2004-10-15 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach


Nobody dare utter the dreaded “D-word.”

The Democrats won’t use the dreaded word even though its revival was originally pushed by Representative Charles Rangel, one of the most-respected of Democratic members of the House of Representatives.

The Republicans won’t use the dreaded word even though the Republican leadership in the House recently pushed Rangel’s bill for a vote.

The bill failed 402 to 2, with even Rangel voting against it.

The dreaded D-word is, of course, “draft,” and the revival of the draft has become the least-used word among politicians even as fear grows among young men and women that, as soon as the November 2 election is history, the word and its real implications will come back like the New York Yankees in a playoff game.

When Rangel proposed the bill that was recently destroyed by the House, he had a motive other than seeing the draft reinstated. He wanted to make the point that the war in Iraq was being fought disproportionately by minority soldiers and marines. He is right. Statistics show that while Blacks make up about 12 percent of the population, they make up 24 percent of those serving their nation.

Rangel believes, and I agree, that perhaps the war would not have happened if the sons and daughters of the white middle and upper class and particularly the children of our legislators, had to fight.

Not that the draft during the Vietnam War insured that the sons of the privileged served. George Bush is a perfect example of the reality that many people chose to evade the draft by becoming cops and teachers, lawyers and conscientious objectors.

Others, mainly with clout, joined reserve units that were never called up to active duty. We know who that is.

There were really three groups in the early to mid-1960’s, before the war got really unpopular.

There were those who saw the burgeoning war as a rite of passage, a way to prove their manhood. They joined up to “Kill a Commie For Christ,” as the saying went in those days.

There was another group, at the other end of the spectrum, best represented by the chant, “Hell, no, we won’t go.” They believed the war was wrong from the beginning, or at least, that the war was wrong for them to fight personally.

I was in the third group. I had a college deferment while I was an undergraduate student at NYU. Since the student deferment was automatic as long as you were a full-time student, I never worried much about the draft and since this was during the late 1950’s, nobody was much worried about a war with anybody but the USSR. Vietnam was still a few years in the future.

When I transferred from NYU to the new C.W. Post College, however, my college deferment went from automatic to “upon request,” and nobody every told me that I had to request the deferment.

By late 1961, my number, as they say, came up. I still had another couple of months to go in order to graduate from Post, and I went to the Far Rockaway draft board office in the post office to explain.

The clerk in the draft board office listened politely and then said, “You’ll be in the draft leaving for Fort Dix in three weeks.”

Needless to say, I was shook up. Even though there was no war at the time, I was not looking forward to being a tank driver in Western Europe.

So, as I have written in this space previously, I went across the bridge to Floyd Bennett Field, then an active Naval Air Station, and joined the Naval Reserve.

That led after my graduation to a few years of active duty on the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVA-42), an aircraft carrier stationed at Mayport, Florida.

The fact that I was a college graduate led in a round-about way, to my assignment as a court reporter and attendance at Naval Justice School in Newport, Rhode Island for one full summer.

I would never have gone into the armed forces had there been no draft, and I would have missed out on one of the seminal events of my life.

Of course, the Vietnam war did not begin in reality until I was on active duty and, as we used to say with glee, “The Vietcong ain’t got a navy.”

Instead, I spent my time on the ship in Jacksonville (Florida), Newport (Rhode Island), in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and in the Mediterranean Sea.

Now, at age 65 (or, nearly so), I can look back and say that I was glad that the draft forced me to serve.

There are differences from the situation that faced me in the early 1960’s and today, of course.

First of all, we were not in a dirty land war at the time as we are today in Iraq.

Secondly, the draft was a staple of any young American male’s life and had been for many years, off and on since the Civil War. You thought about the draft, planned what you would do, and made important decisions based on the draft hanging over your head.

Most of my friends who lived in Wavecrest Gardens (then a middle-class, largely Jewish enclave), opted for college deferments and then deferments as teachers or city workers.

Of the two dozen or so boys who went through high school and hung out together, only a few of us were “caught” in the draft. By the time the war got going full tilt, most of us were too old to worry about a draft lottery number.

Now, the draft might well be on the way back, despite the recent vote in the House of Representatives.

Why?

Not because it is more democratic but because there is no way for America to continue the war in Iraq and the battle in Afghanistan going with an all-volunteer army.

In fact, volunteers are down more than 20 percent this year and reenlistments are down even more. Those going back for a second tour are largely those who are coerced to reenlist rather than be shipped immediately to the war zone.

There is a big kicker in the decision to renew the draft.

That is the question of whether women will now be drafted alongside men.

America has long been resistant to drafting women to fight, but the National Organization for Women would throw a fit if women were not drafted equally with men. Or, at least they should if they want true equality.

Many legislators, however, would never vote for a draft bill that included women and that might well kill the entire deal.

Am I in favor of a draft? I guess I am. Do I think that women should be drafted? Of course I do.

I work with three young men, all of draft age.

Every time I mention the “D-word,” they throw things at me. Perhaps they are right.

Perhaps the volunteer army is best after all – as long as there are enough volunteers to fulfill America’s missions, whatever that might legitimately bring.

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