Forty five years ago I was at the Oakland Army base for my pre-induction physical. When asked if I had any conditions that might interfere with military service, I said that my family doctor had declined to recommend a deferment for a knee injury. The Army doctor looked at me and asked, “What gives him the right to play God with your life?”
I passed my physical and was classified 1A. But then something happened that did feel like divine intervention. The draft was abolished. I was never called up.
The words “baby boomer” are so familiar that it is easy to forget the circumstances behind the label. To be a Boomer is to be born in the shadow of war. Military service was a constant in the background of our lives. It seemed like everybody’s father had served. I remember the dark green duffel bag my Little League coach used to haul our gear and the Navy uniform in my dad’s closet.
But Vietnam meant that military service moved from the background to looming over us. The draft was like a harvesting machine that scooped up young men and turned them into soldiers. The prospect of fighting a war meant you had to make a choice. Many volunteered, some resisted or evaded. Others like myself were more ambivalent and fatalistic. I didn’t support the war but my efforts to avoid service were half-hearted. I was willing to go only because I didn’t think it right to have somebody else go in my place.
The draft both caused and exposed divisions in our society. Our nation feels polarized today, but there are few differences sharper than the one between those who feel a duty to serve and those who reject that call. Fathers for whom the draft and service had been a common and unifying experience saw their sons resist the same summons. Those who put on the uniform were vilified, as were those who fled the country. Some bid their sons farewell never to see them again, while other people’s children went about their lives.
And to a large degree, these are wounds that have never healed.
With a Perspective, I’m Paul Staley.
Paul Staley lives in San Francisco.