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August 17, 1999

A Draft After the 2000 Elections?


by Murray Polner

There may yet be a military draft in your future if you’ll be turning 20 in 2001, once the elections are out of the way.

In late July of this year Newsday published a Los Angeles Times dispatch reporting that, “key members of Congress’ military committees, for the first time in a generation, are discussing revival of the draft.” Asserting that not enough young people are enlisting and with the nation’s commitments abroad growing constantly, the chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on readiness was quoted as suggesting that, sooner or later, there may be “some form of selective conscription.”

Months before Kosovo, trial balloons were already being floated by some largely Washington-based pundits, politicians and press, supposedly because the military is having a hard time filling its quota of recruits. Last September, following a House subcommittee session on “military readiness,” the Cincinnati Enquirer quoted a Republican congressman saying, “There are benefits to a draft,” and a Democrat saying, “there’s a possibility that that’s going to happen.”

Ever since the draft was abandoned during the Vietnam War in 1973 by the Nixon administration, there have been occasional though ignored calls for its restoration. The Pentagon is generally supportive of a volunteer military and opposes a renewed draft, fearful that it would reduce the quality of its current volunteer force. But now that the economy is doing so well, and most young men prefer civilian to military life, fewer are joining up, while the United States, “marooned in the Cold War” – to quote the analyst Mark Danner’s perceptive observation – the world’s sole superpower, seriously unchallenged in its economic and military power, remains frozen in its Cold War stance. With an extraordinarily extravagant military budget, its constant military and non-military interventions around the world, and its triumphalist claims following the war against Serbia, we have become the “American Imperium” as one prominent neo-conservative put it two years ago in the Wall Street Journal. An empire, I dare say, which will be driven to intervene overseas for years to come.

Left to the foreign policy “elite” and heavily-subsidized ideological special interests, and absent any national debate on what’s essential and what isn’t, this Administration, this country, lurches along, unable and unwilling to fashion, let alone consider, a less militarized and far less interventionist approach.

For too many liberals, a draft means, among other things, democratizing the military by inserting “ordinary Joes” into barracks, removing the distance between a professional military and civilians which, they speculate, with no evidence, is a potential danger to American democracy. (As a drafted army veteran myself, I can’t recall many examples of “democracy” in the military.) They are also anxious to transform the military into a prep school-job center for this country’s have-nots (while their own sons matriculate at a university). Then again, there is another breed of pro-draft liberal and conservative as well: wannabe vets who escaped military service for one reason or another but now believe they missed something heroic in their lives. A draft might help fill their personal gap – but would they be willing to send their own sons and grandsons?

For many conservatives, it means recapturing the mythical ethos of the Second World War and the fabled postwar pre-sixties era. In that imaginary Eden, there was no racial or religious discrimination, no equality for women, no wartime profiteers, no Joe McCarthy, nor support for a variety of despots and thugs abroad in the name of “national security.” And when young men were called to the colors they supposedly went willingly, eager to fulfill their patriotic obligation to fight in the Korean War.

So what’s behind all this talk of another draft? Mainly, the principal problem is neither too few recruits nor a lack of military “readiness.” That’s the spin. The primary reason is the excessive number of warm bodies required to fulfill the nation’s antiquated and ineffectual 2-war strategy, namely, the ability to fight two major wars at the same time, an overreaching, grandiose design that allows the Pentagon and especially Congress greater opportunities to grab ever more money for their insatiable pork barrel projects while manipulating the public –and an indifferent media – into believing that they are enhancing – again – “national security.”

A few years ago, a group of retired officers and civilian specialists were asked by Congress to study the 2-war strategy. Called the National Defense Panel, its late 1997 conclusions were entirely unexpected and therefore unwelcome – and thus disregarded by Congress, the Pentagon and the White House. Fighting two large wars simultaneously, the very foundation of U.S. military planning was more and more obsolete, the panel argued, and “a means of justifying the current force structure.” But they went much further in arguing that, rather than always responding militarily, diplomacy was “the most effective tool” for resolving conflicts around the world. “The current approach to addressing national security engages the Department of Defense and services too often and too quickly” in conflicts that might otherwise be worked out peacefully, it concluded.

Improbable as it may seem, imagine fighting two wars against, say, North Korea and China while simultaneously involved in Colombia’s three-decade old civil war? To carry out its self-assumed, worldwide and seemingly endless commitments, this country is going to need a steady supply of warm draftees to serve as its global gendarmes.

If and when a draft is enacted, college students will no longer be deferred past their current semester and if chosen in a lottery would be headed for basic training camp in the year they turn twenty.

A draft would cost billions and possibly give rise to unfairness, renewed social strife and discord at a time when there is absolutely, positively, no credible enemy in sight.

Murray Polner wrote No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran (Holt, Rinehart & Winston) and co-authored (with Jim O’Grady) Disarmed and Dangerous: The Radical Lives & Times of Daniel & Philip Berrigan (Basic Books/ Westview Press).

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Murray Polner is the author of No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran and most recently co-authored Disarmed and Dangerous, a biography of Daniel and Philip Berrigan.

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