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Conscription wouldn't be "more fair"
Return of the draft

May 7, 2004 | Page 6

WITH BOTH Republicans and Democrats floating the idea that the U.S. government will have to bring back military conscription, JOE ALLEN looks at the myths and realities about the draft.

"WHERE WERE the sons of all the big shots who supported the war? Not in my platoon. Our guys' people were workers...If the war was so important, why didn't our leaders put everyone's son in there--why only us?"

That was the comment of a U.S. military veteran--in 1971. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Vietnam vet Steve Harper's class anger at the rich and the politicians whose children evaded military service is being heard again from many military families today.

The recent rise in casualty rates and the extension of combat duty in Iraq has provided fresh examples of how the poorest section of the U.S. population bears the brunt of military service. Some politicians are trying to hijack the frustration of military families by echoing some of these sentiments--not with the goal of bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq, but reintroducing mandatory military conscription, or the draft.

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) recently called for the return of the draft, declaring that this would guarantee that all people in the U.S. "pay some price." Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), who has actually introduced a bill in Congress for the return of the draft, correctly points out that at the time Congress authorized the war against Iraq, it had only one member with a child in the enlisted ranks.

Hagel and Rangel's claim that conscription would "share the sacrifice" of military service underlines an important fact--that the ranks of today's "volunteer" army are filled with poor and working people who sign up because the military offers a steady paycheck and promises to help with job training and financial aid for college. Antiwar activists call this the "poverty draft."

But would a resurrected version of the old draft system be more fair? A look back at the draft during the Vietnam War shows that Steve Harper was right--not Hagel and Rangel. According to Christian Appy, author of Working Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam, "The Selective Service System was the most important institutional mechanism for the creation of a working-class army."

The U.S. began its first peacetime draft in 1948 to raise and maintain a huge military force to defend its newly acquired global empire following the Second World War. The draft was administered by the Selective Service System in Washington, D.C., and 4,000 locally based draft boards around the country.

When the U.S. invaded South Vietnam, its combined military force on the ground eventually grew to 550,000 in 1968. To fill the need for troops, draft call-ups averaged 30,000 to 40,000 a month at the height of the war.

But the system was designed to exclude large sections of the middle class from military service--and more importantly, combat duty. The most important exemption for the middle class was student deferments for those attending four-year colleges. For example, the Harvard University class of 1970 had only two members who went to Vietnam.

Meanwhile, according to Appy, "High school dropouts were three times more likely to experience heavy combat than were college graduates." A 1977 study of 380 Vietnam war dead from Wisconsin found that 87 percent came from poor or working-class families.

African Americans, who made up around 10 percent of the U.S. population at the beginning of the Vietnam War, accounted for 20 percent of all combats deaths. Only after Martin Luther King's famous antiwar speech in April 1967 did a panicked Defense Department reduce the proportion of African Americans in front-line combat units--resulting in declining casualty rates in the latter years of the war.

Another avenue of escape from the possibility of combat was the National Guard and the military reserves. Except for one short period in 1968, the National Guard and the reserves weren't mobilized for fear of sparking a greater backlash against Lyndon Johnson's war policies. They became a magnet for middle class and wealthy draft dodgers with political connections.

George W. Bush is the most famous example, but he was far from alone. More than 1 million men served in the reserves and National Guard during Vietnam, virtually guaranteeing that they would never see combat.

But for African Americans, it was nearly impossible to get into the National Guard or the reserves. In 1964, only 1.5 percent of the Army National Guard was African American, and this fraction actually fell to 1.26 percent in 1968. In Mississippi--a state that was 42 percent African American--only one Black man was admitted to a National Guard that had over 10,000 members!

It's also important to remember that U.S. soldiers who fought in Vietnam were also young--the average age was 19 years old. This was at time when 18 to 21 year olds still weren't allowed to vote in national elections.

According to Appy, the U.S. military during the Vietnam era could be broken down along the following class lines--25 percent poor, 55 percent working class, 20 percent middle class and " a statistically negligible number of wealthy." The 20 percent middle class fraction was confined overwhelmingly to the officer corps and non-combat positions.

The Vietnam War is a perfect example of why the draft doesn't "spread the sacrifice"--but sacrifices the poor in a war for the rich. The fact that politicians are floating proposals to bring back the draft shows the mess that the U.S. military is in today.

"You only have to look at troop levels to realize we don't have the numbers to do the job in Iraq properly," Charles Pena, a senior analyst with the right-wing Cato Institute, told the Toronto Star. And the problem will only grow worse as the crisis of the U.S. occupation of Iraq deepens--and the reservists and National Guard troops who were tempted to enlist or re-enlist for the economic benefits decide that they don't want to go to war.

But if the next presidential administration--Republican or Democrat--has to bring back the draft, they will be playing with political dynamite. During Vietnam, the draft became a lightening rod for growing opposition to the U.S. war machine. If Hagel and Rangel get their wish today, a renewed draft will transform the antiwar movement.

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