OH, IRENE JOHNSON, I remember you well. We wrote back and forth lots of times, letters I kept and still have somewhere. One of them is framed and I take it down from the shelf sometimes and stare at it, wondering how my life would have been different if Irene Johnson had had her way. For a time, she was the most important woman in my life. She was the clerk at the draft board.
Oh, Irene Johnson, I remember the day we first met. I was young, just 18 that day, and anxious to register for the draft. I climbed the white-stone stairs of the Post Office Building to the second floor where Irene Johnson sat behind a steel desk. This was a rite of passage, an entrance into manhood. There was no sense of doom or dread or even of personal involvement in the affairs of state. What this all meant was that at last I could drink at a bar.
This all comes back to me now because all of a sudden we are hearing calls for a return to the draft. There are calls for compulsory national service or a simply draft and even a plan, beyond the imagination of those of us with first-hand knowledge of these matters, to draft men just into the reserves. This is like drafting men into the city government, the thinking being it is better to have 300 men standing around than 30. The mind boggles.
The debate right at the moment, though, is largely concerned with a bill that would not bring back the draft itself, but merely registration for it. This bill alone was enough to provoke a demonstration in which in a fit of misplaced nostalgia yound men once again yelled "Hell no, we won't go," although even if they would go there is no place to send them. We are, alas, without a war.
Nevertheless, the draft, or what may be called the preplanning for it, is being pushed for a number of reasons. Some feel that the volunteer army is a failure, that it has not attracted enough good people and the ones it has attracted are not representative of the population at-large. there is also concern that without the draft there is no inducement to join the reserves and these, it is said, are understrength. Finally, of course, the whole draft debate is taking place within the contest of the proposed SALT treaty, which, in exchange for a reduction in strategic weapons, apparently will require us to arm to the teeth and draft everyone in sight. For this reason, there are some of us who would prefer the old tension to the new detente.
None of these arguments are so totally without merit that you can dismiss them out of hand. If they don't by themselves argue forcefully for a return to the draft there is one other consideration and it has to do with how the draft acts, in more ways than one, as a deterrent to war. It not only deters the other side, but our side as well. It makes the waging of war the business of everyone and not the pros who have volunteered.While you can argue that this theory did not work in Vietnam, you can argue just as well that it did. In fact, you can argue that if the war had only been fought with volunteers, we would still be fighting it.
The point, I suppose, is that the draft has a lot going for it-enough, anyway, for me to conclude that I was in favor of it. This had nothing to do with romantic notions about the benefit of military service-making boys into men and that sort of junk-but in the real benefits for the country. It seemed, on paper and in debate, a relatively easy and painless thing to do. This is the thinking of an older man.
But then somewhere in all this-in the thinking about the reserves and SALT and that sort of thing-I remembered Irene Johnson. The letter from her that I keep framed says that my induction into the Army was canceled-I had made it out. I did that by squeaking into the National Guard but I did not do that until I had written a lot of letters to Irene Johnson and gotten many in return.
Those were, I don't mind telling you, mean years. They were years when there was no war either, when I had no deferment of any kind and I never knew whether I would be drafted or not.I seemed to live by the caprice of Irene Johnson-on whether there were lots of married men in my area of lots of students or lots of guys like me who were getting into the reserves. Irene Johnson loomed large then, like a bird of some kind with her hooks into me and what built slowly was a rage that is hard to describe. I had lost control of my own life.I could make no plans with certainty. Everyting seemed dependent on Irene Johnson and her filing cabinets on the second floor of the Post Office Building.
So now, older and out of her reach, I can afford to see the other side to the story, to appreciate the arguments in favor of the draft. They are nice and they are logical but they do not take into account Irene Johnson and what she did to people. You never say never in this world, not about the draft, not about anything, but you can say, "Not yet"-not until you have to, not until you have no choice. The draft is not a concept, not a missile system, not a line in the budget. It is a long walk up the Post Office stairs to see a lady named Irene Johnson.I remember her well. CAPTION: Picture, no caption