Lou Rawls, Pfc.
LOU RAWLS is going to go to war and the rest of of will stay at home. "Let me give it to you straight," the multi-tonal diplomat told America's youth in a widely circulated series of "public service" ads. "Register--not because it's the law...cause it's the right thing to do."
So most American young men are registering. And the demonstrations are small. People realize the necessity of preparedness, of showing a united, unwavering visage to the vulture across the sea. Not only that, the economy is healthy. In real life, on the steps of the Lexington Post Office, young men are bullshit. Not just the young men who go to Harvard and spend their free time complaining about American imperialism but the kind of young men who work in gas stations, not DNA labs, over the summer.
Those of us who decided to spend these two weeks talking to people as they came to register for the draft feared at first that we might catch a lot of flak. But the super-patriots are gone; yeah, one or two guys made meant-to-be-overheard remarks about the "faggots" or "communists." But almost everybody wanted to stop and talk, and almost none of them were happy.
The general consensus was that registration makes no sense. "I pay taxes every year; they know where I am," one explained. "Seven days--if its the kind of war where seven days is going to make a difference, then ten minutes isn't going to make a difference," another said. And people, praise God, are turning pleasantly cynical. They realize that if there is registration without a war, there must be a reason, and it's probably one that doesn't make much sense. "I guess this is Jimmy Carter Re-Election Headquarters," one 1978 graduate of Lexington High School said, and the inflection was bitter.
Part of the reasoning is straightforward save-my-ass selfishness: "I figured something like this would happen so I took a course and became a minister of the Universal Light Church Inc," one said. Others talked--seriously--of going to Canada, of going underground, of becoming conscientious objectors should the draft resume. But the personal motives mask a core of political beliefs. Americans may have forgotten about Vietnam, but it doesn't take much to remind them, and draft registration brings memories back to the surface. Exxon and Mobil will be distressed to learn that large numbers of America's youth think oil isn't worth dying for. "What the fuck have they ever done for me?" asked one, obviously not a regular reader of the Times op-ed page.
There are circumstances that will move Americans to fight--the most common is a fear of Soviet expansion, the spread of Russian communism through military force. "Something has to be done to stop them" was a common refrain all week--when asked, many said they would be willing to go to war should Russia show signs of overrunning the free world. But, bumper stickers to the contrary, young men seem to realize that there are two sides to the Iran "crisis" that is supposed to rescue America from the passive "Vietnam Syndrome." None of them seemed eager to go to war over the hostages.
ONE THING causes most men to register: the fear of prosecution, the thought that not signing the goddamn card may mean five years in jail. On the steps of the post office several guys wondered how many hadn't registered. They asked how the court rulings of the last two weeks would affect the chances of successful prosecution. They questioned what a felony conviction would do to one's career prospects. "What's going to happen if I don't?" they asked, again and again.
And of course, there were no answers to reassure them. The mathematics indicate widespread jailings are unlikely; 10 per cent of the total registrant pool is 400,000 people, ten times the total population of America's federal penitentiaries. And there are obvious difficulties with convicting young men of violating a law that they knew at least to be of dubious constitutionality. But who knows? The punishment may be severe--a semester at Danbury, Conn., not UMass. Many young men turned around and said they will wait another week to make up their minds, time to see how many aren't registering. Others registered but scrawled "under protest" on the cards. Still others said they would resist only once the draft begins.
The system, whatever it is, seems corrupt when fear of prosecution motivates action. Presumably, most Americans refrain from murdering each other not because they don't want to go to jail but because they don't believe in murder. People don't sit in front of banks and say "well, if we can get 5 per cent of the population to stick up cashiers the district attorney will have a hell of a time trying to prosecute us." Young men understand that society will proceed just fine without registration; only their lives, entrusted to the government, may not continue normally.
But if everyone is so opposed to registration, how did it ever get adopted? The answer is that everyone is not so opposed to draft registration. Congressmen, by virtue of Article III of the United States Constitution, are over 25; to them, it sounds like a fine idea. And to most of the population, not scratched deeply enough by the prospect of registration to make them remember, it doesn't sound so bad. But to the people affected, young men and their parents, and young women smart enough to realize it won't be so long until, registration is an immensely larger issue.
The perennial concern--should a majority with a slight interest outweigh a minority with a large interest--can be solved here very easily. If young men are going to fight wars, give them some voice in deciding which wars are worth fighting. Let them "vote with their feet" by deciding when the situation merits volunteering for military duty. The record indicates this would protect America--in the first five days after Pearl Harbor, 15 million people signed up. The informal range of opinions sampled on the steps of the Lexington Post Office, however, indicates it might not protect the oil companies.
America must realize the depth of cynicism among her youth. We have serious doubts about the reasons for the actions of our leaders. And those doubts raise a more serious question: how long can a government remain trusted, beloved, when it relies on power, not reason, to enforce its dictates? In a way, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), Jimmy Carter and the rest should be thanked--draft registration will wake up another generation, start them wondering about our world. And who's to blame if the answers they arrive at don't jibe with administration policy?
One guy came down to the post office after he'd seen the commercials on TV and he talked for a while. In a sack in the bowels of the Lexington post office, there's a card which reveals that Lou Rawls, vacationing in Lexington, registered for the draft.