In remembrance of the future
Dates often sear themselves into our memories. Except for the youngest among us, most remember exactly what they were doing when they heard of airliners crashing into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
Others recall when they learned that John Lennon had been shot, or Elvis Presley had died. Those approaching or beyond retirement probably recall hearing of the assassinations of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and John Kennedy. People born earlier may recall where they were during the Cuban Missile Crisis, or at V.J. and V.E. Days, or even at the announcement of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
One event, often forgotten by others, was seared into the memories of men of a certain age: annual draft lotteries conducted during the Vietnam War after student deferments were ended in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In 1972, when young men whose birthdates were in 1953 had their birthdates drawn in a lottery by the Selective Service Commission, I was lined up outside the now odd concept of a communal phone room in a scholarship hall at the University of Kansas.
If your birthdate was drawn first through 10th, we had been told, there was a strong chance you would be drafted, whether a student in good standing or not.
As it turned out, the Vietnam War had wound down to the point that no one was drafted that year, but I still stood next to the phone, ROTC paperwork in hand, instantly ready to sign up had my number been in that range.
Safer to serve as a second lieutenant writing news releases, I thought at the time, than to end up as a private in a rice paddy in a war that increasingly was being viewed with skepticism and futility.
As it was, Aug. 23 was drawn 302nd, my ROTC paperwork was promptly deposited in the trash, and I have always wondered since then about the path not taken and whether I somehow exhibited an unexpected cowardice that deprived me of an opportunity to truly understand why we honor veterans with a holiday each year.
Our nation’s shift to an all-volunteer and no longer almost exclusively male military has been a good thing for both the nation and many of those who volunteer to serve. Our forces have been better prepared, and millions of volunteers have found careers in service or in the private sector thanks to training opportunities that service provides.
Still, we have somehow lost something in not having the threat or promise of compulsory service hanging over us. And rarely have we seen the type of patriotic fervor present during World War II, when young men like my father were so intent on volunteering that they lied about their age or physical limitations to try to enter the service early.
All who serve deserve our praise, whether it’s today’s soldier, sailor, airman, marine, or guardsman — male or female. Their motives may vary, but they still are willing to put their lives on the line for the rest of us in society.
They deserve a Veterans Day, and it in no way diminishes their contributions to say that so, too, do others who serve in other ways, as law enforcers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, disaster workers, care providers, educators, clergymen, and others, both public and private, who answer a call to help society, often at personal sacrifice.
But there’s something special — something largely lost in this era of less popular wars and less than universal service — that Veterans Day specifically honors.
It is perhaps no small coincidence that the generation that answered the call of duty so freely and almost exuberantly in World War II has become known as the Greatest Generation for its accomplishments not just during the war but afterward.
Service in any form takes a toll on those who serve but seems to pay dividends to society as a whole far beyond the immediate value of the service itself. It creates an engaged populace, intent on advancing society not for individual personal gain but for the common good. And heaven knows we could use more of that today.
Was it the threat of a draft that prompted much of the self-sacrificing heroism of the past or just a greater sense of clarity and unity about right vs. wrong? Not just honoring veterans but trying to understand what motivates their heroism may be a far more important use of our collective societal brainpower these days than is continued debate over the largely irrelevant issues that seem to dominate politics.
It’s a bit of a perverse notion that an old-fashioned clear-cut war is the best way to achieve long-term peace and prosperity for all, but at least thinking about that notion seems more productive than continuing to harangue over largely inconsequential pseudo-issues.
This Veterans Day, let’s not only honor our veterans. Let’s try to think about what it will take for us as a society to make greater progress toward the type of honorable example they have set for us.
— ERIC MEYER
Last modified Nov. 8, 2018