I was drafted in October 1965 along with 100,000 other young men that month. I was a recent college graduate, tired of being in school, with a job so dismal that it didn’t even qualify as dead-end. In the Army, I served a most unglamorous, often tedious, but thoroughly democratic two years. My starting salary was $78 per month with as much mediocre food as I could eat.
In basic training, hunger was cultivated by requiring us to swing across 20 feet of overhead monkey bars before entering the mess hall. Comfort was exemplified by a double decker bunk and showers with hot water that lasted, maybe, for one recruit.
The military was a great leveler. My basic training colleagues came from a wide range of backgrounds including farmers, floor scrapers, upholsterers, plumbers, cops and dishwashers. Some had been given the choice of the Army or jail. Some could read.
A few young men had never been to a dentist. On his first visit, one private had all his teeth pulled. One rarely bruited aspect of the military is that it is the sole locus of socialized medicine in America. That’s right, free medical care for everyone.
Among my fellow draftees was a country lad from Mississippi, the state which makes everywhere else in the country look good. He sent his whole $78 salary home to his girlfriend. He said he’d impregnated her in the back of his pick-up.
Another draftee was discharged quickly for “failure to adjust.” He had trouble dressing himself. He was clearly “on the spectrum,” except it wasn’t clear that anyone knew about the spectrum in 1965.
I got to fire a lot of fancy weapons in the Army. In addition to rifles, I got to shoot .45 caliber revolvers, .50 caliber machine guns, grenade launchers and mortars. Although I had little interest in weaponry since putting away my cap guns at age 10, if any need to shoot remained, the firing range filled that void.
The military also provided the broadening experience of travel. I cherished weekend round trips between Fort Dix and Port Authority in NYC. The hardest part of that journey was climbing back on the bus Sunday night to return to my deadly military police clerical job filling out endless forms using a manual typewriter, a job that engendered a lifelong sympathy for people holding down terrible jobs.
I also got to travel by train from Philadelphia to Fort Leavenworth, handcuffed to a young man who had burglarized a PX in Germany. (“Mommy, why are those men chained together?”)
Along with being a great democratizer, ultimately the draft was also a force for peace. It is a reasonable conclusion that the Vietnam War ended when deferments ended and white middle class boys started getting killed along with the former casualties—working class whites and people of color. Parents who voted and wanted their sons alive stopped the war.
Currently, we live in an era of constant military conflict with the longest war in U.S. history continuing in Afghanistan. U.S. troops remain active in Iraq where a war destabilizing the Middle East was invented by the draft dodging war heroes President George W. AWOL and Vice President “I had other priorities” Cheney.
U.S. troops are involved in additional conflicts in Syria, Niger, Libya and Yemen under the leadership of President Bone Spur, a five deferment general whose soldiering was restricted to military high school. This is the same video game warrior-hero who claimed he’d have charged, unarmed, to confront the shooter in the mass killing of high school students in Florida.
Decades ago, the ignoble heroes who promoted war without any military experience earned the title “chickenhawk.” Today, the term still applies—with a modest variation on the last syllable.
Besides making the public less tolerant of endless war (no mean goal), reviving the draft just might yield unforeseen benefits. Aimless students floundering in college courses could well profit from two years of national service, be it in the military or some other form of national service like the Peace Corps.
A revived draft should apply to women as well as men. That might give a few more armchair warriors second thoughts if not just their sons but their daughters were at risk.
An ancillary advantage of military service would be to satisfy the [sexual] needs of gun nuts, and there are just a few in America, to shoot lots of big guns.
I had been looking forward to participating in this year’s Vets Day parade in Washington, marching in review past El Presidente Bone Spur. Too bad his $92 million salute to himself got cancelled.
Robin Schore lives in Titusville.