My own personal political radicalization occurred around the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war efforts of the late 1960’s in particular. I would like to think in hindsight that it was the profound immorality of the Vietnam conflict alone that was pushing me to demonstrate, throw the occasional rock and sit-in every chance I got. If I am brutally honest though I think I was motivated to hit the streets for the same reason many young men did at the time and that was the draft.
U.S. combat units were first sent to Vietnam in 1965, though Americans had been involved as advisors and in other more clandestine ways for many years prior to that. The peak year of combat involvement was 1968 the year I turned 19. Our involvement lasted until 1973 and that was also the year that the draft was ended and it has not been re-instituted since.
The Vietnam War resulted in the deaths of over 55,000 American service people a rather stunning number when compared with the numbers of deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan to date which is somewhere in the neighborhood of 6,000. In 1995 the Vietnamese government estimated that 4 million of their countrymen perished on both sides of the conflict. This would not include the ten of thousands of Cambodians and Laotians also killed.
The draft was based on a lottery in 1969 personally my most vulnerable year, that and 1970. What supposedly occurred was that numbers 1-366 were written on pieces of paper put into a jar shaken up and then randomly drawn out. This manner of selecting numbers came under major criticism and it really is not the best way to randomly prioritize a set of numbers. To be eligible for the drawing you only needed to be male and have been born between 1944 and 1950. My birthday is January 12th and the number 12 was the 212th number drawn. As it turned out they only needed to call up though 195 to get a large enough pool to fill the ranks.
Deferments were a big way for many to get out of the draft and there were various forms of these including a declaration that you were queer. This however resulted in you being classified 4-F, “not qualified for service”. Being classified 4-F was not a desirable designation back in 1969.
Student deferments were also quite common and this of course resulted in a disproportionate number of those drafted who either did not or could not get into college. This of course creates significant class and race bias around serving. Dick Cheney for example was granted a stunning five student deferments during the Vietnam years, rather unprecedented apparently. He is obviously someone you do not want picking your lotto numbers but advice on how to get a choice spot on an organ donor list is another matter.
Also the National Guard and Reserves were seldom called up for Vietnam duty, unlike our most recent draft-free wars where the National Guard and reserves have played a major role. At any rate one of the most infamous individuals to get into the Reserves, I believe the Air Force, and avoid significant risk of going to Vietnam was a fellow named George W. Bush.
My guess is that despite my loud and frequent vocal objections to the war on moral grounds back in 1969 that I would have probably copped to a student deferment if they had reached 212 and I had to report. At that stage of my queer development I would not have gone the 4-F route.
Without a draft the cost, sacrifice and burden of war has even more disproportionately fallen to a very small percentage of the population who often make the choice of joining the military for economic reasons. Even the draft as it existed in the 1960’s with its plethora of deferments often favoring the better educated and upwardly mobile still resulted a more egalitarian pool of canon fodder than the current “all volunteer” armed forces.
If we had a fair and equitable draft I believe there is a very good chance there would never have been American boots on the ground in either Iraq or Afghanistan. The best of all drafts would result in compulsory service for two years for everyone male and female and this service could take many forms other than actual combat somewhere. I also think that having a draft would result in a much more vigorous and engaged national debate on whether to go to war in the first place. It would force the legions of “chicken hawks” to shit or get off the pot and at the very least really come up with some real weapons of mass destruction.
Now that there has been a formal discontinuation of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this may or may not result in more gay people in the military. If it does we can hope that this will create a kinder and gentler military, or maybe not. Ironically, perhaps, the U.S. military is one of the most integrated and in many respects socially progressive organizations in our culture. Now that discrimination against queers is no longer officially sanctioned I expect the sensitivity training around GLBT issues in the military to be as thorough as it is for issues of gender and race. This is not to forget though that particularly in battle field situations’ women still do not receive the respect they deserve and all too often are the objects of significant abuse. In addition to its lessons on tolerance, heeded or not, the military has an excellent single payer socialized health care system that I think we would be wise as a whole country to emulate.
Being a dyed in the wool old time queer activist I have to admit that it has been difficult to accept the focus on military service and marriage by so many LGBT activists the past decade or so. Harry Hay has been dead now for nearly a decade and I can only assume he is rolling over in his grave with these efforts getting so much attention. Efforts he often described as hetero-imitative. Actually he was cremated so I suppose that image doesn’t really work here. I would close with a quote from Hay that is part of an article originally published in in 1967 in a publication called Concern. Harry is speaking to all GLBT people here:
“The true Homosexual’s responsibility to his or her community today is to cultivate and extend his own revered and respected special instinct to the fullest reaches of his sexual personality. The true Homophile Minority’s responsibility to Society is to contribute to all men and women the harvests we reaped of our long and lonely exile, our knowledge of transcendent sexual wholeness, our errors and lessons learned, our failures and our triumphs, in achieving the higher reaches of love between equals on a subject-to-subject basis.”
I would wholeheartedly agree with Harry and believe his words encapsulate what we really need to be about as GLBT peoples rather than chasing the hetero-imitative goals of marriage equality and unfettered military service.