“Greetings,” the letter began. I’d gotten it in the mail in September, 1969. I’d known it was coming, but that didn’t make it any less horrifying. It felt like an advanced notice of my upcoming death.
I’d graduated with a B.A. In English Lit from the University of Missouri the past spring, and had been accepted into the Masters program. I was back in classes on Monday, December 1. It was a time for popcorn, cheap beer, and the daily televised body count. My fate was already sealed.
I’d attended several anti-war protests, though I didn’t consider myself a protester. I went seeking something indefinable, something that would ease the most intense moral quandary in my twenty-two years of life. My father had been rejected by the military in 1941 due to a ruptured eardrum, and had promptly joined the Merchant Marine, feeling he had to do whatever he could to stop the unmitigated, well-defined, genocidal evil of fascism.
I had no such clearly defined motivation. The “conflict” in Viet Nam was, patently, a civil war the U.S. had no business being involved in. “Domino theory?” Horseradish. Could I actually pull the trigger and slaughter someone for virtually no good reason, other than someone ordering me to do so? “Thou shalt not kill.” What about that moral law?
I’d tried the conscientious objector route. The Linn County, Missouri, Selective Service Committee had asked me but a single question: “Are you a Quaker?” I admitted I was not. Then, I was informed, I wasn’t a CO.
There were other options. Buying documentation stating you had bone spurs, like Trump’s, or torn meniscus cartilage, or a shopping list of other dis-qualifiers, was a choice for rich kids. I couldn’t live with myself if it meant having to cheat or lie my way out. And, of course, the contemporary version of the Underground Railroad to Canada was always there.
I decided. Maybe I couldn’t perform the officially sanctioned murders my nation was willing to forgive me for, but I loved my country enough to not refuse to serve.
In June of 1970, I was delivered to the induction station in Kansas City, once again registered my moral dilemma, took that infamous step forward, and was bused off to Ft. Leonard Wood and basic training. By some miracle, after AIT at Ft. Sill, where I graduated with honors in fire direction control for 105 mm howitzer batteries, I was given orders for Korea instead of Nam.
I never had to find out if I was capable of killing.
Oh, my number? 272. The last number inducted was 195.