Archive for the ‘military’ Category

War is the End; the State is the Means

April 27, 2011

Just finished reading Nicholson Baker’s piece on pacifism in the latest Harper’s. It dovetails nicely with some other thinking I’ve been doing lately. Specifically, I’m remembering the ten years of the Vietnam War, and what it felt like at the time, and trying to figure out why Americans, even those most opposed to the current ten-year wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are so much less passionate in their opposition than we were to the Vietnam War. One of the major differences, of course, is that we have no military draft today.

I was very active in the struggle against the draft during the Vietnam War, and got the ultimate rush, 20 years later, when one of my students, in a discussion of relatively recent history, literally could not remember the words “draft” or “conscription.” By George, I thought. We really did it! Many of my more radical friends and colleagues, at the time, predicted that ending the draft would take a lot of the juice out of opposition to any future wars. I allowed that they were probably right, but that even so the unspeakably hard choice to kill or not kill ought not to be forced on any unwilling person. I still believe that. But it’s obvious that, without a draft, this war, or the next or the next after that, could conceivably go on forever. That’s how all those European wars—the Seven Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War, the Hundred Years’ War—got to be so interminable. They were not fought with conscript armies. Neither were the conquests that built and maintained the Roman Empire over 400 years, or the British Empire for 200+ years..

Baker takes up the issue based on what most of us have seen as the ultimate hard case against pacifism, the Second World War/the Holocaust. If you assume, as most of us have after the fact, that the war was necessary to save what was left of the Jews in Europe, then how could one argue against it? What originally disabused me of that notion was reading Arthur Morse’s While Six Million Died, published in 1967. Subsequent research only strengthens the premise of that book—the Second World War may or may not have put an end to the slaughter of the Jews of Europe, but it clearly was not fought for that purpose. We need to disentangle the war from the Holocaust to make sense of either of them.

In point of fact, to be sure, the Holocaust and World War II went on at more or less the same time, and were instigated by a lot of the same people. But they were very different phenomena. They gave rise to very different responses (even from the same people.) And, while they were causally inextricably related to each other, that relationship was almost unimaginably complex. The war provided a pretext for the Holocaust, as war almost always provides a pretext for oppression (up to and including murder) of noncombatant minorities, viz. the Armenians. And the Holocaust, ultimately, obstructed the Nazi conduct of the war, probably fatally. Hitler wasted resources on killing Jews and other “inferior” races that he could have devoted to beating the Allies. (Which may partially account for the reluctance of the Allies to do anything that might have impeded the Holocaust.) He expelled from Germany the Jewish and anti-Nazi scientists who might have given Germany the nuclear bomb. The Six Million, arguably, were martyrs to the Allied victory. Without their deaths, that victory might never have happened.

Those who opposed the Nazis at the time, both in Germany and elsewhere, opposed them, not because of their treatment of Jews and other minorities, but for pretty much the same reasons the Allies had opposed Germany in World War I and the democratic forces in Germany had opposed the Kaiser. Hitler was well on the way to conquering the world. In the course of doing so, he had eliminated most of the hard-won democratic rights enshrined into law in the Weimar Republic. Which is what happens to the civil liberties of citizens in almost any war. Good enough reasons, to be sure, and by no means to be sneered at. But even the staunchest anti-Nazis, at home and abroad, at best had little concern for the Jews, and at worst viewed the racist Nuremberg Laws as one of Hitler’s few good moves. This was as true of anti-Nazi resistance in occupied countries as in Germany itself. Indeed, there were anti-Nazi partisan units in Eastern Europe that killed Jews in their spare time, when Nazi-fighting got slow.

The British found it inconvenient to notice the plight of the Jews, because they were being called on to respond by opening up Mandate Palestine to Jewish refugees, at the expense of British relations with the Arabs. The Americans stayed out of the war until Pearl Harbor was bombed, fortuitously, by the Japanese–because American public opinion tended to side with the Germans against the Jews, but could easily enough be swayed against non-whites who had had the nerve to bomb American territory. The French had no choice but to respond to the invasion of their territory–but their struggle against the Nazis stopped short of any serious effort to protect French citizens of Jewish ancestry, much less alien Jewish refugees from further east. Indeed, rounding up Jews was one of the few activities in which many of the French cooperated willingly or even enthusiastically with the Germans.

The allied War Crimes Trials in Nuremberg made clear what the Allies considered to be the real offenses of the Nazis: violation of treaties, making of aggressive warfare, and torture and murder of Allied prisoners of war. The Nuremberg trials had virtually nothing to say about Nazi treatment of enemy civilians, and nothing whatever about Nazi mistreatment and murder of German and Austrian citizens. It was left to the Israelis and the successor governments of the formerly occupied countries to prosecute those crimes. Obviously none of them were in any shape to do so until at least the 1950s. By then many of the major war criminals were safely hidden away on other continents.

The switching of gears came in the 1960s. It was partly precipitated by the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann (and Hannah Arendt’s in-depth coverage of it) between 1961 and 1963, and partly by the intensification of the Vietnam War. At that point, hawks, especially liberal hawks like the Henry Jackson faction of the Democratic Party, were holding up World War II as a shining example of a just war fought to protect a helpless minority against a marauding dictator, and a model for U.S. participation in the Vietnam War. It was the American war machine which, in the words of Herman Wouk, “kept my grandmother from being turned into soap.” Draft boards and congressional hawks stated over and over again that opposition to the Vietnam War was equivalent to the America Firsters’ opposition to American participation in World War II, which in turn was tantamount to endorsing the Holocaust. The “war crimes” actually tried at Nuremberg were hardly ever mentioned–except occasionally by anti-war advocates. Pro-war forces gave up their use of the Holocaust analogy only after the My Lai massacre, when it became fairly obvious that the U.S. military was killing at least as many civilians as the Viet Cong.

In the Vietnam and post-Vietnam rationale, the reason the Nazis were Bad People was their murder of helpless civilians, especially Jews. American World War II movies made in the ’60s and after often portrayed German soldiers who weren’t in the SS as “good Germans”, tragically honorable men doing what any patriotic citizen would do (including, presumably, aiding and abetting all the crimes prosecuted at Nuremberg), as opposed to the “bad Germans” who ran concentration camps. It might be inhumane to put civilians into concentration camps and gas them, but strafing, shelling, or dropping bombs on them from overhead was just a normal exercise of warrior morality, i.e., the same sort of thing our warriors were doing.

