Those television evening news broadcasts weighed heavily upon me especially the black-and-white film of the daily carnage in Vietnam and the violent treatment of civil rights marchers in the South, complete with attacking police dogs, night sticks cracking and pummeling human bones and flesh, and the powerful water hoses that knocked non-violent protesters off their feet. With conflict both at home and abroad, it was difficult to focus on lectures and tests. We wondered if the draft and the military service that followed graduation would ever enable us to take our place in the workforce.
In the student union lounge at the University of Massachusetts, students jeered at the sight of Richard Nixon on the tube and many booed lustily when Hubert Humphrey visited the campus. In 1968, with graduation approaching, I faced the draft and shuddered at the prospect of being part of a war that made no sense to me.
Rather than wait for my number to come up, I enlisted as a medic. I would, if necessary, enter the war to save lives, not to take them. My military life, such as it was, ended with a ruptured third lumbar disc. My honorary discharge arrived in the mail.
Before I enlisted, I didn’t burn my draft card but I railed against the war and the draft. I saw them as an evil imposed upon my generation, and when the draft was abandoned in favor of an all- volunteer military, I felt great relief. I lived too comfortably with the prospect that only those who chose to serve would risk limb and life for this country. I was wrong.
In 2014, with a daily average of 22 military-related suicides, with thousands of active and retired military personnel suffering from the mental and physical scars of war -- some unable to obtain timely treatment -- and with many soldiers and their families enduring multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, I wonder if an all-volunteer military that draws mainly from a small, less influential percentage of our population makes it too easy and too tempting to stretch our definition of "in the national interest."
Am I suggesting that a military draft drawing soldiers from all segments of our society would limit our use of military power? Not necessarily. The Vietnam War was waged with a draft firmly in place, although many well-connected Americans found ways to escape service. But I have to wonder if we would have risked the children of congressmen and employees of the executive branch to invade Iraq to secure the oil fields for private oil companies to divide the spoils. I have to wonder if we would be so ready and willing to engage in military conflict if the sons and daughters of more well-heeled Americans were part of our military.
As a high school teacher, I bore witness to the fact that many graduates enlisted because they had no other options. I am not ignoring the fact that some enlisted out of a sense of patriotic duty, and that some college graduates choose a career in the military, but the vast majority of enlistees I knew hoped to receive training that they could apply to civilian life or financial support to eventually attend college. While I have no statistical evidence, I suspect the vast majority of our military is comprised of people with limited financial means and few if any options to change that status.
It is beyond my capacity to understand the predictable clamor for military intervention to quell each outbreak of brutality and genocide in the world and the equally deafening silence when our fellow Americans have little or no access to health care or a safe and warm place to sleep. Some are willing to spend trillions of dollars to try to vanquish violent foreigners and rebuild their nations despite the obvious irrefutable evidence that it can’t be done, yet our bridges and roadways continue to crumble.
Is it time to reinstate the draft to make sure that pain and suffering are equally distributed? Perhaps then, the public will demand that our government shows more restraint. Are we tolerant of war because too many of us feel impervious to its consequences? Now that Iraq is engaged in a bloody and horrific civil war, a product of our second invasion, are we and the Iraqis better off?
Does the passage of time bring greater wisdom? Re-
member the warnings about the communist hoard poised to overtake Southeast Asia and the 50,000 precious American names etched on a stone wall in Washington D.C. belonging to those who gave their lives to stop them? Members of that hoard are now sewing the shirts that we buy in our department stores and American firms are heavily investing in Vietnam.
Edward Udel is a frequent Eagle contributor.