In preparation for a posting describing my 1969 novel “The Proles”, I wanted to present a couple of direct quotes that make a point about the past issue of conscription during the Vietnam war (see posting here (Jan. 26, 2014).
The first passage describes a church retreat at Shrine Mont on the Va-WVa line in 1967.
It reads as follows:
The chaplain’s campfire message tonight had referred to the Vietnam war, and during the fireplace meeting, the subject of the individual’s responsibility for the war had somehow come up.
One church member, an esteemed personal injury lawyer, was arguing, “I think a good case can be made for those opposed to all war who refuse to bear arms under any circumstances. Conscientious objectors. But a citizen of this country does not have the right to single out a particular war and say, ‘I’m not going to fight in it.’ If he accepts no obligation, he can just find himself another country.” All of this was in response to John’s question as to whether there exists some kind of social contract, which requires a citizen to bear a fair share of the defense burden in return for the benefits of American life. Is this not the obligation of a citizen to accept a policy defined by law and participate as required, for there must be some legal common denominator, besides individual conscience, for defining responsibilities.”
“What bothers me the most.” John admomished, “is that so many people take their comforts, their leisure, their careers for granted and are not at all disturbed by soldiers dying involuntarily in the War. Why, an acquaintance of mine died in a ground attack just a month ago.” John was becoming unusually emotional, as the guilt of his incidental (as a result of psychiatric treatment) escape from military service was nagging again during the late evening hours. Should he worry about his own contributions, his own works, his projects, if he was going to look for others to hang his hat on? But guilt was fun; it could feed upon itself. “I say, we must all be willing to accept some of the burden, some of the Covenant. If using nuclear weapons is the only way to cut down on American casualties, them use them. I mean, we must be all be willing to share a little risk of nuclear war ourselves if it will make it easier on Army men.” John was having a hard time putting his satisfying guilt feelings into rational and cogent statements. Momentarily, he could focus on the fire, the richly shellacked wooden floor, the little chewed-up cord rug just out of reach of the many human legs. He had never used the derogatory word “G.I. (government issue). “I know what my role must ne. I must do my best to get into the Army after finishing my Master’s. Then, no one cannot accuse me of not becoming involved,” of insularity. As if the opinions of others mattered. As if the degree still made him better, more worthy of shelter from sacrifice.
A few months later, on campus, John is having a conversation about the draft with some friends. It goes like this:
“Well,” John sighed after some pause, “I’ve decided that I will either come back in one piece or not at all.”
“I’ve seen people with just one leg do pretty miraculous things. Ever see that short about one-legged skiers. They make pretty versatile artificial limbs now. That’s one thing you get from the government free, almost, that is.”
“Or I might come back looking like a monster, after being caught in a ‘friendly’ napalm trap.”
“They have plastic surgery.”
“But I’d lose something that can’t be replaced. Frankly, I’m very sensitive about things being taken from my body. I feel like I’m being violated, used, oh, I can’t explain it.” John thought about how he had dreaded the first locker room experience in seventh grade gym. You would be able to see another boy’s penis. Then, he thought, the flaying of that man’s chest in the war movie tonight was most timely.
“It figures that you would be sensitive about your body, John.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Well, John” (changing the subject, as Lyle really didn’t like to discuss delicate, intimate matters; there was no homosexuality in small towns). “I can see how someone who values his own state of living so little would arrive at a decision that seems so irrational. Let me say this. They have no right to draft me. If I feel I must fight to defend my own home, my own property, I will do so. But, no just because someone starts beating on you, you don’t have a right to force me to help you.” John realized now that Jay would not even recognize his desire to ‘punish’ himself, let alone mush over it.:
“You support this nation’s involvement…” Once, Lyle had indicated that his dad supported it also.
“Those who feel that Southeast Asia is crucial to their security have a perfect right to go over there are prevent one government from subjugating another people by force.”
“And if the government of this other People is really one of our own puppets and not chosen by their own free will?”
“The technicalities of the government are irrelevant. If the people don’t want the Communists, and I don’t believe it’s likely the do, they have a right to kick them out. And we have the right , but not the duty, to help the,. Remember, a government has but one legitimate purpose, a means by which a group of people, acting in their own selfish best interests, protect themselves from those who would try to steal from them or harm them.” (Or take away their rights, a word John used to gripe about in front of his father as a boy.)
“And no force, no draft, no compulsion, no income tax is to be used, you always say.”
Lyle had once claimed that Robin Hood had been a criminal because he was stealing; he was a plain, low-down common thief. And so was one who tried to collect a tax. Once, Lyle had advocated that if there must be income taxes, they should be non-graduated. These days, however, he preached confidently the more radical demand that all taxes be abolished. Let those who use public services pay for them as they used the,. Well, Jay, that’s anarchy. What about poor slave-descended children who never had a chance? That’s just too radical. John was too tired to go into a lawyer’s argument.
“Well, John, that’s what all my friends tell me, but I am very radical, and I am very sure about what I say.”
“I suppose, as I see it, it comes down to giving up a little freedom for some peace and security.”
“Even if you steal from someone else?”
“Perhaps, security, I must have it, I must take it, so I can continue my life of institutionalized pleasures.”
“At least you’re honest about it,” Lyle said.
The next day, a cool, cloudy, windy autumn Sunday, John summed up , not for the first time, his two main objections to Lyle’s philosophy, while Lyle drove him back to the bus station in that veteran blue Mercury with the fractured, rather decapitated, stickshift. Lyle was good at leading John around.
For are there not times when the individual’s self-interest contradicts that of the group? As an individual, it cannot conceivably in my selfish best interest to join the Army or to volunteer for the draft and fight in a remote war when I can sit at home and enjoy wartime prosperity, at least as long as my own body is not immediately threatened. If the United States were actually invaded, it would be different. But perhaps it would be in the best interest of everybody (the group) to require the services and personal sacrifices of certain individuals, of myself in particular, to maintain a credible posture, to keep doll houses and dominoes from collapsing. If I apply probability principles I would realize that the probability of my own being in the Army making a damn bit of difference is pretty small, so my self-interest cannot be regarded as coinciding with national interest. (National interest, unfortunately, is a countably infinite union of individual interests, and we know that an infinite union of closed sets need not be closed. A closed set, by the way, looks like a 6-sided box, cardboard included.
“I’m not sure it would make a difference, but go on.”
“And your claim that the income tax steals from someone who earns his money to give it to someone who doesn’t. Well, I’m no socialist, but sometimes I wonder how one can claim he owns anything, morally, that is. For some people are born to wealth and power and great opportunity, and many are born to nothing. Are they entitled to have more in the end? Do their earnings represent their own accomplishments?”
“A person’s inherited wealth can either be an asset or it can hurry his self-destruction. It’s just about what he does with it, that’s all.”
They arrived at the Trailways station just in time for John’s 9 AM bus west. It had come, and it had gone, the good times.
Somewhere in this area of the book, there is a comment that part of the deterrent against future nuclear standoffs (like the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis) consisted of the willingness of the US to put soldiers on the ground.
Published Sunday, March 23, 2014, 11:50 PM EDT