Getting back to Baker, he goes into considerably more detail than Morse about pacifist opposition, and the reasoning behind it, to American participation in World War II. Many of the pacifists of that era, including important Jewish spokesmen, accepted well before our time the premise that the purpose of any such participation was to save the European Jews, and by extension the Jews in the rest of the world not yet directly threatened by Hitler. But why not find some way to save the Jews that did not involve widening the war? they asked. “The Jews needed immigration visas, not Flying Fortresses. And who was doing their best to get them visas, as well as food, money, and hiding places? Pacifists were,” Baker points out. Moreover, if the purpose of the war was to stop Hitler, war might be precisely contraindicated. “…what fighting Hitlerism meant in practice was…the five-year-long Churchillian experiment of undermining German ‘morale’ by dropping magnesium fire-bombs and 2,000-pound blockbusters on various city centers. The firebombing killed and displaced a great many innocent people—including Jews in hiding—and obliterated entire neighborhoods. It was supposed to cause an anti-Nazi revolution, but it didn’t….If you drop things on people’s heads, they get angry and unite behind their leader. This was, after all, just what happened during the Blitz in London.”

Baker takes a perspective on the Holocaust that I found startling: that it was “the biggest hostage crisis of all time.” Hitler’s threats against the Jews of Europe were largely unfulfilled before the US entered the war. Many anti-war activists proposed negotiating at that point, when the US still had something to offer in exchange for the lives of Europe’s Jews. Holocaust historians Saul Friedländer and Roderick Stackelberg suggest that, although Hitler had long planned the killing of all Jews under German control, “its full implementation may have been delayed until the US entered the war. Now the Jews under German control had lost their potential value as hostages.” The first extermination camp, Chelmno, began operations, coincidentally (?), on December 8, 1941. Pacifist and near-pacifist advocates continued to call for “peace without victory”, an end to military operations in Europe on condition that the Jews be allowed safe passage out of Europe. It was not a popular suggestion among Allied politicians. Among the excuses for not even considering this possibility were Churchill’s statement that “[e]ven were we to obtain permission to withdraw all Jews, transport alone presents a problem which will be difficult of solution.” Anthony Eden, his foreign secretary, told the American Secretary of State that “Hitler might well take us up on any such offer, and there simply are not enough ships and means of transportation in the world to handle them.” This from the engineers of the Dunkirk evacuation two years earlier, who had gotten nearly 340,000 men from the French beaches to England in a mere nine days!

Baker is either a nicer person than I, or just more cautious. These lame obfuscations make it obvious to most modern readers that the Brits—and the US State Department—would not have wanted a massive influx of Jewish refugees even if all of them had somehow grown wings to fly themselves out of Europe. The real point was that both countries had a lingering substrate of anti-semitism to deal with, both in the general population and among their diplomatic apparatchiks in particular. Many of their citizens were likely to be lukewarm in their support of the war if they thought its purpose had anything to do with saving Jews. The diplomatic establishments were nice enough to consider acknowledging this in official communications to be a breach of etiquette, but not decent enough to overcome it with an offer to save Jewish lives. If the Jews were to be saved, the Anglo-Saxon alliance was declaring, it would have to be as an incidental—or perhaps even accidental–by-product of a war being fought for utterly different reasons.

If even World War II, for which the most noble and humanitarian purposes have since been adduced, was not in fact fought for those purposes, what does that say about the rest of the wars which have bloodied the world since humans first aglommerated into groups large enough to have wars? What are the real reasons for war?

The first and most obvious one is They hit Us first. Beginning with the first blood feud, this becomes problematic, because each “first blow” from Them always turns out to be a response to a pre-first blow from Us, and so on. So let’s abandon that game, or at least recognize it for the fraud it is.

The next most popular reason is They might hit Us first, if We don’t hit Them first,which is vulnerable to the same realities.

Then there’s if We don’t hit Them, Those Other Guys Over There might think We’re weenies and start hitting Us. In this age of universal publicity, it should be fairly easy to deal with this proposition without actually hitting anybody.

The fact that both sides, in any war, can come up with some reason for their behavior makes it pretty clear that those reasons are really nothing but excuses.

So if there are no bona fide purposes for war, why do we do it?

I suspect that this hypothesis isn’t even original, but war is not a means to achieve an end. If it were, many of those ends might be achievable by other means. Somehow, that never happens. Because war isn’t a means, it’s an end. Clausewitz to the contrary notwithstanding, war is not the continuation of politics by other means. It is the purpose of politics. It is the purpose of the nation-state (and the street gang, and the clan, and arguably the religion, and maybe even the family.) Domestic politics, and government, and the arts of peace are merely things to do in the interval between wars, to give the crew time and resources to break down the set, get the audience out, build up the new sets, find a new script and get all the lines learned, and then get the new audience in. In the American political context, the Republican party is more honest about this. The Democrats are willing to help us fool ourselves that we don’t choose war. Like Michael Corleone in his declining years, we just get pulled into it against our will because we’re such nice guys. The post-Vietnam series of wars and incursions—Panama, the Balkans, Lebanon, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan—aren’t an aberration. Vietnam was the blip. Vietnam was the play to which we reacted as if it involved real people dying real deaths. Abolishing the draft has revived the concept of the “theater of war.” Vesti la giubba.

Red Emma

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Same Old Song II; or Some Dilemmas of Democracy

April 5, 2011

We have never established a rule for when a reply is long enough to become a post, but I suspect this one may reach that limit. It is not merely the “defense” establishment that stays while presidents come and go, but a few other eternal verities.

One is that, while the House of Representatives is constitutionally entrusted with both the power of the purse and the power to make war, it has had no serious chance to use the two in tandem as the Framers intended for well over a century. This is partly a technological problem. As every grade-schooler who paid attention in American History knows, the Battle of New Orleans was fought well after the War of 1812 had ended in a peace treaty, simply because, at the time, communications were limited by the speed of horse and sail. Now, wars can happen, and be ended, literally in a blink of an eye. The power of the purse becomes merely the power to pay the debts already incurred during that blink. That’s the theoretical limit.

In real life, wars take a bit longer to get started, but nowhere near as long as getting a declaration of war through Congress. And the power of the purse becomes a nullity if we already have “boots on the ground” and Congress could accomplish nothing by refusing to fund them except to leave the boots on the ground with no resources to maintain or defend themselves or even catch the next flight home.

