How likely were you to be drafted during the Vietnam war?
May 4, 2012 6:43 AM   Subscribe

How likely were you to be drafted during the Vietnam war if you were eligible?

I have a friend who recently had a birthday - he turned 59. Not long ago, for no reason and because I was just curious I asked if he was drafted during Vietnam war. He told he wasn't because he was too young then.

Later I started thinking about this. If he's 59 now that means he was 18 in 1971 and 19 in 1972. How would this be too young to be drafted?

My bigger question is how likely was a man to be drafted during Vietnam, and what was the average age? Is there anywhere to see statistics regarding male population in the US during that time, their age, and the number drafted or enlisted?

What percentage of "Vietnam era" men today would have served?
posted by dukes909 to Grab Bag (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
We were scaling back in '71 and '72, so someone who was just 18 in '71 may have juuuuuust missed the cutoff.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:52 AM on May 4, 2012

Because he was too young.

The draft was held on December 1, 1969 for the 1970 calendar year and included those born between January 1, 1944, and December 31, 1950. If he is 59 now, then he was born in 1953, so he was ~3 years too young at the time of the draft.
posted by TinWhistle at 6:53 AM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

The draft in the Viet Nam era was a lottery, with low numbers being called first. Young men registered with Selective Service (as they do today) and were given draft cards with their number on it. High number, less likely to be drafted. Also, when protesting the war, many young men burned their draft cards.

There were deferments and exemptions, for example, Married, with children. Much was made of Dick Cheney fortuitiously marrying prior to being drafted, and again, with the birth of his first child. Another option was to serve in the National Guard (a la former president Bush). Enrolled in college/university was another way of getting out of the draft.

As the song said, Nineteen was the average age of a soldier in Viet Nam.

According to The Veteran's Hour, 9.7% of the total generation served in Viet Nam. With a total of 3.4 million serving in the Southeast asia theater.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:55 AM on May 4, 2012

There was a draft lottery started in late 1969. The draft ended in 1973 and was replaced with the supposedly all-volunteer military. If your friend Just turned 59 then presumably he was born in 1953 and he would have been subject to the draft when he turned 18 in 1971.

Some possibilities:

-he's lying about his age
-he had a draft deferment for a reason that he does not wish to divulge
posted by mareli at 6:56 AM on May 4, 2012

And as to how likely it was for someone to be drafted - that depended on a lot of factors; the year in question, whether they were married or had kids, whether they were doing something else for the war effort, etc. My own father was of eligible age, but for most of the war he was granted an exemption from the draft because he was designing subs with a military contractor. Then they dropped that exemption in '69, and he came up with another reason to be exempted (and that reason for exemption happens to be typing this comment right now - yep, I was a draft dodge baby).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:56 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

A few friends of mine got exempted because they pretended to be gay. Other friends took shitloads of drugs before they went to their physicals so that they could seem mentally ill. One of my cousins starved himself down to 120 lbs or whatever the weight cutoff was. He was 6 ft. tall.

Another factor was the local draft board, made up of "upstanding" local citizens who had their own prejudices and biases.
posted by mareli at 7:03 AM on May 4, 2012

Response by poster: So if roughly less than 10% of that generation served (The Veteran's Hour), that means it's pretty unlikely any person you meet on the street today from that generation will have been in Vietnam? I don't know why I was under the mistaken impression that most would have served, instead of really just the opposite.

Side note: this MeFi question isn't a comment about my friend, those who served, did not serve, merely my own misconceptions about how many served, the draft etc.
posted by dukes909 at 7:13 AM on May 4, 2012

Best answer: If you look at this wiki article, it says that they didn't draft men as they turned 18, but drafted then from the year they turned 20. So on average, half of the draftees were 19, and half were 20.

Since the last draft lottery that happened was for the people born in 1952, he was one year shy.

(The draft policy to draft slightly older men was probably done for two reasons: one, it avoided drafting people who might still be in high school due to late birthdays and having possibly dropped back a year. And 2, in case something bad happened and they needed more soldiers than the age 20 cohort would provide, they would still have a pool of 18 and 19 year olds to draw from.)
posted by gjc at 7:23 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another (very) important factor was socioeconomic level. According to this page, 76% of the men sent to Vietnam were from lower middle/working class backgrounds. (Yes, this number represents those actually send to Vietnam, not necessarily those drafted overall, but the point stands.) As David Halberstam wrote, "Vietnam was a place where the elite went as reporters, not as soldiers."
posted by arco at 7:26 AM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Another factor was the local draft board, made up of "upstanding" local citizens who had their own prejudices and biases.

