Sunday, November 11, 2012



Generational shift in demographics of Military Veterans reflects profound changes
in society since Viet Nam Era

(Sunday, November 11, 2012 – NYC)  Today Military Veterans and active duty troops marched up Fifth Avenue as an enthusiastic yet relatively small crowd lined the parade route waving American Flags, holding up handmade signs thanking all those who served, and photographs; some in black and white, others in color, pictures of their relatives who died in the service of their Country.  While the number of New Yorkers and tourists who watched as the vets and troops marched proudly in cadence uptown did not rival the numbers who annually view the St. Patrick’s Day, Columbus Day, or Thanksgiving Day Parades, they represented the diminishing yet loyal number of Americans for whom this federal holiday holds personal and often painfully emotional meaning.

Since the birth of our Nation, itself a product of a war with England for Independence, we have had virtually one form or another of a “conscripted Army”.  In 1917 Congress enacted the Selective Service Administration (SSA) which became the authority by which men between the ages of 21 through 34 could be drafted to serve in World War I.  Until 1973 there was an uninterrupted draft requiring mandatory military service of all able bodied men of a certain age.  This imparted a certain sense of cohesion, a common experience and measure of sacrifice born by all young men in almost all American families.  Once that commonality of military service vanished from the landscape, a fissure opened that continued to widen, dividing American families in profound ways.  It was arguably the first of what would eventually become many great “divides” in society that have increased in number and depth to this day.


Until President Richard Nixon instituted the “19 year old draft” and subsequently the “random selection” lottery system both in 1969 as the raging, bloody war in Viet Nam was becoming increasingly unpopular with the American people and particularly among those of “draft age”, the overwhelming majority of men served some time in one of the branches of the military.  Prior to Nixon’s actions having "been in the service” was one common element shared by young men from every background, socioeconomic strata of society, region and nationality.  This was one common denominator that gave society a bonding element since almost every family throughout the land knew what it meant to have a loved one serve.  Men who would go on to be doctor, lawyers, judges, bankers or businessmen or truck drivers, police officers, coal miners, laborers, contractors, teachers, cooks and everything in between could communicate with each other in a certain personal way made possible by their shared Military experiences.  Branch of Service, duty station, rank at discharge were but minor differences between them; it was what they had each commonly been through that provided them the ability to relate to and interact with one another that ceased to exist after 1973 and the dissolution of the SSA.


Until very recently in our history, a draft eligible young man was considered as unpatriotic at best, a coward or un-American at worst, to shirk his duty by attempting to avoid serving.  So fundamental to the American Spirit was this obligation that men who could have avoided service were compelled to perform their “duty”.  John F. Kennedy, the Harvard educated son of billionaire tycoon and former Ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy, enlisted in the Navy and served with valor on the PT-109 sustaining a lifelong injury after his small wooden craft was rammed by a Japanese Naval vessel.  Another of the many “Yankee Blue Bloods” who served was George H. W. Bush, another Ivy League educated scion of a powerful political family and the son of a US Senator.  Bush left Yale University, became a Navy Pilot and was shot down over the Japanese-held atoll, Tichi Jima, in the South pacific and was forced to parachute into the sea after his plane sustained fatal damage after he completed his bombing run.  The brainy black and white footage of the young future President being pulled from the sea to the safety of a submarine deck became a campaign staple during his ill-fated campaign for a second term against a “draft dodging” Bill Clinton in 1992. 

From the wealthiest of dynasties to the most anonymous, poorest clans, young men served because it was simply the right thing to do.  This was, of course, before our government lied to us, deceived us in many unforgivable ways on matters of life and death regarding our youth in uniform.  Until that reckoning the thought of “not serving” when your time came was so abhorrent, so alien a concept that it was barely spoken of even between the closest of brothers, the best of friends.  Everyone knew that at some time their time would come and off they’d go.  Be they famous professional athletes or Hollywood stars, they served when called because to not do so would forever tarnish their image in the minds of their fellow citizens.  But, the matter of “image” aside, each of them served, some in lethal combat missions with many very notable men voluntarily enlisting in WWII, Korea and some in Viet Nam.

Many served in times of peace but that did not detract from the respect they earned by having served.  Americans of a certain age can recall icons of their day being inducted.  Some can recall the furor caused by the young Heavyweight Champion of the World, an articulate, graceful athlete blessed with superb skills, a 1960 Olympic Gold Medalist from Louisville Kentucky who changed his given name of Cassius Clay to his Muslim name, Muhammad Ali, after he converted to Islam in 1964.  When he received his draft notice in 1967 he refused to be inducted famously stating that “Ain’t no Viet Cong ever called me Nigger”.  He was stripped of his Title belts, banned from boxing at the height of his career for 5 years and initially served a brief time in jail because of his refusal to serve.    No, in the America of that day to refuse to serve was a federal offense.

