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May 13, 2005

The draft, redux

Guest post by Revere

I'm glad Charles opened up the  question of the draft. My views are not the same as his, although I share his sentiments. I should be upfront about my biases here. I was a Vietnam era draft resister and helped form a draft resistance organization for doctors and medical students. I am also a conscientious objector (1 - O draft status). I was subject to the "doctors draft." The doctors draft extended to age 35 (normal cutoff was age 26) and was virtually automatic: they took doctors with one leg, never mind flat feet. The intermediate possibility of a 1 - A - O draft status (non-combatant, like medics) clearly doesn't apply to doctors, almost all of whom were already non-combatants and indeed engaged in saving lives, not taking them.

I'd like to raise two points here, one of them the rationale for why a doctor would refuse to serve; the second, and related to it, why we should resist re-instating the draft strenuously, despite some of Charles's legitimate qualms regarding the class-based inequity of a volunteer military.

First, the argument for why I resisted and why I encouraged other doctors to resist. I won't go into a long theoretical argument but use the analogy we used in our literature aimed at doctors and medical students. Suppose you are approached by a gang of bank robbers. "We are going to rob a bank," they tell you, "and this is pretty dangerous work. We'd like you to ride in the getaway car with your medical equipment in the event one of us gets hurt." Any doctor with an ounce of conscience would refuse this request. On the other hand, suppose you are walking past the bank when robbers suddenly burst from its doors and one falls at your feet in a hail of bullets. You would immediately come to their medical aid if you were to heed your responsibilities as a doctor. A crude analogy, perhaps, but indicative of our view that to sign on to the enterprise was to be complicit in its objectives, regardless of your function.

This also relates to the second point, made by several commenters. A fair process to bring about an unjust outcome does not legitimate the process. More importantly, and implicit in some of the comments, is the role that conscription plays and has played historically. Mass conscription is relatively new, having been instituted in the modern sense around the French Revolution. Jonathan Schell's wonderful book, Unconquerable World discusses this in the context of Clausewitz's view on war:

In trying to understand the changes that have overtaken war in modern times, it's useful to begin with the eighteenth-century Prussian general and philosopher of war Carl von Clausewitz, who was born in 1780 and died in 1831. He lived and fought and wrote during one of the most important turning points in the history of war. For most of the eighteenth century, war had been largely the business of kings and aristocrats and whatever commoners they could hire or force into their service. Battles usually involved tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands, of men on each side. The ends of war were often modest, and military strategy often consisted as much of maneuvers as of combat.

With the success of the French Revolution and the rise a decade later of Napoleon Bonaparte, a new force--the energy of an entire population fired with patriotic zeal--was poured onto the battlefield. [p. 14]


When Clausewitz surveyed the history of war, he found his own period all but unique. Rarely, if ever, he believed, had war come so close to realizing its ideal form. The underlying reason was the French Revolution, which began in 1789, when Clausewitz was a boy. In 1793, when France sent immense conscripted armies into the field, he wrote, "a force appeared that beggared all imagination. Suddenly, war again became the business of the people--a people of thirty million, all of whom considered themselves to be citizens. . . Nothing now impeded the vigor with which war could be waged." [p. 19]

Conscription is thus intimately bound up with what Schell calls "the modern war system." What a re-instated draft would do is greatly increase the ability of the US to wage war, where and when its leaders chose. Yes, there would be an inevitable reaction, especially if the war were protracted and unpopular. But they need not be. Consider Panama and Grenada, both examples of naked aggression. A draft could allow actions like this to be undertaken simultaneously in many places, an ability which is a strategic goal of the Rumsfeld Doctrine.

The moral issue related to the inequality of burden sharing that Charles broaches is important. But it doesn't seem different in kind to me than similar inequalities of burdens and benefits that run throughout our society. Correcting them in this sphere would, I fear, have serious unintended consequences.


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A bit off-topic perhaps, but one of the more outrageous aspects of the Vietnam War was that students pursuing non-critical liberal arts degrees were eligible for draft deferments. A middle-class kid studying basket weaving at a podunk state college could manage to avoid being shipped off to the war zone, while if you happened to be a poor minority-group person working at a gas station in Detroit you were cannon fodder. I've always been amazed by how seldom this inequity is discussed.


I understand your point of view. I do not like this war and have never supported it. I consider it unjust and immoral, despite the administrations claims of "spreading democracy." (an after thought used for justification).

I also consider it tactically stupid. The week before the elections Bin Laden released a message. The administration released the first and the last five minutes of the message. The body of the text was withheld until the day of the election and it was lost in the media frenzy of the polls.

Bin Laden said in the body text that it didn't matter who got elected because he was going to bankrupt America and he had a working model... what he did to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

He said that it cost him $500,000 to bring down the world trade center, but for every dollar that he spends... the US would spend a million because where ever he raised the flag of Al-Qaeda the US would send a huge expensive army to fight.

So now we find ourselves in the briar patch firmly grasping the "tar baby." Our military budget is now reaching the level where it equals all of the other nations military budgets combined. we have record budget deficits, with record trade deficits, we are borrowing record amounts of foreign capital... to the point that many of our lenders now think that we have dug ourselves in too deeply and they are now transfering their investments to Yen and Euros. This war is bankrupting America.

America is different now than when you and I fought the good fight during the Vietnam era. Americans are less aware of international events. As the trends analyst called it "cocooning"... turn on your big screen tv, watch a dvd, play computer games, find your little piece of the American dream and hide.

