Muddled Thinking About Conscription

Rick Jahnkow
By Rick Jahnkow
, Committee Opposed to Militarism & the Draft,

Ever since House Democrat Charles Rangel introduced his first proposal to bring back the military draft in 2003, it has been amazing to see how much amnesia there is on the subject, especially among some of those who consider themselves liberals or "progressives."

Supporters of Rangel's bill (which includes a mandatory civilian service option) make what seems on the surface to be a compelling case. They say one reason our government is so willing to launch aggressive military action is that the children of political leaders and the wealthy elite do not face much risk from combat. They point out that this is because the armed forces are maintained by a system of recruitment that unfairly targets working-class and middle-income people. They also argue that a stronger service ethic is needed, along with more civilian options for performing tasks that would benefit society. The points are valid, and so it seems reasonable when some people conclude that a system of conscription is needed to address such issues.

But the problem with this thinking is that it is far too simplistic and only focuses on limited parts of the picture. It ignores important historical facts and fails to consider an entirely different set of social and political consequences that are inherent in any system of involuntary service.

One of those forgotten historical facts is that whenever a draft has been employed in the USA (which has been infrequently), it has been used to make waging war possible, not as a device to keep our government from entering a conflict. A good example is our most recent experience with conscription during the Vietnam War. The draft that was already in place as the war developed made it easier for Presidents Johnson and Nixon to merely open the tap and pour out more bodies to fuel the conflict. As a result, it lasted almost 10 years, took the lives of millions of people and caused massive destruction in S.E. Asia. All of this happened despite the strong anti-war and draft resistance movements that spread across the country.

Draft supporters say that in the past, the rules of the Selective Service System favored privileged youths and therefore didn�t trigger the kind of opposition from the elite that would have stopped the Vietnam War sooner. But there is no evidence that drafting a few more affluent kids would have made a difference, since initial support for the war was high and was driven by a general Cold War fever that affected almost the entire population.

The claim that a draft could be made fairer today isn't realistic anyway. There will always have to be medical deferments, which are easier to get when you have the money to pay for braces or private medical exams and documentation that are the key to getting disqualified at an Army induction physical. And those with a better education -- which is linked to one's socio-economic status -- will have a distinct advantage when it comes to successfully wading through the process to secure conscientious objector status. I know how these factors work because as a community college draft counselor during the Vietnam War, I struggled to help low-income students whose limited resources made it harder to gain recognition of legitimate claims for medical deferments and conscientious objector status. It won't be any different under Rangel's proposed draft. Furthermore, affluent individuals who do wind up in the military would still have the advantages of their education and political connections to help avoid combat.

Whenever we go to war, whether our military is drafted or recruited, socio-economic status is always a factor in determining who is at greatest risk. And in a system with a civilian service component like Rangel is proposing, advantages in education, personal wealth and political influence will still be a factor in avoiding the battlefield.

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