Easy Chair — From the September 2015 issue

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 Or maybe my student deferment, available to college students in those years, was rescinded when I dropped out for a semester in my junior year.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.

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