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From Draft NOtices, September-October 2002

For Those Who Believe We Need a Draft

- Rick Jahnkow

Every now and then we hear people talk about wanting to bring back conscription. Sometimes it comes from conservatives and militarists who would like to see a larger military force so they can expand U.S. bases abroad and conduct warfare in more places simultaneously.

We also hear it from liberals, and even a few leftists, who are under the impression that conscription would be doing a big favor for disadvantaged youths or would lessen the chances of war by spreading the burden for maintaining our bloated military establishment and overly aggressive foreign policy to more middle-class people. They even make the argument, sometimes, that we need a draft to keep us from drifting toward Prussian militarism and a Hitler-type dictatorship.

These aren't new arguments. Some of them were used to successfully convince people to keep the draft that was begun during WWII, even though the people of this country had historically been suspicious of conscription and previously had only allowed drafts briefly during the Civil War and WWI. Many of these arguments were also used in the early 1970s to try to keep the draft going as we began to pull out of the war in Southeast Asia. By then, however, Vietnam had brought back the traditional understanding that conscription exploits those who are politically and economically disadvantaged and makes it easier for governments to wage illegitimate wars.

Unfortunately, the memory of this lesson is not as fresh as it once was, and there are both liberals and conservatives who are now taking advantage of the post-9/11 climate of fear to make people think that a draft would be good for the nation.

Right now, our military doesn't really require conscription to maintain its current force levels, and the Pentagon has found that using its well-funded recruiting campaign and expanded outreach to schools can influence young people in a way that would be impossible with a draft (threatening people with jail if they don't enter the military is hardly an effective way to win the hearts and minds of younger generations). However, if the war hawks in this country continue to have their way, there will be more pressure to enlarge the armed forces beyond what can be supported with voluntary enlistments, and the voices calling for conscription will get much louder than they presently are. This is a good time, therefore, to review some of the key issues that should be considered:

1. There are those who claim that conscription is needed for national defense. However, it takes months to move people through the draft classification system, the induction process and military training, so it has no usefulness for meeting short-term emergencies. (The Reserves and National Guard are designed to play that role.) The draft's main military value is to provide a steady stream of draftees for a long, drawn-out war or when the size of military commitments is so large that the force level can't be maintained with only enlistments. With a draft, the government doesn't have to rely on people voluntarily stepping forward to fill the military's ranks, so it can maintain a larger force size and pursue the kind of unpopular military adventurism that led to more than 10 years of U.S. warfare in Southeast Asia. Not having a draft doesn't guarantee the U.S. won't wage illegitimate wars, but it creates more pressure on the government to justify its actions than if we gave the president the blank check he would have with conscription. Imagine what that would be like with a commander-in-chief like George Bush II.

2. Conscription is an unfair tax. Any government can provide staffing for public services two basic ways: it can pay people to do the necessary work, or confiscate their labor and order them to do it. A draft is confiscation that forces individuals to give up their freedom and some of the higher civilian income they could have earned while in the military. Because of the higher turnover of drafted military personnel, training becomes more expensive and the government is forced to set wages low for both draftees and professional volunteers, so all military members - but especially the draftees - pay a severe personal tax, and the true cost of the military is not shared equally by all.

3. Contrary to some people's claim, a draft would not protect us from the dangerous influence of a professional military class. By nature, the military is not a democratic organization, and with or without conscription it is the officer corps and politicians who set and control policy, not the lower ranks. Lower-ranking military members take a great risk in defying orders; even merely questioning them can bring reprisals that have much greater consequences than those faced by employees with civilian jobs.

If the draft were a protection from totalitarianism and dictatorship, then conscription would not have been relied upon as it was by past totalitarian governments in Spain, Russia, China, various Latin American countries, Prussia/Germany and Japan.

4. The argument that a draft will keep us out of illegitimate wars because draftees would be more likely to resist them is often heard, but it ignores some important facts:

· Draftees are picked young and have the least understanding of the political policies for which their lives may be sacrificed.

