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Vetting Veterans Day

During my senior year, draft looming, self-interest kicked in like a hit of amphetamine.

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Life, to be sure,
Is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is,
And we were young. 
—A.E. Housman

Saturday is Veterans Day. Originally known as Armistice Day, Nov. 11 marks the end of World War I, another generation's war. Men my grandfather's age fought in that "war to end all wars." Nine million soldiers on both sides died before the armistice in 1918.

The Greatest Generation fought the Axis powers in World War II. My father was deployed in the South Pacific when I was born. By the war's end in 1945, at least 15 million soldiers had been killed.

Vietnam was the Baby Boomers' war—my war willy-nilly. It wasn't abstract like other wars were to me. Vietnam had immediacy. After 1965, it was always in the background but frequently foregrounded on network news. As America's first televised war and with a soundtrack of machinegun fire and whirring helicopters, the newscasts made the jungle combat real enough. So did a mounting American death toll that eventually reached 58,220.

All these years later, Veterans Day gives me pause. Not just because it has been co-opted by retailers, not because of the commander-in-chief's deplorable treatment of two Gold Star families, but because for me, this Veterans Day is ushered in by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's riveting new documentary, The Vietnam War. I was compelled to watch the 18-hour film, episode after troubling episode, because Vietnam was a defining event in my life. To watch was to revisit moments either forgotten or suppressed. I struggled to reconcile the film's historical footage with my fading memory of the 1960s and how it was to be young in the face of war's existential threat. Reflecting led to thoughts of an old friend, Mike Hughes.

I met Hughes at the University at Utah, and we became close friends. We both paid our way with part-time jobs. On Friday nights, we sometimes cruised State Street in his beat-up, red Volkswagen, singing along with Mick Jagger on the AM radio. After turning 21, we hit the college bars, hoping to meet girls. Hughes had a boyish disposition, a ready smile and a deadly jump shot. We played tennis at Reservoir Park, golf at Bonneville and the pinball "dinger" at the Pine Cone Lounge in Sugar House. Student deferments enabled our carpe diem lifestyle and kept the draft at arm's length. Our unease with the escalating war in Vietnam was offset by our calculation that it would end before the Army came for us.

We were wrong.

In our senior year, the draft looming, self-interest kicked in like a hit of amphetamine. Avoiding a year in combat became an urgent occupation. We rejected a move to Canada, but another option, exploiting the inequalities of the pre-lottery draft, had great appeal. Unfortunately, we had neither the status nor the influence it required. No one we knew had the connections to buck the waiting lists for National Guard and Army Reserve units. Bill Clinton and Donald Trump had benefactors able to jigger the deferment process. We didn't. Graduation was soon upon us. The ink on our diplomas had barely dried when Hughes and I were dragooned into the Army. A year later, he was killed in a firefight. He was 24.

Some would say that Hughes made the ultimate sacrifice while defending the American way of life. You hear that canard a lot on Veterans Day, especially from politicians who have never worn a uniform. That he died because of a politician's duplicity is closer to the truth. Lyndon Johnson's self-serving lies were documented in The Vietnam War. So were Richard Nixon's. The documentary includes footage of the 1971 Vietnam Veterans Against the War protest when a young John Kerry testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asking, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

"Older men start wars, but younger men fight them," Albert Einstein observed. You would expect that the wisdom of the elders would privilege the young, not sacrifice them in military adventures like Vietnam. Sen. Jeff Flake's criticism of Trump's record made the point directly. "I will not be complicit," Flake said. "I have children and grandchildren to answer to." Acting in the interests of future generations is a moral imperative, I believe. On the other hand, I wonder how many of Flake's progeny will enlist in the Army out of a sense of moral obligation.

The draft ended in 1973. Consequently, less than one percent of the population is fighting America's long wars. The national defense is compartmentalized along class lines. Rich kids aren't in the fight, which might explain why the Afghanistan counterinsurgency drags on and on. Young soldiers are deployed on successive combat tours. Their sacrifices go unheralded: CNN doesn't tell their stories. Why? Because of our "reverent but disengaged attitude toward the military," James Fallows wrote in The Atlantic. "We love the troops, but we'd rather not think about them."

Veterans Day is intended to redress that shortcoming for a single day. Nov. 11 memorializes the armistice of the "war to end all wars." However, after decimating a generation of young men, WWI not only failed to deliver on its promise, it laid the groundwork for WWII. Irony might be what we're left with on Nov. 12, but it gives no comfort to either old or young.

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