Committee and Students for a Democratic Society; others were ad hoc campus or community groups. Many lawyers and other knowledgeable individuals worked without compensation for such groups.
Along with the rise of draft counseling groups, a substantial draft resistance movement rose up as well. Students for a Democratic Society sought to play a major role in it, as did the War Resisters League,, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's "National Black Anti-War Anti-Draft Union" and other groups. Many say that the draft resistance movement was spearheaded by an organization called The Resistance. It was founded by David Harris and others in the San Francisco Bay Area in March 1967, and quickly spread nationally. The insignia of the organization was the Greek letter omega, ?, the symbol for ohms--the unit of electrical resistance. Members of The Resistance publicly burned their draft cards or refused to register for the draft. Other members deposited their cards into boxes on selected dates and then mailed them to the government. 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 federal prison as part of this movement.
In 1969, in response to criticism of the draft's inequities, the U.S. government adopted a lottery system to determine who was called to serve. At the same time it implemented new standards that greatly restricted the availability of deferments. They were ended for graduate students and limited for undergraduates. Conscription ended in 1973.
After the war, some of the draft evaders who stayed in the U.S. wrote memoirs. These included David Harris's Dreams Die Hard (1982), David Miller's I Didn't Know God Made Honky Tonk Communists (2001), Jerry Elmer's Felon for Peace (2005), and Bruce Dancis's Resister (2014). Harris was an anti-draft organizer who went to jail for his beliefs (and was briefly married to folk singer Joan Baez), Miller was the first Vietnam War refuser to publicly burn his draft card (and later became partner to spiritual teacher Starhawk), Elmer refused to register for the draft and destroyed draft board files in several locations, and Dancis led the largest chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (the one at Cornell University) before being jailed for publicly shredding his draft card and returning it to his draft board. Harris in particular expresses serious second thoughts about aspects of the movement he was part of.
Canadian historian Jessica Squires emphasizes that the number of U.S. draft evaders coming to Canada was "only a fraction" of those who resisted the Vietnam War. According to a 1978 book by former members of President Gerald Ford's Clemency Board, 210,000 Americans were accused of draft offenses and 30,000 left the country. More recently, peace studies scholar David Cortright observed that approximately 570,000 young men were classified as draft offenders during the war, of whom over 209,000 were accused of draft violations. According to Cortright, an "estimated 60,000 to 100,000" left the U.S., mainly for Canada or Sweden. Others scattered elsewhere; for example, historian Frank Kusch mentions Mexico, scholar Anna Wittmann mentions Britain, and journalist Jan Wong describes one draft evader who sympathized with Mao Zedong's China and found refuge there. Draft evader Ken Kiask spent eight years traveling continuously across the Global South before returning to the U.S.
The number of Vietnam-era draft evaders leaving for Canada is hotly contested; an entire book, by scholar Joseph Jones, has been written on that subject. In 2017, University of Toronto professor Robert McGill cited estimates by four scholars, including Jones, ranging from a floor of 30,000 to a ceiling of 100,000, depending in part on who is being counted as a draft evader.
Though the presence of U.S. draft evaders and deserters in Canada was initially controversial, the Canadian government eventually chose to welcome them. Draft evasion was not a criminal offense under Canadian law. The issue of deserters was more complex. Desertion from the U.S. military was not on the list of crimes for which a person could be extradited under the extradition treaty between Canada and the U.S.; however, desertion was a crime in Canada, and the Canadian military strongly opposed condoning it. In the end, the Canadian 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.
