Monday, November 14, 2005

The Once and Future Draft

Let's think about the draft for a moment. Not the annual NFL draft, but the military one, and not the historical draft that ended in the 1970's with the Vietnam War, but the future draft, the one that may soon have to be reinstated to support the military adventures of the current administration in Washington.

The Founding Fathers were so anti-military that they didn't want their new country to have a standing army at all, only state militias consisting of volunteer citizen-soldiers who would defend the nation but not make war in the name of any king. The politicians who followed them, however, soon found themselves at odds with England again in the War of 1812 and with a need for a stronger navy. Then, in expansion mode, the army was used to annex Texas from Mexico (I don't think I've ever used three X's in one sentence before—make that four) and to virtually annihilate the Indians to make way for westward migration. In only a generation or two, what the Founding Fathers had tried to avoid had happened: the United States had a powerful military arm that was being used for aggressive purposes.

There was still a strong sentiment against military conscription, however. It took the Civil War, with its massive casualties, to make the first draft necessary. In spite of all the “volunteer” regiments that were raised, mandatory conscription was the only way to satisfy the insatiable need of both armies, North and South, for fresh “cannon fodder.”

Even at its inception the draft was far from universal or egalitarian. It was possible to send someone to serve in your place, so many who found it inconvenient and could afford the option hired stand-ins for themselves. The pattern of exceptions for the well-to-do was established from the beginning.

The draft was discontinued as soon as it was no longer needed. We never had a so-called “peacetime” draft until after the Second World War. Of course, calling that period of the Cold War “peacetime” is begging the issue, since it included two major undeclared wars—in Korea and Vietnam—and coincided with the largest buildup of weaponry in our history.

While it was no longer possible to send someone else in your place, the wealthier members of society could find other ways to exempt themselves when they chose to do so. Doctors and lawyers could be employed to build cases for medical deferments or to find other loopholes, and local draft boards could be subject to persuasion by powerful members of small communities. If nothing else, easy duty could be obtained in the National Guard, which fulfilled the service requirement with a minimum sacrifice of time, and reduced active combat duty to a remote possibility. Even for the middle class, simply attending college could be enough to delay a draft notice until the age of enlistment had safely passed.

Quite early, allowances were made for individuals who objected to warfare on religious or moral grounds. This made the unpopular system more palatable to some, though in practice the “Conscientious Objector” status was difficult to obtain and carried a stigma of anti-patriotism which was undeserved and unjust.

The situation changed during the Vietnam War, however. As the conflict became more obviously pointless and wrong, public opinion turned draft resistance into a mainstream option that was chosen by a large segment of the population. Thousands who would never have thought of themselves as Conscientious Objectors participated in mass protests and draft card burnings. Eventually the draft, and the war itself, became untenable.

Interestingly, and unfortunately, when President Nixon first instituted the draft lottery, which informed many that they were unlikely to be called up, and then abolished the draft altogether, it soon became apparent that he had knocked the legs out from under the resistance movement. The war had been forced to a close, but the return to an all-volunteer army set the stage for the eventual resurgence of militarism as a tool of foreign policy. Clearly, the general public no longer cared as much about what its army did as long as they themselves were not required to do anything more than pay for it.

The peace making initiatives of President Carter in the middle east were soon replaced by Reagan's popular invasion of Grenada, new “advisory” missions in Central America, and vastly increased spending for new ballistic missiles and a “Star Wars” defense system of mythic proportions (and fictional capabilities). Then George H.W. Bush followed suit by sending in the troops to extract the intractable President Noriega (a former CIA plant who had stopped playing ball), and ultimately to engage in the first Gulf War, most likely because his close family friends in Saudi Arabia were getting uncomfortable about Iraq.

Even President Clinton was drawn into conducting poorly targeted military reprisals against “possible” terrorist targets in Africa, and an underfunded debacle of intervention in Somalia. Such is the momentum of militarism that it begins to make its own demands to be put to use.

Now we are responding to the actions of terrorists by invading and occupying entire countries full of mostly innocent and law abiding citizens, and subjecting them to wholesale bombing campaigns. We should be asking many questions. Is this an appropriate or effective response? Does it protect us from terrorism? Does it make terrorist attacks less likely or more likely in the future? Where does it all end? Is Iraq the last country we will have to coerce into a “regime change,” or only the next in a series?

Perhaps the best question of all is: how much longer can we maintain a policy of global military offensive with an army of volunteers? It seems clear from enlistment statistics that the draft, so long abhorred by the country and so recently set aside, will soon have to be resurrected yet again.

There will be many repercussions from this, but foremost among them will be that a new generation of Americans will look with new eyes at our national intentions. For better or worse, the prospect of war seems entirely different when it is an event for which your own participation is not requested, but required by law.

By all means, let us look again. With luck and good judgment, we may find that we have better things to do.

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