Friday, May 28, 2010

Civic spirit, sacrifice, and the draft

The question Should the U.S. bring back the draft? has been hovering around the edges of political discourse in this country for a while, notwithstanding that the chances of its happening are minimal to zero. The reason the question continues to hover, I think, is that it taps into an ongoing uneasiness about the distribution of sacrifice at a time when the U.S. is involved in two active wars (albeit one of which, Iraq, appears to be in a gradual end-phase as far as U.S. military involvement is concerned).

The point of this post is not to offer a yes or no answer to the question, but simply to raise the issue, which I've not done here before (to the best of my recollection). Given the approach of Memorial Day, this seems like an appropriate time to do it.

I'll start with a quotation, something Michael Sandel wrote five years ago:
"Notwithstanding the outpouring of patriotism in the immediate aftermath of September 11, and the sacrifices being made by the soldiers in Iraq, American politics lacks an animating vision...of the shared obligations of citizenship. A few weeks after the terrorist attacks of 2001, President Bush...was asked why he had not called for any sacrifices from the American people as a whole. He replied that the American people were sacrificing by enduring longer lines at airports. In a 2004 interview in Normandy, France, on the anniversary of D-Day, NBC's Tom Brokaw asked the President why he was not asking the American people to sacrifice more.... Bush seemed mystified, replying, 'What does that mean, "sacrifice more"?' Brokaw offered the example of World War II rationing and restated his question: 'There's a great sense, I think, that there's a disconnect between what the American military people are doing overseas and what Americans are doing at home.' Bush replied: 'America has been sacrificing. Our economy hasn't [been] as strong as it should be, and there's -- people haven't been working. Fortunately, our economy's now strong, and it's getting stronger.'

"That Democrats did not seize the theme of sacrifice, and that Bush scarcely understood the question, testifies to the dulled civic sensibilities of American politics in the early years of the twenty-first century. Without a compelling account of the public purpose, the electorate [in the presidential election of 2004--LFC] settled, in a time of terror, for the security and moral certitude they associated with the incumbent President." [1]
Sandel's approving reference to Brokaw's mention of World War II is one of many indications that, as the historian David A. Bell wrote a couple of years ago, "in the United States, our equivalent of the [French] legend of [the mass levy of] 1793 is the legend of World War II. Particularly today..., the years 1941-45 have come to be regarded as a veritable American Golden Age.... instead of treating the war [WWII] as a truly exceptional moment in American history -- a combined moment of industrialized mass warfare and real national peril -- we treat it as a paradigmatic one. It has become the standard against which we measure ourselves and, not surprisingly, find ourselves wanting." [2]

Bell went on to argue that the civic reason for reinstating the draft -- to even the distribution of sacrifice and "provide the population as a whole with a common civic experience" -- receives little support from "the overall history of modern Western democracies":
"At the height of the French Revolution, during a legislative debate on the war, a deputy to the Legislative Assembly grandly declared that 'if we are not yet Spartans or Athenians, we will become them.' But in fact, we are not Spartans or Athenians, and will never become them. Which is to say, we will never accept the infringement on individual liberty represented by conscription other than as a direct response to extreme danger. To do otherwise is simply not in our civic nature." [3]
I'm not certain that experts in the history of systems of military service (of which I'm not one) would agree that
"we will never accept the infringement on individual liberty represented by conscription other than as a direct response to extreme danger." The last time the U.S. had a draft was during the height of the Vietnam War, and in that case publicly articulated opposition to the draft was couched, for the most part, in terms of opposition to that particular war. It was not primarily framed in terms of "we are not Spartans or Athenians" and therefore conscription, except in highly unusual circumstances, is alien to our "civic nature." How much doubt this casts on Bell's argument is, I suppose, debatable -- opposition to the Vietnam War and the draft was, to use the jargon of social science, overdetermined -- but it does perhaps suggest that the question is a bit more complicated than Bell allows.
1. Michael J. Sandel, Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality in Politics (2005), p.3.
2. David A. Bell, "When the Levee Breaks: Dissenting from the Draft," World Affairs (Winter 2008), p.66.
3. Ibid., p.67.


hank_F_M said...


Having served in the Army with and without draftees, I would rather do without.

That being said.

The GWOT (gee what) requires some sacrifice but calling for more than necessary is an idea I find hard to understand. Sometimes advocates of that idea seem to like the idea of calling everybody to sacrifice to what end is not obvious, they just seem to like the idea of calling for sacrifice.

“the civic reason for reinstating the draft -- to even the distribution of sacrifice and "provide the population as a whole with a common civic experience"

Aside from the very good reason stated the result would be rather different than expected. The people making supporting this reason assume the very poorest of the poor and disadvantaged make the volunteer force and the draft would shift the burden upwards. But these peoplele seldom meet current enlistment standards, but if you are drafting people you cannot decline to draft people just because of do not meet the standards that a volunteer army can demand. Reinstating the draft will shift the burden downwards. This would be true even if someone doesn’t come up with idea or reinstating “McNamara’s 100,000” so less people from Middle class (politically active) groups will be drafted.

