In the early 70s, Congress decided (at last) that it wasn’t fair that middle class draft age men could opt out of fighting in Vietnam by…get this…going to college. While I myself headed immediately to college from high school for the love of learning alone, it was hard not to see the unfairness of leaving the fighting and all its attendant unpleasantness to those given less opportunity in the civilian world. So when the political leadership at the time finally decided to get right with common sense and basic fairness, they did so by way of a lottery. All new draft age boys got a lottery number somewhere between 1 and 365; the closer you were to 1, the more likely it was that you’d be drafted. I drew the number 198. What a relief that I could stay in college and pursue my passion for whatever it was I was into that semester [can’t remember for sure what it was].
Guys received the letter informing them of their lottery number on more or less the same day. While I was exhaling, letter in hand, over the good news of a high (and therefore ‘safe’) lottery number, a guy in my dorm walked by, ashen faced, and said that his number was ‘one’. So that guy served, for sure. Whether he fought in Vietnam, I will never know. And whether his name is chiseled into the wall at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, I will never know either. But that’s the guy I thought about when I visited the Wall today. And then I thought about the differences between then and today — the different adversary, the different political climate, and the different me. I thought about my 25 year old son who, had he elected to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan, would have left behind a fearful but proud father. And I thought about something that has surely not changed. Veterans are singularly capable, after the training, responsibilities and challenges of military service, of accomplishing great things on return to civilian life. I know that now — I really understand it in my gut — because I get to spend so much time with young veterans on Operation Oliver.
But I didn’t know it when I entered adulthood in the closing years of the Vietnam War era. Why? America in the Seventies was invested in the idea that nothing good came of Vietnam, either for the country or for those who fought there. We pretended, therefore, that that formative experience in so many young men’s lives — military service — warranted neither understanding nor appreciation on its own terms. So I’m standing at the Wall, thinking about that guy with the ashen face and his losing draft lottery number, and it occurs to me that a great memorial — and the Wall is a great memorial – can be a quite complex thing. To be sure, there is the power of the names carved into its face, and there is its simple, unapologetically elegant beauty. The Wall, however, also speaks in an almost therapeutic way to the viewer. It seems to offer a context to what the viewer, and what the country, is experiencing today. It awakens an inner voice in the viewer. It feels relevant.
In the Seventies, the question of what constituted a ‘good’ lottery number was a highly ambiguous matter. Today, though, America has without question drawn a highly desirable number with its young returning veterans. I, moreover, in my day job developing houses in the Oliver section of Baltimore and, increasingly, in my personal life, have drawn a prized one as well. Thank you, Earl. Thank you, Rich. Thank you, BR. Thank you, Dave. Thank you, Ryan. Thank you, Jeremy. Thank you, Erin. Thank you, Pat. Thank you, Nick. Thank you all. You are all number one with me.
P.S. The Lincoln Memorial is visible from where I stand at the Wall. Lincoln served during a time of rancor and divisiveness even more intense than that of the Vietnam War era. His take on the matter seems to foreshadow the message of the Vietnam Veterans’ Wall:
“Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”