The second problem became apparent in the run-up to the First Gulf War. Amazingly, both houses of Congress seriously debated our entry into that war for several days, before actually embarking on it. The ultimate result was, of course, a nearly unanimous vote in favor of the war (see the next paragraph for explanation.) But a good deal of time was consumed by war advocates proclaiming that such debate was “premature” since the war had not yet broken out. Debate over the Vietnam War, which took place almost entirely after the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, involved at least the same amount of argument that it was “too late” to deliberate whether the war was a Good Thing, since we were already in it. Apparently there is a split-second in time, known only to Stephen Hawking, when it is neither too early nor too late to debate entering a war. It probably happens at 4:30 AM Eastern time, when both houses of Congress are asleep in their beds.

The third problem is that, once the executive branch has decided on a war, they become not merely the object of patriotism but its voice, and anyone who disagrees becomes, at best, the loyal opposition or the honored but ignored voice of an outworn pacifism (like Jeanette Rankin, bless her soul), and at worst a pack of traitors. Often, even those who argued against the war in the early part of the debate end up voting for it in the end, to provide a show of “unanimity” in support of national goals.

The first thing those arguing against the war have to do is disclaim pacifism. Senator Obama himself did a fine job of this in his speech opposing the Iraq War, when he stated that he wasn’t against all wars, just against dumb wars. Being against all wars renders an American politician permanently unfit for office, since a pacifist Commander in Chief is a contradiction in terms. Being against unjust wars might leave a Catholic politician among the legitimate competitors, except that it has been a long time since the US was involved in a war that plausibly met the Augustinian qualifications for justice. Or, for that matter, an intelligent war.

The next thing an opponent of the currently debated war has to do is proclaim his loyalty to and support for our brave men and women in the field, no matter how pointless and iniquitous the task they are commanded to accomplish. As pointed out earlier, this utterly precludes using the power of the purse to stop the war, and thereby turns the constitution into a nullity.

Only then can the opponent start talking about the merits. One of the few issues that is still a matter for legitimate disagreement in such debates is whether we go to war alone or with allies. Bush Senior gets a lot less praise than he deserves for his coalition-building in the First Gulf War, which enabled him to fight that war mostly on other people’s money, and with no foot-dragging by the UN or NATO. It put us in the position of being a mercenary army for the Europeans and Japanese, who needed Kuwaiti oil a lot more than we did. But it left us in a considerably better financial position than Bush Junior’s device of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq “off the books.” These days, “multilateralism” has a bad name in some quarters. Real macho nations go it on their own—and on their own money, which they then borrow from the Chinese. This issue needs revisiting, preferably before we go to war with the Chinese.

The financial issue is rarely raised until the war is actually over. By that time, it is too late to ask whether we can afford it. All we can do is try to figure out how to pay for it. The last time we looked at the money issue up front was in World War II, when Roosevelt had already decided we had bloody well better pay for it. He spent most of the war borrowing the money from American citizens. Wars are not paid for out of discretionary income, because wars, once decided on, are not discretionary. The Vietnam War was paid for by short-circuiting the War on Poverty, and by inflating the currency, rather than by raising taxes as we had done during WWII. Shortly thereafter, we decided that inflation, like raising taxes, was a bad thing. Now we pay for wars by viewing every other item in the budget (now, apparently, including even Social Security and Medicare) as discretionary, and by not noticing inflation as long as it affects only ordinary working people.

The one great force of modern economics to which even the “defense” establishment is not immune is privatization of governmental functions. So far, it extends only to what would otherwise be considered “staff” and “logistics” functions of the military, such as food, housing, transportation, and intelligence. Oddly, the private-sector jobs thereby created don’t seem to make a dent in the unemployment statistics—is this another idea worth revisiting? Could we balance the economy by putting 5 million unemployed civilians to work peeling potatoes in Kabul, suffering all the dangers and difficulties of military service at minimum wage with no benefits, no job security, and no legal rights except those provided by the Uniform Code of Military Justice? Donald Trump, call your office.

And finally, the “defense” establishment has to deal with the problem posed by a former Secretary of Defense: you go to war with the army you have, not the army you want. Now, that apparently means that you go to war with a bunch of overfed, overweight, undereducated, unhealthy people, many of them with minor criminal records, who can’t find jobs in the civilian sector. Watch this space for announcements that Boot Camp has now become a Fat Farm, and Advanced Individual Training now starts with basic literacy. You heard it here first, folks.

Red Emma, with assistance from her beloved brother, Ben Trovato

It’s the Same Old Song…

April 4, 2011

Maybe it’s the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Or one of the pale imitations that sprang up in WWII. One of the ever-so-alluring melodies of a “good war.” Given half a chance, most of us—and even worse, most of our presidents–really want to be the good guys in somebody else’s revolution, the Lafayette to somebody else’s Washington. We may have other motives lurking underneath, like oil, but that one is the hardest to ignore. And now Obama, whom I would have expected to be immune to that nostalgic passion, has been hit hard by it.

It shouldn’t surprise me all that much. In 1964, my first election, I voted for Johnson precisely because he was such a seasoned politician. Too self-interested, I thought, to blow up the world. Nobody blows up the world out of self-interest. Clausewitz says so. (What he actually says is something like he is presuming that the opposing parties do not possess any weapon capable of utterly destroying each other, which is why it’s reasonable to consider war a pursuit of politics by other means.) And so long after the fact, it’s hard to figure out how much self-interest and how much yearning for a good war comprised his motivation for lying us into Vietnam. But it is absolutely clear that he was motivated by both.

And then there was Jimmy Carter, who apparently thought the Ayatollah was a brave and saintly rebel against the evil Shah, until the American hostages got locked up. Everything that happened after that was fumbling, because he still had a hard time grasping how the Iranian Revolution had gone wrong (or maybe, that it had never gone right in the first place.)

And even Clinton, who insisted on intervening in the Balkans based on the really awful things the Serbs were doing to everybody else in the neighborhood—where, I asked myself, was the draft dodger I had voted for?

Of course, Woodrow Wilson, who “kept us out of war” just long enough to get re-elected before getting us into WWI, wasn’t a particularly great example either. The only president I can recall who promised to get us out of a war and actually did it was Eisenhower.

All of this should be going up on the wall beside my list of never-believes, like “Never trust a person who says ‘trust me.’” Or, as Nelson Algren says, “never eat at a place called Ma’s, never buy a used car from a man who calls himself Honest John, and never sleep with anybody who has more troubles than you do.” Never vote for a presidential candidate who promises to get or keep us out of a war, unless you really want a war.

