As we all know, the end of slavery in the United States and the consequent birth of the state of West Virginia occurred 150 years ago. By eerie coincidence, a similar tenth denominated anniversary occurred 40 years ago in 1973.
Younger folks may ask "How could there have been a phenomenon akin to slavery before 1973?" but older ones -- especially men -- have already guessed the answer.
In June of 1973, the last man to be subject to military conscription was drafted. Previous to this time men of all social classes could be drafted into the armed services; were put, usually against their will, into uniform, and were sent to Vietnam to kill people in their own homeland, or to support those who did the killing.
The war in Vietnam itself does not, of course, seem foreign to modern sensibilities because it parallels the recent pointless war in Iraq. Neither Vietnamese nor Iraqis had ever attacked Americans but in both cases we invaded and attacked them. No, it is not (alas!) the war itself that seems incredible, it is the fact that the soldier-killers on our side were in some sense, enslaved (forced) to do the job.
Because we do not like to remember these events in their actual, raw form we have deceived ourselves by building a mythos that our fighters were "defending freedom in America (and, by extension, in the world)." And now, since we have apparently given up the draft, we tell ourselves that this defense is carried out by an "all volunteer army."
But how many readers know how many of these "volunteers" are not able to serve a full enlistment term? (Answer: about one-third of them) And how many readers are familiar with the term "stop loss" -- a phrase which implies that involuntary servitude -- even now -- has not yet really been abolished? How many remember that early in the Vietnam conflict it was mostly professionals who died? (In 1965, 16 percent of battle deaths were draftees, but later on it was mostly hapless amateurs. In 1969, 62 percent of battle deaths were draftees.)
It is fair to say that the end of the draft in 1973 was indeed a step forward. But, that said, the current situation is still onerous, unjust and inefficient. The motive of most of our military volunteers has more to do with economic necessity than with love of country -- and, once they are in, many can't make it and those that can make it might be held in longer than their contracted time. Furthermore those who are exposed to war experiences and who have been wounded may have to wait interminably as the cumbersome VA bureaucracy coordinates with the bloated DoD bureaucracy.
One hundred and fifty years ago slavery was ended in the United States; this was indeed a great humanitarian step forward and will never be reversed. Forty years ago military conscription was ended in the United States and this also was a clear humanitarian victory. But in this case, the outcome could be reversed. Young men (but not women -- feminists, where are you?), must still register for the draft. It is, as they say, the law. Scoffers may claim that the days of forcing men into uniform, and giving them weapons to confront other men whom they do not consider to be their enemies, are clearly over. Well ... maybe. But then some of us who were subject to the draft thought there would never be another Vietnam. Iraq proved us naïve.
The time may arrive again when a megalomaniac comes to power in these United States. Once again we will hear of striking blows for freedom against nefarious enemies! And once again young men may learn to dread the ironic words "selective service" just as their grandfathers did.
Palmer, of Charleston, served in the U.S. Air Force in South East Asia in the late 1960s and early 1970s.