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[Easy Chair]

Selective Service

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It may have been that I neglected to register with the Selective Service System when I turned eighteen, in 1960, as the law required. Or maybe my student deferment, available to college students in those years, was rescinded when I dropped out for a semester in my junior year. But sometime in the spring of 1964, I received a notice to report for a preinduction physical — the first step toward being drafted into the armed forces. That I can’t remember clearly the sequence of events may be a result of the terror I experienced at this and my urgent need to expunge from my life the possibility of being drafted. I could not be a soldier.

Evasion of duty was literally inexcusable in my case — that is, there were no grounds on which it could be excused. I was against war in a general way but not as a matter of conscience or deep conviction; I was as apolitical as it was possible to be for a member of the Silent Generation who was majoring in English at Indiana University, writing poetry and making underground films. The problem wasn’t the threat of dying in battle or the necessity of killing; I didn’t in 1964 suppose I was likely to be doing either. American involvement in Vietnam was intensifying, but it seemed that the fighting was still being done by professional warriors with special qualifications. I was deeply opposed to militarism, as it applied to me; I was an aesthete, and my objections were private feelings of dread and revulsion. In my own estimation I wasn’t very manly, and the prospect of being shut up for years with many men gave me a horror I can’t quite account for now.

I first acted on information from a graduate student in biology who told me that I could feign diabetes and thereby fail the urine test given during the physical. This involved consuming sickening amounts of sugar so that my urine would turn a paper test strip blue instead of red (or the reverse, I forget). Further subversions were required at the time of the physical, but, head swimming and heart pounding in sugar overload, I was not able to swamp my vigilant and powerful islets of Langerhans. I then acquired equally unreliable information that I wouldn’t be drafted if I was, or appeared to be, a member of an organization on the attorney general’s list of subversive groups, or if I knew anyone who was. I actually did know one or two, but at the physical in Indianapolis I couldn’t bring myself to name names on the statement put before each of us, and instead simply refused to sign it. This led to lengthy and sometimes comic complications — including a personal visit from an Army investigator and a blackball from summer jobs at my university (apparently on advice from the Army) — but it did not spare me I-A draft status.

Graduate school could have kept me out of the draft for a few years (as it happened, only until 1968, when such deferments were canceled). I’m not sure why I didn’t apply. Maybe I couldn’t see myself as a teaching assistant any more than as a draftee. I slipped into a state of inert unbelief, and did nothing further about the draft.

That college and graduate students, like married men with children, were deferred by the rules of the Selective Service seemed to me nothing more than odd facts of bureaucratic life. Actually it was part of a project in social engineering. In the years after World War II, it was thought that future wars would need fewer ground troops and more scientists and engineers with advanced degrees; because it was hard to be sure which studies might be valuable to the nation, students in all fields received deferments from the draft. (Married men without children received deferments thanks to a presidential order signed by John F. Kennedy; those who rushed to marry before Lyndon Johnson canceled the order became known as Kennedy husbands.)

Meanwhile, the Army lowered its physical and educational admissions standards so that more of the available men could receive the benefits of service, including training that would raise their employment prospects in the civilian world. Daniel Moynihan, who chaired a federal task force on manpower conservation, recommended the change in 1964, hoping to attract disadvantaged black youth from fatherless families. The nation would profit all around, or so went the theory.

But when the Vietnam War’s personnel demands suddenly increased, college-age men from the middle and upper classes got into or stayed in universities whether they’d planned to or not, while young men with fewer outs faced a choice between enlistment and conscription. Since those who enlisted were offered more training opportunities, the prospect of conscription induced many to enlist instead. Then combat needs elbowed aside the training programs. Under the gun of the draft, men who otherwise might have stayed single married and started families. The social landscape changed in permanent ways.

In the fall of 1964, still I-A, I moved from Indiana to New York City. The war — despite the administration’s efforts at euphemism, it was now understood to be a war we were in — was expanding. The Tonkin Gulf incident had happened that August; Operation Rolling Thunder, the first major bombing campaign against North Vietnam, began the following March. Sometime between these events, my induction letter arrived.

