There’s an Ill Wind Blowing From Washington

Some people are saying with apprehension that after George W. Bush is re-elected, he will bring back the draft. Those people usually have draft-age children. Others are saying it with approval. Those people don’t have draft-age loved ones, unless they assume, perhaps unconsciously, that like the shirker Presidents-Mr. Bush and Bill Clinton-their kids will be able to leave the military service to somebody else.

As a little of the starch and swagger has gone out of Donald Rumsfeld and his neocon-Likudnik collaborators, we are getting half-admissions that their planning misfired and they failed to send enough troops to Iraq, perhaps because they didn’t have enough troops to send. More soldiers are needed, according to nearly everybody who knows about staffing wars, but scaring them up is a problem.

It hasn’t been for lack of advertising and patriotic propaganda. We have been treated to a prolonged spate of war movies, war TV shows and war books, mostly about World War II, the last war they can get everybody to cheer about. Who can claim to know what is in the minds of the people who have ordered up this wall-to-wall glorification of war and the accompanying public reverence for-dare one say it?-an almost Islamic-like celebration of dying for the cause.

But though they sing the national anthem at the beginning of the baseball games and then belt out “God Bless America” in the seventh inning, they still can’t get the kids to sign up in satisfactory numbers. Is this a sign of a healthy skepticism, or are the young dolts too engrossed in computer games to hear the incessant call to arms issuing from the minarets of Washington?

The people in charge are past masters at misdirection, so you don’t know whether to believe the Pentagon when it says recruitment has not dipped and they are not taking in bottom-of-the-barrel people. The signs and portents point to drop-offs in enlistment in both the regular forces and the National Guard since the days when the war against terrorism caused long lines in front of the recruiting offices as America’s college-age young people rushed to the colors.

There is less talk just now of Mr. Bush playing Alexander the Great and pouring molten democracy down the throats of 200 million Arabs. Faced with a shortage of ready cannon fodder, Mr. Bush may have to change his foreign policy and abandon the conquest of the Middle East. But will that stop those who are determined to bring back conscription? Even if plans for invading Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia are put on hold, there will still be those who want to reinstate the draft, claiming the need for more troopers in the war against terrorism, that strange struggle against an ill-defined, invisible enemy whose strength in numbers, money and backup are unknown and unknowable.

In the short term, even conscription cannot help Mr. Bush in Operation Iraqi Freedom. It takes six months plus to train someone to be a reasonably efficient soldier. So short of “cutting and running”-the chesty imperialists’ phrase for leaving the unholy rat’s nest they have made of the place-he can do little to conjure up enough military personnel to eradicate the guerrillas. Save in token numbers, our NATO allies have told Mr. Bush that they are not going to risk their young people’s death and disfigurement to rescue him. He and his pals are left with the troops they have now and a bunch of mercenaries. (There are supposed to be 20,000 to 30,000 of the latter bopping around Iraq, doing God knows what.) Lots of luck, guys. Whether or not they can pacify the ungrateful Iraqis with the troops at their disposal remains to be seen, but it looks like an Afghanistan rerun: Pretend all is quiet, send out press releases about a new school and girls without head kerchiefs, and let these former nations stagger down the road of time half-dismembered in a sort of perpetual low-grade civil war.

Even in the long term, if Mr. Bush does go for conscription, he’ll be creating more problems than he solves. The spirit of the times is such that resurrecting the Selective Service System would be too politically costly. Selective Service allowed for exemptions for people in college or holding important jobs-excuses used by the well-connected to get out of going into the military. It was this system which enabled Bill Clinton and George Bush to get out of Vietnam and many another to stay home by simply staying in college. This time the draft will be for universal military service-that is, all young people, male, female, being called for two years.

According to the Census Bureau, there are four million 18-year-olds and four million 19-year olds. Hence, once the system is cranked up, the military establishment will find itself with eight million more bodies than it has now. That is not quite the force level of World War II, but it’s getting up there. When the Pentagon says it has no need for anything like that many people, no reason exists to doubt them. Even a man like Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defense who dreams of nothing but new conquests, might have trouble finding enough countries to invade to keep so many soldiers occupied.

If there is a draft again, the costs involved will make you sick. Bases and barracks will need building; the supplementary services and the equipment should add handsomely to the debt and to inflation, as the United States goes into retrograde motion and retreats from a 21st-century capital-intensive, modern military establishment to a 19th- and mid-20th-century labor-intensive one. There will also be the hidden but very high costs of postponing by two years the entry into the labor force of millions of people.

It is not inconceivable that the administration would ask Congress for a new draft law and that it will be passed. A majority could be formed to support this wickedness by joining together the militarist reactionaries and the liberal, invasive social uplifters. The uplifters believe that all young people “owe” service to their country-if not by shouldering a gun, then by lifting a nursing-home bedpan or working in a national forest or a blighted public school.

The uplifters believe that forcing young people of every stripe and background to serve together in beneficent labor battalions encourages democracy. Let’s have a big hoo-hah for diversity here. Plus think of how much better children, old people, the handicapped and sick persons will be served when the institutions they depend on are infused with so many new willing (or maybe not-so-willing) hands.

Heretofore, the rationale for conscription has been that the nation is in dire peril. If you think terrorism has the country by the throat, you can offer that as a reason for conscripting people to fight terrorism, but not for using the power of the government to make somebody work in an orphanage or a day-care center or on a pollution-reclamation project. The latter are meritorious endeavors-but at the cost of snatching a person off the street and making him or her do it?

National service is a form of slavery, though some may argue that it’s really not since the conscriptees get paid, get college money, medical insurance and perhaps other bennies. But it’s not a wage which distinguishes a free person from a slave; slaves have often been paid in the past. The difference between a slave and a free man is that a free man is free-free to work at whatever wages he can get, free not to work. He’s free to go, free to come, free to talk, free to be silent and free to refuse to serve.

There’s an Ill Wind Blowing From Washington