Bring back the draft

The Covington News - - Opinion greed is good? -

When the first of next year rolls around, I will have had the honor of ap­pear­ing in th­ese pages of my lo­cal news­pa­per for 10 full years. My first col­umn ap­peared in Jan­uary 1999, in the sports sec­tion, and for a num­ber of years I was the cur­mud­geonly sports opin­ion guy. But a lit­tle more than two years ago I was given the op­por­tu­nity to be­come the griz­zled old Sun­day opin­ion guy, and as I feel it a priv­i­lege to share my thoughts each week, I’ve tried to be­have re­spon­si­bly.

This col­umn is num­ber 138 in the opin­ion pa­rade. That num­ber is sin­gu­larly mean­ing­ful to me, and has given me pause to think for a time on a most se­ri­ous mat­ter — 138 was my draft num­ber dur­ing the Viet­nam War.

Along with ev­ery­body else, I watched on tele­vi­sion one night as the birthdays were put in a big drum in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, then were with­drawn one at a time, not un­like a Bingo game. I was a stu­dent at Ge­or­gia South­ern Col­lege in States­boro, liv­ing in Cone Hall. Most every­one was gath­ered in the big lounge area of the dor­mi­tory, watch­ing the draw­ing.

The Se­lec­tive Ser­vice Sys­tem — more fa­mil­iarly known as “the draft” — pro­vided the man­power Amer­ica needed to ad­e­quately staff the on­go­ing Viet­nam War. Each Jan­uary the lot­tery would start over with num­ber 1. Af­ter all the folks whose birth­day was num­ber 1 had re­ported, if the armed forces needed ad­di­tional staffing, the lot­tery moved to num­ber 2. The draft pro­ceeded in this man­ner through­out the year, and al­though I seem to re­mem­ber one year when it reached well into the 200’s, gener- ally folks with high num­bers were safe from be­ing called.

The draft was noth­ing new. Con­scrip­tion goes way back in not only Amer­i­can his­tory, but world his­tory as well.

But the draft was new to me and to my gen­er­a­tion. My dad and many rel­a­tives had served in Amer­ica’s armed forces in World War II, and in my for­ma­tive years I’d al­ways con­sid­ered en­list­ing in the Navy af­ter high school to fol­low in my dad’s foot­steps.

But Daddy died when I was 17, and not long af­ter­ward one of the tough­est kids I ever knew grow­ing up in tiny Greens­boro, was sent home from Viet­nam in a box. They had to keep the cas­ket closed at the young man’s fu­neral be­cause there hadn’t been enough left of him to rec­og­nize.

So on the night of the Se­lec­tive Ser­vice Sys­tem lot­tery draw­ing which af­fected me, I found my­self there in Cone Hall won­der­ing what num­ber I’d get, and won­der­ing what op­tions ex­isted for any young man who might be drafted and who was not gung-ho about serv­ing in the armed forces.

There were a num­ber of op­tions avail­able for folks who did not want to serve. Some were honor­able, some were less so.

Any­one se­ri­ously op­posed to killing an­other hu­man be­ing could reg­is­ter as a con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tor. The most fa­mous per­son to do so was a heavy­weight boxer by the name of Cas­sius Clay. Ini­tially, Clay failed the read­ing and writ­ing por­tion of the Se­lec­tive Ser­vice Sys­tem guide­lines and was granted a de­fer­ment, but when the tests were re­vamped in 1966 he was drafted. Clay had con­verted to Is­lam and taken the name of Muham­mad Ali, and re­fused to serve.

Well, con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tors were not new to our time ei­ther. A poor Ten­nessee boy by the name of Alvin York had ini­tially re­fused to serve in World War I, as his church strictly for­bade killing other hu­mans. But af­ter a min­is­ter con­vinced York oth­er­wise, he joined the Army and be­came a highly dec­o­rated hero in Europe.

There were other av­enues avail­able for folks who wished to avoid over­seas ser­vice. They could opt to en­list in the Na­tional Guard, but the wait­ing list for those units was so long it some­times took years for a va­cancy to oc­cur, by which time the per­son on the wait list could al­ready have been drafted.

And there were those who sim­ply left the coun­try, as they could not be forced into mil­i­tary ser­vice if they weren’t here. Many moved to Canada, where they would still be liv­ing in ex­ile ex­cept for the gift of amnesty pro­vided by Pres­i­dent James Earl Carter. That’s right. Good old Jimmy Carter — U.S. Navy, Bap­tist preacher, peanut farmer and Ge­or­gia Tech grad — al­lowed all who bolted from the land of the free and the home of the brave to avoid mil­i­tary ser­vice to be repa­tri­ated dur­ing his term of of­fice.

I was one of the for­tu­nate whose num­ber never got called. There was a pretty tense six-week pe­riod in my fi­nal year of el­i­gi­bil­ity when the lot­tery jumped from num­ber 100 to 125, and I did a lot of soulsearch­ing as I waited for the cal­en­dar year to end, try­ing to de­ter­mine the right course of action.

In the end, I vis­ited my Navy re­cruit­ment of­fice and flat out told the guy my dad had served in the Navy, and if I had to go I wanted to go Navy. But upon his ad­vice I waited to see if my num­ber would be called, and 138 never came up.

In ret­ro­spect, and they say hind­sight is 20/20, I’m think­ing that if Amer­ica had al­ter­nate pro­grams for ser­vice to the na­tion for those not cut out for the mil­i­tary, that manda­tory ser­vice to Amer­ica would have been a great thing.

The Viet­nam War tore this na­tion’s con­science apart. Had those who op­posed the war been able to serve in pro­grams to save the en­vi­ron­ment, to help re­vi­tal­ize de­cay­ing in­ner cities, to re­pair crum­bling in­fra­struc­ture, to build rapid tran­sit sys­tems, to de­velop al­ter­nate forms of en­ergy, to serve in the Peace Corps or some sim­i­lar out­reach pro­gram, who knows where Amer­ica would be to­day? Who knows what con­tem­po­rary prob­lems would have been solved by such a co­he­sive, ded­i­cated force of young peo­ple striv­ing to serve their coun­try and, at the same time, make the world a bet­ter place?

And so I’m think­ing, as we ap­proach the most im­por­tant pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in my life­time, that per­haps we should look at bring­ing back the draft. But I’m think­ing it needs to rep­re­sent a com­pre­hen­sive pack­age of pro­grams and not be rel­e­gated to strictly mil­i­tary ser­vice.

Many of my gen­er­a­tion lament how Amer­ica’s young folks seem to have lit­tle sense of pa­tri­o­tism. I’m think­ing that maybe, just maybe, a manda­tory pe­riod of ser­vice to their coun­try would rem­edy that sit­u­a­tion and bring about a re­vi­tal­ized, re­ju­ve­nated United States of Amer­ica.

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