'60s Memoir Troublemaker Speaks to Us Now

07/18/2011 10:17 am ET | Updated Sep 17, 2011

Veteran political activist Bill Zimmerman's new book, Troublemaker: A Memoir From the Front Lines of the Sixties, is more than a compelling read. This vivid tale of the author's participation in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements not only sets the record straight on a frequently misunderstood era, it also helps us re-examine contemporary issues.

Zimmerman's Vietnam chapters got me thinking about American wars and the soldiers who fight them. Frustrated by Barack Obama's failure to deliver on his promise of peace -- he promised only to fight the "right" wars, didn't he? -- I'm tempted to believe it might be time to reinstitute the draft.

My sense that there's an inverse relationship between the draft and war -- more of the former produces less of the latter -- isn't original with me, of course. The conventional wisdom about Vietnam was that the peace movement began in earnest only when middle-class men were pulled from polite society and dumped into the jungles of Southeast Asia.

My own experience was all too common. Toward the end of the war, I received a draft notice and was required to report for a physical. I got on a bus with a couple dozen other anxiety-ridden zombies, but well equipped courtesy of my family's doctor, who supplied me with notes and X-rays to support my medical condition. The U.S. Army doc I met, upon consideration of these documents, concluded, "You're a sick man." I felt as relieved as the cancer patient who learns his tumor has suddenly disappeared.

But my euphoria came with a huge asterisk: I was safe, but someone without the time and the resources to pursue such documentation might well have been headed for the war zone in my place.

By 1973, the draft had been eliminated in favor of an all-volunteer force. Antiwar activity, especially among the young, faded dramatically. You didn't have to be a cynic to believe that the massive campus protests of the '60s had been more about self-interest than an authentic moral stand.

Today, the volunteer force remains, and conventional wisdom has it that a draft might have slowed or even stopped the race to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Had there been a draft, the war in Iraq might never have been fought -- or would have produced the civil protests of the Viet Nam War era," columnist Richard Cohen writes. Other commentators, including military historians, have observed that the lack of a draft removes the connection between most Americans and the Iraq and Afghanistan misadventures and hence explains the absence of a meaningful, widespread antiwar movement.

Zimmerman takes a more nuanced view. In Troublemaker, he paints a multi-dimensional picture of the antiwar movement from beginning to end. And he demonstrates that the draft was not quite so essential to the peace movement as I'd remembered.

"Anti-draft feelings were not responsible for launching the antiwar movement, nor did the disappearance of the draft lead to the movement's demise," Zimmerman told me. "Many of the first participants in the antiwar movement were veterans of the civil rights movement. Driven by moral outrage of that intensity, a movement can succeed in putting an issue before the country even if it lacks the numbers to force its will on the larger society. Then, once the country engages on that issue, self-interest rather than moral concerns begin to play the prominent role."

As for Iraq, Zimmerman notes, "At the start of the war in Iraq, in March 2003, there were millions on the streets and millions more lobbying against the pending invasion. No draft, just massive antiwar protest, the kind that took us years to build during the Vietnam era."

That these early Bush-era protests never turned into an effective antiwar movement was not because of the absence of a draft, Zimmerman believes, but rather due to confusion around 9/11 coupled with the fact that the Bushies couldn't have cared less that a great majority of Americans came to despise the war.

Though Zimmerman devotes the bulk of his memoir to the '60s, he also gives readers a front row seat to his post-'60s activities, which have included a key role at Wounded Knee -- check out his previous book, Airlift to Wounded Knee -- and his tireless efforts to help progressive candidates win elections and to promote such issues as public campaign financing, reasonable assisted suicide and medical marijuana. Another accomplishment: Zimmerman and his partner Pacy Markman acted as's first media consultants.

I can't know how I'd feel about wartime conscription if I were of draft age today. I hope I'd take inspiration from Troublemaker and resist conscientiously instead of relying on a doctor's note.