About Me

I am Associate Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. I am also the Academic Director of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, in New Bedford MA. Author of "Social Security and the Middle Class Squeeze" (Praeger, 2005) and the forthcoming "Saul Alinsky the Dilemma of Race in the Post-War City" (University of Chicago Press), my teaching and scholarship focuses on American urban history, social policy, and politics. I am presently writing a book on home ownership in modern America, entitled "Castles Made of Sand? Home Ownership and the American Dream." I live in Providence RI, where I have served on the School Board since March 2015. All opinions posted here are my own.

Friday, April 30, 2004

A military draft, part 2

I have received lots of email responses to my previous post, on whether we should consider a military draft. below, i've tried to put together my reaction -- incorporating objections, tweaking arguments, and reconsidering some things. thanks, all of you.

thinking about this issue is tying my moral intestines (and to some extent the real ones) in knots. i did say in my piece that a bush victory (or electoral theft) in november changes things for me with regard to the draft and iraq. as i read emails from others like yourself, i'm beginning to move toward the position that there should not be any kind of draft whatsoever for THIS particular conflict -- but that when it is over (or when the US is out), we've got to have some kind of public reckoning, a real discussion of why this war happened, and how we want to orient ourselves to the rest of the world in the era of terrorism. a draft has to be a part of that discussion, i think.

my great fear with the draft (and part of why i'm so conflicted over it) is that the idiocy of patriotism will just make the draft a source of more cannon fodder for the continuation of the same policies. if our leaders are bent on empire, and they are good enough liars and manipulators of political symbols and the reins of government to fool the American people into drafting its children for more wars of pre-emption and messianic destruction, then all a draft will do is accelerate our journey as a nation and a democracy down into the wormhole. I guess i'm betting, hesitantly, on the American people not being so gullible. or, i'm betting on the ability of those who love peace to persuade those who think peace isn't possible. if we have a draft (or even a public discussion of one), it will vastly increase the pressure on our political figures before, during and after any military adventures. and it won't take years, like it did in Vietnam. information from around the world is too readily accessible today, and far more Americans have a built-in skepticism of war, foreign policy, and our 'elected' leaders today than was the case during Vietnam. Congress is not some Solon-like deliberative body; it is, in the main, a group of rich white cowards. they do understand votes, however. for libertarian reasons alone, the possibility of an impending draft will cause the political sh*t to hit the fan, right quick...

and i do want to address a point a number of folks have raised -- do i have the right to discuss a draft as a possibility, when i am past draft age (i'm 37), and my present and future children haven't reached it yet? well, a future draft would certainly touch me in a concrete way: i spend most of my waking hours with young men and women between the ages of 18 and 24 -- hundreds of them every academic year. I become very fond of many of them; remain in touch with many of them, years after they've left school. they babysit my kids; they provide me joy (and frustration!), and give a great deal of meaning to my life. i'm not blind to the human costs of this. but i feel like we who love peace, and who care to trouble those who would rule over us, are stuck between a rock and hard place. if we have to have a military, and must occasionally go to war, how do we do it? Iraq provides us a ringingly clear example of how NOT to do it. how do we avoid future Iraqs?

i do want to be clear that i am not advocating a draft because i think it will end this war, and thus i'm willing to sacrifice the lives of others for this purpose. I have read some people in the anti-war movement who will bluntly argue for the draft as a means to this end. i do happen to think, from observing american history and american politics, that the launching of future wars will have a totally different process (and may not even happen at all, or as frequently) if war automatically triggers a draft. my reasons for considering a draft really have to do with one question: how should a democracy, with a civilian-controlled military, involve itself in modern war? how can we make war a very last resort for our political leaders, and for those american citizens who like their patriotism drenched in the blood of others? how can we ensure that when we do go to war (or fight to defend ourselves), that the reasons for doing so are publicly considered, and that the burden of doing so isn't placed on the backs of the working-class alone? how can we ensure that their deaths don't become anonymous (they won't even let us see the coffins, for god's sake)? or that the actions they take in places halfway across the world are not taken in our name and again anonymously, inspiring hatred of America that blows back to us years down the line, ensuring the repetition of this cycle of death again?

one of the unintended consequences of even discussing a proposed draft is that it might broaden the realization among americans of just how dangerous, unfeeling, and unaccountable this administration is. i can only hope that we can have that debate, and remove him and cheney from office, without actually having to implement a draft. but while i do see some form of draft in the long-term as something we need to consider, if this Administration is re-elected, and it somehow convinced Congress to initiate a draft to continue its prosecution of the war in Iraq, and its policies of pre-emption and empire more generally...well, i'm going to jail, somehow. in vietnam, LBJ and Nixon continued to throw our young people into the volcano long after they knew we couldn't stop the eruptions. we know we can't stop the eruptions in iraq already, before we even have a draft. it would be morally abhorent to initiate a draft while this president is in place, and without a drastic change in policy. but in the future, we DO need, i believe, to have an open and honest conversation in this country about our role in the post-cold war world, and the place of the military within it.

the larger question that we still have to address somehow is this: if we assume, as i think we unfortunately must, that this nation will fight wars in the future (most of them unjustified, if history is a guide), how can we ensure that the decisions are made democratically, that the full moral cost of a possible war is discussed and considered, and that the burden of war isn't carried by a small, unrepresentative, and relatively powerless minority, as it has been in the past? how can we minimize the frequency of American wars, and increase the possibility of solutions to world problems that are peaceful, just and multilateral? i honestly don't know the answer -- or i should say i don't really like the answer i come up with, which is a draft. how does a democracy keep a civilian controlled military, and fight modern wars when necessary? we can't keep on the way things are going now. something has to change. maybe the answer lies outside of all this -- in campaign finance reform, in building alliances between the peace movement and movements for economic justice, in revolution? i'm desperate. we're desperate.

what answer do i really want to give? that i don't accept the premise of the inevitability of war. but realistically, unless and until people like Dennis Kucinich are running this country, i just don't see that happening. we are a long, long way from the kind of cultural and moral transformation in this country that would be needed for us to choose peace, always and everywhere. i don't think a draft is a magic bullet to stop this war, or any other one. we must keep on writing, talking, marching, and going to jail to prevent our leaders addiction to the use of military force to solve all problems from holding sway. i just think that an equitable draft -- even if it is just a possibility -- will force all of us to decide: do we REALLY want to send our kids abroad to kill and die, because our leaders tell us it is patriotic to do so? if there is inevitably a burden to be carried, who should carry it? most Americans seem to be comfortable allowing a volunteer, professional military carry it, and our politicians to keep us blissfully unaware of the moral costs of that burden. but we can't go on like that. i don't know if a draft will stop it, but a public discussion of it might.


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