Draft Board Blues (FutureCycle Press, 2017) is Robert Cooperman’s epic account of his efforts to avoid being drafted to serve in Vietnam, circa 1969-1970. In a series of first-person poems divided into four sections, Cooperman recalls what it felt like to be threatened with the draft. No one born in the last fifty years can know what he and others like him (myself included) experienced at the prospect of going to serve in Vietnam and perhaps to be killed or maimed. I opposed the Vietnam war, but what most focused my opposition to it was fear of dying. I never liked the draft, which seemed an unnecessary exercise of power by an excessively authoritarian state. I did not want to serve. I respected those who served, whether they went willingly or not. But I didn’t want to serve. Would I have gone had I been called? Who can say? Probably I would have. My number in the draft lottery was 109, low enough that I could expect with some certainty to be drafted after my college deferment ran out. Fortunately for me, in 1972, the last year of the draft, the year I graduated from college, the last people summoned had numbers no higher than 90.
Cooperman’s poems—full of anger and indignation but also humor and compassion—recall those days when an entire generation of young American men faced the draft. They tell his own story of his numerous interviews with draft boards, military doctors, psychiatrists, and others that ultimately led to 4-F status. In the meantime, he recounts the stories of other young men he knew who were drafted, some dying in the war, others escaping the draft and the war as a result. These anecdotal poems provide a context that makes clear that Cooperman’s story was shared by many others.
No poem I have ever read begins as starkly as this one, “Before a Screening of Planet of the Apes”:
Years before I knew what a right-wing
Gun-crazed asshole Charleston Heston was . . .
Although political attitudes are clear enough in these poems—an extreme time by nature provoked extreme attitudes—these poems are more about human beings than politics. There are moving poems about family, about friends and acquaintances impacted by the Vietnam years. In “Watching President Johnson Announce He Wouldn’t Run,” Cooperman recalls the president not as a figure he hated but as an old and defeated man for whom he felt sorry, “a man who’d be dead soon after his term was up.” He links that defeated man to his own father,
Dad too tired to walk me to the door
I’d bent and kissed him, not a thought in my head
That it would be for the last time.
Cooperman doesn’t deny his own fear of the draft and the Vietnamese War. In one poem. He imagines that he would have gone to serve in World War II, which was a quite different war, but even then he suspects he would have been killed by a sniper’s bullet:
Most likely I’d have died, on D-Day,
At the Bulge, on a nameless Pacific island,
A French, Belgian, or German barnyard:
From a sniper’s bullet while resting after a march
Or a battle in which I’d mostly ducked and cringed
(From “Had I Been Called”)
In “Who Went and Who Didn’t” he remembers that the wealthy and affluent had ways of avoiding service, “But God forbid / you were from a small town, / a farm, were black, or Latino / or all of the above.” He recalls a moment of solidarity with his father after the older man encountered a hatemonger at a peace rally.
The last poem in the volume, “Guys My Age,” Cooperman describes his encounter with a wheelchair-bound veteran of the war. He expresses a certain sheepishness—is it guilt, self-doubt?—not that he regrets avoiding the draft and the war, but he’s aware of those who often paid a terrible price for serving in a war that accomplished nothing.
Those who didn’t live through the draft will perhaps not understand these poems and the world out of which they were written. They are testimony to a dark time.