Yes indeed. My overall impression was that they weren't all that desperate for the draftees. My father took the physical and was told that he had a mild case of bursitis.

Do you want to go? The doctor asked him. Because I know that some people really want to serve their country. If that's the case, I'll say the bursitis isn't that bad. But if you're not keen to go, I'll say it's too serious. (My father was of the latter persuasion.)
posted by Melismata at 7:42 AM on May 4, 2012

The college deferment was the main way out of the draft, which had interesting effects on the academic world, when flunking out of school could very easily become fatal. As well as helping ensure that Vietnam was largely fought by poor kids.

The college deferment was basically the middle-class version of the upper class ability to pull strings and get your son a slot in, for example, the Texas Air National Guard.
posted by Naberius at 7:44 AM on May 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

There was also an aura of fear and nervousness about the whole business -- what if the war suddenly ramped up again? Mr. BlahLaLa was born in 1954 and when he graduated high school he enlisted in the navy in order to avoid the risk of being drafted into the army. It's a long story, but he made it out okay.
posted by BlahLaLa at 7:54 AM on May 4, 2012

Not even all the reserves were sent - my dad was in the Marine Reserves during the peak of Vietnam, and to this day he's still baffled why he didn't end up getting sent over, but he didn't.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:22 AM on May 4, 2012

My fil was drafted in 1969 at age 19-my inlaws were married but didn't have children yet (they'd been married for 2 years already). They took off for Canada and bummed around there for several months until my mil got pregnant-they came back, he served a weekend in the brig and shipped to basic within a week of him turning himself in. He did 2 tours in Vietnam, then spent another 20 years as career Army.

My father, on the other hand, had enlisted in the Navy in 1960 and never went to Vietnam. He was married and had 2 babies by 1967, so they just kept sending him to all these different schools around the US until he left the military in 1972.

Both of them were lower middle class at the time and from very small towns in the midwest (Missouri and Ohio).
posted by hollygoheavy at 8:26 AM on May 4, 2012

My dad also just turned 59, a few days ago. Apparently his draft number was one in the final round of draft numbers called, but they never actually made it down to his. His two brothers, older by just a couple years got called, though.
posted by phunniemee at 9:03 AM on May 4, 2012

Back when I was still in high school (1977) and on the yearbook staff, I remember looking at some yearbooks from 1968-69 and seeing an "In Memoriam" section with photos of students who'd died in Vietnam. I remember thinking at first that I was that they could draft high school kids, but upon reading the captions they were all very recent graduates who'd been drafted. It was a sobering sight to see photos of such young faces in uniform (they looked nothing like the actors in Patton) and knowing that they were dead. Heck, most of the guys in my class were just as goofy and irresponsible the summer after graduation as they'd been in the 10th grade; I couldn't imagine putting a machine gun in any of their hands and dropping them off in a jungle overseas. Yeah, that's what basic training is for, but eight weeks cannot erase a lifetime of middle-class sloth. (Those men who immediately enlisted when WWII broke out were a bit more hardscrabble; they'd grown up during the Depression and had experience in working hard and doing without.)

Two friends of mine (both of whom I met later in life) joined the Marines out of high school in the late 1960s. One (a fairly mild-mannered type) did get sent to Vietnam, the other (the bigger, beefier, more "gung-ho, I'll kick your ass" type) never left the US. Go figure. Three other men who were of draft age during that era whom I worked with during the 1980s/90s escaped the draft by either having a high draft number or being enrolled in college.
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:08 AM on May 4, 2012

So if roughly less than 10% of that generation served (The Veteran's Hour), that means it's pretty unlikely any person you meet on the street today from that generation will have been in Vietnam?

Depends on what they mean. 10% of the generation overall, or generation of men?

A simple way to look at the question is to look at the wikipedia page for the 1969 draft lottery. It worked by birthdate, where they put the days of the year in a random* order and then went through that randomly-ordered list until they didn't need people any more. They actually called up 195 of 366 days, so a little over half of the eligible population was drafted.

*Turned out it wasn't sufficiently random but that doesn't matter here.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:19 AM on May 4, 2012

The Selective Service website has information about how the lottery worked and what the numbers were here.

