Early in the body count
I was in high school. U.S. troop levels in Vietnam were approaching 500,000 and General Westmoreland was about to ask President Johnson to approve an escalation to 675,000 (LBJ balked at that, but agreed to 520,000). The military draft was in full operation. Boys my age were looking at their options after graduation. One of my older cousins went into the National Guard, which took him out of the draft pool. Another simply enlisted in the Army, looking to have a few more options than a draftee. A third ended up in the Marines.
The cumulative death count for U.S. forces in Vietnam broke 13,000 in May 1967 (on its way to a total eventually exceeding 58,000). The faces of our dead soldiers were appearing on the front page of our local newspaper, the number of them increasing every year. Draft calls kept going up, too.
They say that most of the troops in Vietnam were volunteers. Strictly speaking, that is certainly true, since approximately two-thirds of the soldiers who served were enlistees. What is not as clear, however, is how many of them chose to enlist because of the draft. Enlistees could choose their service branch, while draftees were assigned according to demand. Enlistees were offered other perks, such as the possibility of qualifying for training in a specialty. Without the goad of the draft, fewer young men would have chosen to enlist.
I enrolled in the local junior college, which qualified me for a 2-S student deferment. It was supposed to be good for four years of postsecondary education, and would lapse once I graduated with my bachelor's degree. (The Selective Service would also cancel my deferment if I spent more than the allotted time in school.) Since my lottery number was low (that's how draft priorities came to be assigned during that era), I would undoubtedly be snatched up as soon as I left college. Some of my classmates found it amusing to salute me every so often (especially the ones with the lucky high numbers, for whom the 2-S was merely additional frosting on the cake).
When I transferred to Caltech to enroll as a junior, it was pointed out that my risk of exposure to the draft was higher at Caltech, where it was more difficult to maintain academic eligibility, than at a more mundane school. (Did I ever mention that I was accepted at Bakersfield State College as well?) My decision to accept admission to Caltech was no particular act of courage on my part. In fact, the notion that the draft would eventually snatch me up seemed impossible—despite my exceedingly vulnerable lottery number. Instead of believing in the number, I was believing the evidence of my eyes.
As one after another casualty of the Vietnam war appeared on the front page of my hometown newspaper, I noticed something rather strange about these young men, all of whom had gone to my high school with me: I didn't know them.
I really didn't. They had not been in my college prep classes. They had not taken four years of math with me. They weren't in my engineering drawing class. They didn't enroll in my foreign language classes. They were from an entirely separate cohort within our high school. Although my high school was large, with hundreds of students, I did not recognize any of the dozens of casualties from our town, all of whom were my contemporaries, all of whom had been in the same school when I was there.
It was an odd discovery. Not an entirely pleasant one. I was pleased to think I was unlikely to get sucked into the massive screw-up that Vietnam had become, but why was I privileged to escape what my schoolmates—not classmates—were enduring? It was education. My college prep path had privileged me and placed me under the 2-S umbrella for a precious four years.
The Vietnam war was not over when I graduated with my Caltech bachelor's degree, but it did not matter that my 2-S deferment was history. Draft calls had been suspended and my low lottery number no longer mattered. Soon the Selective Service sent me a new draft card to replace the one that had certified my 2-S classification. I was now 1-H, a new status indicating I was an “active registrant” in a time of no draft calls. (That's the classification currently being given to all 18-year-old registrants when they perform the statutorily required act of registering for the Selective Service.)
Today we remember and honor our veterans, including all those schoolmates I didn't know. They served in a time of political trouble and upheaval, dying in a war that is remembered today as a grave error on the part of our nation's leaders. That, however, does not detract from their honorable service and sacrifice. Honor is an individual virtue that misguided leadership cannot steal from them.
Today's war is, if anything, even more patently a grievous blunder, perpetrated by unapologetic buffoons who pledge they will stay a course already shown to be a path toward failure. When we honor our veterans, we need not honor our corrupt national leaders. That's one lesson we learned from Vietnam.