Sunday 1 December 2013

Born on the 14th September

If you were an American bloke and born on the 14th September in any year 1944-1950, the bottom fell out of your world on 1st December 1969. You had 'won' the lottery to be drafted into the US military and quite probably sent to Vietnam.  The lottery was a way to make the Draft fairer and there was probably a belief that it would up the quality of the troops by including fewer of the dispossessed and more educated, better fed and more widely experienced young men.  My mentor for graduate school, for example, who was born a bit earlier than 1944 in one of the leafier suburbs of Boston had been able successively to defer his drafting by being in college, being in graduate school and being married.  His contemporaries in Black Roxbury or Irish South Boston with only a high school education, if that, had had to take their chances.

So did holders of Green Cards. Welsh-born Howard Stringer had stepped off the boat six weeks earlier when, in 1966, he was drafted into the US military at the age of 24.  He served a year in Vietnam and was decorated.  On his return he progressed his career in The Media and finished up as CEO of Sony.  He was knighted in 1999 and appeared on Desert Island Discs (a much higher accolade?) earlier this year.

After much thought, it was decided to write out all 366 dates of birth, put each slip of paper in an identical plastic container and draw out the days in random order.  The first number out was 258 (1st Sep) and so boys with that birthday were to be called up first.  You can get a vicarious retrospective frisson by checking your birthday against the order of drawing here.  Better, especially if you are American, ask your grandfather what his birthday was.  If you look at the sidebar of that page, you can read the harrowing (but long and unedited) stories of boys who were called up and went or called up and went to Canada.  Here's all the data displayed graphically:
Actual birthdays along the horizontal, random order number vertical, the first two dates identified at the bottom, also the evidence for the first cry of No Fair.  Those born in December cried foul because a disproportionate number of December dates had low (draftable) numbers and there was an apparent December deferment data-desert which I have outlined.  A Just-So-Story (in the ad hoc fallacy sense, not Kipling's) was put forward as a mechanistic explanation:  The lottery balls were added in date order (January first, December last) to a shoebox which was then shaken, they were then tipped into a literally and metaphorically transparent pick-one jar.  The objectors claimed that insufficient mixing left the last-added December balls on the top and so more likely to be chosen.  I wasn't there but this sounds like hooey because those December balls floating on the top of the shoe-box were tipped first (bottom) into the actual jar. A report from those who were there here.  A much better prima facie case for unfairness was for those born on 29 February who had a 4x higher chance of going to serve.  Post hoc that turned out to be a non-starter because 29 Feb was drawn 285/366th.  The following year, having drafted in the National Bureau of Standards, the method was modified to double randomise the dates.  Two draws were run simultaneously: one drawing out dates in random order and one drawing numbers 1-366 in random order and matching each pair of numbers.  Under this method the first drawn birthday was as likely to be assigned a low as a high number.  You can imagine that the contracts for supply of "plastic balls, hollow, identical, blue, 366 #" and "plastic balls, hollow, identical, red, 366 #" were put out to tender and Boondoggle Inc, of Peoria Illinois sold them to the Selective Service System for $50,000.

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