I suspect most people reading this believe that some kind of conscription will grace these shores come the new year. I know I do.
The reason for a new draft is fairly straightforward. The policy elite, those inside the White House as well as out of it (and not just the "world leaders pretend" of the American Enterprise Institute, but ostensibly "sensible" people like those at Brookings, Heritage, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies), no longer really understand what things cost and certainly do not have to bear the consequences of their policy decisions.
As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in Gulag Archipelago, "Paper will take anything." And America’s think tanks, public policy research institutes and government agencies produce thousands of position papers every year, advocating this program or that initiative or endorsing such-and-such deployment. It’s easy on paper, it costs nothing, to order an army to patrol and rebuild a strife-ridden zone. It’s especially easy if the person writing the paper has never "humped a ruck" and pays no attention to the real live people he or she is asking to sacrifice and condemning to death.
And not only does this elite not really understand costs and consequences, they possess a nearly bottomless sense of entitlement — to our time, our labor, and even our very lives.
They propose, and we are disposed.
So when pressed with having to choose scaled-back ambitions — ambitions to remake the world in our image, to impose peace on warring lands, to enrich the poor, to educate the ignorant, to heal all of the world’s sick and clean up all of its wasteland — and demanding even more resources to make those ambitions reality, the choice is clear: more resources.
More money in the budget next year. More men and women to get the job done. More. More. More. Always more.
So it hardly matters whether we are "blessed" with a Kerry administration or a second Bush regime. The wheels of Selective Service will be greased and the country’s young men and women will be asked — politely, of course — to "serve their country."
(Okay, so it may matter a little. A Kerry imperatorship would likely give us some kind of "national service" draft that not only put soldiers in uniform but will also swell the ranks of AmeriCorps, giving the country’s more alternatively inclined 20-somethings the opportunity to deliver dinners to shut-in little old ladies, scrub graffiti off of walls, teach poor children their A-B-C’s and landscape national parks across the country. A Bush regency, on the other hand, would likely only have token patience for such "Girlie Man" activities — there’s a world to be won!)
If there are any potential objections to conscription, I expect it will probably come from the Pentagon itself. Not because there are great champions of liberty wandering the wings and the wedges of that fine building, though there are probably still some. (There may be a few NCO’s and officers out there who believe the country’s young people could damn well do with a little discipline, but I suspect there aren’t very many of them in uniform anymore either.)
No, any objection would likely be utilitarian: what do we do with all these people?
Simply put, I suspect the uniformed services are in no position to induct and train the many hundreds of thousands of young men and young women who would be culled into the armed forces in a universal draft. Where do you house them, where do you train them, and where do you station them when they are trained? The Defense Department has spent the better part of the last decade abandoning many state-side Cold War bases — including large numbers of training bases. It would be costly and take far too much time to revitalize more than a few.
I’m no expert on the matter, but I suspect the military as it is currently organized probably cannot absorb more a few hundred thousand draftees each year anyway, and that likely assumes draftees would be paid less and not serve as long as volunteers. Even if you replace all the overpriced Halliburton and Fluor contractors (and their subcontinental and Filipino slave labor) with soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, a draft is still going to drag in far too many people. Many hands may make light the work, but even given Dick Cheney’s palpitating global ambitions, there simply will not be enough work for several million men and women in uniform.
There’s no need for a mass Army of millions of soldiers in long gray coats. Not in an era of capital-intensive warfare. Not when soldiers are vulnerable to roadside bombs. Not when death and destruction can be more effectively and remotely dealt from 30,000 feet.
More importantly, however, a universal draft — one that drafts evenly and equally — would quickly put too many people in uniform whose political reliability simply could not be guaranteed. Think about it. A universal draft would fill the armed forces with rednecks, farm kids, suburban punks and aspiring peaceniks alike (although I suspect there would be a marked increase in the number of young men — and young women — from the country’s more liberal ZIP codes who suddenly "realized" they were gay, and would eagerly tell even if not asked). Now, maybe training and discipline would pound everyone into shape (it didn’t for me in 1985, and I volunteered), but I have a sneaking suspicion it won’t. There would be too many people stuck in the military without wanting to be there who would be thoroughly suspicious of the institution, of working in hierarchies and of doing what they’re told. Too many people willing or at least inclined to act on conscience and not obey orders.
And even if all the data we have on how people react to authority tells us that even the "best" of us will likely follow orders to hurt others when we believe in the authority giving the commands, it doesn’t take many to say "no" to cause problems, to rally others to the call of conscience. There mere threat that such a problem could exist — and it will if millions of young men and women are inducted — could likely be a deterrence. It costs money to deal with or even weed out troublemakers. It’s better never to have to deal with them to begin with.
However, there is an alternative.
Just because we’re going to have a universal draft doesn’t mean that it will really be universal. How difficult would it be for the Selective Service Administration to mine census data, match it against election return information, and draft people more likely to say "yes sir, no sir, three bags full, sir!" People more likely to support the leader, the regime, and the policy of the day.
People more likely to do what they’re told. And not ask any questions.
(Okay, only as long as a God-fearing Republican occupies the White House…)
And there’s a likely fringe benefit, too, because if the people of Massachusetts — or Berkeley, or Seattle, or Northwest D.C., or even Omaha — get uppity, think they can challenge the leader or the regime, well, the government has an Army of young men and women who are much less likely to view the people on the business ends of their riot control batons or rifles as fellow citizens. Not that any level of government would ever need to worry about the loyalty and savagery of the police when it comes to dealing with assumed threats to public order. And not that the U.S. Army has had showed much reluctance throughout history to shoot Americans when ordered to.
But an assurance, some kind of guarantee, would be nice. Just in case.
(Even when it comes to much-needed "special skills" like reading and writing Arabic — the draftors would have to pick carefully, because too many of us who went to university to get those skills did so because we like Arabs or found something appealing about Islam. We are even less likely, I think, to be politically reliable.)
Now, I have no special insight, and don’t know if anyone thinking about conscription is actually considering this kind of limited draft. It is entirely possible that enough people in positions of "authority" will conclude — regrettably, from their standpoints — that it simply is not doable. I rather doubt it.
So it only makes sense that if a draft is being considered, if the nets are being unwound and mended, that those who consider our treasure and our lives forfeit in pursuit of their dreams and ideals would only consider the most efficient way to use us in fulfillment of their ends.
They will make it — and us — work.
September 29, 2004
Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.