The draft is now splitting a generation--dividing the young men coming of age in this decade into two distinct groups of experience. Although the separation is initially physical and geographical, between those who serve and those who do not, the most lasting gulf will be psychological.
To one group, growing up in the swamps of Vietnam and Fort Bragg, the draft has brought the threat of death and injury, tempered by a kind of grim satisfaction and pride. To the other, nurtured in the cushioned seats of classrooms and lectures, it has meant prosperity and rising standards of living matched by increasing anxiety and dissension.
Both groups will look back on these years as a time of uncertainty and confusion. But they will lack the bond of shared experience that the draft has stimulated in past wars.
"There's a difference between us and them" says one veteran who returned to college this fall as a junior after a two-year "leave of absence" in the Army. "It's not just a matter of age or accent. It's a question of living--what the military puts you through, and does to you."
The split in experience may have serious consequences, for, as a result of the student deferment and mental-physical standards, the selective service now forces a particular group of young people--the lower-middle class--to bear a disproportionate share of the burden. The deferment weeds out those who do not have the resources--mental, material, and motivational--to climb the dizzying ladder to "higher" education. The physical and intelligence criteria select out much of the lower class. As the Task Force on Manpower Conservation showed in its report One-Third of a Nation, at least a fifth of those rejected come from families that are on public assistance, and almost one half are sons in families with six or more children. Thus, many of the young men from the lower middle class are sent to boot camp while their contemporaries, behind the walls of the ghetto or the university, stay out. And the two groups are already regarding one another with suspicion and hostility across the barrier of experience.
On one side are those who are drafted, or who enlist under pressure. Few of them ever go to Vietnam, and only a fraction of the soldiers in Vietnam ever see combat. But the experience of serving in the military during wartime, like the experience of war itself, changes all of them--cramming a large piece of hell into a few short years, ignoring the shelters provided in civilian life by education and wealth.
The military makes every man dependent on his most elemental skills and instincts. All within hearing distance of the whip-lash voice of the master sergeant are equal, and all may be sent--without warning, or justification or purpose--to destruction.
Men leave the military with a small piece of death as a souvenir even if it is only the grateful knowledge that they avoided it. A draftee may-never see blood or battle. But the two years of his life that are organized around the skills of killing and disabling, the highest arts of military science, cannot help but change him.
The army teaches many men skills which are not inherently "military" and will later prove useful in civilian life. It trains men to build radios, clean engines and fly planes. But it does not provide this training for fun or profit. The army, as the best of its generals insists, is no poor man's college or vocational school. The man who gets his education in the army pays for it with at least two years in bondage.
Thus, most men return from service with a particular attitude toward those who attempt to stay in "real" school, college or graduate, to avoid it. Even the best educated draftees--men who enlisted after graduating from college because they did not care to go on to graduate school--leave with a certain sense of condescension and disdain for those who do not serve. The veterans share a grim pride in having been part of it all, a peculiar mixture of superiority and self-conscious maturity in dealing with the "dodgers." Their disdain, of course, is not unmixed with well-disguised envy.
"We'll get you in the military and make a real man out of you," one college graduate from the mid-West tells his college roommate. "The army makes you grow up and develop a sense of judgement much more quickly than civilian life," says another veteran.
Although many of the draftees themselves wished to avoid the service before they were taken, they tend to feel once they are finished that those who were more succssful in bypassing it are somehow less patriotic or courageous. "We're creating a generation of professional students," says one soldier who dropped out of a southern university during his sophomore year. "These people who don't know what they want, and who keep on going to school to find it, would be best off in the army."
Those who avoid service, however, are often equally condescending toward those who serve. They regard the draftees as failures on two possible counts--either because they lacked the intelligence and drive to stay in school; or because they had the natural and material advantages, but did not have the good sense to ignore the "patriotism pitch."