Uncle Sam doesn’t want you why is fear of military conscription so widespread in America?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

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‘Uncle Sam will soon want your kids’ wrote US commentator David Hackworth on 4 October, in the latest warning to American voters that if Bush gets back in to the White House in November ‘there will be a draft’, the American term for military conscription (1).

That might not sound such a weird thing to say, except that Hackworth’s article was published in the same week that Bush said ‘We’re not going to have a draft, period’, and the same week that the House of Representatives voted 402 to 2 (that’s 402 to 2) to kill a bill that proposed reinstituting the draft. Uncle Sam doesn’t want them – so why has fear of being called up and shipped off to some distant war-shattered land become the big issue in America’s anti-war camp?

Reintroduction of the draft may have been voted into oblivion by the House of Representatives, but fear of it is everywhere. Headlines on various anti-war websites say it all: ‘The ill-wind of the draft’…‘The coming Bush draft’…‘The return of conscription’…‘Feeling a draft’…and ‘Say no to conscription’ (what, like Bush, his Democrat challenger John Kerry, much of the military establishment and virtually the entire House of Representatives already have?).

Students have organised sit-ins and occupations against the draft. Rock the Vote, a campaign to get the youth vote out in November, recently sent fake draft cards to 640,000 email addresses with the message ‘You’ve been drafted’ – because, according to Rock’s political director Hans Riemer, it would be ‘crazy if young people went to the polls and didn’t factor this into their votes’ (2).

In fact it would be crazy if they went to the polls and did factor the draft in to their votes. It isn’t an issue. Both Republicans and Democrats have rejected any return to conscription. Bush recently said America doesn’t need the draft because ‘we don’t need mass armies anymore’ (3). Even the supposed hardman of the Bush gang, defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, has told reporters: ‘I don’t know anyone in the executive branch of the government who believes it would be appropriate or necessary to reinstitute the draft.’ (4)

(He might have added that the military has enough trouble and strife holding on to those who signed up voluntarily, or for economic reasons – a poll of American troops in Iraq carried out by the military mag Stars and Stripes at the end of 2003 found that a third of them rate their personal morale as ‘low’ or ‘very low’ and 49 per cent said it was ‘not likely’ or ‘very unlikely’ that they would remain in the military after completing their rounds in Iraq. Others have flat-out refused to return to Iraq after coming home for leave. Good luck trying to force a middle-class Brad or Jennifer with a glittering career ahead of them to sign up to such a sorry outfit.) (5)

Those who fear the draft seem to live on another planet. There’s Planet Earth, where no serious US politician or military figure wants anything to do with military conscription, and even if they would secretly like to draft good-for-nuthin’ youths into fighting against some third world state they know it’s not realistic. And then there’s Planet Draft, where everyone frets and sweats over the ‘coming draft’ and the ruthless politicians who desire nothing more than packing us all off to war.

We have written about pseudo protesters on spiked; in the great daft draft debate, we have pseudo-protests against a pseudo-issue taking place in a parallel universe. It would make as much sense if Rock the Vote had sent out an email saying ‘You’ve been killed’, encouraging young voters to factor the possible introduction of enforced euthanasia of all people under the age of 21 into their votes. Well, who knows what those politicians might be plotting behind closed doors…?

For all the lunacy, the draft debate provides a snapshot of today’s rather degraded anti-war sentiment. That fear of conscription – of being made to sign up and, God forbid, fight for something – has become a major talking point in America post-Iraq suggests that concern about the war was motivated more by feelings of personal fear and insecurity than by genuine solidarity with Iraqis.

Draft-dodging was never the most rebellious of activities (even Bill Clinton did it). When it took off in America during the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 70s, it was driven more by petit-bourgeois fear than by anything like anti-imperialism, by a desire on the part of the middle classes to protect their nice lives from the prospect of being sent to fight in a senseless war in south-east Asia.

But at least there was a draft to dodge during Vietnam, a real possibility that you might be called up against your will. Today there’s no draft and little prospect of a draft, yet draft-dodging has returned with a vengeance. This is draft-dodging as a political outlook rather than as a practical measure to avoid war; it’s a demand to ‘Go away and leave me alone! Don’t ask me to do anything!’

The anti-draft campaign takes the ‘Not in my name’ sentiment to its logical conclusion. That was the most popular refrain of those who opposed the war in Iraq and pretty much summed up the anti-war motivation. It was a highly individuated cri de coeur, more about washing one’s hands of war than seriously challenging it, about opting out, calling for the world to stop so that they could get off.

Post-Iraq, American anti-war groups have two big concerns: that they will be drafted, and that the war has increased the threat of terror at home. Some seem to hate the Iraq war less because it was politically and morally the wrong thing to do, than because it might have a detrimental impact on their own lives, putting them at risk of being forced to fight or of being attacked by dirty-bombers. This is an anti-war approach geared more towards saving ourselves (from largely phantom problems) than anyone else.

The draft obsession also powerfully demonstrates that today’s sense of personal fear can exist entirely independently of reality, to the extent that many can obsess over a draft that isn’t anywhere on the cards. It suggests that many of our most deeply-held concerns today, whether over crime, terrorism or having to get a gun and go out and fight, are not shaped by facts or stats or the likelihood of such things really occurring, but by a broader sense of insecurity and isolation.

What are we left with? America’s Rock the Vote campaign trying to draft youngsters into voting by exploiting their fears of the draft, trying to get youth to engage in politics by cynically feeding off their political disengagement. Now that’s a campaign worth dodging.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Uncle Sam will soon want your kids, David Hackworth, DefenseWatch, 4 October 2004

(2) Rumour of a draft touches a nerve, Los Angeles Times, 10 October 2004

(3) Does the USA need the draft?, Time, 12 October 2004

(4) Rumsfeld sees no need for draft, Associated Press, 23 April 2004

(5) Is it mercenary to join military for perks, not war?, Brendan O’Neill, Christian Science Monitor, 1 June 2004

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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