Mother took me downtown to a federal office building to register for the draft. I was 18. I have my draft card with the Selective Service number on it in a trunk with other memorabilia from the time.
Dad served as an army paratrooper during the occupation of Japan. There is a photograph of him and Uncle Don, fresh from Tallahassee, with parachutes strapped on, ready to jump.
It was with a sense of family history, personal commitment, and duty that I followed the law by registering. Not all of my friends would contemplate entering military service, a couple of conscientious objectors were among my cohort. I felt no such compulsion and if I were called up, I would go.
In the eighth grade I had an assignment to read the newspaper and clip articles about topics which engaged me. The spiral-bound notebook I made has a section on the Vietnam War, including a newsprint photograph of a soldier that had just been hit by small arms fire and was falling to the ground. Going to the war was a real possibility, one I didn’t take lightly.
Like so many young people, I was enraged by the killing of four college students at Kent State University on May 4, 1970. A neighborhood friend organized a peaceful protest march to the military armory. I carried an end of a mocked up coffin representing one of the dead students in Ohio. A photograph of us made the local newspaper. I came to feel strongly the Vietnam War was wrong.
I took a student deferment as I had the option, and wanted to exercise it, delaying military service until after graduation from the university. I ended up cancelling the deferment when it became clear during sophomore year my draft lottery number would not be called. I was off the hook and breathed a sigh of relief as the Vietnam War was ongoing, and only crazy people wanted to fight there.
The conclusion I reached once the war ended on April 30, 1975 was the military was a mess and citizens had a personal, civic responsibility to improve it. That led me to explore options for enlistment. I enlisted to become an officer and left Davenport in January 1976, the bicentennial year. It was somewhat patriotic.
When I arrived for basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina I entered a different world. There were about a dozen white guys like me who had enlisted for officer training. They came mostly from New England and states above the Mason Dixon line. The majority of the company was comprised of local black guys and Puerto Ricans, many of whom knew each other from home and had enlisted together. There were a couple of white guys seeking to get on the draw with the Alabama National Guard, although they struggled to perform basic military tasks. At the time I believed Alabama did not send its best people. If you asked me in 1976 who would fight in our wars, my answer would have been black and Puerto Rican soldiers. It was a volunteer army and that is mostly who volunteered.
Ingrained in me was the liberal idea of equal rights under the law and equal protection. It mattered not that I was in a racial minority in basic training because it felt normal to me. I’d been exposed to different races and ethnicity when our family visited Florida where Father attended high school. I also shared a bunk house at YMCA camp to which staff had assigned all of the black campers plus me. Equal protection and equal rights used to be an American idea yet even as a grader I knew we had a long way to go. In South Carolina, in the military, it was obvious we weren’t equal as all the officer candidates were white.
The Unites States requires a standing military to meet our global commitments. Until the current president assumed office the United States stood as a force for good all over the world. Deployment on tough missions had become a norm. We continue to have a global military footprint, although its role has changed. Arms sales have become increasingly important to the U.S. under Trump’s “America First” foreign policy. The administration is changing the balance of power in the Middle East and elsewhere. We hope President Joe Biden can restore respect for the U.S. during his administration. What remains constant, though, is the need for a citizen armed forces and a standing army.
In his book, Who Will Do Our Fighting For Us? George E. Reedy, who extensively studied the selective service during the Nixon administration, wrote, “I believe that democracy can live more easily with the conscripts than it can with the professionals. The former do not like what they are doing — and that is precisely the reason they should be preferred.”
The need for military troops ebbs and flows. Some skills are highly specialized and require a longer term service commitment. Aircraft pilots are an example of this. For the most part, our military trains for specific missions and ramps up to meet staffing requirements. When operations end, units stand down. That is a normal progression and endemic to how the U.S. military operates. Having people from all walks of life, rather than dedicated professionals, enables citizens to witness our military and make sure we do good. That begins with a commitment to service, duty and honor when we consider our options in society. For me, the choice was easy.