The Good of the Draft?

Recently someone asked me for my opinion on a matter. That someone would actually do so left me both stunned and honored. They wanted my advice on joining the military. Thankfully, this person, let’s call him Joe, is in no hurry so I have time to collect and organize my thoughts and put them in writing. This little bit today is part of my initial thinking.

As I’ve thought about Joe’s request and reflected on recent events and my own past, it occurred to me that my generation had a resource to aid in this decision that Joe and his generation are lacking: an older generation that was drafted. While on the one hand this is good in that there no longer is a draft, on the other, it puts Joe’s generation at a distinct disadvantage.

I faced this question during my senior year in college. It was then that I decided to pursue a military career. For as long as I can remember I had always been infatuated with flying. Serving in the military, while not always a volunteered activity, had been part of my family dating back to the Revolutionary war. So, when I discovered that I could become a naval aviator, even with less than perfect eyesight, I jumped at the chance. (Not a pilot mind you, but as a weapons or flight officer.) For various reasons that I won’t go into now, it didn’t work out.

I provide that sketchy background to say this. During the months that I was filling out paperwork, getting physicals and working out to get in top physical shape, I had memories from my past and voices of the present warning me, directly and indirectly, against the possible pitfalls of signing up.

From the dinner table of my boyhood I could recall stories of the chicken manure games superiors played with my dad and his fellow draftees during his stint in the Army of the 1950s; stories of digging holes, burying cigarette butts, then re-digging the hole to find the butt; of attributing his distaste for camping to bivouacking in pup tents in the German winters while stationed in Germany for 18 months; of not being allowed to take a break from policing the grounds unless he smoked, so he started smoking. And while he was able to see much of Europe and make some good friends, we always knew that there were two years of his life that were not his.

Other family memories, include stories of an uncle who joined the Marines for a year thus avoiding a two-year conscription in the Army, only to be called up during the Korean conflict. Another uncle was drafted and, all things considered, was fortunate to be stationed in Okinawa rather than Vietnam. I’ll never forget the sadness on my grandmother’s face on Christmas when her house was full of her family, sons, daughters-in-law, grandchildren, everyone except my uncle and aunt. Also, on the home front side were memories of my mom telling of the hardships of her father being in Egypt during WWII. Thankfully, he returned home safely.

Besides memories there were also voices from the present sounding warnings. One in particular was a teacher at the school where I was a student teacher. He had been in the Marines during the Vietnam era. Just weeks before I took the oath he tactfully but very clearly let me know he thought I was nuts to want to be in the military. He related the hardships and the living conditions of the Marine Corps along with more chicken manure stories of life on base and in the field.

Contrast this brief sketch of my experience with what young people today have – slick, Hollywood commercials and recruiting videos that tell of adventure, money and prestige; promises of bonuses and a college education. What’s left untold is the commitment that they are making and servile state in which they will be living during their enlistment.

But it gets even worse.

Recently I attended an air show at a local military post. Over the years I’ve been to and enjoyed several, but this was the first one I’ve been to as one who has decidedly become less conservative and more libertarian in political thought. Throughout the day I observed several troubling things but just three will suffice to show what Joe and his friends are up against today.

First was the number of children in military garb. The two groups that I was able to identify were the Macomb County Young Marines and members of the Civil Air Patrol. What was so disturbing was the combination of their young age and their enthusiasm and seriousness as they made their way around the grounds in military formation. Secondly, was the way and how often the show announcer lauded the fact that military personnel are stationed in "over 120 countries" around the world protecting American interests. It was a point of pride and honor throughout the day and a fact that demanded our recognition and honor of all those in uniform. And finally, the worst of all, was the blatant and crass way in which the military was courting the very young with their armaments. In one exhibit was the Army’s virtual tour of Iraq. Apparently, playing video games that engage the enemy wasn’t enough. At another exhibit, as you see here, youngsters were able to handle weapons from automatic "assault" rifles to light anti-tank weapons. Not only handle them but handle them carelessly and with no guidance or instruction in the proper handling of firearms. If I were to let my children handle weapons in such a manner at the local range, I’d be asked to leave.

Now to my point. Young people today are inundated with military propaganda from all sides and it’s met with very little opposition. For all of the bad in the draft, one positive thing was that it gave young men from my generation an older generation of citizens who knew what it was like to live without freedom. They knew better than to think the military would give them an advantage in life. They knew that the military took some of the best years of their youth, forcing them to postpone their dreams and ambitions at the risk of losing their lives. In opposition to the propaganda of the state and military industrial complex, it’s up to those of us from my generation to keep this message alive and pass it along to the generations that follow.