Is there a chance Libya won’t turn into another Iraq? Apparently, Ghadafy is trying to work things out diplomatically, preferably by letting his son inherit and sort of clean up the family business. It might even work. But we ought to have figured out by this time that, when you elect somebody to an office that includes the title of Commander in Chief, you’re handing a gun to a 12-year-old, and the best you can hope for is that he knows how to use it without shooting anybody he’s not trying to hit.

Daniel Ellsberg has a slightly different take on all this. For him, it’s not the title or the frills that turn a rational animal into a predator. It’s the super-classified information you get, that almost nobody else has access to:

“First, you’ll be exhilarated by some of this new information, and by having it all — so much! incredible! — suddenly available to you. But second, almost as fast, you will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn’t, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn’t even guess. In particular, you’ll feel foolish for having literally rubbed shoulders for over a decade with some officials and consultants who did have access to all this information you didn’t know about and didn’t know they had, and you’ll be stunned that they kept that secret from you so well.

“You will feel like a fool, and that will last for about two weeks. Then, after you’ve started reading all this daily intelligence input and become used to using what amounts to whole libraries of hidden information, which is much more closely held than mere top secret data, you will forget there ever was a time when you didn’t have it, and you’ll be aware only of the fact that you have it now and most others don’t….and that all those other people are fools.

“Over a longer period of time — not too long, but a matter of two or three years — you’ll eventually become aware of the limitations of this information. There is a great deal that it doesn’t tell you, it’s often inaccurate, and it can lead you astray just as much as the New York Times can. But that takes a while to learn.

“In the meantime it will have become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn’t have these clearances. Because you’ll be thinking as you listen to them: ‘What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know? Would he be giving me the same advice, or would it totally change his predictions and recommendations?’ And that mental exercise is so torturous that after a while you give it up and just stop listening. I’ve seen this with my superiors, my colleagues….and with myself.

“You will deal with a person who doesn’t have those clearances only from the point of view of what you want him to believe and what impression you want him to go away with, since you’ll have to lie carefully to him about what you know. In effect, you will have to manipulate him. You’ll give up trying to assess what he has to say. The danger is, you’ll become something like a moron. You’ll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours.” (http://motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2010/02/daniel-ellsberg-limitations-knowledge)

Oddly enough, the History Channel, and writers like Dan Brown, may be our best defense against this problem. They tell us up front that our world is run by an intersecting cabal of hidden rulers who know things the rest of us will never know because they will never permit us to learn them. The Secret Brotherhood of the Tasmanian Illuminati is as good an explanation as any for what happens to American presidents once they get elected. Dan Brown and his ilk seem to have a plan to overthrow the Secret Brotherhood—subvert some of the people best qualified to belong to it, before they come to power. Sneak people into Harvard, and Princeton, and Skull and Bones, and Opus Dei, who will survive the initiation without losing their moral compass. People like Dan Ellsberg, in fact (alumnus of Harvard, the US Marine Corps, and the RAND corporation.) Bradley Manning doesn’t exactly fit this profile, nor does Julian Assange; technology may have changed the prerequisites for the job of mole in the Illuminati. But arguably, that’s the real purpose of a liberal arts education—to train both the next generation of the Illuminati and a few moles to keep them honest. In the meantime, if you are confronted with a choice between two presidential candidates, both more or less equally qualified except that one promises to end a war, or not to start one, you might as well flip a coin. You’ll get the same results.

Red Emma

The Benedict Arnold Option

April 19, 2010

“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” (E.M. Forster, Two Cheers for Democracy) Sorry about the title—I couldn’t resist it, although Forster is a lot closer than Arnold to what I’m really talking about here. Arnold acted, apparently, out of wounded pride, exasperated competence, and desire to look good in front of the woman he loved. I actually got the DAR award for excellence in American history in high school for writing an essay about him. Most of the major spies and traitors in our recent history were just greedheads, with the possible exception of Jonathan Pollard, who was acting out of what he considered a higher loyalty (although I think money was also involved?) The Brits seem to breed a slightly more elevated and idealistic type.

Anyway, in order to talk about treason and betrayal, one needs to first examine patriotism. Some of my Alexandrian colleagues seem to value tribal loyalty, at least in front of tribal outsiders, above such things as freedom of speech. I think patriotism is different from tribal loyalty. The point of patriotism is responsibility. I try to take good care of my house, my neighborhood, my family, my city, my country, and my planet, to the extent that I can. That’s how one pays rent on the land one occupies and the air one breathes. If I lived somewhere else, I would have the same obligations to that community/country/whatever. And there are certainly circumstances under which I would consider moving to somewhere else. (I once heard somebody point out that the reason most American Jews live on the East and West Coasts is the same reason nervous people choose aisle seats in the theater—for ease of quick exit. I live in the Midwest, but I do keep my passport current.)

I don’t say the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. I used to just be mildly uncomfortable with it. That was before the 1992 election, in which God’s Own Party lambasted Michael Dukakis because, as governor of Massachusetts, he followed the applicable Supreme Court decisions by allowing teachers with principled objections not to recite the Pledge before class. The temper of that discourse convinced me that, however the Pledge had started out (and it was, after all, written by a socialist), it had now become an act of idolatry every bit as offensive as burning incense on Caesar’s altar. I don’t make a fuss about this. While everybody else is reciting the Pledge, I am saying Kaddish for all those who have been sacrificed to this idol. Nobody notices the difference. Fine with me. I believe that, in slighting the physical form of the flag, I am upholding the values “for which it stands.”

But I vote, even in off-year primaries. Unlike the average self-styled American patriot, I even report for jury duty when called, unless I have a really valid excuse for not doing it, like being in the middle of a trial myself. (In Illinois, lawyers do get called for jury duty. So do judges, in fact.)

And I really do believe there is something uniquely valuable about being an American. Back in my English teacher days, I had a number of foreign students in my classes. In the late 1960s, one of my classes was having a discussion about some recent incidents of long-haired hippies getting forcible haircuts. I asked, at one point, “Well, why should anybody stop a person from wearing his hair long if he likes it that way?” A Jordanian student found that question utterly baffling. “You mean people have the right to look any way they want to?” he asked. He had real trouble understanding, and in that moment I understood, in the proverbial blinding flash, what it means to be an American. We start from the presumption of freedom. We may move away from it for one reason or another, but that is always our starting point. Like it or not (and sometimes I really don’t) I’m an American, by that standard.

