The case for a draft

December 13, 2004|By Gregory D. Foster

WITH PRESIDENT Bush's re-election, we'll soon find out whether there is any truth to the rumors that have been circulating for some time that he and his administration want to reinstitute military conscription. And, presumably, we'll also find out whether those in Congress who have advocated a resumption of the draft - most notably Democratic Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York - will push for or against such a measure.

In the characteristic manner in which irony can be so ironic, an administration that has said the draft is unnecessary now could suddenly argue that one is necessary to sustain the burdensome war on terrorism. At the same time, Mr. Rangel and others who have sought a more equitable sharing across society of the burdens and risks of war now could contend that a draft would only provide limitless manpower to policy-makers whose thirst for war would be further whetted.

I have been generally opposed to conscription, not because it's infeasible or unnecessary but because it is a coercive act of the state that is largely antithetical to the principle of popular consent. I served, but I wouldn't expect my sons to serve unless they freely chose to do so.

We don't force people to serve in political office, though politicians would have us believe they are selflessly performing their civic duty by doing so. So how can we justify forcing young men and women, with their most productive years ahead of them, to risk their lives against their will, especially if it's for nothing more noble than the ulterior motives of self-serving politicians?

If you want to serve the country - that is, really serve the country rather than the government or the regime in power - you can do just as much by helping the needy or engaging in political protest as you can by wearing camouflage battle dress.

But given the Bush administration's propensity for war-making as a first resort, given that we have been consigned by our rulers to a permanent war posture against terrorism, given our post-Cold War national penchant for bellicosity and arrogance, I'm inclined to jump on the pro-draft bandwagon.

My reason for becoming a pro-draft convert has little to do with shared sacrifice or the presumed character-building and patriotic inculcation that grow out of military service. Rather, I consider the draft a conclusive way to restore vibrancy to the system of checks and balances that is such a vital feature of our form of government but that in matters of war and peace has almost totally failed.

Regrettably, the various institutions and parties - governmental and nongovernmental - that should be checking executive branch excess and providing balance against incoherence and ineptitude isn't working. Congress has all but forsaken its war powers, its members showing themselves over time much more interested in re-election than in being properly deliberative and representing the interests of us little people.

Democrats in particular, and liberals more generally, have totally failed as a responsible opposition by turning tail and running away from war and peace issues, lest they be labeled war wimps. Sen. John Kerry's ham-handed, sound-tough campaign rhetoric failed to inspire confidence, even among his supporters, that he was in command of the subject.

The news media, too, have failed to live up to their responsibility as an exacting critic of government policies and practices in this arena. Just watch the news media obsequiously roll over and play dead at Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's cutesy news conferences. Or watch the tendency of even the most famous investigative reporters to let themselves be shamelessly manipulated by members of the national security establishment whose members are intent on preserving their own reputations.

Each of these institutions is populated by an elite that is predominantly devoid of military experience and thus largely ill-equipped to make the sorts of discerning judgments about whether, when and how to use armed force. The less actual experience you have, the more pro-military you want to be seen to be.

More important, even fewer of these elites have sons or daughters serving in the armed forces. Why, after all, would children of the most affluent, successful, upwardly mobile elements of our society feel any need or desire to put up with risk, hardship and indignity when others less well-endowed can do so?

When your kids don't serve and don't have to, when others can serve in their place, why should you be concerned about sending the latter into harm's way? Things are different when your kids are the cannon fodder. Then you worry. Then you inquire. Then you complain. Then, maybe, you protest. That's why maybe a draft - a fair and equitable draft that doesn't permit elites and elitists to enjoy repeated deferments - would be a good thing.

Gregory D. Foster, a West Point graduate and Vietnam War veteran, is a professor at the National Defense University's Industrial College of the Armed Forces in Washington. The views expressed are his own.

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