You probably remember Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery.” Most of us had to read it in high school. Children gather stones at a village’s public gathering. It is the day for the annual lottery. Villagers discuss ending this traditional ritual. They question the need for it. Tension mounts as the reader discovers that no one wants their name called at this drawing. When the name is drawn the townspeople take up the stones to kill the “winner.”
The word lottery took on a sinister timbre for young men who had turned eighteen in 1970. All summer of 1971 the word haunted me as I did my duties at the Jefferson swimming pool. The evening softball games with Marcus and Red might come to an end if I had a low enough number in the August 5th lottery. Get a number low enough, and I might win an all-expense paid trip to Southeast Asia.
For me, I could imagine a year in Dracula’s castle better than I could imagine a year in Vietnam, a world of jungles and poisonous snakes, rice paddies and straw huts. For some strange reason this land was coveted by communists who wanted a base to spread their evil doctrines across the world. If the Communists took over Vietnam, we were told, then they would move next to an adjacent country and then to another until — somehow — they would cross the ocean to the United States and our country would collapse.
I didn’t understand how such a collapse was possible, but President Nixon seemed to believe it, as had President Johnson before him, and as had President Kennedy. Crucial to the welfare of America, Vietnam must not fall to the Communists.
But in 1971 it was becoming doubtful that we could win such a war. Students at major universities, Georgia’s included, had seen protests and marches. I stayed clear of them in the summer of ’71.” My concerns had been the PH level of the swimming pool water, winning softball games, riding the back roads surrounding Jefferson while splitting a six pack of beer three ways. I had tried to ignore the elephant in the pool, the same elephant beyond second base, the elephant crowding the back seat of Marcus’s Mustang.
But one evening the elephant walked in to Bruce’s Fine Foods where I was eating my supper. A classmate who had graduated with me in ’70 was home on leave. He had been to the 'Nam. I listened as he told stories of flying by helicopter into a landing zone, throwing out a smoke screen, bending over, making himself small, while running through elephant grass and feeling the bullets zapping past him. He spoke of jungle patrols and living in a "hooch." He spoke of fear and fighting for his life. He spoke of a Vietnamese girl who did his laundry for pittance pay and performed on demand services that were ideally reserved for husband and wife — again for pittance pay. It was a world as distant and incredible as Dracula’s castle.
I stared blankly, unable to comprehend this world he had described. The lottery of August 5th loomed ever before me.
The day of the lottery, I was able to put the fear of Vietnam behind me. My number was 186. The highest number called for conscription that year was 95.
The lower numbers were drafted first. The war continued. Our people, young men mostly, continued to fight and die. As the months passed, the arguments for why they should fight and die became less and less convincing. It became more and more obvious that we were fighting to save the face of a few politicians who had dragged us into a war we could not win.
Sometimes, that is one of the biggest causes for continuing to fight a war. To keep the politicos from looking bad. God forbid that they would ever have to unravel a timeline and say, “We have created a mess. To convince grieving families that their suffering has not been in vain, we’ll sacrifice a few more soldiers.”
Building on to shaky foundation is sometimes merely a way to prolong an inevitable disaster. As time passed, we learned that was exactly what happened in Vietnam. We should never have been there.
But we were, and some we have known fought there because they believed in a cause — but others only because they were unlucky enough to “win” the lottery.
All of them — all of them — should be highly honored and respected and cared for.
God bless them all with healing of body and peace of mind and serenity of soul — and a safe place to lay their head at night without the pangs of hunger or fear. They have my respect. God bless them, everyone.