The Universal Draft: An Option Nobody’s Pushing for the Iraq War (2004)


This is a paper I wrote for a social work class at the University of Missouri in October 2004. “Gil” refers, I think, to David Gil. The paper referred to an unnamed article in the New York Times (Oct. 3, 2004, Week in Review, pg. 1, col. 1). I do not have that article anymore.

* * * * *

A draft facilitates military action. The quality of volunteer soldiers might exceed that of draftees, but troops of any quality often suffice for military interventions. One might expect Gil, abhorring concentration camp oppression à la World War II, to favor having a strong army of do-gooding soldiers ready for such purposes. He detects a problem, however, where armies also facilitate unjust plunder, or spend themselves in service of the delusion that their sacrifice benefits society rather than merely its elites.

Historically, Gil finds repression of social workers’ political activism during WWII and the Cold War. In the longer timespan, he concludes that armed struggle might temporarily alleviate injustice, but rooting out domination and exploitation likely require ongoing, nonviolent liberation struggles. Hence, Gil seems unlikely to agitate for an army, even if composed of soldiers wearing white hats.

There is nevertheless a foot in the door. Gil might advocate violence (even, it seems, when provided by a conscript army) to alleviate the “intense” injustice of, say, a concentration camp. Moreover, even a deluded service of national interest could forge useful fraternité among diverse soldiers. In short, Gil does not laud the military, or the rationale behind a draft; but neither does he damn them. Irony lurks here, given his sneer at social work as a profession that has never singlemindedly battled oppression like that which destroyed his childhood home and family: he, himself, appears to equivocate on this means to that end.

To be sure, a draft army to alleviate injustice elsewhere might increase injustice at home, if its ranks disproportionately contained the poor – though one hardly finds a shining alternative in today’s blatantly classist volunteer army (providing the preferred path to resources for many disadvantaged individuals). But a more equitable draft, like the one provoking uproar among elites in late stages of the Vietnam War, could provide a salutary brake – especially if the potential demise of the occasional policymaker’s child stimulated wholesale reappraisal of military adventurism. Indeed, as the article indicates, the entire populace, having its progeny ever on the firing line, might hesitate to pull the trigger on a future Iraq. The peace and security of the United States may thus depend upon the creation of a draft army – though not, perhaps, for the reasons hawks might imagine.

A fully equitable draft, inducting tens of thousands of women, and no longer the least bit able to indulge pretenses regarding its homosexuals, would likely change the face of the armed forces and, perhaps, of the draft itself, particularly if these newcomers created or agitated for divergent ways to make their stint in uniform a genuine and personally unique public service for, say, persons in need. The famously liberal president who created the jobs program of the Civilian Conservation Corps under military leadership might have applauded a universal conscription program having such prospects. But those words highlight one possible reason why, as the article notes, nobody in this era of conservative veneer advocates such a draft at present: socialization into deep civic-mindedness and collective effort belongs to the agenda of another time, past or future, in which radical change arises from hardship.

Yet again one finds paradox. As with the liberal president’s use of the conservative military, even a draft that would bring such equity among categories of people (not to mention a draft that would fail to do so) would subordinate draftees’ self-determination to authority’s potentially capricious dictates. A draft facilitated Vietnam; a draft inaugurated the Wehrmacht. Those who generate this tool immediately reduce choice and opportunity for individual draftees; their creation may eventually do the same for whole nations.

Not that that would be the last word. Paradox continues to unfurl, showcasing double strands of viewpoint, each of which winds into a helix of ever-changing perspective, ever maintaining the same zero-sum solution vis-à-vis one another. Paradox, inherent in our limitedness, prompts the military – famed for its assaults upon personal dignity and individual worth – to discover, in its Iraq foray, the value of treating conquered persons with respect; the military now feeds, and wishes to somewhat empower, the democratizing vanquished.

Thus does empire relearn, the hard way, a Roman live-and-let-live, as the circle winds back the centuries to points of military transition. The helix spirals; the mission changes, and changes again. Conquest becomes maintenance becomes indifference to conquest, as latter generations recant the priorities of earlier ones. A touchy-feely military is now possible; indeed, by WWII standards, it exists.

Cycling through its self-education, the American military’s vaunted wartime integrity declines into slaughter at No Gun Ri and deception in the Tonkin Gulf; it convalesces pre-Kuwait and then relapses at Abu Ghraib. The military has a code; the military fails its code; the military returns to its code. Its code is not that of social work, and in that sense a social worker might not embrace it with conviction; but a code it remains. As an organizing dynamic in human enterprise, its perennial twists in the name of honor and duty will continue to cut a rude, swirling swath through public and private life. Sometimes it will serve the good; perhaps it can be made to do so more frequently. An eventual draft contains that potential.


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