Do You Feel a Draft?

by Katha Pollitt, June 7, 2004, The Nation


Should the government bring back the draft? Republican Senator Chuck Hagel has been talking it up, and it has captured the imagination of many liberals and leftists as well. Last year antiwar Representative Charles Rangel of New York and Senator Fritz Hollings of South Carolina introduced proposals to restore the draft as a way to build opposition to the war: The draft, Rangel argued, would spread the burden of war throughout society and force war supporters in the upper classes to put their children where their mouths are.

On paper, it's a tempting argument. Universal conscription would certainly be a poke in the eye for Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Feith, Perle and other prowar "chickenhawks" who used their social privilege to avoid Vietnam ("I had other priorities," said the Vice President, who enjoyed no fewer than five deferments). In theory, the draft would give us an army of "citizen soldiers," young men--and probably women--drawn from all parts of society, instead of the current Army, which draws heavily on military families, poor people and--to judge by Charles Graner, accepted into the Army in his early 30s despite a long history of violence and instability--wife-beating losers. For many, the draft summons up ideals of valor, adulthood, public service and self-sacrifice--shared self-sacrifice. Those are all good things, but the draft is still a bad idea.

Given our ever more stratified and atomized society, why expect the draft to be equal or fair? In the l960s, the draft was famously open to evasion and manipulation, as that large flock of chickenhawks proves. The new draft would be too. The Army doesn't need every high school graduate--there are 612,836 men 18 to 26 in the Selective Service registry for the state of Ohio alone, more than four times the number of US soldiers in Iraq--so it will be able, as in the past, to pick and choose. When one loophole closes, another will open: If Rangel succeeds in banning student deferments, we'll see 4Fs for college-bound kids with "attention deficit disorder" or "learning disabilities." Privileged kids will be funneled into safe stateside units, just the way George W. Bush was.

What about the argument that the draft will produce opposition to war? ("Parents and children would suddenly care," as historian of the 1960s Jon Wiener told me.) It's true that the draft will make it harder for kids and their families to live in a golden bubble--in the l960s, the draft concentrated the minds of college students wonderfully well. But mostly what the Vietnam-era draft produced was the abolition of the draft: That was the immediate form that opposition to the war took for those who most risked having to fight it. Abolishing the draft was a tremendous victory for the antiwar movement. If draftees were used in an unpopular war tomorrow, wouldn't opponents demand that kids not be forced to kill and be killed in an unjust and pointless cause? Nor is it entirely clear that a draft would raise antiwar sentiment overall. Conscription might make it harder, not easier, for many people to see a war's wrongness: It's hard to admit your children died in vain.

Supporters of the draft are using it to promote indirectly politics we should champion openly and up front. It's terrible that working-class teenagers join the Army to get college funds, or job training, or work--what kind of nation is this where Jessica Lynch had to invade Iraq in order to fulfill her modest dream of becoming an elementary school teacher and Shoshanna Johnson had to be a cook on the battlefield to qualify for a culinary job back home? But the solution isn't to force more people into the Army, it's affordable education and good jobs for all. Nobody should have to choose between risking her life--or as we see in Abu Ghraib, her soul--and stocking shelves at Wal-Mart. By the same token, threatening our young with injury, madness and death is a rather roundabout way to increase resistance to military adventures. I'd rather just loudly insist that people who favor war go fight in it themselves or be damned as weasels and shirkers. I'm sure the Army can find something for Christopher Hitchens to do.

The main effect of bringing back the draft would be to further militarize the nation. The military has already thrust its tentacles deep into civilian life: We have ROTC on campus, Junior ROTC in the high schools, Hummers in our garages and camouflage couture in our closets. Whole counties, entire professions, live or die by defense contracts--which is perhaps one reason we spend more on our military budget than the next twenty-five countries combined. (Did you know that the money raised by the breast cancer postage stamp goes to the Defense Department?) Conscription will make the country more authoritarian and probably more violent, too, if that's possible--especially for women soldiers, who are raped and assaulted in great numbers in today's armed forces, usually with more or less impunity.

If we want a society that is equal, cohesive, fair and war-resistant, let's fight for that, not punish our children for what we have allowed America to become.

Copyright 2004 The Nation