At last there is something for which I am too old. For years, I was too young to smoke or drink, too young to stay out all night, too young to vote. Now that I have just turned 22, however, Congress has decided that I am too old to register for the draft. Uncle Sam does not want me -- at least not now.
So why should I worry about the draft? Because I strongly suspect that the current draft debate in America is a sham. By allowing millions of young American men like me to avoid the draft (or seem to because we don't have to register immediately), it tricks us into playing along and playing it no-protest safe.
But in talking to friends about draft registration, I was surprised to hear so much agreement not on the question of a peacetime draft itself but on their willingness to fight for this country if drafted during a war.
It was as if I had expected people my age, being just kids in grade school during the war in Vietnam, to be more apathetic. I can remember hearing the daily death toll and the count of American and Vietnamese soldiers reported missing in action, but these events were after all, merely a TV chronicle of a gloomy episode in American life that had little real meaning for a 10-year-old caught between the perils of spitball fights and kickball during recess.
So if they had said they were going to dodge the next draft (I was just starting to consider where I could flee to), I would have taken this attitude for granted. I would have said it was because of the impact the vocal Vietnam draft dodgers had on us in the postwar era. And that their subsequent pardon by President Carter in 1977 seemed to make the possibility of avoiding the draft during the next war sound realistic and perhaps more worthwhile than fighting.
Instead of what I had expected my friends to say, however, they were telling me: "Now we grew up together, Greg, and you know I ain't that patriotic. Right? I ain't saying I would volunteer either. But if I was drafted, I would go. Wouldn't you?"
I found myself saying yes.
And then, what surprised me more than the overwhelming consensus among my friends (and my own agreement) was not that there was no alternative to the draft but that the popular alternative during the Vietnam War -- draft dodging -- no longer seemed to be so popular. Avoiding the registration for the peacetime draft seemed to be one thing and draft dodging during a war quite another. It seemed that draft dodging had suddenly become old-fashioned, like miniskirts or bell bottoms. We were not exactly eager to fight a war, but neither did we seem to believe in not fighting.
The times really are changing.
And given that we seemed to have reluctantly accepted the possibility of being drafted into a war, the current draft debate was just the beginnin of a series of related questions among which the most important seemed to be this: is there anything worth fighting for?
For example, is oil in the Persian Gulf worth fighting for? Or communism worth fighting against? What about Afghanistan?
One of my friends, a quarterback who must be used to thinking in terms of plays or paradigms, diagrammed his answer in two ways. "If it was up to me," he said, "I wouldn't fight for no damn oil.But then," he countered, "you have to realize how the government sees it. Oil keeps our economy going, so it's worth fighting for."
If he is right, I thought, whose decision is it: mine or the government's?
If it were up to me, I wouldn't be willing to fight for oil because, among other things, Americans don't seem willing substantially to sacrifice driving their big, inefficient cars, so why should 2 be willing to sacrifice my life? Who's being selfish? Why else, I asked myself, wouldn't more people have condemned the recent decision by the Republican Party to inclue a plank in its platform abolishing the 55mph speed limit? On the other hand, abolishing the apartheid system in South Africa does seem to me to be an ideal sincerely worth fighting for.
But I asked myself realistically what would it mean if millions of American citizens were to make individual decisions about what to them was worth fighting for and none of us could agree, I had to concede that the government, not I, should be primarily responsible for deciding what is worth fighting for. To concede this point, however, it not the same as disavowing any responsibility or interest in the decision made by Congress. After all, as citizens who elect public officials to serve in government, we share the burden of the decisions they make. And since those decisions shape all our lives, we can and should publicily protest our dissent to widely unpopular decisions.
Does that mean that I could still end up fighting a war that I do not believe in?
Yes, but that is the duty of every citizen. No more; no less. This duty should be borne disproportionately by the poor and minorities, who make up the majority of the current volunteer armed servies. It should be the duty of all citizens -- rich and poor alike, men and women, the highly educated and the not so well educated. Ideally, the armed services should be composed of a true cross section of Americans. Maybe 18 months or two years of national service compulsory for all high school graduates could achieve such a goal. Reforming the Selective Service System might be another way.
I don't know. But that's not my point either. More important is that the current draft debate should and does raise tougher questions than anyone can pretend to have all the answers to immediately.
I, for example, still have doubts and questions in mind about the farsightedness of the recent decision by Congress to reenact the peacetime draft of 19-and 20-year-olds this summer. And that is probably how it should be. Who knows? I may be next.