When did military service stop being an indicator of patriotism?
It ain't me, it ain't me; I ain't no senator's son.
It ain't me, it ain't me; I ain't no fortunate one...
- Credence Clearwater Revival
CCR's protest song has been playing in my head all weekend long. Funny, that's one patriotic song I never actually heard anybody singing this weekend.
Patriotic? Absolutely. It's about American ideals - equality, fairness, liberty, freedom. It's an anti-war, anti-draft protest song. Patriotic to the core. Like me.
And it worked. It was released in 1969. The campaign of the liberal Democratic candidate George McGovern for President in 1972 had a sharp focus on the subject of the song. That campaign essentially ended conscripted military service in the United States of America.
No more draft.
Richard Nixon signed the order, but McGovern's campaign made it necessary. Nixon adopted the promise to end the draft to neutralize his opponent's populist appeal. Middle-class people in fly-over states were listening to McGovern's positions on the costs of war in Vietnam and on the unfairness of the draft to young Americans. That was a problem for Nixon's re-election campaign and the Republican Party. You might say it was really bugging them - or more accurately, they were driven to bug the Democrats. (Anybody getting that deja vu feeling lately?}
The song was awarded a place in the Emmy Hall of Fame in 1973 - the year Nixon signed the order.
I know the impact McGovern was having - because I lived in one of those fly-over states. I know about that campaign, because it was important to me and my generation. Also, it changed my family's politics. My father considered voting for a Democrat for the first time in his life. He didn't - but just the idea was revolutionary.
That was my war, the war in Vietnam. I'm an old hippie, and a former United States Marine, and a woman. Those things aren't as strange and incongruent as they sound.
I questioned the war and I questioned the draft. I signed up to serve anyway.
I remember the draft protests, but I didn't remember how well those protests worked. They ended the draft. That was bigger than ending the war. In 1969 my junior high school teacher kept a hashmark tally on the chalkboard of all the American soldiers who had died in the war. The number grew visibly all year. In 1971 and 1972 my friends and relatives were drawing draft numbers. I remember when boys I knew, including my best friend's fiancé, got their lottery numbers. I remember serious discussions as to what they would do if they didn't get student deferments. The draft was a scary thing that killed teenagers.
In May of 1974, I was a Freshman in College. I did what college kids did, protesting the war and going to impeach Nixon rallies. I dated two boys that were back from the Navy. They smoked dope. They didn't talk about the service. In July of 1974, I enlisted in the Marine Corps, and August of 1974, I shipped off to Paris Island for Bootcamp. It didn't matter to me that the draft had ended. Because it was replaced with the secret draft. I didn't joint the Marine Corps because that's what I planned to do. I planned to be a movie star. I joined because I had to join. It was that, or work retail and give up on the notion of going to college.
I am not embarrassed to say that I am a patriot - to my core.
I cry during Memorial Day and Veterans Day services. I hate it when people order food and drink while the national anthem plays before sporting competitions. I stand. I don't like it when people talk over the top of the pledge of allegiance or chatter during a moment of silence. It's disrespectful to the best ideals in our land. I come to attention for taps.
I believe that a duty of service comes along with the privilege of citizenship in a democratic society. That conviction is supported by my religious beliefs, but that's one function of religion. I don't know of any major religion that doesn't uphold the notion that human beings ought to serve the greater good, protect the vulnerable and champion just causes - and ought to want to do those things.
That's also why I believe in protest. The status quo likes to characterize protestors as narcissistic slackers who need to stop whining about how tough their lives are and get to work. But protestors, aren't whiners and they aren't thinking only of themselves. They are warriors. They are serving the greater good, shining a light on vulnerable people who need protection and just causes that need champions.
I was sitting on a curb by the Lincoln Memorial at the National Mall on Memorial Day and I was reminded of the history of the draft. I was surrounded by military veterans and their families, memorializing those who gave all. I'm proud of my service, but I'm not confused about it. I'm a female without gender equality. Maybe that's why I forget that the "All Voluntary" version of military service for men began at the same time I enlisted.
The generals and politicians worried that the military would be "dumbed down" by eliminating the draft.
What did they really mean by that? I can tell you, and it's not a nice thing to say out loud. First of all, they were only talking about enlisted personnel, not officers. Even though it was called "enlisted" service - not "forced" or mandatory service, until 1973, enlisted was a euphemism. They meant, once it became real, and nobody had an obligation to serve, nobody with a choice would choose that - at least no smart person would. Military service would be chosen only by those with no better options. They have a point. While enlisting was the smartest thing I ever did, my "enlisting" was really a function of the secret draft. Sitting at the National Mall, surrounded by military veterans and their families, I had a chance to think about why military service has dwindled to the point where only .05% of Americans are veterans. At this point, there are more "fortunate sons" in this country than veterans.