But loyalty, like obedience and unity, is a relative value. It is no better than whatever one is being loyal to. I spent the Vietnam War being a draft counselor and Selective Service maven. I felt that putting a conscript army (or any of its individual components) into the hands of the nutjobs running the Vietnam War was no better than putting a loaded gun into the hands of a blind drunk. By the time the war was over, Selective Service had to send out five induction notices to get one man into the Army. That was, obviously, one of the reasons the government finally got out of there. To the probably minuscule extent that my work had anything to do with that, I’m proud of it. As a practical matter, I was probably helping the Army, to some extent. A lot of the guys I enabled to avoid (not evade) the draft, the Army was probably better off without anyway. I didn’t encourage fakery of anything. All my counselees, so far as I know, made perfectly kosher claims for perfectly legal deferments. (Digression here: half of everybody, in every military draft for which the records exist, fails the physical. But during the Vietnam era, a lot of people who should have failed the physical didn’t, because many induction center physicals involved merely a cursory counting of extremities. The only way to make this system work properly was to provide medical documentation, from one’s own physician, explaining the medical problem in question and how it was disqualifying under the applicable Army reg. For the inner-city kid whose medical care, if any, came from an overworked ER doctor whose idea of medical documentation was to write “Sick—No Work” on a prescription slip, this wasn’t much help. My job, in a lot of instances, was to hook up the inner-city kid with a local doc who could provide real documentation. Bona fide documentation. Usually of conditions the Army really didn’t want to deal with.) I’m pretty sure that what I was doing was legal. I am quite sure that it was patriotic. But these days, I probably couldn’t run for dogcatcher without God’s Own Party calling me a terrorist. Needless to say, I am not running for anything.

Do I believe the United States is better than any other country? No. Do I think I could be a good citizen of any other country? Yes, though I probably wouldn’t enjoy it as much. I think I’d be a lousy Frenchwoman, and a pretty poor Israeli. Maybe a reasonably good Brit. But if for whatever reason I lived in France or Israel or the UK, I would feel obliged to try, even if my efforts landed me in jail.

But, getting back to Forster’s Two Cheers (maybe I should have titled this “One-and-a-half cheers for the US”?), there are things that matter more to me than my country, whatever it might be. Justice (like not locking up people indefinitely without trial. Albert Camus said, while France was beating up on the Algerians, “I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice. …”) Decency (like not torturing prisoners.) The draft board used to ask my conscientious objector clients, as predictably as night follows day, “Would you have fought against Hitler?” It was the wrong question. The right question would be “If you had lived in Italy during WWII, would you have fought for Mussolini?” And the right answer would be, “No. It would have been my duty to Italy not to.”

What all this comes down to is that voting does not exhaust the duty of a citizen to exercise independent thought and action on behalf of the polity. You don’t just vote and then blindly obey whoever wins, whatever he demands. If this be treason, as Patrick Henry says, make the most of it.

Red Emma

Selective Tax Resistance

March 17, 2010

As I follow the blow-by-blow narrative of the Battle for Health Care Reform, I am overwhelmed by nostalgia sometimes. The spectre of “socialized medicine” and “government takeover,” for instance, has been around since well before Harry Truman made his deal with John L. Lewis that first set up the link between health insurance and employment. OTOH, the AMA’s position has shifted in interesting ways. And the role of the Catholic Church and the Right-to-Birth movement are brand new. But they are raising an issue that actually goes back (within living memory) to the Vietnam War, and arguably to the origins of our nation—conscientious objection to tax payments for certain purposes.

For the benefit of those of you who were too young, or too politically uninvolved, at the time, a lot of people objected to the Vietnam War. The presence of the military draft may have been a catalyst for those objections, but ultimately a lot of people who were not subject to it found other ways to put their objections into action. Many of them refused to pay federal taxes, or that part of their federal tax burden that they deemed payable for the expenses of the Vietnam War.

For more info, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_tax_resistance#Vietnam_War.2C_1968.E2.80.9372. Various friends of mine refused to pay their phone tax, or deliberately worked for wages below the taxable level, or refused to file their tax returns, or filed but did not pay, or paid some specified amount less which they called the war tax deduction, or made out their tax checks to some non-military arm of government such as the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (as it was then.) [I tried several of these methods at one time or another. But as the daughter of a super-ethical CPA, I could not bring myself not to file.] I also did a fair amount of legal work for tax resisters later on in my career.

Many tax resisters and their sympathizers also supported things like an alternative war tax fund—a way for tax resisters to contribute their tax money to non-military purposes. Sometimes they proposed to make this alternative available to people who could demonstrate their opposition to war in more or less the same way conscientious objectors to actual service in the military could demonstrate their opposition to the Selective Service System.

All these varied branches of the tax resistance movement had two things in common: they were a noble effort based on serious thinking about the role of taxpaying citizens vis-à-vis the military activities of their government; and they didn’t have a chance in hell of succeeding.

Or at least that was what we all thought then. Now I think maybe we should take a new look at tax resistance. Because the Religious Right, the Catholic Church and its various agencies, the GOP, and many of the Tea Partiers, have not only raised the issue of refusal to allow their taxes to fund what they view as the taking of innocent life, but have actually succeeded in legalizing it. They have rammed it through Congress, first in the form of the Hyde Amendment (first attached to appropriations bills for funding what was then the Department of Health and Human Services and, in particular, Medicaid, in 1975, and routinely attached to those appropriations bills every year since then), and more recently in the form of the Stupak Amendment to Obama’s Health Care Reform proposals.

The parallels to war tax resistance are compelling. Like war, abortion is a legal activity. Like war, it is essentially destructive. Like war, nobody is really comfortable with it, but most people reconcile themselves to it in certain limited instances. And, like war, abortion can be, and in many other countries is, financed by the taxpayer.

But, unlike war, abortion can legally be conducted without federal financing. (When a war is run entirely on private money, it ceases to be a war, and becomes privateering or criminal gang activity.)

