As a college senior, I wasn't worried about getting a job, landing an internship or going to graduate school. I was worried about firefights with Viet Cong. Earning a bachelor's degree meant the end of my student draft deferment and the inevitability of a years-long stint in the military, including 12 months in Vietnam. All my friends were in the same predicament. No one I knew in those days wanted to be a soldier, but most of us acquiesced.
The pre-lottery draft required us to spend two years in uniform. We soon learned the gamesmanship associated with that involuntary service. Draftees mostly found themselves carrying an M-16 in an infantry platoon. If the life of an infantryman was unappealing, you could enlist as a mechanic, journalist or linguist; but you had to give the Army an additional year or more to seal the deal. And that is what I did. As a result, I now find myself classified a "Vietnam-era volunteer." The label is as uncomfortable as a hair shirt. I was not a "volunteer" in the strict sense of the word. My enlistment in the Army was not motivated by civic responsibility or patriotism. It was dictated by self-interest. Absent a wartime draft, I would not have enlisted; self-interest would have led in a different direction. That notwithstanding, I must say that my five years on active duty was a transformative experience, one which I have come to value and recommend to others.
On Veterans Day, I got an e-mail from a "Generation Z" relative who—at the behest of a teacher or parent—wrote, "thank you for your service." I winced as I read the words. Because a wince is an odd response to a thank you—even a perfunctory one— I began to unpack it. I soon found I was late to the task. "Please Don't Thank Me for My Service" headlined a story in The New York Times. The story quoted veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq who, like myself, had dealt with unexpected thank yous. "The thanks comes across as shallow, disconnected, a reflexive offering from people who, while meaning well, have no clue what soldiers did over there or what motivated them to go, and who would never have gone themselves nor sent their own sons and daughters," Matt Richtel wrote. To find veterans half my age giving voice to my own ill-formed thoughts was surprising. My wince, it seemed, sprang from the incongruous pairing of "unwelcome" and "gratitude."
Ironically, a much-publicized lament of Vietnam veterans was the cold shoulder they got upon returning from the war. Worse, many were spat upon, mistreated and reviled as "baby killers" for no other reason than they had served in Vietnam.
My experience was different. I was ignored: I remember a Veterans Day parade in Boston where there were more soldiers marching with me in the parade than there were spectators on the sidewalk.
I don't think much has changed. In fact, the end of the draft in 1973 may have had the unintended effect of eroding the connection between soldiers and civilians even further. In a recent article in The Atlantic, James Fallows wrote about the "reverent but disengaged attitude toward the military—we love the troops, but we'd rather not think about them—[which] has become so familiar that we assume it is the American norm."
It is the norm in Utah. Yes, we designate highways as veterans' memorials; yes, redeploying soldiers get 30 seconds on the 10 o'clock news; and yes, national defense and F-35s are as dear to our wingnuts as states' rights and Browning .45s. But don't look for Utahns to have much skin in the game. Utah has the lowest military-enlistment rates in the country. We are, however, blessed with an abundance of "chickenhawks," defined by Fallows as those who are eager to go to war so long as someone else does the fighting. Utah is not the only state with chickenhawks aplenty, and as a result, the burden of fighting America's longest wars has been shouldered by less than 1 percent of the population—16 times less than the percentage during Vietnam.
Back then, everyone had a friend or relative in Vietnam, and our collective disapproval brought the war to an end (but not before 361 Utahns were KIA.) Today's disengaged population makes wars easy to start and hard to stop. Since the end of the draft, there have been more than 140 military deployments, according to the Congressional Research Service. Between 1945 and 1973, with conscription the order of the day, there were 19.
"Veteran" comes from veteranus, a Latin word meaning old and experienced. The experience of this old, once-reluctant, Vietnam-era volunteer aligns with the view of a more distinguished veteran, Adm. Mike Mullen: Namely, America pays dearly for its lack of engagement. Utah legislators have related concerns. One of this year's bills, Senate Bill 60, stipulated that high-school students pass a civics test to qualify for a diploma. SB60, now signed into law, treats symptoms, not disease.
The Aspen Institute is promoting a much better idea: the Franklin Project. Drafted by such notables as Jon Huntsman Jr., Robert Gates and Ariana Huffington, the initiative proposes a year of full-time national service as "a civic rite of passage for every young American." While they could choose to serve in such areas as "health, poverty, conservation or education," the military would be an attractive option. Like so many worthwhile service options, however, it will likely languish in this slacktivistic age where a pro forma thank you, a banal tweet, a lapel pin or a "Support the Troops" bumper sticker are construed as being meaningful.