Saturday, May 14, 2005

Moral and other questions about the draft

Charles (from the blog Freiheit und Wissen and guest blogger with me over at Majikthise) has opened up the question of the draft. He proposes the following moral argument for a draft:
Let me be clear – I don’t like war and I don’t support the current occupation. Nor do I want a draft, particularly if the only reason is to make up for a recruiting shortfall. But it is immoral and unacceptable to create an army of the most underprivileged in this country. Wealth should not be a factor in deciding whether you are on the front lines or whether you get to stay at home in cushy Air Force base job. Wealth should not be a factor in whether you have to fight at all or whether during war time you get to run a company and make boon profits.

War is immoral enough without letting it divide society along lines of privilege for who gets to fight and who doesn’t. Its as simple as that.

If each division was composed equally of recruits from all ranks of the economic spectrum, perhaps the President and Congress would be a bit slower to sending them to war.
I disagree, although I share his sentiments. I should be upfront about my biases here. I was a Vietnam era draft resister and helped form a draft resistance organization for doctors and medical students. I am also a conscientious objector (1 - O draft status). I was subject to the "doctors draft." The doctors draft extended to age 35 (normal cutoff was age 26) and was virtually automatic: they took doctors with one leg, never mind flat feet. The intermediate possibility of a 1 - A - O draft status (non-combatant, like medics) clearly doesn't apply to doctors, almost all of whom were already non-combatants and indeed engaged in saving lives, not taking them.

I'd like to raise two points here, one of them the rationale for why a doctor would refuse to serve; the second, and related to it, why we should resist re-instating the draft strenuously, despite some of Charles's legitimate qualms regarding the class-based inequity of a volunteer military.

First, the argument for why I resisted and why I encouraged other doctors to resist. I won't go into a long theoretical argument but use the analogy we used in our literature aimed at doctors and medical students. Suppose you are approached by a gang of bank robbers. "We are going to rob a bank," they tell you, "and this is pretty dangerous work. We'd like you to ride in the getaway car with your medical equipment in the event one of us gets hurt." Any doctor with an ounce of conscience would refuse this request. On the other hand, suppose you are walking past the bank when robbers suddenly burst from its doors and one falls at your feet in a hail of bullets. You would immediately come to their medical aid if you were to heed your responsibilities as a doctor. A crude analogy, perhaps, but indicative of our view that to sign on to the enterprise was to be complicit in its objectives, regardless of your function.

This also relates to the second point, made by several commenters. A fair process to bring about an unjust outcome does not legitimate the process. More importantly, and implicit in some of the comments, is the role that conscription plays and has played historically. Mass conscription is relatively new, having been instituted in the modern sense around the French Revolution. Jonathan Schell's wonderful book, Unconquerable World discusses this in the context of Clausewitz's view on war:
In trying to understand the changes that have overtaken war in modern times, it's useful to begin with the eighteenth-century Prussian general and philosopher of war Carl von Clausewitz, who was born in 1780 and died in 1831. He lived and fought and wrote during one of the most important turning points in the history of war. For most of the eighteenth century, war had been largely the business of kings and aristocrats and whatever commoners they could hire or force into their service. Battles usually involved tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands, of men on each side. The ends of war were often modest, and military strategy often consisted as much of maneuvers as of combat.

With the success of the French Revolution and the rise a decade later of Napoleon Bonaparte, a new force--the energy of an entire population fired with patriotic zeal--was poured onto the battlefield. [p. 14]


When Clausewitz surveyed the history of war, he found his own period all but unique. Rarely, if ever, he believed, had war come so close to realizing its ideal form. The underlying reason was the French Revolution, which began n 1789, when Clausewitz was a boy. In 1793, when France sent immense conscripted armies into the field, he wrote, "a force appeared that beggared all imagination. Suddenly, war again became the business of the people--a people of thirty million, all of whom considered themselves to be citizens. . . Nothing now impeded the vigor with which war could be waged." [p. 19]
Conscription is thus intimately bound up with what Schell calls "the modern war system." What a re-instated draft would do is greatly increase the ability of the US to wage war, where and when its leaders chose. Yes, there would be an inevitable reaction, especially if the war were protracted and unpopular. But they need not be. Consider Panama and Grenada, both examples of naked aggression. A draft could allow actions like this to be undertaken simultaneously in many places, an ability which is a strategic goal of the Rumsfeld Doctrine.

The moral issue related to the inequality of burden sharing that Charles broaches is important. But it doesn't seem different in kind to me than similar inequalities of burdens and benefits that run throughout our society. Correcting them in this sphere would, I fear, have serious unintended consequences.

[A version cross-posted at Majikthise]