Friday, February 19, 2016

Girls and the Draft

"Where have all the young men gone,
Long time ago?
Where have all the young men gone?
Gone to soldiers every one,
When will they ever learn?"
-- Pete Seeger

Men say that we live a life free from danger at home while they fight with the spear. How wrong they are! I would rather stand three times with a shield in battle than give birth once.
-- Medea in Euripides' Medea

I'm sure I felt something when I was a teenager and the draft was actually happening, but there was nothing abnormal about that process back then, as it merely reinforced a kind of overly simplistic cheerleader syndrome that had existed for a long time: Men were sent off to kill and be killed while women remained in relative safety to tend hearth and home.

For the most part, our feelings about females not being drafted were the same as fish feel about water (I guess), except maybe we sensed a minor tweak in the river's temperature or a brief disturbance in its usual flow. It seemed normal, mainly.

It was okay. Off we'd go, and await with restless anticipation the arrival of our girlfriends' letters sealed with a kiss and still emanating a trace of their intoxicating fragrance.

Anyway, we were teenagers, and our brains weren't developed enough to think these things through.

Almost three decades later, though, I read the first part or chapter or story of Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried,* and sleeping dogs I never knew existed began to rouse themselves from some obscure nook of my mind, and they stretched and yawned and flapped their ears, and I beheld for the first time what had lain dormant in my consciousness in the '60s. With the help of many fine students, I cautiously and slowly began to reflect on how the Vietnam War-era draft created a burr-in-the-saddle irritant in male-female relationships.

O'Brien's story (which shares its title with the novel), depicts Lt. Jimmy Cross, an incompetent, emotionally pre-adolescent platoon leader in Vietnam, mooning over his relationship with Martha, his female friend back home. He wants her to play the role of a typical Penelopesque sweetheart from a romanticized WWII movie, but she is incapable of that level of acting. 

She doesn't love him and she doesn't understand why "men do the things they do."

To state it briefly (a full and dazzling analysis of their relationship will appear in a later post), the faraway soldier boy and his homebound lover are as far apart as the east is from the west.

This is what Jimmy wants 
to hear from Martha:

So after reading this story and retrojecting it onto my countdown to the draft, I did sense a sort of pesky no-see-um between the sexes that created a most imperfect union at best. 

Imagine a high-school classroom in which the teacher has just stepped out to smoke a Viceroy. The students begin to chatter. Those outfitted with a particular type of biological plumbing ponder aloud their choices of college or their desire to get married, or lack of that desire, and if marriage should wait till after college, and what they might do for a job if they choose to take one.

And now from the man's point of view:

The ones fitted with more, I don't know, obtrusive plumbing cannot join in that conversation. Their future isn't something they have the luxury of pondering. Seems unfair, but the girls didn't ask not to be drafted. It's not really their fault, but . . . still.

This irritant was exacerbated by my generation's almost complete rejection of our country's rationale for being in Vietnam. Not only were we not fighting Hitler, we weren't really sure who or why we were fighting. Most of us really didn't know where Vietnam was.

In the words of the narrator of O'Brien's "On the Rainy River," "certain blood was being shed for uncertain reasons."

By 1970, a sizable majority of draft-aged women opposed the war on moral grounds, as did many of their boyfriends and/or brothers who were drafted. But the latter had to choose between their moral values and prison, esp. the lower classes who, for the longest time, had no idea how their wealthier brothers found a way to stay home.

And they had to make this choice at a time when the meaning of good ol' words such as honor, duty, mission, loyalty, valor, heroism, and courage were being drained of their traditional gravitas, were more often clothed in quotation marks and used ironically. This time, when Johnny got his gun, he couldn't console his beloved by saying "Someone has to help stop the Huns before they wind up in Holopaw!"

When one of O'Brien's fictional characters gives in to the draft, he says, "I was a coward. I went to the war." What can the girl who stayed behind say to that?

No wonder, as teenagers, male or female, we didn't know what to think or to feel -- about the war or about each other.

*While the rest of us are reading and rereading O'Brien's book, academics are hard at work attempting to earn tenure by defining its genre. Last time I checked, they were calling it a "composite novel," meaning its chapters or stories could stand alone, but taken altogether they share settings, characters, themes, etc. 

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