The editorial page of the New York Times last Monday was full of war babble, and a peculiar nostalgic longing for past global conflict. Mr. David Douglas Duncan, a veteran and war photographer pines for the days of WWII and Korea when the U.S. fielded vast armies of conscripts to fight for freedom. He is irate that we are fighting terrorism in Iraq with a mere handful of volunteers. We’re not really at war, he claims. We’re investing the equivalent of pocket change and using our volunteers as pawns in “an unspeakable farce.” Remembering WWII and Korea, he ends with the strident cry “Give me yesterday — today!” Yeah, baby, firebombing cities, human wave attacks, and concentration camps — who wouldn’t be nostalgic for that compared to pathetic suicide bombers and frisking civilians at roadblocks.
A Mr. David M. Kennedy expanded on the theme. He bemoaned the civic sloth that allows today’s Imperial America to further its conquests with a mercenary army. We’re not as bad as England’s George III was, opines Mr. Kennedy, hiring foreigners to put down the rebel Colonies in 1776. But we’re bad enough, paying our own people to police the world for us. He is keen to see the return of the draft in order be sure that war remains “the people’s business.” He believes “the life of a robust democratic society should be strenuous; it should make demands on its citizens when they are asked to engage with issues of life and death.” He waxes rhapsodic for the days of the “citizen soldiers” of WWII, where 16 million were put into uniform and the entire economy taken over in a Soviet style command economy to win the good war.
I can work up no enthusiasm for the good old days of military conscription. Neither can the rest of the American public as far as I can see. Although a majority of Americans supposedly still buys the much altered and ever evolving propaganda that we are fighting a monolithic terrorist threat in Iraq, that majority would vanish faster than a politician’s promise in the face of a military draft.
Americans have never been interested in foreign conquest. We’ve always been much more reluctant conquerors than our leaders. Since Woodrow Wilson’s war to make the world safe for democracy, the U.S. has never fielded an army in which the volunteers outnumbered the conscripted. In WWI over three quarters of those who served were draftees. In WWII, even after the Pearl Harbor attack, over 60% of those who joined the military did so at gunpoint. We fought foreign wars in Korea and Viet Nam with mostly drafted soldiers. At the height of the Viet Nam war draftees were suffering 65% of the casualties.
The difference between a drafted soldier and a slave relates only to the length of service, not the nature of the service. What could be more ironic than an army of slaves sallying forth to fight for someone else’s freedom. It’s true that America’s founders believed adamantly in the “citizen soldier,” but only because citizen soldiers were our best defense against invasion. The Founders to a man loathed the idea of a standing army. As they saw it, a well regulated militia, eager to serve in defense of their land and their freedom, would be the only army America would ever need. The Founders and early Americans both would have recognized conscription for the tyranny it is.
It is only the Imperial armies of the twentieth century that have had to force Americans to fight at gunpoint. The first draft, during the Civil War, and ironically on the heels of the Emancipation Proclamation, was met with near universal contempt by those subject to it. The worst riots in the nation’s history followed the first draft in New York City in 1863. Federal troops fresh from the fight at Gettysburg marched into the city to restore peace after five days of lynching, looting and arson. People in those days understood what freedom was. Despite appalling casualty rates, the Civil War was fought almost entirely by volunteers. Fewer than 6% of U.S. soldiers were drafted.
Before America began “making the world safe for democracy” and “spreading freedom throughout the world,” we had no foreign enemies. Today, after 100 years of ever increasing meddling in the affairs of foreigners, America is hard pressed to find a foreign friend. Wars of conquest do not earn friends or spread freedom. Dropping bombs and bossing people around makes people hate us, manufactures terrorists and forces us to trade freedom at home for imaginary safety.
America’s best defense lies not in drafting a huge conquering army, but in removing our soldiers from the 100 or more counties throughout the world where we are pestering the locals and earning enemies. Safety and prosperity lie not in foreign invasion and constant domestic surveillance but in the principles of peaceful commerce, strict neutrality and the safety of an armed and informed citizenry. Americans have no enemies capable of invading our shores; we should stop the unspeakable farce of trying to manufacture them.