So the American polity has essentially accepted the legitimacy of refusing to pay taxes to support certain legal activities which are morally offensive to some but not all of the citizenry. Indeed, we have extended it well beyond the boundaries respected by Vietnam War opponents, who merely asked that their own particular tax monies be kept out of the war chest. Hyde and Stupak have demanded, and gained, the right to keep anybody’s tax money from paying for abortions, even the money contributed by pro-choice taxpayers. Why do we apply that approach only to abortion? Are the civilians of Iraq and Afghanistan any less innocent than American unborn children? It is a statistical certainty that some of the “collateral damage” casualties in those countries are pregnant women and their unborn children. Why are we willing to legalize tax resistance to protect American fetuses and not Iraqi and Afghan embryos? (BTW, I can’t even take credit for originating this idea. Philip Roth–not ordinarily one of my favorite authors– does a wonderful riff on it in Our Gang, published in 1971!!!, far beyond my poor power to add or detract.)

Now is the time, obviously, for opponents of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan to demand for ourselves the rights won by the Pro-Birth movement. There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come again.

Red Emma

Required Reading

June 15, 2009

The New American Militarism

Andrew J. Bacevich

Thirty-plus years ago, I sat in somebody else’s suburban living room and heard Daniel Ellsberg say that we weren’t on the wrong side in Vietnam, we were the wrong side.  At the time I thought it was hyperbole, though I found a lot of the other things he said that night very persuasive.  Like “if every American who was against the war had been willing to lose his job to stop it, it would have been over long since.”

Now I have found myself reviewing a lot of what Ellsberg said then.  I just finished Andrew Bacevich’s book, The New American Militarism, and it puts a lot of things into a different light.  It was written in 2005, two years before the author’s own son was killed in action in Iraq.  Bacevich has been both professional soldier and academic, and now a Gold Star father.  This impressive life has resulted in several impressive books.

Bacevich is a historian, and he starts the story of American expansionist militarism where it pretty much began, with Woodrow Wilson, who got elected to keep us out of World War I and ended by dragging us into it (sound familiar?), and then into a peace that almost inevitably led to World War II, all to “make the world safe for democracy.”  (Bacevich neglects to mention that the kind of democracy Wilson had in mind had no place for citizens with darker skins than his own; among his other dubious achievements, Wilson re-segregated Washington DC.)

Bacevich goes on to describe the oscillating fortunes of American militarism through the 20th century and into the 21st.  After World War I, the military establishment shrank back almost to its 19th-century size, as the Depression and the mistreatment of World War I veterans soured the public on foreign wars.  With the exception of more-or-less illegal leftist participation in the Spanish Civil War, that sourness lasted until Pearl Harbor, when the military sprang back with a vengeance.

Bacevich, like many revisionist historians on all sides, has taken to re-numbering the World Wars. After World War II came the Cold War, which he prefers to call World War III.  Its early years were both expansionist and beneficent.  It kept communism out of Western Europe with the cornucopia of the Marshall Plan and the shield of several hundred thousand American soldiers on bases all through the “free world.” (This was when, in keeping with this idealistic mindset, the War Department became the Defense Department.) In Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, it didn’t do so well.

Which brings us to Vietnam.  Back in 1962, when most Americans didn’t even know where Vietnam was, the upper reaches of the Kennedy administration were the scene of a great debate pitting deterrence/massive retaliation/nukes against counterinsurgency. (I was a distant witness of that debate, in the Stuart Hughes vs. Ted Kennedy senatorial campaign in Massachusetts.)  In Vietnam, the counterinsurgency buffs won out.  That was where the Ugly American came from—Burdick’s novel about the good-hearted American trying to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese, and save Vietnam from the evil communists.  And of course, the counterinsurgency buffs failed, either because theirs was the wrong strategy, or because they lacked the courage of their convictions in implementing it.

Present-day analysts of that war like to find ways of blaming it for all our current problems, from all possible sides.  Did we lose because we were wrong to be there in the first place?  Or were we wrong to be there because in the end we lost?  The orthodox military historians consider the American defeat the result of political interference in the military’s business.  So, of course, did Rambo.  Bacevich points out that the original American ideal was civilian (i.e. political) control of the military.  The civilians (politicians) were to set forth the goals and the military would then supply the means.  But that relationship has always been an uneasy one, especially since Americans have a habit of electing military leaders to civilian political office, and furthermore don’t much like civilian politicians. After Vietnam, it broke down completely for a while. The American civilian public repudiated the military leaders who had organized the war and the grunts who had fought it.  (Bacevich doesn’t mention this, and may well not have known it, but for the first ten years after the Vietnam War ended, the only American civilians who gave a flaming damn for the welfare of Vietnam veterans were all in the peace movement.)

[Sidenote: I don’t mean to diminish the value of Bacevich’s work, especially since so far, this is the only book of his that I’ve read.  If I do him an injustice when I point out things he doesn’t mention in it, I apologize deeply, because in general this book knocks my socks off.]

The Cold War/WWIII ended with the disintegration of the Soviet Union.  It was popularly considered a victory for “our side.”  It might more accurately be viewed as the culmination of a potlatch, that fascinating institution of the Northwest Pacific Indians, in which a person or a group gains power, status, and dominance by winning a contest to see who can destroy or give away more of what he values most.

Afterward, the Vietnam debacle ultimately gave rise to the Powell Doctrine, enunciated first by one of the younger graduates of that school of hard knocks: we don’t enter a war except to protect America’s vital interests; the war must have concrete, achievable objectives; it must have the full support of the American people; it must have an exit strategy set up at the very beginning; and we must approach the task with “overwhelming force”—not merely sufficient, but preponderant.

The First Gulf War was the model for this doctrine (and the opening salvo of what Bacevich calls World War IV.)   Indeed, the First Gulf War, in a few short months, completely rehabilitated the reputation of the American military and of American militarism.  It was short, cheap (in both casualties and finances—Bacevich doesn’t mention that one of the reasons everybody liked it was that we fought it mostly on other people’s money), popular (at home and abroad, which is how we managed to get other people to pay for it), and effective.  It was even preceded by a stirring and impressive congressional debate, probably the most serious public discussion of Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution in more than fifty years.

But it was the very opposite of the Wilsonian ideal.  The American army stopped well short of Baghdad and left Saddam Hussein in power.  The United States paid minimal honor to our promises to the Kurds and the Sunnis, who had relied on us when they rose up against Saddam; to protect them, we created a batch of no-fly zones, policed regularly from the air.  And the international community imposed economic sanctions on Iraq which reduced it from its previous highly-industrialized status to a part of the Third World. We changed Iraq, but not by democratizing it.

