A call to arms must first wake the dead

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Thousands of Pennsylvania men who would be centenarians if they weren't already dead face another serious problem -- the threat of imprisonment by the federal government.

It seems the Selective Service sent about 14,000 letters across the state recently ordering men born between 1893 and 1897 to register for the military draft, warning them that if they failed to do so they could be punished with "a fine and imprisonment."

This situation raises numerous serious questions:

* Can these soldiers' wheelchairs be outfitted with the necessary weaponry to make them an unstoppable invasionary force if a battalion of, say, 14,000 were pushed down upon the enemy?

* If the U.S. could go into battle with an army of dead men, which seems to be effectively frightening when it's done in movies ("Pirates of the Caribbean") and television shows ("Game of Thrones"), would that scare the bejesus out of other countries and terrorists and persuade them all to be peaceful? (You know, like what's happened as a result of our developing nuclear weaponry.)

* If dead people ignore the letters and disobey the federal government, does that make them all heroes in the eyes of the Tea Party, which will then rally behind them as the party's candidates for Congress?

* If we go to war using centenarians who are no longer available at home or in institutions to watch television, what will happen to the ratings of "Matlock" reruns?

Like so many things that make no sense, the above situation is a tale of a bureaucracy run amok, or at the very least run awry.

In its quest to be prepared for a military draft if the U.S. should ever again need or want one, which only seems like about every other day, the Selective Service relies in Pennsylvania on the state Department of Transportation to provide it the names/addresses of young men who are of registration age.

That meant someone was recently supposed to supply the database of those born between 1993 and 1997. Because the first two digits of birthdates were inadvertently omitted when running the data, however, the most recent list also included information about Pennsylvania men born between 1893 and 1897.

Those men's survivors this month began receiving the Selective Service letters sent to their fathers, grandfathers, etc., which caused a bit of confusion. I mean, everyone understands the old "Uncle Sam Wants You" posters -- but when you're dead?

"I said, 'Geez, what the hell is this about?' ... We were just totally dumbfounded," Chuck Huey of Kingston, Luzerne County, told The Associated Press after receiving a notice addressed to his grandfather, a World War I veteran who died in 1995 at age 100.

Of course, there's something to be said for someone like the late Mr. Huey having wartime experience. If these men have already been through basic training and learned how to fire a rifle and put together a cot with really tight sheets in World War I or World War II or the Korean War or the Vietnam War or other wars we're forgetting, that's a big advantage to the armed forces.

Nonetheless, the Selective Service and PennDOT are offering apologies. They say no one's going to prison and no one older than 100 is being called up for a draft. None of the dead men or their families has anything to worry about if the letters are just thrown away. (Sure, government agencies. Try telling that to the families of the trees that had to die to provide the paper for your thousands of unnecessary notices.)

The whole fiasco makes us wonder what other things are going wrong with mail-delivered notices that we just don't hear about. Have dead people, by chance, also recently received letters like the following:

* "If you are receiving this letter, it means you are one of 55 individuals inadvertently exposed to a highly contagious and potentially fatal virus during the recent university study in which you participated. It is imperative that you contact us within the next 48 hours to receive the serum that will prevent you from infecting others."

* "Enclosed are your tickets to the upcoming Game 7 of the World Series Oct. 13, 1960, at Forbes Field. Due to a typographical error, they were initially sent to the wrong address. We apologize for the delay."

* "This is to inform you that your pacemaker was recalled as of April 14, 1994, for manufacturing defects, and you should contact the phone number below as soon as possible to obtain a replacement at no charge. We apologize that, due to recent reorganization of our patient records, a delay might have occurred in your receiving this notice."


Gary Rotstein: grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.

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