|This is a 1984 print by Kent Jones. It is not related to the story.|
Creating art based on wartime experience and history is difficult. You want to be respectful of the military efforts of the courage and sacrifice involved but at the same time most artists want to avoid glorifying war. It is a balancing act.
A visual artist that I very much respect, Kent Jones, has taken up writing short stories. (Here's a link to the gallery in St. John's that represents his visual art practice.
One of the stories reflects his personal experience as a young American during the draft of university students for the Vietnam War. With his permission, I am sharing it with you.
A Roll of the Dice
By Kent Jones
I started university in September of 1967 at Kent State in Kent, Ohio. I was an eighteen-year old visual arts student. The first year I lived in a dorm on campus called Manchester Hall.
That year saw America in the middle of the mess that was the Vietnam War and it escalated over the next couple of years, tearing the country apart, wrecking families and communities with marches, protests (a very deadly one at Kent State in the Spring of 1970), confrontations, riots, political unrest and, worst of all, the senseless slaughter of thousands of young Americans. Many were too young to vote for the politicians who sent them to war and, in many states, it was against the law if they bought a beer. As the line went in the Barry McGuire anti-war song:
You’re old enough to kill, but not for votin’.
Virtually everyone who lived through those times knew someone who was killed or wounded in Vietnam. Many vets returned home suffering from post traumatic stress and worse. There was a draft system in place that supplied paper “draft cards” to every young guy in the country with various designations that identified your eligibility for military service. Twenty-two separate categories were established.
1-S was a high school deferment category, meaning you were exempt from being drafted. 2-S was a university level deferment category. There were other categories for farm kids who traditionally were exempt so that they could tend crops and animals for the nation’s welfare (2-C).
Another exempted group included conscientious objectors. There were several sub-categories for them. Quakers fit in one of those categories and individuals studying for the ministry of recognized religions. If you were medically unfit for any reason, you, too, were exempt from mandatory service. But if you were fit and of the requisite age your designation was 1-A. Any one who was 1-A could be drafted at any time and might find themselves in Vietnam within a few short months.
At universities across the country it was often said, half-jokingly, that if you lived within five miles of the Atlantic Ocean in the Northeastern United States, or five miles from the Pacific Ocean in California, you would receive sufficient information from various sources to make up your mind about whether or not the war was justified. Elsewhere the prevailing view was pro-war. An overwhelming number of Americans were convinced the Vietnam War was all about protecting democracy and freedom, just like Nixon and Kissinger were telling them, hence it was worth sacrificing young Americans in the process.
However, as time went by, more and more young people in America disagreed with the pro-war stance and the anti-war movement grew. Here’s the chorus from another protest song---“I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag”:
And it’s one, two three,
What are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam;
And it’s five, six, seven,
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain’t no time to wonder why,
Whoopee! we’re all gonna die.
Country Joe MacDonald, who authored that song, had half a million of them singing along with him at Woodstock. You can find it online today and, I would think, forever.
Having said that, there were still conflicting opinions among students at Kent State, and elsewhere, with regard to the validity of, and justification for, the Vietnam War.
Here’s an example: I had four eight o’clock classes during my first year at university. It was tough getting to the art buildings at that time in the morning, particularly in winter. You had to walk about half a mile from Manchester Hall (my dormitory) to the converted ROTC barracks buildings where most of the drawing classes were held. The last two hundred yards or so crossed a high section of treeless ground where the wind blew like hell, and carrying a portfolio and fishing tackle box full of drawing materials without losing stuff was a challenge.
One November morning I headed off to class with a guy I had met who lived next door to me on the third floor of Manchester Hall. We had become pretty good friends in a short time and we signed up for the same classes.
As he---Dominic Sena---and I were crossing the treeless wasteland before we reached the ROTC buildings, Dom elbowed me and gestured in the direction of another large dormitory building to our right. Four floors up the guys who lived in one of the rooms had unfurled a large bed sheet out the window of their room. On it, in red paint, were the words “DOW Chemical Makes Napalm.”
We continued on to class. Three hours later we packed up and headed back to our dorm. As we passed the Napalm protest sign again, hanging outside the window right next to it was another bed sheet that read “Napalm Does the Job.”
Less than a year later the American government had decided to escalate the war. They also had discovered that an awful lot of minorities and poorer kids were getting drafted since they weren’t at colleges or universities and therefore were in the 1-A category and eligible to be drafted. It was decided to alter the deferment system, the result being that the 2-S category was to be eliminated and university students would soon be eligible to be drafted. The topic was hotly discussed for weeks throughout the States but particularly at universities and colleges.
On December 1st, 1969, two lotteries took place in Washington, D.C. The lotteries were conducted like this:
The numbers 1 through 366 (to include February 29) were written on individual slips of paper. These were placed in plastic capsules, mixed in a shoebox and then dumped into a large glass container. Then House of Representative member Alexander Pirnie, a Republican from New York and the senior Republican on the House Armed Services Committee’s special sub-committee on the draft, drew the first capsule. He was the only person in an official capacity to do so. The remaining capsules were selected by young men and women representing the Selective Service youth advisory committees from various states. The first 195 birthdates chosen in sequence would be called to report to Army induction centers the next day. These included all men born between 1944 and 1950.
The night of December 1st I sat by myself in my apartment in Goleta, California, where I had moved that Fall to attend the University of California at Santa Barbara.
I was in touch by phone with friends back in Kent, Ohio during the evening. Some of them were sitting together at the house we had all rented the previous year on Maple Street in Kent.
What we knew at the time was that you could sign up for the Navy or the Air Force and have the option of not being sent to war in Vietnam. If you were drafted you went straight into the Army and that could represent a one way ticket to Vietnam.
“We could join the Navy tomorrow”, said Dom over the phone. “My dad was on the (battleship) New Jersey during World War Two. If we joined up we could do something like that---maybe be stationed in the Mediterranean.”
We were naïve, and nervous. It was a tense night.
My lottery number for the draft was 265. Dominic’s was 340.
And that was that---we were off the hook, all determined by a crap shoot. It would take the Third World War to get us drafted. My father, who was a bit of a hawk, phoned me---greatly relieved---to make sure I knew my lottery number right after it was announced.
And a student friend of ours from Cleveland, who was sitting and listening to the radio with Dom that night, and just 20 years old, was drafted the next day and ended up in Vietnam. He is still listed as “Missing in Action”.
© Kent Jones