Ah, the sixties. Most of us now in our sixties spent the sixties, the decade, dodging the draft – just like Bill Clinton and Dick Cheney. Clinton got his student deferments – he was off to Oxford on that Rhodes Scholar thing. Cheney married quickly and then children followed quickly. That was a sure deferment, and when this man, who repeatedly told us all that total war is the only sensible alternative to always-pointless diplomacy, was asked to explain this, his terse answer was always the same. He had other priorities. He would say no more. John Kerry actually volunteered for Vietnam. He thought he should go – it was his duty – and he got his medal for heroism and his Purple Heart for being shot up a bit.
Not that it did him any good. In the 2004 presidential campaign the Republicans mercilessly mocked John Kerry as a fake hero – actually a coward. At the Republican Convention, in Manhattan that year, lots of those beefy Republican women with big hair sported little Band-Aids with his name on them. He hadn’t really been wounded. It was just a scratch.
George Bush was the real hero – even if Bush had joined an air wing flying obsolete jets, a part of the Texas Air National Guard that would never go to Vietnam. That’s how kids with the right connections managed to stay home, and after the first six months Bush just stopped showing up at all. No one was going to say anything about someone from that famous family. But still, somehow, Bush was the real hero. Kerry wasn’t, as he had come back and eventually said – out loud and in public – the Vietnam War had been a mistake, as had been the draft. How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake? Kerry had, like others, tossed his medals over the wall. The Republicans could never forgive Kerry’s famous 1971 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. At least George Bush had always maintained that the Vietnam War was a fine idea, well worth the lives of tens of thousands of young Americans – just not his. He was no fool.
It was a confusing time. All of the late sixties was a confusing time. No one wanted to go to Vietnam, but there was a draft. But then there were also deferments, mostly available to white middle-class kids. You could stay in school for as long as possible, or get married and have kids. Some draft boards were still issuing teaching deferments – you could teach high school math and coach the tennis team or something. Blacks and poor white trash ended up in the jungle mud. Those were the ones who died. There’s a reason they called it the “selective” service.
Back in the sixties the parents didn’t get it. They were the Greatest Generation – you might have even had an uncle who joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, to fight the Nazis, long before FDR managed to drag a wary nation into doing something about Hitler. Even then it took the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to get the nation off its collective ass. Many volunteered, then, and involuntary conscription, the draft, vacuumed up those who were not so inclined. But it was the Good Fight. It had to be done. Everyone knew that.
Vietnam was different. The explanations of why we were there, mostly geopolitical abstractions, were never that convincing, and year after year they were undermined further and were finally blown away by the publication of the Pentagon Papers. Those in charge, even back to the Kennedy administration, knew we were on a fool’s errand there, and had decided not to mention it. That was devastating, but that was followed by talk of our national honor – we couldn’t quit now, as we had invested so much and so many had died, and to quit now would render all those deaths meaningless. We could not have that. We could not dishonor the dead.
Of course that was even more abstract and a bit absurd. More should be sent to die, meaninglessly, so that those who had already died, perhaps meaninglessly, wouldn’t have died for nothing. That made no sense, and after CBS told the Smothers Brothers he couldn’t, Pete Seeger finally appeared on their wildly popular show and sang Waist Deep in the Big Muddy – “We were waist deep in the Big Muddy, but the big fool said to push on.” When CBS gave in it was all over. This was not the Good Fight. What had happened in the forties had been an anomaly.
We should have known. After the Korean War – actually a “police action” and not really a war per se, and not officially over yet – the draft continued. That was the Cold War draft, where even Elvis Presley was drafted and sent to West Germany, to do not much of anything. That whole thing was turned into a schlock musical – still the big spring production in many American high schools. The draft had already become a joke, long before Vietnam. The only ones who benefited from any of it were Ann-Margaret and Paul Lynde.
Americans just don’t do this conscription thing willingly – the thirteen colonies used a militia system for defense, and required service, but each colony did it differently, and halfheartedly. There was no national draft. James Madison and his Secretary of War, James Monroe, tried to create a national draft during the War of 1812, but Daniel Webster shot them down:
The administration asserts the right to fill the ranks of the regular army by compulsion…. Is this, sir, consistent with the character of a free government? Is this civil liberty? Is this the real character of our Constitution? No, sir, indeed it is not…. Where is it written in the Constitution, in what article or section is it contained, that you may take children from their parents, and parents from their children, and compel them to fight the battles of any war, in which the folly or the wickedness of government may engage it? Under what concealment has this power lain hidden, which now for the first time comes forth, with a tremendous and baleful aspect, to trample down and destroy the dearest rights of personal liberty?
Daniel Webster won the day. We didn’t get a national draft until the Civil War. Jefferson Davis proposed the first conscription act on March 28, 1862 – passed into law the next month. The South needed men, and the North soon followed. In 1863 Congress passed the Enrollment Act – followed by the New York City draft riots – many dead, buildings burnt to the ground, black men lynched in the streets. It wasn’t pretty, and, in the end, draftees were all of two percent of the Union Army, and six percent were paid substitutes. Yes, you could pay someone to go for you if you’d been drafted. One does think of George Bush.
