Can We Draft An Anti-War Movement?

29 April 2004

By Stentor Danielson

Forget the stereotypes of the hippie peacenik and the patriotic Red State soldier -- liberals are love with the military now. John Kerry's years as a protester against the Vietnam war have faded into the background as his supporters wave the Silver Star and Purple Hearts he earned doing battle in southeast Asia. On the other side, President Bush has taken a hit from allegations that, after using his connections to land a cushy stateside post in the Texas Air National Guard, he failed to show up for duty.

Now another front has opened up, with the proposal to revive the draft. The administration has downplayed the possibility, suggesting that on the off chance that a draft does occur, it will selectively target Americans with special language and computer skills, rather than casting a wide net for cannon fodder. But the draft idea has found some passionate supporters among liberals. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) have taken up the idea in Congress, though their proposals have found tepid support.

It would be easy enough to refute the draft movement if it were coming from conservative hawks. One need only state their rationale -- slave labor is cheaper and easier to control than a volunteer force. Republican officials are reluctant to take funds out of pork barrel projects and tax cuts in order to pay our soldiers well and stick to their promises about length of duty, so conscription has obvious appeal. But the "war on the cheap" crowd isn't the one pushing the draft (they still think we can complete our mission in Iraq without any domestic sacrifice). The real draft advocates are on the left.

One popular argument is the idea of the draft as an anti-war mechanism. The problem, according to proponents of the "chickenhawk" theory, is that the architects of the current war are callous toward the lives of soldiers and Iraqi civilians because neither they nor anyone close to them is at risk. As Tommy Sands sang, "The ones who gave the orders, they're not the ones to die. It's Scott and McDonald, and the likes of you and I." But if we close the loopholes that allowed Bush to do his service in the dangerous jungles of Texas, a draft will spread the risks of war around the country. Draftees won't have to go fight, because the draft will make our commanders think twice about starting a war.

The first problem with this theory is its morality. The President is not going to be showing up at boot camp. What's being proposed is essentially to put a gun to Jenna and Barbara's heads in order to change George's mind, to have the military hold them hostage with a peaceful foreign policy as the ransom. It's putting a gun to my head, making me and other draftable doves collateral damage.

The second problem is pragmatic: callousness and distance from the fighting isn't enough to explain the administration's warlike ways. More soldiers and veterans supported the war than opposed it. Bush sincerely believes that the war is just, and that it's necessary for safeguarding America's security. He would probably be proud to have daughters helping to bring freedom to Iraq, and use their shipping-out date as a photo op to rally some patriotic unity. Hawk leaders who don't have a history of elite privilege would be even less likely to turn against the war because of a draft. They're already consumed with the ideology of soldiers sacrificing themselves in the national interest.

I'd like to think that the draft would bring down the Bush administration, but it won't. Unfortunately, that view is not widely shared. I'm left fearing that Kerry -- in his quest to prove that liberals can propose some "big ideas" -- might latch onto compulsory service as a complement to his call for expanded voluntary national service.

A related argument for the draft is that, regardless of its impact on the decision to go to war, it's desirable to have a draft to spread the burden of war more equitably (or at least more equitably among healthy young men). Why should some small sector of the country -- soldiers come disproportionately from poor backgrounds, because they have fewer options -- bear the burden of defending the country? The problem here is that different people have different values (different utilities, in economist-speak). I, for one, have an extremely strong aversion to authoritarian systems and the risk of violent death (it's one reason I decided to do my graduate fieldwork in Australia rather than Uzbekistan). Other people find that the military life pays off well, and so they choose to enlist. I'm happy to shift some of my utility gains from non-military work over to the military in order to sweeten the deal for prospective soldiers, in the form of taxes going to increase wages. That way, we both come out ahead.

What's more, a voluntary military is sensitive to changes in people's utilities. If the situation gets more dangerous or commanders exploit their soldiers, the enlistment rate falls off -- as we see happening now. Giving the government the power to compel citizens to serve short-circuits this feedback mechanism, and lessens the incentive to make military service worth it to recruits.

Besides which, rich and poor recruits still wouldn't bear equal risks. Rich recruits come into the service with knowledge and skills that make them more effective as computer operators and codebreakers and other desk jobs. There are proposals to eliminate this inequality, like random duty assignments. But if the military has the time to spend training a poor kid who has never seen a keyboard to run a GIS while a rich computer whiz is wasted on the front lines, then the military situation can't be very urgent, and thus a draft is clearly unjustified. The answer to outsized risk borne by the poor is to attack poverty, not to put the rest of us at risk too.

Barring an immediate threat to the survival of the nation -- North Korean troops landing in Seattle or something -- instituting a draft is a sign of weakness. If a war is worth fighting, it's worth making it pay off for our soldiers. And a war that pays off for our soldiers is a war with enough voluntary recruits.

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