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General News    H4'ed 3/10/20

Tomgram: Nan Levinson, What Difference Does It Make Who Fights Our Wars?

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

And here's a little story from the Neolithic age we now call "the Sixties" about that moment when the U.S. military was still a citizen's army with a draft (even if plenty of people figured out how to get exemptions). At a large demonstration, I turned in my draft card to protest the war. Not long after, my draft board summoned me. I knew when I got there that I had a right to look at my draft file, so I asked to see it. I have no idea what I thought I would find in it, but at 25, despite my antiwar activism, I still retained a curiously deep and abiding faith in my government. When I opened that file and found various documents from the FBI, I was deeply shocked. The Bureau, it turned out, had its eyes on me. Anxious about the confrontation to come -- the members of my draft board would, in fact, soon quite literally be shouting at me and threatening to call me up essentially instantaneously -- I remember touching one of those FBI documents and it was as if an electric current had run directly through my body. I couldn't shake the Big Brotherness of it all, though undoubtedly my draft card had gone more or less directly from that demonstration to the Bureau.

As it happened, my draft board's threats put me among the delinquent 1-A files to be called up next. Not long after, in July 1970 -- I would read about it on the front page of the New York Times -- a group of five antiwar activists, calling themselves Women Against Daddy Warbucks, broke into that very draft board, located in Rockefeller Center in New York City, took the 1-A files, shredded them, and tossed them like confetti around that tourist spot. And I never heard from my draft board again. Lucky me at that time. Of course, so many young, draftable American men had no such luck. They were indeed sent to Vietnam to fight and suffer, sometimes to be wounded or killed, or (as surprising numbers of them did) join the antiwar movement of that moment.

Today, imperial America fights its endless wars without a draft. In that context, TomDispatch regular Nan Levinson, author of War Is Not a Game: The New Antiwar Soldiers and the Movement They Built, takes up the issue of the draft (which ended in 1973) versus the present "all-volunteer" military. And as she makes clear, as I felt then (and feel again today), whatever form recruitment into the military may take, the real issue is the nightmarish nature of the imperial wars this country fought in the 1960s and is fighting again in this century. Tom

Would a Draft Matter?
The Nature of the Military That Fights America's Forever Wars
By Nan Levinson

Bizarrely enough, the spate of phone calls from recruiters began a couple of years ago. The first ones came from the Army, next the Marines, and then other branches of the military. I'm decades past enlistment age. I've been publicly antiwar for most of that time and come from a family that was last involved with a military when my grandfather ran out the back door to avoid Russian army recruiters at the front door and kept running until he reached America.

The calls with recruitment offers eventually died away. Someone had probably been punking me, but I remain intrigued by the messages the recruiters left, always focusing on the special "opportunities" the Army (Navy, Marines, Air Force) were ready to offer me.

What often came to mind when I listened to them was a sweltering afternoon in the Vietnam War years. A bunch of us college kids were slouching around the only fan in someone's apartment telling "funny" stories about how people we knew avoided the draft. There was the guy who stripped at his physical to reveal a Superman costume under his street clothes; there was the officer at the hearing test who shouted in frustration, "I know you're not all deaf!" There was my housemate with a low draft lottery number, which made him extremely draftable. He then substituted coffee for sleep, raising his blood pressure so successfully that the examining doctor said, "Do you know you're near death?" And there were the friends who got letters from therapists testifying to their instability. (I don't think any of them had "bone spurs," though.) I like to think that we recognized our luck in being able to afford college and excuses from shrinks to keep a highly unpopular war at arm's length, but I can't say for sure.

Those episodes from different eras probably stick in my mind today because there's no longer a draft -- it ended nearly 50 years ago -- and so many Americans have no experience with military recruitment, or with war, American-style. That, I think, is a problem.

As much as Americans love their military -- it's consistently the part of the government in which they have the most confidence, according to multiple polls -- the majority of them don't want to join it or be made to join it. Active-duty personnel currently account for a mere 0.4% of the population and only about 7% of us have ever been in uniform (more than half of those are over 60 years old). If we consider a tour in the armed forces a burden -- as we must, despite all that thankful hand-shaking of people in uniform and their celebration everywhere -- shouldn't we also consider the effects on the country of relying on an all-volunteer force (AVF) to carry that burden? One of those effects is surely that so many of the rest of us are allowed to ignore the endless wars and other conflicts "our" military has sparked and is still involved in around the world in our name.

And what to make of the often-repeated claim that if only we did have a draft, this country might be far less eager to march into war? Is that, in fact, true?

Who's for Selective Service?

Conscription in the United States dates back to 1863, after the Confederacy needed to ensure that it had a large army continually in the field and the North soon followed suit. There was, however, an active federal draft for less than 40 years total, mostly in the twentieth century. It ended as the Vietnam War was ending in 1973, a time when for every 100 men inducted into that military, 131 others got exemptions.

Antiwar resistance, however fierce at the time, was only part of the story of its ending. A 2006 RAND study cited moral concerns on the left and right; the cost of the system; demographics (too few soldiers were needed to make the draft genuinely universal); and a desire for change on the part of the U.S. military because draftees in the Vietnam years, when antiwar protest flourished within the military, were often a pain in the ass.

For these and other reasons, almost no one is advocating the return of the draft any time soon. Except for a short period in the early 1980s, sizeable majorities of Americans have opposed reinstating it. Recent polls put those figures at five against for every citizen who wants it.

Still, as long as men are required to register with the Selective Service System (SSS) on turning 18 and the Defense Department views it "as a low-cost insurance policy against unforeseen threats," a draft exists as a possibility. In the wake of the assassination of Iranian Major General Qassem Suleimani, the SSS website crashed for a day when young American men panicked that the Trump administration might be starting a new war and would need cannon fodder to fight it. (After a federal district court ruling in Texas last February that it is unconstitutional to require only men to register for a possible future draft, women have reason to feel vulnerable, too.)

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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