I assembled this after doing PhD research in the field of US history in the 1960s, including having taught a course on the Vietnam War. Where possible, I have given citations to back up my assertions, though at the time none of these were online, sadly. Neither Bob Herbert nor teacherken, while both good and decent people, were able to offer independent scholarly citations to back up their claims.
The short version, for those who don't want to read the in-depth analysis is this: a draft will not produce a fair or equitable distribution of military service. It will not and has never produced a more rational discussion of war and sacrifice. Nor has it ever produced an end to an American war all on its own, and that includes Vietnam. The only thing a draft will accomplish is forcing young people to risk their lives and die against their will, at a massive cost both to families, to societies, and of course, to the politicians that approved a draft, regardless of party.
-A Draft Won't Make the Military Equitable
-Draft Won't Bring the War to an End
-Draft Won't Prevent Future Wars
-You can't protest the draft successfully
-Even "national service" is a bad idea
-You won't have alternative choices
-It puts you in the same mindset as wingnut bloggers
-It's simply immoral.
Reality: A draft will by no means be any more fair or equitable, since there will always be ways around it - and it also avoids the question of who does what in the military itself.
It is true that the present all-volunteer force does not look like America. A Population Resource Bureau Study from December 2004, using data collected through 2002, shows that there are more Asians, Latinos, and African Americans in the military than get college degrees, for example. More recent studies of recruitment numbers indicate this has become more pronounced of late.
But would a draft change this?
Those who assume it would rely on false assumptions and, generally, lack historical knowledge. During Vietnam, for example, the draft disproportionately drew in African Americans and working-class whites. (citation: A Sociology for Special Circumstances: Using the Vietnam War in the Classroom, by Gary L. Long, Teaching Sociology, 1993.) This was because those who were better off economically had more access to ways around the draft. That could include college, but also medical deferments.
Some point out that Congress abolished student deferments in 1970 and a new draft would not contain them. That is true. But medical deferments of some kind would remain, obviously, and those who have better access to medical care can more easily convince a doctor to write a supportive note.
There is also the matter of draft boards. One of the bitterest criticisms of draft boards was that they were not representative of their communities - even in nonwhite neighborhoods, the draft boards tended to be white. Although Nixon, of all people, tried to recruit more people of color, the fact that nonwhites continue to lack sufficient political representation suggests that new draft boards may not necessarily be more equitable. Also we should consider the fact that in an age where affirmative action is seen as bad, any government effort to use it for draft boards would likely encounter resistance.
Then there's the all-important question of who does what once you're actually in the military. As the same study cited above makes clear, the Vietnam-era military saw blacks serving in front-line combat positions in wildly disproportionate numbers. It wasn't even close to being fair. If you understand how the military works the reasons become obvious. Aside from institutional racism, job assignments are often done via testing. We know from reams of
evidence that communities of color lack the same kinds of quality education that white communities have, and that can hurt test performance. Further, institutions in this society tend to be biased in favor of whites, they get better access to good jobs and services and skills. All of that would indicate that the Vietnam situation would repeat itself in a new draft - well-off whites would get safe, rear-echelon positions and it'd still be people of color and the poor who have to face IEDs and sniper fire on a daily basis.
Ultimately we must remember that we live in a capitalist society, in which wealth and power trump everything else. In no previous US draft have we ever been able to get the rich and wealthy to commit their sons in fair proportions.
ANY new draft would include ways for them to get out of it. To assume otherwise is to assume the unrealistic and the delusional. Not even this Democratic Congress would be able to buck corporate desire on this one. Do any of you truly expect Rahm Emanuel and Steny Hoyer to tell their CEO friends they have to sacrifice their kids too?
Reality: A draft would do absolutely nothing in itself to end the war, and would only mean more people are forced to die.
This is a perfect example of where a lack of historical understanding leads people awry. Because folks don't understand the 1960s, don't understand Vietnam, they don't understand the relationship between the draft and the antiwar movement.
In a diary back in July 2006 I made the point, reacting to Newt Gingrich, that draft resistance has never succeded in stopping a war in American history. Every draft, except maybe the World War II draft, did spark widespread resistance. But in NO CASE did it ever end a war. Vietnam included.
The Revolutionary War sparked draft resistance. But still that war dragged on. The Civil War sparked massive, legendary resistance. The 1863 New York City draft riots, which led to the deaths of hundreds, did nothing to end the war. Neither did the massive, and unfortunately unremembered, draft resistance in the Confederacy. World War I saw draft resistance, and it was ruthlessly crushed.
And then there was Vietnam.
Many of you believe that the Vietnam War spurred draft protests which spurred the antiwar movement which brought the troops home. That is simply incorrect. The Vietnam War and antiwar protest and anti-draft protest all began in 1965. They all went on for 8 years. Think about that for a moment. 8 years. 58,000 people died, even though there was massive protest here in the US. The war and the draft both dragged on to 1973.
