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.

Saturday, April 24, 2004

The draft, Iraq, and the role of the military in a democracy (2004)

On the possibility of a draft:

I just came back from hearing a talk by Jonathan Schell, capping a day-long conference on peace and justice sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee here in Providence. the draft came up in virtually every session, and its got me thinking...

as an opponent of the war in iraq, and as a man of the left who is deeply, deeply suspicious both of the viability of military means in pursuit of peaceful and democratic ends, AND of this Administration and its goals at home and abroad, i find myself very conflicted on the issue of the draft.

on the one hand, if it appears (as it does presently, under Bush/Cheney) that the purpose of instituting a draft next year is to better enable the execution and expansion of 1) the policy of pre-emption, and 2) policies based on the assumption that only an American monopoly on global military force (empire, in other words) can provide security and peace...then i will oppose it with every bit of energy, passion and intellect i can muster. 'Starve the beast' may have to take on a different flavor here. Both #1 and #2, as i'm sure everyone reading this knows, are the formally stated pillars of American foreign policy under the current Administration. we might have to somehow throw a monkey wrench into the machine (stop the draft, don't give them the cannon fodder), before it grows too large and inaccessible to be 'monkey-wrenched.' or try to make sure that when the draft does takes place, Bush isn't there to determine how and when our young people will be asked to kill and die...

then again, in an op/ed piece i wrote back before the war started, i argued for a draft.

i have had this discussion with a number of military friends and acquaintances, and all of them have opposed the idea of a draft. why? basically, because they believed that modern war is complex, and should be fought by the 'pros' -- that green draftees will just create a gigantic training headache, making our military cumbersome, instead of quick on its feet (i read 'quick on its feet,' cynically, as a codeword for 'unaccountable to people not in the military').

in the end, i believe that the creation of a professional, all-volunteer military has been bad for American democracy, bad for our foreign policy, and thus bad for countless millions of people around the world who are subject to that policy. in the wake of the vietnam war, when the draft was the focus of so much protest and controversy, many well-intentioned people in Congress and the anti-war movement believed that having a volunteer military would make wars less likely.

this of course has proven disastrously wrong. it has not made American involvement in war less likely. what it has done instead is

1. made American involvement in war more secretive, less transparent
2. greatly strengthened the Imperial Presidency, rather than weakening it
3. removed the decision to go to war from democratic deliberation
4. essentially provided an unaccountable army awaiting its Caesar (who has now arrived)
5. militarized American foreign policy, by weakening public oversight and concern
6. encouraged our leaders to carry out some of their overseas objectives by creating, funding and supporting non-state military actors to do our bidding (Al Qu'eda in Afghanistan being the best example), who have come back to bite us in the butt
7. encouraged our leaders to privatize and outsource military and even diplomatic tasks to private companies beyond the reach of Congress, who are essentially war profiteers -- mercenaries, criminals, really
8. created what is basically an army of economic conscripts, repeating all the errors of the Vietnam-era draft (a class and race skew) without any of the benefits of transparency and public discussion that a wartime draft tends to encourage. do you want to see Bush/Cheney's policy for the working poor? You'll have to travel to Iraq and Afghanistan (and the dozens of other places around the world where our young people are serving) to see it.

one of the things a draft does (theoretically) is ensure that decisions about foreign policy and war take place out in the open, in the bracing air of public deliberation. under a democracy, as long as equality under the law and open access to power exist, citizens do have an obligation to contribute to the common defense (my belief). as long as the draft is fairly administered (as it was not for most of Vietnam), i believe that in the modern world, a draft is an essential part of a civilian-controlled military, which in turn is an essential part of democracy (the 'civilian-controlled' part, that is).

does it rub our libertarian tendencies the wrong way? sure. ironically, however, a universal draft may be a better way to preserve those liberties in the end than a volunteer, professional military, accountable to no one -- other than to Congress, of course, which presently hears only strident and well-funded lobby groups (AIPAC), and defense contractors, on foreign policy and military issues. If millions of Americans are under arms, members of Congress will have little choice but to consider a broader cut of public opinion. can you imagine Congress rolling over as badly as it did in the build-up to this war, if we had a draft (at the time, or in the works)? i can't. at the very least, hearings would have been held to validate or debunk the Administration's case for war, allowing for a real public discussion of whether Bush's radically new plan for American empire is something we want or need. the reality of a draft might have made Bush actually tell the truth from the beginning about the war, or seek international legitimacy for it, or better yet, not launch it at all.

and just in case anyone thinks Vietnam is a counter-example to what i'm saying here, it isn't. popular pressure to pull out of Vietnam was in large part a direct result of the ubiquity (and possibility) of military service among the American middle and working classes. Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman didn't force a change in policy. churchmoms, WWII vets, and ordinary Americans worried about the lives of ordinary Americans, and about their own lives, did (and the Vietnamese themselves, of course). a draft doesn't always stop our Presidents from lying about why we need to go to war, but it does make it more likely that the truth will win out eventually.

