Bring back the draft
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I watched on television one night as the birthdays were put in a big drum in the House of Representatives, then were withdrawn one at a time, not unlike a Bingo game.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.