By whatever combination of luck and circumstance, I don’t know any. Dead soldiers, that is. The closest I can come is a high school friend named Johnny Applegate. Johnny figured he wasn’t college material (there were still student deferments in 1967), and so joined the Army proactively to, in his mind, direct his own fate.
He became a helicopter pilot, a good one, was sent to Vietnam, and almost made it through his 12-month tour. He came back a month or two early accompanying the flag-draped coffin of his co-pilot. A North Vietnamese rocket had ripped straight up through the helicopter’s underbelly and the molded seat and then the pitifully pliant body of this man. Johnny was back at their base that day tripping on LSD, matching madness for madness. It wasn’t his day to fly.
As far as I know, no family members died in Korea, or in either of the world wars. My dad commanded a small supply ship in the Pacific in 1944-45. He witnessed the Battle of Coral Sea from a distance – pink flashes blooming along a midnight-dark horizon. In Tokyo harbor after Japan’s surrender, he watched horrified as a U.S. Navy flier rolled his fighter plane upside down in celebratory exuberance and crashed into the bay. Then he was part of the detail that had to fish the guy’s body out of the water. Physically, Dad came through the war unscathed.
Like most Americans in this age of the all-volunteer military, my experience with dying has been more prosaic: cancer, old age, accidents in the mountains, and what I might call unhappiness diseases – alcohol, loneliness. None of my contemporaries’ passings so far has included the mournful sound of Taps.
And none are likely to in the future. Unless the draft is reinstated.
Ellen and I were listening on the radio to New York Congressman Charles Rangel defend his call to recreate the draft. He contends that America’s leaders would be a lot less prone to starting or prolonging wars if their own sons and daughters had to fight in them. And he’s probably right. Although certain sons of privilege did a pretty good job avoiding service the last time around.
I told Ellen I thought there should be a draft. This was a kind of heresy coming from someone who drew draft lottery number two – two! – in April 1970. But I was serious.
“But,” Ellen cried, “what about Flipper,” our first grandchild, Cloe and Adam’s still-in-the-womb, still-unnamed son? Not just a military draft, I replied. A universal draft. Every American between the ages of 18 and 24 would have to give two years service to the country. Right after high school if you want, or after college, or in between. Two years doing something. It could be the Army if you were so inclined, but not necessarily. The armed forces would have to compete for your interest. They would still be a sort of semi-all-volunteer force.
You could go in the Peace Corps instead. Or work with Habitat for Humanity. Or in a hospital. Or with a special corps for disaster relief. Or teach in the inner city. Or work on a government-funded green energy project or with the desperately undermanned BLM or Forest Service.
It could be a thousand things. You’d get paid a bare minimum. You’d meet people from all over the country, all walks of life. You’d get time to grow up and learn to help out. We’d produce a new generation of citizens. Ellen just smiled. I’m not sure she was sold.
Meanwhile, this Memorial Day I will think about sacrifices made on the battlefield. But I will also stop to remember the guy in Berkeley crumpled lifeless on a rooftop overlooking Telegraph Avenue. I didn’t know him. But I watched an Alameda County sheriff’s deputy shoot him and saw his body fall. He was a protester – we all were – patriotic Americans doing our best to bring a senseless war to an end.