Juxtapose the respect the American public expressed when NFL All Pro player, Pat Tillman of the Arizona Cardinals quit his multimillion dollar contract to enlist in the Army after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  Pat joined his brother as an Army Ranger and died in combat operations in Afghanistan.  In a sense Muhammad Ali was "ahead" of his time while Pat Tillman represented something of a "throwback" to a distant era.


Aside from some physical, medical or mental condition that exempted a draftee from serving, there was always another recognized and widely accepted reason for not serving at that was to claim the status of a “conscientious objector”.  Typically those readily granted this status were members of well-established religious denominations the very tenets of which forbade them to engage in military conflict.  Some came from strict doctrines such as Quakers, Shakers and The Amish while other sects were well known “pacifists” such as Mennonites, Orthodox Jews, Jehovah’s Witness’ and Mormons*. The government, sometimes begrudgingly, accepted the fact that there were those young men among the population who simply could not serve on moral, ethical and religious grounds.   Certainly, there were some who mocked these young men, their religions and traditions but, in a nation founded on the bedrock principal of “Freedom of Religion” could no more force such young men into the service as they could impose a national faith.

There is no shame in being an avowed pacifist.  It took a good reserve of courage and personal fortitude for those who truly could not in their hearts and minds justify going into military service and perhaps find themselves in the position of having to take another human life in battle.  Many of these young men did, however, serve as medics and other "non-front line posts". However, given the pervasive sense of accepting military service for most of this young Nation's history, there was always an element of controversy that was difficult for some to understand.


Until the election of Bill Clinton to the Presidency military service was almost as much a prerequisite as was any other single factor.   Actually, it was difficult to run for public office on any level without having been a military veteran.  So deeply embedded in society for generations were the concepts of Duty, Honor and Courage, that if the military ticket was not punched there was not much a candidate could do to gain the votes or acceptance acceptance of his (and until the 1960’s electoral politics was almost a purely male domain) intended constituency. 

Certain members of the draft eligible population were granted deferments for various reasons.  Professions such as medical doctors were commonly granted deferments, (although thousands of physicians served) as were most full time college students, Seminary, Rabbinical and other religious schools as well as some of those considered “vital” to the war effort on the homfront and could be of most service remaining home working as farmers, ranchers and some skilled tradesmen.  Not all these deferments were granted automatically and, as the Viet Nam war devolved into a difficult to understand quagmire, more and more young men sought deferments.  University and college enrollments skyrocketed as did the ranks of those young men suddenly “called” to the Seminary or Yeshiva.

Essentially, college deferments were viable options for those who had come from the financial means to afford a college education.  This was the beginning of the socioeconomic divide that would, by 1972 have the conflict in Viet Nam come to be known as “The Poor Man’s War”. Deferments had historically been a series of conditional classifications by which a draftee could be permanently exempted or granted short term relief from having to serve.  These were not “one time deals”.  Short term deferments could be granted consecutively year after year after year for those able to qualify.  Arguably, the very nature of deferments was the beginning of one of the huge cultural divides we see today; those eligible for deferments were very different from those who were not and the defining difference was class, finances, and the social pecking order.

To no ones surprise, in short order, this system became widely taken advantage of, abused in some respects, as draft eligible boys who came from families with the financial means to afford a college education began enrolling in droves.  Colleges and universities saw unprecedented enrollment numbers thanks to the draft.  So, for whatever reason you claimed to not want to go in the military, all you needed to do if you could afford it was jump into college. 

By the height of the war in Viet Nam and the widespread grassroots anti-war movement evolving on college campuses from coast to coast, for the first time in our history we saw a profound alteration in the demographics of our military. This dramatic change in the composition of our fighting force was so pronounced that by 1970 87% of the boys fighting, being maimed and killed in Viet Nam came from the lowest socioeconomic strata of our society.  Those college grads who did wind up serving in the military went in as “commissioned officers” who served primarily in “non-combat zones” and those who did serve in combat had an astonishingly 79% better chance of not being wounded or killed than did a regular Army or Marine in the field.    The equitable shared burden of military service was fading into oblivion as the troops fighting came from the poorest urban and rural communities with a disproportionate number of African American boys among the ranks.  This is a well-documented fact.

Of course, an alternative to direct deferments were the scarce and highly coveted open slots in the National Guard, particularly the Air National Guard.  The National Guard quickly became the respectable refuge for the sons of privilege and politicians as well as the moneyed class with influence.  Often this option was exercised more for the benefit of a powerful, famous political father than merely for the benefit of keeping his son out of “harm’s way”.  Around 1969-1970 then Texas Congressman George H.W. Bush pulled every available string he could to secure a rare position in the Texas Air National Guard for his hapless son, George W. Bush.  George Senior’s Father, Prescott Bush, was a Senator from Connecticut when his son joined the Navy during WWII so, most definitely, the times they were a changin’.  While guys like George W, Bush and Dan Quayle were securing the skies over Texas and Alabama, guys from the South Bronx, the South side of Chicago, the hills and hollers of Appalachia, the Mississippi/Arkansas delta region and other lowly places across the land were dying in Viet Nam.  We were approaching what would soon become the 1% Doctrine. 

