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Revive the draft? Bite your tongue!

Jack LB Gohn

Have you learned nothing, journalist Clyde Haberman? You’re my age, plus four years. You, like me, are of the Vietnam generation, the last generation to face the military draft. We, of all people, should know that forcible conscription is something this nation must never, never, never, never reinstitute. Yet there you go, in the pages of the New York Times on Oct. 24, rising to John Kelly and Sara Huckabee Sanders’ bait. Kelly pities anyone who didn’t share at firsthand the reality of military service and sacrifice, and Sanders says you shouldn’t get into a debate with a four-star general (one who has that experience). These bits of chest-thumping non-sequitur make you go weak in the knees and suggest that we should maybe all have that experience again, and so maybe we should bring back the conscription.

Oh, you do temper it a bit, and say other forms of national service should be acceptable alternatives too.

Really? We need to talk about all of this.

Have you truly forgotten, in this season when Ken Burns’ magisterial Vietnam War refresher documentary is unspooling on DVRs everywhere, what usually happens when our national leaders make war? Well, then, I’ll remind you.

They tell us that the cause is just, that our military brass are wise and skilled, that victory is just around the corner. And by the time it comes out that most of it is lies, thousands of our countrymen will have died, more will have been wounded and most will be scarred forever by the memory of what they faced and did.

And as to accountability, forget it. The leaders never face accountability. Robert McNamara and William Westmoreland and President Lyndon Johnson died in bed, unlike a schoolmate of mine, one of the 23 names from my smallish hometown on that wall. And many of those 23, I’m sure, had no choice whether to face the risk so deceitfully demanded. That is what the draft does.

The draft deprives a conscript of perhaps most important choices anyone as a human being and a citizen could ever make: whether to expose oneself to mortal danger; whether to kill; and whether to lend one’s body and skills to policies made by politicians.

Paramount national values

I am not saying it is wrong to choose enlistment, even though swearing the oath will deprive one of the power to make these choices going forward; obviously armies and navies would not work if soldiers and sailors could preserve such autonomy while in uniform. And we do need armies and navies.

But the inalienability of an individual’s preliminary decision whether or not to participate is a matter of paramount national values articulated in the Declaration of Independence. The protection of a young person’s right freely to say “No” goes to our nation’s very reason for being: to assure that “all men” receive protection of their “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” in a land where the laws operate only by “the consent of the governed.” As a lawyer, I could certainly frame an argument that the draft preserved those values. But as a human being, I know that that would be an Orwellian “freedom is slavery” argument. The draft you and I knew made a mockery of young men’s lives, liberty and pursuit of happiness, and by definition the draft was indifferent to the consent of those it governed at that moment.

Have you forgotten all this, Mr. Haberman? Why, apart from wanting us all to be able to thump our chests like Kelly, do you turn your back on that lesson? It’s not as if we need the draft; our needs for military personnel have been met with volunteers even as we’ve plowed through two endless wars.

So what, then, is your argument? It seems to be that bringing compulsory service back would assure that the middle and upper classes have some skin in the game. You suggest we might not have had those endless wars we’ve had in the all-volunteer era, had the likes of you and me had to send their sons and daughters off to play in that lottery we call war. Well, again, remember Vietnam, Mr. Haberman. There were better-off folks who did not serve, like Donald Trump and (full disclosure) me. But though some deny it, the statistics bear out that the service and the dying did, if somewhat unevenly, involve all classes, and – do you remember this part? – the war still went on and on and on. Nobody could stop it, regardless of the class distribution amongst the warriors, and regardless of the fact that halfway through, the war lost popular support, especially among the better-off classes.

Alternative service?

As to requiring alternative service, this would just establish a regime of involuntary servitude, rightfully unconstitutional under the 13th Amendment. And it is well to remember John Kenneth Galbraith’s comments about the economic effects of the draft:

The draft survives principally as a device by which we use compulsion to get young men to serve at less than the market rate of pay. We shift the cost of military service from the well-to-do taxpayer who benefits by lower taxes to the impecunious young draftee. This is a highly regressive arrangement that we would not tolerate in any other area. Presumably, freedom of choice here as elsewhere is worth paying for.

The exact same principles would apply in the case of young people impressed into public service, which would be one of the “other areas” of which Galbraith wrote. If we had to pay youngsters what their civilian service would be worth, we would in effect be adding millions of decently-compensated employees to the public payroll every year. Morality and principle aside, I seriously doubt we could afford it. And shame on us if we forced young people to work during what should be some of the most productive years of their lives and didn’t pay them right.

Many of those we honor this Veterans Day served because of the draft. Yet we honor them because, whatever compulsion may have led them to do it, they still served to preserve our Constitution and our values. And paradoxically, one of the ways we can best honor the values they served for is to make sure that no one else faces that compulsion.

The draft was an abomination we must never revive. Bite your tongue, Mr. Haberman.

Jack L.B. Gohn is a partner with Gohn, Hankey, Stichel and Berlage LLP. The views expressed here are solely his own. See a longer version, with links to his authorities, at www.thebigpictureandthecloseup.com.


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