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From Draft NOtices, May - June, 2004

With Kerry as President, Our Work Would Be Just as Urgent

— Rick Jahnkow

If you were thinking "relief" is spelled K-E-R-R-Y, think again. John Kerry could be just as bad on the issue of militarism — more specifically, the militarization of young people — as the previous several administrations.

Besides the fact that Kerry advocates enlarging the military (imagine spending more on war making than we already are!) and supports continuing the occupation of Iraq, Kerry has a plan for national service that could be an intermediate step in the direction of mandatory civilian/military service.

Over the years, various organizations and politicians have unsuccessfully championed the idea of universal national service, where people would have to choose between military and civilian duty. Military conscription alone has been used in this country during the Civil War, WWI, and most of the WWII-Vietnam period. Attempts to have the Supreme Court declare the military draft unconstitutional never succeeded, and the last draft was ended by Congress mostly because it was helping to fuel a more general social and political rebellion during the Vietnam War. The idea of a draft for civilian service has been even less popular and has never picked up enough support to make it through Congress.

The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which was formed in 1985 to move the Democratic Party in a more conservative direction, is one organization that has promoted the idea of universal military/civilian national service. It claims to support only voluntary national service, but in its 1988 Blueprint, the DLC proposed making all existing federal financial aid for students contingent on them doing one or two years of military or civilian service "at subsistence wages."

The danger of such plans is that they are the starting points on a path that could lead to mandatory military/civilian service. The general strategy would work like this:

1. First you campaign to get the public used to the idea that they have an obligation to "serve," with little distinction being made between serving the government and serving humanity.

2. Next, you gradually make college financial aid and other "privileges" (like health care, low-income housing, etc.) contingent on doing government-dictated work assignments.

3. Finally, after getting people acclimated to the above, you introduce a universal civilian/military draft where "service" is no longer voluntary.

John Kerry, a member of the DLC, has been promoting a national service plan in his presidential campaign that seems to be following the first two steps described above. Following are excerpts from Kerry's plan that illustrate his thinking on the subject. Note that he includes the forcing of colleges to accept ROTC in the context of a "voluntary" national service program. (Full text is available at

(II) A MANDATORY HIGH SCHOOL SERVICE REQUIREMENT. As President, John Kerry will ensure that every high school student in America does community service as a requirement for graduation. . . . Knowledge of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship — including the duty to serve your community — are as important to American adults as knowing how to read and do math. Combined with a curriculum that teaches students about democracy, citizenship and civic participation, this high school service requirement will be a rite of passage for every young person in the country. . . .

(VI) RECRUIT MORE AMERICANS TO THE MILITARY. The highest form of service is military service. America's military is having trouble recruiting and is increasingly relying on the reserves for active duty. John Kerry believes we must change that. The complicated missions we face and technologies we use depend on it. In a Kerry Administration, no university that receives federal aid will be allowed to ban the ROTC from their campus, except for religious reasons. And the ROTC scholarship program will be adequately funded so that students can attend the college of their choice. John Kerry will also make modernizing our GI benefits a top priority, because no program has been more successful increasing educational opportunities for veterans while also providing an incentive for the best and brightest to make a career out of military service.

Kerry's plan also proposes paying for 2-4 years of college tuition if high school graduates choose to do 1-2 years of national service. For the most part, this would be made possible by expanding the existing civilian service agency, AmeriCorps, and presumably, getting Congress to pass a very large increase in the AmeriCorps education benefit (currently under $5,000).

On the surface, expanding AmeriCorps and enlarging the education benefit for voluntary service is not a bad idea, but it's highly unlikely that the military would stand for this if it would create competition for recruiters. When AmeriCorps was established years ago, the Pentagon complained about the size of the education benefit that was proposed and succeeded in getting it reduced substantially to an amount that could not compete with the GI Bill.

In order to expand "voluntary" national service and not run afoul of the Pentagon, I believe Kerry would be more likely to resurrect the DLC's original proposal to make all federal student aid contingent on doing either military or civilian service. This is the intermediate step toward eventual universal, mandatory civilian/military service.

Even if a combined civilian/military draft were not the result, it's clear that Kerry is aligned with those who would impose militarism on schools and who believe that people have a duty to serve the state, as opposed to the other way around. If elected president, he could very well be the person who will sign a military draft bill if recruiting does not provide enough personnel for expanded military missions and a larger force size over the next few years.

When Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were elected, many people thought the "bad guys" were no longer in office, and we saw the typical phenomenon of peace and social justice activism losing strength and intensity. This is part of an unfortunate cycle that helps render our movements ineffective over the long term and results in more of the same crises that we strive to prevent (more wars, loss of ground on affirmative action, erosion of women's reproductive rights, increasing economic class disparity, etc.).

The lesson is this: vote for anybody-but-Bush if you wish, but no one should have any illusions about Kerry or the Democratic Party. Our only hope is that enough people realize that no matter what happens this November, we must commit to increasing — not decreasing — our activism!

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


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