Now that the Pentagon has again extended the service of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan -- this time by three months -- the question is, when will this water torture of our troops, especially National Guardsmen and reservists, finally send antiwar protesters into our streets in significant numbers for the first time since the Vietnam years? After all, it was the baby boomers' resistance to the draft that finally shut down the Vietnam War ... wasn't it?
Far from it. What is lost in the histories of the 1960s is that the protests then were at heart not antiwar protests; they were anti-draft protests. And once most baby boomers were liberated from the threat of Vietnam service by the introduction of the draft lottery, the fire and anger -- and foot soldiers -- of the antiwar movement disappeared almost overnight.
Here is what happened. Before the Vietnam War began, the 1963 Selective Service law let young men seek draft deferments (for education, for example) but left them eligible to be drafted at any time from their nineteenth birthday until their twenty-sixth. The baby boomers had a full eight years to seethe over about the draft and the war, while jumping from deferment to deferment, as if on stones in a pond. Even if only a relative few of their generation would be needed to fight in Vietnam, the deferments had put all of them in jeopardy. We fought the war with just two million troops in the war zone, but to procure them the Selective Service threatened 25 million baby boomers.
Then, in November of 1969, the Nixon administration pushed through Congress a revised Selective Service law that created a draft lottery. Everyone would be assigned a random draft number from 1 to 365, based on their birthday, that would determine their draft eligibility.
The result? The lottery succeeded in separating opposition to the draft from opposition to the war. Almost all young Americans hated the draft. Far fewer hated the war. The masterstroke of the new law was limiting all men to one year of draft vulnerability after their nineteenth birthday. If your lottery number was high enough -- say, over 150 -- you could forget about the draft and the war and go about your life. The result was, with more than half the entire generation free of the threat of serving, the antiwar movement lost its most compelling issue. The war became less personal for the baby boomers once the hot breath of Vietnam was no longer at their backs.
Which brings us to Iraq. The recent drip-by-drip extensions of duty in the combat zones affect only the "volunteers" in the armed services. It amounts to a backdoor draft -- but these draftees are already in the armed services. The overwhelming majority of military-age men and women -- almost all of them children of the baby boomers -- remain personally unthreatened by this war. They will not rise in protest because they do not need to. Just as baby boomers like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney did during the Vietnam years, they can ask others to make that sacrifice for them.