US Politics History

“Let’s you and him fight”: Evolving standards of American manhood during troubled times (Part 1)

NOTE: This post is Part 1 of a two-part series.

Patriots – or traitors?

“He’ll start throwing people in jail, and I’d be on the top of the list,” predicts U.S. Army General Mark Milley (retired), former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to a recent article, “The Patriot,” by Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg. Milley’s comment about his possible fate if Donald Trump is re-elected President in November 2024 first appeared online on September 21, shortly before he retired from his position and from the Army.

The General needn’t really worry about going to jail–at least for long–if the former Commander in Chief returns to office. Rather, Trump quickly raised the ante on the fate he thinks Milley has earned. Goldberg’s Atlantic colleague, Brian Klass, followed up on Trump’s response to Milley’s prediction:

Late Friday night [September 22], the former president of the United States—and a leading candidate to be the next president—insinuated that America’s top general deserves to be put to death.

That extraordinary sentence would be unthinkable in any other rich democracy. But Donald Trump, on his social-media network, Truth Social, wrote that Mark Milley’s phone call to reassure China in the aftermath of the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021, was “an act so egregious that, in times gone by, the punishment would have been DEATH.” (The phone call was, in fact, explicitly authorized by Trump-administration officials.)

Milley was apparently unfazed by Trump’s backward-looking but hoped-for “DEATH” sentence. In his September 29 farewell speech, Milley noted how his own almost 44 years of military service, as well as the service of all members of America’s armed forces, were premised on a fundamental understanding about their own mortality and sworn obligations:

“We don’t take an oath to a king or a queen or to a tyrant or a dictator. And we don’t take an oath to a wannabe dictator. We don’t take an oath to an individual. We take an oath to the Constitution, and we take an oath to the idea that is America, and we’re willing to die to protect it.”

The intense, deadly serious verbal skirmish between the 65-year-old Milley and the 77-year-old Trump encapsulates several important and persistent issues: the diverse experiences and attitudes of American men with regard to military service; the nation’s deployment of its human and material military resources; and the currently fraught state of America’s social fabric and political institutions.

* * *

I am eight years older than Milley, four years younger than Trump. My own experiences spanned the same significant transformation in the relationship between American men and military service that faced Trump and Milley as young men. That change encompassed the simultaneous elimination of military conscription–the draft–and the initiation of an all-volunteer American military force. As it happened, I finished stumbling through my college years only a few weeks before the draft expired and the all-volunteer American military was initiated on July 1, 1973, just over 50 years ago.

Back in 1978, while working for a small Massachusetts weekly newspaper, The Harvard Post, I wrote an account of my own experiences navigating the Selective Security System during that unsettled and unsettling period.¹

My Selective Service System Registration Card, which I submitted in March 1968, provided to me by the U.S. Archives & Records Administration in 2011.

“I’ve never served in this country’s armed forces,” I wrote 45 years ago in that article, “Reflections on the Draft”:

The reason I haven’t is partly a matter of chance and partly a matter of choice. When I turned eighteen in 1968 I had a number of alternatives to choose from in dealing with the Selective Service, each of whose consequences was reasonably clear. I could, as many thousands of my peers did, have accepted 1-A status and either enlisted or waited to be drafted, knowing that by joining the military I would almost certainly be headed for combat in Vietnam. I could have refused to register, hoping that the Selective Service wouldn’t catch up with me. I could have left the country, as so many did, refusing to cooperate in any way with the American system of conscription and military service. Or I could have immediately applied for conscientious objector status, as many others did. I might also have sought a 4-F status, if I could prove I had a disability that made it physically or mentally impossible to serve (and there were plenty of stories about people maiming themselves or about sympathetic psychiatrists who could claim that just about anybody was entitled to be 4-F).

Instead, I joined probably the largest group of 18-year-old males, those who received 2-S deferments by attending college. The campus became a sanctuary, though many of us thought only a temporary one, for those who simply wanted to avoid making a decision about what we would do if asked to fight in Vietnam. Those who didn’t have the inclination, money, or education to go to college had, of course, to make that decision without delay.

