In 2011 I sat on a panel discussion at King’s Books in Tacoma, Washington, on the subject of the effect of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on soldiers and their families. My prepared remarks were a discussion of the impact of repeated deployments on the families I saw on the labor and delivery floor where I worked, but during the discussion after I was startled to hear a forceful call for the re-reinstatement of the draft from one of my fellow panelists- a call that met with widespread cheers from the audience.
Since then I’ve seen many, many more calls for a draft from ostensibly anti-interventionist voices, most recently in Andrew Bacevich’s latest book. The underlying premise of these calls, sometimes made explicit and sometimes not, is that a draft would stop America’s lust for war and foreign interventions because it would force the burdens of war to be spread more equally. The draft has been damned, and rightly so, for being a form of slavery and at times a particularly murderous one at that, but even those who might get the vapors at the idea of seeing American solders as slaves cannot deny the simple historical fact that the draft has never, ever- not once- stopped or slowed or in any way inhibited the conduct of a war.
The first American war fought with conscription was the first American war, the Revolution, and it was fought all the way to its conclusion. The next war fought with conscripts, the Civil War, claimed more American lives than any other and while the draft helped provoke some riots, most notably a draft protest turned anti-black pogrom in New York City, that war too was fought all the way to the bloody finish. The First and Second World Wars as well were fought largely with draftees and fought to the bitter end, in the latter case with the immolation of two major cities by a hideous new weapon delivered by aircraft in part manned by draftees.
Korea and especially Vietnam form what the pro-draft lobby thinks of as the lynchpin of their case. The conventional narrative of resistance to the war in Vietnam is of Middle America tiring of seeing its sons’ lives destroyed by Westmoreland’s war of attrition and rising up, of LBJ allegedly saying “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Supposedly the marches in the streets somehow persuaded the American government to leave Vietnam. What this narrative leaves out is what actually stopped the American war in Vietnam- the Vietnamese.
The American Revolution, the Civil War, the World Wars- for the American government, these were all victorious wars. Victory is very popular; victorious wars, however obviously aggressive or absurdly unjust, rarely generate any significant resistance. But in Vietnam, America was not winning. America was losing, and badly. Middle America was in the streets against Vietnam, it is true, but they weren’t there because Johnny was coming home in a box. They were there because Johnny was losing.
The pro-draft narrative of domestic resistance to the Vietnam War is at heart a racist, imperialist narrative, denying the Vietnamese their place as actors in their own history, giving pride of place to white Americans holding signs in the street over Vietnamese peasants giving their lives to drive out yet another imperialist power coming to lord over their country. What stopped the Vietnam War was not a college kid with a sign; it was a rice farmer with an AK-47. Americans only get upset about draftees dying when they are dying in a losing war, and credit for resistance to such wars goes not to Americans at home but to the victims of the American government abroad.
The idea that if only everyone had to share the burden, war would be less popular seems intuitive and appealing, but history reveals it to be deluded. Victory makes wars popular, and defeat makes them unpopular. To try to stop the war machine from inside the imperial center, we must do whatever we can to gum up its works, be it counter-recruiting, supporting GI resistance, spreading awareness about the costs of militarism, tax resistance, or anything else that might help. And while we might debate their ultimate aims as Communists in Vietnam or Islamic radicals in Iraq, we must always remember that the people who do the most to stop the war machine are the people who take up arms against it.
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