The Vietnam War Draft Lottery

During the Vietnam War, the prospect of being drafted was an overwhelming part of being a young man. From 1969 to 1972, drafts were determined by lottery. Birth dates were drawn to see who would be called up first. The lower your draft number, the more likely you were on your way to Vietnam. Vietnam War Draft Lottery collects stories of what it was like to have your fate resting on a piece of paper drawn from a glass bowl. It was one lottery you did not want to win. Here’s one of the stories.

On the day of the lottery, I was in Biochemistry laboratory at university.  When I finished my lab I ran back to the dorm to watch the lottery with all my buddies.  We were all freaked out.  During the three years since I graduated from high school in 1966, I had gone to the funerals of 16 close and not-so close friends who had died in Viet Nam.  They had joined right after high school in the “Buddy System”.  I remember the ads: “Who better to watch your back than your buddy.”  
We were the war babies. Since we were kids we played war in our back yards.  We were given BB guns for Christmas and wore Army helmets we bought at Army Surplus stores.  We were raised on the stories, films and television shows of the heroics in the Second World War.  It’s almost like we were preparing for our own war.  Well, we got our war.  But, it wasn't a world war; it was a small war, against a small country that was having a civil war.  I think if it had been a world war…we would have all enlisted.  But it wasn't, and now it was our war nevertheless.

I arrived at the dorm and went to my friend’s room where 12 of us were watching the lottery.  I remember we had cases of beers to help us through.  We knew this day could forever change our lives.  When I came into the room I could feel the tension and see that the lottery had already started.  It wasn't a big show on TV; it was just a series of numbers scrolling across the bottom of the screen while “I Love Lucy” played above. I arrived at the drawing of the 21st number.  I had missed the first 20 numbers. Was my number one of the first 20? Of course I asked everyone if they saw my birth date come up, but everyone was concentrated on their own numbers and no one remembered the other dates.  I had no way to find out what numbers had already been drawn, so I had to watch the whole process and hope that I wasn't already chosen. By the time number 300 was drawn I was convinced I was going to war.  By number 350 I had accepted my fate; I had to be one of the first 20 numbers I had missed.

It wasn't that I didn't love my country, I did, but after so many of my friends dying, I wasn't sure that fighting a war over political ideals--communism vs. democracy--was as important as the government was saying.  Let them be communists if they want to be.  Who are we to force a political system on another country?

I was freaked out to say the least.  By number 360 I had decided that I would join the Marines.  If I was going to go, I wanted to go as the best. My birthday, February 26, was finally drawn at number 365.  I had won the lottery.  After three years of constant stress always hanging over my head, I relaxed.  I believe I stayed drunk for the next 2 weeks.  Three of my friends in the room that day died in the next two years in Viet Nam. It was a day I will never forget.  "

There are many submitted personal stories about the draft lottery. Read about how the first lottery was aired, and see a video here.  -via Metafilter

(Image credit: National Archives)

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Conscription is a lot like slavery. You are plucked from your home, sent to places you don't want to go to, told to obey without question, including doing things that may go against your moral code. Refusal to obey can result in incarceration or, (like WWI deserters) even death.
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While reading this man's recollections, I suddenly thought of another lottery - in fact, "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson. This man's story invoked a sense of sickening dread and foreboding similar to that depicted in Jackson's chilling short story. It made the hair on my arms stand up!
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