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Mr. Rangel's Modest Proposal
January 7, 2003
By punpirate

While I'm often in agreement with Bill Berkowitz, his recent column approving of Rep. Charles Rangel's proposal to reinstate the draft is off the mark, if only because it ignores a few political realities. When I read Rep. Rangel's opinion piece in the New York Times, I sent the following email to Mr. Rangel:

While I'm not one of your constituents, I hope you'll take a little time to consider these comments on your proposal on legislation reinstating conscription.

While I think I understand the underlying motive--to establish some equality in defense of the country, especially with regard to the children of national legislators and administrators, and therefore deter the impulse to war--I doubt that simple conscription will ultimately effect that end.

I say this for some, I hope, obvious reasons. During the country's previous period of conscription, the children of the wealthy and the influential still managed to escape service, or, at least, proximity to harm. No further proof of that fact is necessary than to look to the service histories of the current occupants of the White House.

There are other more pragmatic concerns, based on both history, and trends. Conscription during the years of the war in Viet Nam provided a ready pool of people which enabled the continuation of an ill-thought-out policy process for far too long. Even with that large pool of people, people of color were over-represented in the ranks of combat troops, to the extent of approximately three times that of their percentage of the general population.

A lot of that had to do with socioeconomics, and the changing ratio of combat troops to support personnel. With each successive war, that ratio has been progressively skewed toward support. Those without the educational background to convince the military of their ability to enter training for support jobs ended up in the field, in one of the combat arms.

Other concerns might be that a new draft would provide enough personnel for an increase in wars waged around the world by the United States. More practically, since current military practice seems to be Blitzkrieg followed by indifferent occupation, more troops would be left to defend themselves against residual and continual internal attacks and civil strife while serving in an occupying force.

Politically, this seems a very unwise suggestion, for two reasons: first, no matter what the text of the original bill entered into consideration, it will not end up being what you intend, after a Republican House and Senate are through with it, and any conscription coming from it may end up creating precisely the conditions you sought to avoid. Second, if the draft is deemed by the general populace to be unpopular (and it will be), it will be very easy for Republicans to, in 2004, blame Democrats for the legislation (even if they fiddle with it to their hearts' content).

To my mind, it's far better to punch holes in the reasoning behind the current administration's determination to wage war than to facilitate their ability to do so, which any eventual conscription act may do.

All that said, I appreciate your interests in deflecting the forces bent on unnecessary war. Sean Gonsalves of the Cape Cod Times reminds us of A.J. Muste's "famous quip, which must irritate the sensibilities of those who ask: what is the way to peace? 'There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.'" Good advice in the near future and beyond, I think."

This email was undeliverable, since Mr. Rangel's office will only accept email from constituents (an odd policy when their boss is proposing legislation which affects the entire nation, but, no matter).

In this missive, I hoped to throw up a few red flags, nothing more. But, in reflection, a couple of points should be explored further. First, the notion that a large pool of available bodies can facilitate war, rather than prevent it, is by no means a specious one. The draft, first initiated to provide the forces necessary to engage in WWII, was continued post-war for less than obvious reasons. The "containment" philosophy espoused by George F. Kennan against the Soviet Union practically demanded a large peace-time military. The budget for that large peace-time army, in turn, facilitated the expansion of the military-industrial complex, which has created its own bureaucratic juggernaut.

Second, that juggernaut, as history informs us, helped precipitate the Viet Nam war, and by almost any definition, kept that war going far longer than necessary. Kennedy, before his death, had profound misgivings about the war, even in its early stages. Johnson, thoroughly perplexed and troubled by his own decisions with regard to the war in Viet Nam, and feeling more than a bit pressured by the military to continue when his gut instincts told him to cut our losses, simply walked away. Nixon, seeing political advantage in prolonging the war (and in favoring the perceived interests of the military), dispatched Henry Kissinger, by some reports, to sabotage the Paris peace talks during the 1968 election.

But, no matter the political considerations, the draft provided the raw material to continue that war, and dozens of other minor conflicts around the globe in furtherance of US political and economic interests. Had there been no peace-time draft (drifting into a war-time draft), the military would have been hard-pressed to justify increasing engagement in what was, essentially, an internal civil war. Regardless of the current reliance on high-tech weaponry, people still make that happen, on the ground, in the air and at sea. No one to man the catapults? Planes don't take off from carriers. No one to maintain jet engines and avionics? F-16s crash. M-1 tank treads break? Just another lump of metal in a ditch.

