Easy Chair — From the March 2014 issue

Dodge the Draft!

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Ever since the last draft was ended, in 1973, a small but devoted chorus of pundits, legislators, and retired military men have been stumping for its return. These are not wild-eyed boosters of the New American Century, itching to occupy every square inch of the Middle East and beyond. No, we’re talking about moderates like the Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, who recently argued that mandatory service could help fix the dysfunctional U.S. Congress. Or the journalist Thomas E. Ricks, who said the all-volunteer force (AVF) “has made it all too easy for our nation to go to war.” Or Representative Charles B. Rangel of New York, who last year brought the Universal National Service Act to the House floor for the fifth time in a decade.

None of these men is arguing that a draft would improve the quality of the fighting force, and their proposals haven’t been endorsed by the military. The appeal, ultimately, isn’t to battlefield necessity but to a kind of social engineering. Conscription, in their view, would rebuild our spindly national character, whose muscle tone has melted away since the end of the Vietnam War. It would bridge the economic, regional, and racial gaps in a sorely divided nation. It would restore a sense of sacrifice and meanwhile stock the U.S. Congress with the sort of sagacious veterans who would never, ever shut down the entire government in a fit of pique.1

1 It is true that Congress now has the lowest proportion of veterans since the Second World War: only 19 percent have served, compared with a high of 77 percent in 1977. But that year, just as the fraction of vets hit its peak, Congress still shut down the government — not once, but three times.

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  • Eiremanlite

    While I am pleased to see James Marcus address this topic, I hardly find his summary of the “pro-draft” position resonant of my own familiarity with that side’s position. He rightly identifies Andrew Bacevich, but ineffectually glosses the argument Bacevich makes.

    In January 2006, I was standing with Tom Ricks, whom Marcus also invokes, at the airfield in Balad, Iraq. I was an Army public affairs officer serving there at the time, in my final military deployment in a 26-year long career that took me back to the Mideast too many times. Ricks and I got to talking about the draft, and he expressed surprise at my hearty enthusiasm for re-initiating it. During Ricks’ Iraq visit, a poll was released citing that 62% of Americans (still) couldn’t find Iraq on a map of the world. He asked me what I thought of that reported fact. My reply was that I strongly suggested the United States not be permitted to invade countries it cannot find, and that in the future, at least 51% of polled citizens should be able to identify any nation targeted for invasion.

    Since then, I have talked to countless people about my point made there in Balad that day. Americans can’t fight the places they send us to fight on their behalf because they have “no skin in the game.” They have nothing directly, viscerally at stake. No one is trying to kill their children in combat, as Bacevich’s son was killed in Iraq. It’s a matter of democratic equity, shared sacrifice, and the need for an informed citizenry. I still believe that if there had been a draft, I would not have found myself back in Iraq again. We will never get to know, of course. But I subscribe to the Tim O’Brien school of thought: the author of the incomparable The Things They Carried, a novel of Vietnam, often refers to “certain blood for uncertain reasons.” When I ask the question, “Why were we in Iraq,” of course, I do not mean the royal “we.” I mean those of us who had to go. Again and again. And then come home to face a broadly disinterested nation too preoccupied with the demands of its conspicuous consumption to be bothered with learning about these exotic places its Starship Troopers get dispatched to in the name of defending the homeland and fertilizing foreign shores with democracy’s bountiful harvests.

    I would feel much less simmering anger if I knew that all my fellow citizens had a little skin in the game, a little life on the line. Alas, any such civic expectations long ago expired.

    • http://sonyamherrera.blogspot.com/ Sonya Herrera

      My father shares your opinion, though he is not a veteran and is likely much older. Thank you for your insight, and for sharing that quote from The Things We Carried. I regret not finishing the novel; I’ll have to pick it up again, soon.

  • http://sonyamherrera.blogspot.com/ Sonya Herrera

    Interesting use of commas, in paragraphs 1 and 4, to enclose the years those events occurred in their own little fact-bubbles. Kinda neat, though I honestly haven’t seen that before.

  • Ron Aker

    James Marcus’ response to letter in May issue is another insult hurled at those who served in the Vietnam War. We did everything asked. We died and when we returned our WW II drafted fathers in the VFW and American Legion spat on us the blamed us volunteers for losing a war which should not have been fought and could not be won.
    Shame on James Marcus.

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