12.1.17 — Feeling the Draft

I stick to art, because it is where I have something to contribute, and I could never find time to keep up with more. Not that I avoid politics, since neither do artists and institutions, but apart from them I try to keep my opinions to myself. Allow me, though, this once an exception. With Donald J. Trump saber rattling time and again, it has become more pressing.

An article just days before Trump’s inauguration on the legacy of the Vietnam War got me thinking and arguing, and it has had any number of follow-ups along the very same lines. And when someone on Facebook backed its call to reinstate the draft, those thoughts and arguments came out, so let me share them with you—as the opening of a longer article and my latest upload. Sue Coe's Wheel of War (Galerie St. Etienne, 2004)

In The New York Times, Karl Marlantes wrote of “Vietnam: The War That Killed Trust.” I have to admire his article. Yet I also have to feel the toll of that lost of trust even today. I have to feel, too, my horror at his single proposal, in a return to the draft. It stems for him from proud and lasting memories, but it still comes down to a nostalgia for murder.

Marlantes argues for the spirit of national service, pointing to the broad support for just that in World War II, when even those at home knew about what went into the war and when people spoke not of “the military” but of “the service.” I am not convinced. That reflects World War II, when we could justifiably feel a sense of service not just to the nation, but to the world. That feeling soured for good in Vietnam, when talk of “the service” gave way to talk of “the military-industrial complex.” War as dedication may never come again, and the draft cannot bring it back.

Still, while the article does not rely on this, some argue for a draft by turning my point in its favor. It can help turn people against war, they say, because its costs then extend to so many Americans. Now, I have already spoken of the terrible price of cynicism. We should not be calling for more of it, ever, not even to reform politics today. That already argues against the draft. But, as you will see in the longer article, I consider further whether the antiwar hopes are justified, and I conclude otherwise, before dwelling further on the terrible personal and moral costs.

The argument for a draft is not so very far from others common in politics today—and just as flawed. One can hear something like it at both ends of the political spectrum. From health care to public assistance, conservatives often call for a greater burden on the poor. Their belief in the wisdom of the marketplace leads them to conclude that people will make better decisions if they have “skin in the game.” And, from health care to public assistance, the result is a continuing cycle of poverty, illness, and death.

Ironically the left has a comparable belief. Progressives may choose to sit out an election or to vote for a third party—and not solely those who see no difference between the candidates of the major parties. Are they throwing the election to by far the greater evil or even the sole evil, when they could instead rest hopes in a modest but very real good? Some positively welcome that outcome. The outrage that will result, they believe, will usher in a revolution.

In reality, there is no winning by losing. In politics, a loss only empowers the worst in America and shifts the debate to the other side. Calling for a draft as a means to a better future is much the same. There the loss in lives is immediate and the hope for trust, racial harmony, and peace only a dream. We should not let our dreams become a living nightmare.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

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