Uncle Sam Wants You?

Some news events have a way of concentrating the mind. There's reading about three sisters serving in Iraq, about the death of one and the agony of the surviving two, who must decide whether to return home for good. There's seeing photographs of flag-draped coffins loaded onto military transport planes, images the administration wanted to keep from public view. And there's talking about the draft, which may eventually make manifest the fact that support for military action is a mile wide and an inch deep.

Sen. Chuck Hagel, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, raised the conscription issue most recently, discussing how strapped the regular Army is. Though Hagel stopped short of calling for a reinstitution of the draft, he did talk about the inequities of the current system, in which so many of America's soldiers are poor kids trying to move up a rung on the ladder of employment. Or, as a group called the Radical Teen Cheerleaders, political Bettys who combine splits and social commentary, say in one of their chants, "Hey Bush!/Who fights your wars?/Just minorities and the poor."

The last time there was a draft was during the Vietnam War. In part the rationale then was the same as Hagel says it would be today: to share the pain of service across lines of class and race. The reality was quite different. Consider these Vietnam-era sketches, which bring to mind the simplest of the old antiwar slogans--hell no, we won't go.

George W. Bush: not drafted. Served in the Texas Air National Guard instead, somehow managing to skirt a long waiting list. Some question about how much time he actually served, and where.

Dick Cheney: not drafted. Several deferments, first for being a student, then for being married.

John Ashcroft: not drafted. Student deferments as well as an "occupational deferment" because he was teaching at a state university.

(For the sake of bipartisanship, let's not forget Bill Clinton's loathsome toadying letter in which he sought a way not to serve but to "maintain my political viability." For the sake of bipartisanship, let's not forget that John Kerry enlisted and was awarded three Purple Hearts. Chuck Hagel got two.)

For the young people who feel a shiver down their spine at the prospect of being drafted and the older people who love them, it's worth noting that it is as likely that the draft will be reinstated by this president as it is that he will make Richard Clarke his running mate. There are only two ways to revive conscription that would make it fair, and both would alienate key elements of the president's political base, as well as freak out most of the public.

The first deal breaker is obvious: student deferments would have to be ended. They operated under the radar for a long time during Vietnam, but the arrant unfairness of them is too well known now. This would mean the children of the rich and well connected--the kind of folks who bought out their sons' commissions during the Civil War, the kind who organize big fund-raisers for presidential candidates--could be shipped out.

The second reason the draft won't be revived is that there would be no earthly justification to draft only men. Given the number of young women who have enlisted, trained and served with valor, as well as the changes in gender roles in our lifetime, a male-only draft could not pass muster. The president's right-wing constituents, who have been trying to stuff the genie of women's progress back into the lamp for 30 years, would go nuts.

Someone once suggested to me that a war hasn't been fought that would meet the "sending my child" standard. I'm not sure that's true. With the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor and the Germans poised to swallow up Europe, World War II cried out for the greatest sacrifice of all.

But the so-called liberation of Iraq? The truth is that this conflict was not even presented to the American people as a war in the first place but as a short-term incursion, justified by the threat of weapons of mass destruction that did not exist. Our soldiers would be welcomed into the Iraqi capital, help spread a little democracy and infrastructure around, then head home in the grand tradition of Desert Storm, or even Grenada. Support at the outset was considerable for "our troops," which for too many people comes down to an amorphous force in anonymous camo.

Samuel Johnson said that hanging concentrated the mind, but perhaps there's nothing like the notion of sacrificing your own son or daughter to really do so. For more than 700 American families, that is not an abstraction or even a fear, but a reality. Their children are coming home in those coffins, those coffins closed off from our view until a woman working for a defense contractor took pictures and was swiftly fired. The administration had insisted it had banned such pictures to protect the sensibilities of families. I suspect the families they were worried about were not the ones who had already made the great sacrifice but the ones who would begin to imagine making it. Would most of them support staying in Iraq if their sons and daughters were obliged to go? Hell no.