It has now been over forty-five years since my tour in Vietnam in the army, a period of time in which I thought I would think about the war less and less. The opposite is true. These days I wonder how such a thing could have happened, not just to me but to the United States as a whole. I am reminded from time to time when I am talking with younger people, and I have to force myself to not talk about the war. I have to make an almost physical effort to only mention the war in passing and go on to other subjects. They, after all, have the present to think about.
But if they do bring it up first, that’s a different story. And when they do, their interest is often motivated by their own personal security. For instance, if there’s one thing young people interested in my Vietnam War experience want to know about first, it’s the draft. What if the draft were reinstated? How did it work?
The rules of the draft back then were sneaky and open to local interpretation, not exercised the same or to the same effect everywhere in the country. In these days of gender equality, it seemed strange that only males were required to register at the age of eighteen. Even stranger that they could avoid being called up if they were in college. That immediately struck my listeners as terribly unfair, which it was. Why should young people who were fortunate enough to be in college not have to share the burden of the war? Why should other young people lacking the intellect or the money for college be sent off to risk their lives fighting? Didn’t this hint that the thinking at high government levels was that if a young man were thick enough to get drafted, he deserved less from life? He deserved to be an infantry grunt. If you were dumb and poor you were expendable. Even today, I find that hard to explain.
There were other unfair exceptions. If a man was married by a certain date, or had a child by a certain date, the draft boards had to excuse that man from service. That was the law. If you were drafted and you didn’t show up, they came and arrested you. You could go to jail, and then be in the army anyway. It was not only unfair, it was weird. And it got weirder.
For example, there was the somewhat secret stipulation that your draft board could not be changed from the location where you registered at eighteen. The draft boards were made up of local people in local communities. How they were chosen remains a mystery. But they had a normal inclination to protect the young people they knew locally, and choose for service people they didn’t know. They had to supply so many draftees a month from the lists of those who had registered in their communities. A friend in my basic training company, John Stephenson, was from Montana and had attended Dartmouth College. He was in Hanover, New Hampshire, when he turned eighteen. After graduation he moved back home to Montana. The Hanover draft board, probably reflecting the townie sensibility, drafted him, and called him back from Helena. He was angry, unhappy with Hanover and with the beggar-thy-neighbor attitude of the New Hampshire people he had come to dislike anyway. Of course, the draft board in Helena probably did the same thing, drafting men not from local families, but from away. To John it seemed to be a perversion of the idea of everyone sharing a national burden equally. And it was.
What if you really didn’t want to go? I had to think. What if? But no one wanted to go. I found it hard to explain that a huge percentage of American soldiers didn’t want to be American soldiers.
My draft board was in Peekskill, New York, and they did the same thing to me as they had done to John Stephenson. I had moved to Vermont after college. The Peekskill people were just as eager to protect their local sons, and since I was no longer local, they put my name on the list. For a year I had a job in Vermont at a GE plant that made machine guns for fighter aircraft, and the job had a deferment. My exact job was to produce industrial films to illustrate the destructive power of miniguns. Miniguns were Gatling-style guns used to strafe the Vietcong and North Vietnamese army troops. They were very effective. Fired down from small planes and helicopters, they supposedly protected US Army troops, or so I felt at the time. It did not occur to me that miniguns were very high-technology weaponry used against an enemy who had just rifles, and no aircraft. I did not want it to occur to me.
The deferment ended. The arrival of a draft notice had a strange effect. My father had served in World War Two during some hellish island fighting in the South Pacific. He counseled . . . well . . . nothing. If I wanted to go to Canada or Sweden, he offered financial help. In the mid-1960s the arguments for and against the war were at best inconclusive and at worst highly suspect. Young people who were against serving may have been legitimately against violence and war and in favor of peace for all mankind. Or they may have been against the idea of them individually and personally leaving their lives of American ease and privilege for hot, dangerous, and demeaning military duty. I could have gone to Canada because I had the family backing, but not everyone could do that.
I had been raised in middle-class comfort, and the trade-off was obedience. You didn’t necessarily do what you were told, but you did what was expected. The most powerful influence on a young person was the conviction that there were well-thought-out rules and everyone followed them. Wise heads had concluded that America had to fight communism. The only way to stop communism was to fight against it, whereas in fact the cure for communism was plain. The real cure for communism was communism.
Second after that conviction was the widely accepted idea that the United States was guided to do the right thing given enough time and opportunity. God had something to do with this — we believed in right and wrong. Our version of ourselves was a combination of the World War Two victory, the Marshall Plan, and Louis Armstrong.