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Draft Left Fighting of Wars to Younger Soldiers

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Draft Left Fighting of Wars to Younger Soldiers

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Draft Left Fighting of Wars to Younger Soldiers

Draft Left Fighting of Wars to Younger Soldiers

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Commentator Ed Palm says when he fought in Vietnam, most of the men he served with were 19 or 20 years old. It seems to him that more of the troops in Iraq are older. He says this is one advantage of the Vietnam-era draft: It kept the business of fighting wars to the younger men.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Yesterday the Pentagon announced the latest identification of an American soldier who's been killed in Iraq. It was Army Staff Sergeant Johnnie Mason of Rio Vista, Texas. He was killed by an improvised explosive device south of Baghdad on December 19th. He was 32 years old. Commentator Ed Palm says too many solders like Sergeant Mason are being killed in their 30s and 40s in the Iraq War. Ed Palm has long been out of the military; he retired from the Marine Corps in 1993. Still, the obligations of men and women in uniform and the dangers they face in Iraq are often on his mind.

ED PALM:

`If the Marine Corps wanted you to have a wife, it would have issued you one.' That's what they used to say when I enlisted in 1965. Back then, the great majority of first-term enlisted people were young and unattached. Call me a curmudgeon, but I think there was a certain wisdom in the anti-family values of the military I joined. That wisdom has come home to me lately in the form of the casualty lists from the Iraq War. So many of the dead are men and women in their mid-20s or older and married, often with children. Many have been in their 30s and even 40s.

In Vietnam, all but one of the guys I served with were young, very young, only 19 or 20, and unattached. That was our saving grace. We were sent out on our own to live and patrol in a Vietnamese village alongside the village's self-defense force. I realize now it was a dicey position to be in. But most of us were young and heedless enough to find our situation appealing. One exception was an old Marine, very old by our standards. He was all of 28. But what really stands out in my memory is that he was afraid, very afraid, and he wasn't ashamed to admit it. He told us right up front that he felt he was just too old and too nervous to go out on patrol and that, because of his nerves, we couldn't depend on him if we got in a tight spot.

War is the business of young people, or at least it should be. Combat soldiers need the illusion of immortality that 19-year-olds have. They need the self-confidence and recklessness of youth, along with the naive belief that bad things only happen to other people. They need energy and resilience. They don't need the reticence that can come with age and experience, and they certainly don't need the sort of entangling alliances, distractions and divided loyalties that family men and women have.

All of this is not to suggest that the older married men and women serving in Iraq today may be similarly disturbed or distracted. By all accounts, they're performing wonderfully well and complaining very little, considering the circumstances. Say what you will about the Vietnam-era draft; it was at least set up to place the lion's share of the national defense burden on those best able to bear it, young single men. Not so with today's all-volunteer force.

Personally, I'm glad I went to my war when I was very young and naive and had only myself to worry about. I wouldn't have wanted a family back then, even if the Marine Corps had been willing to issue me one.

NORRIS: Ed Palm is a retired US Marine major and the dean of social sciences and humanities at Olympic College in Bremerton, Washington.

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