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."
"Let's face it," says one broad-vowelled Ivy Leaguer, "the army gets the people who don't have the where--withall--in brains or money--to stay out. The real leadership is avoiding it--no one with any sense would fight of his own free will."
Against the recriminations of those who serve, and those who have served in past wars, the young men who avoid the draft have constructed a variety of defenses.
The army would only waste their talent, they argue, by assigning them to jobs fit for high school drop-outs. "If they really could use some of this intelligence," says one college student, "then it might make sense to take the more privileged people, but right now they misallocate most of their talented draftees, or send them off to get shot at."
Even if the army were able to put some of this potential to good use, many argue that they can do more for the country in the long run by developing skills in other areas in preparation for positions of leadership in the future. "After I finish my education," says one law school student, "I'll be able to serve my country in some meaningful way, instead of just standing up for cannon fodder."
And behind all the rhetoric, there is the war itself. A conflict of controversial objectives and disputed morality, it inspires no crusading fervor among those who may be called upon to give their lives. Few can think happily of making the ultimate secrifice in a war that seems to involve no clear or vital national interest. And although being drafted is not equivalent to being sent to Vietnam, one is often equated with the other in their minds.
As one student puts it: "This war is different from the others, To want to be a soldier you've got to want to fight for something. To kill someone you have to see the situation in black and white. We just don't see anything to fight for in Vietnam--not with guns anyway--and there just isn't any black or white."
Doubt and confusion, not outright disapproval or opposition, is the most prevalent sentiment. Some students have marched in protest, criticizing U.S. aggression, intervention and all the rest. But the vast majority of young men think of the situation in less cosmic terms. To them, it is the individual predicament that matters--the problems of delaying a career, postponing marriage, leaving home.
Once they are inducted of course, their outlook changes. The war becomes more immediate, whole-hearted support becomes a necessity. The process of training, and the nearness of sacrifice, encourage the fighting spirit: pride in the skill and efficiency of the military, an aggressive comaradery and a disdain for those who manage to stay out.
The gulf of experience which results from this change in attitude is too deep for either group to cross completely. The two-group classification oversimplifies the split, lumping together a wide variety of complicated feelings and outlooks. But the basic difference in mentality is real and important, and may have very practical implications for the future of this country.
Surviving in the form of attitudes toward foreign policy, military spending and the like, the split in experience may tend to polarize opinion in future elections, creating disagreement between two segments of the public on major issues. The division would not necessarily be expressed in the ideological terms of left and right. It could be demonstrated just as easily in agitation for increased intervention, or a more militant foreign policy in specific situations.
This political impact may be considerable because the antagonisms nurtured by the burdens of service are superimposed on already existing differences in income and education--thereby hardening the lines of class and widening the gaps in outlook which follow them. The veterans will see all too easily that the more fortunate members of their generation are primarily members of two groups: the culturally and economic elite, and the culturally and economic poor. They will have more reason to discriminate against the second group, and disregard leadership from the first.
The adjustment to civilian life is likely to be increasingly difficult and frustrating. The deferred students can parlay the degrees they earn in the next few years into high-paying jobs in government and industry. The disadvantaged, already darlings of the Great Society, can press for urban renewal and massive income transfer programs, such as the negative income tax, particularly after defense spending is reduced. But the veterans will find their experience in the arts of warfare of little use in peacetime. Coming disproportionately from the lower middle class, they must return to a society that is grateful for their service, but eager to forget the war. Embittered and disillusioned by a negotiated peace that cannot possibly offer total victory, they must compete in an economy that has grown more and more competitive and demanding; contend with a political system that appears more and more beyond their influence and understanding.
It is impossible to predict the exact expression the split in experience will take. But in view of the origins of support for totalitarian movements in the 1930's there is good reason for apprehension. Historians have usually attributed the stability of this country's political order to the ambiguity of class distinctions and the prevelance of common (middle-class) out-look. Though the split in experience could never destroy this stability, it could certainly weaken it. The war has thus brought out the worst in the draft and the draft has highlighted some of the most dangerous weaknesses in American society