US Draft Lottery, 1960s

It’s Veterans Day, and I am thinking about all the Americans who have served their country, risking or giving their lives to serve the interests of our nation. I’m thinking also of foreign nationals, like the thousands of Iraqi translators, who risked their safety to serve the U.S. Military — they may not have enlisted with our veterans, but they deserve much of the same credit and recognition for their actions.

But most of all this Veterans Day, I’m thinking about people who served their nation bravely as draftees. Because many veterans of U.S. wars did not serve by choice. Roughly 1/3 of Americans who served in Vietnam were drafted. More than half of U.S. soldiers in the Korean war were draftees, and of those who served on the battlefields of World War II, more than 6 in 10 were drafted.

The draft is on my mind because we live in an era when the nation faces another kind of existential threat. In response, our government has acted to conscript Americans not into military service, but into mandatory vaccination. Surprisingly, many Americans not only refuse to consent to vaccination, but argue it is beyond the scope of government authority to mandate vaccines.

Surely, if the defense of public safety means the government can put a rifle in your hand and send you overseas to face enemy soldiers who seek to kill you, it also warrants compulsory vaccination against a deadly and contagious airborne pandemic. To argue otherwise seems absurd.

I keep thinking about how many U.S. veterans are senior citizens, or living with disabilities — including respiratory disorders common to veterans of our recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and therefore at greater risk of complications and death from COVID-19. How they risked their lives, fighting in unfamiliar territory on behalf of their fellow Americans, and in return their fellow Americans refuse to get a shot because, you know, they don’t want to suffer a couple days of side effects.

More than half of American service members in World War I were draftees, and far more lost their lives to the rampant disease and misery of life in the trenches — surrounded by festering water, raw sewage, and rotting human remains — than to gunfire. But Americans today won’t take a vaccine administered to more than 4 billion people worldwide. I guess that’s too much to ask to defend their fellow Americans.

Some Americans — including members of Congress! — take their rhetoric beyond absurdity into obscenity, equating the effort to protect American lives with Naziism, the very thing so many of our veterans fought and died to defeat. They dare to draw equivalence between a racist genocide and a national effort to protect human lives.

I fully realize there will be some veterans who disagree with me. But on this occasion, where we celebrate those who sacrificed to protect their fellow Americans — even those who didn’t volunteer to serve — I have to think about those today who won’t suffer the most minor inconvenience to do the same.

During World War I, British suffragettes took up the practice of pinning white feathers on men who refused to serve their nation. This “Order of the White Feather” marked men as cowards, and historians claim it motivated many to enlist — and while it had its flaws (unfairly branding boys too young to serve, or men with disabilities, as cowards) one wonders if there isn’t some value in a similar campaign to label unvaccinated Americans not merely as unscientific, but as unpatriotic, unwilling to take even the merest risk in defense of their friends and neighbors.

When we honor our veterans, we make no distinction between those who volunteered early, those who volunteered late, and those who were drafted. All served with courage, and all are rightly celebrated. This should serve as a model for those still refusing vaccination against COVID-19: There is no shame in changing your mind now, or in being compelled by your government.

So this Veterans Day, take a lesson from those who served, and do your part.

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