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My Turn: There are things about war that never change

A crowd of American soldiers swarm around President Lyndon B. Johnson shortly after his arrival at Cam Rahn Bay in South Vietnam on Oct. 26, 1966.

A crowd of American soldiers swarm around President Lyndon B. Johnson shortly after his arrival at Cam Rahn Bay in South Vietnam on Oct. 26, 1966.

Mike Pride provided a masterful account of Concord’s history 150 years ago in his piece titled “War Capital” (Monitor, May 22). As I read each word with intense interest, I tried to tether my mind to the events transpiring during that sorrowful American Civil War period. But from the opening paragraphs, I involuntarily flashed back to an American war a century later when a split personality was developing in Concord and across our country.

By the mid-1960s, war was hitting home to some, while economic times bustled for the majority still benefiting from post-World War II expansion.

As in the Civil War years, military conscription was rapidly taking away young men to fight and die, not on the homeland but in far away Southeast Asia.

Pride’s words describe periods of time 100 years apart, A surreal contrast took hold of the war capital. Opulence and profit ruled on Main Street while an unforeseen human calamity played out in the distance. Unless directly affected, people tend to remain oblivious to the violence, pain and destruction that ravage all sides in war.

The August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin fiasco and the Congressional resolution passed a week later authorized President Lyndon B. Johnson to greatly expand overt U.S. military action in Vietnam.

In mid-July 1965, LBJ doubled the draft quota, sweeping tens of thousands of American youngsters into the war machine. To a great extent, social and economic inequalities fed the Selective Service System.

In October 1965, Concord’s Local Draft Board No. 7 sent notification that my draft classification had changed from II-S (student deferment) to I-A (available for military service). The efficient board wasted little time in acting on my brief enrollment lapse at UNH, and I was nabbed for induction. Conforming to family tradition, I immediately enlisted in the Marines.

Unlike during the Civil War, no bounties were offered for substitutes to those chosen for the draft during the 1960s. There was no abominable “slave pen” on Concord’s South End to corral victims of the draft quota. However, Pride’s statement, “No longer did eager young men rush to enlist in local companies” applied directly to the situation as war in Vietnam raged on.

Avoiding the draft involved difficult decisions or good fortune. Thousands of young men fled to Canada or remained exempt in stateside colleges. Others faked illnesses, homosexuality (society has come a long way since then) or purposefully injured themselves.

Some even went to jail rather than be drafted. Those convincing authorities of conscientious objector beliefs escaped the draft on moral or religious grounds. Many in this category did alternative service, such as serving in the Peace Corps.

Young men who were politically connected, had wealthy or influential parents or knew the right doctors to get a 4-F classification (unfit due to medical or psychological conditions) could beat the dreaded conscription.

There was also the possibility of joining a military reserve unit. National Guard and Army Reserve branches were flooded with frenzied enlistees seeking sanctuary from the war.

Enlistment quotas were jammed full to the point where only the privileged or extremely lucky gained entrance. Those who did generally stayed clear of the war while gaining the honor and record of military service.

As in the Civil War, desertion from the Vietnam War was fairly commonplace, though the consequences were less severe than firing squads.

Looking back, I hold no animosity toward draft resisters and evaders who genuinely stood by their convictions that the war in Vietnam was hideously wrong. Most despicable in my mind are those of the Dick Cheney ilk, who reaped multiple draft deferments while enthusiastically cheering on a war suffered by multitudes less fortunate.

There has been no military draft since early 1973. Tragically, senseless wars have continued, fueled by volunteers. The ghostly figures and men with empty sleeves and pants legs Pride mentions come back to haunt from 47 years ago when I lay wounded in a military hospital’s amputee ward. The carnage is never-ending 150 years after those sad years so graphically depicted in the Concord Monitor’s “War Capital” column.

(Paul Nichols lives in Loudon.)

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