In Canada, many American Vietnam War evaders received pre-emigration counseling and post-emigration assistance from locally based groups. Typically these consisted of American emigrants and Canadian supporters. The largest were the Montreal Council to Aid War Resisters, the Toronto Anti-Draft Programme, and the Vancouver Committee to Aid American War Objectors. Journalists often noted their effectiveness. The Manual for Draft-Age Immigrants to Canada, published jointly by the Toronto Anti-Draft Programme and the House of Anansi Press, sold nearly 100,000 copies, and one sociologist found that the Manual had been read by over 55% of his data sample of U.S. Vietnam War emigrants either before or after they arrived in Canada. In addition to the counseling groups (and at least formally separate from them) was a Toronto-based political organization, the Union of American Exiles, better known as "Amex." It sought to speak for American draft evaders and deserters in Canada. For example, it lobbied and campaigned for universal, unconditional amnesty, and hosted an international conference in 1974 opposing anything short of that.
Those who 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 September 1974, President Gerald R. Ford offered an amnesty program for draft dodgers that required them to work in alternative service occupations for periods of six to 24 months. In 1977, one day after his inauguration, President Jimmy Carter fulfilled a campaign promise by offering pardons to anyone who had evaded the draft and requested one. It antagonized critics on both sides, with the right complaining that those pardoned paid no penalty and the left complaining that requesting a pardon required the admission of a crime.
It remains a matter of debate whether emigration to Canada and elsewhere during the Vietnam War was an effective, or even a genuine, war resistance strategy. Scholar Michael Foley argues that it was not only relatively ineffective, but that it served to siphon off disaffected young Americans from the larger struggle. Activists Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden reportedly held similar views. By contrast, authors John Hagan and Roger N. Williams recognize the American emigrants as "war resisters" in the subtitles of their books about the emigrants, and Manual for Draft-Age Immigrants to Canada author Mark Satin contended that public awareness of tens of thousands of young Americans leaving for Canada would - and eventually did - help end the war.
Some draft evaders returned to the U.S. from Canada after the 1977 pardon, but according to sociologist John Hagan, about half of them stayed on. This young and mostly educated population expanded Canada's arts and academic scenes, and helped push Canadian politics further to the left, though some Canadians, including some principled nationalists, found their presence or impact troubling. American draft evaders who left for Canada and became prominent there include author William Gibson, politician Jim Green, gay rights advocate Michael Hendricks, attorney Jeffry House, author Keith Maillard, playwright John Murrell, television personality Eric Nagler, film critic Jay Scott, and musician Jesse Winchester. Other draft evaders from the Vietnam era remain in Sweden and elsewhere.
Two academic literary critics have written at length about autobiographical novels by draft evaders who went to Canada - Rachel Adams in the Yale Journal of Criticism and Robert McGill in a book from McGill-Queen's University Press. Both critics discuss Morton Redner's Getting Out (1971) and Mark Satin's Confessions of a Young Exile (1976), and Adams also discusses Allen Morgan's Dropping Out in 3/4 Time (1972) and Daniel Peters's Border Crossing (1978). All these books portray their protagonists' views, motives, activities, and relationships in detail. Adams says they contain some surprises:
It is to be expected that the draft dodgers denounce the state as an oppressive bureaucracy, using the vernacular of the time to rail against "the machine" and "the system." What is more surprising is their general resistance to mass movements, a sentiment that contradicts the association of the draft dodger with sixties protest found in more recent work by [Scott] Turow or [Mordecai] Richler. In contrast to stereotypes, the draft dodger in these narratives is neither an unthinking follower of movement ideology nor a radical who attempts to convert others to his cause. ... [Another surprise is that the dodgers] have little interest in romantic love. Their libidinal hyperactivity accords with [Herbert] Marcuse's belief in the liberatory power of eros. They are far less worried about whether particular relationships will survive the flight to Canada than about the gratification of their immediate sexual urges.
Later memoirs by Vietnam-era draft evaders who went to Canada include Donald Simons's I Refuse (1992),George Fetherling's Travels by Night (1994), and Mark Frutkin's Erratic North (2008).
For many decades after the Vietnam War was over, prominent Americans were being accused of having manipulated the draft system to their advantage. Among the prominent politicians whom opponents have accused of improperly avoiding the draft are George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Bill Clinton.