I love the National Mall. It is an amazing place. The stretch between the Lincoln Monument and the Washington Monument is festooned with war memorials and surrounded by museums dedicated to everything and anything - history, art, culture and science. The American Spirit is on constant display. I've been there as a youthful protester, an angry advocate, a fascinated tourist, and most recently, a neighbor.
I was there on Memorial Day Weekend as a combination of all of the above. Military and police helicopters flew overhead, monitoring the crowd.
Somebody turned to me and said "you won't see any protesters here today," and I laughed to myself.
The woman was sincere. She was talking about the narcissistic slackers she imagined might show up. She was talking about the people carrying signs that said "not in my name" - angry about military conflicts and police actions and confusing veteran and soldier with war and killing. Decked out in her Rolling Thunder finery, she had no idea she was protesting war and killing.
After 30 years, most of the participants come from a time after 18 year olds got the right to vote, and no longer drew lots to see if they went to war. They want Lee Greenwood and Billy Rae Cyrus performing "Proud to be an American" at their rallies, not Joan Baez and Bob Dylan or CCR. This woman did not associate her Rolling Thunder Tour with Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Tour and folk music is not what she imagines will be playing in the background when they roll on. Like most longstanding protest groups, hand printed signs had transformed into recognizable symbols. The hats, shirts and jackets - even tattoos were all around us and all over her body. And the oldest protest symbol of all - flags. The flags were everywhere.
Like me, these protestors are patriots. Like me, they were there to honor a 30 year protest against injustice against some of the most vulnerable of our citizens - Even if they don't know it.
The Rolling Thunder Ride is an annual Memorial Day Weekend event on the National Mall. Ironically, my 16 year-old daughter had to convince me not to miss the opportunity to directly witness something I've long honored.
Rolling Thunder is a protest group. It is a motorcycle oriented, military veteran supporting and POW/MIA memorializing organization. They focus on US soldiers who disappeared in foreign battlefields. They've done some great work over the years, keeping the heat on Congress and Presidents to find the answers and bring our fallen soldiers home. I am deeply connected to people who are deeply connected to Rolling Thunder.
Despite a lifetime of working to overturn injustices within our society, I remain convinced that public service is an obligation of every citizen. The divisions in our country have so obscured the patriotic nature of protest in our democratic society, that the truth about protest - the constitutional right of the people to assemble and petition the government - is even hidden from the protesters. Overturning a draft that certain "fortunate ones" could escape was the right thing to do. But, I question that we accomplished that goal.
When we eliminated the requirement to serve, we eliminated the notion that service to our country is an essential element of leadership. We didn't "dumb down" our military - we lost our national unity and our individual pride in service. I'm not talking about re-igniting an angry nationalism that separates and isolates us from the world and each other, I'm talking about re-introducing a generous patriotism that unites us and connects us to our neighbors and community.
Do we need a draft for that? I don't trust our current leaders with that power, but they already have it. The Americorps idea that has been trashed was a step in the right direction, but it was set up as an opportunity program. Maybe that was where it went wrong. It is just another version of the secret draft. If people have an easier choice, with just as many rewards, or more, than there's no reason to choose service. Service can't "be its own reward" if there is no social value given for it. We need to give everybody a reason to want this - make it the hallmark of leadership again.
I'm a patriot, but I didn't enlist to be patriotic. I lost my college scholarship and I enlisted because it was the only way I could imagine getting an education. I'm a minority - but I'm pretty white. I'm from a middle class working family, but we lived month to month and my parents had no savings, and no money to send kids to college. I joined the military for the GI Bill - because it was my best of very few options. Every year, the percentage of minorities represented in the military increases. Almost 50% of enlisted personnel are an ethnic minority or hispanic, officers, half that - but it's on the increase as well. The percentage of disadvantaged or minority populations who choose military service is 30% greater than the general population. I would like to pretend I think there's no difference in economic backgrounds in minority populations - but that would be stupid and disingenuous. After conscription ended, recruitment efforts became a military priority. Recruiters began targeting minorities, immigrants and economically disadvantaged populations in the public schools. If you don't think they do - check out who is featured on posters, on television advertisements, on brochures. The message they are sending is "this is your best chance." They aren't targeting those with other, easier options, sending the message "this is what everybody wishes they could do."
My daughter, she is amazing. She gets it. Her frequent calls of "thank you for your service," endeared her to the crowd. But I was afraid my daughter might just as easily express her feelings about POtUS 45.
She is not a fan.
She is not a fan of anything she thinks is unfair, unjust or unkind. Like a draft that only rich influential people can avoid. Like a society that gives people a horrible choice - stay in the stink or claw your way out. One where betting your life is the best bet you have for survival.