Navigating the “Big Muddy”

April 23, 2011
By

I seriously doubt that many young men would have resisted a just and necessary cause but it was clear, except to those with a blind allegiance, that the Vietnam War, this clash between the Communist-run North and the U.S. backed South, was a civil war unworthy of our intervention and loss of life. Like many of our current conflicts, Vietnam, against all demonstrated logic became self-perpetuating. We stayed there because we were there.

Vietnam Draft LotterySince this is merely an account of my life as a young man during that time, I won’t get into much more of a political debate about the geopolitical ramifications of the war other than to say that 58,000 American dead and 350.000 wounded was our sole reward for having invested 20 years of escalation into what, today, is a quaint tourist destination. But that damn ‘Domino Theory’ (the suggestion that if Communism wasn’t stopped there, Indochina would fall like dominoes) was the bottom-line clarion call to arms and by 1969, the selective service system had instituted a draft by lottery number.

I graduated high school that spring and started college in the fall so I was right in line for this almost comical draft mechanism (something similar to the one used during WWII) that was based on two traditionally celebratory events: your birthday and winning something. In this lottery, you could possibly escape with stateside deployment (i.e. your life) if you were fortunate enough to get any of the numbers 201 or higher. Every number prior to that was dicey to dire as 101 to 200 put you in the ‘iffy’ column and from 1 to 100 pretty much ensured that you’d be on your way to the front lines in ‘Nam.

The resistance to what most of us considered a worthless sinkhole resulted in a serious schism in most of the guys I went to school with. Were we students or boot camp trainees in waiting? I had a 2-S student draft deferment (good until I graduated or left school) but my next door dorm neighbor, because he was older than me, was facing the end of his deferment. His act of desperation was to embellish his already stout build by going on an eating binge, achieve official obesity and earn a 4-F (unqualified for military service).

We had both entered a local pizza eating contest, he for the aforementioned reason and skinny me just for the hell of it. We would be given 12 inch pies with nothing but cheese and try to eat as many of them as possible in exactly 30 minutes. A friend (hmmm) had shown me the clever method of lining my stomach with milk as to ward off any kind of revolt my stomach might have in mind. My dorm neighbor was big but a slow eater and I was lean but much quicker and by 20 minutes in the rest of the competition had melted away and it was just he and I for the finish line.

More on that later.

On December 1, 1969, all the guys and many of the girls in our dorm gathered down around the TV in the commons for the televised draft lottery, 366 capsules in a large glass jar with birth dates in them. One by one you waited for your birthday fate and the tension remained until your were finally relieved with good or bad news. As the time passed and my birth date remained out there, I eased my mind by remembering that I possessed a 2-S and had some immunity, at least for awhile.

A sigh of relief as they went barreling through the 200′s without calling my date and, finally, the pull placed me square at 303. I’d made it deep into the safety zone and even if worse came to worse and this war continued I’d still be protected from shipping overseas for jungle duty. I was relieved until someone pointed out to me that because of how my birth date fell in the calendar year, I wasn’t eligible for a lottery number until the following December 1, 1970. Shit. I’d just been tossed back into the deep end of the pool.

At the Village Inn Pizza joint I had successfully knocked down 6 3/4 pizzas in a half hour, only to be edged out by my dorm neighbor who rang up exactly 7. Besides a second place finish I hurtled towards the front door of the restaurant only to hear a contest official warn me that if I tossed my cookies I would face disqualification. I held on because of stupid pride but my dorm neighbor, charging towards morbid obesity, celebrated his victory by…ordering an extra large pizza with everything on it. If he’d applied the same dedication to his studies, he would have surely been valedictorian.

With occasional indigestion he got that 4-F, and he wasn’t the only one. There were lots of guys who did much worse to themselves in an effort to avoid the war.

During the year leading up to the next draft lottery I’d talked to my mother about the war and my strong feeling that this was an endless trap without a clear objective and I’d be willing to go to jail or Canada rather than become canon fodder for a politically misguided adventure. She seemed to sympathize with this position and, unknown to me until recently, had approached her bosses at Bell Systems and put in for a transfer to Bell Canada, most likely Toronto. The process was merely waiting for fate to be decided.

In the meantime we continued to protest the war and slowly but surely public sentiment began to catch up with the question of what were we doing there? You could feel the tide changing but President Nixon only dug in further and, in fact, pushed us deeper into the fray by beginning a campaign into Cambodia. So instead of drawing back we were widening the field which mobilized the protests to an even greater degree if that was possible.

Next lottery, circa 1970, I drew number 47 and was on the fast track for Vietnam once school was completed. It would have been sooner since they stopped issuing 2-S deferments shortly after I’d gotten mine but allowed all current holders to maintain that status until graduation unless you quit school or failed to maintain a full-time load of studies.

As a group, every night in the dorm commons we watched the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite because, unlike today’s curious lack of nearly any war coverage, the news of that time brought us face to face with the combat, the strategies, the protests and the return of flag-draped coffins as they landed in the states. Cronkite was the ‘most trusted newsman in America’ and it was the only program we watched religiously. We needed to know what was going on since the war’s path was so directly intersected with ours.

Watching the news today and its sanitized description of the multiple battlefronts the U.S. is involved in, the wars feel remote and almost detached from the reality of the homeland. Other than fictional movies or documentaries, most Americans have no sense of the immediacy of what we’re doing in these countries, but during Vietnam, like World War II, that was not the case. We were involved.

As young men of draft age we were forced to pay attention to the war because our futures would depend on it but today young guys can choose to ignore these conflicts and get back to texting their girlfriends. I’ve often thought that, despite our military being stretched woefully thin, a resurrection of the draft has never occurred because history, especially that of Vietnam, tells policy makers that the public would put an end to some of these pointless incursions if their sons and daughters were at risk.

As the 1973 New Year approached and my draft status neared its end, more and more pressure was applied to Nixon and the war machine. I had lost the draft lottery but somehow gained the luck of timing as a cease fire was eventually put in place and by spring I graduated without the war hanging over head.

I can’t speak for my peer group but I’d be surprised if they didn’t have some of the same feelings about the war that I had. I felt oddly connected to the soldiers who went over there and while they were often ignored or abused when they returned home, I couldn’t help thinking that but for a minor twist or turn I could have been one of them. I felt compassion and a certain amount of guilt for having navigated a way out of that hell, much the same way that I imagine plane crash survivors feel walking away from wreckage that maimed or killed so many others.

After that, for years I read, watched and learned as much as I could about the war, thinking, perhaps, that by digesting this knowledge I was somehow sharing an experience that I never had. Of course, this was a bit of obsessive lunacy since I would never really know what that was like and I was fortunate I didn’t have to.

The one thing that survives in me from that time is critical thought about what we are doing when we attempt to militarily shape another country into our image. But the reasons for what we do as a country and the obvious lost lessons of Vietnam are the reason I always lead with skepticism until proven otherwise. Even Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, expressed in his 1995 memoir what he privately thought even before leaving his cabinet position; that the war was “wrong, terribly wrong.”

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