College Boys and Soldiers

by Michael Liss


My 40th college reunion is coming up. Yes, it's a jolt to the system to realize that I've gone from a skinny young nerd to a skinny vintage nerd in what seems roughly the amount of time it takes to play an Orioles-Yankees game. I'm making the calls and sending the emails to my far-flung (but "curated") group of friends, trying to decide whether Baltimore in Springtime is all that appealing…or should we just wait for 50?

It can get a little hot in April in Charm City. In fact, it can stay a little hot well into September. Along with hot, Baltimore has a well-deserved reputation for humid. It excels at humid. This, along with Chemistry, and, of all things, German, caused me briefly to wonder just what the heck I was doing when my guidance counselor suggested Johns Hopkins and I thought "Hopkins, wow, great idea, Cushing, Halsted, Osler, I'm going to be a doctor!"

Reality can be a cruel mistress. Yet there was something besides an absurd Heat-Index reading that was different about my first few days in college—there was also the sound of ROTC candidates training in the practice field behind my dorm. A reminder of Vietnam and a fate—perhaps my fate—rather narrowly escaped.

If you didn't live through it, it might be hard to grasp the turmoil, anger, and anxiety of the late 60s and early 70s. Turmoil, because no one knew when or how the war was going to end; anger, at politicians who seemed unable to find satisfactory answers; and anxiety—deep fear—that you, or a family member would somehow find himself in a place that few wanted to be for a cause in which many did not believe.

Richard Nixon had called for an all-volunteer army during the 1968 Campaign. Whether he actually believed in the concept or was merely using it as a tactic is hard to say. But he was also looking for a way to defuse the constant anti-war demonstrations. These, he thought, were led by middle and upper-middle class families who were concerned that once their boys completed their college deferments, they would be shipped off to die. Take away their risk, and they would no longer care, allowing him to pursue his strategic aims unencumbered by organized opposition.

What Nixon was doing was shrewd electoral politics in what became an excruciatingly close race. Coupled with his "secret plan to end the war" it was a construct that could appeal to a slice of wavering voters who were deeply concerned but not in the streets. Once elected and faced with the reality of governing, Nixon did what any good politician does when he doesn't want his fingerprints on something—he referred it to a committee (the Gates Commission). Until it made a recommendation and Congress acted, the draft, college deferments, and deployments continued, as did the anxiety.

The 1969 Nixon was still the same Anti-Communist, Domino-Theory guy he had always been, but he was racing the clock—balancing the internal pressure of personnel demands from the Pentagon against increasing public hostility. The first wave of Baby Boomers, those born 1946-49, had landed right in the middle of LBJ's escalation. From 1965 to 1968, troop levels went from 23,300 to 546,100. With involvement rising, so did casualties. Every week, 200 to 300 coffins were arriving back home to television cameras.

In the short-term, Nixon could count on the public's thinking those were Johnson's dead, but the 1950-54 cohort of Boomers were going to span Nixon's first term, and their fate would seal his chances for re-election. He knew he couldn't draw down troop levels too quickly without endangering whatever was left of the mission. He was also faced with a difficult logistical problem—unlike Korea or WWII, deployment to Vietnam was, for most soldiers, a one-year rotation. This took his cushion; even with a net year-over-year decline of about 50,000 between 1968 and 1969, he was still pumping in hundreds of thousands of new troops.

In fairness, Nixon was in a bind. He needed the draft, even as he was trying to "Vietnamize" the war. The situation was unstable, ARVN unreliable, so American power was still critical, particularly because Communist influence was spreading through the region. Nixon wasn't the type to be passive. In late 1969, he started secretly bombing Cambodia, to be followed by an "incursion" in 1970. This required a lot of bodies, and the fear at the Pentagon was that draft was the linchpin of the effort. Eliminate it, and volunteering would also collapse. No one wanted to be the last casualty. So his next steps were to call for an extension of the Selective Service Act to July of 1973, and, in April 1970, to ask Congress to end student deferments. After prolonged debate, Congress agreed, and, effective September 1971 (as I was entering my junior year of high school), no more student deferments were to be granted. But there was a kicker—under the new rule, then-upperclassman could keep their deferments, provided they could convince their local draft boards that they were pursuing a full-time course of education. And lowerclassmen were not actually subject to being called up until they were 20 and, then, only by lottery. This had the practical effect of pushing "D-Day" into 1973. One can speculate whether this was by design, or just because policy makers thought an abrupt shift would be unworkable, but, once again, the white-collar classes were thrown a lifeline.

It wasn't permanent—by 1973, everyone would be on the same clock. There were still 157,000 American soldiers in Vietnam in 1971. My high-school class knew the war was going poorly, and we knew, from Cambodia, that Nixon might still decide to escalate. In December 1972, having won reelection, and angered by failures in the Paris peace talks, he ordered intense bombing of the North. My friends and I dropped our college applications in the mail and took a collective deep breath.