I had two weeks until I was due to report. A second physical would accompany my induction, giving me one more chance to prove unfitness for service. In the Manhattan phone book I turned to the listings for psychiatrists and picked out one in the doctor-and-therapist souk of the Upper West Side. Finding his hourly rate — $15 — just manageable, I made an appointment.

He was elderly, with a slight Eastern European accent, gentle and soft-spoken. I explained to him that I had a pathological fear of being inducted into the Army, an aversion that went back to childhood. The family story was that when I was a toddler and my father returned from the war in Europe, I wouldn’t stop crying until he took off his officer’s cap. (True, and a nice Freudian touch, I thought.) The psychiatrist asked whether the Army doctors who examined me had noticed any symptoms of alarm or trauma — high blood pressure, elevated heartbeat? Well, no. So you couldn’t have been too frightened, he said. I realized I’d have to up my game.

He invited me to talk about myself. I described a lonely life in the Village, where I’d expected to meet lots of sympathetic people. I talked mournfully about the close friend I’d lived with in Indiana, who had said he was coming to live with me in the city but never arrived, which was so unfair. (True again: I was paying full rent until he showed.) My father had been harsh and rational, a doctor; I’d always been afraid of him. My mother, though, had encouraged me in artistic pursuits. I wanted to be in theater, or film; I wrote her often. I paused, done. John, he asked, is there something you’re not telling me? Well, I said, squirming and avoiding eye contact, it’s pretty hard to just say. It’s that you’re homosexual, isn’t that right, my smiling doctor said. And I had to confess.

I considered it a good sign that he’d said it before I could. It made the rest of my performance easier. Like a Method actor, I transformed past girlfriends into boyfriends, male friends into crushes; I imagined my way into gay scenarios I had only heard about. It helped that I was presenting as cripplingly shy and relatively inexperienced, with little knowledge of the downtown cruising scene. A few weeks later I saw him again, and told more lies. He went through some Rorschach blots with me and agreed to write a letter. He gave it to me in a sealed envelope on which he’d written that it was not to be opened except by Army medical officers. I steamed it (of course) and found myself described as incipiently schizophrenic and in need of years of therapy if I was to live a useful life. Almost as a postscript he noted that I had had several homosexual experiences.

When I gave the letter to the Army psychiatrist at my induction — another gentle man with an accent, and a beard as well — he said that in his opinion I would not be happy in the Army, to which I assented. But now, he asked, what were we to say? We didn’t want to say I was homosexual, did we? I didn’t mind at all what we said, but mimed indecision. (That homosexual acts were crimes, that most gay men lived lives of concealment and evasion, that admissions like mine could blight careers and lives — of all this I was subliminally aware, but that I was risking harm to myself, no.) Shall we say, the doctor offered tenderly, that you’re just too nervous to go in the Army? I said I thought that was just right; too nervous, yes, that’s what I was.

He filled out a form, put it with the letter in another envelope that he marked was not to be opened except under subpoena, and removed me from the line. I was sent to the commanding officer, who immediately opened the envelope and scanned the letter. He gave me a look of intense loathing such as I hope never to see again and sent me away. I sat down on the curb outside the induction center and wept in relief.

The naïveté I aspired to display to my psychiatrist was real. It took me years to realize that very likely he knew exactly what I was up to and was himself opposed to the mounting costs of the war for young men. I was only vaguely aware that my coevals were doing just what I was doing, and in numbers. Draft-resister groups were openly giving advice about legal and quasi-legal means of draft avoidance, and circulating lists of sympathetic doctors and psychiatrists who would write their letters without playing the complicated game I had played with mine. Young men with a grasp of the system studied the Selective Service regs to find their personal loopholes; the young James Fallows, today a respected writer on military and other subjects, managed to get his six-foot self below the Army minimum of 120 pounds by fasting, and then insisted on a redo when the scale showed 122. He escaped, as he has written, “to enjoy those bright prospects I had been taught that life owed me,” and went on to graduate school, uncomfortably aware that poor and working-class boys just out of high school would disproportionately serve, go to Vietnam, and see combat.