Service in the Guard cloaked the likes of George W, Dan Quayle and THEIR PEERS with the respectability of having “served”, of fulfilling their patriotic duty, while virtually guaranteeing they would never spend a minute in combat and would leave the service without so much as a case of athlete’s foot.  Nixon ended the draft for good in 1973 and that was the beginning of our “all volunteer military”.  The concept of shared responsibility and the bonds that came from the commonality of military experience among men of all walks of life was gone.

Just recently we’ve seen the results of having elected officials vested with the authority to send our boys and girls off to fight for whatever “interests” they perceive worthy.  The Air Guard Pilot George W. and Dick Cheney – 5 college deferments, began a preemptive war of choice in Iraq with the callous ease of men who have never experienced the horrors of combat. We have never before engaged in such a war and we have never had a “chain of command” so devoid of actual personal military experience.  Even Bush Sr., a combat veteran wrestled mightily with sending our troops into Kuwait at the behest of the Saudi’s after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and cast his gaze on the riches of the Saudi oil fields.  When he decided to send troops he did so with overwhelming force, a clearly defined mission and an established exit strategy.  Only a military man would think so responsibly.  Cheney and his Messianic puppet George W. were surrounded by a cadre of multiple-deferment neo-cons more intoxicated by power and ideology than tempered by experience and judgment.


The advent of the all-volunteer military was one of the first artificial but intentional divides that continue to reverberate in America to this very day.  As the ranks of our Armed Forces became populated by young men and women for whom the military was the only available option for betterment, it quickly became evident that these young people were coming in overwhelming numbers from the low and lowest socioeconomic strata.  Some enlisted for noble reasons, to continue established and honored family tradition and for the pure desire to serve their country.  Many others enlisted to take advantage of the ever increasingly attractive educational and financial incentives for enlistment.  The National Guard also became a viable option for young people seeking funding for a higher education for what had typically been a “low risk, high reward” proposition.  Unfortunately, many of these Guardsmen and women as well as Reservists from all branches of the military would soon learn the painful lesson that there was indeed a price to pay, an obligation to fulfill; some of who paid with their limbs, minds, and lives.  The all voluntary military simply did not provide the troop levels needed when our country found ourselves engaged in two far flung, long term military engagements.


As the percentage of American families with a member on active duty in the military shrunk to a mere fraction of 1% of our total population, the sacrifices became not only inequitably distributed but largely confined to those with direct involvement.  The fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan became just so much background noise and back page news to the majority of the population.  Military families were forced to endure the trials and stresses of multiple deployments and many came to be intimately acquainted with the human, personal costs of battle, combat and having experienced such brutality.

Just this past Tuesday, November 6th, we witnessed the end of one of the most divisive, antagonistic, ideologically bitter Presidential elections in recent memory if not since the earliest days of this Republic.  Many of the arguments presented passionately from both major Parties were predicated overtly and covertly, subtlety and blatantly on exploiting divisions that already divide us socioeconomically, culturally, morally and in many other significant ways  among us or creating and fomenting new ones intended to deepen already wide fissures in the Country today.

The predominant, most fiercely contested of all the many issues that were called to attention during the long contentious campaign focused on what can generally be referred to as matters of “Class Warfare”.   “Us” against “Them”,  haves versus have nots, rich against poor, the working class pitted against the entrepreneurial class, with the oft spoken of and fought over but ever shrinking “middle class” essentially pawn-like spectators to many of the particulars of both Party Platforms.  Yes, our society is rife with divisions. 

Are all of these dividers directly related to the end of mandatory military service?  Probably not.  Has the inception of the all-volunteer military played a role in helping to create wedge issues and divisions among us that seep easily into all other political, policy and social matters?  Probably more than we realize.

As the highly respected CBS Anchorman who has covered many wars during his storied journalistic career,” The Iraq war was fought by one-half of one percent of us.  And unless we were part of that small group or had a relative who was, we went about our lives as usual most of the time: no draft, no new taxes, no changes. Not so for the small group who fought the war and their families.”

And therein lays the crux of this matter discussed here on this Veteran’s Day. 

A nation that sends its youth to fight in wars owes to them and their families a tremendous debt that transcends gratitude, platitudes, parades and pageantry.  Since 2001 we have seen the growth of an entire generation of new veteran many of whom have survived injuries so horrific that if not for the sophisticated medical techniques and resources available today would have died a certain death just 20 years ago.  The loss of limbs, the sheer numbers and severity of traumatic brain injuries, burns, and the myriad other methods by which human bodies are ripped, torn, mutilated and destroyed on the modern battlefield, to say nothing of the last unseen and often undiagnosed ravages of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) demand our government maintain their side of the sacred oath and do everything possible to help these veterans and their families.  We do not need to create any additional divisions among us by disregarding our collective responsibility, our obligation to those who have served us in war and peace, as a draftee or enlistee, no matter when, where or how.

"America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves."

President Abraham Lincoln



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