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AS SADDAM Hussein's rhetoric becomes more bellicose and President Bush's trigger-finger grows itchier, many Harvard students have come to realize that "war" is more than an abstraction to be debated on op-ed pages. War means that someone will fight and die, and a growing number of Harvard students are troubled by the possibility that "someone" could be them.
Talk of the draft is everywhere. An article prominently featured in The Crimson's registration issue ominously asked "Draft in the Air?" (The article reassured us that conscription is unlikely.) The issue has been the topic of several forums and countless dinner-table conversations. Groups opposed to intervention in the Persian Gulf have begun to draw people to their meetings by invoking the specter of the draft.
A recent story in The Crimson began: "If war breaks out in the Middle East and the draft is reinstated, resistance to military service could effectively end U.S. involvement, several participants in a forum said last night."
Participants in the forum, which was sponsored by Students Against War in the Middle East (SWARME), recalled the glory days of the Vietnam era when courageous students helped end the war by refusing to be complicitous with the war machine.
Once again, the activists announced, it is our responsibility to act as the moral conscience of the nation by saving our own skins. Through amazing coincidence, the course of action that most students prefer had found a moral justification.
FIFTEEN years ago last month, James M. Fallows '70 published his essay "What Did You Do in the Class War, Daddy?" in which he described how he and his Harvard colleagues evaded the Vietnam draft. Fallows--a Crimson president and Rhodes scholar--starved himself until he lost enough weight to be medically disqualified from military service.
By taking the "thinking-man's route" to deferment, Fallows and his contemporaries left the ignorant and the poor to fight the war and take the casualties. Just as surely, they ensured that the war would drag on longer.
"The more we guaranteed that we would end up neither in uniform nor behind bars [for formal draft resistance], the more we made sure that our class of people would be spared the real cost of the war," Fallows wrote.
"The children of bright, good parents were spared the...suffering that our inferiors were undergoing....As long as the little gold stars kept going to the homes in Chelsea and the backwoods of West Virginia, the mothers of Beverly Hills and Chevy Chase and Great Neck and Belmont were not on the telephones to their congressmen screaming you killed my boy, they were not writing to the President that his crazy, wrong, evil war had put their boys in prison and ruined their careers.
"It is clear by now that if the men of Harvard had wanted to do the very most they could to help shorten the war, they should have been drafted or imprisoned en masse."
How quickly we forget.
NOT too long ago in the backwoods of West Virginia, the flag in front of my high school flew at half-mast. Martin Vineyard, Union High School Class of 1988, United States Marine Corps, was listed killed in action. When the mother of my high-school buddy Sonny told me the story, she suddenly burst into tears in front of me; her son was getting ready to ship out to Saudi Arabia.
In a community where military service is by far the most popular career option and more than one-third of the males in each high school class join up, talk of war was more than an abstract concern. I spoke with Sonny's mother for more than an hour that day, trading rumors and scraps of information about who was stationed in the Gulf, who would be in a combat role if a war broke out, who was safe in another theater.
The names clicked off: The Roberts family, two brothers and a sister who all joined the Marines; Andrew, my best buddy since Kindergarten; Scott, Timmy, Tom, Jeff, Steve, Mark, Richard, Doug--names I want to scream every time I hear a dining hall conversation about what constitutes an acceptable number of casualties in a hypothetical Gulf War.
I'm no pacifist. War is often necessary and just, and I sometimes even think that there may be no alternative to war with Saddam. A lot of my buddies in the services and their families probably agree. But their views don't matter. The people who will make the ultimate decision to go to war don't know my buddies or anyone like them.
When Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) said that 20,000 to 30,000 American deaths would be an acceptable price for toppling Saddam, you can bet your last dime that he wasn't including anyone in the Lugar family in that calculation.
Would the deaths of 30,000 Martin Vineyards make George Bush think twice about fighting in the dessert? Possibly. Would the deaths of 500 Harvard students make him reconsider? You bet. And if it didn't, the angry denunciations and public outcry of their parents and teachers and friends and next-door neighbors surely would.
Tragically, it seems pointless even to speculate. Harvard students, with the exception of some ROTC students, are not part of the dying class, and the Roberts family is. We members of the American elite have a great bargain going: we're content to let the unfortunates in our "all-volunteer" army do the dying, and policy makers will let us get away with it.
Do I sound overly cynical? Remember, the anti-war protests that the SWARME idolizes disappeared not when hostilities ceased in 1975, but when the draft ended in 1972. I have no doubts that at some level, Harvard peaceniks sincerely wanted peace and justice in Southeast Asia, just as SWARME members want peace in the Middle East. But as Fallows writes, "There was no mistaking which emotions came from the heart, which principles really seemed worth fighting for."
OF course, it would be a futile, almost meaningless gesture for any one of us to volunteer for combat out of principle. Those one or two pious students would fight and possibly die, and the system would continue more or less unchanged.
The only solution is universal conscription--no exemptions, no deferments. The draft got a bad rap because of its association with an unpopular war, but it remains the best insurance against unjust wars.
Far too often in our democracy, the decision-making elite is insulated from the consequences of its decisions. In order for a democratic government to govern responsibly, burdens and sacrifices must be equitably distributed among all citizens. This principle is affirmed by democracies as diverse as Norway, Israel, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Colombia, all of which have universal conscription. Let us fight if we must, but let us be certain that our goals are worth the sacrifice of thousands of sons--everybody's sons.
"Five years after Kent State," Fallows wrote, "it is clear how the war could have lasted so long. Johnson and Nixon both knew that the fighting could continue only so long as the vague, hypothetical benefits of holding off Asian communism outweighed the immmediate, palpable domestic pain. They knew that when the screaming grew too loud and too many sons had been killed, the game would be over. That is why...our reluctance to [be drafted] helped prolong the war."
We have forgotten the past, and I fear we are condemned to repeat it.
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