Dear Congressman Rangel,
I got a chance to meet you briefly as you left the stage at your braintrust meeting on the ongoing war on Iraq at the national CBC gathering yesterday. You offered me a minute to address my concerns about your proposed bill for a return to the draft. I'd be glad to visit your office if you have time to see me, but I thought I would lay out for you my main concerns in this note.
Let me say first that as a draft counselor, GI counselor and veterans advocate all during the Vietnam era and since, I agree with your position that the burden of military duty is not universally or equally shared, and that under our current "poverty draft" or economic conscription program a disproportionately large number of poor people and people of color fill the ranks. I have been concerned about this discriminatory aspect to the situation since I began counseling. I work currently in the DC high schools to counter the misleading claims of military recruiters and to provide civilian options and alternatives to youth of color and women in DC who are, in my view, put at risk statistically by military service.
However, I do not believe that engineering a draft, however "universal" it is, will resolve this disparity, and this is why:
- During the Vietnam period, draft boards and the Selective Service System took an even more disproportionate level of Blacks and people of color than the current poverty draft system does. Blacks made up 55% of all draftees, and a lower percentage of enlisted during Vietnam. Currently they comprise 36% of the overall "volunteer" force. Thus, the draft system was more systematically racist and discriminatory than the current system. That does not mean I see the current system as correct, but I will pursue that issue below.
- While college and job deferments were part of the class discrimination that filtered poor, undereducated and people of color into the services under the draft, there were other factors as well. Draft boards tended to be predominantly white and educated, with many former military members serving on them. SSS Director General Hershey once compared the draft to "an uncomfortably warm room with a number of pre-selected doors", that was geared to accomplish social engineering goals that were more directly accomplished "by foreign dictators for their youth". The Selective Service System obviously was not random, but served broader social goals and agendas.
- You make the point that currently few of the sons and daughters of members of Congress are not serving in the war on Iraq, and that military service does not affect the children of the well to do or better educated elements of the society. Instead it appeals to those who, like yourself, see it as a way to improve their social and economic situation and to afford college. Especially for women and people of color, these prove to be false hopes in most cases. Recently discharged African-American males are twice as unemployed and four times as homeless as their neighbors who never join the military. Not only do they not learn useful job skills (90% of veterans polled say this), but they face a much higher rate of courts-martial and less than honorable discharge (twice the level of all enlisted), which marks them for life for legal employment discrimination. All this is true, and yet during the Vietnam era no son of a Congressman was ever drafted and very few served in the war.
- Even if the only deferments/exemptions that remain in your draft bill are those required by decency, common sense and law (i.e. family hardship, medical and conscientious objection), those able to discern, document, articulate and secure these deferments will also reflect the class/race/educational divides of the society. I spent half my time as a draft counselor on a college campus, the other half in the poor white and Black communities of Dayton, Ohio. I know the difference in making a winning case first hand, and the obstacles people of color face. Even though the current composition of trained draft boards set for a mobilization is more diverse, these factors will still protect the very rich. Non-registration and exile will again become popular if they feel forced to serve, despite the penalties. And objectors of conscience, unless treated fairly, will also refuse to serve and face jail sentences again. I do not want to relive that era.
- This is perhaps my most telling point. Even if you could somehow pass a law that would bring a truly diverse and demographically representative cross-section of the population to the gate of the US military and force them to serve (and I would argue you cannot), they will be entering the most structured racist, classist and sexist institution in the society. Their placement, job assignments, rank and treatment will reflect the biases of the greater society in an even more dramatic way. The front lines of Vietnam were predominantly Black and Hispanic with a few white officers. This has not changed substantially, though women and white troops make up more of the combat support ranks nowadays.
Fearing the same response that the Vietnam war brought from troops of color near its end, GI's massed at the border of Kuwait during the first Gulf war were never issued live rounds for their weapons until they day they actually engaged into Kuwait to fight the Iraq forces. The educated, well to do sons and daughters of Congress will not be serving on the front lines of combat, but would be afforded jobs in intelligence and other work far from actual war zones. The ASVAB test used to determine every enlisted member's MOS (military occupation specialty) has been evaluated by educational testing experts who say it is both race and gender biased. Thus, even if you could draft in a diverse swath of society, the roles they would play and the burdens they would face would remain essentially the same in my view.
- Introducing a draft will make it even more likely that the President and administration in power will go to war because they will have an inexhaustible supply of manpower. Despite claims that the volunteer military is creating a "professional" Army, and the counter-claims that the draft equalizes and "civilianizes" the military, these are both false. The officers and generals who plan the wars and make the policies will continue to come primarily from the military academies, the JROTC units at the colleges, and to a much smaller extent from those who rise from the ranks due to education and articulation. The lower ranking enlisted and the draftee alike have little to say about the nature or conduct of the military except "yes, Sir!". In fact, the resistance in the ranks against the war in Vietnam rose first and primarily from the enlisted troops, not from the draftees.
The current "Total Force Doctrine" proposed by then General Colin Powell and in place since the war on Grenada, has put the reserve units into combat before the active duty, and in much larger numbers. These reservists, serving out their eight year enlistment agreements, and their families, are not happy with this arrangement. Active duty troops are sent into Iraq with a certain return date, reservists are not. Just prior to the conflict with Iraq, according to a government study, the rate of AWOL in the ranks rose to 200 a day. Enlisted members demand something in return from the military in ways draftees, despite their unwillingness, rarely do. But, a large standing military, with an endless supply of troops to conscript, is much more likely to be used abroad than a reasonably sized and funded truly volunteer military geared for actual defense. Thus a draft, rather than making Congress and the upper class think twice about going to war, will encourage them to expand the conflicts.
