A LOT OF ink has been spilled in the past few months over the question of the draft. Now that the war is over, all the pundits and prognosticators will probably return to the savings and loans crisis or the drug problem or the refusal of the pandas in the National Zoo to mate.
But rather than take our ball and go home, now--from a postwar, peacetime perspective--is the best time to conduct a serious, dispassionate examination of the possible justifications of military conscription.
Various arguments have been put forth in favor of the draft. The all-volunteer army is too poor, too Black. It is not reflective of society at large. It serves as "slave labor" for comfortable, white members of the middle class, and it dies in their stead. The present situation is simply unfair, according to this line of reasoning; universal conscription would ensure equity.
Others say that a draft would bring home to the American public the gravity of warfare. When youths from Harvard Square join those from Central Square in dying, so the argument goes, the American public will wake up and start thinking seriously about whether this war is worth fighting. The draft, therefore, will serve as a brake against the rush into battle.
There is much validity in such arguments; there are many compelling reasons why a wartime draft is necessary and proper.
But none compelling enough. The draft is never justified--not in peace-time, not for war overseas, not even to combat a territorial invasion of the United States.
ALL THE pro-draft arguments are backed by an underlying, unstated assumption: The government has a right to claim the lives of its citizens. And this is where I object.
We give the government many powers. We let it tax us. We let it tell us where we can park. We let it prevent us from urinating in Harvard Yard. We do this because without a government, chaos would reign. We might not have money to spend, nor car to park, nor Yard to defoul. But we'd still have our lives.
The draft is unique for Americans. At no other time do we allow our government to force us into a situation in which death is a distinct and overwhelming possibility. The death penalty for murderers is hardly an exception--criminals have broken the contract with society, thereby losing the privilege of its protection.
The human race existed before governments; perhaps it will exist long afterwards. While the state has given us many advantages, it has not granted us our lives. The Declaration of Independence quite rightly claims that people are "endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights"--life coming first and foremost.
The draft, therefore, is a violation of all that we hold most dear as Americans--the supremacy of the individual over the state; the preference of government that governs least; the intrinsic value of life. While military service remains an honorable means of serving America, the draft cannot be used to advance that goal without compromising that which makes America worth serving.
A BETTER approach is used in Germany, where would-be draftees are permitted to work in social service projects rather than join the military. This seems to be the best solution. The state cannot claim our lives; in times of dire need, it can demand our service. If the government provides alternatives to military service, then the problems of the draft as we know it would be avoided.
This is not an easy way out. I am not altogether happy in concluding that if my hometown were invaded and enemy soldiers were patrolling my streets, I would not want Washington to enlist every available resource in the fight for liberty and country. But this is the price we pay to protect that liberty, and the cost of preserving the values of our country.
And I am willing to accept that bitter trade-off. In exchange for recognition of the existence of rights transcending the government, we shall have an army which sends poor Blacks to die in disproportionate numbers. This is not "fair"; this is not "just." But it is, I believe, the lesser of two very substantial evils.
It is quite likely that, as some allege, the lack of a draft makes Americans more gung ho for war when restraint would be wiser. But it is also entirely possible that the threat of conscription would dissuade the nation from sacrificing its sons and daughters when war is the only means of preventing greater suffering.
No argument in favor of the draft can counter my basic value premise: People precede government, do not owe their lives to it and cannot be forced to cede their very existence at the beckon of the state. When foreign invaders come to America's shores, or if aggression abroad compels American action, I would hope that the call to arms is answered swiftly and positively. But if military service is compelled, then America will have dented its moral armor.
I'd go to war for a good cause. And I hope you would too. But I wouldn't force you to. And neither should our government.
To do otherwise would be to emulate our enemies.
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