My Selective Service System “Extract of Registrant Classification Record,” provided to me by the U.S. National Archives & Records Administration in 2011.

The Selective Service System reports that the last man inducted entered the Army on June 30, 1973. In that last year of the draft, 646 men were inducted. The highest annual level of induction during the era of the Vietnam War was 382,010 in 1966. Since the establishment of the Selective Service in 1917, the highest years of induction during other wars were: 1917 (World War I), 2,294,084; 1943 (World War II), 3,323,970; and 1951 (Korea), 551,806.

Selective Service System;

* * *

From time to time, I pull out my copy of a 1978 book, Chance and Circumstance: The Draft, the War, and the Vietnam Generation, by Lawrence M. Baskir and William A. Strauss. The two were top staffers of the Presidential Clemency Board then-President Gerald Ford created by executive order issued September 14, 1974, “to afford reconciliation to Vietnam era draft evaders and military deserters,” subject to a variety of terms and conditions. Chance and Circumstance remains a useful reference concerning a time and an important subject foreign to many living Americans.

For their purposes, Baskir and Strauss define the Vietnam Generation as the cohort of 53-milliion “Americans who came of age during the Vietnam War,” who more or less correspond to the post-World War II “Baby Boom” generation. The authors focus on the “26,800,000 men [who] came of draft age between August 4, 1964, when the Tonkin Gulf Resolution marked the nation’s entry into the war, and March 28, 1973, when the last American troops left.”

Women, the other half of that generation, were “immune from the draft,” Baskir and Strauss remind us. “Only six thousand women saw military service in Vietnam, none in combat [although, nine women, they document, were ‘killed’ in the war]. But as sisters, girl friends, and wives, millions of draft-age women paid a heavy share of the emotional cost of the war.” Of course, American women were not then required to register for the draft or to serve in the military. Especially since World War II, women have served voluntarily in various non-combat roles and positions in the U.S. armed forces; but only in 2016 did then-Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter finally “open up all combat jobs to women.” Men are still legally required to register with the Selective Service System at age 18; women are not.

From Chance and Circumstance: The Draft, the War, and the Vietnam Generation (1978), by Lawrence M. Baskir and William A. Strauss.

By the Baskir/Strauss standard, I (born in 1950) am linked to Trump (born in 1946) as a member of that Vietnam Generation. Milley (born in 1958), who “came of age” (18) in 1976, is not. What Trump, Milley, and I had in common is that we were all white men who had the benefit of being educated at private high-schools (Trump, ironically, at the New York Military Academy, in Cornwall, NY) and Ivy League universities.

Trump and I belonged to the 15,980,000 majority of the male “Vietnam Generation” who, according to Baskir and Strauss “never served” in the military. Moreover, we were among the 15,410,000 men of that group who didn’t serve because we were “deferred, exempted, and disqualified.”

Trump faced the prospect of being drafted when he turned eighteen in 1964, just as American involvement in the war in Vietnam ramped up. An on-line site, The Smoking Gun, in 2011 secured a copy of Trump’s Selective Service record. He variously held 2-S (student), 1-Y (“qualified for service only in time of war or national emergency”), and, in 1972, 4-F (“not qualified for military service”) deferments.

Trump himself in a 2016 New York Times story is quoted as saying that a doctor, whose name he could not then recall, provided him “a very strong letter” shortly after his 1968 graduation from the Wharton School, describing bone spurs in his heels. In 2018, two daughters of a Queens, New York podiatrist, whose rented office was located in a building owned by Donald Trump’s father Fred, told Times reporters that it was “family lore” that their father, Dr. Larry Braunstein, provided the “bone spurs” letter. Apparently, that letter qualified Trump for both his 1968 1-Y deferment and his 1972 4-F deferment.  Born on June 14, 1946, Trump in December 1969 benefited from the luck of the draw when that birthdate provided him draft lottery number 356, which, had he not already been classified 1-Y (a category abolished in December 1971) and then 4-F, effectively extinguished any prospect he would be called to military service.

