Today is May 31, 2021.
Today the people of the US celebrate Memorial Day.
A good blogging friend from another country, asked me about today and I started a simple answer to his question, but as sometimes happens, the writer’s muse takes over and my simple answer turned into a personal reflection on how Memorial Day became important to me.
When I finally hit send, I found myself disappointed that so few people might see my answer so I went back, copied it and prettied it up for sharing as a post.
The essay below is where my mind goes on Memorial Day. I find myself hopeful that maybe this will reach the eyes and ears of someone who was not as fortunate as I was and thus has a very different take on the year 1973.
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Today is our Memorial Day which is when we try to recall our service men and women, especially those who gave it all for us. It’s a strange holiday for me in a way I’m not proud of because my take is so self-centered. But let me explain.
In late 1972, I was in my final year of high school at Petaluma High. I was nearly clueless about the world and politics but aware enough that the US was wrapped up in an ugly war in Vietnam. Our draft was the real thing, compulsory, and normal guys like me were being forced into military service, short training and being sent over where they didn’t want to be, fight and many — way too many, died in a war that the soldiers were not even allowed to fight to win. When they came back, our news media had stirred up the masses who took out their anger on the returning soldiers. It was very bad and the men who were just doing what they were told by politicians either died not knowing much about the reason why, or were hated when they returned home.
In early 1973, the annual draft lottery was done one night on TV, and those of us who were the right age (as I was) got our draft numbers (the order in which we would be called to serve) by our birth dates.
Mine came out – 43. This meant I was almost certain to be called and I could not imagine holding up a gun to take someones life in a war I knew only through our news media who mostly reported the number of US deaths on the battlefield, or on a good day, the details of some atrocity our servicemen were accused of. Most of our sense of patriotism had been scrubbed away by the media. The real thug in the war was China, who was not so quietly backing our enemy. So our politicians refused to fight to win – but only to push back. Even today, I’m not sure what would have been the right thing to do, but as US citizens, we’d had enough of this nonsense and just wanted out.
I learned years later that my parents, on the quiet, were working some deal with someone I never knew to send me to Canada to hide from being drafted. I never heard the details of how far this idea got but took it as a huge act of love by my parents who were trying to save my life from a government who was willing to waste it.
Instead, public pressure finally reached a point that violence was breaking out domestically and our leaders finally folded and began searching for a way to pull out without too losing too many more lives. Even at this – they failed. Our pull out was itself a disaster.
But for me, at what felt like the last minute, the draft was cancelled and my low draft number 43 suddenly meant nothing — well nothing but relief for me as I no longer had to worry if I could be trained into raising a weapon against someone I had no reason to kill, but the awkward and ill planned pull-out from Vietnam meant more death and misery to all who were part of our withdrawal from Vietnam.
On Memorial day, I stand to recall and thank those who did not have the good fortune I had to simply miss being called by the arbitrary fall of a lottery ball. I count Memorial Day as a blessing for me but for so many whose birthday was just a tad earlier than mine, the story is nothing like a blessing.
For us on both sides of that pull out decision, before or shortly after, Vietnam changed almost everything.
Arguably the political leaders of the US lost our confidence and became an internal enemy we sometimes have to defend ourselves from. Our news media was exposed as willing to use their power to persuade us of their opinions rather than report the news. Our young leaders, finishing their college careers were exposed often as useful idiots ignorant of the realities of history, politics and even economics and so many of us were pressed into arguments between friends and family.
But, we were making our most embarrassing history when we failed to respect the soldiers who had no voice in how Vietnam unfolded, but simply went and served, and died or came back to our public scorn.
So, on Memorial Day, I always want to find and thank a surviving Vietnam veteran.
If you are one, I want to thank you, but these words are too cheap, too easy. They cost me nothing compared to the price you paid to secure my ability to say them.