Not only can we not give the draft or antiwar activity credit for bring the war quickly to an end, neither can we really credit the draft for creating antiwar resistance. The truth is that the antiwar movement came about because American society already supported leftwing and pacifist protest. It wasn't the draft that created the antiwar movement - it was Civil Rights and pacifism and the New Left that did it. All the leaders of the early antiwar movement came from those other protest movements. Without them, without their having experience in organizing earlier, without there being a huge political movement already in existence, antiwar activity would have taken much longer to organize, and would have been even less successful. No, for a protest movement to succeed you need a spirit of protest that already exists in the society, and we lack one now.
It is also far from clear that the American public is in a mood to resist. We all assume that folks will take to the streets. But they never did when Bush stole two elections and lied us into a war. Why would we do differently with a draft? Because our lives are on the line? I am not confident that it would work out that way.
Four summers ago I taught a class on the Vietnam War. My students were young and liberal, in a liberal school in a very, very liberal city. So I naturally assumed that they would not go willingly to a draft. I asked them, 30 in all, what they would do if another draft were enacted tomorrow. Would they resist and protest, or go along with it?
Of those 30, 29 said they would go. Only one, a woman, said she would protest.
That matches the experience during Vietnam. Less than 2% of those who got a draft notice resisted it. Even those who had misgivings about the war, like John Kerry and Al Gore, went to war (and they volunteered).
The fact is that it is very difficult to resist a draft. I will get into some more detail below, but keep in mind here that there are powerful political, legal, and social forces pressuring you to go. If a draft were enacted the government would have the power to compel you to go, and you'd have some members of family and figures in authority suggesting you go or pay high social and personal penalties. For many people, they will reason that they have a better chance gaming the system within a draft than they will in resisting it.
Reality: The draft will not and has never stopped a democracy from going to war, and there is absolutely no reason to believe that has changed.
Related to the previously studied myth is the idea that even if we get out of Iraq, a draft would make politicians think twice before going to war again. But this is simply not so. After 1940 the US had a draft, and it did not stop people from supporting war in December 1941, or June 1950 (Korea) or March 1965 (Vietnam).
The truth is that cultivating public support for war has little to do with a draft. In the US in particular it has usually included lies and manipulation of the public - Iraq and Vietnam are FAR from the only examples. If you can convince people to have a draft, then it's easy to convince them to go to war. Why? Because if you have a draft, you've gotten people to believe in the idea of self-sacrifice for the nation. All you need to do then is play on that idea in a specific context. You can fool enough people into thinking they need to sacrifice to defend the country and win a war, and if there's a draft, half your work is already done for you.
The march to war of a nation is a terrifying thing to behold. Populations lose all sense and reason when they get the idea we need to go fight some enemy. We saw a slight form of this in 2002 and it was scary enough - but other examples in US history show how sweeping the desire for war can be. Here's Randolph Bourne describing the war frenzy of 1917 in his seminal article, War is the Health of the State:
With the shock of war, however, the State comes into its own again. The Government, with no mandate from the people, without consultation of the people, conducts all the negotiations, the backing and filling, the menaces and explanations, which slowly bring it into collision with some other Government, and gently and irresistibly slides the country into war...
...The moment war is declared, however, the mass of the people, through some spiritual alchemy, become convinced that they have willed and executed the deed themselves. They then, with the exception of a few malcontents, proceed to allow themselves to be regimented, coerced, deranged in all the environments of their lives, and turned into a solid manufactory of destruction toward whatever other people may have, in the appointed scheme of things, come within the range of the Government's disapprobation. The citizen throws off his contempt and indifference to Government, identifies himself with its purposes, revives all his military memories and symbols, and the State once more walks, an august presence, through the imaginations of men. Patriotism becomes the dominant feeling, and produces immediately that intense and hopeless confusion between the relations which the individual bears and should bear toward the society of which he is a part.
Chris Hedges wrote a book called "War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning." That short phrase gets to the heart of what Bourne says here - that the rush to war leads to a sense of patriotism from which nobody can resist, and which people want to identify themselves with.
It's also far from clear that you'd even have the opportunity to resist or protest, which leads me to my next point:
Fact: Protesting a draft during a rush to war is nearly impossible, especially in this day and age, in which most forms of protest and public dissent have been criminalized.
Vietnam was the rare case in which protesting a draft was sort of vaguely tolerated. In every other instance, protesting conscription was the occasion of the US government ruthlessly crushing dissent. Lincoln's suppression of the Northern Democrats - the "Copperheads" - in the Civil War was justified partly because they opposed the draft. Federal troops fresh from Gettysburg were sent to smash the New York City draft riots.
World War I saw this taken to terrifying, Bushian ends. The 1918 Sedition Act, which
made it a crime to utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the United States' form of government
This law was used to clamp down on draft protest. It was under this law that my namesake, Eugene V. Debs, in whose honor and memory I adopted this username 6 years ago, was thrown into prison for 10 years for speaking out against the draft. Though the law was repealed in 1921, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld it in Schenck v. United States.
World War II did not see these same events, but only because the war effort was promoted by a liberal Democratic administration. Today, we live under no such government. First amendment zones, police attacks on protestors, huge sweeps of anyone even near a protest (as at the RNC in 2004) and the recent criminalization of even nonviolent animal rights protest are but a few examples of how it is becoming incredibly difficult to mount effective protest.