For once, the bombing was effective, and the North Vietnamese returned to the table. The Paris Peace Accords were signed on January 27, 1973, and, by March, the last of American ground troops were withdrawn from Vietnam. On July 1, 1973, the volunteer army came into being, and, with it, the anxiety that many of us (and certainly our parents) had been living with for years evaporated. We had (perhaps quite literally) dodged the bullet.

So, when I arrived on campus in September 1973, joined by the Classes of 1974-76, we fancy college boys born 1952-56 suddenly were handed a unique Get-Out-of-Jail Card. We would be the first cohort of Baby Boomers not to share in the experience of our fathers—we would not be drafted; we would not serve; and we would certainly not risk our lives for our country.

There was a cruel irony in this. I used the phrase "college boys" for a reason. Because, depending on the community you grew up in, your neighbors weren't necessarily enjoying the same blessings. The draft hadn't just been a means of scooping up coddled frat-boys after they had their last keg party. It had also been a cudgel used on the families of kids who were not college-bound to encourage early enlistment. Volunteering by the time you were 18½ allowed you to choose your branch of service and receive a more specialized training, which correspondingly increased your chances of your being posted on active duty somewhere other than Vietnam. It was a potent inducement.

In my largely blue-collar neighborhood, and similar ones across America, this created markedly different incentives and outcomes. A boy born in 1950 who wanted to be an auto mechanic had to make a decision in 1968. He could enlist, and possibly get lucky enough for a favorable posting, or he could wait a year, be drafted in 1969, and start service in 1970—probably in Vietnam. His problem was that all he knew at the time he was making his decision was that no real end to the war was in sight. The same would apply to his younger brother, born in 1952. He had to decide in 1970, while Cambodia was raging. But the boy up the block, who had been on the same baseball team, but was headed for college, matriculated in 1969, kept his student deferment, graduated in 1973, and never broke a sweat.

To put it as bluntly as possible, when it came to Vietnam, the best indicator of your fate was likely your socio-economic status. Roughly 80% of the 2.5 million who served there came from poor or working-class families. The college boys got deferments, if necessary found medical reasons, and were spared by local draft boards (who were not entirely immune to pressure/suasion). Of the American servicemen who died in Vietnam, nearly 70% were 22 and under. Almost by definition, those weren't the college kids.

Yet, through some mysterious alchemy, whatever their private hurts, the families of those boys, as a group, kept it together. It's hard to imagine how, given the pettiness and meanness that permeates our political life today, but they did.

IMG_2432Maybe they were just better at it—less self-absorbed, less judgmental, more committed to community. People of my parents' generation had a broadly shared experience: The Great Depression, World War II, military service, loss and sacrifice on the home front, all of which bound them together in a way that partially transcended more traditional divisions of religion and class. That stocky little boy in the picture was my Dad in the early 1930s—home brew bowl haircut, hand-made hand-me-down shorts and shirt,
squinting (even then he needed glasses). That was reality. Later, he was drafted, sent south for Basic, trained as a medic, stuffed into a troop ship, and packed off to the Philippines. That was also a reality—in World War II, all adult males between the ages of 18 and 45 were subject to military service. 350,000 women followed them, and those who stayed behind volunteered, took key jobs, worried about their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons, and otherwise filled the gap at home. That was reality as well.

What this group took from all that may be difficult to articulate, but it certainly included internalizing a message that, sometimes,national problems require national solutions; that working in groups is not just a predicate, but a necessity for success; and that the team, regardless of whether its constituent parts are homogeneous, is stronger for being together. This legacy of service, sacrifice and communal effort ran through their generation and essentially moderated our politics and our politicians—even during the divisiveness of Vietnam and its aftermath. In 1971, more than 70% of the members of Congress were veterans (it's around 20% today). They argued, often vociferously, the big issues—the war, the role of government in people's lives, social programs, civil rights. But they did so with a different vocabulary, in a different tone, with an eye towards reaching consensus. There are many many reasons why we have zero-sum, winner-take-all, often overtly ugly politics, but one significant factor has to be a lack of shared commitment to civic virtues. It's become a culture that condemns people for their beliefs, instead of their acts.

Ironically, Nixon's idea that a volunteer army would largely neuter middle and upper-middle opposition to military action would be shown to be prophetic, even in ways he probably didn't anticipate. The truth is that outsourcing this public service to the same socio-economic group that went first in Vietnam has permitted anyone with a choice to let someone else's child do it. It frees liberals to feel comfortable as humanitarians, and conservatives to play at toy soldiers. We can all just trot out a "thank you for your service" and return to the safety of our homes and our certainties.

It's been 40 years since I graduated Hopkins. I've gone from a young man to…sprightly. I could travel 200 miles, go to the reunion, stare at the crab cakes, take in a lacrosse game, and see a few people I love and a lot more whose function may be more to serve as comparison points—just how did we all do? We could swap a few stories, take out a few pictures, and brag about our kids. Or I could travel 20 or so miles, walk the streets of my old neighborhood, perhaps be lucky enough to see a few people who knew me as a boy, who remembered my parents with fondness. Then we could swap a few stories, take out a few pictures, and brag about our kids.

Which one is the greater distance?