Greetings. Mine came from the president, the first communique I ever got from a chief executive. I still have it;
"Having submitted yourself to a local board composed of your neighbors for the purpose of determining your availability for service in the armed forces of the United States," the president told me, and a few million others during the Korean War, "you are hereby ordered to report to the local board named above."
I don't recall having submitted myself to that local board, but I remember all the rest -- falling in and falling out at 2 a.m., the mound of potatoes that kept tumbling down endlessly, pots-and-pans duty, policing the area, field stripping cigarettes, and the other mundane tasks that made up my glorious military career. I had been drafted and, as Arlo Guthrie later wrote, after having been inspected, injected and a lot of other groovy stuff, I was tagged, numbered -- US 511-76-574 Infantry -- and put into the ranks.I was a G.I., serving at the pleasure of the president -- courtesy of the local board of my neighbors.
The prospect of reviving the draft, as enunciated by the president in his State of the Union message this week, creates a certain irony. The draft was supposed to be all behind us.
In the post-Vietnam era, the Army was all-volunteer. It was, the experts said, a better place in all respects -- better pay, better pensions, better barracks, better duty. And, of course, better trained and better prepared to move swiftly at a moment of national danger.
That's not what happened.
The idea of a draft, a citizen army of conscripts, always has stirred controversy, and not in ways easily predictable. Many liberals, active in antiwar protests, have favored a draft, while some hard-liners have opposed it.
Eugene McCarthy, for instance, was saying the other day that he always has believed in a draft. He made a speech at Yale several months ago in which he discussed the merits of a draft. The right wingers, he said, never wanted one; they preferred a mercenary corps -- an idea rejected down through history by some of the world's most hardheaded realists and wielders of power, such people as Machiavelli and Clausewitz. A draft, on the other hand, provided a far better alternative in a democratic society, and a more effective military force.
One of the lessons of World War II supposedly was of the necessity to maintain a strong standing military. Never again, it was said, should the United States allow its army to sink into the insular group of soldiers set apart from society that James Jones characterized in "From Here to Eternity."
After the war, in the flush of victory and resolve to avoid the mistakes of pre-Pearl Harbor military unpreparedness, Universal Military Training became the operative concept. Every American would serve the country to ensure its survival. That concept, noble in scope, never became reality.
The draft, in its purest form, was not successful during World War II when the nation was united against a universally preceived mortal enemy. For millions who served and survived, the experience was a true lesson in domocracy. In one crowded barracks you literally could encounter the range and diversity of America, in education and occupation, in regional and ethnic backgroud, in race and religion and, yes, in prejudice and intolerance. The draft was a great leveler, the real American melting pot.
The draft over Korea, and unpopular war, saw the beginnings of the kinds of elitism that later became so scandalous during Vietnam. In my junior year in college, intelligence and achievement tests were administered to all males then enrolled in schools across the country. Those of us that scored above a certain point received our exemptions while many of our friends who did not as well were immediately drafted. They went to fight in Korea while we went on to finish college.
The ability of the affluent and the privileged to escape service in Vietnam became even more outrageous. The poor, the black, and the less well educated bore the brunt of the fighting there. And that situation was entirely aside from the bitter debates over that tragically mistaken war.
By then, the draft had become a mockery of a fair system of national service. It was during that period, of course, that young Americans began deciding on their own -- either out of genuine moral concerns or elemental self-interest -- whether or not they would serve at all.
Now, we face the possibility of a new draft. But the legacy of the Korean and Vietnam eras has changed, perhaps forever, the meaning of national service. Today's generation of young Americans has come to maturity filled with uncertainities about the rightness of national causes and distrusting national leaders. If a consensus exists about military service, I don't know of it. These are the questions that have to be addressed and resolved in any national debate over reinstituting the draft.
At this point, they haven't even been addressed.