With all the recent talk of war with Iran, I thought it might be worthwhile to recall a time when war was a reality faced by nearly every American family.

Fifty years ago, I would have been too young for the Vietnam War, but if I had been of age, the odds were good I would have been called to serve.

The lottery numbers for 1970 were announced in December 1969, and my birthday is Nov. 29, which was 99th in the 366-digit list — the extra digit in the list to account for a leap year.

It was reported at the time that those with the first 122 numbers would likely be drafted, and those with numbers up to 195 would be processed in preparation for induction.

Back at the end of 1969, young men ages 18 to 25 whose birthdays fell on Sept. 14 found out they were first on the list to be called up. To fine tune the selection process, another lottery assigned numerical values to first and last names. Thus, the letter J ended up with the number 1, so all the Jacksons and Joneses were at the top of the list for their overall draft numbers.

The next nine numbers on the overall list, also almost certain to be drafted, were those born on April 24, Dec. 30, Feb. 14, Oct. 18, Sept. 6, Oct. 26, Sept. 7, Nov. 22, and Dec. 6.

As one newspaper report put it, "they shared their bad luck with thousands and thousands more." 

In 1969, U.S. deaths in Vietnam approached 12,000 – nearly 1,000 every month.

One of the most notable events of the war that year was the Battle of Dong Ap Bia – Hill 937, otherwise known as "Hamburger Hill." It was fought from May 10 to 21, and resulted in around 70 U.S. dead and 400 wounded. But even that historic fight was just a small part of the toll.

In June 1969, Life Magazine published a controversial feature called "The Faces of the American Dead in Vietnam: One Week’s Toll." It was 10 pages with the photos of 242 dead troops whose names had been released by the Pentagon over seven days.

The feature sparked a lot of controversy, as some praised the publication for pointing out the human cost the country was bearing, and others calling it propaganda meant to bolster the cause of "un-American" and "dirty" anti-war protesters.

The same week the lottery results were announced, newspapers were reporting police had identified members of the Manson "family," described by one wire service report as a "pseudo religious cult," and by Los Angeles Police as "a roving band of hippies" who committed horrific murders in suburban Southern California.

Also in the news was the trial of U.S. Army Lt. William L Calley Jr., later convicted of ordering the "My Lai massacre," where several hundred Vietnamese villagers were shot by U.S. soldiers in an area that was then referred to as "Pinkville" — no doubt a reference to the inhabitants’ possible communist sympathies.

In a related news article that week, a Washington Post reporter visiting the scene in Vietnam recounted the story of a purported survivor, who described seeing an American soldier shooting a baby, then stabbing it with a bayonet. The woman also said soldiers cut another baby into three pieces with bayonets.

"She said she saw that happen," the reporter wrote.

Hence the epithet "baby-killer" that unfairly greeted so many of our troops on their return home.

Anti-war protests had begun to take place almost immediately after the first Americans arrived in 1965. Near the end of 1969 – just two weeks before the Dec. 1 draft lottery – around 500,000 gathered in the Capital for one of the largest demonstrations in U.S. history.

While the Selective Service had been calling up tens of thousands of young men to serve since the Korean Conflict, the numbers jumped from just over 112,000 in 1964 to 230,000 in 1965, then dramatically to 382,000 in 1966.

In the next three years, more than 800,000 additional men were drafted before public outrage over the system’s perceived unfairness resulted in the establishment of the lottery. According to newspaper accounts of the time, about 90 percent of draft-age men would expect to be inducted.

Despite quite a bit of research, I couldn’t find an explanation of how the draft worked in the years immediately prior to the lottery, but there was plenty of commentary about how people felt the system was rigged to benefit the wealthy, to the detriment of those not fortunate enough to qualify for a deferment, of which there were numerous varieties. One news article explained local draft boards had broad leeway to exempt individuals from service. 

One of the most common deferments, for men with children, was ended by President Nixon in April 1970.

Though the war was winding down, plenty of men were still dying, and protests continued even after the Ohio National Guard took aim at kids on the campus of Kent State that May.

Eric Marotta can be reached at 330-541-9433, or emarotta@recordpub.com