Old memories, present merge at Vietnam-era draft office


"Old soldiers never die. They just fade away."

- Gen. Douglas MacArthur

MacARTHUR was right. Old soldiers never die. Young ones do. The numbers of the dead and the maimed young soldiers increase daily in Iraq and Afghanistan, while the old soldiers sit in quiet places like the Masonic Temple building in Reisterstown. I went there this week to find memories of an old war, Vietnam, and instead found traces of Korea and the D-Day beach at Normandy.

The numbers say the current fighting is not going so well. The casualties mount, and the public support falls, and so does the military's ability to recruit young men and women. In May, the Army hoped to bring in 8,500 new soldiers. It got about 5,000. Army brass say they need about 80,000 new troops this year to maintain authorized strength. To do this, they are signing up more high school dropouts and low-scoring applicants who have nowhere else to go.

This news arrives as we learn about the British Downing Street memo, first revealed six weeks ago by The Times of London and only belatedly getting serious attention in America. The memo details a meeting of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his inner circle. It says the Bush administration "fixed" the intelligence on Iraq. Remember "weapons of mass destruction"? Remember the alleged ties of Saddam Hussein to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks? Lies, lies.

Now, the polls say about 60 percent of us believe the war in Iraq is not worth fighting. Maybe this connects to those falling Army recruiting figures, and maybe it connects to the Downing Street memo. Maybe some of us connect the lying in the Bush administration to the lies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon and Vietnam.

This is why I went to Reisterstown, to the old Masonic Temple building. The place used to house the Selective Service System's Local Board No. 34, Reisterstown Road and Chatsworth Avenue, which is where I reported in the spring of 1968, along with dozens of other recruits, on our way to Fort Holabird for our military physicals.

The old gathering room is still there but not the draft board. The draft vanished after Vietnam, and the building is now home to private offices. Jerry Gibson has his accounting office here, and William Manko has his law office. Gibson, 71, served in the Army during the Korean conflict; Manko, 82, was with the Army's combat infantry and landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day, 60 years ago this month.

It's 37 years since I found myself in this building, but the memories are vivid. We were the children of those who went off to World War II. We were raised on stories of personal sacrifice, of young men who gave up their lives because war had been thrust upon them and their country had to be defended. Those stories gave us our sense of citizenship; we knew we were connected, through that war and our parents' history, to something more important than our own puny lives. We were patriots.

And yet, on that spring morning, there was hardly a voice among us not loudly proclaiming a desire to stay out of the military. Guys waved around letters from doctors, proclaiming ailments real and imagined or talked about spending their lives in Canada. Two summers later, as the war continued, two young men broke into the place and set fire to 2,000 draft board files, leaving behind a note: "This is only the beginning. There are lots of draft boards and other places of death ... and they all must go."

How had such a thing happened? Because the country had figured things out. Washington was telling us lies. The war was a phony in so many ways, and it was tearing the country apart and making the sons of its former soldiers look for escapes instead of signing on for the fight.

And now, in the building where we gathered that morning, here were Gibson and Manko, reflecting on their wars and the passage of time. Manko hit the beach at Normandy on that June 6, 1944, D-Day.

"Grace of God," he said softly, "that I ever came home."

He had a pack on his back and a rifle in his arms when he jumped off his landing craft into the water. He's a diminutive guy. The water was over his head, and the pack and the rifle weighed him down, and he stepped immediately into a hole and could not resurface. He remembers a hand on the scruff of his neck, lifting him up and shoving him forward. The hand of a buddy, the hand of God, who knows?

"I never found out," he said. It kept him alive, so he could face the hell waiting for him on the beach.

Now he has a grandson, Jason Manko-Smith, who has done two tours in Iraq.

"I don't analyze the politics of it," said Manko. "I'm thinking of the safety of my grandson. I'm supporting our troops."

What about the policies that put the troops there?

Manko shook his head: No comment. Gibson, who served in Germany during the Korean War, scowled and said he would not discuss those policies.

"Some of these kids today," he said, "they went into the National Guard never expecting to be sent over to Iraq."

They never expected their leaders to lie to them. Maybe because they never studied the history of these things. It crosses party lines and includes Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush, too.

In Gibson and Manko's day, the soldiers went off because the country seemed genuinely vulnerable and the enemy was clear. In the time of Vietnam, the lying blanketed everything. You go to an old draft board in Reisterstown, and the lies of Vietnam connect to the lies of Iraq. And, measured by the negative polls and the dwindling Army recruiting figures and the increasing casualty numbers, the country begins to figure this out.

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