And it was followed by what Bacevich portrays as a perfect storm of neoconservative politics, newly-politicized evangelical religion, a newly-professionalized officer corps, and a “crusade theory of warfare.”  It was no longer enough to set limited military goals and accomplish them.  “Containment” was once again a dirty word.  The United States has been divinely chosen to rule and impose its values on the world.

We all know what happened next. First came 9/11.  Conspiracy wackos like to think it was the work of either the Elders of Zion or the CIA.  What matters is that, if Osama bin Laden hadn’t set up 9/11, the Bush government would have had to, to accomplish its own ends.  ( If the Reichstag fire had been caused by improper use of smoking materials, who would know the difference today?)

At first, Bush responded more or less appropriately, by dropping bombs on the region from which Al Quaeda had plotted the attack.  But then, he turned his glance back on Iraq.  And at first, even that seemed to follow the Powell doctrine.  The troops went straight to Baghdad, wiped out most of the Iraqi army, and floated the “Mission Accomplished” banner.

A peripheral note here on karma: during the First Gulf War, Saddam decided to pull the rest of the Arab world into the war on his side by dropping some bombs on Israel.  Israel, of course, was in no way a party to the war on either side.  The US had asked them to stay out, and they complied.  But Saddam figured, logically enough for an Arab politician, that bombing Israel for no reason whatever was an activity all the other Arab governments would want to get in on.  It didn’t work, partly because too many Arab governments worried that Saddam did not play nicely with others, and that his Arab “allies” might end up meeting the same fate as Kuwait.  But Saddam himself became the victim of precisely the same kind of maneuver from Bush several years later—Bush decided that, if he couldn’t count on overthrowing Osama bin Laden, he could at least reconstitute the old “coalition of the willing” by overthrowing their old adversary, who had in no way been a party to 9/11.  That didn’t work either, except on the UK and a few representatives of “the new Europe.” But one has to admire the symmetry of what happened to Saddam.

Bacevich ends with a sheaf of recommendations for amending our national life that include restoring the primacy of the legislative branch in warmaking decisions, restoring the ideal of the “citizen soldier” by attaching the promise of a free college education to national service, pulling US military bases out of those parts of the world long since capable of defending themselves, giving the State Department the budget and teeth to make realistic foreign policy, and setting realistic limits on the military budget.  It’s a breathtaking panorama, and in a recent book-signing at the bookstore down the block from my home, Bacevich seemed to acknowledge that the Obama administration was no closer to implementing it than Bush had been, not yet anyway.  Conventional wisdom calls Bacevich a paleoconservative.  He may in fact be preaching that old-time political religion established by the Framers.  One hopes that the new administration is paying serious attention to it.

CynThesis

1812 and All That

September 2, 2008

 

Every Labor Day, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra does its annual all-Tchaikovsky program at Ravinia, and I go with a bunch of friends to picnic on the lawn and hear the concert.  We did it again this year, and as usual it was delightful, and as usual it ended with the 1812 Overture, complete with 11 cannon from an Indiana Re-enactors’ group with cannon dating back to our War of 1812.  Of course, on July 4, the Grant Park Symphony does its concert downtown complete with fireworks and ending in the 1812, complete with somebody else’s cannon.  And just about everyplace else in the country, on summer holidays, somebody somewhere is doing the 1812 complete with fireworks and cannon.  Which this year led me to thinking about cannon, and fireworks, and gunpowder, and festivals, and music.

 

As I understand it, the Chinese invented gunpowder, and for the first few centuries afterward, used it for fireworks.  The point of fireworks in Chinese culture is to drive away evil spirits.  Noise-making for that purpose is common in many cultures. It is supposed to be the origin of breaking the glass at Jewish weddings, for instance.  And there seems to be a tendency to do this especially on festive occasions, presumably because evil spirits like to hang around when people are having a good time, to spoil the party. 

 

Guns and fireworks also get used to salute VIPs and mark important occasions, including funerals.  Probably that goes back to the driving-evil-spirits-away thing too. 

 

But then the Chinese, and the rest of us, discovered, probably as a result of some terrible fireworks accident (this sounds like something Charles Lamb might dream up) that gunpowder could also kill people.  And that was the end of the pyrotechnic Eden.  Gunpowder became a weapon.

 

Gunpowder became a major component of war.  And of military music.  “And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air…” and all that.  The sound-and-light show became a killing machine.

 

And worked its way back into festive occasions by way of military music.  What would it take, these days, to keep evil spirits away?  Or, looking at it the other way, what kind of evil spirits have we generated, that require literal megatons to get rid of?

 

CynThesis

CODE-SWITCHING

June 30, 2008

When I was doing graduate work in sociology, I took a course on “deviance.”  I did a paper for the course, on conscientious objection.  It’s a fascinating subject, about which I could go on for a long time, but won’t.  I chose the subject in the first place because the notion that having a conscience could be “deviant” struck me as marvelously ironic.  (The upshot of the paper was that the CO application process was a triumph of organic over mechanical solidarity [as Durkheim would put it.] )  What really mattered about that paper was that it changed the course of my life, because I wrote it a year or so before the 1965 increase in American troop strength in Vietnam.  I chanced to mention it to a friend of mine, and the next thing I knew, lots of people were asking for a copy.  That made me nervous, because by this time it was full of probably outdated information.  So when I saw a posting from AFSC about a free course to become a draft counselor, I signed on right away.

 

I spent the next ten years working in the area of Selective Service and military law, and eventually went to law school. As an attorney, I’m still doing military and veterans’ benefits law, and have done Selective Service stuff when the issue arose.  That involves all kinds of legal issues, but it still occasionally raises questions of conscientious objection, and that’s still a fascinating process. 

 

The body of statute and case law that set out the CO requirements for draft exemption or military discharge (or exemption from the “bearing arms” oath for new US citizens) clearly started out with the “historic peace churches”—Quakers, Mennonites, and Brethren—in mind.  Those requirements have evolved to encompass other Christians, non-Christians, non-church members, agnostics, atheists, and ultimately people with no official religion at all.  But the law remains clear that a mere “personal moral code” or a set of “political beliefs” won’t qualify. 