History then granted a moral dimension to such self-regarding acts of avoidance and evasion by staging a gigantic act of public defiance. Many who faced the draft in those years accepted the consequences of open refusal, sacrificing personal hopes and plans, serving terms in prison, or devoting themselves to helping others defeat a system and a national project that they regarded as criminally wrong. Young men who openly burned their draft cards or left for Canada were risking their futures, and they knew it; some believed a future was unfolding that wouldn’t care and might even approve what they had done, but it still took nerve. Compounding fraud with felony, at little risk to myself I burned my own IV-F draft card on the steps of the Pentagon in 1967, not long before the magic-power chanting of the encircling Yippies lifted the whole building several feet off the ground.

In the years following the American disengagement from Vietnam, the cultivation of personal growth and self-actualization was among the traits most noticed, and worried about, by sociologists and pundits. The refusal of military service by upwardly mobile, educated young people was thought to reflect a refusal of any kind of service except to the self. This was the Me Generation, a characterization that (as is common in sociological punditry) ignored the majority who did their duty, who went to church and to work, and who respected teachers and officials more or less as before. More important, it missed the many who then and later took up service to others, including in the Peace Corps, which Richard Nixon called a “haven for draft dodgers” and a “cult of escapism,” and in VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), which was founded in 1965 as a domestic counterpart to the Peace Corps.

A narrow self-regard that accepts only conditional restraints on personal possibility is the exclusive possession of no single generation. A conscious sense of one’s self as having a unique destiny demands a search for ways of living and acting that realize that uniqueness. But self-fulfillment can be and very often is found in selfless service to others. Goethe’s Faust, after a long life of self-seeking — for knowledge, for experience, for love — finds real satisfaction helping his countrymen to drain a swamp and create new land, at last forgetting himself.

My avoidance of service to my country has been retrospectively rewritten by the catastrophe that ensued in Vietnam: I didn’t serve in that war, and nobody should have had to. (Those who did serve and saw combat may have a different account.) But why was I immune for so long to the pull of service of any kind, service as goal and as personal value? It wasn’t just service to my nation or the world. Teachers — the good ones — serve students. Fathers serve families. Workers retire from businesses with thanks and a 401(k) after a lifetime of service. In none of these realms could I place my future self.

My own conversations with Mephistopheles always had to do with getting what I wanted, even if what I wanted were goods and achievements that required long years of labor in near poverty and solitude. Not until I was past forty and found myself engaged in a conversation about karma — that central word of the Me Generation’s search for themselves — did I perceive the matter clearly. I don’t care about my karma anymore, I said, if I ever did: I want to know what my dharma is. I wanted to know, at last and henceforward, what I should do, and to learn how to do it.

Very soon thereafter, as though my wish had been overheard, life presented me with a whole series of responsibilities to take up because I should, and surrenders of self to make because I must. These had nothing to do with the nation particularly, or with the people of the world in general, but they required service to others, which I have tried to give, and have, mostly, been glad to give, when I could figure out how.

The end of compulsory military service and the establishment of a volunteer armed forces didn’t erase the injustices and inequities of the Vietnam-era draft. Combat troops today are largely composed of those who are entering adulthood with the fewest options. Fallows notes in an article that appeared earlier this year in The Atlantic that while veterans are showered with praise and admiration, and are universally celebrated as the heroes of our otherwise divisive wars, very few people who have other possibilities think of joining them. Throughout the Iraq involvement, Representative Charles Rangel urged a bill that would reinstate the draft — mandating two years of service for all young men and women “in any capacity that promotes our national defense” — and thus “compel the American public to be part of the shared sacrifice and moral issues at hand.” It’s hard to imagine a bill that would alter the social landscape more, or one less likely to pass.


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September 2015