A New Conscript | News | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

A New Conscript 

It’s time Americans had a war of words over mandatory military service.

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Saying that war is hell is like saying it’s better to eat than starve. Well, war certainly is not peace. War, if you will, sucks. But don’t take my word for it. Heed the words of our current commander in chief.

It may have taken him more than three years of asymmetrical warfare in Iraq and more than a little needling by Cindy Sheehan to face facts. But, lo, even President George W. Bush has finally come to admit, as he said days ago, that, “War is not a time of joy.”

We can rightfully expect that sort of eloquence from someone who served his Vietnam time with the Texas Air National Guard’s “Champagne Brigade.” Problem is, folks, we as a nation have acted for far too long as if war is no big deal. Safe in the knowledge that most of our children won’t suffer so much as a broken fingernail, secure in the expectation that the Republicans will make those tax cuts permanent and disguise even more financial costs of our wars, we watch as Iraq sinks down the hole of historical folly.

War? That’s for the lower classes of America, or the unusually patriotic, to suffer. It’s for the “volunteers” who, unsure of life’s direction after high school, enlist for adventure and wanton kicking of ass. So the fighting and conduct of our wars is left to those who perpetuated Abu Ghraib. In the worst-case scenario, it’s left to men like Former Pfc. Steven D. Green, who stands accused, along with four other U.S. soldiers, of raping and then burning the body of 14-year old Iraqi girl Abeer Qassim al-Janabi and killing her mother, father and baby sister.

It goes without saying that alleged conduct of this sort is a stain not just on every honorably discharged U.S. veteran, represented by the men and women of the American Legion walking our city this week, but on us all. That, it seems, is the way we like it. The costs of war, the consequences of war, and the tragedy of war have all been placed outside our reach. It’s understandable, to be sure, as few want to incur war’s costs. That’s especially true if, like me, you disagree with the current administration. But it’s also more than a little dishonorable.

Our nation is scraping the bottom of the barrel where active deployment is concerned. Given the manifest arrogance and incompetence of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, it’s a miracle anyone’s willing to fight in Iraq. So the U.S. Army has ordered back 14,000 soldiers since the war’s beginning, and for the first time since most experts can recall, it’s enlisted 3,200 “Category IV” recruits, those scoring at the bottom of the Armed Forces Qualifications Test.

I know that the draft system was rife with abuse of deferments and was full of loopholes during Vietnam. I also know that a return to mandatory military service in this country will never happen regardless whether Republicans or Democrats hold power. I also know that the draft during Vietnam gave this country a jolt of political urgency and made an entire generation of Americans politically and socially aware. That urgency is sorely missing today, in 2006, and will probably go missing through the remainder of our sleepwalkers’ decade as we obsess over real-estate prices and celebrity divorces more than questions of national security and foreign policy that will impact future generations of the world.

Polls showed 62 percent of us supported attacking and occupying Iraq at the invasion’s beginning. As of last month American public support for the war stood at 30 percent. Imagine how much more carefully we might have studied the war’s likelihood of success, its motives and costs, had all American families, not just a few, been subject to risk. Thucydides put it well long ago with these famous words: “For a man’s counsel cannot have equal weight or worth, when he alone has no children to risk in the general danger.”

I never bought the rhetoric of our president’s “war on terror.” The terrorist attacks of 9/11 were by every definition an atrocious act of evil. Even so, a recent Foreign Affairs article by John Mueller points out that, “the total number of people killed since 9/11 by al Qaeda or al Qaeda-like operatives outside of Afghanistan and Iraq is not much higher than the number who drown in bathtubs in the United States in a single year.” Moreover, “the lifetime chance of an American being killed by international terrorism is about one in 80,000'about the same chance of being killed by a comet or meteor.” Statistically, car accidents, falls, murders and obesity still pose far greater threats to our lives and health than do terrorists.

The question, though, for President Bush and his “war on terror” cheerleaders is whether they want the likes of Former Pfc. Steven D. Green fighting their wars, or a group of our country’s best and brightest fighting the feared “Islamofascists.” Even without wild-eyed terrorists to battle, imagine our improved level of preparedness against hurricanes, floods and earthquakes if we implemented a program of mandatory military or social service. Germany, Switzerland and all the Scandinavian nations require mandatory service of some sort.

In their Anti-Conscription Manifesto, Einstein and Gandhi complained, “The State which thinks itself entitled to force its citizens to go to war will never pay proper regard to the value and happiness of their lives in peace.” Given the rising number of Americans without health insurance, that hardly seems true today. More astute was Jean Jacques Rousseau’s assertion that the Roman Empire marked its end when it switched gears from a military of conscripts to one of so-called “professionals.”

In war or peace, whether by military or social service, loss of a nation begins with a loss of collective efforts. We’re a nation divided today, but give us all mandatory service and we’ll at least reach agreement, however forced.

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