OK, OK, I will get off my soap box, or I‘ll type all night. Baring external events compelling it the reinstating the draft is stupid.

Enjouy the weekend.

LFC said...

I said in the post that I was raising the question, not arguing for a particular answer. Bell clearly agrees with you in being opposed to conscription, but maybe there is at least a theoretical case to be made on the other side.

It is undisputed that a disproportionate number of those joining the AVF and serving in it come from a particular slice of the country, from small towns and rural areas. Bell starts his 2008 piece by acknowledging that "The states with the highest percentage of 18-to-24-year-olds in the military are Montana and Alaska. The ones with the least are Mass. and Rhode Island. According to a 2005 study, fully half of all Iraq War casualties have come from towns of 25,000 inhabitants or less."

Bell's prescription for making military service "more equitable" is increasing pay and benefits etc, but this doesn't address the problem if one defines it in terms of civic cohesion, fairness, and civic 'health'.

Perhaps Bell is right that WW2 was an exceptional moment. Perhaps he is right that a system of conscription would have "dubious" benefits, be "deeply resented," and add nothing to the national defense. Perhaps. But perhaps not.

The more basic point I was trying to raise I can maybe put better this way. Children of the American upper-middle class, with some exceptions of course, do not serve in the military. The upper-middle class parents I know assume that their children are going to college right after high school. Military service is for someone else. Again, I know there are exceptions, but this is overwhelmingly the rule. When the Vietnam draft ended sometime in 1972 (if I have the year right) I was 14 or 15 (depending on the month). So I never had to worry about the draft and I never remotely considered military service -- given the circumstances of the time and of my upbringing and my views and the general milieu, that is not at all surprising. So I have no standing at all to issue pronouncements on this matter.

But I do wonder about your contention that "reinstating the draft would shift the burden downward." It seems to me that would depend very much on how it is administered. One can have standards in a draftee army just as one has standards in a volunteer army, in terms of who qualifies. The problem would be avoiding what happened during the Vietnam era when a great many middle-class kids got multiple deferments etc etc. (see Cheney,e.g.) I respect those who went to prison or went into exile b/c they opposed the war as unjust and immoral, and those who were involved in the antiwar movement. (I volunteered in McGovern's '72 campaign etc.) But that was only a portion of those who didn't go; others in effect gamed the system (see Fallows's classic long-ago article on this).

Finally, to end this rambling reply, your reference to McNamara's 100,000 is too cryptic for me -- you would have to refresh my memory on that.

Anonymous said...
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T. Greer said...

Lt. Col. Pat Langling wrote an essay on this subject two months or so ago. It was quite controversial, for all the reasons one would suspect. You might find it of interest:

The Founders Wisdom.
Pat Lanling. Armed Forces Journal, February 2010.

hank_F_M said...

Project 100,000 (1966)

Project 100,000 was another example of institutional discrimination that showed the military was not an organization free from racial bias. The brainchild of Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, Project 100,000 was the Defense Department's contribution to the Great Society. McNamara announced its inception in a speech delivered on August 23, 1966 in New York City. The goal of the program was to help rehabilitate the nation's "subterranean poor," which would be partially accomplished by lowering the standards of admission to the military. What McNamara neglected to mention was that lowering standards of admission to the Armed Forces was an expedient method to provide more bodies for combat without resorting to the politically unfavorable actions of calling up reserves or drafting university students, a majority of whom were white males. The military used gimmicky and focused advertising campaigns to lure these newly eligible men into the Service: magazine advertisements focused on the thrill of military service rather than the potentially fatal results of warfare.

McNamara's 'other' crimes: the stories you haven't heard - Robert McNamara

"I think McNamara should be shot," said Herb DeBose, a black first lieutenant in Vietnam, who later worked with incarcerated veterans. "I saw him when he resigned from the World Bank, crying about the poor children of the world. But if he did not cry at all for any of those men he took in under Project 100,000 then he really doesn't know what crying is all about. Many under me weren't even on a fifth-grade level.... I found out they could not read .. no skills before, no skills after. The army was supposed to teach them a trade in something - only they didn't."

The second article is the most quoted. The first article is the most positive about the program i could find in three pages of google search. Relatively speaking these articles are not polemical.

LFC said...

T. Greer -- Thanks for the Langling reference. I'll check it out.

Hank -- Thanks for the "project 100,000" stuff -- I don't think I had heard of it before.

LFC said...

Here's a better link for the Armed Forces Journal article mentioned by T. Greer:

Also, the name of the author of the piece is Paul Yingling.