Each November, as Veterans Day approaches, my thoughts turn to 2007 and a Sunday afternoon on a visit to the nation’s capital. I was driving a rental car around D.C. looking for a parking garage within walking distance of the National Mall. A news report on the radio grabbed my attention — a story about what was at that time the four-year-old war in Iraq. The last line sent a shiver down my spine: Lawmakers raised the possibility of reinstating a military draft.
I registered for the draft in 1971 within the required 30 days of my 18th birthday. The war in Vietnam was still raging. The prospect of being forced to fight in Vietnam terrified not only me but other men of my generation. I considered it to be a civil war we had no business inserting ourselves in. So did an enormous number of other American young men. Depending on the source, estimates cite anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 of them fleeing to Canada. I found out many years after the fact that my retired army officer father told my mother that, were I to be called up, she was to drive me across the Canadian border. But that plan hadn’t been necessary. I, and other young draft-age men like me, escaped by the literal luck of the draw. A lottery. 365 numbers assigned randomly to days of the year. The highest number drafted for the year I was born was 95. I was one of the lucky ones. My birthday drew the number 360. It seemed so capricious, so blatantly unfair. Lotteries ended in 1975, but even today, 18-year-old males must register within 30 days of their 18th birthday.
In that 2007 visit to D.C., as I entered the National Mall, I saw a line of pedestrians heading toward a structure I couldn’t quite place, something I’d never seen before. Curious, I fell in line and followed along.
Our path took us to what was at that time the nation’s newest monument, the World War II Memorial. Tall, classical columns and arches evoked the grandiosity of bygone empires. It stood in stark contrast to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial I had seen when I lived on the East Coast many years earlier. I remembered the criticisms leveled at Maya Yin Ling’s controversial rendering, how it later inspired admiration for its solemn, almost shocking, design.
The World War II Memorial had invited its share of detractors for various reasons, including what some considered overblown, ornate detail. How many of those critics, I wondered, had come here and felt that same way five minutes later? William Tecumseh Sherman’s oft-repeated words, “War is Hell,” crossed my mind, as did Dante and his Inferno. What might the writer who fashioned the nine circles of Hell have thought had he lived through the hellish campaigns inscribed in a prominent ring of stone: Tarawa. Guadalcanal. Midway. Iwo Jima. The Battle of the Bulge. Anzio. Normandy.
Not far across the plaza, on a bench built into the wall, I spotted a solitary figure basking in the afternoon sun. No tourist, he lived in these walls, I could tell — a fellow from a generation for whom dude had one meaning and apple pie was a symbol.
He stood out, this older fellow, his black baseball cap pulled down tight over a shock of white hair, and above the cap’s bill was the word veteran. Beneath the brim, tilted back in something that suggested youthful insouciance, was a lived-in face creased by years of laughter.
His eyes were something else, again. A boy from the hills of West Virginia still romped in those eyes. No sunglasses shielded them, though light reflected everywhere. The sun remained high enough, bright enough to warrant cover for such eyes — blue, sufficiently clear to telegraph how much they’d seen through seasons aplenty to fill nine decades.
Bob was 90 and would turn 91 the following week. His home was nearby, he told me, so he could come every day or so to sit, pass the time and talk to young whippersnappers like me.
16 million Americans served in World War II. Today, some 167,000 are still living. According to government records, approximately 180 die every day. In 2007, the monument had been there for Bob all of three years. I asked him where he had served. Bob’s 5th Army went first to North Africa, then to Italy and the Anzio beach head. My mother’s older brother, 19-year-old Robert Thomas Bearden, was on that beach and died in that war. My grandfather, for whom I am named, served on a ship that was torpedoed in World War 1. My father was awarded the Bronze Star for gallantry under fire in Korea on the very day I was born.
I learned that Bob was a student of the Civil War. His great-grandfather had fought in the War, he told me. I asked Bob for which side.
“The South!” he exclaimed at my impertinence for suggesting otherwise. I told Bob that my great-great-grandfather and his six brothers fought for the South at the Battle of Vicksburg. I also shared with Bob the news account I had heard on the radio – the matter of bringing back the draft. Bob jumped on my words no sooner than they had left my mouth.
“Good!” And he shook his head back and forth for emphasis. “Then everybody will have to fight, and they’ll stop the war over there in Iraq – tell ‘em to shove that oil up their ass.”
American involvement in Iraq ended in 2011 after 8 years. On July 8, 2021, President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. announced that the last United States service personnel would be pulled from Afghanistan after 20 years of war. More than 7,000 service personnel and more than 8,000 civilian contractors were killed in Afghanistan and Iraq combined, and the staggering number of post 9/11 service suicides defies belief — more than 30,000.
My best friend’s older brother was killed in Vietnam. A plaque honoring my classmates who died in Vietnam has been affixed to the wall of the high school administration building ojf my alma mater.
The vast, overwhelming majority of us don’t have skin in the game. I’ll be the first to admit I was able to avoid the draft and the jungles of Vietnam by an insane luck of the draw, and, yes, some less fortunate young men did the dying for me. But I am not not alone in maintaining that boots on the ground in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan were predicated on nonsense and outright lies. The Domino Theory held no water. There was no yellow cake uranium. 16 Saudi nationals flew the planes into the Twin Towers, and Pakistan’s government knew another Saudi named Osama bin Laden was living a stone’s throw away from their version of West Point.
Bob was right. As much as I hate to admit it, perhaps we should follow Israel’s lead. If all young men and women were required to put in two years of compulsory military service, the American public might be more circumspect about what they allowed their government to do.
Today’s army is all-volunteer. The number of Americans serving in the Armed Forces? A paltry 1 %. Vietnam. Iraq. Afghanistan. Viewed through any lens, war is somebody else’s hell. No matter what we may think of the questionable excuses underlying the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, on Veterans Day, we should take time to remember that this day honors the disproportionately few men and women who wore the uniform in service of our nation.