The Draft: Vietnam

We sat on a bench on the bank of the Rhine River, about a kilometer, or was it a full mile, upstream from the Cologne cathedral and train station. He commented on the power of the flowing water, on the sheer weight and speed of the constant movement. He wondered about how it was possible for this much water to flow with such volume and force day after day, month after month, year after year, century after century. How long has water flowed in this riverbed? he asked. Forever, I answered, and he nodded his head in agreement.

Later we looked it up and found that it wasn’t quite forever, although the words Miocene and Pleistocene gave geological weight to our sense for an immense span of time. The fact that the Rhine had once flowed into the North Sea took our thoughts in a more temporal direction. Things change, even eternal things.

The sheer size and power and seeming eternality of the Rhine overpowered him , he said. First the Sava River, now the Rhein. I’m overwhelmed, he said. I feel small. I feel brief.

He began to talk about Cologne, which he had first visited in 1969 as a Mormon missionary. I had no sense of briefness then, he said. I was 20 and life stretched before me with no foreseeable end. For six months I lived here, trying my best to preach the gospel and convert the populace. We often ate in the university cafeteria, he said, a maelstrom of political activism. Maoist students selling The Little Red Book are, in my memory, a kind of metonymy. Many, or perhaps most of the students were vocal opponents of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Imagine us, he suggested quietly, imagine two young American missionaries in dress shirts and ties and short hair standing in line with the German students–longhaired, sexually adventuresome, politically radical. When people asked us about Vietnam we changed the subject as quickly as possible. That’s not our concern, we said. We’re here to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I had no clue, he said, what was going on in Vietnam. When I turned 18 I dutifully registered with the local draft board. And when I returned from the mission, I dutifully registered the change in status from ministerial deferment to IA, which meant I was eligible for the draft through the coming year.

I asked him about a student deferment, but he said once you took the clergy status you couldn’t then change to student, even though he had returned to the university.

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Thinking back over the intervening four decades to the lottery in which my birthday was assigned the number 198, he said, I remember being happy that the number was relatively high, but I don’t remember any real anxiety. How is it possible that I wasn’t anxious? What this a function of a stoic nature or sheer stupidity? When December arrived, I received a letter ordering me to report to the Provo bus station at 6 a.m. for a ride to Salt Lake for a pre-induction physical because, the letter said, it was possible that the draft would reach my number before the end of the year. I dutifully, or perhaps passively is a better word, I passively followed the instructions and, well-schooled by my Mormon university and by my Mormon mission and by my Mormon parents, would have reported for active duty if the quirks of the war during that year hadn’t ended the draft at 195. Had they (the they that was the force that directed the Local Board No. 22, Farmington, New Mexico) drafted a few more of us, then several months after the induction, after basic training and advanced basic training, I would have surely been in Vietnam with a gun in my hand and a war in my face.

He told me that he remembered no feelings of resistance, although he remembered thinking the language of the draft card somewhat extreme: The law requires you to have this Notice . . . in your personal possession at all times. . . . Any person who alters, forges, knowingly destroys, knowingly mutilates or in any manner changes this certificate . . . may be fined not to exceed $10,000 or imprisoned for not more than 5 years, or both. He did carry the card with him at all times, and he told me that the card felt somehow sacred to him, perhaps because of the requirements it stated and the threats it bore.

Looking at the 1970 draft card later, he noticed that he had never signed it below the signature of the member of the local board. He wondered, he told me, in retrospect, whether there was a subconscious reluctance at work.

About Scott Abbott

Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University, 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I'm Director of the Program in Integrated Studies and former Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade), and translations of a book by Austrian author Peter Handke and of a catalogue of an exhibit called "The German Army and Genocide." More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as a watershed scientist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a corrections officer, as university students, and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett and our yellow dog Blue. Some publications at http://works.bepress.com/scott_abbott/
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