- In my experience, middle class and working families had no trouble telling their sons to go off to Vietnam because it was their "duty to country". You speak of making military service and the sacrifice to country more fair or equitable by putting in a draft. Even if it could, there is a deeper set of questions that have to be asked. What is the nature of the "sacrifice" we are asking military members to make? Is it truly in defense of the country or in the national interest? Is it based on sound foreign policy and really a last resort to all other known options? Is it a "war that will not end in our lifetime" or a well planned and calculated short term strategy with an exit plan? Will it result in more or less security and international stability, or in more war and terrorism? Will the individual enlisted be treated fairly on the way in, during and after they survive and get out of the military. I ask these questions because in my view and that of many other Americans, the wars we have taken part in since the end of WWII do not meet these criteria.
- And perhaps most important of all, is the conflict based on lies and is it morally defensible? To make an analogy, would it have made the genocide of Germany in WWII more "fair and equitable" if a proportionately representative segment of their youth had been conscripted into rotating duty at the concentration camps or in the wars of aggression abroad? This may not seem an apt analogy since wars and domestic policies in the United States are at least nominally approved by the Congress and a democratic method, not by the President alone. Yet, despite an overwhelming public response ratio of 400-1,000 to one in most Congressional mail and communications from the public opposing the resolution to give President Bush the power to wage an undeclared war on Aghanistan and Iraq, only one Congress member stood up against the tide of acquiesence to that request for extra-Constitutional power.
What say do the American people really have in the conception or conduct of the wars we are being asked to participate in and sacrifice for? And what right do individual service members have to exercise their conscience in favor of international laws of war and common decency once they are under military command in wartime?
I was sad to see that the language of the draft bill you proposed actually reversed the rights of conscientious objectors to war at a time when they need to be expanded. There were more objectors filing for discharge at the start of Operation Desert Storm than during Vietnam, many of them Muslims and Black troops, but their claims were ignored under the "stop-loss" mobilization regulations and they were forced to refuse orders to battle instead. Some were beaten, shackled and sent to the front lines as they had been during WWI, and makeshift prisons were built in Saudi Arabia to house thousands of Black objectors in the field during the first Gulf War. Most ended up with punitive discharges instead of their legal and moral rights.
- In my view, the solution does not lie in a debate between a paper draft and a poverty draft. It lies in the nature of the US military itself and the wars it is being called on to wage abroad. Our military forces have been engaged around the world since the end of WWII, and not merely in defense of the United States, but in "containment" policies and in support of "anti-Communist" dictatorships abroad, in both overt wars and covert operations for 50 years that have gained us many enemies around the globe.
The placement of US forces abroad has more to do with the location of strategic resources than it does with protecting political ideals or ideologies. We have put far more dictators and oppressive regimes in power and propped up their corrupt rule than we have established any sort of true democratic or popular rule. The "democracy" we want to spread abroad has more to do with hand-picked leaders that will support the "structural adjustments" of the IMF/World Bank and the so-called global "free market" than with the aspirations of the people in a given society. If the American people knew the real history and role our troops have been forced to play abroad, they might view the Pentagon in a different light.
Thus, I believe the real solution lies in making the Pentagon and the military truly democratic institutions within a broader democracy. The size and budget of the military, its role abroad and at home, its proper function, and the wars it will be called on to carry out should be decided by the public as a whole, not behind closed doors by a few, or by entrenched committees of a Congress made up primarily of former veterans, and others beholden to the campaign funding and lucrative contracts of the military-industrial complex in their states.
- Right now, the Pentagon is a sacred cow, exempt from effective oversight or criticism, and bloated with the majority of the discretionary tax budget. It is a huge military, even by the standards of the size of our society, and its funding outpaces all the rest of the world combined. It is the last bastion of undemocratic internal rule, still functioning on a Prussian autocratic model that has long been abandoned by all other industrialized countries. It is the employer of last resort and yet few benefit from the promises it makes to them.
Only 35% of those eligible use the GI Educational Bill funds, and only 15% graduate from college. Many are not eligible for the fund even if they paid in for it, and they forfeit those payments at discharge. Thus the military has made over $2 billion on the program, while Black enlistment rates have risen and Black college enrollment rates have declined. The benefits available to veterans after WWI, Korea and even Vietnam have disappeared in large part, and even current Veteran medical and other benefits were slashed in Congress on the same day they voted the current group of enlisted members into Iraq. Veterans with bad discharges face 65-100% employment discrimination in the civilian world, and over 70% of the homeless in our streets are military veterans. The psychological and physical costs of war have still not been properly assessed or addressed by the VA or the society as a whole, including the rise in domestic and other violence by military veterans, combat and non-combat alike. Health issues resulting from exposure to Agent Orange and Depleted Uranium have yet to be recognized or fully compensated or treated by the VA.
I applaud your efforts to raise the issue of class and race discrimination in times of war and in relation to military service. They need to be raised inside the military as well as outside. I know you primarily wanted to force the issue into public visibility and debate, which you did. As the Iraq war grows and the planned conflicts expand, there is already pressure for more troops. The Pentagon knows the cost of a paper draft, politically and otherwise. They abandoned Selective Service in the 1970s because they could only get one out of four to report for induction. There was no rise in enlistments after 9/11. They rely on the poverty draft instead. But, we must not address that discrepancy in isolation from the issues of the military and the wars.
If we make the entire system truly democratic, then people will join because they want to, and from pride of duty and sacrifice for real democracy, and they will be treated accordingly. Right now, it might feel more fair to distribute the misery of serving in these misguided wars, but as would have been the case in my analogy about conscripted service in German concentration camps, there are larger issues that must be faced instead.
Thanks for your time and consideration,
C.H.O.I.C.E.S. (Committee for High School Options and Information on Careers, Education and Self-Improvement)