War is no longer business of citizens

April 04, 1999|By RICHARD REEVES

LOS ANGELES -- Why are we in Kosovo? Because we have no draft. This war, in the air or on the ground, means nothing to most Americans.

The military, all volunteers, go about their business and the rest of us go about ours.

On the campus of the University of Southern California, there are more than 20,000 young Americans. You can walk from one end of the campus to the other on a sunny spring day and never hear the word "Kosovo."

Why should they ask questions? This has nothing to do with the lives of almost all of the students here. Some have brothers or sisters in the military, there are ROTC units here, and foreign students ask questions. But that's about it.

When professors bring up the 1960s and Vietnam, students ask about Woodstock. They know the facts of that war and time, but they have trouble understanding the passion and the fear. What was that all about?

Democracy, draft

That was all about a democratic nation attached to the consequences of its own actions. Young men were conscripted and sent into harm's way. Hundreds of thousands of them were trained to kill and be killed.

Millions of American families were directly involved; their lives were being changed, many ruined, by the decisions and actions of political and military leaders.

Exactly 1,766,910 young men between the ages of 18-1/2 and 26 were drafted. More than 55,000 were killed. So were millions of Vietnamese.

And now? Nothing.

Thirty years ago a new president, Richard Nixon, inherited the war in Vietnam from presidents Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy. Though he had supported the idea that Americans could, by the sheer power of good intentions and the world's most powerful military, impose our values and will on peoples far away, he did want to get out of Vietnam.

But he did not want to be remembered as "the first president to lose a war"; he wanted, as he often said, "peace with honor."

He also wanted to stop the anti-war demonstrations. During the 1968 campaign, Nixon intimated that he had a plan, a secret one, to do something like that and, after the war, consider ending the draft. Actually there was no plan, but the ploy worked.

He solved half his problem -- the revolt at home -- after reading an influential newspaper column by William F. Buckley, a supporter of the war and the voice of many American conservatives.

On Feb. 27, 1969, Nixon read this: "Buckley column -- which came from Milton Friedman -- called for a cut-off date after which the president would send no more draftees to Vietnam, and fight the war with volunteers. This, Friedman thinks, could take the wind out of much of the anti-war rhetoric." Nixon's scribble on margin: "Get Laird's comment on this intriguing idea."

Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird became one of the fathers of what we have now, the "volunteer Army" -- and Air Force, Navy and Marines: the young men and women following orders now around and over what used to be Yugoslavia. And over Iraq, too. And Haiti.

Theirs not reason why, theirs but to do and, God willing, not to die. We call it "duty" still, but now it is a job. They volunteered and they are paid a low "living wage."

Then he won congressional approval, in early 1971, to reduce young men's draft eligibility from six years to one, and in May of 1972 announced that draftees would not be required to go to Vietnam. Two years later the draft was ended.

The Army, the Navy, the Air Force and Marines were "services" -- no longer the duty of citizens. War became the business of professionals -- and we were on our way to Kosovo.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/04/99

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