I've been traveling to Seattle frequently over the past couple of years for family reasons. I made a trip for U.S. Thanksgiving, and as usual, once I get as far as Ferndale, WA, my car radio stays mostly on AM 1090, Air America Radio's Seattle affiliate.
On this Thursday morning, the program was Thom Hartmann, and the subject was a bill that will be coming up in the next U.S. Congress to bring back the draft.
It's being promoted by Rep. Charles Rangell (D-NY), and Rangell will be the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. His point of view on this is pretty straightforward; he believes that white people should fight wars, too. His proposal is specifically for a year of universal military service.
Hartmann was editorializing in favour of this. He believes that if a larger area of the socioeconomic spectrum was in uniform, U.S. military actions like the one in Iraq would be less likely. Hartmann also likes the idea that Rangell's proposal differs from the last draft (discontinued in January, 1973) in allowing “alternative service” for conscientious objectors to military service.
Hartmann and Rangell make a pretty good case for this, but, having spent a good part of my life thinking about the draft (and sometimes even doing something about it), I disagree with them. Here are my reasons:
Civil liberty – I never got drafted, owing primarily to a student deferment that kept me out until 1972. I got close enough, however, to be called into the pre-induction physical. I say that any government that can herd you into a room full of people that you don't know, have you strip to your underwear, then make you bend over so that a doctor can stick his finger up your ass, is a very powerful government. If you believe that governments should generally be less powerful, bringing back the draft is an obvious step in the wrong direction.
Ways and means – People in uniform cost the government money. It isn't just the uniforms, the barracks, the food, and wages. You're also taking millions of people off the tax rolls for a year and making them postpone higher education.
You can certainly argue that there are benefits to this. I think that society could benefit from instilling the idea in young people that there's more to citizenship than going to the mall and buying stuff.
Governments have to set spending priorities, however, and the financial recklessness of the Bush administration has put the U.S. in a deep hole. It looks like there's an opportunity now for the U.S. to finally get universal health care, something that's very important, but also very expensive. I would like to put the question to Rangell himself, as the chairman of Ways and Means: can the U.S. afford both universal military service and universal health care, along with some other obvious priorities like fossil fuel alternatives? No, I don't think so. Would you really choose universal military service over universal health care?
There are additional costs for the alternative service. People doing alternative service would still have to be fed, clothed, and housed. There would also have to be a large bureaucracy to locate alternative service opportunities, and to monitor the people doing alternative service to make sure the alternative service requirement is actually met.
The Draft and armed conflict – Thom Hartmann argued that having children of the well-to-do (and specifically of members of Congress) doing military service would make adventures like the one in Iraq less likely; these people would be less likely to support wars if it meant that their own children might get killed or seriously injured. Maybe, but I argue that the opposite is the case. I think that the lesson of history is that having a large standing army increases the temptation for politicians to use it. Did the presence of draftees in the U.S. military in 1964 give Lyndon Johnson pause to consider the political cost of sending these draftees to Vietnam? I don't think so, although it certainly played a role in his loss of his job four years later.
And look at the present situation; if the U.S. had a significantly larger number of people in uniform, wouldn't that increase the likelihood of these people being sent to Iran or Venezuela? I think that in this day and age, having fewer people in uniform would make the world a safer place.