Forty-nine years ago tomorrow was the date of the first Vietnam Draft Lottery, the day the phrase “to win the lottery” became, not a prize, but a death sentence. It was also a marker for a generation not unlike December 7, 1941, the date of the Pearl Harbor attack, characterized by then president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, as a “Date Which Will Live in Infamy,” a phrase which itself featured an ironic word referring to the dark side of famous. Perhaps that’s what war does to us? Keeps us mired in subtext, unable to talk straight.
I named my debut novel The Fourteenth of September, the birth date of the Number One lottery “winner” drawn on 12/1/69—straightforward, and crystal clear. All irony upfront and intended.
When Your Birthday Became Your Destiny
CLICK TO SEE VIDEO CLIP OF ACTUAL LOTTERY DRAWING ON 12/1/1969
It was the day a new program was implemented to determine the order of the draft-age men who would go to Vietnam at a time when the life expectancy under fire could be as low as six seconds. Pieces of paper with each of the 365 days of the year were placed into individual plastic capsules, mixed together in a giant container and pulled out, one by one. If your birthday was the first date pulled, you were Number One, and so on. If your number was 100 or under, you were most likely a dead man walking, on your way Vietnam. If your number was 300 or higher, you were considered safe, and could feel free to “live your life as you’d planned,” and also, according to President Nixon, stop protesting the war, which was the whole point. If you were in the 200s, you were in limbo. The new system would be “fair,” they said. And, in fact, the definition of a lottery is “an event with an outcome governed by chance.” And chance is always fair, right? Just like destiny.
But it’s also something you can’t hide or protect yourself from. All you could do was hold your breath and pray as you waited to hear your birthday, a date once so joyous, to be called in fateful order. You’d never think of it the same way again.
A Real-Life Horror Story
I’d already learned not to trust the word lottery. The first horror story I’d ever read was “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson’s Twilight Zone-like story of a drawing where the “winner” is stoned to death. It was magnificent and terrifying. I read it in school, as so many of us did. The New Yorker just ran it again for Halloween and I shared it, netting an angry comment from a Facebook friend who’d had the wits scared out of her by being forced to read it in sixth grade by a teacher she still can’t forgive.
That’s how I’ve always felt about the actual Draft Lottery. It scattered our wits to smithereens. And, though people with high numbers felt they were “lucky,” and if pressed you’d had to concede it was “fair,” no one thought it was humane. Even today, it’s still impossible to forgive.
All those capsules with “winning” birth dates, mixed up really good, chosen, opened, and pinned in order to a bulletin board. Seriously? Regardless of how it worked out in the end, on December 1, 1969, the Draft Lottery presented as a sick game show to determine who would die first—and on television! This was a formal government program being administered as a spectacle. Not quite Wheel of Fortune, but right up there. Hunger Games without the panache. How had this already surreal war come to this? I was astonished at the time, wondering if Jackson would demand royalties for having her concept usurped by the military. The last line of “The Lottery,” sums it up best. “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right.”
The Stories We Still Carry
During this fall’s launch of my novel, which coincides with the time frame of the build up to first Draft Lottery, I’ve had many audience members share their lottery numbers, or those of their fathers or other relatives. I get emails with only a number in the subject line: 151…263…319… and from a surprising number of people who were born on September 14. Those of the time still want to share their stories of chance won or lost, survivor guilt, close calls, friendly doctors, fortunate injuries, mixed-up records, turning the upper age limit of 26 just in time, being thankful for once in their lives for being too short, too tall, too fat, too thin. All are touching, surprising, different. Many comments are about the generation gap between patriotic WWII parents and Vietnam-era children, who knew this war was very different but not how to articulate it to be understood by mom and dad. Some are terrible: a friend called his father with his 300+ number and instead of rejoicing was told he should now be a man and enlist. Some are wonderful: a business leader’s father told him later in life that he’d had it all planned that if his son was drafted, the entire family would move with him to Canada.
Those of one generation want to share; those of another have questions. Younger audience members are curious. They want to know the details; they can’t believe the details. They can’t believe no one talks about this. Lots of them saw the lottery episode on The NBC television program This Is Us back in October. The show is in a story arc where a son is seeking to learn about his father’s experiences in Vietnam so he can better understand himself and the dynamics of his own family. That’s it in a nutshell—why it’s important to remember and understand history. It teaches us, if we confront it unafraid, for the lessons it holds. It also shows us we still don’t have the answers we didn’t have back then.