Protest is also not necessarily that effective. Along with millions of people I took part in antiwar protests on February 15, 2003. It felt good to speak out, but as we know, it did not accomplish its goals. No other such protests materialized to stop the war or the Bush administration, certainly not on a large scale.
Therefore we cannot reasonably conclude that a draft WOULD lead to massive protest. Even if it did it might not stop anything. All we're left with is a hope that maybe possibly it would do that. But is that enough to build a draft upon?
Reality: Given the inherent iniquities in the military, no such positive outcome would result. Besides, what right is it of you or the government to tell a young person to do with their life?
Americans have long romanticized war. As said above, we think it's a force that gives us meaning. Every time we go to war we always hope it will unite the country, we'll sing Kumbaya and the Star Spangled Banner and It'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight and we'll win and all our problems will be solved.
And of course it never happens that way. So instead people think if we let the government kidnap every young person and force them to perform national service, we'll have the better country we seek.
The obvious flaw here is that true liberals believe the individual should best choose how to live their life and what to do with it. Sure, we like government to regulate some things, but no liberal wants the government to have that much power. If someone wants to choose military service, hey, it's your funeral. But why force people to do it?
Some here on Daily Kos believe in the future of the "libertarian Democrat." I am deeply skeptical of such a concept and of libertarianism itself. But, for those of you who do buy into it, surely you can see how supporting a draft would pretty much kill off that concept entirely. Libertarians don't really like the draft much. If you stake your political future on them AND back a draft, you're nuts.
Conscription is a poor substitute for social cohesion and educational development. If people want young folks to learn skills and values, why not improve the school system? Why send them off to die in a war? Why take away their choice?
Some point to Europe as an example of national service. But every European I've ever talked to who went through it said it was idiotic and pointless. A Greek friend complained all he did was sit and watch football matches for the last 6-9 months of his 18 months service, bored out of his mind.
Here again, the question of structural iniquities becomes important. If we haven't solved social inequality in other locations, how on earth with national service accomplish that?
Some also argue national service doesn't necessarily mean a draft. Sure. Do you trust the Pentagon to keep their hands off that pool of potential cannon fodder? Me either.
Finally, much of this line of argument comes from classist or condescending arguments that young people today are fools and idiots who play video games and are unmotivated and could use a kick in the ass. Aside from the 1950s nature of that argument, it's just plain wrong. I'm 30 and put this well-researched diary together. And I love to play Grand Theft Auto and I never spent a second in the service. Screw that.
Fact: C.O. status is very difficult to attain, and again it is unequally distributed. You will not likely have much chance to avoid combat duty.
A series of court cases in the late 1960s and early 1970s dealt with how one claimed a conscientious objector status. In most of those cases C.O. status was defined very narrowly. You had to prove not only that you objected to ALL wars, not just this one, but that you were a deeply religious person. Have you been active in your church? Not just going, but being active in it? Are you a witness to your faith? Can you convince others of your pacifism?
If not, you're not likely to get a C.O. deferment. And since it's up to draft boards, which trend conservative, you're going to have an even harder time pulling this off, particularly if you don't share the class and racial makeup of the draft board.
Many remember Muhammad Ali's deeply conscientious resistance to the Vietnam draft. "No VC ever called me nigger," he famously said. Fewer remember that his conviction for resisting the draft was thrown out on a technicality. And that was Muhammad Ali. Do you really think that a court system stacked with federal judges is going to side with you?
Fact: Most people calling for a draft are hypocrites who, in wanting others to make a sacrifice for a political point, are behaving like wingnut bloggers.
We all take joy in picking on the 101st Fighting Keyboarders - the wingnut bloggers who strenuously defend the Iraq War from the dangerous battleground of their parent's basement. Yet how are those who call for a new draft any different?
Like the wingnuts they too want to sacrifice other people for a political cause. Just because they think their cause is more just does not make them any less odious than those who sent others to die in Iraq.
Now, if these 82nd Fighting Keyboarders, as we might call the pro-draft folks, promised to enlist themselves and have their kids conscripted too, then I would take them seriously. But unless they do, unless someone who is pro-draft says "and I'll set an example by joining up too," they deserve nothing but the same contempt and derision we direct at the wingnut bloggers.
I don't see why any of us would want to fall in that category.
All the above points make sense. But it really should just come down to this last one:
Fact: Supporting a draft is very, very deeply immoral.
It's really quite simple, folks. You have no right whatsoever to force others to die.
I am lucky. I'm now 5 years beyond draft eligibility. But my younger sister, and her husband, and their best friends, and several of my best friends, and 23 of my cousins, and their friends, are all of draft age or will be soon.
If you are honestly telling me that they should be forced to risk their lives to die for a political point, then I have nothing nice to say to you at all. In fact, what I will say to you will probably be among the most horrible things you will ever hear in your life. As it should be.
It is immoral to ask other people to die simply to prove a point.
If we want to end this war, there are other, far better ways to do it. Ways that leave or morality, our dignity, our humanity intact. Supporting a draft is a desperate act, the last refuge of a scoundrel. If we oppose war because of the horrors it causes, we are hypocrites to then support a draft as a remedy.