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Democratizing War
January 23, 2003
By Bob Volpitto

By now anyone who follows happenings in Washington has heard of Congressman Charles Rangel's proposal to re-institute conscription as a means to supply the Armed Forces with personnel. Since 1973 the United States has relied on an All Volunteer Force (AVF) to do the job, but in the eyes of many it is not a democratic way to staff the military.

Congressman Rangel, a combat veteran of the Korean Conflict, is a holder of the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. He was discharged from the Army with the rank of staff sergeant, having served with the 2nd Infantry Division. On his own initiative, Representative Rangel acquired a law degree from New York University and presently represents Harlem's Congressional district. He's a progressive Democrat, of course.

Looking back at the draft

Up until the War of Southern Rebellion (Civil War, to some), the government relied on volunteers to fill the ranks of its combat forces. And, although the U. S. Constitution grants the federal government the power to wage war it leaves open the means to raise contingents of soldiers, sailors and, now, airmen, to the will of Congress.

Both North and South were forced to re-supply their shattered armies with conscripts. Conscription in the North faced bitter opposition, even riots, notably in New York City. In both areas conscription was largely ignored and easily evaded. A majority of those drafted refused to report for duty. Examining physicians failed healthy rich draftees and filled the quota with unfit poor men. Each side provided means for draftees to purchase substitutes who often deserted and allowed themselves to bought several times over.

Statistics indicate of the 249,259 Union conscripts a mere 6% served in the ranks. On the Confederate side, however, 25% to 35% of soldiers serving east of the Mississippi were conscripts.

Although the Spanish-American War in 1898 was fought by volunteers on the United States' side, the Wilson Administration a few years later revived the draft to make up for the lack of enlistees in World War I. Again in October 1940 the draft was used to get men into uniform quickly for the coming of World War II. During both wars opposition to the draft was notable, but many more men than not answered the call especially after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

Why a draft now?

The draft was tolerated during the Korean Conflict as an extension of World War II. When the Cold War turned hot in the Sixties, Selective Service was still in force and was the way most units were staffed during the Viet Nam War.

It was Viet Nam that broke the back of Selective Service. Television brought that war to the American dinner table each day with the networks' evening news. The horror of that slaughter nagged the American conscience and fostered opposition to both the war and the draft that sent young men into the cauldron in Southeast Asia.

Beginning with Desert Storm the government clamped strict censorship on war reporting. CNN was given the privilege of reporting Desert Storm; CBS and Dan Rather were shut out. George H. W. Bush took a long look at Lyndon Johnson's handing of America's "free press" and slammed the door. Although Johnson tried in vain to manage to war news to his advantage, Bush the Elder drew an iron curtain around the subject until his handlers could propgandize a near bloodless victory on our side.

Missing were the photos of napalm-torched children. Missing were pictures of the young women with their bellies ripped open by shrapnel. We didn't see fleeing elder Iraqi refugees lying in ditches machine gunned to death by low flying fighter jets. There was, however, an air raid shelter pictured with dead civilians shown in lying various positions following a bombing attack. But so little of the needless slaughter of innocents we inflicted ever got into American homes via television that we got the impression a decade ago it was a sanitized war.

Afghanistan, too, was glossed over. We killed civilians, but a mere few photos and testimonials by survivors were somehow smuggled out. George the Younger saw to that. Most of us were somehow struck by the strange generosity of our government of the cash payments offered survivors of innocent victims of "collateral damage" in Afghanistan. We paid mercenaries to do the dirty fighting for us and bought off survivors whose homes we smashed and whose loved ones we supposedly killed in error.

Democratize war

Let me answer my question: "Why the draft now?". In addition to the reasons above, war must once again become a equal opportunity operation. Sons and daughters of the powerful and the wealthy must be made to bear their fair share of the suffering. We must no longer abide by the proposition that armed conflict is "a rich man's war and poor man's fight".

There is not a single member of the Armed Forces that comes from the home of a United States congressman! Volunteerism has seen to that. A draft would change that fact once and for all.

Look at television news and you'll see reservists and guard personnel being activated for duty. All but a scant few are family men who joined those units because they needed the small extra income it afforded them. Those citizen soldiers have wives and families to support with shrinking paychecks, rising costs of living and no guarantee of a job when and if they return. They needed the money not the agony of separation and fate that awaits them in a far off land about which they know little and care less. They go under the guise they are defending their country, not told they must sacrifice for the oil grab that will result in an Iraq subjugated by their blood.

Congressman Rangel's bill to reactivate Selective Service has unlimited merits. As Jeff Danziger's article in the "Boston Globe" of 1/19/03 reads, "Rangel's proposal is the president's worst nightmare. College students may back our stance against Saddam, but not if they have to go. This is not cowardice; it's cold intelligence. War is hard work, the pay stinks, and you might get killed. And you think - if the president himself didn't even go to war, the sons of congressmen aren't going, then why the hell should I?".

Another quote says it with equal validity. This one's from Mark Shields, who, on January 6 at CNN, wrote, "Charlie Rangel is doing his best to make the rest of us, including President George W. Bush, realize that war is not a spectator sport, where the nation's advantaged elites and their children, at a safe remove, look on, while fellow citizens they do not know - and will never meet - do the fighting and dying."


Bob Volpitto is a former newspaper publisher now living in the Southwest. Furthermore, he is a Progressive Democrat and damn proud of it.

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