The Stories We Have Yet to Tell
The story I tell in The Fourteenth of September is a rare female point-of-view of that time, specifically of women on college campuses. There, the largest concentration of draft-age men in the country were their classmates—frantic and furious—waiting for their lottery numbers, and for the long war to end before they graduated or flunked out and their numbers would kick in.
I spent December 1, 1969 being nudged out of the communal television room in my dorm. The Lottery drawing would be telecast that evening. The room was small with limited seating. No room for the girls who’d gathered there for support. We couldn’t possibly understand what the guys were going through, or so we’d been repeatedly told. That wasn’t fair either.
I vividly remember the day I came up with the idea for the female protagonist of my novel to have the same birthday as the Number One. Read the chapter here. I’d long been seeking a dilemma for my main character that would be as emotionally intense as what the men of the time were going through—a way to exemplify how deeply, and equally, women were involved, not because their lives were on the line like the men, but because their generation was on the line. We were all “in it” together, side by side.
I don’t recall the sequence of events that led to the aha! moment, but I do remember thinking the title idea was good. I had dinner with a friend that night and told her. The shudder that went through her was all I needed to see. That shudder is what I want every reader to feel. That with the flip of the chromosome coin, anyone could be Number One. On December 1, 1969, we were all Number One.
But that’s still only one story of women of the time. At a recent book event I met the daughter of Curtis Tarr, the government official charged with revamping the selective service system which, until it became the Draft Lottery, had been insufficiently random. Tarr had been vilified during the day, the target of many of the people I wrote about in The Fourteenth of September. She remembers suffering through it as a teenager, about it being unfair. There are so many stories we’ve been afraid to tell.
The Fourteen of September is one; perhaps hers will be next.
The Lessons of the Lottery: It’s Time for Another Coming of Conscience
In a famous Star Trek episode, the population of a planet in a future world took pride in the fact that they’d eliminated war. Instead, after times of political conflict when war would be inevitable, it was instead simulated by computer. After, individuals identified as those who would have been casualties had the war been “real”—would get notices to report to extermination centers, where they would obediently submit to painless and efficient deaths. They were so proud they’d come up with such a civilized way to conduct war without damage to their fine cities.
Throw birth dates into a container, draw lots from a box, computerize casualties, create volunteer armies of those with few other opportunities. Civilized? You’d think we’d have figured it out by now.
War may be pointless, as the Ken Burns documentary The Vietnam War illustrated so well, but it’s apparently also irresistible, as evidenced by the rapidly multiplying hot spots around the globe. It’s also ever random. Anyone can be in it. With a blink of an eye, one less chromosome, or an emotional tweet, we—or someone we love—can become a soldier deployed to a war zone, a refugee fleeing civil strife in Syria or gang wars in Honduras, or their mothers facing loss. All of us casualties of chance.
How we choose to confront war/conflict shows who we are—our character, our conscience. Do we unite or separate? Sacrifice our young or disadvantaged, or find a better way? Chance is the lottery of life. As long as someone is in a war, we’re all in it.
The subtitle of The Fourteenth of September is “A Coming of Conscience Novel.” It’s about the development of character. My female protagonist’s journey of self-discovery mirrors what the country was debating at the time. Who are we if we stay in Vietnam? What are we if we leave?
On this anniversary day of the Vietnam Draft Lottery, the country is in another Coming of Conscience moment. We’re again fighting for our character, on many fronts. What do we stand for today? What are we to be relied upon for and by whom? When does integrity trump consequences? We’ve come full circle in the hamster wheel of history. How ironic.
Back on December 1, 1969, I’d never considered what my own number would have been had chance dictated I’d been born a boy. I looked it up as I was considering the title for my novel, hoping it would be a single digit, for optimum dramatic effect. I was born on November 4. I would have been #266…
I would have been in limbo…
With no more control over my life than a Central American mother fleeing certain death for her children, a poor inner city kid who enlisted for college money stationed in the Middle East, or a war orphan in Yemen.