Say the word "draft" around me— and millions like me— and the shivers come back big time.

The Draft. Selective Service. Conscription. Mandatory military service.

Duty. Honor. Country.

It was a cold wind, and it blew ill.


I’d had a good show, late dinner, a snuggle with my girl friend. I opted to drive home instead of spending the night at her place.

School was winding down and I’d gotten through the worst of it. I was having a good dream, sleeping late. The Old Man, never exactly blessed with tact or timing, trod heavily into my room and tapped me roughly awake. He waved the letter at me. It was thin, not thick. It wasn’t an invitation to the Yale Drama School.

"This came for you," he said matter-of-factly. Five years he’d put in. Africa. Italy. France. Germany. I guess he figured we’d have something in common at last, besides my mother.

I knew what it was without opening it, thought briefly about turning back over, just to piss him off, decided against it, sat up and opened the goddamn envelope.


Millions of us had to read no further. Two years of messing me about, trying to take away my student deferment, and the good citizens of my little local draft board had finally gotten their way. On a sunny summer morning in 1969, the word came down.



You know, those clever Brits, throughout their imperialistic years, colonizing, fighting the Spaniards, the French, they used to grab you right off the street or out of the pub, no ifs, ands or buts. "The Press Gang"—empowered by the King, emboldened by numbers, inclination, inebriation and the truncheon—manned the British Royal Navy with impunity. Just up-and-nabbed you, drunk as you often were. Next morning you’d wake up at sea. In His Majesty’s Navy. For years.

Things were a little different in America, a place that got started primarily because of stuff like this. During the Revolution, pretty much all who fought fought because they believed. They fought for their own personal freedom, not that of the guy next door or the rice farmer in the next paddy over.

By 1863, during the Civil War, however, politics complicated things a bit. Conscription was instituted. Uncle Sam could order you to fight your brother, and, surprisingly, people did. However, if you had 300 spare bucks (not a lot of young farmers and millers did in those days) you could buy your way out. If your buddy was a little bit short of a full-deck, or if you were especially gifted in the art of persuasion, like Tom Sawyer say, the government would also allow HIM to take your place.

The Selective Service Act was instituted in 1917 when things heated up to the boiling point in Europe. In the beginning all men between the ages of 21 to 30 had to register for the draft. As needs increased, the ages were 18 to 45. They got my grandfather. He was 19.

There were exemptions. If your work was important to the national cause, if you had a family dependent upon you, if you were somehow disabled physically you wouldn’t have to answer the call. Conscientious objectors were given the opportunity to perform alternate service. This often meant going to war without a weapon, as a medic, during a period when poisonous gas attacks were routine, when amputations were still rampant. If you objected on any grounds other than religious pacifism, you went to prison.

By the end of World War I nearly three million men had been drafted.

As the definitive means of getting out of the Great DepressionWorld War II—began to appear on the horizon, the Selective Training and Service Act was established in 1940. The word selective was important here—a maximum of 900,000 men could be ordered to report, and service was limited to 12 months. By 1941, the period of service was extended to 18 months.

After December 7th, 1941 yet another Selective Service Act made all men between 18 and 45 liable for military service and those between 18 and 65 had to register. Just in case. And forget about a year or six months. You were in until six months after the war ended.

Between 1940 and 1947 over ten million American men were inducted into the military.

Korea came along in ’51. If you were 18 and a half you got to stay in for 24 months, in yet another adjustment to the law. By 1955, with peace breaking out all over, the National Guard was given attention, just in case. Six years of reserve duty was required of inductees, pursuant to the Reserve Forces Act of 1955.

The Military Selective Service Act of 1967 required all men between the ages of 18 and 26 to register for service. The conscientious objector status, family hardship, and physical exemptions dating back to the Civil War were still in place, and in addition students received deferments. It is no surprise that student deferments during the Vietnam War became a political hot potato. By 1970 a lottery system was put into place. Men were drafted randomly, according to their birthdays. Abuse of the system continued, however. The soldiers I met in Vietnam were largely black, Hispanic, poor, uneducated and uninformed. Their blood, however, was all the same color.

As the Vietnam disaster grew, a more-experienced, better-educated America had had enough. Mass demonstrations, refusals to serve, prison for famous people like Cassius Clay and David Harris, Joan Baez’s pacifist husband, all contributed to the abolition of military conscription.

In 1973, the all-volunteer army became a reality. Draft resisters who had been imprisoned or emigrated to Canada were pardoned by President Gerald Ford.

However, in 1980, Congress reinstituted draft registration for all men between the ages of 18 and 25. You’ve gotta sign up, within 30 days of your 18th birthday. Just in case.


So I rolled out of bed, too early by far, that sunny morning so very long ago, just as I was going to do every morning for two more years—the length of time it took the Army to teach me that freedom, indeed, is not free.

On Vietnam:


  1. I was a prisoner in a Mexican Whorehouse
  2. A long time gone
  3. How to brush your teeth in a combat zone
  4. Libber and I go to war
  5. Fate takes a piss
  6. Thanks For the Memory
  7. Back in the Shit
  8. LZ Waterloo
  9. Saturday Night, Numbah Ten


a long commute
Andy X Kirby True
a tale of two Woodstocks
Buy a Gun
Dawn at The Wall
Feat of Clay
Funeral Detail
I was a free man once, in Saigon
The Joint Chiefs of Staff
the shit we ate

Breaking Starch
Combat Infantryman Badge
David Dellinger
Dickey Chapelle
Firebase Mary Ann
Garry Owen
Gloria Emerson
Graves Registration
I Corps
Project 100,000
the 1st Cav
The Highest Traditions
Those Who Forget
Under the Southern Cross
Whither the Phoenix?

A Bright Shining Lie
Apocalypse Now Redux
Hearts and Minds
We Were Soldiers