· They are the most obedient of troops because, above all, they want to get out of the military, and they know that if they stay out of trouble, they only have to wait a couple of years. Volunteers, on the other hand, are in for a longer term and have much more at stake.

· A historical fact that has been forgotten even by many liberals is that most of the organized resistance to the Vietnam War within the armed forces - like the Concerned Officers Movement and Movement for a Democratic Military - came largely from volunteers, not draftees.

· A draft was in place prior to the Vietnam War, yet it took more than 10 years of body bags coming home before resistance and general opposition grew strong enough to finally force an end to the war. If the draft was supposed to be an obstacle to illegitimate war, it didn't do a very good job with that conflict.

5. Some people believe that the problem with the Vietnam draft was that it disproportionately affected non-white and low-income people. They say a draft that includes more middle-class, white people would be more just and would cause greater reluctance to go to war. There are several problems with this argument:

· Once a U.S. president sends people into combat and body bags start coming home, it becomes very difficult, politically, to retreat; those who are intent on making war know that no politician will ever want to be the one who says that U.S. soldiers died in vain. This means that if a president wants to launch military action, he can do so with confidence that both Congress and the public will back him, at least initially. Draftees would not provide a braking effect until after there are great losses and probably years of stalemate (Vietnam is a prime example).

· The U.S. government has learned that the key to avoiding the kind of civilian and military resistance that occurred with Vietnam is to keep the U.S. casualty count, length of battle, and media coverage down to a minimum. That's why the Pentagon has shifted to fighting wars more with massive air bombardment, missile attacks and native client forces on the ground. Having conscription would not be a reason to change this strategy, so spreading the burden of war with a draft would still not create the potential opposition that some people predict.

· We will always have a ground combat force that is disproportionately poorer and non-white. Even with a draft, people with privilege would be more able to get the medical deferments and conscientious objector status that would keep them out of uniform, and if they failed to stay out of the military, their education would put them disproportionately into noncombat jobs. The most important thing that we can do today to address racial and class imbalance in the military is to demand a more equitable economy and an improved, demilitarized educational system, while also working to shrink the war budget.

· The logic that we need a draft so that more members of a particular group can be killed or placed at risk in order to bring home to the public that war is wrong has serious ethical implications. Aside from being a form of hostage-taking, it's like saying people should become drug users to learn about the harmful consequences of using drugs, or that we should support another nuclear arms race, because more people would feel the threat of annihilation and that would then lead to the elimination of war - or at least nuclear weapons (though that clearly didn't happen after the 1980s nuclear arms race). If the U.S. government had the power to send EVERYONE off to kill and/or be killed in its wars of intervention, it would be a form of equality - but it would be equality of the grave. Instead, we should demand that NO one be drafted, and NO one be recruited to fight for the economic and political exploitation of the rest of the world by the U.S.

We have wars because people have been brought up with a predominant value system that encourages people to solve disagreements with violence. The general population is indoctrinated in this value system from an early age, and our culture and governmental institutions reinforce it. Military training is the extreme form of pro-war indoctrination, which is why people like Napoleon, Hitler and the militarists of today have wanted to universally subject young people to conscription. The draft is a quick and effective way to indoctrinate more people and then send them back to civilian society to spread the authoritarian value system they have learned.

The Pentagon was forced to give up the draft at the end of Vietnam, but it has been been increasingly insinuating itself in institutions of socialization to continue the process of militarization. If we brought back the draft, it wouldn't remove the military from our schools or culture, it would just make it easier to put more people through the militarization process. We'd end up repeating the post-WWII cycle that led to decades of reactionary politics and an obedient population that was willing to give the Pentagon anything it wanted.

Practicing effective self-government and democracy requires that we instill in individuals a propensity for critical, creative thinking and a willingness to challenge the "chain of command" when institutions are not serving their needs. Bringing back the draft is the opposite of what we should do to achieve those goals.

This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (


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