World War II is an interesting example. while there were some class biases in the draft in World War II (and in the south, racial biases), by and large it was equitably implemented. i submit that widespread participation among the male population in the military during WWII and the decade or so after, had profound (and largely positive) effects.

if you count the peacetime and Korean War drafts, it provided two generations of American men with important experiences that shaped our culture, our foreign policy, and our military in positive ways. the experience of war for a substantial portion of our male citizenry helped to shape broad-based support for the internationalism of American foreign policy during the Cold War, which sought to contain communism, rather than 'pre-empt' it (the former worked eventually; the latter would not have worked, and won't now). It also provided millions of Americans with first-hand knowledge of other countries, other ways of living.

George Carlin once said that 'war is God's way of teaching Americans geography.'

it is of course a truism that those who have seen war will be less likely to support it in the future, but it has some basis in fact. the age group that was consistently most critical (according to polls) of US involvement in Vietnam in the 60's? the WWII generation (not 18-24 year olds, who supported the war in larger numbers than any other age group). the experience of service broadened minds, engendered a sense of national obligation, and encouraged generations of Americans to feel that voting and democratic participation was both their birthright and their obligation (those born in the Twenties, Thirties and Forties vote in higher percentages than any other age group). it also, after the desegregation of the armed forces in the late 40's, gave many Americans their first and only sense of our national diversity -- but also of our commonalities, across lines of race, ethnicity and religion.

the universal draft in WWII played a critical role in the creation of the modern American welfare state, and the post-war middle class. how? by helping to create a sense of common risk and common obligation, it encouraged FDR and Congress to fund the war equitably (through progressive taxation), and to provide returning veterans and their families with some measure of economic and social security upon their return (the GI Bill, creating the first real home-owning, college-educated middle class in American history -- a middle class under siege presently).

when the Iraq war started, we heard a lot of talk of 'supporting the troops.' the premise, of course, was that we lost Vietnam because of noisy dissenters at home, and anti-war protests this time around would lead to the deaths of soldiers, the destruction of military morale, and defeat. that is an inaccurate understanding of Vietnam, but it is also a very limited understanding of the word 'support.' Supporting the troops, at the very least, has to mean not only initiating a public debate and following Constitutional mandates with regard to the declaration of war -- it also means preparing the nation as a whole to join with the soldiers in equally and justly sharing the burdens of a democratically declared war. This means to me, among other things, following past precedent (World War II) and initiating economic and fiscal policies that do this. This would decidedly NOT include a series of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, and punishing budget cuts in the programs which provide social and economic security for the American working and middle classes -- who provide most of the soldiers, and build most of our weapons. It also shouldn't mean publicly opposing the use of affirmative action -- a policy that while limited, has been incredibly successful in providing equal opportunity for women and minorities. Our military, disproportionately made up of people of color, is the single greatest institutional example of the effectiveness of it. Apparently it’s OK for W to send lots of minorities to kill and die, but it’s not OK to send them to the University of Michigan.

Supporting our troops also means seeing to it that they have jobs, and the means to re-adjust to civilian life upon their de-mobilization. Where will the compassionate conservative support for our troops be in a few years time, when they come back home, and seek employment, a union contract, a safe workplace, a living wage, a labor market and system of higher education free from racial discrimination? History (as well as W's budget) tells us the support of our troops will fall somewhat short of this. Can this still happen to vets if we have a draft? of course. is it less likely? i believe so. social and economic policies to help vets would then become broadly supported, not just temporary assistance to a specialized class. compare the support for Social Security, which virtually all Americans are entitled to, to the support for welfare, which goes to a small, means-tested and largely invisible group that is powerless to affect policy, and to make convincing arguments for a common interest in their lives.

so i think an argument can be made for instituting a draft, both as a means to other good ends, and as an end in itself. we are fast reaching a point of no return in this country.

we can choose empire, or we can choose democracy.

we can't have both. if democracies are going to fight wars, as occasionally they must, they must have a means of waging war that bears some resemblance to the fundamental values and institutions on which democracy is based. as imperfect as it is, a draft is the best means we've come up with.

war, as jimmy carter said, is sometimes a necessary evil. but it is ALWAYS an evil. the decision to engage in it must be made democratically, not by a small group of people in Washington, with a messianic religious bent, and a fundamental lack of intellectual curiousity, moral humility, and respect for the rule of law.

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