We never liked the whole business. During the 1968 presidential election, Richard Nixon, of all people, campaigned on a promise to end the draft, and we finally discontinued the draft in 1973, moving to an all-volunteer military force. There is no mandatory conscription now. The Selective Service System remains in place, as a contingency plan, and all men between 18 and 25 are required to register – not that it matters. We’re not going there again.
But still there’s talk. Michael Lind has being hanging around the Aspen Ideas Festival and notes here that General Stanley McChrystal brought an audience to its feet in a standing ovation when he said we should reinstate the draft – not for any pressing military reason, but to address this nation’s extreme inequality. Everyone should pitch in. You don’t need to give them a gun.
Lind points out that Thomas Ricks, the hot-shit Pentagon correspondent, is fine with that:
A revived draft, including both males and females, should include three options for new conscripts coming out of high school. Some could choose 18 months of military service with low pay but excellent post-service benefits, including free college tuition. These conscripts would not be deployed but could perform tasks currently outsourced at great cost to the Pentagon: paperwork, painting barracks, mowing lawns, driving generals around, and generally doing lower-skills tasks so professional soldiers don’t have to. If they want to stay, they could move into the professional force and receive weapons training, higher pay and better benefits.
Those who don’t want to serve in the army could perform civilian national service for a slightly longer period and equally low pay – teaching in low-income areas, cleaning parks, rebuilding crumbling infrastructure, or aiding the elderly. After two years, they would receive similar benefits like tuition aid.
And libertarians who object to a draft could opt out. Those who declined to help Uncle Sam would in return pledge to ask nothing from him – no Medicare, no subsidized college loans and no mortgage guarantees. Those who want minimal government can have it.
Lind also notes that in the Financial Times, Gillian Tett thinks there’s something to this:
First, it could provide the military with more troops (which it needs), but it could also offer America some of that badly needed bridging capital. “It would be good to have a shared experience,” McChrystal explained, pointing out that if “everyone over the age of 25 was able to go into a bar and talk about where they served”, it would unite Americans again. “I think Israel gets amazing value from that in terms of creating a shared experience.”
And of course, a bit of service might offer some discipline for today’s youth – along with a sense of (shared) sacrifice in an entitlement age.
This isn’t about dying in the mud in Vietnam. This is about national unity and shared sacrifice, and a nation of spoiled brats.
Lind isn’t buying it. National service is just one more doomed idea on his list of such things, like a basic minimum cash income for all citizens and a single flat tax. Such things only sound good, and national service is like that too:
First, it appeals to civic republican notions of equality, and second, it has been and probably always will be doomed in the world of practical politics.
Consider the first part of that:
In the case of military conscription, the appeal of national service is obvious. As a democratic republic, the American public is heir to a long tradition that favors citizen-soldiers who share the sacrifices of war – and dreads the formation of an undemocratic military caste. In addition to these reasons for supporting the idea that all citizens should contribute to military defense, some believe that the U.S. would have gone to war less often in recent decades if the draft had not been abolished in the 1970s. That is the rationale behind the repeated introduction by Rep. Charles Rangel of legislation to bring back the draft.
But there’s the real world:
In spite of its appeal, all attempts to make permanent, universal military training a rite of passage for all American youth have failed, since the early 20th century. Conscription was deeply unpopular during the Civil War and the world wars. The limited form of conscription known as “selective service” during the Cold War was viewed as unfair and abolished as soon as Soviet-American relations thawed in the Nixon years.
And we really don’t need more troops, just fewer wars:
The recent “pivot” in American strategy, from labor-intensive nation-building efforts in Muslim countries to “offshore balancing” of China and other potential great power enemies requires a high-tech military dominated by a mix of robots and highly trained professionals, not a mass army of reluctant draftees. Most members of the military are satisfied with our professional soldiers and do not want to babysit teenagers who will leave the military after six months or two years of unsought, compulsory training.
Yes, the nephew here who just made full-bird Colonel has often said that. A well-run professional army is better than a massive half-assed army of unmotivated jerks.
There’s civilian national service of course, but Lind is wary:
In practice, civilian national service has always piggybacked on a military draft in countries like Germany and France, providing an alternative form of public service for those who object to serving in the military. In countries that have had such dual systems, the abolition of the military draft has wiped out the rationale for the civilian service alternative along with it.
But he does see the two reasons this might have come up here in America now:
One is the fear that pampered upper-class youth should be forced, at least for a time in their privileged lives, to endure hardship and maybe even befriend someone from a class other than their own. Anxiety about the decadence of the children of the elite has motivated well-born proponents of national service from Theodore Roosevelt and William James to William F. Buckley Jr.
Lind admits he assisted Buckley on his book in favor of national service, Gratitude – but he’s not so sure now – and he cites William James in this 1906 address on national service, where James describes compulsory national civilian service as “the moral equivalent of war” in a way:
To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clothes-washing, and window-washing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas. They would have paid their blood-tax, done their own part in the immemorial human warfare against nature; they would tread the earth more proudly, the women would value them more highly, they would be better fathers and teachers of the following generation.
