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From Draft NOtices, January - February 2003

New Draft Proposal: Cannon Fodder for Peace?

— Rick Jahnkow


During the days of the anti-Vietnam War movement, I remember hearing of a tactic that some people used to try to bring home to the public how completely twisted our values had become. As I recall, a news release and fliers would be circulated inviting people to gather at a specific time and place to witness a live animal (usually a dog) being immolated with homemade napalm. Immediately, there would be vigorous debate and loud outcry against the idea of such cruelty. Then, at the appointed time and place, fliers would be handed out to the media and any outraged individuals who showed up, telling them that there would be no immolation of a dog, and that the purpose of the hoax was to demonstrate how hypocritical it was for the public to be so completely incensed by such an act while the same thing was being done everyday, in our name, to men, women and children in Southeast Asia. The hope was that this lesson would turn more people against the war.

I'm reminded of this by the proposal to bring back the draft introduced on January 7 by Representative Charles Rangel (D-NY) — only in this case, he's essentially promising to place our sons and daughters, instead of a dog, in harm's way in order to make a similar point. Another difference is that, even though his proposal doesn't have a chance of passing right now, Rangel is serious about it and is not declaring it a hoax.

Titled the "Universal National Service Act of 2003," Rangel's bill would require that all males and females between the ages of 18 and 26 perform two years of "service." The Pentagon would have first dibs on draftees, and anyone not needed by the military would be assigned to a civilian job that, "as determined by the President, promotes the national defense, including national or community service and homeland security." A similar bill was introduced in the Senate on January 9 by Senator Ernest Hollings (D-SC).

Rangel, who is generally regarded as a strong peace and justice advocate in Congress, gives several justifications for bringing back the draft that are very flawed or contradictory. He says we need a draft because "a disportionate number of the poor and members of minority groups make up the enlisted ranks of the military, while most privileged Americans are underrepresented or absent." He also notes that members of the U.S. Congress have very few sons or daughters in the military, yet a Congressional majority voted to authorize war in Iraq. Rangel says, "I believe that if those calling for war knew that their children were likely to be required to serve — and to be placed in harm's way — there would be more caution and a greater willingness to work with the international community in dealing with Iraq."

Basically, Rangel is implying that: (1) a draft would make U.S. combat forces more representative of society as a whole; and (2) having more middle-class and affluent young people in the military would compel greater opposition to war.

But Rangel has his facts wrong. The draft has never made the pool of people used in combat more representative. In past drafts, better educated men and those with more money were able to use their resources to increase their chances of being deferred or exempted, and even though some of the past draft loopholes that were exploited have been eliminated, people with better education and financial advantages will still find it easier to secure conscientious objector status and be able to document claims for medical deferments. Those in this more privileged category who don't manage to stay out of the military entirely will be more likely to get less risky noncombat jobs, especially in the more technological military of today. The poorer kids who don't have private doctors' letters and x-rays to submit, or who never got a college education, will wind up disproportionately in the infantry.

With regard to the draft acting as a brake against war, there is no historical evidence to support Rangel's theory. The U.S. had a draft in place before both the Korean and Vietnam wars, and it didn't keep us out of those conflicts. Indeed, it was the blank check for cannon fodder provided by the draft that enabled the U.S. to wage a 10-year war in Southeast Asia that left millions of people dead or injured.

Rangel gives another puzzling reason for bringing back the draft. He says we need it because "war against Iraq will severely strain military resources already burdened by a growing number of obligations. . . . The administration has yet to address the question of whether our military is of sufficient strength and size to meet present and future commitments." So, first Rangel argues that we need a draft to inhibit military adventurism and war, then, in almost the same breath, he says we need it to ensure that we have the resources to pursue military expansion and fight a war with Iraq. Clearly, Rangel is not thinking consistently.

Fundamentally, though, Rangel is really basing his strategy on the belief that by jeopardizing more people's children (including kids of parents who are already antiwar), he will stimulate the necessary outrage to stop a war (i.e., like threatening to immolate the dog). But even if you accept such a hostage-taking strategy in principle (which I do not), it can't work now. Congress has already authorized war against Iraq, and it would be absolutely crazy to follow that up with giving Bush a blank check for cannon fodder that would be used to pursue this and future wars!

In reality, no draft proposal introduced at the moment is going to be viable, in large part because the Pentagon doesn't want it. Since the last draft was terminated, the military establishment has made huge gains in its ability to command influence over civilian society by expanding its presence in institutions of socialization, especially schools. The draft would bring back a level of opposition and hostility that would greatly undermine these gains. There would have to be a more severe strain on military resources than presently exists before the benefits of a draft would begin to outweigh the liabilities for the Pentagon.

On the other hand, if the military is allowed to continue expanding its influence in schools and our culture, it will condition more people to be accepting of soldiering and militarism and thus pave the way for a future draft. Unfortunately, Rangel's proposal, and his fallacious arguments that are getting a lot of airplay, are going to make this end result more likely.

What we really need, instead, is to curtail the U.S. military's size and mission, to get the Pentagon out of our civilian classrooms and schools, and to have no more talk about bringing back the draft. We need less military influence in this country, not more!

Information sources: New York Times, December 31, 2002; Associated Press, January 7, 2003. Also, see "For Those Who Believe We Need a Draft," Draft NOtices, September-October 2002, at

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


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