The Nostalgia for Murder

John Haber
in New York City

Do We Need a Draft?

In The New York Times, Karl Marlantes writes 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.

Feeling the draft

The article is heartfelt and passionate, speaking from frank and personal experience, in combat and in the many years after. It has its heart in the right place as well, condemning cynicism and racism while speaking up for the ideal of national service. Sue Coe's Wheel of War (Galerie St. Etienne, 2004)It is balanced as well, and its very title shows how little it shies away from the bitter reality of war. Still, I have to disagree violently with its concluding message, a plea to bring back the draft.

It will help first to put that argument in context of his preceding two points. One can easily justify a bad message with platitudes about personal and indeed national responsibility. The reality is that human beings will lose their lives—and nothing may have changed. It adds only a sad footnote to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington and the urgency of political protest.

First, Marlantes speaks of the cost of the Vietnam War as breeding a cynicism about America, rooted in lies about the Gulf of Tonkin incident and inflated body counts. (Others might go back further still, to JFK and an earlier regime in Vietnam.) It is worth repeating the toll of that cynicism. It began a distrust of government that the right came to exploit to devastating consequences, most obviously as dogma under Ronald Reagan. It spread to the left, too, where it includes a broader distrust of "the mainstream" (such as, most obviously, Hillary Clinton), the rise of third parties, and the persistent low voter turn-out among the young.

All these have just handed us the presidency to Donald Trump—and while his stated foreign policy favors a kind of isolationism, I would not be too sure. His cabinet nominees lean heavily on the military, and they by no means speak for peace. No president has asked for so many generals to serve as his senior advisors. No president, too, has asked for so many from the financial sector, with its own interest in war.

It should be said, too, that LBJ alone is not responsible for cynicism today, for all the article's focus on him—or even Vietnam. Richard Nixon came in soon enough, extending the war for seven years despite his "secret plan to end the war," adding a still more alienating pattern of secrecy, mismanagement of the economy, his Southern strategy, and Watergate, from which we may well have never recovered. The secrecy and cynicism included promises before the American election to the government of North Vietnam, much like those of Reagan to Iran in 1980. Yet it is worth adding, too, that the sheer toll of Vietnam in American lives, including lives of many who did not willingly go to war thanks to the draft, plays a major role as well. And that already implicates the draft.

Second, Marlantes nonetheless finds inspiration in the experience of war. Soldiers knew that their lives hung on a trust in one another that cut across races. They hardly had time to think in terms of black and white. Still, one might raise questions. For one thing, it becomes an argument for war itself. For another, it may have only limited truth. How long did it take to integrate the military, and how much did Vietnam really move us past racism? And war creates its own racial barriers. I remember talk of gooks then, and the Bush wars on top of the "war on terror" only added to a growing hatred of Islam. While none of this bears directly on the draft, we should thus approach his final point with due leeriness.

In the service of peace

So we come to the draft. 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 consider further whether the antiwar hopes are justified.

Others, I must admit and abhor, take a similar position. Edward Winkleman has asked for national leaders who have been leaders in war. Surely they will now know better. Really? Are we that far gone from when quite another fantasy called for a philosopher king? There was a time when leaders were the generals, and they led their countries into war because that is what they knew how to do. Alexander the Great. Attila the Hun. Henry the Fifth. The list goes on. In more recent history, generals have usually been the hawks within an administration, as they were during the Cuban Missile Crisis, on the edge of nuclear war. As presidents, Dwight D. Eisenhower was a moderate and warned against the military-industrial complex, although liberals still had every reason to vote against him for a greater progressive. Ulysses S. Grant was a man of character whose reputation has suffered unfairly from Southern hatred of Reconstruction, although he failed at managing corruption in his administration. Yet Andrew Jackson was no lover of peace, not by any means. He was a populist in a good way, moving America toward popular democracy as we now understand it, but also in a bad way that anticipates Trump, and he promoted the Indian wars as president.

We might expect something similar when it comes to involving Americans in war through the draft. I can see at least two reasons that a draft risks not too few but far more war, however many came home from the Vietnam War turned against it. First, it gives us the resources to go to war, with a ready labor force for combat. It says something that we have not had anywhere near the number of Americans in combat since then. When you have a gun, you are more likely to use it. That is why so many support gun control or, for that matter, fear Trump in control of nuclear weapons.

Second, does the draft really turn Americans so quickly against war? Especially at the very start, just when you want it to so as to prevent wars, it does not. When Americans are in combat, the nation's first instinct is "support our troops." And the more of our families are troops, the more likely that support. We saw it in Vietnam, with rallies in support and beatings of war protestors. We see it even with a volunteer army in Iraq though on a smaller scale. It took a while to turn the country against either war, and the draft did not help. The toll did turn Americans against Vietnam, eventually, but the war dragged on for years. Conversely, the volunteer army in Iraq did not prevent Americans from turning against that war as well.

It may be easier to see nobility in a draft if one has served, like Marlantes, and taken pride in it. It will be harder for someone who will face the draft. It will be harder, too, for a parent fearing for a child—or, I might hope, for a citizen fearful for the lives of others. From my coming of age with a draft number to approaching retirement in a divided nation still prone to wars, it has become impossible for me.

Winning by losing

Is it even moral? Ignore reality and grant that a draft will discourage or prevent war. Even then, we should be appalled. It comes at the cost of too many deaths. It is little better than a nightmare akin to Shirley Jackson's classic short story, "The Lottery," even in the service of a worthy political cause.

What if we could pass a law that every time the government takes us to war, enacts another massive tax cut for the rich, or whatever else you like, then we designate ten thousand young Americans at random, line them up on Fifth Avenue starting at the Trump Tower, and shoot to kill. Too clever an analogy? Think of it then as fact. Nearly six times that many Americans died in Vietnam.

Would it dissuade the like of Trump now? I would not count on it, and that is a flaw in the argument for a draft, too. Would it have dissuaded someone like LBJ then, not at all venal, in my humble opinions for all the disillusionment against him, but not willing to have "gone down as having lost Vietnam" or to have been on the wrong side of history either? Perhaps. Still, even granted that it would, would you be in favor of the massacre? I sure hope not. For the same reason, you should not be in favor of a draft.

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, entails concrete suffering and a loss of power, and shifts the terms of 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.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

Karl Marlantes appeared in The New York Times on Sunday, January 8, 2017.

 

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