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As an 18-year-old college first-year in 1970, I read "Dulce et Decorum est" for the first of many times. Here are its final lines:

"… If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori."

— Second Lt. Wilfred Owen, killed in action Nov. 4, 1918, at Sambre-Oise Canal, France

Translated: "Sweet and fitting it is, to die for one's country."

Along with all those antiwar songs — remember Richie Havens' "Handsome Johnny"? Pete Seeger's "Bring 'Em Home"? Bob Dylan's "Masters of War"? Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant Massacree"? — the soldier-poet Owen's "old Lie" vitriol fueled my and many a '60s-early-'70s college-kid's disillusionment with and fury aimed at the White House, the military and, in some cases, our next-door neighbors, uncles and aunts, grandmas and grandpas. You might even remember one of our many signature battle cries. Mine was, "Hell no, we won't go!"

I still don't know if I was one of the few or many, but the truth is my defiant "Hell-no-we-won't-go" rants at campus rallies and marches had more to do with self-preservation than moral conviction. I was terrified — of being drafted.

The spring term ended. My and thousands of 18-year-old boys' student (II-S) deferments were hanging by a thread. The military draft lottery loomed. Soon, on July 1, the luck of the draw would determine which of us born in 1951 could be "called up." Most of us understood that to mean one thing: Vietnam.

Around that time, a young man, Robert Elliot, summed up the selection process this way in his letter to the editor published in the then-Minneapolis Star:

"A human being is born on a given date, and this date is drawn from a barrel to determine when he will possibly die."

The lucky ones who received a high draft number were "safe," as we called it. The unlucky ones awaited "The Letter" from the Selective Service System: "You are hereby directed to present yourself for Armed Forces Physical Examination … ."

On that morning of July 1, I smuggled a transistor radio into the scrapyard, my summer workplace. A handful of lifer yardworkers and I ("The College Kid") listened as birth dates were announced in monotone succession. Mike and Karl were Korean War veterans. In their words, it was my turn to "fight for what's right" and my "duty to serve [my] country." Randy, "The Quiet Kid" barely older than I, had served in Vietnam. That's all I knew about that, because he wouldn't talk about what went on over there. Mike and Karl had ordered me to never ask him.

A lifetime — maybe an hour — passed before my birth date was announced. I was one of the lucky ones.

I hollered with ineffable joy and relief and took a giddy, boorish victory lap around our section of the yard.

Mike and Karl didn't take kindly to that. They called me nastier-sounding versions of "chicken" and "disloyal"; they barely acknowledged me the rest of the summer. I didn't care. My cushy middle-class life wouldn't be interrupted after all.

Years passed. When Dad died in 2003, Mom passed down to me a folder containing his well-kept World War II Army documents: a draft registration card, service records, official Army portrait, Army-issued eyeglass prescription, etc. All pretty banal. Except for one item among his discharge papers — a letter from a John K. Rice, brigadier general, dated 1946. In part, he wrote:

"Camp McCoy, Wisconsin

"To those being separated from the Military Service:

"May I offer this for your future thought. It is quoted from the Stars and Stripes and appeals to me as the finest expression of a soldier's creed that I have ever seen.


'If you keep the faith with me you need not weep

If I am killed, for I will not complain

Of any death if by it others gain

The things I think are worth my life to keep;

The right to have, to know, to love, to speak.

If all win these, I will endure my pain

And on the battlefront, where I have lain

Will find an honored place in which to sleep … .

(Lieut. Jack E. Spear, Inf. 3rd Army

Killed in Action Dec. 1944 in the Ardennes)' "


My words now:

To Lt. Jack Spear and 2nd Lt. Wilfred Owen,

Thank you for your eloquence.

Thank you for protecting us with your lives.

Rest in peace.


Postscript: In the same letter, Gen. Rice offers these thoughts: "… You have seen, in the lands where … many of your comrades died, what happens when the people of a nation follow false leaders. You have seen when a nation accepts hate and intolerance … .

"Choose your leaders wisely … ."

Dick Schwartz lives in Minneapolis.