Byline: Anna Quindlen
Most politicians think it's so radioactive, they won't go near it, and government officials keep insisting it's not going to happen any time soon. But the military draft is a subject that just won't go away, particularly for young Americans and the adults who love them.
A round-robin letter has been circulating furiously among mothers on the Internet, expressing concern that two bills parked in committee may prefigure the resurrection of conscription, this time without the old protections of gender or student status. "Please send this on to all the parents and teachers you know," the message reads, "and all the aunts and uncles, grandparents, godparents." A newly released poll by the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation found 58 percent of the respondents concerned that the draft could be revived in the near future, and 55 percent of the high-school students surveyed by the Horatio Alger Association said they believe there will be a draft in their lifetime.
As the conflict in Iraq continues and National Guard units are held long past their initial deployment dates, there has been increasing concern about how to make up the shortfall between the all-volunteer Army and the needs of a protracted occupation. But because those in high office tend to live in an echo chamber of received wisdom, there is little political discussion of the public concern about the obvious option. Besides, it does have an unmistakable third-rail quality: a perfect storm of recent historical events would make a draft more divisive and disastrous than ever before in the nation's history, exposing deep fissures in the civic psyche.
Each year the number of individuals who have been in the armed forces, not to mention those who have actually fought in combat, grows smaller in America. Almost 70 percent of male citizens over 65 have been in the service; only 12 percent of the guys between 18 and 29 can say the same. Little by little, the notion of the military as technical training for the less prosperous took hold, richly abetted by commercials: it's not a job, it turns out, but an adventure. At least until you get to Baghdad.
Combine that shift with the roiling skepticism created by Watergate and Vietnam, as well as a long period of peacetime prosperity, and what you have is a growing class of Americans who would fight conscription with neither reservation nor remorse. This includes not simply the functional equivalent of the 19-year-olds burning their draft cards a generation ago, but the parents of many of today's 19-year-olds as well. The divisions over the war in Iraq and growing mistrust about the justification for the invasion have resulted in a middle-aged middle class who have adapted the old slogan to cover their own kids: hell no, they won't go.
The VVAF poll found that only 43 percent of draft-age Americans would be willing to comply if the draft were reinstated. Perhaps even more surprising, it found that fewer than half the parents surveyed would want their child to serve. The ruling argument is, and always has been, service to country. But that was when more Americans saw the decisions of their leaders as serving their country, too, not as self-serving.
Besides, if young people are meant to think that military service is noble, recent events have certainly disabused them of that notion. Of course there are soldiers who have served in Iraq with valor and dedication. But the photographs of Americans at Abu Ghraib Prison hardly make a uniform look like an worthy aspiration; instead they look as though they were taken during pledge night in the Sadist House at Dirtbag U. And the attempts by opponents to dirty up the military service of Sen. John Kerry are a valuable lesson to any sentient kid. Somehow the truth can be spun so that a decorated Vietnam veteran who chose to enlist and serve can be made to seem less heroic than a guy who used family connections to avoid combat. Not only do you go to war; when you come home, others denigrate your service, finding you insufficiently maimed.
Who could blame this generation of young Americans if they demurred when the Selective Service came knocking? Even some of those who entered the military under their own steam and enlisted are now claiming conscientious-objector status--and being granted it--because they cannot see their way clear to supporting the war in Iraq. During the Vietnam years, 170,000 of those called up were granted CO status, 40,000 left the country and some went to jail because they believed the war was illegitimate and immoral. But even then, in the thick of the protest years, the average American was more idealistic about the nation and its aims than today. If my brothers had been drafted, my father, a Korean War vet, would have sadly sent them off to basic training. Today he'd buy his grandkids a one-way ticket to Toronto.
If the occupation of Iraq continues, will there be enough personnel to manage it? And, if not, can conscription be far behind? Ultimately the point is not simply whether the draft will be reinstated, but about how Americans would respond if it were. It's a useful litmus test not only of how we feel about this war, but what we consider the rationale for any armed conflict, and how we see the legitimacy of our leaders and our responsibility to follow them.