April 2, 2013
34 of 65
Its 1..2..3..What Are We Fighting For
The defining event of our generation was the Vietnam War. Like World War II for the generation before us, World War I before that and the Civil War only a few years earlier, EVERYONE in the country had some friend or loved one involved in the war. Between 1964 and 1975, more than 8.7 million Americans served on active duty in the military – nearly one of every 30 people in the entire country. About 3.4 million of those were actually stationed in Southeast Asia, of whom more than 58,000 were killed, 75,000 disabled and hundreds of thousands more wounded. Millions of civilians worked in “defense” industries.
The average age of those who were “in country,” doing the actual fighting, was 19.
Some of those young men – women, too, but at that time it was mostly men – willingly volunteered. The number of volunteers, though, was insufficient, so more were brought to the military by conscription. Only about a quarter of the military personnel were drafted, but many more enlisted solely to avoid the draft. Enlistees had greater opportunity to choose a service specialty and thus greater control over whether they would see combat.
The so-called “Selective Service” system was not popular, and perhaps 50,000 young men, termed “draft dodgers,” received asylum in Canada to avoid conscription.
My 19th birthday was in 1967, a time when troop deployment to Southeast Asia was increasing each month. I was not concerned about the draft because, as a full-time college student, I was given a deferment. About that time, a friend of mine – a girl who was merely curious because women could not be drafted – asked what I would do if I were drafted. I told her that I intended to ignore the government and assumed the government would return the favor. She called me naïve.
Initially, the decision of who was called to serve was made by local draft boards. Some believed that system was not fair because draft boards sometimes “played favorites.” The method by which draftees were chosen was changed for 1970.
On December 1, 1969, a lottery was held for men born between 1944 and 1950 – the group which was to be drafted in 1970. To determine the order in which they would be called to serve, the days of the year were written on separate pieces of paper, each representing a birth date of those in the draft pool, and placed in plastic capsules. The capsules were drawn one at a time. Those born on the first date drawn would be the first drafted and the others would have a priority based on the order of the birth dates subsequently picked.
The lottery drawing was broadcast live over the radio. I joined several of my friends and we had a small party listening to the proceedings. The first date drawn was September 14. Anyone born on September 14 was given priority 001 and would be the very first drafted in the coming year. Number 002 was April 24; 003 was December 30; and the drawing continued. It took some time before a birth date was drawn for anyone at our gathering. When it happened, we joked about it – though that particular guy did not seem a joyous lottery winner.
It was much later – Number 300 – when the radio announced March 12. “Hey, that’s me!” Three Hundred was such a high number, I effectively became exempt from the draft, at least until North Vietnamese junks were sailing up the Platte River toward Denver. The government was going to ignore me just as I had hoped.
My brother Lonny was not so lucky. His number was 075. When he graduated from college he could not get a job because employers knew he would soon be drafted. Finally, he gave up and enlisted in the Army. Most of his service time was spent in Washington, D.C., keeping him several thousand miles away from combat.
My brother Jim was born in 1952, and the war was over before he finished college.
The end of the lottery party did not mark the end of dissatisfaction with the war. The “brains” (he said facetiously) behind the American war effort were in Washington, where Lonny would soon be. The political system had no mechanism for the concerns of the teenagers fighting across those thousands of miles to be voiced. They were literally disenfranchised. In this time before the 26th Amendment to the Constitution, only those over 21 could vote.
Still, when an idea or a cause is important enough, it will find a voice. The Civil Rights movement had shown the power of mass demonstrations. Starting before the Vietnam War, the initial phase of that movement reached its climax with some 300,000 gathering in Washington in August 1963. The federal Civil Rights Act was passed the following year.
In a second phase of the movement, large demonstrations continued, and often turned violent. In Selma, Alabama, where protest marchers clashed with members of the Ku Klux Klan and others, many were beaten, brutalized with cattle prods, arrested and even shot and killed. Martin Luther King, Jr., the most visible civil rights leader, was assassinated in April 1968. More than 150,000 supporters marched through the streets of Atlanta for his funeral.
Demonstrations to support the principles espoused by Dr. King were held at nearly every college across the country. Many of those demonstrations also protested the Vietnam War. Barely 100 days later there were massive protests against the war at the Democratic Party’s national convention in Chicago.
The anti-Vietnam protests became more widespread and more violent in 1970. ROTC buildings were burned, universities were shut down. Each evening on the CBS News show, anchor Walter Cronkite showed a map indicating colleges at which demonstrations were held that day. It has been suggested (perhaps humorously?) that some students joined demonstrations only so they could get their school on the map.
In May of 1970, more than a thousand student protestors gathered on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio. The National Guard, which was deployed to keep order, fired live ammunition at the demonstrators, killing four and wounding eight others. Within hours, more demonstrations began on nearly every campus and in many cities and towns across the country.
There had been protests and demonstrations in Boulder, though most were non-violent. Some radical elements tried to incite more dramatic action, but as I perceived it, the general mood was: “Heeeeyyy, this is Boulder. The revolution is over and we won.”
There were violent moments. For instance, a conservative linguist named S. I. Hayakawa gave a talk on campus shortly after he had achieved notoriety by disconnecting the wires of a public address system during a demonstration at San Francisco State University. Hecklers interrupted his speech and he became sarcastic and combative, leading to a mini-riot. Hayakawa was later a Republican United States Senator from California.
Another time, a group of demonstrators took over the college administration building and refused to leave for several days
After the Kent State shootings, students at the University of Colorado boycotted classes and brought normal school functions to a standstill. University President Joseph Smiley addressed a rally of protestors and essentially said: You have shut down the University. We admit it. You have valid reasons to protest. We agree. You have legitimate complaints against the War in Vietnam, and the University will try to be responsive to your concerns. The problem is, we have finals coming up and it would be much better to wait until those are out of the way before we talk about these things.
Most of the students accepted what he said, marched and made speeches for a few more hours and then returned to studying for their tests. Heeeyyy, it was Boulder.
I graduated that year, though I did not attend the ceremony. Like many others, I felt a continued boycott was appropriate. The University was receiving funds from the Department of Defense and conducting research which supported the military effort in Vietnam. My parents were disappointed that I was not going to walk for the ceremony, as I was the first from our family to graduate college. I told them I was concerned there might be anti-war violence.
As months and years passed, more and more ordinary citizens realized that war – and especially the Vietnam War – was wrong. Protests continued, political pressure was exerted. Finally the government ended the war and brought the troops back home.
This remembrance is already longer than I intended, but still I am going to digress to make one point.
The Bible may be read as a literal recounting of events, but may also be seen as a metaphor for life. One story that works well as a metaphor is that of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham was tested by God and told to offer his beloved son Isaac as a human sacrifice. Genesis tells us that Abraham obediently bound Isaac to an altar and began to gather wood for a fire. However, an angel appeared to tell him he had passed the test of faith and instructed him not to sacrifice his son.
Jewish mystical tradition has it that Isaac, who had been a helpless child, obtained a power from being bound to the altar. He became the next patriarch and continued to guide his people for some 180 years.
During the Vietnam era – as in most wars – children were sacrificed by their elders to promote the ideals and interests which those elders held in faith. That was wrong, just as the angel showed Abraham it was wrong to sacrifice his son. In the 1960s and 1970s, student protestors assumed the role of the angel to show how wrong it was that their friends and contemporaries were forced into the role of Isaac.
One result was the taking of power by the “Baby Boom Generation.” Our generation has shaped American society, for better or worse, for nearly half a century since.