In a 1970s High Times article, American singer-songwriter and future conservative activist Ted Nugent stated that he took crystal meth, and urinated and defecated in his pants before his physical, in order to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War. In 2014 a large daily newspaper, the Detroit Free Press, called attention to similar material by re-running an old interview it had done with Nugent. The interviewer noted that, a week before Nugent's physical, "he stopped using bathrooms altogether, virtually living inside pants caked with his own excrement, stained by his urine".
Conservative talk radio show host Rush Limbaugh reportedly avoided the Vietnam draft because of anal cysts. In a 2011 book critical of Limbaugh, journalist John K. Wlson wrote, "As a man who evaded the Vietnam War draft with the help of an anal cyst, Limbaugh is a chickenhawk fond of making hyperbolic attacks on [liberal] foreign policy".
Donald Trump who became President of the United States in 2017, graduated from college in the spring of 1968, making him eligible to be drafted and sent to Vietnam, but he received a diagnosis of bone spurs in his heels. The diagnosis resulted in a medical deferment, exempting him from military service. Due to this deferment he was accused draft dodging by political opponents.
Mitt Romney's deferment has also been questioned. During the Vietnam War The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) became embroiled in controversy for deferring large numbers of its young members. The LDS church eventually agreed to cap the number of missionary deferments it sought for members in any one state; however, this generally did not stop LDS missionaries who lived outside the United States. This cap was church wide in the United States and was not limited to Utah. Only two missionaries a year were allowed from each ward. This cap did not stop foreign missionaries (like 2008 presidential candidate and 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney who was living in France) from receiving deferments with relative ease.
The phenomenon of draft evasion has raised several major issues among scholars and others.
One issue is the effectiveness of the various kinds of draft evasion practices with regard to ending a military draft or stopping a war. Historian Michael S. Foley sees many draft evasion practices as merely personally beneficial. In his view, only public anti-draft activity, consciously and collectively engaged in, is relevant to stopping a draft or a war. By contrast, sociologist Todd Gitlin is more generous in his assessment of the effectiveness of the entire gamut of draft evasion practices. Political scientist James C. Scott, although speaking more theoretically, makes a similar point, arguing that the accumulation of thousands upon thousands of "petty" and obscure acts of private resistance can trigger political change.
Another issue is how best to understand young people's responses to a military call-up. According to historian Charles DeBenedetti, some Vietnam War opponents chose to evaluate people's responses to the war largely in terms of their willingness to take personal responsibility to resist evil, a standard prompted by the Nuremberg doctrine. The Manual for Draft-Age Immigrants to Canada urged its readers to make their draft decision with Nuremberg in mind. By contrast, prominent journalist James Fallows is convinced that social class (rather than conscience or political conviction) was the dominant factor in determining who would fight in the war and who would evade their obligation to do so. Fallows writes of the shame he felt - and continued to feel - after he realized that his successful attempt at draft evasion (he brought his body weight below the minimum, and lied about his mental health), an attempt he prepared for with the help of sophisticated draft counselors and classmates at Harvard, meant that working-class kids from Boston would be going to Vietnam in his stead. He referred to this outcome as a matter of class discrimination and passionately argued against it.. (It should be added that Fallows indicates that he might have felt differently about his behavior had he chosen public draft resistance, jail, or exile.)
Historian Stanley Karnow has noted that, during the Vietnam War, student deferments themselves helped preserve class privilege: "[President Lyndon] Johnson generously deferred U.S. college students from the draft to avoid alienating the American middle class".
Historian Howard Zinn and political activist Tom Hayden saw at least some kinds of draft evasion as a positive expression of democracy . By contrast, historian and classical studies scholar Mathew R. Christ says that, in ancient democratic Athens, where draft evasion was ongoing, many of the popular tragic playwrights were deeply concerned about the corrosive effects of draft evasion on democracy and community. According to Christ, while many of these playwrights were sensitive to the moral dilemmas of war and the imperfections of Athenian democracy, most touted "the ethical imperative that a man should support his friends and community. In serving the community, the individual does ... what is right and honorable".
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