"Very few of those who maintain that it is sweet to die for one's country have ever done it."
~ William L. White, Saturday Evening Post, October 18, 1941
Each time I read that some liberals and neoliberals, conservatives, neo- and otherwise, and a few hawkish academics have again begun talking up the supposed virtues of a military draft, I return to James J. Martin, that sadly disregarded anarchist-conservative-libertarian whose magisterial work Men Against the State badly needs to be read and debated by each new generation of pundits, professors and politicians.
I also take up my tattered copy of his Revisionist Viewpoints: Essays in a Dissident Historical Tradition in which he condemns any government that shanghais its young men: "Conscription has been inextricably intertwined with vast foreign wars and an economy more or less geared to these struggles. The magic word has always been u2018defense" and where "the interrelation of business, the military, and the state seems to be [for most Americans] beyond comprehension." And when a Midwestern academic recently urged universal service, I could only recall that Martin memorably pronounced the idea a "great totalitarian dream"
From the Cold War to the end of the Vietnam War, "conscription has maintained its Svengali-like grip on the American imagination," he wrote. The rationale today is if military recruiters don't find enough candidates and if America's overseas commitments continue to expand we'll need ever more troops. Now, more than 90% of 18-25-year-old males, about 15 million males, who are still required to register or the draft at age 18, are available should our foreign policy elite call for another draft.
Opponents of the voluntary military have for years advanced many reasons for a draft, ranging from an alleged need to mend the country's moral fiber to fostering civic responsibility and drawing closer the professional military and civilians. Some have even argued that it would make the military more democratic. (As a former draftee, I can't recall much democracy while on active duty).
For many on the political right, a draft means recapturing the fictitious ethos of World War II and the ensuing pre-civil rights, pre-Vietnam War eras when all Americans supposedly pulled together. In that imaginary paradise, their were no Jim Crow laws, no McCarthyism, and women knew their place while the government backed homicidal despots abroad in the name of anti-communism. And when young men were called to the colors they went willingly, eager to fulfill their patriotic obligation.
The faith of many political liberals rests on social engineering. The military, they argue, would in part be transformed into a combination prep school and job center for America's have-nots, while their own kids (especially among perennially bellicose neoconservatives) safely matriculate at the university.
The primary reason for the draft trial balloons is not that America has a "hollow" military or that it lacks "readiness" (both patently absurd) or that it can't recruit enough warm bodies for the ranks. That's the spin. The main reasons are the excessive number of warm bodies required to fulfill the antiquated and improbable two-war strategy devised in the Pentagon. That's the inane notion that his country could successfully fight two major wars at the same time (while keeping the support of the rest of us), an overreaching, grandiose fantasy that allows the Pentagon and Congress greater opportunities to grab more money for their insatiable pork-barrel projects while manipulating an indifferent public and friendly media into believing that they're enhancing "national security." Unlikely as it seems, can anyone imagine fighting, say, North Korea and China, while simultaneously fighting Iran and Iraq to defend "democratic" Saudi Arabia (I mean, oil)?
Then, too, so long as this country's worldwide, open-ended, and endless military commitments continue, this country is going to need a steady supply of conscripts to serve as its global gendarmes. Who's next: Iraq? Colombia? China? The Balkans again?
Mark Danner put it very well some years ago in World Policy Journal. This nation. he properly observed, is "marooned in the Cold War." Madeleine Albright's "indispensable nation" and neoconservatives' love affair with "hegemony" — really an American empire, nothing more, nothing less — keeps us frozen in time, as if Stalin was still in the Kremlin. Left to the Beltway's hardline insiders who never saw a war that didn't like, and to heavily subsidized special interests, and absent any genuine and protracted national debate, this country will continue to lurch along, unable and unwilling to fashion, let alone consider, a much less militarized and far less interventionist approach.
In the end, a draft would cost billions and possibly give rise to renewed domestic discord when there is absolutely no credible threat to Americans in sight. In their arrogance and hypocrisy, "The Cold Warriors," James J. Martin once astutely warned us, "demand a monopoly of violence, that u2018peace' may not be u2018endangered.'" Their way of thinking has brought about a lot of needless violence and not much peace.
March 7, 2001
Murray Polner wrote No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran and co-authored (with Jim O'Grady) Disarmed and Dangerous: The Radical Lives and Times of Daniel and Philip Berrigan.