When I headed off to the University of Wisconsin as a freshman in September, 1967, I didn’t know much about Vietnam. My fellow freshmen and I assumed then that by the time we graduated, Vietnam would be behind us. But the war dragged on, and sometime during my undergraduate career they abolished grad student deferments except in the case of certain fields–my leanings towards the arts and humanities not among them. In my junior year, three of us (myself and two seniors) shared a third-floor walk-up apartment on Princeton Avenue on Madison’s West side. The Selective Service Sword of Damocles had been hanging over our heads since we all turned 18 and, in compliance with national law, registered for the draft. On December 1, 1969, the three of us were tossed into the Selective Service System’s peacetime draft lottery. One roommate and I came back from somewhere–probably a few quaffs at the corner bar-only to learn that November 2nd, my birthday, had been pulled at No. 34. If things didn’t change drastically, come June of my senior year I’d take my Bachelor’s degree in one hand and my enlistment papers in the other. Of course, long before then I had become convinced that the US involvement in Vietnam was a tragic mistake, both for Americans and Vietnamese.
One of my roommates applied for conscientious objector status, which was eventually granted. After agonizing over whether I should do the same, I eventually recognized that morally I didn’t qualify as a C.O. Briefly, I mentioned the possiblity of C.O. status to my parents and immediately got the expected response. My dad was a between-the-lines World War II vet, a cadet the Air Force trained as a fighter pilot then stuck at the controls of B-24s for 55 missions in the South Pacific. My mother, especially, voiced fears at the possibility of my resistance to the draft. Although she "wouldn’t send a dog to Vietnam", she also felt that my resisting the draft would bring great shame on them. To minds shaped by World War II, nothing was lower than a "draft dodger". The shame won out over the dog; it was about them, not me.
The lottery system which allowed so many young people with high numbers to escape the draft would not remove the pall that Vietnam had draped over my generation–men and women alike. Vietnam even diminished the rah rah aspects of college life. We celebrated football victories (rare in those days for Wisconsin) with sudsy beers diluted with misgivings. Was it proper to go over the top about a football game when men, women and children, including our peers who never had a chance to hide from the Army in the schoolhouse door, were dying or at the very least changing their lives irrevocably? How many Asian families huddled together in the night while bombers droned overhead as, a half a world away, we added another drunken chorus to "If You Want To Be A Badger?"
Thanks to excellent draft counseling, I failed the physical by being two pounds overweight. The counselors told me that the Selective Service would only ask for one more weigh-in six months later which is just how it happened. They also counseled–correctly–that my deaf right ear wouldn’t defer me. Without the counselors, I might have faced the hard choice of whether to go or stay. I’d like to think that I would’ve resisted. But talk is cheap. I’m still happy I wasn’t put to the test. I’m at peace that I didn’t serve and I honor those who did. The kids who went against their will were not the war makers.