My dad was born in 1949 and his lottery number was 209. But it didn't really matter because he was already in Vietnam when the first lottery happened. (Voluntary enlistment in the Army, radio dude, two tours, honorable discharge.)
posted by elsietheeel at 10:40 AM on May 4, 2012

I think another factor about outcomes relates to individuals’ persuasiveness and tenacity for getting better assignments despite the military’s plans to send them into the war zone. In my family, which lacks influence of any kind, several relatives have managed to serve while gaming the system to their advantage, even when drafted or holding bad numbers.

Uncle Carmicha received a bad number, deferred to complete medical school (he was young) and then was given a choice of three years in Germany or two years in Vietnam, both in Army medical settings. He picked 3/Germany, but when he arrived to pick up his orders he discovered he was being sent to Vietnam. He told whoever was in charge that his 8.5 months pregnant wife had already gone on ahead to Germany (because she would be too far along to travel with him) on the strength of the previous promise and so that wouldn't work out for him. She was actually sitting in the car outside (although she was very pregnant). The gambit worked and he got to complete his Army service in Europe.

Father Carmicha elected to do Army ROTC for the scholarship benefits before things got hot. Fearful of the prospect of going to war during his required service years, he sought to position himself to avoid combat via strategic ingratiation and racking up time as a TA for specific instructors and courses. Through careful planning (and some luck) he finagled an assignment teaching physics to pilots and so managed to stay safe himself.

Mr. Carmicha got drafted with one year to go in his five year degree program. He successfully deferred to complete school and then enlisted in the Navy during that year to avoid serving in the Army, also extracting a promise that he could go to OCS. After OCS he went to Vietnam for about two years, but could now serve in relative safety.

Two Carmicha Friends received terrible numbers and were headed for the front, but parlayed their athletic abilities into gigs working at Army R&R facilities in Japan (tennis) and Germany (skiing). The tennis guy’s luck ran out and he was sent to combat. After being wounded (shrapnel), he created a second miracle for himself by drawing on his experience as a DJ to get into armed forces radio, thereby avoiding a return to battle. He has always been grateful for the shrapnel (and remains a smooth talker).
posted by carmicha at 10:55 AM on May 4, 2012

If he turned 59 recently, that means he was born in 1953. According to the Selective Service site:
The lottery drawing held February 2, 1972, determined the order in which men born in 1953 were called to report for induction into the military.

This lottery was conducted for men who would have been called in 1973; however, no new draft orders were issued after 1972.
so, yep, it seems he was too young by a year.
posted by namewithoutwords at 11:07 AM on May 4, 2012

The draft lottery changed things. Before that, if you lived in a draft-board district where a lot of kids went to college, you were draft bait if you didn't. The boards had quotas, and they had to supply a given number of bodies every month. Since students were deferred, kids who finished high school and went to work were much more likely to be taken. That led to the socioeconomic bias mentioned above, and eventually to the lottery. Boards in well-off areas rounded up all the working-class kids, even if they had mild disabilities like being deaf in one ear (me). Those who quit or graduated college (my brother) were also taken. Those who managed to generate "other priorities" (Dick fucking Cheney) got out of serving.

Even after the lottery went into effect, kids in wealthier areas managed to get out more often with diagnoses from co-operative doctors.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:52 PM on May 4, 2012

From a Seattle Times article sidebar:

Just under 27 million American men were eligible for military service between 1964 and 1973.

Of that number 8.4 million served in active duty.

Another 2 million served in the National Guard or military reserves.

About 15.4 million got deferments, most for education, a smaller number for physical, mental or family hardships.

2.1 million actually saw service in Vietnam.

570,000 illegally resisted the draft.

58,152 were killed; 153,303 were seriously wounded

Sources: National Archives, Reader's Companion to American History

posted by EmilyClimbs at 1:12 PM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

The local hard-rock FM radio station had a contest: the first guy to call in that could prove that he had lottery number 1 got a free one-way bus ticket to Vancouver.

This was in the SF Bay Area...
posted by Daddio at 4:19 PM on May 4, 2012

My brother, born in 1952, was in the last full draft lottery. His number was 365.

I am about seven months younger than your friend, born at the tail end of 1953. When they ended the draft I was a senior in high school, and it was big news that none of the boys in my class would be drafted. Your friend was too young.
posted by caryatid at 3:18 PM on May 5, 2012

This is a bit of a tangent and I'm on my phone, but it's worth mentioning that the 1969 lottery was unfair. The little balls with numbers on them were not sufficiently mixed up; if you were born in November or December, you were much more likely to go to Vietnam than if you were born in any of the other months. They fixed this for the next year's lottery.

I cover this example every year in Statistics.
posted by wittgenstein at 12:41 PM on May 6, 2012

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