Reconsider the draft

With Vietnam-dodging back in the news, it's time to re-evaluate the importance of compulsory military service

May 24, 2010|By Paul Marx

With the revelation that Richard Blumenthal, the U.S. Senate candidate in Connecticut, received five draft deferments during the Vietnam War, and with the country now involved in two wars, the draft has become a subject of renewed interest.

Mr. Blumenthal apparently did not oppose the war on principle. He seems to have requested the deferments for two reasons: He did not want to take the chance of putting himself at risk in the war zone, and he did not want his blossoming career interrupted. His final step in avoiding Vietnam was joining the Marine Corps Reserve, a form of service that was unlikely to lead to a tour of duty overseas. (Controversy has dogged Mr. Blumenthal in recent days over speeches he has given falsely claiming that he served in Vietnam.)

His misleading statements aside, what Mr. Blumenthal did was also done by thousands of others, including George W. Bush, whose service in the Texas Air National Guard also was unlikely to include an overseas tour; Dick Cheney, who has stated that he had "other priorities"; and Bill Clinton, who avoided the draft by enrolling at Oxford University.

For every draft avoider, someone else was made to serve in order to meet the military's quotas. That "someone else" might very well have been killed in Vietnam. Many of America's most accomplished young men were ready to pass the buck and let someone else — someone less sophisticated and knowledgeable — make the sacrifices while they pursued their personal ambitions.

Clearly, the American government was derelict in allowing that to happen. Eventually the system was made fairer with the introduction of the draft lottery. In 1973, however, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird gave the order that made the military all-volunteer.

Today, the Selective Service system is in mothballs. Some day in the distant future we may be able to do away with it altogether — if the time finally comes when the senselessness of warfare is recognized by all. But for now, we are where we are: There are people who think it right to kill other people who represent no real threat to them.

Our country is engaged in military operations whose ultimate purpose is to put an end to that wanton killing. In those operations, most American casualties are suffered by young men who have volunteered. To say the obvious, most of these volunteers are not particularly sophisticated or knowledgeable. They may have a love of adventure, discipline and teamwork, but most joined up because military service is a secure job.

As was the case during Vietnam, privileged young men generally keep their distance from the military. The dirty work and the risk are undertaken mostly by members of the working class. In a country that takes pride in its fairness, that's not right. All social classes should share equally in risks taken for the national interest.

In the enlisted ranks, there should always be a percentage of draftees. The best-case scenario would be the proportional representation of all social classes. Perhaps 50 percent of the military's needs should be filled with draftees selected by lottery, and the rest volunteers. Among other things, exposing all classes to the draft would lead to greater scrutiny of the reasons a president offers for ordering military actions.

Unlike Richard Blumenthal, some who avoided the Vietnam draft claim they did so on principle. They believed the war unjust, and they went on with college or career. With a few exceptions, they paid no price for the stand they took.

Some Americans believe that they have the right to avoid the military as an act of conscience. However, a true act of conscience should always bear a cost. During Vietnam, deferments came too easily. At the least, those who did not want to be drafted should have made themselves available for some form of alternative service. Some did, and they are to be admired. But too many simply did not want their lives disrupted.

Paul Marx, a resident of Towson, was a draftee during the Korean War. His e-mail is pppmarx@comcast.net.

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