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When I left high school in 1973, most of my friends were glad that the likelihood of being drafted was almost nil. Sure, the law was still on the books, but the draft itself had, for all practical purposes, been terminated earlier that year. There were a variety of reasons for this move-incredible discontent, even open rebellion in the armed forces; and a desire by the government to get the youth back on its side being foremost among them-and the class of 1973 was all too happy to accept any of them if it meant that they wouldn’t have to wear the man’s uniform.
Like other graduating classes that year, we had seen enough guys from classes ahead of us get out of high school only to be drafted into the military. Sure, some of the guys in my class wanted to go in just like their dads, but most of them had had enough of the whole damn military culture. After all, we were attending high school on a military base and our dads were mostly lifers (or career NCOs and officers in plain speech). Although we didn’t have to wear baggy green uniforms or cut our hair as short as the GIs, we all felt like we had more military nonsense floating around in our consciousness than the average US citizen and, in many cases, more than we had ever wanted.
This being the case, I was quite surprised when, as graduation day slipped further into our pasts, some of my friends actually enlisted in the service. Indeed, not only was I surprised at how many did this, I was even more surprised at who the young men were who did. None of them were pro-war or pro-military, yet when their economic situation became desperate they joined the service. Most of them stayed in for the entire length of their enlistment and a few even made it a career. One exception was my friend, whom I’ll call Steffen. He was hitchhiking through the south one winter and had no money in his pockets and no food in his belly. A nice guy about thirty who was driving a black sedan with government license plate picked him up near Jackson, Mississippi. After buying Steffen lunch and a beer at some diner, the two continued towards Shreveport, Louisiana. As the road rolled on, they engaged in conversation. Steffen was a bearded and longhaired fellow, but that was pretty much par for the course in 1973, even in the Deep South.
Eventually, it became clear to Steffen that the driver was an Army recruiter who had been on a tour of high schools and junior colleges in the region. By the time the car arrived in Shreveport, Steffen had been convinced to enlist. To make his story short, Steffen lasted three weeks at boot camp and was asked to leave the military. As it turned out, he was “considered unfit for military duty.” When I heard this story through a mutual friend I laughed. I could have told them that before Steffen wasted their time.
In the past few weeks, several stories have surfaced in the media about (mostly) young men who have either committed suicide or attempted to do so because they were in the service and were being sent back to Iraq after at least one previous tour in that war-torn place. Most recently (January 10, 2005), police in a small Central Valley California town killed a Marine. This was after he had already killed one policeman and wounded another. It was the opinion of the officers investigating the incident that the man had committed what is termed “suicide by cop.” In other words, he created a situation that required the police (according to their training) to shoot him. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the paper that ran the story, he didn’t want to go back to Iraq. The young man’s unit had already done two tours there. If the reader ever saw Rambo I, this news item has got to be somewhat reminiscent of that piece of cinema.
This tragic story is but one of many. I use it as a way to illustrate that it is the rare human being who is truly “fit” for military service. After all, when being “fit’ means a willingness to kill women and children, destroy their homes, watch your friends die in incredibly grotesque ways, and then go home to play video games as if nothing happened, what kind of human would be “fit?” This young man was most likely quite fit to be a father and a partner, but not to kill children. He was also probably quite fit (like most of his fellow soldiers) to do various kinds of work in the service and maybe even to carry a gun for something he believed in. But he wasn’t “fit” to do what Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush wanted him to do.
Without a draft and with declining enlistments in the regular army, the reserves, and the Guard, a discharge of the type my friend received in 1973 will become less and less likely. Military recruiters, those dealers in human flesh and blood, have their work cut out for them. The men and women currently in Uncle Sam’s military will not only find their units being reassigned to combat zones more frequently, they will also find their date of termination being delayed over and over again. However, until there is no more combat or until enough of these service folks start objecting to their indentured servitude (which would presumably lead to no more combat), the Pentagon will continue to declare individuals already in its clutches “fit” for military service. This is in spite of the fact that the more frequently this is done to these men and women, the less fit many of them will be for any kind of existence much less that of the combat military.
Men and women like the one from California whose tragic end I related here will become, like his victims, so much more collateral damage.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org