Memorial Day, like Armistice Day in November, is a day part of whose significance is obscure even to those who know its meaning. Yes, we should honor the memories of Americans who fell in battle. Yes, they served honorably. Yes, they paid the highest of prices in performing their service. Certainly these are things to be remembered. But there are other things to remember alongside them. Some of those things aren’t terribly pleasant.
American soldiers who fought in the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, were largely conscripts: inducted into the Army under the threat of a prison term. For the most popular of those wars, World War II, the federal government conscripted six million of the eleven million Americans who took up arms. The risks they faced, and that cost the lives of some, were not of their choosing.
Forced labor – labor performed under threat of punishment – is involuntary servitude: slavery. It’s forbidden by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Yet from the Civil War through the Vietnam War it was the primary source of manpower for the United States Army. Moreover, the Selective Service system that harvested young men from their trades, studies, and families to fight far from home still exists, albeit “on standby.” Young men are required by law to register with the Selective Service System on or shortly after their eighteenth birthdays. It’s possible that soon young women will be as well.
The Vietnam War was hugely unpopular – at least as unpopular as World War II was popular. The majority of the young men who fought in Vietnam were draftees. The bitterness of those who were sent there only to return home to the scorn and derision of their contemporaries is easy to understand. It wasn’t their choice, whatever they might have thought of the merits of our campaign in Southeast Asia.
A lot of effort has gone into effacing the terrible sins against justice and decency committed against Vietnam veterans. We don’t like to remember our offenses against others. That doesn’t mean they never happened. But as bad as those sins were, there were others of which many Americans are unaware.
After World War II, the policy makers who supported the Selective Service system and managed its operation and provisions had more in mind than just filling the ranks of the Army. A second set of aims was incorporated into the system along with the first: a conception of “channeling:”
Shortly after SDS made its commitment to draft resistance, Peter Henig discovered a Selective Service document that stunned even the most hard-line opponents of the draft and the [Vietnam] war. Called the “channeling memo” and published in the January 1967 issue of New Left Notes, the piece became one of the draft resistance movements best recruiting tools. The Selective Service included the memo in training kits, and activists correctly assumed that it came from the desk of General Hershey; as they read it, most imagined the wizened, half-blind old man – a sinister Gepetto of sorts – sitting at his desk typing out the ominously matter-of-fact phrases: “Delivery of manpower for induction, the process of providing a few thousand men with transportation to a reception center, is not much of an administrative or financial challenge. It is dealing with the other millions of registrants that the System is heavily occupied, developing more effective human beings in the national interest.” The memo went on to describe the pressure, “the threat of loss of deferment,” reinforced through periodic reports to the local draft board,. felt by every registrant. “He is impelled to pursue his skill rather than embark upon some less important enterprise,” it stated, “and is encouraged to apply his skill in an essential activity in the national interest.” Finally, as if boasting of America’s ability to program some of its citizens’ futures under the illusion of democracy, the memo concluded: “The psychology of granting wide choice under pressure to take action is the American or indirect way of achieving what is done by direction in foreign countries where choice is not permitted.” To the surprise of even the most jaded, the document offered evidence that the Selective Service system was not only inducting men into the military but engaging in the kind of social engineering practiced by America’s totalitarian enemies.
Young men who feared to enter the military were thus pressured into pursuing a college education, and after that an occupation favored for deferment by the policy makers as “in the national interest:” mostly, jobs for defense contractors. Those who couldn’t afford college (or win admission to one), or who disliked the idea of a career in the defense industries, were exposed to the draft.
More than 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam. Many of them were draftees. Perhaps we should remember, along with our reverence for the sacrifices of our war dead, how callously politicians and generals with notions about what would serve “the national interest” manipulated the lives of young Americans who believed that slavery had been abolished, and that it was each man’s God-given right to be free.
Concerning wars fought on foreign soil – that is, wars that aren’t in the immediate defense of these United States – there are many views. Whether one regards such expeditions as a violation of the American compact or as a moral obligation America has to the less fortunate nations of the world, the fact remains that since the start of the Civil War, the majority of America’s soldiers have been conscripted: compelled to serve regardless of their preferences. Add to that the fatuous notion that any gaggle of politicians and generals should possess the power to define “the national interest” outside the bounds set by the Constitution. Imagine how grateful the major defense companies – the non-uniformed components of Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” – were for the use of the draft to channel talent from America’s youth into their offices.
Spare a thought for those who knew the terrors of battle in wars in which they wanted no part...whether they fell or returned home. The mass reapings of young men to be fodder for the plans of the old are not that far behind us.