Donald Trump’s Selective Service System Registration Classification Record. (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, as published by The Smoking Gun.)

President Joe Biden is almost 81 years old (emphasis on “old,” at least as the media, his political opponents, and even some of his Democratic supporters constantly remind us). Born in 1942, he doesn’t belong to the Vietnam Generation, as defined by Baskir and Strauss. As it happens, Biden never served in the military, though he was legally subject to conscription. But his Selective Service System Classification Record in some respects mirrors Trump’s. When he ran for vice president as Barack Obama’s running mate in 2008, the campaign disclosed that over the years Biden had received five draft deferments (the same number, incidentally, granted to former Vice President Dick Cheney).

Joe Biden’s (barely legible) Selective Service System Classification Record (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration).

As the Associated Press reported at the time:

According to the documents, Biden, 65, received several deferments while he was an undergraduate at the University of Delaware and later as a law student at Syracuse University. A month after undergoing a physical exam in 1968, Biden received a Selective Service classification of 1-Y, meaning he was available for service only in the event of national emergency.

“As a result of a physical exam on April 5, 1968, Joe Biden was classified 1-Y and disqualified from service because of asthma as a teenager,” said David Wade, a campaign spokesman.

Today, of course, Biden (like Obama and Trump, both of whom likewise did not serve in the U.S. military) is “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States,” as Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution provides.

By 1976, when Mark Milley turned 18, the Vietnam War was over; in fact, North and South Vietnam were reunited that year. As I can attest from personal experience and observation, the draft by then had evaporated as a concern of American men his age. However, his parents both served in the military during World War II (as did mine, both stateside). His father Alexander Milley, according to the Atlantic‘s Goldberg, was “a Navy corpsman who was part of the assault landings in the central Pacific at Kwajalein, Tinian, and Iwo Jima.”

While an undergraduate at Princeton University, Milley joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). (During my college years, ROTC was a subject of continuing controversy. The ROTC program at Harvard was reduced to an extracurricular activity in 1969 and formally discontinued in 1971. A Naval ROTC program was restored in 2011.)  When Milley graduated from Princeton in 1980, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and armor officer in the U.S. Army. Advancing over the years to the highest possible military rank as Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, he served in the Army continuously for more than four decades. Along the way, he also earned master’s degrees from Columbia University and the Naval War College.

Conscience –or convenience?

“Chance and circumstance,” I am well aware, defined my own passage through those years in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Like Trump (and the millions of my other male contemporaries), I enjoyed the benefit of a 2-S student deferment while I remained in college. In my 1978 article, I described how the rest of my Selective Service journey played out:

. . .  during my first two college years I had fattened it up [my Selective Service file] by submitting an application claiming that I was a conscientious objector to war. . . . At the time I filed my application claiming C.O. status, it made no immediate difference in my standing with the Selective Service. Until I lost or gave up the 2-S (student) status I held at the time, the Clinton [Massachusetts] draft board would not consider or rule upon my application. I was taking my claim seriously, though. It was an idea that had been taking shape in my mind while I was still a senior in high school, that I mulled over during my freshman year in college, and that I finally acted upon. I reasoned that if I was serious about the whole matter I should have my application on record as soon as possible; the draft board could not then say later that I was a johnny-come-lately, using any expedient to escape the draft.

I dug out my old Handbook for Conscientious Objectors last week [remember, I wrote this article in 1978], the book I used as a guide in filling out my application; and I was reminded of how much time I spent thinking about the four questions on the Selective Service C.O. application – and about how the Clinton draft board might eventually respond to my answers.