You know the expression... "its a recession until you lose your job then its a depression." Well this war has a a bit of that in it... its not personal until its your family member that is being stuffed in a bag. We don't honor our dead... we sneak them home at night, no photographs please or else. The press is manipulated. The troops are forbidden to send e-mails or have phone contact. Its the new American Zen... if a soldier falls in Iraq but no one sees it... did he/she really fall?

Its has become an Orwellian nightmare. Vague ill defined goals, reports processed by a cadre of MBA trained propagandists.

The administration has already tapped its backdoor draft in the National Guard units. I think that they will enact a draft in order to expand the war into Iran. Their already using "private contractors" with 60K + benefits to supplement the grunts who are cheap... $13k. Economics will eventually force them to do it. So perhaps our discussion of the morality of a draft is a moot point.

But it's not moot, Flint, because a discussion of the morality of the draft blends into a discussion of the morality of draft resisters. If even the Left buys into the (admittedly seductive) argument that there should be a draft because of the economic inequities inherent in the armed forces, then where does that leave those of us (I include myself, a Quaker) on the Left who would resist any such draft through conscientious objection or otherwise?


You are right of course, it should be discussed and I hope that just the awareness of the possibility of it happening will rouse people to action.

We should be holding our leaders to a much higher standard of ethical conduct than we have been. As Father Greeley has asked on his web site... "Is shame dead? When are we going to wake up to the fact that our foreign policy is built on a tissue of lies."

I could easily go on another rant and I apologize for the bandwidth so far expended, but I am outraged by the things that are going on today in our government. I wonder what it will take for people to realize that resistance must begin now... while free speech is still possible.

Swamp Yankee

The correlation between educational status and draft likelyhood during the Vietnam war has fostered urban legends. It is an misconception that gas station attendents were more likely to be drafted than a liberal arts basket weaver.

The draft deferred Liberal Arts major may have been able to put off his slavery for four years, but after the Bachelor's degree he was much more likely to be drafted than a high school grad or dropout. Only college droupouts had a higher overall rate of induction than college grads.

Some students managed to extend grad school long enough to avoid the draft, though that ended in '68 when Johnson terminated grad school deferments for everyone except for medical, legal[?] and theological[?] programs.

The advantage that the educated had was that they were more trainable and came with a skill set. They were much more likely to end up at a military occupational specialty that kept them out of the infantry. Though enormous numbers were conned into Officer Candidate School, and ended in very precarious combat rolls anyway. That was not because the military had any great love for the educated, rather the opposite. But they couldn't afford to not make use of the material they had.


Conscription was not new. The Romans and many others were quite fond of it. Men would cut off their right thumbs to avoid the twenty year impressment. Other than this minor point, I find nought to take issue.

The best way to ensure equity of sacrifice in war, is to stay out of stupid, wasteful, criminal, unnecessary and useless wars.

A draft would only provide the thanatophilic with the means to create more death and destruction.

m: You are correct. Clausewitz actually said this situation hadn't been seen since the Romans, which agrees with your point. I left out a great deal here because it was not relevant to my main point. Conscription's role in the modern era is what Clausewitz (and Schell) were concerned with, so that is the part I excerpted.


Thanks for the response, but putting off one's military service by 4 years would be enough to help one escape the draft altogether, wouldn't it?
If you were eligible for a deferment, you could hope to stay in college beyond the end of the war, and you could also defer your service long enough to perhaps get lucky in the draft lottery that was held. Someone of lower-class economic status would be vulnerable to the draft throughout the entire Vietnam era, no?

swamp yankee,

There is just no getting around that many more college grads (percentage wise) were conscripted than high school grads or high school dropouts. Even with the lottery that was true.

The military had and continues to have requirements and quotas that skew its conscription/enlistment of individuals based on educational class. Todays military member has an average grade+ higher educational level than found in the civilian population.

If a greater percentage of a class are subject to a negative process, how can one claim that they are the beneficieries of de facto discrimination?

Did some sneak through loopholes? Of course. The military had an incredible number of sometimes very strange regulations on who would be eligible. A man who had lost one or both testicles would be ineligible. Unless the deficiency was made up for by a prosthesis, in which case the candidate was acceptable. Being too ugly was also a reason for deferment, though I have never even heard of anyone who was disqualified for that reason.

Those who were bright enough, or had access to organizations to provide this assistance, could often get around the regulations. That did not always depend on education either. Antidraft counseling was available in poor areas as well. Preparation and persistence, rather than education, may have been better determiners of success in avoiding the draft.

I think this is a moot point. Most importantly, the Reservists are the first to go to the front lines in war. This is a cannon fodder force of experianced people. I was a member of that clique for four years. It bacame an inconvienance, except the $$$ part. Remind everyone, that for one weekend a month and two weeks a year, you get a mighty LARGE paycheck... Best part time job in the USA. Take the money, accept the risk.

Reason why I do not think there will be a draft. SIZE...

Largest Air Force in World: US Air Force
2nd Largest: Ohio Air National Guard
3rd Largest: Texas Air National Guard

The US military is huge. If we were in trouble in this reguard, we would see deserted bases. Korea, we took 58,000 casualties. We had a draft for three years during that conflict. We have lost about 1,500 of the 250,000 warriors in the middle east. A little more than .5%, why am I not concerned?

I could see a draft if we had lost 20,000 people, but c'mon, get real people. My son is still at Seven Palms Cali... He has Volenteered to go back to Iraq, (I'm proud, my wife is ticked,) and he may not be able to go because he is getting short, and coming home for two weeks next month.

Please tell me where we need a draft?

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