Ah, an America with no whining spoiled brats. That would be fine, but Lind isn’t so sure things work that way:
A child of the middle class myself, I have no objection to seeing “gilded youths … get the childishness knocked out of them,” and the idea of assigning Biff and his sister Buffy to coal mines or fishing fleets in December has a certain undeniable appeal.
But drafting the non-elite majority of American youth to rub shoulders with the preppies in coal mines and fishing trawlers seems like an extreme and expensive way to toughen up the wimpy trust-fund kids, the equivalent of burning down the barn to roast the pig.
The devil is in the details:
Perhaps the most appealing argument for national civilian service is that it would promote class-mixing, of a kind that we like to imagine existed as a result of the draft during World War II and other major wars. However, it is hard to find any evidence in history that mingling with people of other classes increased cross-class harmony when the guns fell silent. The elite veterans of the Civil War in the late 19th century did not hesitate to support the use of state militias and federal troops to crush other veterans who were railroad workers on strike. White veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic for the most part supported the segregation of the freed slaves, including Union Army Veterans, and their descendants. The members of the “Greatest Generation” who went into corporate boardrooms after World War II declared war on their more numerous blue-collar fellow veterans when they rose to power in the 1970s and 1980s, crushing organized labor and voting themselves, and their peers, obscene compensation packages in spite of mediocre economic performance.
You can throw people together. They will mix. And then when they’re done with their compulsory period of rubbing elbows and swapping stories, they’ll go their own way. It’s simple reversion to the norm. Some will vote for Mitt Romney – precisely because Romney has those Swiss banks accounts, and hangs with the Koch brothers, and really does believe that corporations are people too. Others will vote for Obama – precisely because Obama doesn’t. Lind frames this in terms of the libertarian right and the pro-labor left, both of which loathe the idea of national service:
The libertarian right makes two compelling arguments against a peacetime draft for civilian purposes. First, it argues that for the government to draft citizens in the absence of overriding military danger is a violation of the 13th Amendment, which bans “involuntary servitude” except for convicted criminals. Whether or not they are right about the Constitution, libertarians are certainly right to suggest that the idea that all citizens owe a year or two of corvée labor to the state for whatever purposes politicians choose is radically alien to the American tradition, traditional though it may have been in pre-modern imperial China. Libertarians also make a persuasive argument that proponents of civilian national service exaggerate the alleged “unmet needs” that could be served by a civilian army of teenage conscripts – ranging from infrastructure projects to childcare and elder care. If these are really unmet needs why aren’t there entrepreneurs trying to fill them?
Then there’s the other side:
Progressives are more likely than libertarians to acknowledge that there are many desirable things in an advanced society that the market fails to provide. But if the public sector is to address these unmet needs, shouldn’t it do so by hiring well-paid adults, with decent benefits, vacation time, and the right to organize unions? Labor unions have always been suspicious of the enthusiasm of upper-class progressives like William James for using legions of enslaved adolescents to do what grown-up workers paid living wages could do better. To organized labor, national service looks like a colossal scheme to use teenagers as unpaid or underpaid “scabs.”
And Lind is not impressed with Thomas Ricks going on about how cool it would be if “cheap labor” could replace full-time, well-paid workers with civilian-service conscripts, as Ricks says this:
The government could use this cheap labor in new ways, doing jobs that governments do in other countries but which have been deemed too expensive in this one, like providing universal free day care or delivering meals to elderly shut-ins…. The pool of cheap labor available to the federal government would broadly lower its current personnel costs and its pension obligations – especially if the law told federal managers to use the civilian service as much as possible, and wherever plausible. The government could also make this cheap labor available to states and cities. Imagine how many local parks could be cleaned and how much could be saved if a few hundred New York City school custodians were 19, energetic and making $15,000 plus room and board, instead of 50, tired and making $106,329, the top base salary for the city’s public school custodians, before overtime.
Lind is unkind:
Adam Smith, who thought little of most businessmen, observed that any rational employer would prefer slaves to free workers. If Thomas Ricks is correct, so should American government.
And this may all be a flash in the pan anyway, something that pops up periodically but is doomed to go nowhere, because the right sees national service schemes as collectivist and the labor-left sees them as undermining the working man:
What remains, following each of these flare-ups, is this or that scaled-down, voluntary community service program like the AmeriCorps program, which often connects service to easier access to student loans or grants. These token programs may or may not have good effects, but they do nothing to address the real causes of America’s polarized income structure.
A list of things that might actually succeed in reducing inequality in America – higher taxes on unproductive rents and speculation, corporate compensation reform, a higher minimum wage, service-sector unionization, a sound industrial policy, restricting low-wage immigration, regulating healthcare prices and providing public alternatives to price-gouging private universities – would threaten the pocketbooks of America’s oligarchy and would be unlikely to win a standing ovation in Aspen.
None of that is going to happen, and no one ever liked the idea of a draft anyway, for any purpose – although those photos of Elvis getting his Army buzz-cut were amusing. Yes, this nation’s extreme inequality is tearing us apart. But you can’t force us together, unless the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor again.