Would Conscription Curb US Militarism? Thom Hartmann Thinks So

“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root…”

-Henry David Thoreau

Walden (1854)

Do you ever get the feeling that progressives have run out of ideas? This thought crossed my mind  when I read Thom Hartmann’s “The Draft: A War-Killer” on Truthout.   Hartmann advocates reinstatement of conscription in a “new and improved form.”  He proclaims that the military industrial complex “would finally be held in check if we were to re-instate a draft.” Hartmann seems oblivious to the fact that the military industrial complex grew and prospered with a draft in place.

The hook for Hartmann’s piece is the upcoming tenth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq. “Would we still be in Iraq today,” he asks, “or even have gone to war with Iraq — if there was a military draft in this country?” He claims that the war in Iraq has lasted longer than other major US wars where a draft was in place, such as the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

Right away, Hartmann runs into problems.  The Vietnam war is generally described as having been fought from 1965 to 1975, so it lasted at least as long as Iraq has.  And in actuality the US was involved in Vietnam for years before that.

Hartmann further argues from several flawed premises.  For instance, he claims that conscription is “a great leveler,”  ensuring that people from all backgrounds  share in the sacrifice. But that claim contradicts much of what we now know about the Civil War (in which two out of three Union draftees were hired “substitutes”) and about Vietnam, the last war in which conscription was used.

Former US Vice-President Dick Cheney  received five draft deferments while flunking out of Yale, struggling through six years of college and impregnating his wife (in the nick of time, it turned out). Shotgun Dick famously told the Washington Post,  “I had other priorities in the 60s than military service.”

Cheney’s running mate, former US President George W. Bush (son of George H.W. and grandson of Prescott) protected the America South from a Viet Cong invasion while serving with (and apparently deserting from) Air National Guard Units in Texas and Alabama.

Fellow Republican (and 2012 GOP presidential nominee) Mitt Romney, son of Governor George Romney of Michigan, was granted deferments first as a student and then to serve as a Mormon missionary in France.

To be bi-partisan, I should add that former US President Bill Clinton also received student deferments.  To his credit, Clinton did express moral objections to the war, unlike Cheney, Bush and Romney.  In a letter to an Arkansas ROTC Colonel, Clinton stated, “no government really rooted in limited, parliamentary democracy should have the power to make its citizens fight and kill and die in a war they may oppose, a war which even possibly may be wrong, a war which, in any case, does not involve immediately the peace and freedom of the nation.”  Did you catch that Thom?

But Hartmann is undaunted by the experience of Vietnam.  He thunders, “history shows that when we have a draft, our lawmakers are less enthusiastic to start wars, and more enthusiastic to end them quickly.”  Where is the evidence for this claim?  The government’s actions during Vietnam clearly undermine this notion, but let’s talk about World War I as well.

According to historian James W. Lowen, people may believe that President Woodrow Wilson took the US into World War I reluctantly.  There was a draft, after all!  But this is hard to swallow, since Wilson was a serial interventionist. Under Wilson, the US armed forces “intervened in Latin America more often than at any other time in our history” (Lies My Teacher Told Me, p.16).  Wilson’s administration also actively aided the “White” side in the Russian Civil War.  And how did Wilson react to those, like Emma Goldman, who agitated against conscription during these years?  With swift repression, of course.

Surely Hartmann is aware of all this.  But he imagines that we will get it right this time around: “As part of a draft, we should be asking young Americans to give 1 or 2 years of their life to serve their country, not just in the military, but also, alternatively, in civilian programs like Americorps, to volunteer in hospitals and schools, or to care for our nation’s elderly and disabled people.”

But the government would not be “asking” young Americans to do anything.  That’s not how conscription works.  If young Americans resisted Thom Hartmann’s draft, like their forebears did during Vietnam and World War I, the government would turn to force as it has done before.  Hartmann and progressives like him misunderstand the nature of the state, which makes them naive and potentially dangerous.

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