A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Vetter Was Right

(Above: Karl Marlantes speaking at our last reunion)

I stopped by the Musical Offering Café in Berkeley last week to have one of their great Caesar salads, and who did I run into? My favorite teacher.
His name is Jan Vetter, and he's the professor at UC Berkeley's law school – which we old-timers stubbornly persist in calling Boalt Hall – who gave me the lowest grade I ever got (thoroughly justified, of course).
It was in his Labor Law course. The grade was so low, he was obligated to write an explanation. And this is what he wrote:
"Mr. Snapp demonstrates a remarkable command of legal rules and principles. Unfortunately, they are not rules and principles that are recognized by any jurisdiction of which I am aware."
Oops! Busted!
Professor Vetter was the smartest professor on the faculty, and that's saying a lot because law school professors are really, really smart.
He was also the nicest. And, as you can see above, the funniest. Those of us in the know made it a point to sit in the front row to catch the witty asides he muttered under his breath.
It's also because of him that I wasn't thrown out of school. During the Vietnam War I was hauled before the UC Berkeley Executive Committee for violating the University's time, place and manner regulations at a stop-the-draft demonstration.
Translation: I was in the lobby of Sproul Hall during a sit-in, leading the crowd in singing "Yellow Submarine."
But they didn't throw me out, thanks to Professor Vetter's expert lawyering.
Afterward, I thanked him for getting me off the hook.
"You're welcome," he said, "but I think you're on the wrong track about abolishing the draft. I understand what you're doing: You're using the draft as a club to beat the war over the head with. But I don't think you've thought through the long-term implications."
That was almost 50 years ago. And I've long since come to the conclusion that Professor Vetter was right, and I was wrong.
Look what has happened since the draft was abolished. Far from making war less likely, we've had decade after decade of almost non-stop fighting.
And the burden has been borne by only one percent of the population. For the other 99 percent, it's been business as usual. The pain never touches them, so why should they care?
It's not only unfair; it's undemocratic. One advantage of a draft is that it throws young people from all races, regions and regions together. And they have to learn to work together or they'll all get killed. That tends to broaden the mind.
And the greater the mobility between the civilian world and the military, the more each side is likely to understand the other, which is one of the reasons why we've never had a military coup in this country.
 Finally, as my college classmate Karl Marlantes, who wrote an award-winning novel called "Matternorn," about his experiences as a Marine lieutenant in Vietnam, pointed out at our last reunion, the last 20 years of non-stop war have been brought to us by presidents with no military experience who constantly defer to the top brass.
"We need people in the White House who have served in uniform," he said, "if only because they know enough to say '(bleep) you' to the generals."


Ned Flynn said...

Thanks, Marty, for your retrospective on law school. And that era. I avoided the draft by signing up for AFROTC, and fought to stay in the program. I thought it was important to have officers with a liberal education participating in the decision-making process, rather than leave it solely to the academy grads. No doubt we need their perspectives as well, but a good balance is always needed. Ned

George Lazarus said...

The important point you make is not widely appreciated. The shortsighted desire to avoid service prevents people from seeing the danger of a military unconnected to the civilian population.

Good article!

George Lazarus

Anonymous said...

Leave it to you to turn a caesar salad at the Musical Offering into such an insightful tale. I particularly appreciate the gentle yet deft way you describe how a lifetime of experience has made you wiser--a theme that runs through several of your columns. You have done what we all should do--live a full life, keep an open mind, learn from changing realities and broader perspectives, and share that with others. Thank you for being a writer.