“We have got to get the government off our backs.” “Government is too big.” “Big government destroys our freedoms.” With words of varying civility, this is a common chant. The belief assumes that in earlier days we had a small government; in earlier days we had more liberty. This was not always true.

For example, Jim Crow laws legislated social relationships and mandated increased public and private expenditures by requiring duplicate facilities. Yet those who yearn for the age of small government seldom mention this epitome of big government or how long it endured.

Because of my northern, small-town roots, I was not directly affected by Jim Crow, but I was by another, now defunct, big government program—the military draft. To someone my age, the draft needs no explanation, but I found that many of my students, a generation or two younger than I am, not only did not know that it existed, but could not believe that it ever was the law of the land. But, yes, men (only men, not women) could be required to join the armed services. Put in slightly different terms, the government could force men from their homes and jobs and families for years and place them in a position where there was the possibility that they would have to kill or be killed. Was any government power ever larger?

Even without being drafted, the draft affected men’s behavior, as I learned early. In sixth grade, Glen and I hung out at George’s service station. A couple of high school boys did some work there. One day they discussed what they would do after high school and whether they should get some vocational training. Gary said, “No. I’m just going to get any job I can and wait to get drafted.” In short, he was going to wait until after his forced military service to figure out the course of his life.

The draft led many to enlist. Perhaps part of the motivation for enlisting was public service and patriotism, but part was that an enlistee, unlike a draftee, could choose the branch of the armed services he would go into, and the college-graduate enlistee could be an officer while the draftee was a private. I have many friends of my age, often graduates of the country’s most selective universities, who were officers in the armed services while the draft existed. I wonder if I come of age when the draft was abolished, would I know as many veterans as I do.

The draft affected education and job choices. College males got deferments; that is, they would not be drafted while in school. And for a long time, deferments were also given for graduate school. In my generation, only those from 18 to 26 were drafted. Back then, I never heard of a “gap year” before college or graduate school. We knew that such a time off from school might find us not backpacking in Europe, but backpacking in Vietnam. One of the reasons so many of my generation may have gone to law or business school is the draft deferment it offered. (Not so for medical school. Doctors got drafted at 26 and beyond because not enough doctors enlisted. (Go watch M*A*S*H).

If, however, you finished all this education by 24 or 25 you still had to make it until 26. Ah, but for some jobs, you also got a deferment. Public school teacher was one such job. Teach until 26, and then start your real career. Many of my generation had a brief stint as an eighth grade teacher.

The draft was not only big government because it could intrude into every corner of a life, it was also big because it produced a huge bureaucracy. Nearly every county in the country had a selective service (the official name for the draft) office with one or more paid workers as well as volunteer (I think) boards. (Does anyone know who came up with “selective service”?) And, of course, regional and national offices. Paperwork galore.

Both aspects of the big government came together for me in my second year of law school. For reasons I supported, as I began my legal studies during the height (or shall we say, depth) of the Vietnam War, deferments for graduate school ended. And thus, one day during a break in my classes, I found the missive that had what was then the famous salutation, “Greetings.” I was being drafted pending a physical, for which I had to return to my home county.

It wasn’t like I hadn’t thought about being in the army before, but the draft notice certainly, how shall we say, focused my attention on an impending military life. It was more than a little hard to concentrate on the law of corporations with the army looming. Part of the obsessive thoughts that followed the draft notice were about the war that the U.S. was then bogged down in, but more of my thoughts just went to basic training, which I dreaded for good reason.

I had partially dislocated my shoulder years before, and I had done it many times since—putting on a coat, turning over in my sleep, placing a pizza in a car’s back seat, playing volleyball, basketball, softball. I knew it would partially dislocate any time I really threw a ball hard overhand. It hurt like hell, but when it happened, I could grab the right elbow with my left hand, pull the arm, and seat the ball of the arm back in its socket. This was a condition I knew toowell, but it was not one that had been certified by a doctor. I had gone to the college infirmary the day after it first happened, but by then the joint appeared to be back together properly. Nothing looked wrong to that general practitioner.

But now I started to fixate on the images of army training where recruits had to climb ropes and scale walls and throw decoy hand grenades. I knew that the shoulder would come apart, and all I could picture was the drill sergeant yelling at what he thought was the Ivy League malingerer writhing on the ground. I could not imagine how I was going to get through those first six army weeks. I decided I should see another doctor. I went to a local orthopedist and told him that if I threw a ball hard I would dislocate the shoulder. He said, “Make the motion.” I told him what I already knew. With simulated throwing, I instinctively held back, and it would not happen. He said, “Try anyway.” Nothing happened, and I was sent on my way, with the doctor’s glance saying, “Hippie draft dodger.” (Yes, I did have both long hair and mutton chops.)

I reported for my army physical. I told the doctor my situation. He, too, told me to simulate throwing. Nothing happened. I was certified physically fit to be trained to kill.

A few months later, I was ordered to another physical in Chicago. After spending twelve hours in an atmosphere that only the finest novelist could capture (one potential draftee had inked antiwar slogans all over his body), I saw the doctor. I told him my situation. He looked at a form and said, “You already a physical in Milwaukee.” He asked, “What are you doing here?” I replied, “I was ordered here.” He said, “I am not going to waste my time giving another physical to someone who has already had one.”

I had gotten the induction date changed from its original fall date until after the school year ended. Friends urged me to go to Canada. Friends urged me to go to jail. I felt too much an American to leave the country, and I never considered those escape routes.

Somehow, however, through the protest grapevine I was told about a doctor in Chicago who had antiwar views. About a week before I was to go into the army, I had an appointment with him. I told him the situation. He said, “If there really is that problem, I will get you reclassified, but I will not lie.” I told him simulated throwing would not do it. But I came prepared with my baseball. With the doctor agreeing, I walked the three blocks to Grant Park and found a wall to throw the ball against.  I had to screw up my courage with a few easy tosses and then I finally threw as hard as I could. Pain in the shoulder; white flashes before my eyes; arm immobile, but for the first time I did not do what had become instinctive. I did not pull the arm back in place. Feeling the pain every step of the way, I went back to the doctor, up an elevator, and to an x-ray room with my hand stuck skyward. Blissfully, they quickly took the pictures, and I could pull the arm back together before the vomiting started.

When the doctor looked at the x-rays, he said, “You’re right. You have a problem. I’ll contact the army.” Then with a smile, he uttered words that only someone of my generation can truly appreciate, “You can have that fixed.” He waited a beat: “But there is no reason to until you are 26.”

The draft gave men of my generation contact with big government’s bureaucracy and its control of lives. It certainly affected me. While obsessing over what the army had in store for me, I had more and more difficulty paying attention to my coursework. I dropped from near the top of my class. A job after the second year of law school was considered an important step for most of us starting a legal career, but I never sought such a job since I was supposed to be inducted on July 1. But, of course, compared to many this was nothing. I did not spend two years in the army. I did not die in combat. I did not have to kill Vietnamese.

When you want to complain that our government is so big today that it destroys the freedoms of Americans, go to the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington. Look at the names on Maya Lin’s creation and ask yourself, “How many of these were draftees? How many enlisted because they expected to be drafted anyway?” And then reflect on the big government of today and yesterday.


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