The real enemy of my people is here. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality…they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow.
~ Muhammad Ali (1967)
Duke University is a top-notch school and the students at such prestigious universities — the breeding ground for our next generation of leaders — do their damnedest to stay the hell out of America’s endless foreign adventures — exactly as did our current generation of leaders. Who can blame them? Apparently, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates (who spent Vietnam stateside). With the military stretched a bit thin globally, Mr. Gates went begging and used a recent speech at Duke to try and drum up some warm bodies to fight the endless War of Terror.
It was a telling speech (and a warning to us) about the kind of man Mr. Gates is. A long-time big wheel in the CIA, he opened with The Traditional Joke To Start Things Off and quipped, "(When he was) President of Texas A&M, I had to fire a longtime football coach. I told the media at the time I had overthrown the governments of medium-sized countries with less controversy." Funny guy, I’m sure the people responsible for our country’s diplomatic efforts are thrilled that Obama picks as Defense Secretary a man who doesn’t seem to consider that every military intelligence officer of a "medium sized" country is going to perk up at that one. In his poor choice of words Mr. Gates displays an imperial arrogance that borders on reckless stupidity.
To be fair, considering we are getting our ass kicked in both Iraq and Afghanistan maybe the world’s medium sized countries find his tasteless joke funny, but it still does not disprove my point. We have enough problems, why would Mr. Gates wish pile on? Our political elite piss and moan about people "giving material support" to terrorists and here the Defense Secretary goes and helps Al-Qaeda recruit by providing them with talking points.
Despite his post, he also displays a shaky feel for what exactly the military’s mission is, as when he talked about our troops and "the wider society they have sworn to protect." He is (to put it kindly) a bit off mark, as our troops swear no such thing. They swear one thing only — to "support and defend the Constitution, against all enemies, foreign and domestic." That’s it. They don’t even swear to defend the territory of these United States, as the land we live on is unimportant; it is (was?) our adherence to the rule of law that makes us unique.
Mr. Gates seems unaware of this, which is why he can state that our Air Force "has been at war since 1991, when it began enforcing the no-fly zone over Iraq" with his sense of honor unmoved (he swore the same oath to our Constitution) and, just as sad, America’s lousy education system is why not one Duke student in the audience was moved to ask, "When did Congress declare war?"
The point in his speech that should have made every draft age Duke student perk up and take notice was when Mr. Gates described a military draft as "the ethos of service, reinforced by the strong arm of compulsion" and how he pointed to the endless rotations in and out of the meat grinder required of our all-volunteer military and asked, "how long can these brave and broad young shoulders carry the burden that we…as a society — continue to place on them?" Yes Mr. Gates, how long?
The all-volunteer military we now possess is one of modern America’s greatest accomplishments, it is the ultimate expression of democracy — the people may vote, by joining or not joining the military, on every war our political class pushes us into. This is an extremely effective check on our political elite’s ability to wage wars, and one made all the more necessary in an America where Congress has completely abdicated its sworn oath to declare war as required by Article I, Section 8. And it is by this system how we know that today the overwhelming majority of Americans — 99% by Mr. Gates calculations — don’t give a damn about Iraq, Afghanistan, or the endless War of Terror.
I am not calling for a return to some imagined libertarian past; America has always had a draft in times of major wars — until now. During our Revolution, Civil War, World War One, Two, and then with the advent the Cold War "America retained a large, permanent military by continuing to rely on the draft even in peacetime." With the fiasco of Vietnam and the social unrest the draft caused, American politicians were frightened enough to end it, and that is one of the very few steps towards freedom this country has taken during the course of its slow devolution.
Towards the end of his speech Secretary Gates pointed to the 54 Duke students who had been killed in fighting across the globe since the end of the Second World War, all on foreign lands, all without any declaration of war by Congress. If the students at Duke are half as smart as their S.A.T. scores claim, they’ll make sure that number remains unchanged. There are more important matters to concern themselves with than who gets to claim control of Kandahar.
Mr. Gates chided the Duke students to "think about what you can do to earn your freedom," promising that they can do so by joining the military. It would be far better for the Duke students to think instead about how the can defend their freedom, which is not something handed out as an award by the likes of Mr. Gates and the rest of his clique, but something that is theirs by birthright.
The military draft has a long, sordid stranglehold on our nation’s history, and for all Mr. Gates platitudes to the all-volunteer force it would take but another terrorist attack on American soil to change his mind, if it isn’t changed already. To defend their right to choose whether or not this government is worth fighting for, to choose whether or not the politicians’ endless foreign campaigns are worth submitting their very lives to, to keep a democratic military to defend our democracy, that is where the Duke students can fight the good fight.
They hopefully realize that a people’s freedom always lies on the home front, and they can do far more for liberty by ignoring Mr. Gates’ lurid sales pitch and staying home. The fight for our freedom must be fought here, not the Middle East.
CJ Maloney [send him mail] lives and works in New York City. He blogs for Liberty & Power on the History News Network website and the DailyKos. His first book Back to the Land (on Arthurdale, West Virginia during the New Deal) is to be released by John Wiley and Sons in February 2011.