Do You Feel a Draft?

  Jerome Shea       November 25, 2011      Weekend Wonk

In a typically brilliant Gary Larson cartoon, we find a deer behind a tree, hiding from a hunter in the near distance. Panicked, the deer is saying to himself, “He is definitely shooting at me! I’ve gotta think: do I know this guy?” We laugh because we seldom see it that way—a hunter has no personal grudge or vendetta against a deer that he kills. But in fact random killing is a fact of life—or rather, death—and nowhere more so than in war. The Iraqi suicide bomber or the Taliban recruit has no personal animosity toward the private from Salina, Kansas, or the sergeant from Doylestown, Pennsylvania. He just kills. It’s what he’s supposed to do. It’s what the German sniper did in WWI and what the Roman soldier did in Britain two thousand years ago and what the American grunt does to the Taliban recruit. War is not just hell but impersonal hell.

I am thinking about this stuff because of a Richard Reeves column that I just read. Reeves decries this system of a volunteer army, and so do I. Once you start thinking about these things, well, you really start thinking about these things.

Since I am arguing for the return of the draft, I will confess that when that system was in place during the Vietnam war, I got a deferment (two, in fact: first 2-S, then 2-A).* I make no apology for that. I didn’t want to get shot at, and it did help that so many of us considered Vietnam—like Iraq— a tragic misadventure. I don’t think it hypocritical of me to advocate for reinstating the draft, even though my son, a thirty-something, would probably get a deferment, too (to his old man’s great relief). Anyway, it’s a moot point. Reeves and I agree that the draft ain’t gonna happen. Not in my lifetime.

Reeves calls the rescinding of the draft “Richard Nixon’s last dirty trick.” Remember? First we had the lottery, a kind of draft-lite, and then, after a series of hiccups, it disappeared altogether. In 1973 Defense Secretary Melvin Laird announced the policy of the all-volunteer army. Today young men have to register with Selective Service, but we have no draft, haven’t since before my son was born. Nixon phased out the draft because the war protests simply wouldn’t abate and the middle class was gradually coming around to the view of their peacenik hippie children. Those young people may have been idealistic, but (see above) they also did not want to get killed in some steamy jungle, so the protests, like the draft, faded. Nixon could finish his war in peace. (Rep. Charlie Rangel, an unlikely but bona fide Korean war hero, started urging a reinstatement of the draft a few years ago, though he knew that idea was going nowhere. He just hoped to embarrass Bush and the neocons, a forlorn hope.)

Those who volunteer do so for all sorts of reasons, I suppose. Maybe, as Reeves suggests, they are not rushing to something so much as escaping from something: poverty, boredom, life’s dead ends. They have my deep respect; they are braver than I could ever be. And yet our government lets them down in so many ways. You sign up for an agreed hitch and then are told (“stop loss”) that you can’t come home out of harm’s way just yet (sorry about that). A friend wonders why we should need a Wounded Warrior program, a private program to provide help that the government should provide. Recently, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen—certainly not frothing crazies—both spoke out about this segregation of the people who fight our wars for us—people who die or come back maimed in body or soul while the rest of us feel ever so bad for them, in the interval between the NFL game and American Idol. This is war by proxy. This is shameful.

I can think of many good reasons, some of them even idealistic, as to why we should bring back the draft. But for me, the bottom line is a very practical one: a leader who has to deal with the uproar that a draft can entail is a leader who just might think twice or thrice before he goes off half-cocked to prove his manhood, rearrange the political landscape, or whatever.

Almost everybody, it seems, sports one of those magnetic “ribbons”—Support Our Troops—on the rump of his SUV. Ok. Fine. One thing we learned from Vietnam was not to make the soldier the scapegoat. But if you really mean to support our troops, then do whatever it takes—march, wave signs, sign petitions, write your senators and representatives, scream bloody murder—to bring those heroes home.

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