When I was a kid, standing around the post office waiting for my mom to buy stamps, I entertained myself by flipping through the "wanted" notices clipped to the bulletin board. I was impressed by the fact that most of the people who'd done bad things didn't look all that evil in their mug shots. Mostly the felons looked tired. And poor. You could tell from their frayed collars.
Mixed in with the accused murderers, kidnappers and mail fraud conspirators (this was the post office, after all) were local kids wanted for dodging the draft. Their profiles didn't look anything like those of men wanted for tri-state killing sprees. The sections dedicated to "prior convictions" were blank and the government didn't have fingerprints for them. Draft evaders' photos came from their high school yearbooks where everyone turned a little to the right, grinning with optimism and framed by shaggy early '70s haircuts.
Nevertheless, the message was clear. As far as the government was concerned, evading service in Vietnam was as bad as boosting a bank.
Whenever the feds needed more cannon fodder, they interrupted primetime sit-coms to broadcast a draft lottery. Two guys wearing American flag lapel pins would turn a metal tumbler and pluck out slips of paper bearing birthdays from 18 years earlier. "If you were born on April 4, 1951, you have 30 days to report to your local Selective Service bureau."
"How long has this war been going on?" I asked my mom while Uncle Walt recited body counts along with the closing value of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Born in 1963, I must have been about 8.
"Pretty much since you were born," she replied. Then she corrected herself. "Well, really even before that." "Will it end before I turn 18?"
"I don't know. Probably not. I hope so."
They stopped the draft when I was 10; we lost the war two years later. I never had to resolve the terrible dilemma that drove those kids on the wanted posters to flee to Canada. Were they pacifists or were they wimps? Everyone knew that Vietnam wasn't winnable. Was it wrong to refuse to die for nothing, or was it good sense? Was defending the corrupt South Vietnamese regime of President Nguyen Van Thieu "fighting for your country"? Even if a war was both winnable and moral -- World War II, say -- was forcing a human being to risk death and dismemberment a form of slavery?
War is the riskiest and gravest endeavor that can be undertaken by a nation-state. Defensive combat, the struggle for self-preservation, is the only kind of war a just and prudent nation may wage. Unless an overwhelming majority of a country's citizens agree that a war is necessary -- a real war like Iraq or Vietnam, not a lark like Grenada or Panama -- it cannot be won. And a country united by the consensus that it must fight doesn't need a draft. Citizens will line up to volunteer.
In early November, the Pentagon website DefendAmerica.mil put out a call for applicants willing to serve on Selective Service System draft boards. "Serve Your Community and the Nation -- Become a Selective Service System Local Board Member," the ad read. "If a military draft becomes necessary, approximately 2,000 local and appeal boards throughout America would decide which young men who submit a claim receive deferments, postponements or exemptions from military service, based on federal guidelines." Noting that the SSS hopes to fill its 8,000 draft board slots by spring 2005, many journalists are wondering aloud whether the Bush administration plans to reinstate forced conscription of 18-to-26-year-olds after the election, just on time for invasions of Iran, Syria and/or North Korea.
Reports of a big uptick in the draft agency's budget from '03 to '04 abound, yet the feds claim that ramping up Selective Service is part of "the routine cycle of things." "There are no secret discussions," says SSS spokesman Pat Schuback. "We aren't doing any planning that we don't do on a routine basis." Yet they refuse to issue a categorical denial. A February Surprise, perhaps?
Our armed forces are stretched dangerously thin. Sixty-thousand of the 130,000 troops stationed in Iraq come from the National Guard or reserves. Ninety-thousand more are serving in Kuwait, Afghanistan, South Korea, Kosovo and Macedonia. Demoralized by low pay and long tours of duty under harsh conditions -- why won't Bush invade someplace with nice weather and hot babes? -- 49 percent of soldiers told Stars and Stripes newspaper that they won't re-enlist. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and top brass say they prefer volunteer professionals to surly conscripts, but in the end they may not have a choice.
This much is certain: If Bush resumes his neocolonial landgrab after "re"election, he'll have to bring back the draft. And a new generation of young men, ordered to disrupt their lives to feed the vanity and bank accounts of a cabal of gangsters, will ponder whether to flee or fight.