2006-11-24 / Editorial/Opinion

From the Editor's Desk

Debating the Dreaded 'D-Word'
Commentary By Howard Schwach

Congressman Charles Rangel, who represents Harlem, does not mince words.

"There is no question in my mind that this president and this administration would never have gone to war [in Iraq] if indeed there had been a draft and members of Congress and the administration thought that their kids were in harm's way," Rangel said last week.

The Draft! The dreaded "D-word." There, he said it again.

Now, Rangel has called for reopening the draft before in the recent past, but that was when the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and he had relatively little power. Now, however, the Democrats have seized control, albeit a truncated control, over Congress and Rangel will soon become the chair of the vaunted Ways and Means Committee - the people who bring you the tax laws.

Now, people have to listen.

Asked on "Face To Face" whether he was serious about bringing back the military draft, Rangel said, "You bet your life, and you can underscore the word serious."

"To support the war and not support the draft is hypocritical," he added.

Whether Rangel is serious about reinstating the draft or is using it for some political hyperbole in his opposition to the war, his words are sure to once again set off a debate between those who favor a volunteer military and those who believe that a draft would be more democratic.

First of all, let me say that I know lots about the draft because I was largely caught in its web in 1961.

I was a college student with a deferment from New York University. Each semester, the university would send my draft board, located upstairs in the Far Rockaway Post Office, a letter renewing my deferment.

In early 1960, however, I transferred from NYU to C.W. Post, a newly-formed college that was part of the Long Island University family. In order to get a deferment at LIU, a student had to apply each semester. I didn't know that, however, until the end of 1961 when I got a letter from that draft board that began with "Greetings from the President of the United States."

I thought that the letter was a mistake until I went to see the clerk for the draft board - a group of several local men (no women in those days) who had been appointed to send others to war.

I was told that I no longer had a student deferment and that I would probably be called for induction by March or April. Since I was not due to graduate until June, I panicked and started looking for options.

In those "Happy Days," nobody thought of either running to Canada or burning their draft card. In fact, nobody thought of Vietnam because that fight was largely a French problem even if the Foreign Legion was getting its butt kicked by a bunch of little guys in pajamas.

There was a friend of mine who had transferred from an out of town school to NYU that got caught in the switch as well and we went to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, then an active Naval Air Station. We signed on the dotted line for a six-year program that would give us a year in the reserve (one weekend a month and two weeks during the summer for boot camp) before we had to go on active duty with the fleet.

I did my boot during late July of 1962. The one thing I remember about the experience besides the pain and suffering and being so close to home for the experience was that Marilyn Monroe died, giving us something to focus on other than our collective misery.

I did my reserve duty until February of 1963, when I went on active duty through the Naval Receiving Station at the now-defunct Brooklyn Navy Yard. I finally wound up on the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier homeported at Mayport, Florida, right outside Jacksonville.

When I got out in 1965, I went back to reserve squadron VR-831 (an air transport squadron), where I did paperwork and served coffee to the pilots on weekend hops.

Did the draft impact my life and the lives of my contemporaries?

You bet it did! Life decisions by males over the age of 18 were made with the draft always in the background like some evil disease that was always waiting to strike unwary guys.

School and careers were closely considered with an eye to staying out of the draft. Marriages were postponed. Kids were planned. Doctors were consulted. Medical notes were written, lies were told.

All to beat the draft.

In fact, one of the funniest days of my life was spent taking the draft physical at Whitehall Street, a destination that created fear in tens of thousands of young men.

I had already signed up for the Navy and taken a physical, so I should not have had to go to Whitehall Street in the first place, but you did not turn down a summons to appear or you got immediately arrested by military police and you took your physical in the brig.

There were guys who literally showed up in a dress and heels. There were others who had letters from their shrink that they were too emotionally unstable to serve, others who cried the entire day. One guy walked up to the eye check table and was told to take off his glasses. "Read the top line" the tester said.

"I can't see the chart," he replied.

"Can you see the wall," the tester asked.


"Then you pass the eye test," the tester said, stamping his papers.

With nothing at stake, I had a good time watching the passing parade.

Taking a physical at Whitehall Street had to be a rite of passage akin to what Native American youth had to do to become men in the 1800's.

At the last stop, after all the testing was done, an officer yelled to the crowd, "Is there anybody here who is already enlisted in the armed forces."

I raised my hand, as did several others. We were taken aside and asked for proof. I showed my enlistment papers.

"Why didn't you tell somebody at the beginning of the day," I was asked.

"I tried," I said. "Nobody seemed interested."

So began my military career.

Few of my friends were ever drafted. They went from college to careers in teaching, the legal field, law enforcement, all jobs with a deferment. I always thought that they missed out on a seminal life event.

Of course, there was no war at the time. The Tonkin Gulf Incident was still a year away when I walked into Floyd Bennett Field in my dress blues for the first time.

Am I in favor of bringing back the draft? Certainly, bringing people into the military whether they want to or not is more democratic, even if it leads to problems.

As a court reporter on the USS FDR, I can't tell you how many times I heard at courts-martial, "The judge gave me a choice - jail or the military."

It is true that old men send young men to die. They are less likely to do so if their sons and grandsons are fodder for the military mill.

I know, I didn't answer my own question. I can't. Philosophically, I am in favor of the draft. Personally, I do not want to see my grandsons go to fight a war I don't believe in.

Holy Vietnam War!

In any case, Rangel will probably find his proposal that those citizens, both male and female who turn 18 must register for the draft and that they will be eligible until the age of 24.

There are too many people who favor the war but also favor sending somebody else's relatives to fight that war to ever see a draft in the next few years.

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