The questions, at first glance, seemed straightforward enough. Yet the first one especially is the one that I’m not sure I could ever answer – either to my own satisfaction or anyone else’s. “Describe the nature of your belief which is the basis of your claim,” that first question read, “and state why you consider it to be based on religious training and belief.” The problem for those who felt sincerely that they were conscientiously opposed to the war in Vietnam – and didn’t know how they felt about other wars they hadn’t been faced with – was that conscientious objector status could be granted only to those whose opposition to combatant training and service was based on “religious training and belief”; that term, the law declared, “does not include essentially political, sociological or philosophical views, or a merely personal moral code.”

The government, in other words, had made a legal determination that only the authority of religion – and not just religious “belief” but religious “training” as well – entitled one to act on one’s conscience. “A merely personal moral code,” as the government put it, did not.

I composed what I thought at the time to be a sincere and reasonable answer to the question, though, “based on religious training and belief.” And I went on to answer the other three questions, which did not seem so troublesome once I was past the first: “2) Explain how, when and from whom or from what source you received the religious training and acquired the religious belief which is the basis of your claim; 3) To what extent does your religious training and belief restrict you from ministering to the sick and injured, either civilian or military, or from serving in the Armed Forces as a noncombatant without weapons?; and 4) Have you ever given expression publicly or privately, written or oral, to the views herein expressed as the basis for your claim? Give examples.”

All this I provided the Selective Service, with letters of reference from several high school teachers. In my application I stated that I would accept 1-A-O status, which would permit me to serve in the military as a noncombatant, rather than 1-O, in which a conscientious objector worked in some civilian role. My reasoning at the time I’m sure had more to do with proving to myself that at eighteen I was man enough to face war, than with my scruples about whether it was more or less moral to be a C.O. in the military or out.

A few years later, though, I withdrew my C.O application, although it remained in my file. The lottery system had just been established, and my birthday corresponded to a high lottery number. By giving up my student deferment in favor of the much-feared 1-A status, I would be vulnerable to the draft for only six weeks or so; and the Selective Service had promised that only those below a certain number would be called. (The only hitch was whether the agency could be trusted.) I opted for 1-A, waited out my six weeks, and left school for a year, free at last from my own concerns about being drafted. The war, of course, continued.

In the extensive 2012 “postscript” I added to my original 1978 article, I described my effort to further reconstruct and document those long-ago events:

I . . . requested from the National Archives, custodian of some Selective Service System records, any record of my Selective Service history and status. A prompt, terse response enclosed a photocopy of what was described as my “Selective Service card and extracted information from the registration classification book.” The two-sided card documents my registration on March 26, 1968, just a few days after my eighteenth birthday; my status as a high-school student; my height and weight; and the name and address of an aunt in the line requesting designation of a “person other than a member of your household who will always know your address.” On the line asking for information about “Other obvious physical characteristics that will aid in identification,” I had written: “wears glasses.”

My correspondence with the Clinton draft board is cryptically summarized on the form identified as “Extract of Registrant Classification Record.” I was granted deferred 1-S (HS) status in May, 1968, while enrolled in high school. By January, 1969, during my freshman year in college, I had been re-classified 2-S, another class of student deferment. On December 8, 1970, I was reclassified 1-A (“Available for military service”). And in August, 1972, during the last year of the draft, I was re-classified 1-H. A table of classifications on the back of the extract form informs me that 1-H status applies to registrants “not currently subject to processing for induction or alternate service.” The form also notes that “With the cessation of registrant processing in 1976, all registrants (except for a few alleged violators of the Military Selective Service Act) were classified 1-H regardless of any previous classification.” Finally, a hand-written entry on the form next to the heading “Entries from Remarks Column” reads: “RSN 265 – 22, yr 70.” This appears to document my “Random Sequence Number” (265), from the December, 1, 1969 draft lottery, which applied to all men born from 1944 through 1950. The draft-eligibility ceiling for that year—that is, the lottery number above which the Selective Service said it would not induct registrants—was 195. The rest of the entry (“—22, yr 70”) may refer to the number of days (22) of my theoretical 1-A draft eligibility during the calendar year 1970 (“yr 70”). Thus is one man’s Selective Service System record encoded for posterity’s sake. The comparable records of many other members of the Vietnam Generation would, of course, encapsulate stories much more complex and tragic than mine.

