Veterans Day brings many thoughts to mind, especially this year, but often in unusual ways. If I see an article in the business section about the importance of folks in their early 20's negotiating pay increases that they deserve - lest they miss out and be underpaid for a working lifetime, I think about the 5 years of annual pay increases my father must have missed in 1940-1945 fighting in the European theatre. No, not really. His unit, the 110th Antiaircraft Gun Battalion landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day+1 June 7, 1944 and after that battle participated in the liberation of Paris, the Battle of the Bulge, the bridge at Remagen, and witnessed the death camps. Their experience is memorialized in a book. There is much more to the story, told and retold many times in the following decades, but those soldiers were usually reluctant storytellers.
The story has changed. The small beginnings of marches this week bring back memories of April 24, 1971, the march on Washington to protest the war - 200,000 strong.
Life was different then. Long distance phone calls were expensive, so communication by overland mail was common. A classmate from high school had written by letter that she and a group of friends were heading to DC for the march against the war. Everybody who was against the war was going. Chip, a friend from home, headed down to join me to hitchhike from central NJ to DC. By luck, we were picked up on Route 1 within 20 minutes and driven to a spot just outside the city. They pointed to a spot where we could pick up a bus and head down to the mall. We headed to the spot on the mall where my classmate had drawn a big X in her letter. It seemed unlikely but in full view of the Lincoln Memorial by the reflecting pool we found her and her friends - no smartphone, no texting. Within minutes the crowd began the march in the direction of the capital. Though completely peaceful, the movement of wave after wave of people was not completely manageable. At one point I was close to a crush of people who were being pushed by opposing waves of marchers toward a lone car parked by a tree off the roadway. One person ended up on the car and others followed. Suddenly the car had several people on it and the roof began collapsing. No one was hurt, but I was surprised the car collapsed so easily. Roof reinforcement came later.
We were quickly separated from the group in the massive crowds, but we kept running into people we knew. Classmates in college who I recognized from campus walkways and classes, but did not know. Other high school friends and acquaintances. Unknown to me at the time, John Kerry had testified before Congress that week against the continuation of the war.
We often hear that our society is more polarized than ever, but that is not exactly right. We were polarized in our worldviews back then, but government still functioned because polarization existed within each party, not between the parties.
The prosecution of the Vietnam War exerted an enormous strain on the system in the late sixties and early seventies. The rift in society was sometimes simplistically expressed as a split between those over age 30 and the young people - "Don't trust anyone over 30" was the refrain, only half in jest. The idea that young people today - the millennials -- will carry the torch for a new generation sounds plausible, but we face an uncertain future and a few very turbulent years in front of us. Many of those "under 30", back then, especially those attending college, talked about "the revolution" without knowing what that meant or how it was going to happen. But the idea was that, despite setbacks, the rights of and respect for women and minorities would continue to expand. One of the people we ran into at the march, I recognized from gym class. The next year he founded the first gay rights group at the college. So in many ways, the battle for the rights and dignity of peoples never ends.
The war had been prosecuted by a combination of volunteers and drafted soldiers, but an all-volunteer force was on the way. Coincidentally or not, April 1971 marked the start of Project VOLAR (Volunteer Army) at select army bases.
In today's world, its hard to imagine the many pathways that existed to face the issue of the war. Many young men volunteered to fight for their country, but for others the purpose of the war was unclear and was considered crucial. By the time of the Tet Offensive of 1968 the determination of the enemy of our troops was clear, but the strategic relevance of "winning" to the U.S. was not. Other young men found ways to resist the draft the way some people resist taxes today, but situations and approaches differed.
At the height of the killing my oldest brother completed his undergraduate college studies, placing him in 1A status immediately, prime for the draft. Technically he had health issues that probably qualified his exemption, but he was essentially young and fit and did not want to play that game. He was drafted, but was lucky enough after basic training to be sent to the large American contingent in Germany (West Germany).
In the mid-1960s, one strategy to avoid the draft indefinitely involved continuing directly from undergraduate to graduate studies and then marrying immediately. As the war waged and many soldiers died, the popularity of this technique surged. The key requirement was to maintain continuity of exempt status. Any lapse, however brief, could mean being drafted. This loophole of sorts was tightened at some point. Making the sacrifice of pursuing graduate study, whether or not truly interested, and getting married, whether or not truly interested, was a sacrifice many were willing, like Dick Cheney, to make.
The U.S. Army National Guard route was popular as well. In the 2000s, joining the National Guard has often meant being sent to a dangerous war zone, despite gender, marital status, and, for women, having young children. In the 1960s war, the opposite was true. The National Guard was a popular escape route for those who were otherwise certain to be drafted. National Guard service meant never having to go to Vietnam to get killed. The only sacrifice was the requirement to show up from time to time. It was well known at the time that those who were well connected could jump the line to get into the National Guard. Later we learned that those who were well connected did not even have to show up.
My other older brother, younger than the first by 4 years, was swept into the birthday draft lottery which existed only for a few years. His number was 9 out of 365, which meant he was sure to be drafted as soon as he graduated college. By that time, he solicited and received a note from his ophthalmologist that his "conical cornea" should exempt him from the draft. I still don't know what that was -his vision never seemed impaired, but he did need glasses, It worked. He escaped the draft.
I was younger by another 4 years. The draft lottery continued. I was number 143, in the gray zone of the middle third. Lowest third - definitely drafted. Middle third - maybe, maybe not. Highest third - not drafted. By the time of college graduation in 1974 when the student deferment lapsed, the draft had ended. One classmate was my age though a year behind in college. That made him draft eligible. He was drafted and pulled out of college for a two year stint, and also headed to Germany.
So, on Veterans Day, which is intended most to recognize those who served, while Memorial Day was intended for those who served and died, I think about those who served and am grateful. But I also think about the different challenges in different eras and the ways we find ourselves sometimes on the same side, or different sides, as battles rage - hot wars and cold wars, and the constant threat we live with that cold wars may become hot.
Bring the Boys home was the demand in 1971. The primary argument against that was that U.S. troops had to stay there to protect the U.S. troops that were already there, which made no sense. Even then, arguments that were nonsense were used as a method to put a clean stop to meaningful discussion, so the current problem is nothing new.
In America the time may come again for similar marches on Washington as the battles continue. In 1971 we marched because we had no other way to send a clear message to the Congress and the President that the war they were waging lacked a clear objective and needed to end.