Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Feeling a draft, Chapter One

On Friday, as you surely know, US war czar Lieutenant General Douglas Lute told National Public Radio that it "makes sense" to consider a renewed military draft and what's more, it "always been an option on the table." Adding some fuel to the fire was the fact that
[s]eparately, the US military said the army and marines met their recruiting goals in July and were on track to meet their recruiting targets for the year.

But the army, which missed its recruiting goals in May and June, is now offering new recruits 20,000 dollar bonuses if they sign up and ship out to boot camp before September 30, the end of the fiscal year.
The Pentagon, not surprisingly, stepped in aggressively to deny the idea, but this is not the first time the possibility has come up and not always from the military.

So as I approach my 3,000th post, I thought I would pause a moment in the flow of present events to look back at my own personal history with the draft. The beginning was uneventful enough:

- In the fall of 1966, I registered as demanded by law.
- For the next two years I had a draft deferment as a college student. During that time my opposition to the Vietnam war in particular and war in general sharpened and focused.
- When I dropped out of college I was reclassified 1-A (draftable) and called for a pre-induction physical. I failed that physical because of a minor problem and was classified 1-Y (sort of a reserve pool if there proved to not be enough 1-As).
- In 1969, the Selective Service System instituted a new, "fair" means of how people were selected for the draft: a lottery based on birthdates. That is, each year the dates of the year were chosen in a (supposedly) random order and people were drafted in order of those birthdates. The number you were assigned was from the lottery for the year you turned 19. The lower the number, the more likely you were to be drafted. (You want to know if some guy is of that era? Ask him his lottery number. Chances are he still remembers; I even knew several people in the military at the time who knew theirs.) My lottery number was 281, meaning I had very little chance of being drafted. (In fact, in no year did the SSS get higher than 195.)

However, by that time my ethical opposition to the draft was so strong that I could no longer accept any level of cooperation. At a Moratorium Day demonstration on October 13, 1971, I turned in my draft card to the local board. (All violations of the Selective Service Act carried the same possible penalties: five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.) This is the speech I gave at that demonstration; note that it incidentally reveals that what we're experiencing today is not unique and is not a feature of a particular administration or political party but rather of war:
I think we'd all agree that the war has both magnified and made clear the fact that militarism is a part of American life. I don't mean that America is military-minded, in the sense that it glories in the parade and the uniform bedecked with ribbons - because it isn't and it doesn't - but rather that it is militaristic, which is both more destructive and more dangerous, because it means that the business of killing and preparation for killing has invaded and become part of our lives. It means that people accept the demands and power plays of the Pentagon simply because it is the Pentagon. It means that people come to regard fear - the fear of "the enemy," whoever the current enemy may be - as a normal part of their lives. It means that the very nature of our lives is warped: bent into the service of death, and warped so thoroughly that it becomes difficult to recognize how and where the warps occur. Militarism is destructive. It deals in death and feeds on hate and fear. If we expect to build the just society we talk about, we're going to have to be constructive. We're going to have to deal in life and feed on love and hope. Which means that we're going to have to rid our lives of militarism and of the attitudes that sustain it. And the first step in doing that is to analyze the basis for its existence. What I propose to do here is offer some of my thoughts on the basis of one of the most obvious aspects of militarism: the draft.

It's obvious that every system has a few basic preconceptions of reality on which that system is based. A few preconceptions about the proper order of things; in a sense, a few prejudices, prejudices in the sense that they are so rarely challenged and indeed can't be challenged without threatening the existence of the entire system. What may not be so obvious is the basic idea on which the draft system is based. The government - that is, the State - gives us three reasons for the draft: It tells us that it's necessary for national security. It tells us that it's necessary to maintain a large army. And it tells us that men have a duty to serve their country. But none of these could be called that basic idea supporting the draft system - because they can be challenged or even rejected without affecting the system in any way other than its outward form. We can question the necessity of the draft to national security. We can question the need for an army of the present size. And we can question whether or not the draft - and through it the Army - is the only way to serve. And yet even after asking all these questions - even after rejecting all the given reasons - we haven't questioned the draft, only the current need for it. The reason for this is that the basic idea of the draft system is something far more basic than any of these so-called justifications. That basic idea is the something that gives the State its power to force us to kill and die for its idea of national security - no matter what that idea should happen to be -, the something that gives the State its power to force us to participate in an institution as destructive as the Army - no matter what its size should happen to be - the something that gives the State its power to force us to serve its interests - whether or not the Army is considered the "only" way to serve. And that idea, that basic idea behind the draft system, is the idea that the State owns your life. That you belong to the State, body and soul, and it can use you as it seen fit. That you are a plaything to the whims of the State. We can question the current necessity of the draft. We can question if there's ever a need for the draft. And yet in doing all this we don't question the right of the State to force us to serve its interests, only the current necessity of using that right. In short, we don't question the idea that the State owns our lives. But that's what the draft - any draft - means. The very word draft is a euphemism, a euphemism for military conscription, which is itself a euphemism for slavery. Under the draft you are expected to have no free will. You are expected to not question the dictates of the State. You are expected to go willingly to kill, maim, bomb, and torture whoever the State tells you to, or happily die in the attempt. You are, in fact, expected to be even less than a slave: You are expected to be a robot, to become inhuman by being nonhuman. The draft secures nothing but militarism, it maintains nothing but militarism, and it serves nothing but militarism.

