All this talk about Gold Star families and Donald Trump’s deferments has gotten me thinking once again about my own military experience, if indeed you can call it that. [This post is for those of you who have not read my autobiography. Those who have may return to reading the Critique of Pure Reason.] Academics of my age cohort and younger have by and large not served in the military, but that was not true of those some years older. I can still recall having coffee at a meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association with Jack Rawls and Sylvain Bromberger and listening to them reminisce about their experiences in World War II, Jack in the South Pacific and Sylvain in the Battle of the Bulge in Europe.
A word of explanation for those too young to recall the citizen army. After WW II, the U. S. instituted the draft – Universal Military Training. Young men were required to register with the Selective Service Administration at age eighteen, after which they were eligible to be drafted until they reached twenty-six. Those who could prove that they were registered full-time in a degree granting college or university and were in good standing – i.e. had passing grades and no bills outstanding – could apply for and receive a student deferment. Once you had received a student deferment, you were by law eligible to be drafted until age thirty-five, but the army really did not want to deal with a bunch of out of shape and hard to manage thirty year olds, so if you got enough deferments to make it to twenty-six, you were home free. An entire generation of academics chose university teaching as a way of avoiding the draft.
The Viet Nam War was such a disaster for troop morale and unit cohesion, what with enlisted men killing their own lieutenants to stop them from ordering life-threatening patrols in the Southeast Asian jungles, that the Pentagon switched to an all-volunteer army when it ended, raising the pay and benefits, offering some measure of career choice, and attracting a better educated group of enlistees. The result, far superior for a nation with imperial ambitions and in need of a highly trained, obedient fighting force, was that from then until the present only a tiny fraction of the American public sends its sons and daughters into harm’s way.
I was unable to avoid the draft by means of student deferments because I made the mistake of earning my doctorate when I was only twenty-three, right in the age sweet spot for the draft. I dodged the two year obligation by jumping into the Massachusetts National Guard, which meant serving six months on active duty directly after earning my degree and then doing five and a half years of once-a-week meetings and two week summer camps. I think I only fired my M-1 rifle twice and never pulled any duty more life-threatening than turning out once to help move fallen tree limbs during a hurricane that hit Boston.
Several years ago, Susie and I went back to Amherst, MA to see friends, staying in the Courtyard Marriott Hotel in Hadley. While I was helping myself to the complimentary breakfast there one morning, I made a joking reference to the food as “not as good as the chow in Basic Training.” The man next to me in line said “Thank you for your service.”
I have never been so mortified in my life.