 

And most young people these days—even the regular church-goers—are theological illiterates.  (Among the splendid exceptions are the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whom I have occasionally represented.)  All they have, most of the time, is a personal moral code, or a set of political beliefs.  What I do is more the job of an English teacher or an editor (both jobs I have held in addition to practicing law) than an attorney.  I work the client through the “Four Questions” that are the basis of the CO application:

 

  1. What do you believe, and how does it prevent you from being willing to participate in all wars? (Note: not just some wars—that would be too easy.  CO applicants go through endless grilling about whether they would have fought against Hitler, but nobody has to justify being unwilling to fight for Hitler.)
  2. Where’d you get these weird ideas? (Note: the military presumes that it is normal and natural to be willing to kill a total stranger when ordered to do so by another total stranger. Any deviation from this norm has to be explained.)
  3. What have you done to put your beliefs into action?
  4. Who can vouch for your sincerity?

 

This process requires a lot more introspection than most young Americans are used to.  Also a lot more writing.  (At the outset, I tell them it’s the equivalent of a long term paper, in expenditure of time and energy.) Once it’s all down on paper, the translation process begins.  Writing one’s congresscritter about the war in Iraq is rarely just a statement about that war; it is usually a statement about war in general in the context of the only war the kid knows about.  World War II? What was that? I know there was some kind of war in the 1940s, but I forget who was in it or who won.  Same with going to demonstrations and marches.  Working at a soup kitchen is a statement about the essential value of all human life, even the most miserable.  Running a school recycling center is a statement about the value of the earth and its resources, which war destroys big time. 

 

None of this is fake. I don’t do fakes, nor do my clients, so far as I know.  It’s just a matter of putting the very individual and personal—which won’t get recognized as conscientious objection by the official deciders–into a broader context that the client has only started to think about when confronted with a human-shaped target and told to “kill, kill!!!” 

 

This process is a species of what elementary school teachers call “code-switching”—expressing the same ideas in different ways depending on context, audience, and purpose. When greeting your buddy, you can high-five him and say “yo!”  When you meet the Dalai Lama, on the other hand, you do not break out singing “Hello, Dalai!” 

 

The process can go both ways, as Obama has demonstrated in his Sojourner speech two years ago (never mind that James Dobson for some reason has brought it up two years later to question Obama’s theology.)  If you are going to bring your religious beliefs to bear on political issues (other than a CO application, I guess) among people who do not share those beliefs, you need to speak the language of your audience.  This is partly for symbolic purposes—we are conducting an election in a democracy composed of people who hold lots of different beliefs, and whose constitution prohibits establishment of religion as such or of any particular religion.  A candidate or advocate who does not respect that prohibition is telling at least some of that audience, “You don’t belong. You don’t count.” Which is the last thing you want to tell a voter, any voter.

 

But a lot of those voters may not even catch the in-groupness of standard evangelical Christian language, because they don’t know anybody who doesn’t speak it. (Whoever discovered water, it probably wasn’t a fish.)  I have long since lost count of the very nice, very earnest Christians who ask me, in utter perplexity, “You mean Jews don’t believe in Jesus?”  And telling them that their language is not the lingua franca of common discourse in their own country can amount to telling them “you don’t belong. You don’t count.”  It can carry its own political costs.

 

Nonetheless, I think American politicians who are running for president rather than, say, Pope or Caliph or Bishop, have to presume that their audience includes non-Christians and non-religious people who still have a right to vote, and to know where their candidates stand.  In short, translating values based in a particular religion into universally comprehensible values is not only effective politics in a pluralistic polity, but a way of honoring the founders of that polity and the universal values they were trying to establish.

 

Jane Grey

 

 

RACISM MADE HIM STRONG; WE’LL MAKE HIM AN AMPUTEE

June 25, 2008

And, speaking of the impact of military service on minority communities, Professor Cindy Williams, who teaches political science at MIT, and keeps careful track of military recruitment trends, says the Army is having trouble maintaining the quality of its recruits, and that they are having particular difficulty getting “high quality” [recruiter-speak for high school graduates] African-American recruits, largely because of parental  lack of support for young people in that community joining the military.  Given the large proportion of African-Americans in single-parent families, that should probably be translated as lack of support among Black mothers for turning their kids—especially the ones who manage to graduate from high school–into cannon fodder.   Getting an African-American boy through high school is not an easy task these days, and one can understand why a mother who has accomplished it would be reluctant to send her son off to get blown to bits on some Middle Eastern highway or byway.  Recruiters are saying that, while signing up a young person used to require 14 hours of sweet-talking the young person and 4 hours of sweet-talking his parents, the ratio is now reversed.  The kids may like the idea of military service, but the parents are getting really skeptical. 

 

Red Emma

A KIND WORD FOR McCAIN

June 25, 2008

This is not to be taken as an endorsement, but John McCain says he is opposed to reinstating the military draft for anything short of World War III, because the Vietnam War draft weighed most heavily on lower-income Americans. Good for him!

Rep. Charles Rangel has been calling for a draft at least once a year ever since we dropped it in the early 1970s, always on the basis that it distributes the burdens of military service more equitably, and forces a war-making government to be more accountable to the voters whose children are being drafted. On this one, McCain has it right and Rangel has it wrong.

The one draft exemption nobody would dream of getting rid of, and the one that has accounted for the majority of the people who got out of the draft (roughly half of everybody, ever since World War I) is the medical exemption. Not unreasonably, the Army does not want to function as a rehab hospital, so its own regulations (AR 40-501) exempt people from service whose medical problems would make them more trouble than they are worth as cannon fodder. The catch is that the draft physical has never been more than a cursory glance, involving counting extremities and asking a bunch of abstruse questions, often too rapidly to be understood or properly answered. Anybody whose medical issues are more complicated than such an exam would reveal has to get documentation from a private physician to present to the examiners.

And that means having a private physician. So the increasing proportion of inner-city and rural youth, whose medical documentation consists of having an emergency room doctor take three minutes out of his already crammed schedule to scrawl “Sick—no work” across a prescription pad, are not going to get medical exemptions from the draft. If they are lucky, the Army will discharge them after they get to Basic Training, when their disabilities become apparent. Most of them aren’t that lucky.

In addition, as we know from the experience of other countries with “universal” military service, such as Israel and the former USSR, the children of wealthy and well-connected families will almost always get drafted into the most prestigious and comfortable branches of service, while the offspring of civilian peons will almost inevitably become military peons.

Obama hasn’t taken any position on a reinstatement of the draft, so far as I know. It makes more sense, of course, to promise to end the war, rather than plan to get more troops into it, so he may not feel obliged to make any statement on the subject. But let’s hope he pays attention to the real history of conscription if he does.

Red Emma