2: Sputnik, the Draft, and The Proles: 1968

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Chapter summary


            Six years after William and Mary, I would “redeem’ myself, with a rather ho-hum two year stint in the U.S. Army.  But a story would surround this, connecting me to the dangerous games played by the conventional centers of power.  

            I would take the draft physical three times: in 1964, 1965, and 1967.  I’d flunk the first time, earning a “4-F” with a psychiatric disability.  This was the only physical in which the military “asked” about “homosexual tendencies”—the very last question on the 1964 medical form. Fearful of being blackballed from productive employment in civilian life, I insisted on taking the physical until I passed it, on the third try.  I may well be the only person in history who did this.

            I would attend graduate school at the University of Kansas first--and live in a dorm, in 907 McCollum, and “adjust.”  I taught remedial algebra as a grad student, and rather odd scenes came about: a student whom I had flunked for cheating visiting me in the dorm while I was in underwear, two fibbies showing up one day to quiz me about a former roommate—whom I slammed for his bragadoccio claims about rolling queers with lead pipe.  The oral master’s exam was a concession—they gave me the degree because I was going into the service.

            There was something of a paradox in mathematics, and in the world of tournament chess.  Absolute logic would lead to absolute despair perhaps, but to a young man it was an appreciation of paradox, how the emotional value of music that plays through your head until the various musical classics seem like permanent organisms could be reconciled with mathematical precision—but then maybe so can life itself, with the appalling simplicity underneath the concept of DNA. And chess theory—and those wonderful tournaments with tangled positions, Staunton sets and ice water in hotel ballrooms—seemed to map all of life’s moral dilemmas.    

            And Army basic was the dream-like experience of loosing freedom for regimentation and getting it back.  I would struggle with my physical weakness enough to get recycled once, through Special Training Company and tent city, at the same time that I applied for a direct commission based on my master’s in Mathematics!  But I would come out of basic at 24 in the best physical shape of any moment in my life, able to fungo a softball out of an average-sized enclosed field.

            I would spend a summer, comfortably in khakis, at the Pentagon, spending nights in the “barracks” of South Post.  I’d read recently downgraded papers from the Korean era, that suggested genuine concern about the possibility that the Soviets could develop and deploy tactical nuclear weapons.  We’d do “analysis” of combat, combat support, and combat service support units deployed to Vietnam. An undertone of discussion among us enlisted men would ensue, about how military commanders, through the mechanism of the draft, had tremendous control over civilian life, even if the military was supposed to subordinate itself to civilian leadership.  The use of men—especially black men (despite the concurrent civil rights movement and “great society”)—as cannon fodder in ground combat was a distant buffer to nuclear weapons now, a way to keep a stalemate and keep the dominoes from falling on the homeland.

            In the ensuing decades, I would see convincing presentations that John Kennedy had been assassinated by a collusion of Mafiosi and right-wing extremists who wanted an (otherwise unnecessary)  Vietnam-style war to fund a military complex.  Yet, based on what I saw during my own stint in the Pentagon, the danger of communism must have seemed very real at the time even to the most well-meaning leaders; the Cuban Missile Crisis had happened only a few years before.

            After a summer of these discussions, or maybe because of my background investigation—I found myself transferred to Ft. Eustis (“Ft. Useless”) for the rest of my demonstration tour.  For the first time in seven years—and now it was approaching Stonewall time—homosexuality was sometimes mentioned openly.  Everyone considered me to be gay, and we would make harmless jokes about it, and it seemed safer in this military environment than it ever had in the civilian world of McCarthyism.  Some of the men actually admired my amateur writing effort, an autobiographical novel, The Proles, in which liberal society is nuked back into a world of peasant, Maoist anti-intellectualism.  Still, as I went out and about on my considerable leave, I had no concept of a “gay community” or “gay lifestyle”; fantasy was good enough.


            A couple of ideas overpowered my awareness during these years.  First, the notion that, as a young male, I owed a debt (or had to “pay my dues”) to “society” before I would be allowed to live my own life, however chosen. I should prove that I could defend women and children, if they needed me to risk my life for them.  We would have campfire debates on this issue on mountain Baptist church retreats. I wanted to serve without serving.

            That’s how the whole draft thing got seen. Earlier, President Kennedy had toyed with the idea of exempting married men from the draft, and for a while men with kids were exempted, until Vietnam heated up. (The Selective Service system, still open today because young men still must register at 18, issues pamphlets talking about “Kennedy husbands.”) Which is a point. The military would drop its idea of “social good” when it really needed men.  It had already done this in its inconsistent, though sometimes sordid, handling of gays—it needed them during World War II after all.[1][1]  Kennedy had turned down the idea of a volunteer Army because, as he claimed, it would be an “all black Army.”  Well, Johnson’s deferment policy had the same effect.    

             The second idea was merit, which could help fund the debt—the student deferment issue.  Pictorially, “merit” was connected to a man’s sexual attractiveness, in my mind. Practically, I bought in to the Cold War, Sputnik-borne idea that a nerd with good grades was somehow more “valuable” to the “national interest” and should either get out of the draft or get a “good deal” when he went in—the latter is indeed what I got.  Of course, this had all come about through political expediency. The Democratic government had depended on upper income people, perhaps with guilty consciences but also with darling sons, for political contributions, even to get started with the Civil Rights movement.

            But even us favored children had to prove that we were “qualified” for professional lives in coats and ties, away from the front lines or factory floors.  Every hour examination—closed book, in class, five problems on the blackboard (or perhaps, as in those days, ink-mimeographed) expecting you to apply some theorem in a way you hadn’t seen before—was a kind of certification test for the good life.      

            For three summers before finishing graduate school, I worked for the Navy Department, learning “computer programming” –in the days of EAM punched cards, Fortran, run decks, desk checking, and long turnarounds.   Black government employees would warn that unrest was coming to the white suburbs, while government management would sometimes invite students like me to seminars on the Cold War and the Domino theory, probing us for opinions as to whether we really believed it.  Already they were worried. Young men and women were starting to refuse to work in the defense industry even as civilians out of their own moral concerns.

            In the ensuing decades it would take the development of more freedom to motivate real integrity.

            But even today, the government has the legal right to force young men to give up their lives to defend the country.  What kind of sacrifice may government expect in the future, to meet yet unpredictable threats, like terrorism or global warming, in the name of “national security”?


ÓCopyright 2000 by Bill Boushka and High Productivity Publishing