Today, the tables are turned a bit--the military, if recent leaks can be believed, is a bit chary of becoming embroiled in conflicts throughout the Middle East and central Asia, of becoming spread too thin, of having its ass hanging out in the midst of prolonged occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and possibly other theaters, without the political will to rebuild those countries and get the military out. . Some of that reticence on the part of our current military leaders may be due, precisely, to an understanding of the situation which politicians do not have--that there's no moral imperative for war in Iraq, or in Afghanistan, or anywhere in the world, where US public perceptions include the remote possibility that war is being fought for corporate interests. Despite the general flag-waving in the US, if there's even a suggestion of the war in Afghanistan having been to enable a pipeline or the pending war in Iraq to "liberate" oil fields, the public is not inclined to put sons and daughters on the line.

The military brass also know that a conscripted force is an unhappy one, too. When the war is either unpopular or immoral, conscripts gum up that supposedly well-oiled military machine. No honest military man will fail to acknowledge that reality, after Viet Nam. Nor will any fail to acknowledge that most of the Iraqi soldiers killed in or leaving Kuwait in 1991 (approaching 180,000, by some estimates) were conscripts.

This, I think, is what Rep. Rangel wishes to address with his legislation. But, in today's world, where Bush, Inc., has a very strong desire to spread US military power far and wide, that means, without a draft, diluting troop concentrations to dangerous degrees. The military understands this. If the public has even partial reservation about the ultimate intent of this administration's war-making, there will be no surge in voluntary enlistment to accomplish those aims. Perhaps proof of that was the virtual lack of change in enlistments after September 11th. There was a brief blip upwards, and then all went back to normal.

Of greater consideration, however, is the ultimate rectitude of supporting an administration's quest for domination through conscription. In the late `60s, one of the predominant anti-war slogans was, "What if they gave a war, and nobody came?" Today, that's verifiably true, for much of the US population. No one wants war, at least to the extent of putting one's life on the line. The professed causes, by most evidence, are febrile and friable. No matter what Bush and Co. say, Hussein is not Hitler. The Taliban, for all their institutional insanity, were not the Visigoths. Al Qaeda is a near wraith in the mist, for all the administration speaks of them today, despite renewed activity in possibly Bali, and certainly in Kenya. There's simply no binding cause to initiate the volunteerism of WWII, however desperately the Bush Administration has attempted to drum up both political and military support for its efforts.

Perhaps the public intuitively understands that, after decades of political manipulation, wars are the creations of politicians, rather than the necessary responses to pure evil which George Bush imagines, or purports. Even the attacks of a year and half ago can be seen by a sensible population as the acts of small numbers of extremists, and not the aggression of another nation. Perhaps, after almost three decades of relative peace (if we ignore Grenada, the first Gulf war, Bosnia, Kosovo and skirmishes elsewhere, and ignore the latest administration's forays into central Asia), the US people have become accustomed to not fighting major wars, and see that war is not the preferred means of conflict resolution.

Much is made of the flag-waving these days, but the truth is in the response of the public to the prospect of war. The young don't feel that their participation in a war in Iraq or elsewhere is something which will protect them from harm in later years, that failure to do so will utterly condemn them to foreign slavery in later life. At this point in history, they are more likely to be enslaved by their own government than by any oppressor advertised by this administration. The people of this country, whether they think of it in those terms or not, have voted against war--by denying war their bodies. By not volunteering, they have said that they and theirs are not sufficiently threatened by other nations to require their sacrifice. At this time in history, they're right.

It's unfortunate that, at this time, so many young men and women joined the military without any thought of having to get in the way of a bullet. If there were any teeth to truth-in-advertising law, every recruiter should be obligated to tell each prospective volunteer that, upon enlistment, their body belongs to the government and that the government can put it anywhere it likes, including in front of a hostile force, that they must be willing to die and/or kill in the government's service, even if the government is working for multinational oil corporations. That might reduce the number of kids enlisting to avoid poverty, something Mr. Rangel's proposed legislation intends to correct by drafting other kids.

But, Mr. Rangel's modest proposal, like Jonathan Swift's, depends upon the recognition of his irony by the target. The current administration is so lacking in the requisite skills to understand irony that it may embrace Mr. Rangel's proposal (privately), all the while feigning indifference. Sadly, irony is wasted on those in our midst who are so single-minded in their quest for power as to ignore both common sense and their own responsibility for the mortality of others. Like Swift's English, Mr. Rangel's Bush Administration will not recognize the irony in a proposal to raise babies for slaughter.

punpirate is a New Mexico writer with a heightened sense of irony.

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