(This was first posted here last year.)
I woke up yesterday in Portland (OR), in a condo near the top of W. Burnside. The area has a series of cemeteries, dark green rolling hills, breaking up the otherwise thick forested landscape. It had rained all night, so there was a thick mist cushioning the quiet hills. It was early Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, not a lot of cars around, very quiet. Through the mist I could see the U.S. flags dotting the graves on the hills. Random patterns. A lot of the graves have flags today.
Later in the day we drove by, commented on the flags. How many from this century, Afghanistan, Iraq? Hard to tell. They’d be so young, somebody said.
Whether they died in 1943, or 1969, or 2007, they were all so young.
Switch to reality television. 1969. The draft lottery. They put the 366 possible days of the year in transparent plastic eggs, one each for each possible birthday. The put them all into a giant transparent barrel like we see in lotteries these days. They spun the wheel. They drew a date. Those of us born on that date got a number.
My number was 243. I didn’t get drafted. I didn’t go to Vietnam.
By 1969, most of us opposed the Vietnam war. We talked about what we’d do if drafted. Al became a conscientious objector, emptied bedpans for two years. I was engaged to be married, but that was not going to get me out of the war. But a January birth date did.
It turned out later that somebody did a statistical analysis on the draft lottery and the dates. They started on January 1 and threw them in from there day-by-day to December 31. The later birthdays tended to be on top. Or so I read later.
But we didn’t oppose the people, our peers, who fought. Whether it was their choice, or not.
Few in my generation chose to go to war. One who did, who graduated with me from Notre Dame, chose ROTC. Traveling around Europe, he collected military paraphernalia. His father was in the army. His grandfather had been in the army. He volunteered to be a helicopter pilot, and he died in Vietnam. In his helicopter. We weren’t that close, I heard about it later. My memories of him are of a 20-year-old kid having a wonderful time during a year in college abroad, laughing, drinking Austrian beer, learning; as alive as any memory could be. What a terrible loss.
Memorial Day, patriotism, flags, wars. Protests, anti-war, opposition. Memorial Day isn’t about war, or politics, or patriotism, or whatever might be the opposite of patriotism. It’s definitely not about flags. It’s about young people who died, and the people left behind who loved them. And all the people who endured it, risked their lives, went through the hell of it, for whatever reasons.
I lucked out. I won the reality TV of the last half century, the 1969 draft lottery. And I thank God for that. And honor and respect the ones who went, for whatever reasons. And hope that we can end the present war without causing chaos, and more death and suffering; and that we never fight another war again.
I recently came across your thoughtful article about Memorial Day and your recollections about the 1969 draft lottery. Thought you might be interested in a site that is collecting stories of the Vietnam war lotteries: vietnamwardraftlottery.com.