For most high school students in the US, turning 18 is a big deal. You’re legally an adult. You’re responsible for things. You can vote. You’re eligible for the draft, if you’re male. The way that the government, the military, and businesses view you completely changes. It’s as though you acquire a new definition of self.
For most, the next big milestone is…well, what is it? 21, when people in the US can legally drink alcohol in most states? It’s certainly celebrated, but is it really a milestone? Does anything really change?
What about 40? When I was young, it felt like turning 40 was celebrated as a “big deal.” Party stores all had entire aisles devoted to “over the hill” parties, to usher aging adults into their twilight years. Fake walking canes, black balloons, the tacky jokes were plentiful. But again, nothing really changes. It’s a fairly arbitrary distinction, especially with the average lifespan increasing. Perhaps I’m not frequenting the right stores anymore, but I also feel like these decorations and party favors aren’t really around anymore. Do we no longer celebrate this? It would seem so.
When you turn 35, however, there is a change. You are no longer eligible to be drafted into the military. (Again, if you’re male, though legislation has been introduced several times to include women in the Selective Service System.) No draft lotteries have been drawn in decades, now, and the likelihood of any in the foreseeable future is incredibly small. And yet, for some in my generation, it does feel like a milestone.
Many of us entered into the stage of world events during the Gulf War of 1990-1991. For the first time, the wider world was more than “international day” at school–it was a big place, with complexities and difficulties. It was a place where a dictator of one country could walk into a neighboring country and take their resources. It was a place that Americans had to go out into and fight for the freedoms of others, so that the universal concept of freedom could endure. We were aware of the Soviet Union deflating on all sides (it would finally collapse later in 1991), but that was murkier. We cheered along when the Berlin Wall fell, but it didn’t really resonate with us–the Soviets were TV and movie bad guys, not real-life. Now in Iraq we had an old Soviet ally acting out, and we could do something about it. Lines were clear.
Patriotism ran high in those days, and it was for more than just country music lovers. Flags hung on poles and porches of houses all across the country. Buttons with the flag were ubiquitous–and ubiquitously and un-ironically worn–emblazoned with the slogan, “These colors don’t run!” (A phrase that’s had somewhat of a comeback in recent years.) My friend’s father, an Army surgeon, came back from the Persian Gulf and spoke to my class, and was an instant hero. He then turned around and went right back to Kuwait. I had baseball cards of the military vehicles being deployed. New stealth technology fighter jets flew over Iraq, and America’s favorite comic relief Baghdad Bob was the only one who couldn’t see them.
And yet, as the defensive Operation Desert Shield became the offensive Operation Desert Storm, talk turned to the dwindling numbers of military recruitment. Studies showed that the US could only keep up this size of a military effort for so long. Newscasters asked, “Was this going to be another Vietnam?” “If it drags on, would the draft be reinstated?” “What about next time?”
A few years later, many of us were getting ready to graduate, and head off into the world. Or at least, the cloistered university campuses that represented “the world” to us at the time. Many in my area enlisted in the military, as a great option to get some real-life experience and go to college on the government’s dime afterward. For some of us, even though the odds of it happening were rapidly diminishing, registering for the draft loomed ominously. The world stage was not as clear-cut as it was in 1991. The rise in extremism across the globe was unsettling, and it seemed increasingly likely that the Gulf War wouldn’t be the last time the US would be in Iraq. Add to this that we were the last generation whose fathers had been drafted. Many of us swapped stories late at night that we’d heard from Vietnam–and they were far scarier than any ghost story, they were real. We talked a lot about the consequences of not registering (despite no prosecutions for this since 1986), and about the “conscientious objector” statement we might write on our registration forms. It seemed like a real decision, with potentially real consequences, in a way that seems almost laughable today.
The intervening years showed that, as expected, no draft would be reinstated. Today it seems incredibly unlikely in that it would even be a remote possibility, despite the near constant military action of the last 16 years. To register for the draft is practically a formality. To age out of the draft at 35 is something that passes mostly unnoticed.
And yet, there is still something there. Along with things you can’t do, like be drafted, there is a big thing you can do; at 35 a US citizen is eligible to be President of the United States. Putting the two together, and you have a major shift in the way the government and military view you. Before, you are a citizen who can be called up in service of the country. Now you are able to be the one who calls up others, who leads the entire military from the highest office in the land. It’s a stark contrast. At about the same time, you’re generally settled, or settling, into the career (or lack thereof) and the family (or lack thereof) that is likely to be with you for much of your remaining life. No longer the beneficiary of actions around you, you are now (hopefully) firmly in control of your life.
Both personally and in the view of the world, you acquire a new definition; no longer a potential tool, but a potential tool-wielder.