* * *

“What Did You Do in the Class War, Daddy?”

In comparing my own Selective Service System experience to that of my contemporaries, at least in a narrow and anecdotal fashion, it has struck me how the ever-changing circumstances of each passing year from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s could, and did, have significant life-changing–or, in some cases, life-ending–consequences for men of only slightly different ages.


Mass meeting in Harvard Stadium, April 14, 1969, attended by an estimated 10,000 students, faculty members, and hangers-on. I am 99+% certain that I am the befuddled, slack-jawed college freshman pictured in the green circle.

The literature about the Vietnam war and era is of course vast and varied. Other college contemporaries, with far broader audiences than a small-town newspaper, documented their own experiences dealing with the draft or serving in the military. “Very few of my Harvard College contemporaries were drafted or enlisted in the armed forces,” as I wrote in 2012, updating my earlier 1978 article: 

In fact, our relative immunity from the direct consequences of war-fighting accentuates a social and cultural chasm that persists in the era of a voluntary military. Journalist James Fallows (Harvard class of 1970), who was president of the Harvard Crimson, in 1975 wrote a vivid, self-lacerating account of his own experience during his own final year in college, when he faced the possibility of being drafted. In his Washington Monthly article, “What Did You Do in the Class War, Daddy?” Fallows described his trip with a busload of other Harvard and MIT students to a pre-induction physical at the Boston Navy Yard. Like many of his fellow collegians, Fallows had devised a strategy for disqualification from the draft. By the thinnest of margins, he fell below the weight requirement for a man of his height. A wary, skeptical doctor nonetheless classified him as unqualified for military service. “I was overcome by a wave of relief, which for the first time revealed to me how great my terror had been,” Fallows wrote in 1975, “and by the beginning of the sense of shame that remains with me to this day.”

Fallows’s sense of shame was brought into sharp focus by the buses that followed his into the Navy Yard. The next group of potential conscripts arrived from Chelsea, “thick, dark-haired young men, the White proles of Boston,” he observed. “Most of them were younger than we were because they had just left high school, and it had clearly never occurred to them that there might be a way around the draft.” Looking back on that day from the vantage of only a few years, but just after the American role in the Vietnam War had ceased, Fallows came to believe that many of us in college in those years, who avoided the draft by legal and/or dubious means, had in effect been complicit in prolonging the war, while our contemporaries from communities like Chelsea were compelled to fight (and perhaps die) in it. The domestic politics of the Vietnam era represented a class war, in which “the children of the bright good parents were spared the more immediate sort of suffering that our inferiors were undergoing,” Fallows guiltily wrote. “It is clear by now that if the men of Harvard had wanted to do they very most they could to help shorten the war,” he concluded, “they should have been drafted or imprisoned en masse.”

Decades later, while America has relied on an all-volunteer force to engage in prolonged military engagements in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, this question of class and military service has not really been resolved.

Baskin and Strauss in Chance and Circumstance, writing in 1978, when the consequences of the class, racial, and social inequities of the draft and the Vietnam War were still being experienced by many younger Americans, shared some of Fallows’s concerns, which they expressed in blunt language:

The draftees who fought and died in Vietnam were primarily society’s “losers,” the same men left behind in schools, jobs, and other forms of social competition. The discriminatory social, economic, and racial impact of Vietnam cannot be fairly measured against other wars in American history, but the American people were never before as conscious of how unevenly the obligation to serve was distributed. Few of the nation’s elite had sons or close friends who did any fighting.

¹ My original article, “Reflections on the Draft: Ten Years Later, Finding Out What Happened to Those Selective Service Files,” appeared in The Harvard [Mass.] Post, December 8, 1978. I updated and republished that 1978 article for my 2012 book Peculiar Work: Writing about Benton MacKaye, Conservation, Community. Portions of those articles have been used in or adapted for this post.