The draft is, in fact, militarism's main prop. It's the draft that provides a continuous source of manpower - a proper term in this case - for whatever new adventure the Pentagon has dreamed up, supporting militarism by providing a continual flow of new "enemies" or continued "threats" by old ones. And it's the draft that maintains militarism by teaching young men - us - who are the State's main cannon fodder, to live in fear of the State. Those who doubt that the intention is to make us feel trapped and helpless before the seeming omnipotence of the State should read the now-famous "Channelling" memo issued by Selective Service in 1965. It was withdrawn after resistance groups began to delight in publishing it, but it's still a good indication of the attitudes of the draft system. The system literally delights in the awareness of this feeling of helplessness in those whose lives it seeks to control. And the system is fully aware that it does this by creating in our lives an atmosphere of fear: Our fear of being lost in a maze of constantly-changing rules, our fear that the "out" we fashion for ourselves will disappear at the whim of our local draft board - or the Director of Selective Service - or the president - or maybe somebody else, some mysterious someone we've never heard about, and, most importantly, our fear of the consequences of challenging the prerogatives of the State. The draft makes fear a normal part of the lives of those young men sane enough to not want to kill other human beings. And in creating that life of fear - in forcing us to follow the dictates of fear rather than those of our consciences - the State advances its power over our lives, and thereby advances its power over all people's lives. Because if the State can force one group to obey through fear, it can force the rest to obey through fear, fear either of what the State will do to them if they object, or the darker, always undefined threat of "the enemy."

We can't live in fear and live just lives. We have to challenge that fear and the militarism that makes it grow. To do that, we have to challenge militarism's main prop: the draft. And to challenge the draft, we have to challenge the basic idea behind the draft. We have to deny the idea that the State can use us as it sees fit. We have to deny the idea that we must serve the State's interests. We have to deny the idea that the State owns our lives. We have to deny the idea that the prerogatives of the State are more important than the prerogatives of our consciences. We have to deny the idea that the State can define the conditions under which we will live our lives. We must, in short, say "No."

But saying all this - having decided all this - is not, in itself, enough. The State can accept any number of people just saying "No." Militarism is woven into the culture, into our very lives, and it can't be talked out of existence. So saying "No" isn't enough. We must also do "No." We must act on our beliefs.

Demonstrations have been called publicity stunts. And that's what this one, at least, is: a publicity stunt. It's an attempt to get publicity for an idea: the idea that there is an alternative to the draft. I don't mean an alternative to the Army, and I don't mean all the deferments and exemptions written into the law, which only release one man the State feels it can do without in favor of forcing a different man into slavery, and which in any event leave the system intact, but an alternative to the draft itself. An alternative to the death. An alternative to the oppression. An alternative to the slavery. And that is the alternative of saying - and then doing - "No." Of recapturing the free will that was taken from you the day you registered. Of retaking control over your own life. Of saying "My life is mine" - and then acting on that belief.

I think we have to recognize that there is no way in which we can cooperate with the draft and still call our lives our own. That as long as we accept the draft we are in fact accepting the idea that we are ready to kill anyone the State thinks needs to be killed. That we are accepting the idea that we are slaves.

If we want to build that just society, we have to refuse to be slaves. We have to refuse to be robots. We have to refuse the demands made on us by a government that appears to have gone murderously insane.

After this rally is over, there's a march up to the offices of the draft board. While that board is being picketed, some of us are going to go up to the board and give them some draft cards. After that - for those of us who do this - the draft system will cease to exist. From that time on, the State will no longer own our lives. From that time on, our lives will be our own.

I invite you to join us. To take your draft card and recognize it for what it is: your signed contract into slavery. Your signed contract into the service of militarism. Your signed contract into the service of death. I say again, you can't serve militarism and justice at the same time. To build a just society, we must end militarism. To end militarism, we must end the draft. And to end the draft, we must say - and do - "No!"
Two months later, on December 10, 1971, the regulation creating class 1-Y was revoked. All 1-Ys were to be reclassified as 1-A, 1-H (over draft age), or 4-F (physically unfit to be drafted). Nearly a year later, on November 26, 1972, my local draft board got around to reclassifying me 4-F.

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