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A Conscientious Objector Objects to Rangel Draft Proposal

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I'll never forget the day in 1973 when I received my honorable discharge from the United States Air Force. I had served a total of twenty months. American involvement in the Vietnam War was officially over, Richard Nixon was on the verge of being run out of the White House and I was finally a free man again after applying for and receiving a conscientious objector discharge. My application could have been denied at any level of my entire chain of command yet the Secretary of the Air Force had ultimately approved it.

The whole process took over fourteen months to complete. During this time, much to the dismay and disdain of most of my fellow soldiers, I served as a janitor. I certainly don't blame them for their feelings.

Probably the most coveted award of all soldiers who aren't making a career of the military is DD Form 214. This is the official discharge document issued to all who survive service and most are thrilled to receive one. Each is marked in code to indicate the reason for discharge and all are clearly marked as Honorable or otherwise. I received mine at the end of a long day of processing out. A burly Staff Sergeant started to hand me my discharge and then pulled it back at the last second as he said, "I've been working this desk for eight years and I have never given one of these out. How did you do it?"

I didn't realize the staggering odds I had overcome to receive this. Countless thousands of soldiers during the Vietnam War had applied for and been denied this same discharge. A little over three thousand got one. Another 170,000 civilians were granted conscientious objector status through local draft boards. It was much easier to attain this status as a civilian than as a soldier. Estimates of up to 100,000 fled the United States to avoid the draft.

Most of the guys who served in the Air Force and the Navy chose voluntary duty in those two branches to avoid being drafted into the Army. Everyone knew the draftees wound up as sniper and booby trap targets in Vietnam. Air Force and Navy guys served longer tours of duty than those drafted, but were generally assured of no serious combat obligations.

Thirty-three years later I am a Christian minister realizing we have a president more deserving of exile than Nixon, a war that is no more just or winnable than Vietnam and now I hear of Congressman Charlie Rangel's proposal to reinstate the draft. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Rangel believes the draft will curb the enthusiasm of trigger-happy and over zealous lawmakers if their own children are subject to the draft. I appreciate the congressman's desire to deter the national appetite for war. However, instituting a draft is not the answer. Congress should simply exercise its already constitutionally given power to rein in the executive branch and prevent the launching of future unwarranted wars.

Lobby reform could help prevent the military industrial complex from holding such sway over foreign policy. We obviously need to re-evaluate our foreign policy and implement real safeguards to prevent another hurried march into a foolish preemptive war. Rather than designing a new draft, our current Congress should collectively apologize to the nation and the world for giving this president such a broad range of unchecked powers for making war. The new Democratically controlled Congress upon swearing in should immediately inform President Bush that funding for the war is over and to wrap it up and bring our troops home within an accelerated time frame.

The draft has never been an equitable way to fill the ranks of our military during wartime. Local draft boards are easily influenced by money and power. The rich can almost always find a deferment for their children. America's first use of forced conscription was during the Civil War and those reluctant to serve could dodge service by finding a replacement or paying several hundred dollars to buy their way out of service. Our president dodged the draft and bypassed normal channels to get into the Texas Air National Guard and was able to get out early after going AWOL. His preferential treatment came through family connections. The whole system of the draft has always been defiled and easily compromised.

A disproportionate number of minorities and the poor were taken in the draft during the Vietnam era. It was never fair and never can be yet it remains as a last ditch option to be used in only the worst imaginable scenario. Meanwhile, our boys register with the Selective Service on their eighteenth birthdays and I hope and pray we never have a war that would require their conscription.

Our current foreign policy makers have a strong penchant for war and their greed, which knows no bounds, will not be deterred by a draft. You don't slow down addicted gamblers by putting unlimited chips on the table. The very premise is absurd. The draft serves only one purpose and that is to fill soldier quotas for a war that doesn't have enough volunteers. To believe anything other than that is to foolishly disregard history. Informed citizens must insist upon Congress and the President to exercise military restraint while tirelessly pursuing diplomatic solutions to international disputes.

Congress should forget the dangerous notion of gambling with the lives of our youth by implementing an unnecessary draft. They should simply demonstrate faithful integrity by exercising reasonable constitutional over-sight in matters of war.

Someone once said, "Blessed are the peacemakers." I like his idea better than Rangel's.
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Gary Vance is an evangelical pastor/writer living in rural Tennessee. He is the author of "Wasn't Jesus a Liberal?" and other published essays.
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